In other words, you want to go behind enemy lines.
You have come to the right place -- again. Your resident hoopnik has gone on his traditional reconnaissance mission to collect real and specific intelligence. The result: the most brutally candid assessments you will find anywhere on the primary teams who are hunting for an NCAA title.
Here's how I did it. I spoke with two coaches from each of the big six power conferences. Some were head coaches, others were assistants, but all were granted anonymity so they could speak freely about the teams in their league. I then took my quotes from each pair and forged a single paragraph for each team, which now reads as if it came from one person.
If it seems these scouting reports are overly negative or critical, that is my fault, not theirs. We all know these teams are good. I wanted to know where they weren't so good. So I peppered my coaches with questions like, "What is their team's Achilles' heel?", "What is their player's biggest weakness?", "What type of team would give them trouble in the NCAA tournament?"
So keep that in mind as you read. With March almost upon us, this is no time for the timid. There's a battle about to be waged, and the only thing that can defeat the enemy is the truth.
Can you handle the truth?
Duke: Defensively, the Blue Devils are just OK. I don't think their players are committed to guarding the ball consistently. Tyler Thornton is the toughest guard they have, but when they play him they hurt other players' ability to drive because you don't have to guard Thornton. You can also throw the ball inside against them and score. Austin Rivers can get a little wild at times and he's an overrated shooter, but he has the guts to take big shots. He might make a couple of threes, but at the end of the day he wants to drive, and at times he's a selfish driver. The Plumlees are freaks athletically and they're physically strong, but Duke doesn't go to them enough. Seth Curry has become a good player. He really understands how to play the game.
Florida State: The Seminoles' big weakness is turnovers. They don't have a point guard who can break people down and get them easy baskets. Luke Loucks tries to make too many difficult plays. They have a couple of guys who can shoot, like Michael Snaer and Deividas Dulkys, but they're a hot and cold offensive team. When Dulkys has room and rhythm, he's going to make shots. Bernard James is the warrior inside, but struggles in ball-screen situations. Xavier Gibson is a talented big guy, but it doesn't always seem like he and coach Leonard Hamilton are on the same page. I know Hamilton plays 10 or 11 guys, but I'm sure he wishes one or two would emerge a little bit more. Ian Miller is their most talented perimeter player, but he doesn't defend the way those other guys do. They don't like it when people go small against them.
Miami: The Hurricanes are one of the most talented teams in our conference. Ryan Brown is an underrated shot maker. Shane Larkin gives them a play starter and a good ball defender. Reggie Johnson is an immovable object and Kenny Kadji is a pro. Malcom Grant is unbelievably quick and has great range, but he has been up and down, so they can get a little sideways with him. Their biggest weakness is transition defense with their big guys. If they miss, you can go at them. Johnson is a good player, but he picks and chooses when he wants to change ends. Guys his size will be able to guard him, and there will be some of those in the tournament.
North Carolina: The Tar Heels are a streaky shooting team. If it becomes a half-court game, can they make enough shots? They've improved defensively as the year has gone on, but they don't guard for 40 minutes. They guard in spurts, which can hurt you in the tournament. It looks like sometimes they just want to get through the regular season. Kendall Marshall will pass up a shot with 18 seconds left on the clock when he's wide open because he knows his team can get a better shot. They've let some teams hang around when they shouldn't have. That could be a problem. If you take them out of transition, their motion can be extremely stagnant. You've got to jam Harrison Barnes with a bigger player and make him put it on the floor. Tyler Zeller is their best player. He has toughness and he's very versatile.
Virginia: This team is just so limited offensively. Everything is predicated on tempo. The Cavaliers' best opportunity to score is an easy basket by Jontel Evans. He's so fast and strong, it's like a tailback going downhill. Their motion offense is good, but for 20 seconds they're not really attacking, they're just moving you around. And they are terrible against extended pressure because they don't attack it to score. I think they're running on fumes a bit. The fact that they don't have Assane Sene right now hurts. It doesn't overly affect their offense, but it does defensively. He makes the big-to-big doubles hard because he can throw out of them. You have to take away Mike Scott's perimeter shot. I'd rather him try to go inside because you can double team him there. Sammy Zeglinski is a great shooter, but he can also be a no-show occasionally. They're undersized in the backcourt, so teams like to post up their guards. The good news is they play tournament basketball all year, those grinder possession games.
Connecticut: The Huskies don't run offense. I mean they literally don't run a fricking offense. They never have, but in the past they always had players that were better than you. Jeremy Lamb is not great at just getting his own shot. Andre Drummond doesn't have any post moves. It's all dunks and alley-oops. Shabazz Napier is a shoot-first point guard, but he still has a way to go with his lack of physicality, the way he uses ball screens. He tries to run away from everybody, whereas Kemba Walker would come at you, knock you off balance and get you in foul trouble. I liked Napier better last year in a secondary role. Sometimes when guys get too big of a role, they're not ready for it. Plus, they have two guys competing for every spot, and sometimes that's bad for chemistry. You can see there's a lot going on with Drummond and Alex Oriakhi. They're committed to Drummond, and as a result Oriakhi's numbers have dropped.
Georgetown: This team doesn't have an overall physicality, and it doesn't have someone who can just break you down off the dribble. The Hoyas' system is the same as it was last year, but the difference is the ball doesn't stick in people's hands. They bring 6-foot-8, 6-9 guys from all over the place, and then they play so damn hard. The type of team that would give them trouble is a team that doesn't mind playing at that pace. Henry Sims doesn't like contact; he likes to deal in space. He's the one thing you can take away and hurt them. Our staff loves Jason Clark. He is a great leader who really gets Georgetown basketball. Makes all the little plays that people don't see. He's just a winner.
Louisville: The Cardinals are really up and down. The team's success depends on how Peyton Siva is doing. When he's not playing well and with confidence, they're average. They don't overwhelm you physically. They're skilled, but they don't have big bodies. Chris and Russ Smith are good, but they play on athleticism and quickness. Siva is a good point guard, but I think people have figured out how to play him. He's shooting a very low percentage from three-point range, so people are going under his ball screens and collapsing on his penetration. I love Gorgui Dieng. He's so damn active. He's the best post defender in our league.
Marquette: Best transition team in Division I. The Golden Eagles' weakness is their lack of size, but I don't know that they're not better without Davante Gardner in there, because it slows them down at one position. Good luck with Darius Johnson-Odom. He's just so good at getting to your body with those shoulders. You can't help but go backward. And if Jae Crowder keeps doing what he's doing from the perimeter, he's a matchup nightmare because he can play the four or the five. All they scream on their bench is, "Paint!" They want paint touches, so you have to play shell defense and make them jump shooters. They could be a Final Four team, but I wish they had another 6-6, 6-7 muscle guy who could get some rebounds for them.
Notre Dame: A little too reliant on shooting from the perimeter. If you can defend the Fighting Irish well on the perimeter and you have someone to match up with Jack Cooley, then you have a chance. Eric Atkins is a good point guard, but he's not good enough to get shots by himself. He needs the system, he needs weak-side movement to get himself an advantage. They have trouble guarding quickness. That's why Rutgers beat them, that's why St. John's beat them. Mo Harkless had a field day penetrating against them. That can be a problem against a really good mid-major, because those teams usually have two or three guys who can go off the bounce, including the four men.
Syracuse: The team's Achilles' heel is defensive rebounding because Rakim Christmas and Fab Melo don't rebound out of their area very well. They don't go get it like Arinze Onuaku. Also, as soon as a shot goes up, their guards are at half-court because they want to run, so they're not getting in there to help on the boards. If they get a wrong matchup where a team has three perimeter shooters and someone who can play in the high post, they could get beat. A lot of those mid-major teams play like that. Scoop Jardine isn't their most talented player, but he's their most important. The reason they win so many close games is because of his poise and composure. Dion Waiters really wants to get to the basket, so you have to make him take a contested jump shot, even though he can hit it. Teams that are very organized offensively and have a high basketball IQ would give them trouble. Teams like Butler the last couple of years, or Notre Dame this year. Georgetown is another perfect example. Wisconsin-Syracuse would be a very interesting battle.
Indiana: When the Hoosiers were rolling, the kid who had it going was Christian Watford, but he has been struggling lately. I don't think he's playing with confidence anymore. Verdell Jones has been in the doghouse. I think they're searching for another scorer. Cody Zeller's moves are pretty predictable, but he's a tough kid and he's relentless. He is as good a freshman as I've seen. He does everything and he's got a little nasty in him. They have a lot of mistake makers and I don't think they defend. Jordan Hulls might be the worst defender in Division I. But they give a lot of teams trouble with their depth and size, and they shoot the ball well from the three.
Michigan: The Wolverines are dangerous because they shoot the ball so well and stay within their sets, but they can also lay an egg because they rely so much on threes. You almost have to play small with them because they force you to. If you have a big man, it's hard to guard them because everybody will step out and score. I don't think Tim Hardaway Jr. is a tough kid. He just wants to shoot jumpers. If you have a dominant person inside, you can go right at them because they're not real big. Hardaway has not had the kind of year we were all expecting, but he has an uncanny ability to make threes late even when he's not shooting well. Trey Burke is the best guard in our league, and Jordan Morgan is much better offensively than he was last year. They don't scare you defensively. They'll get after you and compete, but you can run your stuff and score on them.
Michigan State: This team's biggest weakness is consistent outside shooting. The Spartans are going to see some zone because you have to give up something, and they can really beat you up inside. Derrick Nix is a beast and Adreian Payne has really improved in the second half of the season. They scout the hell out of you. If you play them you have to bring a couple of new sets, because they're going to know everything you run. They don't have a lot of tricks. If you can't stop them they're going to run that same fricking play over and over again. I'm still not sure Keith Appling is a pure point guard. He has had a good year but I don't know that he has had a great year. Defensively I love him, but offensively he can be a mistake maker. Nix has really committed himself. Last year I thought he was fat and not worth anything, but he's really in shape and running the floor. Draymond Green is the player of the year in our league. He doesn't have a hole in his game.
Ohio State: I think this team became a fat cat. The Buckeyes got a little arrogant early. They beat the crap out of Duke and I think that put them on cruise control. They have the most weapons in the league; it isn't close. Anybody in that first five is capable of scoring. I like William Buford, but it seems like he just goes with the flow. He's not going to bring it to you. Jared Sullinger is a great college player, but I don't think he's a tough kid. He flops a lot. He's always looking for a call and he can get really frustrated. You have to stay between him and the basket and make him shoot over you, because he doesn't have much lift. That's what Josh Harrellson did to him last year in the Kentucky game. Aaron Craft is not a good shooter so guys are going under ball screens. They're probably kicking themselves a little for not taking Trey Burke. He's from Columbus and played AAU ball with Sullinger, but they passed on him because they had Craft. I love Craft, but he does some dumb stuff at the end of games. He puts his head down and drives into packs of people.
Wisconsin: I don't really respect the way they play. Jordan Taylor likes to run and grab you, and then throw his head back and try to get a call. If you set a pick, they take a dive. They cheat the game. Everybody raves about this defensive juggernaut, but that's bull. They dribble the clock out and mug you out of the building. Part of the reason they lost to Cornell and Davidson is because when you get into the tournament, refs outside the Big Ten don't fall for that. Taylor is kind of struggling, but they're always going to be in the game because they're not going to shoot until there are six seconds left on the shot clock. Then they give it to Taylor. That's their offense. They don't even run the swing as much as they used to. Taylor plays no defense because he's trying to save his energy. Jared Berggren, Josh Gasser and Mike Bruesewitz have all had fabulous seasons, and Ryan Evans has really taken his game to the next level. They're going to be in every game because of the way they play and the fact that they have a lot of weapons.
Baylor: The Bears never win the big game. They're jump shooters, Perry Jones obviously being the number one guy. If you looked at his shot chart and didn't see a name and jersey number, you'd think he was a guard. But all those guys -- Brady Heslep, Gary Franklin, Anthony Jones -- they all fall in love with the three. They have all this size but they don't take advantage of it. They play zone, but it's not like playing against Syracuse, which is a physical zone. You look at Jones from when he was in high school, he was on a team with a lot of talent, and he wasn't a big scorer. He never won. I love Pierre Jackson. Without him, they would be middle of the pack. I can't see them making the Final Four. To get there they'd have to beat Duke or Syracuse or Carolina. You have to grind things out, and the only guy who can do that for them is Quincy Acy. Kansas played them on their home floor and went on a 32-4 run. A tough-minded team would not allow that. Acy brings them a physical presence every night, while Quincy Miller is a streaky shooter at best. He needs time.
Kansas: The Jayhawks' starting five is so good, I don't see many weaknesses except for depth. If you can get Thomas Robinson in foul trouble, they really don't have much coming off the bench. I think this is the best coaching job Bill Self has ever done. You have to push Robinson off the block. I don't know how good of a passer he is, but he's an animal on the box. We try to get our guys to watch him and we say, this is what we want you to be. Tyshawn Taylor can be erratic but his size bothers people because he's an attack dog. He's not a tremendous shooter, but he makes them when they count. You have to space him because once he gets into the lane you can forget about it. He's going to throw a lob dunk or make that floater. You have to force Taylor to play defense. He doesn't want to play on the ball. He'd rather deny and reach from the passing lane. I think they would have a hard time against a team that can drive and kick, like Butler used to be. Since they're so physical, you have to hope the referees are on your side. A small team that drives a lot can take Jeff Withey out of the mix. You also have to make them defend for long possessions. If you don't get anything early in transition, run some clock and make them guard, because quick shots feed their break.
Kansas State: This is a weird team. Frank Martin does a great job and the Wildcats are a great defensive team, but they just struggle to score. They hound you like dogs and do a great job of denying the wings. You have to make jump shots against them, even though they'll be contested. Rodney McGruder is not great off the bounce, but he can score in a variety of ways. He can do everything, but he doesn't do anything great. They get offense from their rebounding, so if you can minimize their second-chance points they struggle, although it's hard because they're so physical. Will Spradling and Jamar Samuels have had some big games, but they need somebody besides McGruder who's going to consistently give them 10, 12 points a night, and they don't have that.
Missouri: The Tigers play down to their competition, which can lead to an early-round upset. They also have very little inside presence and rely on outside shooting, and those teams tend to get beat in the tournament. Phil "Flip" Pressey is their main guy. He's a terror on defense and he controls the game. Marcus Denmon and Kim English are good, but they're catch and shoot guys. You have to force Ricardo Ratliffe to make shots. You can't let him just get a ton of offensive putbacks. They don't throw him the ball much, so he scores a lot off his board play. They'll have trouble guarding a physical post team because they're undersized. Remember, they only have seven guys. When you play two games in three days in the tournament, that can be a challenge.
Iowa State: The Cyclones are deceptively talented, but they can be lulled to sleep and get disinterested, particularly Royce White. He is an Anthony Mason-type player, a distributor and a facilitator. He's just so talented that he gets bored out there sometimes. Then all of a sudden he's like, now I'm going to play. Then he'll make five plays that nobody in the country at his size can make. I like Chris Allen, but Scott Christopherson is the guy on the perimeter for them. I think a team that can get out and make shots would give them trouble. White is good inside, but that's not what he wants to do. He wants style points. He wants to show he can handle the ball and throw a behind-the-back pass. It also hurts them because he handles the ball so much, yet he misses free throws. Then they bring in Melvin Ejim, who's 6-6, and Anthony Booker, who's 6-9 but wants to shoot threes. So they don't have much inside besides Royce.
Arizona: Lack of post presence is Arizona's biggest weakness, but it's very good at shooting the three. You have to get back on defense and not give them any lobs. Up front, Solomon Hill and Jesse Perry are athletic and talented but they're not physically huge. Hill is their best player because he can do a little of everything. Nick Johnson is talented for a freshman, but he's erratic and streaky, whereas Hill has been their most consistent player. Josiah Turner has grown up a lot. I noticed his demeanor and his body language were different from the first to the second time we played them. He doesn't shoot as well as those other guys, but he doesn't need to.
Cal: The Golden Bears' biggest weakness is handling pressure on the perimeter. That's what happened against Missouri. They completely fold against athletic perimeter players. If you can limit one of those two scorers, Allen Crabbe or Jorge Gutierrez, they don't have enough to win. They don't have a lot of big players on the bench, so if you can get Harper Kamp in foul trouble they have problems. You want to get physical with Crabbe. Chase him and bump him. He doesn't like that. If you make him dribble, he goes from being a really good scorer to just an average scorer. Kamp is all left, but he's very good at ducking in.
UCLA: This team just isn't consistent. When you watch Josh Smith warm up, you can tell something is wrong there, chemistry-wise. That's a problem because they don't have any marquee perimeter players. The Wear twins are going to be very good. I thought they were soft, but they're getting better inside and they're pretty good rebounders. The whole Reeves Nelson thing kind of sent them into a tailspin. Smith is talented, but I don't get the impression he loves to work. Still, he's so naturally gifted that if he doesn't get in foul trouble, they have one of the best frontcourts on the West Coast. It just doesn't seem like any of their guys are having any fun playing.
Washington: The Huskies are extremely talented. They want to play fast, they want to be out of control. They don't have any inside presence. They're very poor defending off the ball, so you can have success by spreading them out and driving them. Their bigs always help. Defensively, if you get back and make them play half-court they're a completely different team. Tony Wroten is talented, but he doesn't want to grind a game out. He loses patience if he's not fast breaking and he's charge prone. Wroten is a good athlete, but he's not a finished product yet. Abdul Gaddy doesn't have the burst to get by you and finish at the rim, and he doesn't shoot it as well as you would think. Terrence Ross is the best pro prospect in the league. There's not one way to guard him because he can score a lot of ways. They don't lack toughness, but I do think they have a chemistry issue between the younger guys and the older guys.
Alabama: The Crimson Tide have had some internal issues lately, but they do defend the heck out of you, and that gives them some easy baskets. Outside shooting is a glaring weakness. JaMychal Green gets emotional when there's contact. He doesn't like to be trapped, so you have to beat on him a little bit. The question now is where they get their scoring without Tony Mitchell. He was their most athletic guy. Now they're going to have to really manufacture points. They will shot-clock you and ball-control you, but in the half-court they have not shown they can be effective. You have to deny Green easy touches, don't let him catch it in his spots and get easy offensive rebounds.
Florida: When the ball is going in, Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker are a handful. Their three-point shooting gets a lot of attention, but their penetration is just as dangerous. Brad Beal is just so good. He's a first-round pick right now. He's versatile, he's strong, he rebounds. You need to guard Beal with a bigger player if you can. Will Yeguete's injury is huge because it kills the Gators' frontcourt depth, and he was their second-best rebounder. A big, physical team that can make shots, a team like Wisconsin, would be a problem. I know Patric Young has had an ankle injury, but it looks to me like he's milking it. I watched him in warmups before our game and he was running around like Carl Lewis. Walker has grown on me. His decision making has gotten better
Kentucky: Kentucky's Achilles' heel is its three-point shooting. Doron Lamb is a terrific shooter, Darius Miller is a very good shooter, but Marquis Teague doesn't shoot it great. If somebody could zone them or even play a triangle-and-two, they might be susceptible. Also they have no depth, so foul trouble could get them. But Anthony Davis is such an eraser at the goal that they can defend without fouling. Early on, he wasn't scoring away from the basket, but now he's driving it, he's stretching his range, and he has great composure at both ends for a young guy. It's almost cartoonish the way he is able to morph his body away from contact. When the light switches on with Terrence Jones, watch out, but he's either lighting it up or not getting anything done. I'm not a huge Teague fan. His perimeter shooting is suspect and I think sometimes he plays too fast. His natural inclination is to make a play instead of running the team, and that could come back to haunt them. He can beat you with his penetration, but he doesn't make everybody else better. That could be a liability in a tight game in the tournament.
Mississippi State: Physically, Mississippi State is as talented across the board as anybody. Dee Bost is an NBA-level point guard. Renardo Sidney has a first-round talent but not a first-round motor. Arnett Moultrie is a lottery pick. Rodney Hood is legit. At one point they had the top three guys in minutes played in the league, so I think they're tired. Also I don't know that they want to defend every play. If Sidney had any sense whatsoever he would be a first-round draft pick. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that if you're at the end of the shot clock, you are going to bring Sidney out into a ball screen. Why? Because he's not coming up to guard it. You can go right at him, and as a result they lose a little bit of their swagger. I'm a huge Bost fan, but the last few games his killer instinct hasn't quite been there.
Vanderbilt: I know Festus Ezeli's not the same player he was a year ago, but I think he's coming around. At times they don't handle pressure great, but that's not as big a liability in the NCAA tournament because teams don't press that much. John Jenkins is the best shooter I've ever coached against. Jeff Taylor shoots it well, too, but he needs time. I don't think they're soft, but depth is an issue. Taylor is as good an athlete as there is in the country, and I think he plays with a senior's sense of urgency. The big question mark is at point guard. If they had a jet, they would be better. It's funny, if you gave Brad Tinsley to Kentucky and put Marquis Teague on Vanderbilt, both teams would be better. If they catch somebody who applies pressure, like Arkansas did, then they're not as good. Matchups are huge in the NCAA tournament, which is why they have lost in the first round.