Come Saturday, while millions ferociously tear through perfectly wrapped gift boxes to get to everything from “Cool Grey” Jordan 11s to Yeezy Boost 350 V2s to MacBook Pros in celebration of the Christmas holiday, a prevailing thought on the minds of college basketball coaches and players will be how they can improve headed into the new year.
To that end, we analyzed the top 10 teams in this week’s AP men's college basketball poll and zeroed in on the one thing they need to open on Christmas in order to elevate in 2022.
1. Baylor Bears (11–0)
What they need to unwrap: Sacrifice. That’s right, even at the top there’s room for growth. With more than seven players averaging eight or more points for the defending national champs, the Bears will need to remain consistent in their approach on the offensive end, as well as in their commitment to defense. So far so good, as Baylor leads the Big 12 with 18.2 assists per game this season and locks defenders down to the tune of 55.7 points a game. The Bears got a wake-up call against Oregon last week, making minor adjustments on the fly, but as they enter a gruesome conference slate those ideals will no doubt be tested. Having a roster stocked with capable scorers can be a gift and a curse over the course of a season as competition and stakes intensify.
2. Duke Blue Devils (10–1)
What they need to unwrap: Boxing-out ability. By and large, the Blue Devils are clicking on all cylinders on both ends of the floor this season and certainly looking like a team capable of giving Mike Krzyzewski his sixth national title before retiring at the end of the season. Still, the one thing Duke will have to adjust is its ability to keep teams off the offensive glass. It all started in the season-opening win over Kentucky, when Wildcats forward Oscar Tshiebwe snagged, count ’em, 12 offensive rebounds (20 in all) in the loss. In the Blue Devils’ loss to Ohio State, the Buckeyes outrebounded them 40–36. Simply put, Duke’s frontcourt trio of Mark Williams, Paolo Banchero and Theo John, plus all-everything wing Wendell Moore Jr., are too talented for this to be a lingering issue.
3. Purdue Boilermakers (11–1)
What they need to unwrap: Defensive intensity. Sure, we know the Boilermakers can score, evident from their No. 1 KenPom ranking in adjusted offensive efficiency, but when they come to the other side of the court, Purdue checks in at No. 41. Zach Edey’s reinsertion into the starting lineup should help in that regard; teaming up with Trevion Williams gives Matt Painter one of the most physically imposing frontcourts in the Big Ten. Still, as league play commences, Purdue will have to do a better job of limiting paint penetration, which plagued it in its loss to Rutgers and the nail-biting win over NC State.
4. Gonzaga Bulldogs (10–2)
What they need to unwrap: Consistency from the perimeter. The Bulldogs tend to jump to extremes when it comes to draining three-pointers. Sometimes you’ll get the lights-out version that drained 13 of 31 threes against Texas Tech and other times Gonzaga will struggle against Merrimack, connecting on just 5 of 22. One way to find that consistency is to get more shots for its marksmen, and Mark Few has two snipers from deep in Rasir Bolton (43.1%) and Julian Strawther (38.7%).
5. UCLA Bruins (8–1)
What they need to unwrap: Health. Granted, this gift sits atop all teams’ wish lists as the pandemic wreaks havoc on college hoops, but the Bruins haven’t taken the court since their win over Marquette on Dec. 11, due to COVID-19 issues. UCLA has shown great balance on both ends of the floor this season, but the extended pause meant missing out on much-needed experience against quality opponents, including North Carolina. As it stands, the Bruins’ next game is against Arizona on Dec. 30.
6. Arizona Wildcats (11–0)
What they need to unwrap: Consistency defensively. Lost in the Wildcats’ high-octane offense, which pumps in 91 points a game and leads Division I men’s hoops, is a defensive juggernaut that checks in at No. 7 overall in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency. That’s right, Tommy Lloyd’s crew locks up, holding teams to 62.8 points a game while forcing 16 turnovers and swiping six steals. Bennedict Mathurin, Azuolas Tubelis, Christian Koloko and Kerr Kriisa are going to put up points, that much is clear, but the defensive focus is what could elevate the Wildcats to favorites in the Pac-12.
7. Kansas Jayhawks (9–1)
What they need to unwrap: Defensive paint presence. The Jayhawks have struggled to limit penetration in the lane and provide the type of intimidation that makes teams second-guess attempting high percentage shots. In Kansas’s narrow defeat of Stephen F. Austin on Dec. 18, the Lumberjacks outscored Bill Self’s team 48–34 in the paint and outrebounded the Jayhawks, 31–28. This is the type of trend that comes back to bite you in conference play and when the stakes rise in March.
8. USC Trojans (12–0)
What they need to unwrap: Improved free-throw shooting. There’s no way around the fact that the Trojans are god-awful from the charity stripe, ranking 354th in men’s Division I at 58.4%. It’s an astounding stat considering that the Trojans rank No. 2 in the Pac-12 in both field-goal percentage (48.8%) and three-point field-goal percentage (35.2%). The hard truth is that you can’t trust a team this abysmal from the free throw line, and at this level of bad the problem is in all likelihood mental—an issue Andy Enfield will want remedied heading into Pac-12 play.
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9. Iowa State Cyclones (12–0)
What they need to unwrap: Strong starts. The Cyclones are a deadly combination of suffocating defensive pressure, efficient three-point shooting and infectious energy; that said, they’ve had a tendency to be slow out of the gate. That won’t fly with a murderers’ row—Baylor, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, Texas Tech—of a schedule to open Big 12 play.
10. Alabama Crimson Tide (9–3)
What they need to unwrap: Consistency. Will the real Crimson Tide please stand up? Nate Oats’s crew went from back-to-back statement wins over Gonzaga and Houston to falling to Memphis and Davidson and having to gut out a win over Jacksonville State. In the last three games, Alabama posted 42 total turnovers and shot just 30.3% from the three-point line. The high-octane offense will have to find more reliability and become less feast or famine.
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