Behind Enemy Lines: ACC, Big Ten & SEC coaches evaluate conference opponents with brutal honesty
We are heading into the final stretch of the college basketball season. The games are more intense, the stakes grow ever higher, and the final verdict of the postseason is drawing nigh. This is no time for soft-pedaling when it comes to getting information and insights about the nation's top teams. Flattery will get us nowhere. We want the truth.
We can handle the truth.
Thus, your intrepid interloper has parachuted across enemy lines, earned the trust of the brain trusts, asked all the right questions and gotten all the important answers. In recent days, I spoke with two coaches (both head coaches and assistants) from each of three leagues—the ACC, the Big Ten and the SEC—and granted them anonymity so they would feel free to tell me what they really thought about their conferences' top teams. We know the teams on my list are good, and the reports below reflect that. But I was more interested in the things they don't do well. Even the best teams have weaknesses. To succeed this time of year, an opponent must be able to find and exploit them.
Here, then, are the straight-talk assessments of 19 teams from these three leagues. Next week, I will return with reports from the Big East, Big 12, Pac 12 and Atlantic 10. Until then, Hoopheads, read the truth, and let it set you free.
Duke (20–6, 9–4): "Very thin margin for error. They can't absorb a bad shooting night or foul trouble. The difference between them last year and this year is they can't beat you physically now. They beat you more with skill and efficiency. It's funny, I hear Coach K say they only have six players, but that's because he doesn't choose to play his other guys. [Freshman forward Chase] Jeter can't play, man. He's soft. I think they're recruiting over him. Point guard play is a question. I wonder if [freshman guard Derryck] Thornton is going to be able to hold up. [Senior center Marshall] Plumlee accepts that he is only going to score when somebody drops it to him for a dunk, and that's a perfect complement. You've gotta make [freshman forward Brandon] Ingram play defense. You can't just let him be an offensive player. [Sophomore guard] Grayson Allen is stronger than he looks. [Junior guard] Matt Jones is their best defender. He's their toughest kid."
Louisville (20–6, 9-4): "I think [Rick] Pitino's the best coach in the league. He just constantly keeps you off balance. They switch up defenses so much you never really know what they're in. [Senior guard] Damion Lee can really score. I would have liked to see how he stood up to the pressure of playing in the tournament. If he makes a couple, you better find a way to stop him on a way because he can get on a roll. [Sophomore center Chinanu] Onuaku is foul prone sometimes. That's been a problem for them. Defensively they're not as good as they've been because their guys haven't been in the system for as long. [Sophomore center Anas] Mahmoud has a high ceiling, but the games are just too physical for him. They have a plethora of big guys so they can mix and match. [Freshman guard Donovan] Mitchell will be an all-conference guy before his career is over."
Miami (21–4, 10–3): "They just have so many guys, including the ones who come off their bench. [Sophomore guard Ja'Quan] Newton is a dynamic scorer and slasher. He's not a great shooter. [Senior guard] Angel Rodriguez can be streaky. He can get a little sideways. Syracuse played a bunch of zone against them, and they struggled to make shots. That's probably their weakness, outside shooting. I think a zone team would give them trouble. They don't like to throw the ball inside to [senior center Tonye Jekiri], but he is really good defensively. He's big, long, smart, been doing it a long time."
North Carolina (21–5, 10–3): "They don't play hard all the time. I don't know if it's that they're soft or they just know they're really good and just trying to get through the regular season. [Senior guard] Marcus Paige has been a dud. His body language is bad. Not sure he's the leader you need him to be. You could tell he has been questioning his shot. [Sophomore guard] Joel Berry is much improved. You can try to be physical with [senior forward] Brice Johnson, but his turnaround jump shot is unguardable. I think [junior forward] Isaiah Hicks plays with Brice better than [junior forward Kennedy] Meeks. If you put Meeks in ball screens, that can be problematic. I think they would be better if Meeks didn't play. He's big, he's better than he was, but I think he just clogs up space. They're just O.K. defensively. They're not trying to hang their hat on that."
Notre Dame (18–7, 9–4): "Their weakness is defense. When they're playing well from the perimeter, they are really hard to beat. [Junior guard Demetrius] Jackson is really dynamic at getting into the paint. He's strong, competitive, tough. [Sophomore forward Bonzie] Colson is an X-factor. He makes a lot midrange shots. [Junior forward VJ] Beacham is the weak link defensively. He's just not into that much, to be honest with you. His scholarship paper said shoot a lot and don't defend too much. [Senior forward] Zach Auguste is the best ball screen roller in our league. It's not close. Literally, the whole possession he's just running to follow the ball to set a screen. They want to turn it into a scoring contest and they're probably going to beat you if it is."
Syracuse (18–9, 8–6): "They're a little streaky. They're not quite as good in the post as they've been. [Senior forward Dajuan] Coleman is not great offensively so they don't have the low post scoring like they had last year with [Rakeem] Christmas. They don't have the shot blocker like they've had. I know [Jim] Boeheim only plays six guys, but the way they play, that's all they need. That's a problem if they get in foul trouble. [Senior forward Michael] Gbinije is their best player and he's easily their best defender. You have to attack Coleman in the back of that zone. If you put a playmaker in the high post it causes problems. [Freshman guard Malachi] Richardson is really improved from the beginning of the year. When he plays well, they're really good. [Freshman forward Tyler] Lydon can really shoot it, but he's not just a Steve Novak. He can put it on the floor a little bit. Their six is as talented as anybody's in our league."
Virginia (21–5, 10–4): "If they're missing some shots, it's not as easy for them to come back. I don't know if their guys get tired playing that way sometimes. [Senior guard Malcolm] Brogdon can be a little streaky as a shooter. The guy that hurts you is [junio guard London] Perrantes. He makes big shots. They're not as good as they've been defensively, but they're not bad. When Brogdon and Perrantes don't score, they struggle. Teams are keying on those two guys and saying, let everybody else beat us. Brogdon is going to reject 90% of all screens. He wants to play in space by himself. I don't think they trust [senior center Mike] Tobey with ball screen coverage defense. That's why they're playing small. I don't think Tobey has been what they anticipated he would be as a senior."
Indiana (21–6, 11–3): "Can they play all their games in Assembly Hall? If they did, they could win the title. [Freshman center] Bryant is a very poor defender, so you can really exploit that. A lot of big guys have scored against him. [Michigan State's Matt] Costello had 22 against him [on Sunday]. [Northwestern's] Alex Olah had 19 points in 20 minutes [on Jan. 23]. [Wisconsin's] Ethan Happ had 25 [on Jan. 26]. He's just young. He gets caught out of position and that leads to foul trouble. I do think they're better without [sophomore guard James] Blackmon [who was lost for the season with a torn ACL on Jan. 5]. He's a great talent, but it takes away another guy who wants the ball. They're at their best when [senior guard] Yogi [Ferrell] has the ball. [Junior forward Collin] Hartman and [senior guard Nick] Zeisloft are tremendous role players. This is the first time since [Victor] Oladipo and [Cody] Zeller were there that I've seen an Indiana team where everyone is happy offensively. They play so fast on offense that they don't have the same toughness and energy on the defensive end."
Iowa (20–6, 11–3): "They're the most complete team in the Big Ten, but I don't know if they're good enough to beat the better teams outside the league. Their point guard play with [Mike] Gesell and [Anthony] Clemmons is not great, particularly from a defensive standpoint. You want to try to get to their bench. There's a lot of youth there. [Junior guard Peter] Jok has emerged as an all-league guy. [Senior center Adam] Woodbury gets it. He's a big guy who can play defense and rebound. How do you stop [senior forward Jarrod] Uthoff? Pray. He shoots it with NBA range, but if you crowd his space, he can go off the dribble. When he was younger, he was physically weaker, so you could get into his body a little bit. But he's gotten so much stronger."
Maryland (22–4, 10–3): "Their weakness is their interior defense, especially [junior forward] Robert Carter. Forcing him to make plays on the defensive end will be a challenge when they face better competition. His effort level there is not where it needs to be. I personally love [senior guard Rasheed] Sulaimon. He's ultra-competitive. They're not as committed defensively as they are offensively. When they see a team like Northwestern that takes a lot of clock and runs a hard offense, [the Terrapins] struggle sometimes getting stops. You have to make [sophomore guard Melo] Trimble take multiple jump shots. Once he gets in the middle of your defense, that's when he causes problems. Perimeter scoring is their weakness. They scored 57 against [in a loss to] Wisconsin [on Saturday], 48 against Northwestern in regulation [on Jan. 19 in an overtime win]. You have [senior forward Jake] Layman, Carter, Sulaimon and Trimble, those guys are very, very streaky shooters. Last year, it was Trimble and Dez Wells as the two guys, but now you have all these weapons and Trimble is looking to set the table more. You have to take away [freshman center Diamond] Stone's deep catches. He's an 80% free throw shooter. (Stone shoots 76.6% from the line.) That's huge for big guys."
Michigan State (21–5, 8–5): "They are very, very unselfish. Guys do a great job of buying into roles. They compete on the defensive end as well as anybody in the country. If they have a weakness, it's that they don't score the ball consistently in the paint. [Sophomore guard Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn] gives them a better pace as far as the transition game, but when he's not in there it makes them better because it gives them multiple scorers on the perimeter. You hope you can get [senior guard Denzel] Valentine to fall in love with the jump shot, because then he forgets about the most important part of his offensive game, which is being a facilitator and a leader. [Junior guard] Eron Harris is not a great defender, but [Tom] Izzo always has that one guy he struggled with all through the year, and then at the end they fall in love again. The most underrated player in the conference is [senior forward Matt] Costello. I don't see any weaknesses other than what happens if Valentine gets into foul troulbe."
Purdue (21–6, 9–5): "I like 'em, don't love 'em. They're missing consistent outside shooting. If it comes down to where you can make them make threes to beat you, they have a hard time doing that. [Senior center A.J.] Hammons is playing as well as any post player in the country. [Sophomore guard P.J.] Thompson has played well as of late, but in the games they've lost, he had to step up and make a play and couldn't do it. It's pretty obvious that the coaching staff made a deal with [freshman forward Caleb] Swanigan to play him on the perimeter. He's a better post player than Hammons, but he doesn't want to be down there. It's hard to play them together because they can't defend. [Senior guard Rapheal] Davis, Thompson and [sophomore forward Vince] Edwards are going to have to be able to keep defenses honest. If you look at their league losses, a versatile four man gives them trouble because Swanigan can't guard that."
Wisconsin (16–9, 8–4): "If they make the tournament, Greg [Gard] should be coach of the year. There is no manual to prepare for taking over for Bo [Ryan] the way he did. (Ryan retired unexpectedly after a Dec. 15 loss to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.) Greg went back to the old Wisconsin style. Last couple of years, they've had pros, so Bo gave them space and let them make plays. Now they've gotten back to running that swing motion. They're not as talented as they've been, but the system is equally effective. A weakness for the would be their inability to make outside shots. With [junior forward Nigel] Hayes, you've got to be disciplined. You can't go for his ball fakes. Their bench is probably the weakest part of their team, but their system is the strongest part. I can't stress enough, they're very, very difficult to play against, because they don't beat themselves and they live at the free throw line."
Florida (17–9, 8–5): "Their weakness is inconsistent perimeter shooting. You have to guard 'em, they're not non-players, but if you guard 'em you should be able to force them to miss. This team is way better than they were last year because [sophomore center John] Egbunu is 700 times better than Chris Walker. [Senior forward Dorian] Finney-Smith is playing the best basketball of his career. They have a very difficult final stretch coming up. [Sophomore guard Chris] Chiozza has gotten better as a floor leader. [Junior guard Kasey] Hill is good in the open floor, but he's definitely a guy you can gap because he doesn't shoot it."
Kentucky (19–6, 9–3): "This may be [John] Calipari's best coaching job. I don't know if they have a pro on their front line. With [sophomore guard Tyler] Ulis, you can't slow him down or speed him up. He plays exactly how he wants to play. They don't have low block scoring in the halfcourt. Their big guys can score on rebounds and everything else, but they're not throwing to the block. [Freshman center] Skal [Labissiere] is just weak. He's talented, but he's not strong enough to get a lot done on the low block. [Freshman guard Isaiah] Briscoe knows he doesn't shoot it, so he drives you, he posts you. With [freshman guard Jamal] Murray, you can't let him catch and shoot or he'll kill you. You have to try to pound them inside because they don't have much depth along their front line."
LSU (16–10, 9–4): "[Freshman forward Ben] Simmons is obviously a nightmare matchup. Their team is at their best when [senior guard Keith] Hornsby plays well along with him. He shoots it, he runs the floor, he's tough, and he's a very willing passer. [Junior guard Tim] Quarterman is very up and down. I think just trying to balance all the minutes and shots makes chemistry tough for them at times. Keeping everyone happy is a challenge. [Freshman guard Antonio] Blakeney has really come on as the season has progressed. Defensively, they have to get better. They have to prove they can get stops in the halfcourt, which is what the tournament is all about. They don't have a lot of size and girth around the basket. That could be a problem."
South Carolina (21–5, 8–5): "They'll be a hard team to play in the postseason because they're very good defensively. They're not a great shooting team, so they have to cover it up by rebounding. [Senior guard Michael] Carrera is shooting the ball well, which is not something he did earlier in his career. They play very hard, very physically defensively. That could backfire on them in the tournament if they get a lot of whistles. They just deny every pass every time. They totally commit to denying every cut, every pass, to a degree that no one else does. Frank [Martin]'s got a tough, veteran team. [Senior guard Sindarius] Thornwell isn't overly explosive athletically, but he's crafty off the dribble."
Texas A&M (19–7, 8–5): "They have kind of an unconventional backcourt, but [senior guard Alex] Caruso is shooting the best he has ever shot in his career. [Senior forward Danuel] House has legit NBA size, and he's a terrific shooter. When he's dialed in, he's a handful. He reminds me of Glen Rice. You have to take away his catch-and-shoots because when he's rolling he's really good. They're obviously on a bad slide right now. They have not closed games well. It helps to jam Caruso and [senior guard Anthony] Collins because they're very good in transition off makes and misses. [Senior guard] Jalen Jones turned himself into a good three-point shooter, but he's still an undersized four who can slash. So you have to make him score over the top. Collins shoots a good percentage from three but he doesn't shoot if often, so you can gap him."
Vanderbilt (15–11, 7–6): "There were a lot of expectations, and justifiably so. [Senior center] Damian Jones is still the best low-post scorer in the league. He demands a double team. Free throw shooting could be problematic for him. If you can extend Jones from the basket and put him in ball screens, he'll get into foul trouble. Throw in [junior forward] Luke Kornet, who has made an incredible jump, and they have two rim protectors. When he got hurt early in the year they got out of rhythm and lost some close games. I'm not in that locker room every day so I don't know why they're losing, but it is definitely surprising."