The AP Top 25 is far from stable at this early stage of the conference schedule, but the serious Final Four contenders are starting to identify themselves. Of course, recent NCAA tournaments have proved that even a team that doesn't look like much going into March can still find itself in the Final Four. That being the case, even the lower-tier teams in the national rankings have reason to consider what it will take to survive in March Madness.
For top-ranked Duke, of course, the plan starts with Player of the Year frontrunner Mason Plumlee. Even with Plumlee piling up points on the low block, though, Coach K's Blue Devils will need to get key contributions from some of their other stars to stay on track for a national title shot.
Read on for more on what Duke (and the rest of this week's ranked teams in the AP poll) needs to do to punch its ticket for Atlanta.
1. Win the Mountain West: Seeding aside, the Lobos would really benefit from a favorable site in March. Playing in the Rockies would not only help get their fans to the game but take advantage of their experience at altitude.
2. Maximize Alex Kirk’s production: The young seven-footer is the team’s best asset, but he’s still figuring out just how good he can be.
3. Attack the rim: New Mexico is not a strong jump-shooting team. Wasted possessions against postseason defenses will put them in a hole very quickly.
1. Keep Mike Moser in the mix: Moser may have come back too early from his dislocated elbow, as he’s missed two more games since his return. Whenever he’s back in playing shape, though, his athleticism inside is a huge edge for UNLV.
2. Trust Anthony Marshall: A senior point guard is a wonderful luxury come tournament time, and Marshall’s 5.4 assists per game are keeping all the big men happy.
3. Minimize pressure on the freshmen: Even the most sensational first-year stars can fade under the March spotlight. Anthony Bennett and Katin Reinhardt are the Rebels’ two leading scorers, but they can’t feel like it’s all on them to win games.
1. Turn defense into offense: The Shockers have plenty of weapons for racking up blocks and steals, and they must convert those chances into easy baskets.
2. Keep the energy high: Every player on the roster averages at least 10.5 minutes a night, and that kind of depth will really help in the second game of a tournament weekend.
3. Cut down on three-pointers: Four different Shockers have at least 45 three-point attempts, but none are all that accurate. If they go cold in the postseason, it won’t take long to shoot themselves out of a game.
1. Slow down the tempo: The Spartans have as weak an offense as any in the Top 25. They must avoid letting higher-scoring teams push the score into the 80s.
2. Crash the offensive glass: Derrick Nix and the Michigan State frontcourt can bang with anybody in the country. They also won’t do much scoring if they can’t get second-chance points.
3. Keep Gary Harris on track: When the freshman SG is hot, he’s lethal (6-for-8 treys against Purdue). If he goes cold, though, Tom Izzo has few options for other scorers.
1. Own the boards: The country’s fourth-ranked rebounding group must maintain that edge to compensate for a lack of interior scorers.
2. Spread the ball around: This offense is at its best when Sean Kilpatrick, Cashmere Wright and JaQuon Parker (a combined 43.1 points per game) all get plenty of touches.
3. Play Big East basketball: The physical Bearcats can body up on opposing guards as well as anyone. They’ll need to press that advantage to keep their big men out of foul trouble.
1. Pound the ball inside: The top-ranked field-goal shooting team in the nation didn’t get there by accident. Points in the paint are the Wolfpack’s friend.
2. Turn up the heat on D: Lorenzo Brown hasn’t been great in many areas, but his 2.3 steals per game will make it tough for opposing offenses to set up.
3. Keep up the free-throw practice: Despite improvement from the beginning of the year, the charity stripe is still a vulnerable area. Freshmen T.J. Warren and Rodney Purvis are both shooting under 60 percent on foul shots.
1. Win ugly: Tuesday was the fourth time this year the Hoyas were held under 50 points…and they’re 2-2 in such games. Be ready to let the defense bail the offense out.
2. Feed Markel Starks: One of the few bona fide offensive weapons Georgetown has is its junior shooting guard. His .429 long-range shooting deserves even more attempts than it’s getting.
3. Play bigger: The seven-man rotation has four players 6’8” or taller; 275th in the nation in rebounding is unacceptable, period.
1. Create shots for Rodney McGruder: Senior McGruder is the Wildcats’ only reliable scorer. If he gets shut down, they’re toast.
2. Don’t forget about Jordan Henriquez: Though he plays just 13.7 minutes per game, the offensively-challenged big man is a game-changing shot-blocker (five rejections in the upset over Florida).
3. Get the most out of Thomas Gipson: He’s more dump truck than Ferrari, but the 6’7”, 270-lb sophomore is the best scorer among K-State’s post players. He needs to take as much pressure as possible off the guards on offense.
1. Take what the defense gives you: The Irish are No. 1 nationally in assists because they can feed whoever’s open. That’s a big advantage to have.
2. Take what the refs give you: Notre Dame is, like much of the Big East, a very physical team. The more contact they can get away with on defense, the better they’ll be.
3. Trust the bench: Although the Irish only go seven deep, both Garrick Sherman and Cameron Biedscheid have played extremely well in reserve roles. If foul trouble forces either into extra minutes, it won’t be a disaster.
1. Get the old Xavier Thames back: The once-solid PG is down to a woeful 2.8 assists per game. The Aztecs will struggle against other high seeds unless they can get some better floor leadership.
2. Push the tempo: This is not a team built to win with defense. The more shots they can create for their perimeter scorers, the better their chances.
3. Play like you’ve been there before: Most of the rotation played in last year’s Big Dance, and many will be appearing in a third straight tourney. That’s a lot more experience than many ranked teams can boast.
1. Get Deshaun Thomas some help: The Big Ten’s scoring leader can’t beat a great team by himself. A second reliable scorer must emerge.
2. Tighten up the defense inside: Amir Williams joined the starting lineup for exactly this purpose, but the Buckeyes are still giving up too many shots near the rim.
3. Capitalize on turnovers: Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott are combining for 3.9 steals per game. Those opportunities have to become easy baskets for a team whose half-court offense isn’t quite championship-ready.
1. Ride Rotnei Clarke: The Arkansas transfer is the best pure shooter in the country. Butler will go as far as his scoring lead can take them.
2. Count on the defense: The Bulldogs don’t rack up impressive individual numbers, but this is still a team that held North Carolina to 71 points. Eliminating easy shots goes a long way in March.
3. Embrace the underdog role: Whatever their seed, the Bulldogs (unranked to start the year) will still have a Cinderella feel in the later rounds of the tournament.
Playing like they have no expectations on their shoulders can only help a team with relatively little postseason experience.
1. Rally around Gregory Echenique: The one genuine plus among Creighton’s defenders, Echenique and his 1.7 blocks per game must keep a shaky D from being overrun.
2. Keep the ball moving: Grant Gibbs and Austin Chatman combine for 10.9 assists per game. An assisted shot is usually an easier shot, and Creighton will need points by the bushel to advance in March.
3. Keep the games close: Doug McDermott shoots .551 from the floor and .493 from three-point range.
If the Blue Jays can put themselves in a situation where they need one or two clutch shots, they have one of the best pure scorers in the country to take them.
1. Shoot, shoot, shoot: The Illini offense is best when it’s on the attack. They don’t have to get a three-pointer every possession, but shooting aggressively will pay off.
2. Rebound from the outside in: With the front line lacking in raw power, Illinois must get its rebounds with quickness. Top guards Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson are combining for 9.7 boards a night.
3. Wear down the opposing backcourt: Reserves Joseph Bertrand and Myke Henry give the Illini enviable depth outside.
That gives the starters even more chances to apply pressure: Paul, Richardson and Tracy Abrams average an aggregate 4.6 steals per game.
1. Bring out Kenny Boynton’s killer instinct: Despite the lack of other perimeter scorers, Boynton’s average is down more than two points per game from last year. His postseason experience will be vital in March, but he’s got to demand the ball in crunch time.
2. Attack on defense: Billy Donovan’s combination of full-court pressure and half-court zone has smothered most opponents. A strong start defensively can help the Gators build a big lead early in a game, even against top-notch competition.
3. Keep Scottie Wilbekin on the floor: Wilbekin is the only Gator point guard who’s been remotely effective. If he gets hurt or in foul trouble, the half-court offense is pretty much doomed.
1. Keep hammering the boards: The country’s No. 1 rebounding team is playing awfully good defense just by holding opponents to one shot.
2. Space the floor: The Tiger three-point shooters have been getting better and better as the season has gone on. The more long-range shots they hit, the more room Laurence Bowers and Alex Oriakhi have to operate inside.
3. Trust Phil Pressey: The best point guard in the Big 12, Pressey is having a spectacular year as a passer (7.6 assists per game) and a very good one everywhere else.
He was one of the few Tigers who had a great game (20 points, eight assists) in the loss to Norfolk State last March.
1. Use your size: 6’11” Kelly Olynyk and 6’8” Elias Harris will provide matchup problems even for power-conference foes.
2. Substitute early and often: Ten Zags average double-digit minutes, giving them a chance to wear down short-rotation teams such as Duke.
3. Keep the jump shooters sharp: Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. can be afterthoughts in this offense, but when it comes down to one play out of a timeout late in the game, they have to be ready to nail a jumper.
1. Boost Trevor Mbakwe’s confidence: Minnesota isn’t a Final Four team with Mbakwe scoring 9.3 points a night. He’s got to be more of a factor inside with his strength and athletic ability.
2. Take advantage of matchups: The 6’4” Austin Hollins and 6’7” Rodney Williams Jr. will both have height and strength advantages on plenty of opponents. Williams’ leaping ability adds another problem for defenses.
3. Run as much as possible: Finishers Mbakwe and Williams make the Gopher fast break a fearsome weapon. Getting to the rim in transition also takes the pressure off lone three-point threat Andre Hollins.
1. Keep the pressure high: The Orange have been extending their 2-3 zone to force more turnovers at the top. Michael Carter-Williams and his 3.2 steals per game say it’s working.
2. Give Michael Carter-Williams plenty of targets: Carter-Williams isn’t impressive as a shooter, so opponents are going to try to force him into that role. The more scorers he has around him, the harder that job will be.
3. Follow Brandon Triche’s lead: Triche is one of the few seniors on a massively inexperienced team. He’ll need to calm things down when the youngsters start trying to do too much.
1. Take the opponent out of their game plan: Few defenses are as demoralizing as the Jayhawks’, thanks to eraser Jeff Withey in the middle. Whatever the other team’s strength, Kansas has the personnel to suppress it.
2. Find ways to get Ben McLemore open: As his 33-point explosion Wednesday showed, McLemore is the one Kansas scorer opponents must fear. Every team will game-plan for him, but KU must make sure he gets his points to keep the offense flowing.
3. Keep an even keel: Kansas has the benefit of ample senior leadership and Final Four experience. Even if an opponent can put the Jayhawks in a hole early (not impossible with their spotty offense), they know how to avoid panicking and battle back.
1. Find the open man: The Hoosiers’ top-ranked scoring offense shines because everybody can shoot. With so many weapons for a defense to account for, somebody will get a good look at the basket.
2. Embrace the Big Ten grind: This is not a team equipped to win with defense, but they’ll have to slog through some ugly games in a bruising conference. That experience will serve them well against top defenses in March.
3. Take your cues from Victor Oladipo: The unheralded junior has become the Hoosiers’ energy guy, making all the hustle plays on the glass and on defense. A bit more of that kind of scrappiness wouldn’t come amiss from the rest of IU’s backcourt.
1. Hold onto the ball: Primary ball-handler Mark Lyons is a wonderful scorer, but he’s a point guard only by necessity. His ugly assist-to-turnover ratio (1.1-to-1) will kill the Wildcats against ball-hawking defenses, given half a chance.
2. Find some interior scoring: Brandon Ashley leads the Arizona bigs with just 8.3 points per game. He, Kaleb Tarczewski and Grant Jerrett have all shown flashes of talent, but at least one of them needs to become a serious threat in the paint.
3. Keep up the late-game heroics: If there’s one thing the Wildcats have proved, it’s their ability to win close games.
One overtime victory and two one-possession games in their last three tries have given Lyons plenty of chances to show how dangerous he is with the game on the line.
1. Win the transition battle: The lightning-fast Louisville guards are almost impossible to stop in the open floor, and the same speed makes the Cardinals tough to run on. Fast-break points will be a decisive stat in any Louisville win.
2. Lean on the defense: Shot-blocker Gorgui Dieng backs up some terrific perimeter pressure from Peyton Siva and Russ Smith. The offense is a lot better than last year’s, but it’s the D that makes the Cards a title contender.
3. Count on Peyton Siva in the clutch: After early losses as a freshman and sophomore, Siva took last year’s Cardinals to the Final Four. He’s not the team’s best shooter, but he’ll know what to do with the ball when the game’s on the line.
1. Fire away: Michigan has a great chance to win a shootout against any team in the country. The more the Wolverines can turn the game into an offensive contest, the better their odds.
2. Keep the freshmen relaxed: Michigan only goes seven deep, and four of those are freshmen. Trey Burke (a relative veteran as a sophomore) must take the pressure off that quartet under the bright lights of the tournament.
3. Get the most out of the big guards: The 6’6” trio of Tim Hardaway Jr., Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas gives opposing guards a lot of long arms to shoot over. Even without blocking many shots, the Wolverines can really make life difficult for perimeter scorers (and rebounders).
1. Feed Mason Plumlee: The Blue Devils have their share of three-point shooters (as always), but Plumlee’s low-post scoring is much more of a sure thing.
2. Don’t forget about Rasheed Sulaimon: Although freshman Sulaimon has slipped to fifth on the team’s scoring charts, he’s got the mid-range game and the athleticism to make opponents pay for double-teaming Plumlee or Seth Curry.
3. Box out: Despite Plumlee’s brilliance inside, rebounding is not a strength for Duke. The undersized backcourt must keep opposing guards from controlling the glass, especially against strong perimeter rebounding teams such as Illinois or Cincinnati.