- You think your team can win it all? This week's Hoop Thoughts identifies the main problems with the AAC, Big East, Pac-12 SEC, and WCC contenders.
Greetings, Hoopheads. March is finally upon us, which means it’s the perfect time to take another trip behind Enemy Lines.
I started last week by showing you my intel on the best teams in the ACC, Big 12 and Big Ten. Now we will take a tour through five more conferences to cover another 15 teams. Here’s how this drill works: For each league, I spoke with three coaches, including head coaches and assistants, and asked them to provide their unvarnished opinions on the top teams in each league. In return, I granted them anonymity. It’s a worthwhile tradeoff so that my faithful readers will once again be the most informed fans during the most wonderful time of the year.
You are a fellow Hoophead, so I assume you can handle the truth. There’s no time for niceties this time of year. We want the poop, the whole poop, and nothing but the poop. Herewith:
“The hardest thing about playing them is it’s a 40-minute fistfight. They don’t have that one major star, that guy you can’t stop. That could be an issue if they have to score in the halfcourt against really good teams. They don’t have a backup point guard, so if [Troy] Caupain goes down they become really vulnerable. The kid off the bench, Justin Jenifer, is a huge step back. Kyle Washington is by far their worst defender because he doesn’t have as much experience in their system. You want to get him in multiple pick-and-rolls.
Caupain is not having a great year shooting the ball. He’s not a break-you-down jitterbug so when you get them in the halfcourt, he becomes predictable. They send four to the glass most of the time, so you can get out in transition and go at Caupain, maybe make him pick up a cheap one. Washington takes a little time to wind up on his shot, but he’s making a good percentage. He loves that right box and then comes across. You have to force him to his right and hit him with a double team.”
“Their weakness obviously is depth. They only have two post players and don’t have tremendous size up front. It’s the size of their entire roster that gets you. They beat up and warp your guards. You’ve got to get Ben Moore in foul trouble. He’s their most foul-prone dude and by far their most valuable player. They move the ball, but the ball will stick with [Semi] Ojeleye. You’ve got to take away his three and make him a driver. He’ll get a little selfish and take a bad one or two. He’s a strong guy, but he has no post game.
Shake Milton is a catch and shoot guy so you have to force him to make multiple movements. He has no moves, no crossover, everything is north and south. They know the game is a marathon, so they will not exhaust themselves out of the gate. After the under 12 time out, they know they’re going to annihilate your subs. If they get in trouble on defense, they’re gonna 1–3–1 you, and you can get looks. Moore is a good defender, but he understands he can’t get into foul trouble. If you attack them aggressively and get them to commit some fouls, they will back off some. Just a really good, fundamental team. All their guys can guard every position. Nobody cares who scores. They have five mediums out there. No bigs, no smalls.”
“The rules have hurt them because back in the day with Brad Stevens, they were the most physically defensive team in the country. They can’t really play that way anymore. On offense, they’re versatile, but they’re slow. They’re vulnerable when they’re not making threes because their best interior scorer is 6’ 6”. A long, athletic team would disrupt them. Anybody with a good point guard and five man will hurt them, because they are very vulnerable on the one-five ball screen. [Tyler] Wideman is the most physical dude in the Big East, but he’s not good on the ball screen.
Every time [Kelan] Martin touches it, he wants to score. He’s left-hand dominant and not a great ballhandler, so you want to send him right. He doesn’t guard squat. I don’t think he cares about guarding. If the ball isn’t going through the basket for him, his body language changes. [Kamar] Baldwin is gonna be a b----. He just has to get more strength. He makes a lot of mistakes. You just have to stay in front of [Tyler] Lewis. He’s not a blow-by guy.”
“Very gifted offensive team, but they’re not very disciplined with their shot selection sometimes. If their shots aren’t going in and they have to guard you and grind, I think they’re vulnerable. If you have a five man who can stretch the floor, they’re in trouble, because [Justin] Patton can’t guard one on one. He’s a great secondary defender but not as a primary defender. Overall, they’re not real physical. They give up a lot of offensive rebounds. Without [point guard Maurice] Watson, they don’t have guys who can break you down and create a shot for someone else. [Marcus] Foster is being forced to play point guard, but that’s not natural to him, and he can’t guard anybody.
They try to play defense, but they’re not laterally quick at all. Teams can spread the floor against them and drive, and you’ll get a bunch of threes. Patton will take some perimeter jump shots he shouldn’t take. He’s not strong enough to play on the block all the time. He is a good basket protector, so he saves those guys when you drive on them. I just don’t think defense is emphasized on a daily basis. Foster is like a brick house on those drives. You better build a wall ’cause he’s coming at you. I’ll take my chance with him shooting jumpers.”
“Their depth is an issue, especially with [Darryl] Reynolds banged up. Jay is bringing the kid Dylan Painter off the bench; he may have had 15 minutes of game experience. Their other weakness is lack of interior scoring. They don’t have a big they can throw the ball to and get two easy points. But they beat Purdue at Purdue, and there’s nobody in the country bigger than Purdue. I don’t think they’re laterally quick. [Kris] Jenkins is slow, [Jalen] Brunson is slow. [Mikal] Bridges has good length, but they don’t have great team speed. [Josh] Hart is a righty, but you want to send him right. If you let him get to his left hand, you’re done.
You want to make Jenkins defend. He’s very smart, but he’s not going to out-athlete anybody. Brunson may be one of the smartest kids in college basketball, and an unbelievable leader. Those teams who have jets could be their Achilles’ heel. You watch that game against Butler, Tyler Lewis is one of the slowest guys in the league, but he got to where he wanted to go. To their credit, they play really, really good help defense, but they don’t have a basket protector.”
“Obviously, losing Edmond Sumner is a killer, and a killer for the league. Their backcourt depth is their weakness. Without Sumner and Myles Davis, I don’t know if they have enough skill guys. Quentin Goodin is left-hand dominant. J.P. Macura is good when he’s the second or third wheel. If you’re asking him to be a ballhandler and decision maker, you’ve got no shot. They rebound the blood out of the ball. They’re extremely physical. They’re not as big as they were last year, so when they go to that 1–3–1, you can make threes. It looks to me like Coach Mack is frustrated. He’s used to playing a certain way with studs. You can crowd Macura and [Trevon] Blueitt a lot more now, because they’re not getting good point guard play. Blueitt has a quick release, and he moves very well without the ball.”
“They’re not a bunch of guys with the agendas, which hasn’t always been the case, like when Stanely Johnson was there. Sean does a great job keeping those guys grounded. Consistent outside shooting can be a problem for them. They’re zone-able. Nobody talks about how good [Dusan] Ristic is. He’s a load down low. [Lauri] Markkanen just keeps getting better. He can stretch the floor, but he’s getting better around the basket. Markkanen moves fairly well but he’s not super quick, so you want to try to take your chances with him putting it on the floor.
They have unusual depth in the post. This is not a knock on Sean, but they’re very predictable. He’s not a big in-game adjuster. Hopefully you have someone with size you can put on [Allonzo] Trier, because he’s big and he’s really good. You want to try to make [point guard Parker] Jackson-Cartwright score and not draw help, or else he’s kicking it guys who can make plays. Even though his shooting percentages are better, as a shooter he’d be low on the list of priorities when you’re game planning against them.”
“The thing they do best is play hard. They have some tough dudes. They look more like an east coast style team. [Dillon] Brooks is definitely capable of hitting jump shots and threes, but you’d rather him do that than get a head of steam downhill. He’s not super athletic, but he’s strong, and he’s got that power jump. [Chris] Boucher brings a different element to their team. He gives them that stretch four. On misses, they fall back to man to man, and on makes they fall back to matchup zone. When they are guarding well, they can beat anybody in the country, but they haven’t always been consistent with it.
Their backcourt is very underrated. Those guys have toughness, they make big shots, they don’t turn it over. Their depth is impressive. I mean, Kavell Bigby-Williams is their fourth post guy, and he was the national junior college player of the year. They can go through some stretches on offense where they’re not making shots on the perimeter. Their game at Cal, they had 16 at halftime. They try to throw it to [Jordan] Bell, but he’s not a natural low post scorer. Boucher is not at all a post up guy. So they tend to fall in love with the jump shot.”
“Their biggest weakness for sure is their defense. They can guard for periods of time, but I haven’t seem them do it for long stretches. They just don’t have that commitment. If their shots aren’t going in, they can get frustrated, and it affects them on the defensive end. Bryce Alford is not a good defender. You can put him in ball screens. They try to hide him that zone. Lonzo Ball is savvy defensively, but he’s not sound. You can expose him there because he’s lazy and he gambles because his anticipation skills are so good.
I wouldn’t say [Thomas] Welsh is a great rim protector. Defensively, I don’t know what to do with Ball. There are no answers for him. He’s so unselfish. They put so much pressure on your defense with that pace. Aaron Holiday is the best player off the bench in the country. Ball does so many things besides scoring. Even when you limit him, he still impacts winning. If he hits threes, you live with it, because you’re better off keeping him out of the paint.”
“I wonder if their kids have different agendas. They lost two kids to the NBA last year and they didn’t even get drafted. I think [Andy Enfield] is a good coach, but I don’t have a lot of confidence in the players. [Chimezie] Metu is really talented offensively, but I think he can get in foul trouble. He is not a great passer from the post. He gets frustrated if you trap him. [Bennie] Boatwright is a liability defensively, although he’s a really hard matchup on the offensive end.
You have to switch with him to take that pick and pop away, because he’s such a good shooter. Jordan McLaughlin is one guy I think will try to get the others involved. A physical, disciplined team would give them trouble. If they get into a halfcourt, grind-it-out type of game, they’re gonna struggle. Their biggest weakness is their ability to defend. Their inexperience will hurt them in the tournament. They don’t always play together. At times they get a little bit individualistic, maybe not as connected as a team. They change between the man and the matchup zone quite a bit throughout the course of a game.”
“Losing [John] Egbunu is big. I think [Kevarrius] Hayes is a real good player, but he’s just not the same body type. They switch a lot on defense. They have great length at the three. KeVaughn Allen can get his own shot. They’re really athletic at every spot. They do a lot of side pick-and-rolls. A huge key against them is getting back in transition. You can hurt them on the offensive glass if you have guys who will go in there. You have to play Kasey Hill for the drive the whole way and make him shoot jump shots. He isn’t a non-shooter, but that’s not what he prefers to do. Before Egbunu got hurt they were the most complete team in the league. He forced you to double the low block. Now you don’t have to do that. Their perimeter players are all capable shooters and distributors. It’s going to take a complete team to beat Florida. You can’t be one-dimensional and do it.”
“They’re starting to peak at the right time. [Isaiah] Briscoe is really the heart and soul. He makes a lot of big plays in close games. [Isaac] Humphries would start on a lot of high-major teams. Bam [Adebayo] is their key guy. He will put you in the basket if you let him get near the rim. He’s their only inside scorer. You gotta get him behind you on the low block and go after him. Even if he blocks a couple, it’s worth it to try to get him into foul trouble. [Malik] Monk is only 180 pounds, he’s not really strong. He’s probably their weakest defender amongst the starters.
On offense, you have to make him bounce it. You have to crawl into him. You can’t let him have an open shot. He has great lift on his jumper. You have to try to stay in front of [De’Aaron] Fox. He’s all about getting him to the rim. The power forward spot is a challenge for them because the guys they have there can’t defend the low block. They have to be making threes to be effective. Fox and Briscoe aren’t good shooters, but it doesn’t matter because they’re so good off the dribble. Their defense isn’t as good as in the past because of their inexperience, but every year Calipari’s teams get better through the year. Best way to stop Monk is, when they pass the plate in church, make sure you put two handfuls in.”
“Nobody else defends like them, so when you see that style, it takes some getting used to. They deny every pass, every cut, they contest every dribble, every shot. It’s really a credit to [head coach] Frank [Martin] that they buy into it. After their two bigs there’s not a lot of depth up front. When they go to their bench, there’s a big dropoff. They’re probably just an average offensive team, maybe a little above average. Sindarius Thornwell is the player of the year in the conference. They play him a number of minutes every game at the four. You have to make [P.J.] Dozier a jump shooter and stay in front of him. He wants to get to the basket. He played a little better when Thornwell wasn’t there because he needs the ball in his hands, but he’s talented. He abuses smaller guys. If the refs don’t blow the whistle, South Carolina will eat you up, but in the tournament they call it a little tighter because refs want to advance. So that’s a concern.”
West Coast Conference
“I don’t know if they can guard the perimeter. I worry about that in a one-game scenario against elite teams. They’re just solid, man. Nigel [Williams-Goss] gives them great poise. He’s the same kind of leader they had with Kevin Pangos. [Przemek] Karnowski doesn’t get enough credit. You’ve gotta rim run with him. He’s a big old dude but he runs, man. People try to bring him out on pick-and-rolls, but he can get out there. He allows [Johnathan] Williams to roam. This is the best year [Josh] Perkins has had since he’s been there. The greatest strength is their balance. Plus, they’re experienced. Williams is their X factor because he’s their most versatile defender. They tend to get lackadaisical at times. There will be three or four-minute stretches where you can get whatever you want. They’re so deep that it would take a whole bunch of guys playing bad for them to have a bad night.”
“If you don’t go for pump fakes and stay down, they don’t have guys who can beat you off the dribble. They’re like a boxer who is always trying to counterpunch you. If you make a mistake, they stick you in the eye. I don’t know if their guys are selfish enough sometimes. [Jock] Landale is tough as heck. It’s better not to double team him and just dig and stay at home, because if you double him you get into rotation, and he finds shooters.
They’re kind of like a pack line team defensively. They limit you to one shot. Everybody rebounds, including the guards. That’s a big thing for them. But they’ll have problems with quick guards. Look at what UT-Arlington did to them. It’s obvious Randy doesn’t trust his bench. You have to make Joe Rahon finish as best you can, because he’s a pass-first guy. Calvin Hermanson is an elite shooter with size and a quick release. You want to get him to put it on the floor. A really athletic team can get them in positions where they have to take hard shots. They’re not a hard-shot-making team, they’re an easy-shot-making team.”
Five Games I'm Psyched to See
North Carolina at Virginia, Monday, 7 p.m., ESPN
It’s hard to imagine a greater clash in styles. The Tar Heels are fourth in the country in offensive efficiency and 49th in tempo. Virginia is first in defensive efficiency and dead last in tempo. The Cavs have had a hard time scoring, but they got some nice offensive pop on Saturday’s win at N.C. State from freshman guards Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome, and senior point guard London Perrantes re-discovered his outside touch.
Virginia 70, North Carolina 67
West Virginia at Baylor, Monday, 7 p.m., ESPNU
The Bears have been slumping of late, with losses in three of their last four games and five of their last eight. Some of that comes from playing with less incentive this time of year, but given how they’ve been playing and the fact that March is upon us, it’s time for Baylor to, well, bear down again.
Baylor 79, West Virginia 71
Florida State at Duke, Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPN
The Blue Devils have lots of talent but too much youth and way too much disruption. Grayson Allen probably won’t be completely healthy again this season because of a balky ankle, so the question is how question is how effective he can be while gritting it out. Still, they’ve lost two in a row and they’re returning home, so I’m gonna ride the swinging pendulum.
Duke 78, Florida State 74
Oklahoma State at Iowa State, Tuesday, 9 p.m., ESPN2
You can’t say enough about the job Brad Underwood has done in this first year at Oklahoma State. The Pokes lost their first six Big 12 games but have now won nine of their last ten. Hilton Coliseum, however, is where winning streaks go to die. The Cyclones themselves have won five in a row, including Saturday’s three-point win over Baylor.
Iowa State 77, Oklahoma State 70
Michigan at Northwestern, Wednesday, 7 p.m., BTN
All those Medill grads on Twitter are starting to melt down. Northwestern’s status vis a vis the NCAA tournament is stronger than most people realize, but they sure could use another good win to help everyone exhale. A big problem has been the health of leading scorer Scottie Lindsay as he continues to recover from mono. Lindsay started to show some flashes of his old self in the first half against Indiana, but he couldn’t sustain it. I think he takes another step forward, and the Wildcats get their bid-clinching win against the Big Ten’s hottest team.
Northwestern 71, Michigan 70
This Week's AP Ballot
* (Last week’s rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Kansas (3)
2. North Carolina (10)
3. UCLA (7)
4. Villanova (1)
5. Gonzaga (2)
6. Louisville (4)
7. Oregon (5)
8. Arizona (6)
9. Kentucky (16)
10. SMU (14)
11. Florida (15)
12. Cincinnati (11)
13. West Virginia (20)
14. Baylor (8)
15. Purdue (13)
16. Florida State (18)
17. Butler (NR)
18. Michigan (NR)
19. Duke (9)
20. Iowa State (NR)
21. Minnesota (NR)
22. Notre Dame (NR)
23. Michigan State (NR)
24. Oklahoma State (NR)
25. Miami (NR)
Dropped Out: Wisconsin (12), Maryland (19), Virginia (21), Northwestern (22), Saint Mary’s (23), Wichita State (24), Middle Tennessee (25)
Since this is my penultimate poll, I wanted to widen my lens and see if I could re-assess the big picture. That’s why I removed my bottom three teams from last week’s ballot even though none of them lost. A hard reset means shaking off prior constraints.
I try not to overreact to one or two bad games, but when that pattern repeats during a second week, then I come in hard, for better or worse. Hence, Wisconsin, which has now lost four of its last five, goes from No. 12 to unranked, while Michigan State goes from unranked to No. 23 for winning four out of five. Butler also makes a strong re-entry after wins at Villanova (giving them a sweep of the Wildcats) and at Xavier. I was actually more impressed with the win at Xavier because that is exactly the type of game, especially on the road, where a team coming off a huge win is ripe for a letdown. Whatever you want to say about these Bulldogs, they are as mentally tough as any team in the country.
As for the top of my ballot, I fell back more on the eye test as opposed to being hamstrung by results. To my eye, there is no one playing better right now than North Carolina. UCLA also showed it is a vastly different team than the one that got drubbed at home by Arizona four weeks ago. I really believe the Bruins discovered their edge when they overcome a 19-point deficit against Oregon in Pauley Pavilion on Feb. 9. UCLA does not need to be a great defensive team to win the national championship, it just needs to be good enough. The last three weeks it has been good enough.