Hoop Thoughts: Jigsaw Man finds missing pieces for almost-contenders
For most people, this is a joyful, wonderful week.
For Hoopheads like us, this week is riddled with angst.
The stockings have been hung and the presents have been wrapped, but all you can think about is your favorite college basketball team and its many deficiencies. Crazy scores, wacky bounces and untimely injuries have already pockmarked this season. Is your team next?
There is, however, one man who can save you. No, not Santa Claus. He’s a round man who knows nothing about roundball. I’m talking about the original hoop whisperer. The guy who solves puzzles.
I’m talking about the Jigsaw Man.
Hoopheads know all about him. As he has done in this space for several years, the Jigsaw Man has studied the game with great care, and he has spied deficiencies in many of the nation’s top teams. No team is perfect, but the Jigsaw Man aspires to a more perfect picture. Once he discerns the hole in a team’s puzzle, he scavenges the country in search of the correct fit.
Alas, the Jigsaw Man can’t fix everything. He’s only human, you know. So during this holiday season, he has settled on the Twelve Teams of Jigsaw. Perhaps you’d prefer to sing along. (Five ... golden threes!) Either way, if your team was one of the lucky 12, do not bother sending the Jigsaw Man a thank-you note. ‘Tis the season for giving, after all. The Jigsaw Man hopes you will accept his gifts, and that they will bring Hoopheads everywhere an inner piece.
Herewith, the Dozen Puzzles:
Biggest problem: The Jigsaw Man asks, what has happened to Point Guard U? Was it replaced by Power Forward College? Catch-and-Shoot Tech? Arizona basically invented the points guard, yet among its top six scorers, not one averages more than two assists per game. The Jigsaw Man finds this puzzling.
No wonder that, according to kenpom.com, the Wildcats are ranked 42nd nationally in offensive efficiency (they were seventh last year). They are also 162nd in assists-to-made-field goals, 269th in three-point percentage and 308th in made three-pointers per game. Therefore, this team needs a player who can beat defenders off the dribble, make plays for his teammates and, when it gets late in the game and late in the shot clock, get his own buckets.
Missing piece: Anthony “Cat” Barber, 6'2" junior guard, N.C. State
We’re only on our first puzzle, and already the Jigsaw Man is a little too pleased with himself. Not only is Barber the perfect fit, but his name is Cat! Barber will give Arizona quickness at its signature position, not to mention a healthy injection of feline arrogance.
Unlike his current situation in Raleigh, where Barber averages 21 points per game on 38% shooting, Cat will have to dial back his trigger. Barber’s judgment is, however, quite sound when it comes to playmaking. His assist-to-turnover ratio is nearly three to one, and he ranks second in the ACC with 5.8 assists per game. Barber has the frame, the game and the name to render Arizona’s roundball picture complete. The Jigsaw Man believes he has made his point.
Biggest problem: The Bears have a lot of gifted athletes, as well as the nation’s pre-eminent rebounder in Rico Gathers. So why did they fail to win either of their two road games at Oregon and Texas A&M? The Jigsaw Man believes it’s because they don’t score easily enough, particularly from behind the three-point line. Senior point guard Lester Medford has the ball in his hands the most, but he has converted just seven trifectas in the season’s first 10 games.
Baylor does not have a classic knockdown shooter like it had the last few years with Kenny Chery and Brady Heslip. The Bears are attempting only 29% of their shots from three-point range (which ranks 295th in the country) and are making just 6.3 threes per game (215th).
There is nothing puzzling about Zeisloft’s game. He comes, he sees, he takes a lot of threes. During his three-plus years in college basketball, Zeisloft has hoisted 86% of his shot attempts from behind the arc. This season, he is converting a career-high 53%, which ranks third in the Big Ten and 15th in the country. The Jigsaw Man likes to imagine him providing the same service for Baylor coach Scott Drew. He believes that if a team isn’t utilizing every available scoring tool, it leaves a gaping hole.
Biggest problem: You don’t have to be overly astute to figure out Gonzaga this season: Bigs good, guards not good enough. This program has been spoiled by a plenitude of productive points, from John Stockton to Matt Santangelo to Richie Frahm to Matt Bouldin to Jeremy Pargo to Derek Raivio to Dan Dickau to Kevin Pangos. This year’s crop does not fit that bill.
That problem has had widespread effects. Check out the Zags’ national ranks: 220th in turnover percentage, 225th in three-point percentage, 282nd in offensive free throw rate, 285th in assists per made field goals. They were 6-for-26 from three-point range in their loss at home to UCLA and 3-for-13 in their loss to Arizona. It is especially imperative that Gonzaga fixes this issue given that it is looking ever more possible that senior center Przemek Karnowski will not return this season because of a back issue. The Zags need to return to their roots with a do-everything point guard, someone who can score, pass, defend, scrap and win, win, win.
Truth be told, the Jigsaw Man reached out to the Golden State Warriors, but they would not relinquish their point guard. So he dipped his sticky fingers into that guy’s alma mater and found Gonzaga’s solution. Heading into last weekend, Gibbs’s scoring average of 25.3 per game ranked second nationally, and he was also dishing 4.4 assists a game. He shoots 70% from two, 38% from three and 83% from the free throw line. The Jigsaw Man can imagine Gibbs and Kyle Wiltjer spacing the floor to its very edges, and he chuckles at the tall task defenses would face trying to close out on those shooters while also trying to check Domantas Sabonis inside. I have to admit, the Jigsaw Man has a wicked sense of humor sometimes.
Biggest problem: Few teams are as proficient at scoring as the Hoosiers. They are putting up 88.3 points per game, which is tops in the Big Ten and ranks fourth in the country. They’re fourth nationally in field goal percentage, fifth in offensive efficiency and fifth in three-point percentage. So the last thing they need is another scorer.
You may not know that Indiana is also a pretty good rebounding team, but when it comes to the defensive glass—when it comes to the defensive anything—the Hoosiers are, shall we say, offensive. The issue here isn’t their personnel; it’s their commitment. Freshman center Thomas Bryant has provided rebounding help and rim protection, but across the team there are just enough individual mistakes to add up to one big deficiency. Thus, the Hoosiers need someone who can help on defense without disrupting the offense.
The Jigsaw Man wishes no one had ever used the word length to describe a basketball player, because he would invent the term in homage to Gordon. The Buffs’ Glue Guy isn’t all that buff, but his pterodactyl-like arms sure come in handy when defending taller post men. Gordon ranks fourth in the Pac-12 in bocks (2.5), he’s 10th in rebounds (7.2) and nationally he is 46th in block percentage. Last year, he was fifth in the conference in defensive rebound percentage.
Best of all, Gordon is a versatile defender, so the Jigsaw Man can imagine him locking up (or at least slowing down) Big Ten foes like Denzel Valentine and Melo Trimble. Best of all, he averages fewer than two fouls per game while only taking 5.2 shots. His selflessness and commitment to D will spark a badly needed attitude adjustment in the Hoosiers' locker room. The Jigsaw Man believes that with Gordon in the fold, Indiana’s stay in the NCAA tournament will be, well, longer.
Biggest problem: The Jigsaw Man is a visual guy, not a numbers guy, but he can’t help but notice that at No. 18, Iowa is the highest-ranked team on kenpom.com that does not appear in either national poll. That tells him that the Hawkeyes are pretty close to being pretty good.
That’s why he watched with such dismay as Iowa coughed up a late lead at Iowa State last week, allowing the Cyclones to grab 14 offensive rebounds and failing to get a defensive stop when it mattered. The Hawkeyes’ kenpom.com profile reveals just two areas in which this team is severely lacking—defensive rebounding (ranked 215th nationally) and getting to the free throw line (ranked 334th). In other words, the problem is toughness. Is there a player out there who can fit into this team’s unique personality?
The Hawkeyes won’t have to worry about Harrison jacking up a lot of threes. What he does do, however, is attack on both ends of the floor. Harrison averages 10 free throw attempts per game and ranks first nationally in fouls drawn per 40 minutes, which is a big reason why he averages 18.2 points per game. He is also one of the top rebounding guards in the country (5.5 per game) and is an absolute demon on defense (second in the AAC in steals at 2.1 per game). Yes, Harrison would have to dial back his offense, but he has only played in one NCAA tournament game in his career. His desperation is the Jigsaw Man’s inspiration.
Biggest problem: The Cyclones had been cruising along undefeated, but as it turns out that only masked a major deficiency: lack of depth. That problem was exacerbated when the team lost Naz Mitrou-Long last week for the season because of a hip injury. Long is a 6’4” guard, and while Marquette transfer Deonte Burton, who is also 6'4", just became eligible, Iowa State couldn’t avoid its first loss of the season on Saturday against Northern Iowa.
Since Burton is a perimeter player, the Jigsaw Man is hoping to bolster this team’s frontcourt, because right now Steve Prohm does not have anyone with size to bring off the bench. Jameel McKay is a stout rebounder and shot-blocker, and his offense is coming along. But if he gets into foul trouble, then the Cyclones go smaller than they want to.
Missing piece: Luke Fischer, 6'11" junior forward, Marquette
The Cyclones have already pilfered Marquette’s roster once to add Burton, so they might as well go back for seconds. Fischer will fill a lot of needs. He is a big, agile and skilled, so he can work the post, defend the rim, or clear out so McKay and Georges Niang can go to work. Though Fischer’s shooting range does not extend beyond the three-point line, he is still scoring 14.3 points per game and is second in the Big East with a 66.3 field-goal percentage. He is also averaging 7.8 rebounds and 2.2 blocks. Best of all, he gives this team five more fouls in the frontcourt. Once Big 12 play begins next month, the Cyclones will need every one.Louisiana Tech
Skal Labissiere is struggling big-time, but the problem can’t be fixed by plugging in a center, either. The Wildcats turn the ball over too much, but they already have a terrific point guard in sophomore Tyler Ulis. The Jigsaw Man has studied the numbers, but they don’t reveal the primary issue. Kentucky is young, confused and rudderless. It needs a wily veteran who can give the Good Ship Blue the delicate, intangible je ne sais quois it lacks.
The Jigsaw Man does not move these pieces lightly. He knows what Jones means to the Butler program, to college basketball in general and to the free world at large. He is, in short, man-crush material. But he is needed far more in Lexington than in Indianapolis. He needs to teach Big Blue Nation about the Butler Way.
To be sure, Jones will not improve Kentucky’s outside shooting issues. During his two-plus seasons at Butler, he has yet to make a single three-point shot. Jones is only shooting 58.5% from the free throw line. He has the ugliest shooting form in the country, but he is an artist with his floater, he is a rugged defender, and he makes winning plays—hence his 7.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.2 steals per game, as well as his 3.27 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Best of all, Jones brings scalding competitive heat to every room he enters. He’s a thermostat, not a thermometer. The Jigsaw Man has every confidence he will fix his blowtorch on the talented, callow Wildcats, welding them into a fierce and unbreakable machine.
Biggest problem: Where’s a Jigsaw Man to start? The Wolverines are having health issues again, so maybe he should find them an orthopedist, or perhaps an acupuncturist. They also play defense as if it’s optional and their jump shooting is inconsistent.
The largest issue, however, concerns their biggest players. John Beilein’s teams have almost never had much of an inside presence. He prefers his bigs to have Pittsnoglian skills, so his teams give up rebounds by design. Even though this current team has one of the country’s most versatile wings in Caris LeVert, the Wolverines have an awfully tough time getting to the rim. They are ranked 304th in the country in offensive rebound percentage and 312th in free throw rate. They are also 263rd in block percentage. They need a big man who can stand tall in the paint.
As someone who measures progress in incremental steps, the Jigsaw Man appreciates a player who steadily improves. Thomas has grown from a raw and spindly freshman into a hard-to-guard forward. He scored 21 points in each of the Demon Deacons’ biggest wins of the season, over Indiana and UCLA, and he has already grabbed 17 rebounds on two occasions. Thomas is a big-time scorer (18.6 ppg), rebounder (11.2) and shot blocker (2.0). The Jigsaw Man wishes Thomas were a better foul shooter (55.7%), but at least he gets to the line a ton, ranking eighth nationally in fouls drawn per 40 minutes.
This Michigan team has some nice pieces, but it is operating on very small margin for error. The Jigsaw Man believes Thomas will increase that margin. And he does not make many errors.
Biggest problem: The Jigsaw Man had no dog in the hunt (he loves dogs; he does not hunt), but he cringed as he watched the Fighting Irish blow a 15-point lead in their loss to Indiana two days ago.
This team lost two very important pieces from last season—a do-everything scoring guard in Jerian Grant and a versatile athlete in Pat Connaughton. Now Notre Dame is just another pretty good team that doesn’t scare anyone, particularly on the defensive end. The Irish rarely foul (fourth nationally in defensive free throw rate), and they rarely turn you over (334th in turnover percentage). Nor do they get to the foul line themselves (280th in free throw rate). To borrow the analogy that Vince Vaughn used in Swingers, Notre Dame is like that guy in the PG-rated movie everyone is rooting for. They need to be more like guy in the R movie, the one that you’re not sure about yet. They need a player who will help them realize they’re money.
The Jigsaw Man is tired of seeing a talent of this magnitude languishing in relative obscurity out in Corvallis. Payton has the game to go along with his name(sake). Just like his old man, he is an elite ball hawk, averaging 2.5 steals per game, which ranks 15th in the U.S. He is also arguably the best rebounding guard in the country at 8.5 per game. He can score (16.6 ppg on 55.4% shooting) and make plays for his teammates (5.1 assists), and he will give the Irish a swagger they lacked down the stretch against Indiana.
Biggest problem: The Jigsaw Man could pick just about any able body in the country and Syracuse’s picture would improve. The Orange are ranked dead last in the country in percentage of bench minutes. Even during an easy game like Saturday’s 21-point drubbing of Cornell, five guys played at least 32 minutes.
But the Orange don’t need just another body, they need another big body. Jim Boeheim’s vaunted 2-3 zone excels at locking up three-point shooters, but it is useless unless there is a rim protector/shot blocker sealing up the paint. Think Etan Thomas, Hakim Warrick or Rakeem Christmas. If the added player can finish at the rim, all the better. So where can the Jigsaw Man find a tall, long-armed, bouncy, rangy forward who is otherwise being underutilized?
Sorry, Izzo. If you’re not going to play a McDonald’s All-American with huge upside more than 18 minutes a game, then you’re going to have to let your pal Boeheim put him to work. (After Boeheim gets back from his suspension, that is. The Jigsaw Man can’t fix everything.) Despite his limited minutes, Davis ranks sixth nationally in offensive rebound percentage and 14th in block percentage. He isn’t a huge scorer, but he is an efficient one, as indicated by his 61.6% shooting from the field.
The Jigsaw Man knows Boeheim has had a tough time of late, and that his first game back on the bench comes Jan. 5 against, gulp, North Carolina. He believes a brand new big on the Syracuse roster will be a most welcoming sight when Boeheim’s time in purgatory is up.
Biggest problem: When it comes to these Huskies, the Jigsaw Man is puzzled. How is it that a team with all this perimeter pop is ranked 296th nationally in free throw rate? Why are these swarming athletes ranked 212th in defensive steal percentage?
UConn is a good shooting team, and it has the nation’s top shot-blockers (in block percentage) in Amida Brimah. Yet, when this team needs a key basket or free throw, it has come up a little short. The Jigsaw Man believes (and he senses that coach Kevin Ollie does, too) that Sterling Gibbs is miscast as a fulltime point guard. Sure, Gibbs has some point guard skills, but he is at his most effective when he is off the ball, which has the added benefit of saving his legs. Freshman Jalen Adams has provided a respite at times, but not enough. This team needs a genuine pass-first quarterback who can relieve Gibbs’ strain and spark the perimeter D.
The Jigsaw Man believes it’s a shame that Durham is spending his final season on a mediocre team. The Razorbacks lost at home to Mercer on Saturday to fall to 5–5. They don’t appear to be headed for the NCAA tournament.
And still, Durham is racking up some incredible non-scoring numbers. He is dishing 7.8 assists per game, which is fourth in the country. He also leads the SEC in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.55) and ranks second in steals (2.20). Gibbs and Rodney Purvis don’t have to worry about him taking away their shots, as Durham has only made five three-pointers all season (on 22 attempts). Durham can tutor Adams and show him how to run a team at this level. The Jigsaw Man appreciates teamwork even more than talent. Durham will bring both to Storrs.
Biggest problem: It may seem like the Jigsaw Man is cold and calculating, what with the way he moves these pieces around, but he is actually quite the softie. So his heart melted when he saw Bob Huggins yank poor Jevon Carter for attempting an ill-advised behind-the-back pass in the second half of the Mountaineers’ loss to Virginia in New York City on Dec. 8.
Still, the Jigsaw Man had to admit ole Huggy Bear had a point. West Virginia loves to create pace with its fullcourt defense, but too often the Mountaineers fail to be quick without hurrying. They are sloppy with the ball (231st in turnover percentage) and they tend to be heedless with their traps (340th in defensive free throw rate). They need a steadying hand to perform the same function the rug did in The Big Lebowski—that is, someone who will tie the room together. It would also help if this Dude could knock down a few long-range buckets, given that the Mountaineers are ranked 272nd nationally in three-point percentage.
During the Panthers’ first 10 games of the season, Robinson had 50 assists to just seven turnovers. Let me repeat: 50 assists, seven turnovers. He is also a fundamentally sound defender who has committed just 15 fouls this season. And yes, he is making 40.5% from three-point range, up from 29.8% as a junior. Robinson is efficient, mature, poised and savvy. The Jigsaw Man anticipates that when Huggins starts going Huggins, Robinson will stroll over to the sideline, pat his coach on the rump, Dude-like, and say, “It’s O.K., coach, I got this.” You might say he’s the missing peace.
This week’s AP ballot
* (Last week’s rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Michigan State (1)
2. Kansas (2)
3. Maryland (4)
4. Oklahoma (6)
5. Xavier (9)
6. Virginia (10)
7. North Carolina (11)
8. Butler (14)
9. Villanova (12)
10. Purdue (8)
11. Iowa State (7)
12. West Virginia (15)
13. Miami (16)
14. SMU (17)
15. Arizona (13)
16. Kentucky (3)
17. Duke (5)
18. UCLA (19)
19. UConn (20)
20. Louisville (18)
21. Cincinnati (21)
22. Providence (22)
23. George Washington (24)
24. Utah (NR)
25. Little Rock (25)
Dropped out: Baylor (23), Little Rock (25)
Last week was a weird week. Because of exams, there were not many games of consequence until the weekend. Then there was a ton of blood spilled in the top 10 ... but not much elsewhere. So what felt like a seismic shakeup turned out to be another round of routine shuffling.
For two of the teams that lost, Duke and Iowa State, I had to consider not only the losses, but also the injuries that rendered them vulnerable. In the past, when a team has lost a game because of a temporary personnel loss (think North Carolina losing at Northern Iowa without Marcus Paige, or Arizona losing to Providence without Kaleb Tarczewski), I have tried not to penalize it too badly. But in this case, Iowa State’s Naz Mitrou-Long is gone for the season, and Duke’s Amile Jefferson is out for at least a month, and probably much longer. So you have to view their losses to Utah and Northern Iowa, respectively, not as aberrations, but as their new normals. I gave them a one-week cushion, but if those teams lose another game to unranked teams, don’t be surprised if I drop them off my ballot altogether.
Then there are those Kentucky Wildcats. They didn’t just lose to an unranked team in Ohio State, they lost to an unranked bad team. I called Ohio State’s win at home over VMI Big Ten Network, so I saw up close just what the Buckeyes have. The fact that UK was dominated wire to wire is a big concern. The fact that they couldn’t beat a UCLA team that got manhandled by North Carolina was also a factor. Again, I try not to overreact to one bad loss, and the Cats will have a shot at redemption on Saturday at home against Louisville. They’re not quite on red alert, but they are obviously not nearly as good as they looked when they shredded Duke a month ago.
As for Purdue, I have had concerns about this team’s guard play all season, and if you start looking at their résumé even before they lost in Indianapolis to Butler on Saturday, it doesn’t exactly blow you away. Their best win came on the road against unranked Pitt. Still, I took that result and figured I should reward Butler more than I should punish Purdue.
As you all know, I like to find an off-the-beaten-path school to fill out my ballot. Last week, I went with the Trojans of Little Rock, and since they won again last week, I wanted to keep them at No. 25. Still, I had to give serious consideration to Monmouth, which won at Georgetown and Rutgers, and Northern Iowa, which upset Iowa State in Des Moines. In each case, those teams had just enough bad losses for me to keep them out.
Other teams I considered are South Carolina, which is still undefeated following its win over Clemson on Friday; Colorado, whose only loss came by six points to Iowa State in the season opener; Seton Hall, which beat Wichita State in overtime and also has a win over Ole Miss; Texas A&M, which embarrassed what I thought was a very good Baylor team at home on Saturday night; Pittsburgh, which dominated a pretty good Davidson club on Sunday and whose only loss of the season came at home to Purdue; and Dayton, which probably would be ranked if it hadn’t lost at home to Chattanooga two weeks ago.