Is Villanova a legit contender? Which teams have the biggest bench problems? Seth Davis answers these questions and more in his mailbag.
Allow me to open up this week’s Twitterbag by answering the following question. Sort of.
Who are, at this moment, the two deepest teams? As close to 8 or 9 strong as it gets. — A.W. Nelson (@upandadamnelson)
A.W. is asking me to rank the deepest teams, but I’m going to pull a reversal. As I’ve watched games, I’ve noticed that there seem to be an inordinate number of teams among the nation’s elite with little to no bench. In the past, I have argued that the public’s fixation on “depth” is misplaced. That’s because normally, when people discuss the importance of depth, they are talking about fatigue. My answer is to say we are talking about 18- to 22-year-old male athletes who are used to playing long hours day after day. Heck, these kids thought nothing of playing two or three games a day when they competed at national AAU tournaments. Surely, a few extra minutes won’t have too much ill effect.
However, a deep bench has other advantages. First and foremost is the way it gives a team the ability to withstand foul trouble. A starter who incurs two or three fouls either has to sit the bench or severely limit his aggressiveness, especially on defense. Second, a deep bench also enables a team to withstand injuries. Third, a deeper bench gives a coach more options to take advantage of matchups, or to relieve a player or two who are having off nights. And yes, players do get tired. They might stay in a game, but they have to conserve their energy, usually at the defensive end.
So in an effort to sort-of answer to A.W.’s question, here are six notable teams who are in, shall we say, deep trouble. I’ve supplied their national rank on kenpom.com for the percentage of minutes that are contributed by the bench:
Syracuse (No. 351, 16.0%)
The Orange are ranked dead last in the country in percentage of minutes they are getting from their bench. Notwithstanding recent road wins over Wake Forest and Duke, this is a fatal flaw. Syracuse’s depth has been hurt by the inability of senior center DaJuan Coleman to regain the form he showed before multiple knee injuries sidelined him for nearly two seasons. The depth has also been hurt by the total lack of confidence that Jim Boeheim currently has in 6'3" sophomore guard Kaleb Joseph, who played 27.3 minutes per game as a freshman but is averaging 6.6 this season. As a result, five players are averaging 31 or more minutes, and the two leading scorers, Michael Gbinije and Trevor Cooney, are both playing more than 37 minutes per game. Remember that the next time you see Cooney unspool one of his 2-for-13 shooting nights. Heavy legs lead to deep trouble.
Wisconsin (No. 348, 21.2%)
The Badgers’ upset over Michigan State on Sunday has given their fans a glimmer of hope that they get back into the NCAA tournament picture. That is a mirage. The Badgers are trying to hide their deficiencies by being one of the slowest teams in the country (337th in tempo, 349th in average possession length). A program like this, which relies so heavily on player development, is not well positioned to sustain massive personnel losses. The first three players off the bench this season are true freshmen who are not ready to contribute heavy minutes. (The team’s third-leading scorer, 6'9" forward Ethan Happ, is a redshirt freshman.) Against the Spartans, the Badgers were called for a total of 15 fouls (to Michigan State’s 28), and they still won by a single point. Whenever their starters get into foul trouble or are suffering from off nights, Wisconsin is in deep trouble.
UCLA (No. 346, 21.9%)
People talk about the Bruins’ softness as the defensive end as being partly by design. But just because Steve Alford was one of the best offensive players in NCAA tournament history doesn’t mean he undervalues defense. He did, after all, play for Bob Knight, and his last two teams at New Mexico were ranked in the top 20 nationally in defensive efficiency. But in his two seasons in Westwood, Alford has had neither the personnel nor the depth to be a solid defensive team. The Bruins could have been a stronger defensive team is Kevon Looney had returned for his sophomore year, but as the roster stands now, the Bruins have one freshman (6'1" guard Aaron Holiday) in the starting lineup and their first two players off the bench are a freshman (6'3" Bronx native Prince Ali) and a sophomore (6'10" sophomore Jonah Bolden, who sat out last year due to academic ineligibility). As a result, Alford has played more possessions of zone the last two seasons than in all his years playing and coaching combined. UCLA can really score, but if the Bruins are playing a tough opponent in a big game and they really, really need a stop, they are going to be in deep trouble.
Iowa State (No. 344, 22.3%)
The Cyclones began the season with a seven-man rotation, but that was supposed to expand to eight when 6'4" junior Deonte Burton, a mid-semester transfer from Marquette, became eligible in December. Alas, at just the moment Burton was ready to suit up, the Cyclones lost 6'4" senior Naz Mitrou-Long for the season due to a lingering hip injury. Burton, meanwhile, has not proven to the savior some portrayed him to be. He is averaging 8.3 points in 15.4 minutes per game, and in four of his last five games he has scored four points or fewer. (He went scoreless in 10 minutes during Monday’s win over Oklahoma.) The good news for Iowa State is that it is ranked third in the country in offensive efficiency, and the Cyclones do a great job of playing defense without fouling (they rank first nationally in defensive free throw rate), and because they have a velcro-handed point guard in Monte Morris, they do not turn it over much. However, because of their limited bench, they also are not really aggressive at attacking the rim (349th in offensive free throw rate). If the Cyclones find themselves in a game away from home where the shots aren’t falling, they are in deep trouble.
Gonzaga (No. 333, 24.4%)
Imagine having a big, strong center who can score over both shoulders, box out three men at once, protect the rim and make free throws. Best of all, he can play all 40 minutes because never gets tired and it requires 10 fouls to disqualify him. That’s essentially what the Bulldogs had with their two-headed big man of 7'1" senior Przemek Karnowski and 6'11" sophomore Domantas Sabonis, but Karnowski’s season ended after just nine games because of severe back issues. Sabonis has made excellent use of his extra minutes (he is averaging 17.8 points and 10.9 rebounds per game, and he is converting 82.6% of his free throws). However, if Sabonis picks up a couple of fouls, Mark Few has to leave him in the game, which means he can’t be as aggressive in helping out on dribble penetration or blocking shots. The result is an efficient but not disruptive defense. Gonzaga still has one of the top scoring forwards in the country in Kyle Wiltjer, but the guard play has been well below where it has been the last decade. Moreover, this has been a rare down year on the recruiting front, with neither of the team’s true freshmen contributing meaningful minutes. As long as Wiltjer is making outside shots and Sabonis stays out of foul trouble, the Zags can beat anyone. But if they have to win a game with their guards, the Zags are in deep trouble.
Duke (No. 321, 26%)
Six games into last season, Duke’s 6'8" forward Semi Ojeleye decided to transfer. After the Blue Devils lost at Notre Dame, Mike Krzyzewski dismissed junior guard Rasheed Sulaimon. That left Krzyzewski with just eight scholarship players, but in his usual positive way, he insisted to his guys, “Eight is enough.” And as it turned out, it was—as long as those eight include two NBA draft lottery picks and another first-rounder. This year’s group doesn’t have that level of talent, so when 6'9" senior forward Amile Jefferson broke his foot in early December, Duke was once again left with eight available players. Only this time around, it’s really six, because Krzyzewski has buried two frontcourt reserves, 6'10" freshman Chase Jeter and Rice transfer Sean Obi, on his bench. (The bench minutes ranking cited above is misleading because it includes the 10 games when Jefferson played.) The one available big man, Marshall Plumlee, is having a career season, but overall Duke has fallen into a familiar habit of being way too dependent on jump shooting. This team is below average on defense (123rd nationally in defensive efficiency), and it is getting crushed on the defensive glass (284th in defensive rebound percentage). So when Duke’s perimeter scorers go cold—as was the case in the loss to Syracuse, when Matt Jones and Luke Kennard combined to shoot 2-for-20, with all but two of those attempts coming from three-point range—then there is no Plan B. The best-case scenario for Jefferson remains a mid-February return, but it could be later than that. Or it could be not at all if he decides to take a medical redshirt. If Jefferson doesn’t come back soon, the Blue Devils are in deep trouble.
[Is] Brice Johnson [a] first team All-American? — Alex Waycaster (@thewaycaster)
It depends. There aren’t too many sure things in the first five. Denzel Valentine looked like a shoo-in for player of the year based on the first six weeks, but his knee injury (and Michigan State’s recent slide) is hurting his chances. Kris Dunn has come down a peg or two, but he’s very much in the mix. Melo Trimble is still going strong. Right now, probably the only locks are Ben Simmons and Buddy Hield. But we have a long way to go.
I am less interested in where Brice Johnson falls—suffice to say, he is on a very short list of candidates—than I am interested to see how he adjusts to the return of Kennedy Meeks. While Meeks was out, Johnson was certainly playing like an All-American, most notably with his epic 39-point, 23-rebound, time-capsule-worthy performance at Florida State. Still, Johnson gets most of his buckets near the rim, which is the same real estate that Meeks occupies. Meeks came back three games ago in a win over Syracuse, and in his next outing he had a game-high 23 points and six rebounds in a win at home over NC State. And what did Johnson do in that game? Six points and two rebounds in 18 foul-plagued minutes.
There is no doubt that Johnson was a more dominant player when Meeks was out of the lineup. It’s because he had to be. Then again, he did have 27 points and 11 rebounds in Wednesday night’s win over Wake Forest, while Meeks had nine points and five rebounds in 15 minutes. Just because two great players play next to each other, it does not mean they will be great together. It is going to be fascinating to watch this dynamic moving forward, especially with senior point guard Marcus Paige in a weird three-game shooting slump. (Paige has scored a total of eight points on 3-for-25 shooting in his last three games.) From Roy Williams’s standpoint, this is a classic high-class problem. But it is still a problem.
Should [Villanova] fans feel good about their chances in NCAAs? Season is shaping up exactly like last few. — Matt (@matallman1)
Listen, Matt, I get it. You’ve seen this movie before, and it doesn’t end well. At least, it hasn’t ended well since the Wildcats made that run to the Final Four in 2009. Since then, Villanova has never made it out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, including three years in which they were a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. So despite the success this team has had, Villanova fans can be forgiven for harboring an ominous feeling that this is going to be déjà vu all over again (and again and again).
There is no logical explanation for why a program has an extended March slump. The NCAA tournament is a wacky deal. However, I must say I think this particular team is less susceptible to the vagaries of March than Villanovas in the past. Here are the four reasons:
1. This is a great—not a good—defensive team. The Wildcats are ranked fifth in the country in defensive efficiency. They lead the Big East in points allowed, defensive field goal percentage, and three-point defensive percentage. In 2010, Villanova was a No. 2 seed, but it was ranked 64th in defensive efficiency, and it ended up losing to Saint Mary’s in the second round. You can overcome a bad shooting night—actually, you can overcome a lot of things—as long as you can guard your tail off at that end of the floor. This team can do that.
2. This team can make timely threes, but it doesn’t need to make a lot of them to beat good teams. We’re used to thinking of Villanova as a guard-dominated program and this year’s version is no exception. But aside from their 23-point drubbing to Oklahoma in Hawaii, when the Wildcats shot 4-for-32 from three but attempted just 16 free throws, they haven’t gotten stuck with just one way to try to win. Last Saturday at Georgetown, they shot 3-for-18 from three, but they still won by holding the Hoyas to 33% shooting and outscoring them from the foul line, 16–9.
3. Daniel Ochefu is legit. For a coach who supposedly doesn’t “like” big men (his former assistant, Ed Pickney, once half-jokingly accused him of that in a meeting), Wright has done a superb job molding his 6'11", 245-pound senior into a championship level center. This is team is still going to be guard-oriented, but at least Ochefu can now keep teams honest, and his presence underneath keeps the ‘Cats from being dominated on the glass by bigger teams. As I've said before, Ochefu is like the rug in The Big Lebowski. He ties the room together.
4. This team is ready to grind it out. This may surprise you, but Villanova is ranked 314th in the country in tempo. This is by far the lowest rank of all of Wright’s teams at Villanova. If you look at their personnel, the Wildcats should be the type of team that can really get out and go. Wright has been playing plenty of fullcourt pressure. But for whatever reason (and part of this can be attributed to their ability to take care of the ball; they’re 38th nationally in turnover percentage and 16th nationally in turnover margin), the Wildcats seem more comfortable playing possession-by-possession basketball. This is exactly the kind of style that overtakes the game in March.
So no, I can’t guarantee that Villanova will avoid another March pratfall, but this team does appear to be less inclined to lose to a team it should beat. Of course, until that happens, Wildcats fans will just have to live with being nervous for a while. Trust me, you’re not alone.