You can hear it, can’t you? That drumbeat. Those footsteps. Leather hitting hardwood. Sneakers squeaking. Nets swishing. The great battle is finally approaching.
The NCAA tournament starts in 22 days.
When you’re preparing for an epic struggle, you need all the intelligence you can get. Therefore, your inveterate Hoop Thinker has once again gone behind enemy lines to learn the straight truth about the country’s top teams. What you are about to read is raw, unvarnished and insightful. Come strong or don’t come at all.
You know the drill. I started with three of the top leagues—the ACC, the Big 12 and the Big Ten—and spoke with three coaches from each league, including head coaches and assistants. In exchange for their anonymity, I asked them to provide their assessments of the top teams in their respective leagues. If you find that these reports are overly negative, that is my doing, not theirs. We already know these teams are good. I wanted to know their vulnerabilities, because that info can mean the difference between a second-round exit and a trip to the Final Four.
I will provide my second installment next week focusing on the remaining two power conferences as well as other top teams from around the country.
Herewith, Part I of my Enemy Lines report:
Duke: “I don’t think they’re ready to make a run to the Final Four. They don’t have the point guard, a true leader they’ve always had in the past. They’re an average defensive team right now, which happens anytime you’re playing a lot of young guys. I think [junior guard Grayson] Allen is a nice kid. Like most kids, he has been working through some things. He is really right-handed. He’s a dynamic straight-line driver and good athlete, but I’m not sure how easy the game comes to him. He’s a little bit stiff. If you can send him left, make him make multiple moves, it’s better. There’s no great way to guard [sophomore guard Luke] Kennard. You want [freshman forward Jayson] Tatum shooting jump shots. He’s so athletic in the open court. [Senior guard] Matt Jones’s leadership is vital. It’s amazing Coach K has the luxury of taking a McDonald’s All-American kid like [freshman forward] Marques Bolden and play him six or seven minutes a game. You want to put those young big guys in ball screen situations defensively. At the beginning of the year, Coach K didn’t have to worry about playing the freshmen because they were hurt. When those guys got healthy, it screwed ‘em up a little bit.”
Florida State: “They’re so spread out on defense that if you can take care of the ball, then you can get dribble penetration and get near the rim. [Freshman forward Jonathan] Isaac is a great off-the-ball defender, but he doesn’t give you a lot of resistance. They’re not a great defensive rebounding team because they jump to block shots. And they foul a lot because they’re extended. Guarding Isaac is more difficult than guarding [sophomore guard Dwayne] Bacon because he’s so efficient. Bacon is more of a volume guy. He’s the No. 1 guy in our league in percentage of his team’s shots. [Editor’s note: Bacon is now No. 3.] You can load up on him knowing it’s going to go up. Their overall weakness is outside shooting. If you can slow down the game and take care of the ball like Pitt did, then you can go against their set defense. [Sophomore guard] Terance Mann is a huge key because he gives them a fourth guy on the perimeter who can make a play. They have tremendous size and rim protection, but they don’t play much help defense. They rely on individuals to stop their man. Georgia Tech and Notre Dame carved them up with backdoors and a lot of cutting.”
Louisville: “They’re a good shooting team, not a great one. Their defensive numbers have been so good. You want to pack the lane against their offense, because they don’t stretch it at the four. [Sophomore forward Deng] Adel is athletic, but he’s not making jump shots for them at a high rate. [Sophomore guard Donovan] Mitchell is the guy who has the ability to score in so many ways. They can make a big-time run in the tournament because teams are not used to preparing to play them. They have a matchup, switching zone so you don’t know whether to run your zone offense or your man offense. [Junior guard] Quentin Snider and Donovan Mitchell are a hell of a backcourt. What makes their defense so good is their rim protection. They have four or five guys back there who can elevate and contest shots. They need to get the game at least to 70. In a slower, low-possession game, they’re not as good in the halfcourt. That’s why they lost to Virginia twice.”
North Carolina: “When you’re so systematic offensively, sometimes when you’re forced to improvise, it becomes more difficult. If you zone them and slow them down a little bit, make them stand up, they don’t have as good a flow. As big and strong as they are near the rim, they’re not a great pick-and-roll defensive team. They’re [ninth] in our league in [effective] field goal percentage but first in offensive efficiency. That’s because they’re so good on the offensive glass. They can force you into some turnovers, but I don’t think of them as a great perimeter defensive team. There’s not a great way to guard [junior forward] Justin Jackson, but you want to make him make multiple dribble moves. If he can just catch and rip it on a straight line to the rim, that’s a problem. They don’t always have focus and commitment in every game. They went to Miami [on Jan. 28] and just went through the motions and lost bad. You gotta force [junior guard Joel] Berry to beat you off the dribble. He is shooting with a high degree of confidence right now. You have to crowd Jackson and be physical with him. Two years ago, we didn’t even guard Jackson. Now he’s the best player in our league. They’re one of the few teams in our league that doesn’t have a four or five man who can stretch and shoot threes.”
Notre Dame: “[Junior forward] Bonzie Colson is such a unique player. He has ways of driving by bigger guys. Even though he’s capable of making jump shots, you’d rather he did that because at least he’s not getting you into foul trouble. They’re not hard to score on, but they don’t foul you. They put so much pressure on you with their offense. It’s hard to get that many skill guys together. You gotta try to level [junior guardMatt] Farrell as much as you can and not let him get going downhill, because he’s such a good passer. You want them to have to make contested two-point shots. Their biggest weakness is their size. They’re not a great offensive rebounding team because they’re small and non-athletic. Farrell can really shoot it, but he doesn’t finish. Colson is only 6' 5", so you gotta make him defend around the basket. They let you play in front of them. You’re going to have to score over them all night. They’re not going to play passing lanes and gamble and get themselves in trouble. Farrell is their weak link defensively.”
Syracuse: “Weird team. Talented, but it has taken them a while to get their chemistry together with two fifth-year guys. Their defense is not quite as intimidating as it’s been in the past. The guys are not as comfortable with the slides and rotations in the zone. [Senior guards John] Gillon and [Andrew] White give them two experienced scorers on the floor alongside [sophomore forward Tyler] Lydon. They’re going to live and die with those fifth-year guys. White is a very, very good shooter. You have to make him a dribbler. He’s great at spotting up and coming off screens. Their big guys, [freshman Taurean] Thompson and [senior Tyler] Roberson, know their roles. [Guard] Tyus Battle has had a hell of a freshman year. With Lydon, you have to have someone who is like him. If you switch on the screens, he’ll go right to the post. White absolutely chose the right school. He’s not a great defender, so they can hide him in the zone.”
Virginia: “The whole system is based on that defense. They recruit to it; they sell to it; they buy into it. They’re very precise with their help. Their point guard play is superb. [Senior guard London] Perrantes is a great player for their system because he closes games out. He can get everybody involved, but at the end he can go win games for them. Because of the pace they play at offensively, it limits your transition baskets. They’re good in terms of offensive efficiency, but they’re not a team that can score 75 or 80 points on a regular basis. They don’t have that kind of firepower. They’re not overly big and their big guys are mostly 15 feet and in. They make a three every once in a while, but that’s not their game. If you can get out in front of them they will have a hard time coming back.”
Baylor: “Their guards are not really high caliber. They’re not the same level as the backcourts at Kansas and Villanova. [Senior guard Ish] Wainwright is a gamer. He’s not a big scorer, but he rebounds, he defends, he makes big plays. You want [junior forward Johnathan] Motley to shoot jump shots. They’re better when they play [sophomore Jake] Lindsay at the point and move [junior Manu] Lecomte off the ball. Lecomte is more of a scorer than a point guard. He seems to be a little more rattled lately. He really lost his cool when they lost at Texas Tech [on Feb. 13]. He’s not afraid to take big shots, but if he struggles, they could lose earlier than expected. I think a strong, physical team would give them problems. They’re more comfortable in that zone than in their man-to-man.”
Iowa State: “[Monte] Morris runs the show but [Deonte] Burton is the X-factor. He can get other guys shots but he can finish at the same time. Defensively they have issues because they have very little depth and size. Morris can be too passive sometimes. The way they play all five guys heavy minutes, if one guy has a bad game, it’s a struggle. Being tired and small leads to defensive deficiencies. [Senior guard Nazareth Mitrou-]Long can really go. It’s ridiculous how much they can space it. They live and die by the three as much as anybody. With Long and Thomas, your guards better be ready to chase like crazy because those guys are threats from anywhere. Burton tends to settle a lot. Length can bother him. If you make him play defense, you can get him out of his rhythm. He put up an All-America performance at Kansas [on Feb. 4] and then he was really bad against Texas [on Feb. 7]. He’s not always consistent with his energy. [Senior guard] Matt Thomas is a very underrated on-ball defender. He slides his feet so well, it’s impossible to get around him. Their weakness is definitely their depth in the big spots.”
Kansas: “They might be thin up front, but I don’t see a lot of teams around the country that have two bigs. [Senior guard Frank] Mason is one of those hope-he-misses guys. A team that really drives it could give them trouble because it would get those guards in foul trouble. Their depth is what would keep them from being great. I used to think they’d be vulnerable to a bad shooting night, but the way [freshman wing] Josh Jackson has played the last six weeks that’s not the case. You have to force him to shoot jump shots. If he’s driving, he goes right every time. With Mason, it’s the opposite. You need to run him off the three-point line. [Junior guard] Devonte’ Graham can shoot from anywhere, but he’s not as much of a threat to get to the rim as Mason. You think they’re running out of gas, but then they find ways to win. Jackson is a mismatch problem. If you put someone smaller on him they roll him to the basket and post him up. The way they’re playing with four out around [senior forward Landen] Lucas, [sophomore forward Carlton] Bragg doesn’t get many opportunities. He’s just not as good as the other guys.”
West Virginia: “It’s hard to win on the road or on a neutral court the way they play. You get called for more fouls, and it’s harder to sustain that energy. Their halfcourt offense isn’t great. To me, [senior forward Nathan] Adrian is the key in their press. He’s on the ball. Any one of their guards can get it going. That press is not going to be easy to prepare for if it’s the second game of the week. You need a few days to prepare for it. If you can get the ball across halfcourt and make them play halfcourt defense, that humanizes them a little bit. Same thing with making them play halfcourt offense. If you can do that long enough, they’ll get frustrated, because they’re not used to it. [Head coach Bob Huggins] plays a lot of guys, but [junior guard Jevon] Carter is definitely the leader of that team. He understands angles and tendencies. He picks up the ball. He hates to lose any possession. [Sophomore forward] Esa Ahmad is the scariest from a potential standpoint, but it seems he and Huggins aren’t always on the same page. They butt heads. Adrian has good form on his shot, but he’s a little mechanical. Their offense is an old school flex and inside triangle. They play power ball and make you defend. They obviously did not play with good poise at the end of the Kansas game. They got pressed, and they didn’t know what to do.”
Maryland: “Mark Turgeon should be coach of the year in the Big Ten. [Junior guard Melo] Trimble has been spectacular. He refuses ball screens as well as anybody I’ve seen. He’s one of the best layup makers I’ve ever seen. Then they can rotate in three 7-footers. They tend to turn the ball over, but that’s a function of how fast they play. They’re going to attack you all the time. For them to advance in the tournament, they’re going to have to take better care of the basketball. A team that presses and traps and can rebound with them will give them trouble. I think you can attack [freshman guard Anthony] Cowan a little bit. I’d say they’re an above average defensive team. Their biggest weakness is shooting. They don’t have a power game. They play two point guards, and those guys do a great job making plays for others. You want to make Trimble finish over length and athleticism. [Freshman guard Kevin] Huerter can be one-dimensional as a shooter. Their road record in the conference is phenomenal. A long, athletic team that can play inside would give them trouble because their guards are so small. In the past, Melo could sometimes be moody and kind of disengaged, but that hasn’t happened as much this season. You can score around the rim a little easier against them than in the past.”
Michigan: “Obviously they’re not great defensively, but they’re confident they can score against you. [Junior forward D.J.] Wilson and [sophomore forward Moritz] Wagner have emerged as premiere players. If [senior guard Duncan] Robinson is in the game you want to attack him defensively. Everybody knows that. Sometimes [senior guard Derrick] Walton just coasts on defense. The point of attack is where your defense has to be at its best. You have to keep Walton out of the paint. He can shoot it, but he does most of his damage when he’s breaking your defense down. If they’re not making shots, I don’t think they can beat good teams. Everybody that starts can make shots for them. [Senior guard] Zak Irvin is having a down year. He’s not shooting the ball as well. People have been keying on him a little more and making him take tough twos. I love Wilson, but he’s not a tough kid. I’ve seen guys punk him and he didn’t fight back. They’re real soft defensively. I just think they have to spend so much time and energy getting that offense to work that they don’t have a lot of time to work on defense. There’s nobody who runs better pick-and-roll offense than John Beilein. They get guys eight or 10 points who don’t deserve to score.”
Michigan State: “Obviously, losing [senior guard] Eron Harris hurts. He was the one guard they had who could hurt you making a play as well as making threes. This puts a lot more pressure on their role players—[senior guard] Alvin Ellis III and [sophomore guard] Matt McQuaid especially. [Freshman guard] Josh Langford is really one-dimensional. If those guys suck—and they can suck—then they’re gonna lose. [Freshman guard] Cassius Winston is a huge key because [junior guard] Tum Tum [Nairn] can’t score. Winston is good but he turns the ball over too much. Tum Tum takes better care of the ball, he plays good defense, he pushes the tempo, he finds people. [Freshman forward Miles] Bridges is a gamer. He doesn’t coast. On a bad day he’s gonna get 17. It’s a one-man show there. He looks to be a really good kid. You’d want to make him guard a good stretch-four man. [Freshman forward Nick] Ward has come back to earth a little bit. He’s a one-trick pony. He scores over his right shoulder. That’s it. He can’t play a lot of minutes because he gets tired. If you can take away their transition and rebound, you are going to beat them.”
Minnesota: “They have a lot of new pieces. You can score on them. Their bigs get in foul trouble. When [junior center Reggie] Lynch is out of the game, they’re not the same. [Junior guard Nate] Mason is really difficult to guard. You can’t let him turn the corner and live in the paint. He’s got that old-fashioned pull-up game. [Freshman guard Amir] Coffey seems like a guy who would be fun to play with. He makes plays for his teammates. They’re very physical defensively. Their weakness is shooting. If [senior guard Akeem] Springs and Mason are not making shots, it’s going to be hard for them to score. You have to make Mason play to his left hand and make him score across his body. Coffey’s a freshman, so you have to chase him off the line and make him make decisions. Make him play in a crowd and play him soft on the perimeter, because he’s not a great shooter.”
Northwestern: “It starts with the perimeter guys. They can all handle and they can all defend. With [freshman guard Isiah] Brown and [senior forward Nate] Taphorn and [junior forward Gavin] Skelly coming off the bench, they have so many more weapons than they’ve ever had. I think you can score on them. They’re not a physically dominant team. You can’t relax on [junior guard Scottie] Lindsey because he moves so well without the ball. The problem is Lindsey and [sophomore forward Vic] Law are big, so if you do too much switching, you’ll end up with the wrong guy on the wrong guy. [Junior guard Bryant] McIntosh is playing like a veteran. But you can run your stuff on them; you can score in transition. It seems as though they have a love affair with each other. They’re probably the most together team in the conference. They’re not individually real talented, so when they get into situations where they have to make those middle-of-March plays, I don’t know if they can. They don’t have that breakdown guard. McIntosh is good but he’s not on the level of a Melo Trimble. They put Isiah Brown in there, but he’s a freshman so you’re rolling the dice. [Sophomore center] Dererk Pardon is highly efficient, but he doesn’t get a lot of touches.”
Purdue: “Obviously it all starts with [sophomore forward Caleb] Swanigan. [Junior forward] Vince Edwards is really good. He got taken out of the starting lineup, but he didn’t sulk and worked his way back in. The guy who has taken his game to the next level is [junior guard] Dakota Mathias. His assist-to-turnover numbers are phenomenal. He’s not the point guard, but he leads them in assists. He makes it harder to double Swanigan. Last year I thought [junior guard] P.J. Thompson was just O.K. This year I think he’s really good. His on-ball defense is spectacular, and his decision making is very good. I think you can run on them. They’re not real deep, but that team is really together. I don’t see any selfishness at all. Their biggest weakness would be point guard play. They’re adequate, but I don’t know if they can make enough plays. If you can rotate and chase them off the line, the guards are pretty ordinary. The bigs will turn it over. You have to double Swanigan and try to confuse him. “
Wisconsin: “They just play the way they play, play at their pace, they run their stuff. There’s nothing tricky there, but their players are crafty. [Sophomore forward Ethan] Happ has been one of the best players in our league. He is freakishly long so he impacts the game defensively. He can finish with either hand. [Senior forward] Vitto Brown has been good, but he was better last year. If he gets going the way he played last year, they’re almost unbeatable. He’s not scoring as well as he has in the past. They’ve been helped by our league being down this year. I don’t know if [senior forward Nigel] Hayes is an elite scorer. Happ has been great, but I don’t know if he’ll be able to do what he’s doing against the best teams in college basketball. You have to turn [senior guard Bronson] Koenig into a driver. They’re really sound defensively, and they’re playing a little faster this year. They don’t change what they do for anyone. They stay between you and the basket. You have to double Happ because I’m not sure they have enough shooters out there to make you pay. If you don’t double him, you’re asking for a long night and a lot of foul trouble.”
Five Games I’m Psyched to See This Week
UT Arlington at Georgia Southern, Monday, 7 p.m., ESPN3
This is the only meeting of the regular season between the best two teams in the Sun Belt. Georgia Southern has the league’s top two scorers in sophomore guards Ike Smith (19.5 ppg) and Tookie Brown (18.2). The Mavericks counter with the league’s best point guard in 5' 10" junior Erick Neal (6.6 assists per game, which ranks 10th in D-I) and stud power forward Kevin Hervey, a 6' 7" junior who averages 16.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. Georgia Southern has lost four of its last seven, which should only grow the incentive to hold home court.
Georgia Southern 78, UTA 74
South Carolina at Florida, Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPN
I believe Florida, which struggled to win at Mississippi State on Saturday, is really going to miss the team’s leading rebounder, junior forward John Egbunu, who gave the Gators much of their toughness identity. He was lost for the season last week because of a torn ACL. Florida should have enough to overcome a stumbling South Carolina squad at home, but it’s only a matter of time before that injury costs the Gators dearly.
Florida 68, South Carolina 63
Duke at Syracuse, Wednesday, 7 p.m., ESPN
With Syracuse having a down year, this doesn’t quite feel like the clash of the titans, but Duke’s Amile Jefferson and Grayson Allen are pretty banged up right now, and there’s no better way to boost an NCAA tournament résumé than to score a marquee win against a top team in late February.
Syracuse 77, Duke 75
Louisville at North Carolina, Wednesday, 9 p.m., ESPN
This one feels like a Final Four preview. I’ll take the Tar Heels because they are at home, but the Cardinals are really going to test North Carolina’s ballhandlers, and not just point guard Joel Berry. First one to 90 wins!
North Carolina 95, Louisville 88
UConn at Houston, Wednesday, 9 p.m., CBS Sports Network
Don’t look now, but the Huskies have won seven of their last eight games. However, they all came against the lower-tier teams in the American. A road win at Houston won’t be so easy. The Cougars are the best three-point shooting team in the conference, they lead the league in fewest turnovers per game (10.2), and they have two of the league’s top four scorers in junior guard Rob Gray (20.5) and senior guard Damyean Dotson (17.2).
Houston 73, UConn 69
This Week’s AP Ballot
* (Last week’s rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Villanova (1)
2. Gonzaga (2)
3. Kansas (3)
4. Louisville (5)
5. Oregon (6)
6. Arizona (7)
7. UCLA (8)
8. Baylor (4)
9. Duke (9)
10. North Carolina (10)
11. Cincinnati (13)
12. Wisconsin (14)
13. Purdue (15)
14. SMU (16)
15. Florida (18)
16. Kentucky (19)
17. Notre Dame (NR)
18. Florida State (17)
19. Maryland (22)
20. West Virginia (12)
21. Virginia (11)
22. Northwestern (23)
23. Saint Mary’s (24)
24. Wichita State (NR)
25. Middle Tennessee (NR)
Dropped out: Creighton (21), South Carolina (25)
After a weekend with very few upsets, it’s no surprise there is very little movement on my ballot. The biggest drop was suffered by Virginia, not just for getting run out of the Dean Dome but for the way they’ve looked while losing five of their last seven games. They have a quick turnaround against Miami at home tonight. That’s no gimme, either.
I’ve come back around on Notre Dame, which responded from its four-game losing streak in late January/early February and has now won four straight. I also dropped West Virginia, which goes against my tendency that I don’t penalize teams for losing close games on the road to higher-ranked opponents. And it wasn’t because they blew that late lead, either. If you look at West Virginia’s schedule, you see a lot of close wins against inferior teams along with a couple of home losses losses to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State as well as a road loss to Texas Tech.
It felt good to welcome back two of my mid-major favorites, Wichita State and Middle Tennessee, which are a combined 29–2 in league play. This may not be a good year for mid-majors in terms of at-large possibilities, but there are a lot of really good teams that are rank-worthy and capable of winning a game or two in the tournament. They include VCU and Dayton, which are engaged in a delightful tussle atop the Atlantic 10; UNC-Wilmington, which remains the class of the CAA; Belmont, which won twice more last week and is now 14–1 in the OVC; Valparaiso, which is still in first place in the Horizon despite losing last week at Oakland; Vermont, which is still undefeated atop the America East; and that old standby Florida Gulf Coast, which owns a one-game lead in the Atlantic Sun.