Behind Enemy Lines II: Big East, Big 12 and Pac-12 coaches scout conference foes with brutal honesty
Welcome to a second dose of the truth. There's not a lot of sugar going down with this medicine, but you need to take it anyway. Trust me, it will make you feel better.
Once again, I have gone behind enemy lines to get the straight dope on the top teams from three of the best conferences in the nation. For this exercise, I spoke with three coaches (head coaches and assistants) from the Big 12 and Big East, plus two from the Pac 12. Last week, I presented similar offerings on the ACC, SEC and Big Ten. In both cases, I granted the coaches anonymity so they would give it to us straight. Then I pried, provoked and prompted them to divulge the potential weak points and tendencies of these teams.
If these assessments seem unduly harsh, that is my fault, not theirs. We know these teams are good; that's why they're on this list. Therefore, it is more instructive to focus on their areas of vulnerability as we crest into the postseason.
So consider this a public service so that you can load up for the most exciting time of the year. Once more, with feeling, come and feast on the truth, Hoopheads. May it set you free.
Butler (18–9, 7–8): "They're a good, solid team, but they lost a lot last year with [the graduations of forward Kameron] Woods and [guard Alex] Barlow. They don't have the rim protection they had last year. [Sophomore forward] Kelan Martin is going to be the next star at Butler. He has tremendous scoring instincts. You have to take up his space and try to make him put it on the floor. If you have to give something up with Martin, I'll give up his jumper. When they're allowed to play physically, they can really disrupt your offense. They've had to play [senior Roosevelt] Jones a lot at the point. He's good there, but I don't think ideally that's where you want him playing. They're doing that out of necessity. Jones is so unique. You have to appreciate a guy who has virtually no shooting skill but can dominate a game. When he gets in the paint, he's just running you over with his shoulder. [Senior guard Kellen] Dunham is a great shooter, but he does some things off the dribble you have to respect."
Providence (19–8, 7–7): "They have two great players in [junior guard Kris] Dunn and [sophomore forward Ben] Bentil. The question mark is whether the guys around them are gonna show up. They're not a great shooting team. That has caught up to them in a few games. [Sophomore forward Rodney] Bullock has been in good in the big games they've won, but at times he can be a nonfactor. Dunn's offense starts with his defense. He's always playing for steals. You have to build a wall around him in transition because he's a one-man fast break. He has gotten better as a shooter, but that's not where he hangs his hat. When you gear up to him, he'll try to make those other guys good, and some days they haven't been. I don't know if anybody expected Bentil to be this good this soon. He's the real deal. You have to respect his outside shooting, but you'd rather him be doing that then scoring in the paint."
Seton Hall (19–7, 9–5): "Really athletic and tough. They look like they enjoy playing with one another. They put a lot of pressure on your defense because they have three really hard-driving perimeter guys in [sophomores Isaiah] Whitehead, [Khadeen] Carrington and [Desi] Rodriguez. Their big guys embrace their roles. They're workmanlike. They have really good team toughness. They're not a great shooting team. At times, they can play to the level they think they need to. If you can protect the paint and make them score over you, you can beat them. You have to try to make Whitehead a volume shooter. If he's going to get 20, you want him shooting 20 shots to get it, and he can do that. He can be wild with his shot selection. Their big guys are screeners and rim runners, not scorers. They mix it defensively. They're good on that side of the floor, but they can be undisciplined. There are still some youthful kinks that are being worked out there. Isaiah Whitehead has transformed himself into a really good player. His reputation was that he's selfish, but he has been distributing more and making other guys better."
Villanova (24–4, 13–2): "Their reliance sometimes on the three-point shot can be a problem. If they're playing a team that can physically beat 'em up, that may prove to be problematic. They show up every game because they have older, really good players. They don't have great depth on the front line, which can be a problem for one game in March. [Senior center Daniel] Ochefu is solid, but I wouldn't say he's a great offensive player. He plays his role. [Junior forward Kris] Jenkins at the four is tough, because he's a great shooter and has a really good feel. [Senior guard Ryan] Arcidiacono is probably the toughest player in our conference. [Junior guard Josh] Hart is a right-handed player who does everything left-handed. If you crowd him and sit on his left hand, it's almost comical how it affects him. Ochefu is bigger than you realize. If you get him off the block, like most bigs, he's not nearly as effective."
Xavier (25–3, 13–3): "You have to match their physicality and their toughness. If you're going to sit there and take punches, they're going to beat you badly. There are not a ton of holes in what they do. They can shoot the ball, they can score in the low post, they rebound like crazy. At times they can be over-emotional. [Junior forward Jalen] Reynolds can be a little bit of a wild card and can mess up a game because he can be very unpredictable. [Junior guard] Myles Davis has had a terrific year. He can be their point guard when [freshman Edmond] Sumner goes out. You have to take him off the three-point line, make him drive and be a two-point shooter. Their ball screen defense at times is not great. Once you get the ball moved, you can drive them. Their 1-3-1 is a great change-up for them. It's not a defense you see that much, and they play it well. You want to make [sophomore guard Trevon] Bluiett shoot long twos if possible. They're a little high strung. Sometimes they've had games where guys go off on their own and try to get shots up instead of playing team basketball. Against their 1-3-1, they give you the corner jump shot; but if it goes in the corner, they don't let it come back out. Blueitt is not a great defender. He's slow and it doesn't look like he puts a lot of pride into it."
Baylor (20–8, 9–6): "I don't think they buy in defensively. That's why they play the zone. If they have to play man-to-man, they're in trouble. You have to make early contact with [senior forward Rico] Gathers, because if he makes the first contact, he'll put you under the rim. You have to double Gathers, because he can't pass out of it. He can get frustrated. You want to make [senior guard Lester] Medford a perimeter shooter. [Senior forward Taurean] Prince is a tough matchup, but he's not a great defender. He's just not locked into that. Their zone is set so high on the perimeter that they let their center play one-one-one in the post. Then he either fouls or lets you score, but you have to know how to get it there. If you know how to attack it, you can score inside pretty easily."
Iowa State (19–9, 8–7): "Everybody in the league knows they will not foul because they only have six or seven guys. So you just have to drive it and go at 'em. [Senior forward Georges] Niang is a great offensive player, so you have to post him and make him play defense, because he's not going to foul and he's not an athlete. When he drives, you have to make him a finisher because he's really good at passing the ball. If Niang is standing still, he's a big-time passer; but once he gets moving, he can't stop. He's so big and bulky. He loves to go baseline and then spin back into that righty hook, so you have to try to wall him in on the baseline. [Coach] Steve [Prohm] has done a good job keeping continuity after Fred [Hoiberg] left. They're pretty much running all the same plays, which is smart. I heard when Fred was there that sometimes [senior forward Jameel] McKay didn't want to practice, which Fred allowed, but Steve isn't allowing that. They survived without him, but they're not nearly as good when he's out. [Junior guard Monte] Morris has become such a better scorer. His transformation from three years ago is amazing. He only scores when he needs to, but he hits some big shots."
Kansas (23–4, 12–3): "They have two small guards playing together, which can be good and bad. You can get them in mismatches. Sometimes I think they overpenetrate too much. They're going to high-low you to death. They don't even try to hide it. [Senior forward] Perry Ellis can be up and down, but when he's playing well they're unstoppable. I think [junior guard Wayne] Selden disappears sometimes. He has one of the best bodies you'll see on a two-guard, but he's not a physical guy. He's a jump shooter with a great body. I don't think he has that dog in him. Their weakness is low-post scoring at times. So they're even more dependent on making threes and scoring in transition than usual. Their high-low offense has always been dictated by playing inside-out. Now they're playing outside-in. [Junior forward Landen] Lucas has really been a difference-maker for them defensively. You've got to try to make Ellis go left. He loves to drive left and then spin back to his right. He can take too many jump shots at times. When Ellis goes out, you can score at will on them inside. Ellis is very valuable defensively because he's so smart. When we run our stuff, he's there before our guys get there. [Junior guard Frank] Mason is a warrior and [sophomore guard Devonte'] Graham just loves to play. He plays happy, he plays with energy. Selden is a weak point defensively. If Selden has to chase somebody, he can't do it. If you can get someone who can move without the ball, he has trouble."
Oklahoma (22–5, 10–5): "If they have an off night shooting, their defense isn't going to create a lot of turnovers because they switch everything. You can get some good mismatches on 'em, but there are not a lot of players who are good enough to take advantage of that. I think [senior guard Isaiah] Cousins takes a lot of bad shots. [Senior forward Ryan] Spangler has been down. If he misses his first couple of shots, he won't have much confidence. With [senior guard Buddy] Hield, you have to force him into making decisions. I don't think he's a great ballhandler. There have been a number of games where he has had high turnovers. I also wonder if he's getting worn down. He talks about [how] every morning he wants to make 500 shots. What I love about him is that the never quits, he has a lot of stamina. He's always cutting, always moving. Depth and low-post scoring would be their weaknesses. [Sophomore forward Khadeem] Lattin was playing pretty well, but I don't know if he hit a wall or something, because he has struggled. I think those three guards can get sticky fingers at times and stop sharing the basketball. Sometimes I wonder if there is some jealousy going on there."
Texas (18–10, 9–6): "They don't pressure you like [coach Shaka Smart's] teams at VCU did. I don't think he has that personnel. People say they're better without [senior forward Cameron] Ridley (who was lost for the season with a broken foot in December), but I don't think so. If he gets back in there, you have to double him, which will really help their offense. [Junior guard Isaiah] Taylor is not a shooter so you're going to go under all the screens, but he figures it out. He jumps into you, he creates contact. He's one of the fastest guards in the country. They're not a great defensive team, but they always have gameplans how to stop people. Shaka is very innovative. With [senior center Prince] Ibeh back there blocking shots, they can afford to make mistakes defensively. He's like [Los Angeles Clippers center] DeAndre Jordan. Their biggest weakness is outside shooting. On offense, I wouldn't say they're stalling, but they're really valuing possessions to make you cover them longer. The kid who goes unappreciated is [senior guard Javan] Felix. He has great balance. He's low. He knows how to play."
West Virginia (21–7, 10–5): "Obviously, they're going to defend and get aggressive. If you control your turnovers, you have a chance to be in the game. They play aggressive and try to punk you. My main question is: When they get in the tournament, how are the refs gonna call it? [Junior forward] Devin Williams isn't scoring as much, and they're missing that. You have to contain and contest [senior guard Jaysean] Paige, force him into taking tough twos. They can go cold offensively at times. They're one of the tougher teams to defend in the halfcourt because every guard can shoot or drive it. You want to get them in a halfcourt game. Their press is good, but if a team has multiple ballhandlers like Oklahoma, they can have success. If they're in the tournament and a team only has one day to prep for them, that is really hard."
Arizona (22–6, 10–5): "Initially they weren't as sharp defensively as they've been, but they've gotten a lot better. Some of those big guys, when you're in ball screens they're not great. You can get [senior forward Mark] Tollefsen and [senior forward Ryan] Anderson out there and identify some mismatches. Anderson is slow laterally guarding a ball screen, but you don't realize how strong he is until you have to deal with him. You have to keep [senior guard Gabe] York out of the lane. Depth-wise, I don't know that they've had the numbers they've had in the past, especially on the interior. Tollefsen is slightly built. [Junior guard] Khadeem Allen is great defensively. He can take his guy out. York is the straw that stirs their drink. You cannot help off him. When he puts it on the floor, it's all or nothing, because he's not going to make a play for his teammates. He can shoot from really deep. They have to prove they can have consistent outside shooting, especially when they play big."
California (19–8, 9–5): "The most intriguing team in the league. You look at the draft boards, you've got [freshmen forwards Ivan] Rabb and Jaylen Brown in the top 10. [Senior guard Tyrone] Wallace coming back helps them, but when he was out, [junior guards Jabari] Bird and [Sam] Singer became more prominent. Because they're so young, you want to keep messing with them and control tempo. You have to slow those guys down, pack it in and make them prove themselves on the perimeter. You have to force Brown left. He's not as strong as he is with his right. He kind of decelerates with his left. With their youth, you can get these guys in spots where you isolate and drive and go at them and hopefully get them in foul trouble. Their weak links are probably point guard play and interior scoring. Bird couldn't hit anything early, but when Wallace got hurt, it opened up shots for the other guys, and he got his confidence going. The deeper you get into the shot clock, the more they gamble defensively, so if you're patient you'll get good looks."
Oregon (22–6, 11–4): "[Sophomore forward Dillon] Brooks is their alpha male. How he goes, they go. He guards everybody. He's a great offensive rebounder, really knows how to use his body. You want to keep him outside because once he's in the gaps, he finds dudes. I'd rather he score than make other guys better. Their biggest problem is that they're small. [Senior forward Chris] Broucher is a shot blocker but he's, what, 190 pounds? So they want to spread you out and pull you apart. They can't pummel and pound you like some other teams can. You can keep [freshman guard Tyler] Dorsey in front of you. He gets blinders on sometimes. He's not a playmaking guard, but he's a scorer. I think [sophomore guard Casey] Benson is really underrated. He doesn't do anything flashy, but he does with [coach] Dana [Altman] wants. I think their best lineup is the small lineup. Their post players block a lot of shots from the weak side, but they're not great post defenders. You can go through their chest and score on 'em. You can't give Brooks lanes to the basket. He's a righty, but he prefers to go left. He can get frustrated. He shows some immaturity when things are not going his way."
UCLA (15–12, 6–8): "They're not especially fast inside. You can score on them there. [Junior guard] Bryce Alford is a great scorer, but on defense he's like a one-man zone. He almost plays not to ever foul. You know if he's on you, you have an opportunity to go. It just doesn't seem like they have much leadership. I think because Bryce is the coach's son, he doesn't feel like he can be that guy. [Sophomore center Thomas] Welsh is not vocal enough. [Senior forward Tony] Parker is feast or famine. If he feels like playing, he can be a monster; but if he feels like they're ignoring him, he'll go into pout mode. They play a lot of zone, but that's to protect their guys. I don't think [coach] Steve [Alford] is doing it to take advantage of what they have. You have to send Bryce left no matter where the ball screens are. He's really good at getting separation or drawing fouls. [Junior guard Isaac] Hamilton is up and down. He can kill you at times, but he has a tendency to take bad shots."
Utah (21–7, 10–5): "Defensively, you have to figure out their matchup zone. Early on, they were doing a lot of switching, which put them in danger because [sophomore center Jakob] Poeltl was guarding guards all over the place. You can get Poeltl in foul trouble if you can get him in ball screens. You just have to throw your body into him and act like you got hit by a cannonball. Poeltl is really tough because if you double him, he throws it sidearm, which guys are not used to. He is all left shoulder. From what I heard, some of the veterans early on were frustrated that [coach] Larry [Krystkowiak] was running everything through Poeltl. Then they got their butts kicked a few times and figured they should start listening. [Sophomore forward Kyle] Kuzma has improved his shooting, but he's not great. [Sophomore forward Brekkott] Chapman has not had a great year. He's around 30% from three, so whoever is guarding him can help on Poeltl. [Senior forward Jordan] Loveridge hasn't spent as much time playing the four, which has hurt them a little bit because he's a bigger threat from the perimeter at the four than any of those other guys. He is foul prone."