The Biggest Threat to Every NCAA Basketball Title Contender in 2012-13
Selection Sunday is March 17, but we are already seeing the difference between possible March Madness contenders and pretenders.
As teams maneuver through early season play, and get ready for conference schedules to begin, we can size up who might fill some of the top seeds when the 2013 NCAA Tournament rolls around.
Here is a list of 15 possible contenders and what could be the biggest threats to their chances at winning it all in Atlanta this spring.
Nine teams that are currently listed in the Week 8 Polls are not included here. Just because a team is ranked doesn't mean that they have a legitimate shot at winning it all.
One of the teams listed here is not currently in the Top 25. Can you guess who that might be?
15. North Carolina: A Cold Shooting Night
Even though North Carolina dropped out of the Associated Press Week 8 Rankings, don't think that they are out of the Top 25 for good...Let the mocking and laughter begin.
Seriously, the Tar Heels have the talent and depth to challenge for an Atlantic Coast Conference championship and make a deep run in March Madness.
But to do so, Roy's Boys are going to have to get serious about getting to the rim and going to the line.
Right now, they only score less than 12 points a game from made free-throws (No. 220 in the nation).
That means if they are having an off shooting night, like they did in their loss to Texas (31 percent from the floor and 15.8 percent from beyond the arc), they probably aren't going to make up for it at the line.
14. Pitt: Fast-Paced Game
Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon likes for his team to consistently play at a very deliberate pace, making the extra pass and working the ball for high-percentage shots.
The Panthers average the second least number of possessions per game (59.7) in all of college basketball.
This strategy seems to be working well. In the opening portion of the 2012-13 season, Pitt is the nation's leader in points per possession (1.26).
Tray Woodall (pictured), Dixon's trigger man, is more than capable of running the show whether they are slowing it down or going up-tempo. Woodall averages 11.7 ppg and 5.8 apg.
The Panthers may be able to play at a faster clip. On a game-to-game basis, however, they will have a better chance for success if they can slow games down and be patient.
13. North Carolina State: Coming from Behind
North Carolina State is a talented and deep squad. The WolfPack have lots of players who can score the ball down low, from mid-range or beyond the arc.
But, NC State may not be the best team when it comes to coming from behind.
In the first 12 games of this season, when they have gone into half with a lead (10 times), they have ended up winning the contest every time. In the two games that they were down at half, they ended up losing both of those games.
One of the reasons why the Pack sometimes have trouble coming back when they get down is because they don't shoot many threes.
So far this season, North Carolina State has only put up 144 shots from beyond the arc, No. 324 in the nation. In comparison, Illinois (No. 1 in the nation in three-point attempts) has launched 344 threes.
So if C.J. Leslie, T.J. Warren and Scott Wood (pictured, NC State's three-point specialist) don't get out to a lead, they may not come back.
12. Kentucky: Poor Free-Throw Shooting
Kentucky is still trying to get used to playing together.
If they were just about any other program in the country, the expectations for a team that is starting three freshmen and a sophomore would be minimal. But, since the Wildcats are the defending champs...and they are UK..., everyone thinks that they should have instant chemistry and instant success.
One of this year's team's shortcomings is accuracy at the line.
So far, John Calipari's crew is only knocking down 64.7 percent of their free throws (No. 277 in the nation).
Unfortunately, the Cats' three most frequent free-throwers (Archie Goodwin-pictured, Alex Poythress and Nerlens Noel) set the pace (64 percent) for the rest of the team.
When Kentucky gets into a tight game as the season progresses, the Cats need to hope Julius Mays (95.2 percent) or Kyle Wiltjer (84.6 percent) get fouled. Otherwise, Kentucky might drop games that it should win.
11. San Diego State: Their Terrific Trio Going Cold at the Same Time
San Diego State is off to another super start in 2012-13.
The Aztecs only have one loss this year. It came in their opening game of the season against Syracuse.
Since then, SDSU has cruised passed its next 11 opponents, which included victories over both UCLA and USC.
San Diego State's head coach Steve Fisher has to be excited about his terrific trio of Jamal Franklin (pictured), Chase Tapley and Xavier Thames.
They do most of the heavy lifting for the Aztecs, scoring 44 points and grabbing 16 boards per game.
One of the worst things that could happen to SDSU is for all three of these players to be cold on the same night.
That's exactly what happened in their opening game against the Orange. The three of them collectively scored 22 points on 7-of-36 shooting (19 percent).
10. UNLV: Mike Moser's Status
UNLV is tearin' it up in 2012-13.
The Rebels (11-1) have beaten everybody on their schedule, except Oregon, early.
Head coach Dave Rice has already experienced the challenge of losing a star player (Mike Moser; pictured) to injury.
CBS Sports' Gary Parrish reported recently that Moser could be back by early to mid-January.
In Moser's absence, the Rebels have effectively inserted Pitt-transfer Khem Birch into the lineup without missing a beat.
One of the challenges that could come when Moser comes back is how will this impact the new flow of the Rebels' lineup.
Most coaches would love to have such "problems."
If Moser, Birch and super-freshman Anthony Bennett can learn to play together, UNLV could have the best frontcourt in the nation.
9. Ohio State: Going Cold from Beyond the Arc
Thad Matta has another deep and talented Ohio State Buckeyes (9-2) team.
No shame in that.
The Buckeyes have shot well as a team this year from beyond the arc (37 percent; No. 65 in the nation). Deshaun Thomas has knocked down 41.1 percent of his trifectas.
But, in both of Ohio State's losses, we've seen what happens when they go cold from distance.
Against the Blue Devils, OSU shot 28.6 from beyond the arc. Against the Jayhawks, the Buckeyes only hit 25.8 percent of their threes.
8. Kansas: Getting Shut out on the Offensive Glass
The Kansas Jayhawks (10-1) are another team that is doing a great job of re-booting after losing significant players off of last year's team.
The Jayhawks' only loss was in their second game of the season when they let one slip away against Michigan State in the Georgia Dome.
Since then, Kansas has been taking care of business, winning by an average of 18.3 ppg.
One area that the Jayhawks haven't excelled in is hitting the offensive glass. That's a little surprising since they have quite a bit of length in their lineup.
Jeff Withey (pictured) and Kevin Young do a decent job of pulling down some of their teammates' misses, but after that, it gets pretty sparse.
So far this season, KU is averaging 10.3 offensive rebounds per game (No. 240 in the nation).
7. Missouri: Beyond the Arc Shooting
Missouri is off to an impressive start (10-1), and head coach Frank Haith has done a fantastic job of effectively incorporating a talented troupe of transfers into the Tiger lineup.
Alex Oriakhi, Earnest Ross, Keion Bell and now Jabari Brown have come right in and been dynamic from Day 1.
Laurence Bowers has impressively come back (16.9 ppg; 6.7 rpg) from missing last season to injury.
After seeing Mizzou take down Illinois this week, it would not surprise me if the Tigers win the SEC in their initial season in the conference.
As impressive as MU has been in the paint, it needs someone to step up and be able to hit shots from beyond the arc. A big change from last year.
Right now, Phil Pressey (pictured) is the Tigers' best wing shooter from distance (34 percent). Brown has the ability to knock down three's but, in his first two games, has only connected on 4-of-14 (28.6 percent) shots from downtown.
6. Syracuse: Poor Free-Throw Shooting
Syracuse (10-1) is killin' it in November and December.
It is the No. 1 team in the nation for field goal percentage defense (33.1 percent). The Orange are right near the top in blocks (8 bpg; No. 3), steals (11.3; No. 4) and rebounds (44.2 rpg; No. 5).
What they are going to have to spend a little more time on is free-throw shooting.
Jim Boeheim's bunch are only hitting 64.9 percent from the line (No. 273).
In the 'Cuse's only loss this season, the Orange hit a frosty 19-for-34 free throws (55.9 percent). PG Michael Carter-Williams (pictured) went to the line 15 times, but only hit seven. On the season, the nation's assist leader is hitting 71.4 person of his freebies.
Since the ball is in MC-W's hands so much, he needs to knock those down.
5. Louisville: Three-Point Shooting
The Louisville Cardinals are as tough as any team in the country. They play with a level of intensity and nastiness that few teams match.
Their only loss was to No. 1 Duke in a close game in the Bahamas over Thanksgiving.
Their biggest challenge is long-distance shooting. On the year, the Cardinals are only connecting on 33.1 percent of their threes (No. 191 in the nation).
This seems to be a problem that Rick Pitino's teams have on an annual basis.
No one that has taken at least 10 shots from beyond the arc is hitting at least 40 percent from downtown.
Russ Smith (pictured), Louisville's leading scorer, is only knocking down 33.8 percent.
4. Arizona: Careless Turnovers
Sean Miller has to be excited about how his Arizona Wildcats (11-0) are playing in the opening games of the 2012-13 season.
They have posted nice wins over Clemson, Florida and Miami and look to be the team to beat in the Pac-12 this year.
One area that could get them into trouble later on is making careless turnovers.
As a team, the Wildcats are committing 15.1 turnovers per game (No. 105 in the nation).
When they beat the Gators at home last week, they limited their turnovers to 10. But, three weeks ago, when they beat Southern Mississippi, the Wildcats committed 27.
Senior PG Mark Lyons (pictured) is averaging almost three turnovers per game and has almost as many turnovers as assists.
Fortunately for Arizona, SG Nick Johnson plays alongside Lyons and shares some of the playmaking load.
3. Indiana: Giving Up Points in the Paint
The Indiana Hoosiers are one of the most talented and balanced squads in the country.
ESPN's Stats and Information reported that the Bulldogs scored 42 points in the paint.
As the Hoosiers enter Big Ten play, they will have a number of teams that will look to exploit any weakness in defense in the post or in the paint.
As much as Cody Zeller (pictured) needs to anchor Indiana's interior defense, Christian Watford and Victor Oladipo will need to step up if the Hoosiers are going to stop their opponents down low.
2. Michigan: Over-Reliance on Perimeter Play
The Michigan Wolverines(12-0) are off to their "best start since winning the first 16 games of the 1985-86 season." (ESPN)
They are a good-shooting team (51.1 percent from the field; No. 5 in the nation) that shares the ball and gets balanced, double-figure scoring from four of their starters.
Trey Burke (pictured) leads the Wolverines attack and may be one of the best PGs in the country.
One area of concern could be an over-reliance on perimeter play.
Michigan has only attempted 196 free throws this year, which ranks as No. 255 nationally.
Burke only goes to the line, on average, three times per game.
Rather than depending on their ability to score from the outside, the Wolverines might be better off to send it inside or take it inside more often. They could go to the line more frequently and get their opponents in foul trouble more regularly.
1. Duke: Offensive Rebounding
The Duke Blue Devils sit on top of the heap as the current No. 1 team (Week 8—December 24). They are one of four teams (Duke, Michigan, Arizona and Cincinnati) who are still undefeated.
It is very possible that Coach K's 2012-13 club is poised for another championship run.
One glitch that could come back to bite them is offensive rebounding.
Currently, Duke only has pulled down 103 offensive boards in 11 games. That puts the Blue Devils as No. 290 in the nation.
Mason Plumlee (pictured) is having a super season, averaging a double-double that includes over three offensive rebounds per outing.
Unfortunately, Ryan Kelly, Amile Jefferson and Josh Hairston (the Blue Devils next three offensive rebounders) only have two more combined than MP2.
Too many easy opportunities are being lost because no one else besides Plumlee seems to be hungry for some boards on the offensive end.