Jigsaw Man returns with perfect missing pieces for 12 top teams
You've been naughty, but mostly you've been nice. So when you walked down the steps on Christmas morning wearing your favorite flannel footsie pajamas, you hoped for the perfect gift. Only you were disappointed, because what you really wanted was not a visit from the jolly old fat guy. You wanted a visit from the slim, trim Jigsaw Man.
Fear not, Hoop Thinker. The Jigsaw Man was only being fashionably late. After all, he doesn't have a bunch of merry little elves to do his work for him. All he has is his imagination, plus a couple of TVs, multiple DVRs and subscription logins for Synergy and Kempom.com.
Puzzled? Don't be. Loyal readers can tell you all about the Jigsaw Man. He is the wise soul who possesses a knack for identifying the primary weaknesses facing college basketball teams, and then scavenging the country to find the perfect missing piece. The Jigsaw Man has performed this exercise for several years, and once again, he has challenged himself. Any hack with a laptop can improve a team by giving it Marcus Smart or Jabari Parker. The Jigsaw Man prefers to find relatively obscure players who are primed for a more prominent role.
Unfortunately, the Jigsaw Man is highly discriminating. He does not perform this function for every team, just a select few. Below are the lucky dozen who became a little more picture perfect this holiday season. If you are a fan of one of these teams, there is no need to thank the Jigsaw Man. He is gratified merely knowing that because of his magic powers, you have a little more piece of mind.
Herewith the Dozen Puzzles:
Biggest problem: The Huskies are who we think they are. They have a terrific backcourt and a nonexistent frontcourt. As long as their jump shots are falling (they're fourth in the country in three-point percentage), they can beat anyone. But if they're off from outside, there is no Plan B. UConn is 192nd in the country in offensive rebound percentage, and through its first 12 games the Huskies have grabbed just five more rebounds than their opponents.
Missing piece: Cady Lalanne, 6-10 junior forward, UMass
You gotta credit the Jigsaw Man for having a sense of humor. Not only has he found the perfect missing piece for UConn, but he has done so at the expense of the Huskies' bitter regional rival. (Somewhere Jim Calhoun is sporting a Cheshire grin.) Lalanne scores 14 points per game, but many of those buckets come from putback opportunities created by drives from point guard Chaz Williams. It's easy to envision Lalanne performing the same function alongside Shabazz Napier. Lalanne is a wiry athlete who is ranked 14th in the country in rebounds (10.1) and is 30th nationally in offensive rebound percentage. He also leads the Atlantic 10 in blocks (2.91).
Duke Blue Devils
Biggest problem: Much has been made of the Blue Devils' defensive deficiencies, but if you look at the athletes on the floor and the coach on the sidelines, you know those issues won't linger. The problem is that when the players do make defensive mistakes, there's no one there to erase them. The Jigsaw Man believes that what Duke needs most is a first-rate rim protector who can bail out his buddies and ignite the fast break.
Obekpa won't need many offensive paint touches on this squad. He can just stand back on D, swat a bunch of shots, and then go run the floor. Obekpa leads the nation in blocks at 4.82 per game even though he averages just 22 minutes. The Jigsaw Man thinks he will make for a nice fit alongside Parker and Rodney Hood.
Illinois Fighting Illini
Biggest problem: The Illini already got a wonderful gift from the Transfer Fairy. Ray Rice, the 6-4 junior guard who transferred from Drake, has been a terrific find. He leads the Illini in scoring at 18.2 points per game. The problem is that the Illini are still thin up front, which has rendered them over-reliant on three-point shooting and vulnerable on the boards. However, their biggest deficiency has been an inability to get to the foul line. They are ranked 299th nationally in free throw rate.
The Jigsaw Man likes John Groce's up-tempo style, and he believes Birch will shore up Illinois' frontcourt issues without slowing things down. Birch is a capable scorer but not a volume shooter (11.8 ppg on 51 percent shooting), so Groce won't have to worry about him taking away too many shots from Rice or anyone else. Birch is ranked in the top 60 nationally in offensive rebound percentage and free throw rate, and he is sixth in the country in blocks at 3.83 per game. He and Nanna Egwu will make a fierce tandem around the rim.
Biggest problem: By any measure, Indiana's pint-sized point guard Yogi Ferrell is having a terrific season, ranking in the top 10 of the Big Ten in scoring (16.8), assists (4.2) and three-point percentage (42.7). The problem is that Ferrell is being miscast as a primary scorer. He is at his best when he is setting up his teammates. Unfortunately, the Hoosiers' best other perimeter option is 6-7 senior forward Will Sheehey, who is making just 25 percent of his three-point shots. As a team, Indiana ranks last in the Big Ten in three-point percentage (31.5) and threes made (4.9). I also believe its turnover problems (15.9 per game, ranked 331st in the country) stems from this uncomfortable dynamic on the perimeter.
The Jigsaw Man believes you can go home again. This is the first time he is sending a player back to the school from which he transferred. Creek used to be a promising freshman at Indiana before a slew of injuries (as well as Victor Oladipo's stunning rise) reduced him to a bit player. Now that he is a featured performer in Foggy Bottom, Creek is showing Hoosier fans what they're missing. He is averaging a career-best 16 points while making 50 percent from the floor, 47 percent from three and 78 percent from the foul line. The Jigsaw Man also likes that Creek is a senior, since Indiana is one of the youngest teams in the country -- and often plays like it.
Biggest problem: Yes, the Jayhawks are young, but what's really tripping them up is a lack of production from the most important position on the floor. Point guards Naadir Tharpe and Frank Mason have combined to shoot 40 percent, and while they have done a relatively good job taking care of the ball, as a team Kansas has been deficient in this department. The Jayhawks are 208th in the country in turnover percentage and 104th in assist-to-turnover ratio. They're also 239th in three-point percentage and 291st in defensive turnover percentage. So they need an all-around point guard, someone who can lead, defend and make long-range shots.
This one is a little puzzling. Wichita State is enjoying the best two-year stretch in the history of this proud program, and not only does the Jigsaw Man take away a valuable player, he plugs him into that storied program to the north. At the very least, you have to give him credit for spying talent. VanVleet leads the Missouri Valley Conference in assists (5.3) and assist-to-turnover ratio (3.56 to 1), and he is fifth in the league in steals (1.83). He doesn't take a lot of shots -- on Kansas, he won't need to -- but when he takes 'em, he makes 'em: 48 percent overall, 50 percent from three.
Still, the Jigsaw Man feels badly about this David-to-Goliath transaction, so in return he has ordered Bill Self to agree to a 10-year home-and-home series with Wichita State plus extend an annual invitation for Gregg Marshall to join him for a round at Lawrence Country Club. That's a steep price to pay, but Self knows VanVleet is worth it.
Biggest problem: Kentucky's roster has a similar profile to Kansas', so it's not surprising the two teams share the same problem. In the case of the Wildcats, the leadership concerns are even more pronounced. There is also an alarming lack of perimeter defense. The Wildcats are ranked 336th in the country in steals (4.1), and through their first 13 games they have committed 29 more turnovers than their opponents. That is not sustainable.
Missing piece: Tyler Thornton, 6-2 senior guard, Duke
The Jigsaw Man giveth, the Jigsaw Man taketh away. If he's going to fortify the Blue Devils' front line, it's only fair that he pluck the team's best perimeter defender. Thornton, who last year was an honorable mention for my annual All-Glue team, is an absolute hawk on the ball, and as a backup point guard he does an excellent job running Duke's halfcourt offense. His assist-to-turnover ratio is nearly 3 to 1, and he's knocking down 44 percent of his three-point attempts and 90 percent of his free throws. The Jigsaw Man believes Thornton's biggest contribution will be in Kentucky's locker room -- he is a strong, vocal leader who has a bright future in coaching -- and he is especially looking forward to all those Duke-hating Kentucky fans embracing Thornton as one of their own.
Marquette Golden Eagles
Biggest problem: Buzz Williams knew he would have a tough time replacing point guard Vander Blue, who unwisely entered the NBA draft, but Williams believed he found a workable replacement in 6-2 freshman Duane Wilson. Alas, Wilson injured his left leg before the season started, and last week the school announced he is taking a medical redshirt. As a result, the Golden Eagles have had some major struggles on offense. They're ranked ninth in the Big East in scoring (73.1 ppg) and dead last in three-point shooting (30.9) and threes made (4.7 per game).
Still, the Jigsaw Man knows it's not enough just to plug in a scorer. Marquette needs a mature floor leader who can knock down the occasional jump shot and, most of all, fit into this program's blue-collar culture.
This is one tough cookie -- and the Jigsaw Man loves cookies. Odum averages about 13 points per game, but if you look at his percentages (47 from the floor, 38 from three) you'll see that he could score more if that's what his team requires. The main ingredient Odum brings is toughness. He is one of the top rebounding guards in America (4.5 per game), and he also averages 5.1 assists (to just 2.2 turnovers) and 1.7 steals while converting nearly 81 percent from the foul line. He is Buzz Williams' kind of guy, which is about the biggest compliment you can pay a college basketball player these days.
Biggest problem: The Tigers' greatest asset is their quartet of senior guards, yet they are a lousy three-point shooting team. They're ranked 304th in the country in three-point percentage (29.5) and 307th in threes per game (4.7). Their best three-point shooter, Michael Dixon, has made just one of his past 17 attempts from behind the arc. The Jigsaw Man wants to shore up this weakness, but he understands the last thing Memphis needs is another dribbler. Better to find an unconventional big man who can stretch the defense, play a little pick-and-pop, and then dive into the paint for some dirty work.
This dude can really shoot the pill. Wragge's 48.2 percent clip from behind the arc ranks second in the Missouri Valley Conference, even ahead of teammate Doug McDermott's 40.6 percentage. Wragge is purely a specialist -- all but one of his 42 shot attempts have come from three-point range -- but he is also averaging a healthy 4.4 rebounds per game. With Wragge in the fold, Memphis is going to be far less vulnerable against pack-it-in zone defenses. This pleases the Jigsaw Man greatly. He never saw a zone he couldn't bust.
North Carolina Tar Heels
Biggest problem: It's not hard to figure out what the Tar Heels are missing: A versatile, athletic wing who excels in many areas and scores in bunches. That's what P.J. Hairston provided for the team last year, but now that he is gone from the program, he has left a gaping hole. The Heels are especially missing Hairston's three-point prowess. Sophomore guard Marcus Paige has made 30 of this team's 43 three-pointers this season. The return of Leslie McDonald has helped, but given that James Michael McAdoo is still not dependable from game to game, this team remains in dire need of another offensive threat.
This is as dynamic an offensive player as you'll find. Wilcox scores nearly 21 points per game while shooting 45 percent from the floor and 41 percent from three. He can even play some backup point guard if Roy Williams needs him to. Wilcox also averages 4.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game, and he ranks 10th in the Pac-12 in blocks with 1.3 per game.
Virginia Commonwealth Rams
Biggest problem: The Rams are once again wreaking havoc on opposing ballhandlers. They rank first in the nation in both steal percentage and defensive turnover percentage. Problem is, once they get into their own halfcourt offense, the Rams are just ordinary. They're 124th in the country in three-point percentage (35.6), 269th in field goal percentage (42.5) and 270th in free throw percentage. In the past, they could rely on the long-range touch of 6-4 guard Troy Daniels, who drilled 94 three-pointers as a senior last season, but now that Daniels is gone, no one has stepped up to replace that dimension.
Missing piece: Gary Bell, 6-1 junior guard, Gonzaga
The Jigsaw Man has chosen a player who can really wake up the space -- with energy, with hustle and especially with dogged defense. Mark Few, who once called Bell the best freshman perimeter defender he ever coached, can attest to that. During his two-plus years in Spokane, Bell has made 137 three-pointers, and this year he is shooting 48 percent from behind the arc (and 51 percent overall). Bell is also making 82 percent of his foul shots while averaging 3.2 rebounds and two assists per game.
Biggest problem: The prevailing narrative about the Wildcats is that they are small, but that is not true. Guard-oriented, maybe, but not small. That, plus their mental toughness, is why they are out-rebounding opponents by more than seven per game. The problem is that this is not a good three-point shooting team, so they don't have much margin for error. When the Wildcats are not getting to the rim (as was the case in the loss at Syracuse over the weekend), they have a hard time scoring. They could really use a dependable post player to take pressure off the perimeter guys.
Benimon played his first two seasons (sparingly, I might add) at Georgetown, so it's only fitting that he finishes his career back in the Big East. He is a traditional, fundamentally sound, below-the-rim post player who has a real knack for scoring. Benimon is ranked in the top 10 in the CAA in scoring (17.1), rebounding (10.4), blocks (1.69), field goal percentage (50.3) and free throw percentage (73.8). He's even third in the league in assists (4.1) and fifth in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.15). Doesn't that sound like a man who deserves a bigger stage?
Biggest problem: I know what you're thinking. This team already has Frank Kaminsky. Does it really need anything else? Well, actually, it does. The Badgers are still a little too reliant on the jump shot. That's all well and good when the shots are falling, but when they're not, Wisconsin is going to need someone to clean up the offensive glass. The Badgers are 185th nationally in offensive rebound percentage . If you really have aspirations to get to a Final Four, that's not good enough.
Might as well go right to the top. Gathers leads the country in offensive rebound percentage. Despite playing just 18 minutes per game, he is ranked eighth in the Big 12 in rebounds (7.5). He is also averaging a little over one steal per game. Gathers carries 270 pounds on a chiseled frame. Given Wisconsin's overall lack of girth, the Jigsaw Man thinks Gathers will look especially good in the Wisconsin weight room.