As college basketball teams across the country ready themselves for the stretch run, a certain reality is beginning to set in:
They are who we think they are.
Unless, that is, they get a visit from the Jigsaw Man. Regular visitors to this space know all about him. He is the hardworking piecemaker who spies deficiencies and scavenges for players who fit those holes. The Jigsaw Man may be generous but he prefers not to be obvious. He likes a challenge. We all know any team would be better if it had Anthony Davis. The Jigsaw Man would rather plug holes with obscure players whom he believes would benefit from the switch as much as their new teams.
I'm happy to report that the Jigsaw Man has recently rectified the deficiencies of 15 prominent teams. If you are a fan of the Fortunate Fifteen, he does not want your thanks. He just wants you to be who you think you are. And if your team was not chosen, take heart. You never know when you'll get a visit from the Jigsaw Man in his never-ending quest to beautify college basketball, piece by piece.
(Note: Many of the statistical info below comes from Ken Pomeroy's indispensable website, Kenpom.com.)
Herewith, the 15 puzzles:
Biggest problem: Watching the Tide is both beautiful and ugly at the same time. It's beautiful because they play so hard, especially on defense, but it's ugly because the ball never seems to go in the basket. There are only five teams in America whose three-point percentage is worse than Alabama's 27.0. (Yes, that's St. John's sitting at the very bottom.) The Tide is dead last in the SEC in threes made per game (4.0). The only reason they're still in the hunt for an NCAA bid is because of defense; they are giving up fewer points per game than any other team in the SEC. Intensity and effort is nice, but does the game really have to be so hard?
Missing piece: Jordan Hulls, 6-foot junior guard, Indiana. Coaches often refer to gifted shooters as "180 guys" -- meaning they shoot 50 percent from the floor, 40 percent from three-point range, and 90 percent from the foul line, for a total of 180. Well, Hulls is a 190 guy; he makes 51 percent, 49 percent and 90 percent, respectively. Plus, he's used to wearing red. The Jigsaw Man envisions Alabama's starting power forward, JaMychal Green, kicking it out to Hulls from the post, or point guard Trevor Releford hitting him as a trailer on the fast break. If defenses have to worry about extending out that far, it will open up driving lanes for Alabama's many athletic wings. The Jigsaw Man likes this picture.
Biggest problem: Coming into the season, everyone thought Baylor's primary weakness was at point guard. Now that Pierre Jackson has settled into that role, it's apparent that the Bears are lacking a certain oomph in the paint. I know Perry Jones can be frustrating to watch, but the reality is, he's never going to be a force around the rim (not in college anyway). Senior forward Quincy Acy is the most physically mature front line player on Baylor's roster, which is ironic because at 6-7 he is undersized. This team does not need another scorer, and it doesn't need more size. What it needs is someone who plays big.
Missing piece: Andre Roberson, 6-7 sophomore forward, Colorado. The Jigsaw Man can't wait for Roberson to kick Perry Jones's butt in practice for a couple of weeks. Roberson tilts the scales at a modest 210 pounds, and he is surrounded by far less talent than Jones. Yet, he still leads the Pac-12 in rebounds and ranks seventh nationally at 11.1 per game. He's also second in the league in blocks (1.63 per game). He has a lot of heart, and the Bears need to dance to his beat.
Biggest problem: The Bearcats have been forced to play four guards for much of the season. (That number increased to five while senior center Yancy Gates was suspended for his role in the brawl with Xavier.) While they've managed to get by playing Smallball, that can only take them so far. With the offense often being relegated to a bombs-away approach, the Bearcats could use another frontcourt guy who is both big and skilled. That way Gates could concentrate on the blue-collar stuff and not have to worry about being an interior scorer.
Missing piece: Rob Jones, 6-6 senior forward, Saint Mary's. Don't let Jones's size (or lack thereof) fool you. He is the best rebounder in the West Coast Conference (10.7 per game). He is also second in the league in steals (1.86), fifth in field goal percentage (46.1) and sixth in scoring (14.5). When Gates is in the game, Jones can roam the perimeter and let the big fella go to work. Or, he can switch places with Gates and crash the rim. His ability to rebound will also spearhead the Bearcats' fast break. The Jigsaw Man also likes that Jones is a fifth-year senior. (He sat out his junior season after transferring from San Diego.) Cincinnati will benefit from his skills, his toughness, and most of all, his maturity.
Biggest problem: If the Huskies had just one weakness, they wouldn't be on a three-game losing streak. Yes, it is disappointing that Andre Drummond and Alex Oriakhi haven't developed into more dependable post scorers, but if you think about it, the one thing that has defined this program more than any other is defense -- and that has been sorely lacking this season. More specifically, the problem is perimeter defense. UConn ranks first in the Big East in field goal percentage defense and it is second in blocks, yet it's last in defensive field goal percentage and 11th in steals. Overall, UConn is 89th nationally in defensive efficiency. This team has two productive wing scorers in Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier, but both of those guys are better when they're off the ball. So UConn needs another perimeter player who is great defensively, can distribute the ball, and won't come in expecting to score a whole lot of points.
Missing piece: Ronald Nored, 6-foot senior guard, Butler. Having coached against Butler in last year's NCAA championship game, Jim Calhoun knows full well what a pest Nored is for opposing dribblers. Calhoun will love coaching this kid. Nored is only averaging 8.2 points per game this season (that's the best average of his career, by the way), but he ranks in the top three in the Horizon League in assists (4.9), steals (1.95) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.87-to-1). Nored is also well-spoken and highly intelligent, and anyone in his program will tell you he is a first-rate leader. His intangibles will rub off well on these young Huskies.
Biggest problem: The Jigsaw Man is bedeviled by this team. The point guard position at Duke is usually one of the most bankable certainties in college hoops, but not this season. Coach K tried to use Seth Curry, but it's clear that Curry is a catch-and-shoot guy. Ditto for Andre Dawkins. Freshman Quinn Cook might be the answer, but he is inexperienced and has battled health and injury issues the last couple of weeks. No wonder Duke ranks last in the ACC in field goal percentage defense. (Read that sentence again. It's pretty mind-boggling.) This team needs a confident, capable lead guard to infuse it with some swagger.
Missing piece: Scott Machado, 6-1 senior point guard, Iona. Machado is gonna show Duke how they do it in the 718. His game is straight-up Queens. Not only does Machado lead the nation in assists at 10.2 per game, he is also fifth in the MAAC in steals, and he is grabbing 5.2 rebounds per game. Think he can put the D back in Duke? Moreover, Machado is shooting 83 percent from the foul line. The Jigsaw Man is hoping he will give Mason Plumlee some pointers.
Biggest problem: As long as Leonard Hamilton is working the sidelines in Tallahassee, this team will defend. Unlike a lot of Hamilton's teams over the years, this team also has a couple of guys who can knock down outside jumpers: Deividas Dulkys and Michael Snaer are both ranked in the top 10 of the ACC in three-point percentage. The Seminoles' main problem is their tendency to get sloppy with the ball. They commit more turnovers (17.1 per game) than any other team in the conference and they rank 323rd nationally in turnover percentage. Luke Loucks is making nice progress as a point guard (as evidenced by his game-winning assist to Snaer against Duke), but this team could really use another steady ballhandler who will fit into the defense-first culture.
Missing piece: Grant Gibbs, 6-4 junior guard, Creighton. The Jigsaw Man puzzled over the decision to choose between Gibbs and his teammate, 6-foot senior Antoine Young. Gibbs scores about four fewer points per game, but he shoots 53 percent from the floor to Young's 40. The Jigsaw Man believed Florida State would benefit from his efficiency. Gibbs also ranks second in the Missouri Valley Conference in assists (5.7), and he's third in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.4-to-1). He also averages 4.5 rebounds per game. A strong, tough, efficient, smart, upperclassman point guard? Sounds like a Leonard Hamilton type of player.
Biggest problem: Here's another team with a point guard problem. Sam Maniscalco was supposed to be the remedy after he transferred in from Bradley, but he is a liability on the defensive end. He has also been hampered by injury and is making just 28 percent from three-point range. That's a big reason why Illinois is ranked 10th in the Big Ten in both steals and three-point percentage. This team has three very capable scorers in Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Meyers Leonard. What it needs is a mature, steady lead guard who can set the table on offense and attack the ball on defense.
Missing piece: Oscar Bellfield, 6-2 senior guard, UNLV. There is nothing flashy about Bellfield's game. He doesn't possess blazing speed, but he is able to get by his man and usually makes the right decisions. Bellfield leads the Mountain West in assists (5.2) and ranks third in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.04-to-1). He also makes 34.5 percent from three-point range, which is just enough to make opposing defenses have to worry about him.
Biggest problem: What the Jigsaw Man would really like to get for this team is a new doctor. Or better luck. The Cardinals have suffered a rash of injuries that have them fighting for their postseason lives. They are hurting inside (10th in the Big East in rebound margin) and out (14th in three-point percentage). Losing their best rebounder, Rakeem Buckles, was a tough blow, but the basic problem is that there are not enough players who make outside shots. Louisville doesn't just need a shooter, it needs a scorer. This player should be able to come off screens and catch passes from Peyton Siva, but he should also be able to create off the bounce.
Missing piece: Terrell Stoglin, 6-1 sophomore guard, Maryland. Stoglin is quick and crafty, and he really knows how to fill up a stat sheet. He is the nation's fifth-leading scorer at 21.3 points per game and he's also ranked in the ACC's top 10 in field goal percentage (42.9) and three-point percentage (39.7). Most of all, the Jigsaw Man likes his moxie. He thinks Stoglin would enjoy getting up and down the court for Rick Pitino and would fit right in with a corps of perimeter players who love to drive and kick to each other. Stoglin would have to sacrifice some of his scoring average, but that would be a small price to pay to be part of a great team. The Jigsaw Man appreciates the importance of sacrifice while searching for the perfect fit.
Biggest problem: The Golden Eagles' gaping hole in their puzzle goes about 6-11, 265 pounds. Those are the dimensions of senior center Chris Otule, whose season ended when he suffered an ACL tear during a Dec. 6 against Washington. That Marquette is still 18-4 without him is a testament to their grit and savvy. Still, this team's lack of size (they're 221st in the country in effective height) leaves them vulnerable on the boards (12th in the Big East in rebound margin). If they could somehow find another big body to replace Otule, that would leave Marquette less vulnerable to a cold shooting night, which is bound to happen at some point during the NCAA tournament.
Missing piece: Drew Gordon, 6-9 senior forward, New Mexico. Gordon is a fifth-year senior (he transferred from UCLA) who over the years has adopted a blue-collar mentality. He is the nation's 11th-leading rebounder (10.7) and he leads the Mountain West in blocks (1.3). He scores a respectable 12.4 points per game on 50.5 percent shooting, but the Jigsaw Man really likes his 73.6 free throw percentage. The Jigsaw Man watches a lot of Big East basketball and he knows how teams in that league love to get physical with big men. Gordon will make opponents pay for that at the foul line, which will only give more cushion for Marquette's slashing guards.
Biggest problem: It's hard to say a team that is 19-2 has any problems, but Missouri's two deficiencies are fairly obvious: size and depth. With only seven players on scholarship, the Tigers would be happy to have almost anything on two feet, but it would help if those feet are big. Missouri hasn't been getting killed on the boards this season, but it isn't making a living there, either. The Tigers rank eighth in the Big 12 in rebound margin (plus-3.0) and it is 140th nationally in offensive rebound percentage. Having another rebounding big man would help, but he has to be careful about getting in Ricardo Ratliffe's way. Ratliffe is averaging nearly 15 points per game, and he's on pace to set a new NCAA record in field goal percentage. He needs room to work.
Missing piece: Mike Moser, 6-8 sophomore forward, UNLV. It's fair to say Rebels coach Dave Rice is not a fan of the Jigsaw Man, who has now stolen two players from Rice's roster. Moser, however, is too good to resist. He is the nation's third-leading rebounder, and he's ranked in the top seven of the Mountain West in scoring (14.7 ppg), blocks (0.82) and steals (1.77). If that's not enough, Moser has also made 27 three-pointers this season. He can do many things very well. The Jigsaw Man is confident Frank Haith will find him useful.
Biggest problem: The Tar Heels have as much talent as anyone in the country, yet they seem to lack a certain je ne sais quoi. (Betcha didn't know the Jigsaw Man spoke French.) This is the tallest team in the country, so it's not surprising UNC's blocks and rebound numbers are solid. It is also piloted by Kendall Marshall, who ranks second in the country in assists. The Tar Heels, however, do not shoot it well from the three-point line or the foul line, and their perimeter defense is suspect, especially now that Dexter Strickland is lost for the season to an ACL tear. Their biggest problem is lack of toughness, which was on vivid display during that blowout loss to Florida State.
Missing piece: Donte Poole, 6-3 senior guard, Murray State. The Jigsaw Man is cruel. Murray State has a chance to run the table, yet Poole is pilfering one of the Racers' most important players. Poole, however, would fit too well in Chapel Hill. He ranks second in the Ohio Valley Conference in steals (2.25), he's sixth in three-point percentage (41.0) and he's ninth in scoring (14.6). And Poole's 85.4 percent clip from the foul line, which is ranked second in the OVC, is a full 21 points better than North Carolina's team average. Poole will make the Heels better on both ends of the floor, and he'll be a galvanizing presence in the locker room.
Biggest problem: Purdue usually excels at winning ugly. (I'm pretty sure that was a compliment.) Not this year. The Boilermakers are eighth in the Big Ten in defensive field goal percentage and 10th in rebound margin. The guards have been fine -- Purdue leads the country in turnover percentage, and it's second in steal percentage -- but inside the Boilers are suspect. (When Robbie Hummel is your leading rebounder, that is a problem.) If they could just find someone to plug up the middle on defense and convert a post move once in a while, their whole dynamic would change.
Missing piece: Jeff Withey, 7-foot junior center, Kansas. Withey's improvement is a major reason why the Jayhawks are exceeding expectations. He has been the perfect complement inside to Thomas Robinson, but the Jigsaw Man believes he would thrive if given the chance to be a leading man. Withey is one of the nation's premier shot blockers; his 3.3 blocks per game ranks eighth nationally and is tops in the Big 12 and is ranked eighth in the country in blocks (3.3). He's also 10th in the Big 12 in rebounds (6.1) and seventh in the conference in free throw percentage (84.7). Withey isn't going to beat many basketball players in a 40-yard dash, but his physical nature will fit even better in the Big Ten than it currently does in the Big 12.
Biggest problem: This team Can. Not. Score. The Aggies are the lowest-scoring team in the Big 12 (62.3), they're ranked ninth in both field goal percentage (43.8) and three-point percentage (32.2) and they're last in free throw shooting (62.5). Billy Kennedy has done well to continue the culture of toughness and defense instilled by Mark Turgeon, but there's nothing wrong with getting a few quick and easy buckets, is there? The Jigsaw Man certainly doesn't think so.
Missing piece: Reggie Hamilton, 5-11 senior guard, Oakland. The Jigsaw Man is tired of watching Hamilton toil in obscurity. He knows Hamilton is one of the nation's most exciting players. He just scored 37 points (on 6-for-12 shooting from three-point range) in a loss to North Dakota State, and he barely trails Weber State guard Damian Lillard in the race for the national scoring title. Hamilton is also ranked 15th nationally in steals (2.45), he's fifth in the Summit League in assists (4.7) and he's 10th in the country in free throw shooting (90.0). In other words, there's nothing he can't do. The Jigsaw Man wants him to do those things for a power conference team that badly needs him.
Biggest problem: This is the team everybody loves to pick on. Yes, the Commodores still play too often like a "country club team" (as ESPN's Hubert Davis so memorably put it). But their bigger problem right now is technical: Their point guard play is not good enough. Brad Tinsley does a serviceable job manning that position and he is a very good outside shooter, but he is not going to strike fear into a defender's heart. Vandy doesn't need another perimeter marksman, but it does need someone who can set up scoring opportunities at one end of the floor and lock down his man at the other.
Missing piece: Brandyn Curry, 6-1 junior point guard, Harvard. The Jigsaw Man respects Vanderbilt's academic mission. He would not bring someone there who couldn't handle the work in the classroom. And when Curry takes the floor at Memorial Gymnasium, he'll take his opponent to school. He has the skills and command of a top-flight point guard. Curry ranks in the top four of the Ivy League in assists (5.1), steals (2.11) and assist-to-turnover ratio (2.6-to-1). He is also a great communicator and team defender. He would fit well in to any country club, but if the Jigsaw Man gets into a street fight on the way home from Friday night dinners, he wants Curry on his side.
Biggest problem: The Huskies aren't worried about stopping people as much as outscoring them. Washington's interior defense isn't bad (mostly due to the presence of 7-foot junior Aziz N'Diaye), but the Huskies' perimeter guys don't seem all that interesting in working both ends. Freshman guard Tony Wroten is second in the Pac-12 in steals (2.0), but as a team the Huskies are fifth in the conference in field goal defense (41.9) and eighth in three-point defense (35.0). They're also 225th nationally in defensive free-throw rate. So they're not closing out on shooters, and they're not preventing dribble penetration.
Missing piece: Fuquan Edwin, 6-6 sophomore guard, Seton Hall. The Jigsaw Man likes Edwin's size and versatility, but what he loves most is Edwin's commitment to defense. Edwin leads the nation in steals (3.1) and he is also chipping in 6.7 rebounds per game. Moreover, Edwin blends in with his teammates. He is averaging 13.7 points per game, but with his 49.8 percent shooting (42.0 from three), you get the idea he could score more if he had more possessions. Edwin will thrive in Lorenzo Romar's up-tempo, trigger-happy system, but he will also have a positive effect on this team's culture. The Jigsaw Man can envision Edwin and Wroten competing to see who can get more steals. Wouldn't that be a refreshing change?