- Nobody's perfect, but in mid-December, nobody has to be (yet). What do the nation's top teams most need to work on?
It's finals week for many colleges across the country, so what better time to study up on where teams need to improve? Every team in the country has weaknesses—the kind that could spell doom against certain opponents or cut short a March Madness run—but the good news is that there's still time to work on those deficiencies before everyone settles into conference play. We took a close look at each team ranked within this week's AP top 20 and pinpointed the area where they seem most vulnerable through mid-December.
The AP No. 1 has one glaring thing that sticks out on the stat sheet. The Jayhawks are shooting just 64.2% as a team from the free throw line, dragged down in no small part by the continued struggles of center Udoka Azubuike, who is 8 for 25 this year. But while Azubuike’s free throw shooting is something that will continue to loom, his current injury reveals what may be a more concerning area for Kansas: its depth down low. With the 7-footer out with an ankle sprain, Bill Self has turned to a small-ball lineup with 6'9" Dedric Lawson as the tallest player, and New Mexico State—a team that also boasts no one taller than 6'9"—torched Kansas for 36 points in the paint in a recent close call. Even when Azubuike returns, he’s proven to be prone to foul trouble, making it imperative that the Jayhawks learn to play without their center.
The Blue Devils are far and away the No. 1 team in kenpom.com’s efficiency rankings, but even this superteam isn’t without its faults. Duke has actually been surprisingly mortal as a team from three (it ranks 205th nationally, and while it has several capable shooters, no individual is above 38%) and at the free-throw line, and some of the defenses ahead on the schedule are much tougher than many of the ones it has already faced. The Blue Devils are so talented that an off perimeter night isn’t going to cost them against most opponents—not when R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson and Co. can get out in transition and power their way to the rim as well as they do. Gonzaga was able to win because it held Duke to 44.1% shooting inside the arc, the only time through 10 games that the Blue Devils failed to hit at least 55% of their twos … and by limiting Duke’s looks on the perimeter, where it attempted a season-low 13 threes. (O.K., and the Zags shot 52% from the floor themselves.) Simple, right?
Before Tennessee finished off a marquee win over Gonzaga on Sunday, it lost big man Grant Williams, the reigning SEC Player of the Year. Williams fouled out for the second time in four games—the other being the Vols’ loss to Kansas, when he exited in regulation before his team fell in overtime. Tennessee can’t always count on Admiral Schofield to bail it out if Williams is limited by foul trouble or out of the game entirely, and it needs its star to be on the floor in crunch time. Kenpom.com’s “two-foul participation” stat, which measures how often a coach plays those with two fouls in the first half, shows that Rick Barnes has been one of the most conservative coaches in the country in that scenario this year. That’s good for potentially preserving Williams longer in games, but also illustrates that it’s imperative he not pick up quick fouls.
The Bulldogs have the nation’s most efficient offense according to kenpom.com right now, sitting a spot above Duke. That’s obviously excellent, but the Zags’ firepower has masked the fact that their defense hasn’t been all that impressive. While they’ve done a good job in transition, they’ve struggled in the half court, and their overall adjusted defensive efficiency checks in at No. 54 on kenpom, down from the No. 18 spot it finished at in 2017–18. While Gonzaga has been solid at the rim, where it ranks 29th in defensive field-goal percentage (per Hoop-Math), its opponents are hitting 38.9% of their two-point jumpers, which is 260th nationally. Getting Killian Tillie back will help; he was tied for second on the team last year in defensive win shares.
Despite the Wolverines’ stellar 10–0 start, their depth could increasingly become a factor for them as the season goes. Michigan has essentially been playing with a seven-man rotation, and per kenpom.com, only 20.3% of the Wolverines’ minutes this year have come from the bench, a lower percentage than all but 10 teams nationally. That puts a lot of pressure on Michigan’s starting five (plus sophomores Isaiah Livers and Eli Brooks) to avoid off nights and stay healthy, and it remains to be seen how that kind of wear and tear could impact the team in the long run in a grueling Big Ten.
If there’s one area that the Cavaliers’ reliably strong defense can improve, it may be in transition. Teams rarely get a chance to run against the Pack Line, and that’s by design, but breaking through makes success on offense easier. Virginia went all last regular season and ACC tournament without giving up 10 or more fast-break points to anyone. Since then, UMBC, George Washington and Maryland have all done it, and two of those teams—the Retrievers and the Terps—are the only ones that have scored 70 points on UVA since the start of 2017–18. Ten or 12 points might not seem like a lot, but when you’re playing a team that wants to grind the game down to as few possessions as possible, it can be a difference-maker. Per Synergy Sports data, UVA’s transition defense so far in 2018–19 is running a bit behind where it was last year, and that’s an area a team like Duke, which lives in transition, will look to take advantage of.
Nevada has faced five teams in the top 150 of kenpom.com so far this season, and in all but one of those games (at Loyola-Chicago), it has gotten off to a slow start. At halftime, it was tied with BYU, trailed USC by one, trailed Arizona State by 12 and led Grand Canyon by only two. Nevada has gone on to win those games by an average of 10.5 points, but the sluggish opening halves point to the biggest thing Eric Musselman’s team has to look out for as it chases an undefeated regular season: staying engaged. The Wolf Pack aren’t going to get too many tests in the Mountain West that truly prepare them for what will await in the NCAA tournament, and consistently putting together complete games is going to be key.
The Tigers aren’t pushing the pace quite as much as last season, but they still ascribe to the same general strategy: hit a lot of threes and force a lot of turnovers (they lead the country in the latter). Only five teams in the country have gotten a higher percentage of their points from the perimeter than Auburn, and Bruce Pearl’s team is taking 47.3% of its shots from beyond the arc. Which begs the question: What happens on nights when it struggles from three? In 2017–18, five of Auburn’s six worst three-point shooting games ended in defeat—the lone win being over a mid-major—and it never lost a game in which it hit at least 35% of its threes. So far this year, the Tigers have seen a significant drop-off in their free-throw rate, and that’s a dangerous place to be when you’re so reliant on outside shooting.
Turnovers being an issue for Michigan State is nothing new—over the last few years, it has been a persistent problem for the Spartans, peaking at the 20.5% turnover rate they had in a disappointing 2016–17. This year that number is 18.2% (down from 19.2% last year), which is a little lower than the Division I average, but there’s still been some inauspicious stretches for a team led by veterans. Nick Ward had nine total turnovers in MSU’s two losses this year, and he, Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford—the team’s core trio—combined for 11 of its 17 in the overtime loss to Louisville. The Spartans also inexplicably turned it over 24 times in a comeback win over Texas and coughed it up 11 times in the first half in the face of pressure from Florida. Until this team can show consistent improvement, this issue is going to continue to be part of its narrative.
The Seminoles have been surprisingly careless with the basketball this year, posting a ghastly 22.4% turnover rate through nine games. Grad transfer David Nichols, junior Trent Forrest and sophomore MJ Walker have been the biggest culprits, all turning it over on more than a quarter of their possessions (per kenpom.com), but a number of other players are struggling with higher rates this year, including senior Terance Mann. It’s uncharacteristic enough that it’s possible a regression to the mean is in store here, but it’s also hard to be optimistic that an issue plaguing so many different individuals will suddenly get fixed.
While it’s still early, it seems like the elite defense that powered Texas Tech to the Elite Eight in March has carried over despite significant turnover—though that comes with the caveat that the Red Raiders have faced one top-50 offense to date. The key issue for this team is, once again, finding enough offense. Jarrett Culver is having a breakout sophomore year with 18.3 points on 52% shooting, and grad transfer Matt Mooney has been a solid addition, averaging 10.6, but Texas Tech isn’t going to blow you away on the scoreboard. It’s also not likely to win most games from the perimeter, where it’s getting less than a quarter of its points (the Red Raiders have only attempted 20 threes in a game once so far). The good news here is that the Big 12 may be particularly suited for this team to overachieve, as the conference currently boasts only two top-30 offenses right now (Kansas and Iowa State). If Tech is able to shut most teams down, it won’t need to put up huge numbers itself.
Per Hoop-Math, opponents are posting a 67.9% effective field-goal percentage in transition against UNC this year, ranking the Tar Heels at a dismal 349th nationally. Additionally, opponents are shooting 66.7% at the rim, which checks in at No. 319. North Carolina looks like it can score with anyone, but breakdowns on defense could be its undoing if things don’t improve. In three games against top-50 opponents this year, the Heels have gotten chewed up both inside and outside the arc, and the schedule doesn’t get any easier from here. In an ACC that is home to some of the nation’s best offenses, North Carolina needs to get right on the defensive side or else prepare to try its luck in several offensive shootouts.
The Hokies’ usually strong offense under coach Buzz Williams has reached new heights so far this year, currently checking in at No. 6 in efficiency on kenpom.com behind elite perimeter shooting and a knack for being unselfish. But such reliance on the three ball has come at a price, and that price is getting to the free throw line. After finishing third in the country last season in percentage of shots taken at the rim, with 45.7%, per Hoop-Math, the Hokies are down to 39.3% this year. The dip has contributed to a paltry free-throw rate. While Virginia Tech is in the top 10 nationally for percentage of points coming via the three, it’s in the bottom five for points coming at the charity stripe. This could be a team that truly lives and dies beyond the arc.
The only true mid-major on this list (not counting expected juggernauts Nevada and Gonzaga), the Bulls may not be in the AP top 20 for long if they don’t beat at least one of Syracuse or Marquette next week. At 9–0, they’ve done a good job keeping the momentum going after an early road win at West Virginia, and they’re a team no high seed will want to see on the first weekend in March. The main way Buffalo succeeds is by playing fast, generating steals and taking very good care of the ball despite that quick pace, so limiting those opportunities takes away its biggest weapon. Per Synergy Sports data, the Bulls have been better on offense in transition rather than the half court, the latter of where they rate simply as “average.” Going up against Syracuse’s zone and much more deliberate tempo will be a big challenge for CJ Massinburg and Co.
The Buckeyes have quietly been one of the surprises of the season so far, with Chris Holtmann in position to potentially overachieve in both of his first two years in Columbus. A largely steady defense has helped pave the way, and whether the offense can up keep up its hot start is probably the long-term question for Ohio State. Opponents with the capabilities to zone the Buckeyes might be wise to try that after seeing them struggle in a loss to Syracuse (per Synergy Sports, Ohio State’s offense against a zone this year rates as “below average” as compared to “very good” against man-to-man—though it’s a small sample size for both). OSU is also getting almost a quarter of its points from the free throw line and will need to keep attacking the rim to overcome the inevitable off nights from the field.
The Badgers’ two losses so far this season (to Virginia and Marquette) have had a similar theme: a big night from Ethan Happ on offense, and not too much from everyone else. Against UVA, Happ had 22 of Wisconsin’s 46 points, with no one else scoring more than seven. The ’Hoos were able to zero in on stopping Wisconsin’s non-Happ players, who shot 2 of 11 from three and took fewer two-point shots between them (18) than Happ did himself (19). Against the Golden Eagles, Happ had 34 of the Badgers’ 69 points—essentially half—and Wisconsin’s next two top scorers combined to go 3 of 13 from three. Also troublingly, sophomore starter Brad Davison failed to score and registered just three shots. Happ is having an excellent senior season, but Wisconsin can’t afford to become one-dimensional.
The Wildcats have multiple areas they could really stand to improve in, but the biggest one is probably half-court defense. Just look at how Penn carved up the Villanova interior Tuesday night through crisp passing and cutting, making 55.2% of its twos and tallying 30 points in the paint as part of a 1.20 points per possession night. Even La Salle, a team that has not won a game this season, touched up the Wildcats for 1.22 PPP in a loss while playing without multiple key players. Per Hoop-Math, ’Nova’s defensive effective field goal percentage in non-transition ranks 294th. Too many teams are finding it easy to use movement to get open looks against the Wildcats, and that’s a major concern going forward.
There are only three schools from the Power 5 or Big East that are taking a fewer percentage of their shots at the rim than Mississippi State’s 28.7%: Baylor, Villanova and Georgetown. It’s led to an already weak free throw rate from last season slipping into the lowest of all high-major teams in the country. Normally the way to counter that is by being an elite shooting team, something Mississippi State isn’t—though it has shown considerable improvement from beyond the arc so far in 2018–19, going from 31.5% to 36.1% despite bringing back largely the same roster. The question now is whether that growth can stick long-term or whether it’s simply been a nice performance in a small sample size.
When opponents are hitting 40% of their threes against you, that’s ... less than ideal. To be fair to Kentucky, three-point defense is a notoriously tricky thing to measure, and there’s evidence that suggests the Wildcats have had a bit of bad luck so far (for one thing, per Synergy data, opponents are hitting almost the same percentage of their guarded and unguarded three-point attempts). If that regresses to the mean, it will help Kentucky’s cause. But it is a bit alarming that opponents are getting 38.3% of their points from the perimeter, 7% above the D-I average (per kenpom.com). The Wildcats are almost the polar opposite on offense, getting only 19.8% of their points from three (and one of their best outside shooters, Quade Green, just announced he's transferring). Kentucky needs to do a better job of denying opponents outside looks, or else a lot of its games this year could be determined by whether those shots are falling.
Arizona State had had a surprising start at 7–1, but it’s taken a notable dip in two important areas relative to last year: turnovers and free throw shooting. After having one of the nation’s best offensive turnover rates last season at 14.7%, the mostly young Sun Devils have ballooned to 20.0% through eight games, including committing 17 in a recent loss to Nevada. Additionally, ASU is getting to the free throw line plenty but is leaving a lot of points on the board when it does, hitting only 66.7% of its attempts as a team. The latter issue may not be overly dire; senior Zylan Cheatham has made just 59.3% of his 54 attempts, but he was a traditionally strong free throw shooter in his two prior years at San Diego State, suggesting this may be a bit of a blip.