March Madness is certain to be full of surprises this year, not least because the season has shown repeatedly that there isn’t anything close to an unbeatable team in the AP Top 25. Every squad has its share of vulnerabilities, and one bad pairing will send even a top seed tumbling out of the brackets in short order.
Georgetown has been one of the hottest teams in the nation in recent weeks, thanks in large measure to a bruising defense. The Hoyas' ability to win low-scoring games makes them an opponent that No. 19 Wisconsin would hate to see on its NCAA tournament schedule.
Herein, a look at the worst-case Big Dance opponent for every team in this week’s AP rankings.
Any team that wants to beat Notre Dame had better be ready for double-double specialist Jack Cooley in the paint.
The Golden Gophers can counter the punishing Cooley with senior Trevor Mbakwe, one of the few players in the country with the physicality to challenge Cooley one on one.
However, Notre Dame’s biggest weakness has been facing an explosive, athletic offense. Losses to St. John’s and Providence, plus two narrow escapes against DePaul, owe much to those teams' ability to attack the Irish D.
Minnesota’s Rodney Williams and Andre Hollins are ideally suited to provide that kind of threat and outscore the dangerous Notre Dame attack.
Matchup: St. Mary’s
Virginia Commonwealth’s havoc defense can rattle even the best of backcourts, but a talented, experienced point guard is still a good start to surviving the Rams.
Gaels senior Matthew Dellavedova is among the nation's best, and SG Stephen Holt isn’t a half-bad ball-handler himself.
In addition, St. Mary’s has the three-point gunners to trade shots with VCU’s backcourt. Along with Dellavedova and Holt, don’t overlook stretch 4-man Beau Levesque and his team-leading .461 percentage from beyond the arc.
Few teams have had much luck against Oregon in shootouts, but defensive slugfests (like Colorado’s 48-47 win in Eugene) have given the Ducks more trouble.
That kind of game is just another day at the office in the Big East, where physical Marquette has managed to outlast the likes of Georgetown and Pittsburgh.
If Oregon PG Dominic Artis is still out of action come tournament time, that will be one more edge for the Golden Eagles and senior floor leader Junior Cadougan.
Either way, Oregon will have a tough time matching the athleticism of Marquette stars Vander Blue and Davante Gardner.
Depth in the backcourt is a prerequisite for handling CSU’s veteran guards, and Butler (with Rotnei Clarke in the lead) can provide it with gusto.
The 6’4” Roosevelt Jones will be a particular source of frustration for a group of Ram wings who are used to outmuscling all comers.
In addition to their perimeter talent, the Bulldogs have a solid inside game led by 6’11” senior Andrew Smith. They won't be overwhelmed by Colorado State’s formidable rebounders.
It won’t hurt that, as a perennial underdog in its own right, Butler will be likelier to take Colorado State seriously than a Big East or Big Ten team might be.
Matchup: Oklahoma State
Memphis’ Achilles heel this season has been high-powered backcourt scorers.
After getting torched by the likes of Minnesota’s Andre Hollins and VCU’s Treveon Graham, the last player the Tigers want to see in the opposing lineup is Oklahoma State superstar Marcus Smart.
With sweet-shooting junior Markel Brown as a running mate, freshman Smart has been one of the most unstoppable guards in the college game.
Memphis’ balanced lineup is all well and good, but if they have to match a 30-point game from one of the Cowboy guards, the Tigers will see their season end in short order.
Matchup: Colorado State
The first step in handling Tray Woodall and the Panthers is getting their hyper-efficient offense out of its rhythm.
Colorado State’s physical wings, led by 6’5” Pierce Hornung, can jostle and harass Pitt’s cutters just as effectively as the Big East defenses that have beaten the Panthers this season.
Just as important, CSU is the toughest rebounding team in the nation, so Pitt won’t be getting second chances against its defense.
Lastly, 6’10”, 261-pound Ram center Colton Iverson provides a fine antidote to Steven Adams, the Panthers’ seven-foot freshman standout.
The Badgers’ stifling defense can drag any offense down to its pace, so nobody will beat Wisconsin without playing some defense of their own.
Georgetown, which has played three games this season in which neither side broke 50 points, can handle itself in a defensive quagmire.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the Hoyas won two of those three low-scoring games, thanks in large measure to an offense that can adjust if one scoring option is shut down.
Georgetown’s take on the Princeton offense certainly won’t light up the scoreboard against Wisconsin. What it will do is give the Badgers enough trouble to keep their defense from winning the game by itself, letting the Hoyas' own defense do the talking instead.
Matchup: Michigan State
When playing the Buckeyes, everything starts with super-scorer Deshaun Thomas.
Michigan State—which already owns a win over Ohio State in East Lansing—has a defense to frustrate any scorer, but the Spartans match up particularly well against Thomas.
Between mobile 6’10” Adreian Payne and 6’6”, high-energy wing Branden Dawson, Michigan State has some very dangerous defenders to throw at Thomas.
Also helping the Spartan cause is a backcourt with a talented pair of point guards, Keith Appling and Denzel Valentine. That duo can provide an answer to ballhawking Buckeyes Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott.
Memphis won’t be joining the Big East until next season, but the Tigers have Big East-caliber athletes now.
That’s a key to handling the physical defense that has helped Marquette climb the national rankings, because even the Golden Eagles won’t have an easy time pushing around the likes of Adonis Thomas and Joe Jackson.
More importantly, they won’t have an easy time outscoring them, either.
Marquette has thrived on putting up just enough points to let its defense win games, and a shootout with a team that outscores them by five points per game (including Jackson and his .492 long-range shooting) is not a recipe for a Golden Eagle win.
As well as New Mexico has played in a 22-4 season, the Lobos are an appallingly bad shooting team.
If New Mexico can’t do better than .411 field-goal shooting (276th nationally) against the likes of Fresno State and Air Force, the last thing it needs to see is the nation’s toughest zone defense.
Syracuse isn’t just shutting opponents down in the half court, as Michael Carter-Williams (3.1 steals per game) leads a high-pressure perimeter game.
Carter-Williams also runs an offense with more than enough firepower to handle the solid-but-unspectacular Lobo D.
Butler’s combination of gutty defense and pinpoint shooting has made the Bulldogs experts in close finishes. They're 4-1 in games decided by three points or fewer.
Taking them down will require a team that has its own experience surviving at the final buzzer…as Arizona did at the end of December. Three straight games came down to the final possession and the ‘Cats went 3-0 in that stretch.
Arizona’s survival in those games owed a lot to star guard Mark Lyons, who has shown the ability to get his shots even against a defense as imposing as Butler’s.
Arizona also has an answer for late-game Bulldog playmaker Roosevelt Jones, thanks to the outstanding defensive skills of senior forward Solomon Hill.
Oklahoma State has played brilliantly in the Big 12, but one thing that conference is very short on is big men with offensive skills. In fact, the only team that’s beaten the Cowboys in Stillwater is Gonzaga, behind high-scoring seven-footer Kelly Olynyk.
If one high-end center caused problems for the unimpressive OSU frontcourt, try three: Miami’s towering trio of Reggie Johnson, Kenny Kadji and Julian Gamble.
The ‘Canes also feature a playmaking point guard (ACC steals leader Shane Larkin) whose ball pressure will keep superstar Marcus Smart from running wild.
Kansas State’s offense may be much improved, but Rodney McGruder and company are still leaning heavily on their defense to win games.
The Wildcats simply don’t have the firepower to match the nation’s most explosive offenses, a group in which Duke assuredly belongs.
K-State will have particular trouble handling Mason Plumlee down low, as the only Wildcat equipped to compete with him (Jordan Henriquez) is playing a mere 15.4 minutes per game.
The Blue Devils also have a supply of hardworking backcourt defenders who will give the guard-heavy Wildcat attack plenty of trouble.
Matchup: Virginia Commonwealth
Mark Lyons is a sensational offensive weapon, but he is not a point guard. The Wildcats’ primary ball-handler has a horrific assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.1, and the last thing he wants to face is the team that leads the country in forcing turnovers.
Between the Rams’ high-pressure defense and their wealth of three-point shooters, Arizona will have a miserable time trying to find enough points to outscore VCU.
The Wildcats’ position isn’t helped any by an offensively anemic group of big men that will struggle to take advantage of the smaller Rams inside.
Georgetown’s current seven-game winning streak has depended heavily on holding six of those seven opponents under 60 points.
It’s one thing to play that kind of D against Seton Hall or even Marquette, but Michigan has too much firepower for the Hoyas to shut down altogether.
The Hoyas have broken 70 points in less than one-third of their games, while the Wolverines average 76.2 a night.
Otto Porter Jr. is a wonderful player, but he doesn’t have enough help to outscore Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., especially not after that duo has warmed up on three months of stout Big Ten defenses.
Matchup: Kansas State
A huge portion of Louisville’s offense starts with defensive pressure, so keeping the ball away from the Cardinal backcourt is a key to topping Russ Smith’s team.
Having done exactly that in an upset of Florida (in which the Gators managed a mere four steals), Kansas State will be ready for the aggressive Louisville guards.
K-State’s physical half-court defense will make for an uphill battle of its own for a Louisville team that isn’t loaded with jump-shooting options.
The Wildcats’ own offense will also have an advantage, as primary scorer Rodney McGruder (at 6’4”, 205 lbs) provides a tough matchup for either 6'0" Russ Smith or the less defense-minded Wayne Blackshear.
In a great case of the irresistible force and the immovable object, Indiana-Kansas would feature the country’s top field-goal defense (KU) against its fourth-best shooting offense (and second-best scoring attack).
Tough as the Jayhawks are, though, Indiana has only been held under 70 points in three of its 27 games, so Jeff Withey’s D is facing a nearly impossible task.
Despite Ben McLemore’s best efforts, Kansas doesn’t have the firepower to match a Hoosier offense that features five double-digit scorers. Even more problematic, four of those five shoot .386 or better from long range).
The Jayhawks won’t have an easy time of it on offense themselves, both because of the Hoosiers’ daunting size and because playmaking Victor Oladipo can disrupt offenses far more reliable than KU’s.
Even the best zone defense is vulnerable to great outside shooting, and Florida has hit .395 from beyond the arc as a team this season.
Erik Murphy is a particular threat to the Orange, as his 6’10” frame will keep most of his tries out of reach of Syracuse’s shot-blocking forwards.
The Gators also have plenty of defense of their own to counter the balanced Orange attack.
Michael Carter-Williams, who turned it over eight times against Louisville’s pressure earlier this year, will be in for a rough night against Scottie Wilbekin and the attacking Gator guards.
For all Michigan’s prodigious offensive firepower, the Wolverines are averaging a paltry 60 points per game in their four losses.
No team is better equipped to force Trey Burke and company into another subpar shooting night than the Jayhawks, owners of the nation’s best field-goal defense at a stellar .356.
Michigan’s thin frontcourt will also be especially vulnerable to KU center Jeff Withey. When Withey, a 13.2 point-per-game scorer on the year, gets hot, Kansas' sometimes vulnerable offense becomes far tougher.
Add in the impressive size on the perimeter for Kansas (6’5” Ben McLemore, 6’6” Travis Releford) and the Wolverines will be in the rare position of scrambling for points. That's bad news for Michigan against a team accustomed to winning defensive battles.
Matchup: Notre Dame
Duke’s biggest vulnerability all season has been facing big, powerful forwards who won’t back down against Mason Plumlee.
The three who have come away with wins against the Blue Devils—N.C. State’s Richard Howell, Miami’s Kenny Kadji and Maryland’s Alex Len—are an impressive bunch, but none is playing as well this year as Notre Dame’s Jack Cooley.
The Irish senior’s 6’9”, 246-pound frame is plenty big enough to bang with Plumlee, and his 14.5 points per game will force Plumlee to wear himself out on defense, too.
Notre Dame also features the kind of big, aggressive wings (6’5” Jerian Grant, 6’6” Pat Connaughton) who have eaten up the undersized Blue Devil guards on the glass all season.
Pressing teams rarely enjoy being pressed, and Louisville guards Peyton Siva and Russ Smith will be all over the Gator backcourt.
Florida coach Billy Donovan learned his trade from Louisville’s Rick Pitino, making it a good bet that the Cardinals will be ready for anything Scottie Wilbekin and company can throw at them.
In the half court, the Gators’ combination of zone and man is unlikely to throw off a Cardinal squad that played a similar mix of defenses during last year’s Final Four run.
Louisville also features a punishing set of forwards who can give even Patric Young and Erik Murphy problems in the paint.
As Michigan State has learned in two painful losses to Indiana, defense alone can only get it so far.
At some point, Keith Appling and company have to put up points for themselves, and there are some opponents who have too much offense for the Spartans to match.
Firmly in that category are the Gonzaga Bulldogs, among the national leaders in offensive efficiency. The Zags boast a scoring average (78.3 points per game) that Michigan State has reached in only six of its 27 games.
The Bulldogs also have enough size (led by 7’0” Kelly Olynyk) to provide some competition for the physical Michigan State big men.
The vast majority of Gonzaga’s opponents this season (including most of the Zags’ many Big 12 foes) have lacked the size to handle a frontcourt led by 7’0” Kelly Olynyk and 6’8” Elias Harris.
Pittsburgh, which starts 7’0” Steven Adams and 6’9” Talib Zanna up front, will hardly be at a disadvantage against the Bulldogs’ length.
The Panthers also have one of the few offenses in the country that can compete with Gonzaga’s efficiency, a distinction that owes much to senior PG Tray Woodall.
Finally, the 20th-ranked Panthers could easily be overlooked by high-flying Gonzaga—just as San Diego was when the Toreros came within a bucket of upsetting the Zags on February 2.
Matchup: Ohio State
Even the towering Hurricane frontcourt will have to work for its points against a stalwart Buckeye defense that features 6’11” shot-blocker Amir Williams down low.
Ohio State’s perimeter D will be even more of a threat, sending defensive ace Aaron Craft against tournament neophyte Shane Larkin.
Just as important, Miami won’t have an easy time matching up with Deshaun Thomas on the offensive end.
Athletic big man Kenny Kadji will likely draw the assignment. However, his perimeter skills are a lot better suited to handling the ball and shooting treys than to chasing the 6’7” Thomas around screens for 40 minutes.
In their first meeting in Bloomington, Wisconsin didn’t just hold Indiana 24 points below its season average. The Hoosiers’ 59 points in that game were seven points fewer than any other defense has allowed against IU all year.
Nobody is likely to win a shootout with Cody Zeller and the Hoosiers, but Wisconsin’s defense is so overwhelming that it can make even this offense mortal.
The Badgers also have enough size (led by 6’10” Jared Berggren) to avoid being overwhelmed by the Hoosiers’ length.