The 10 Toughest Teams to Prepare for in 2013 NCAA Tournament
At least 10 head coaches have not been able to sleep since the Selection Show.
Who you draw in the NCAA tournament is exponentially more important than your region or your seed, and some coaches are finding that out the hard way.
Tom Izzo had to have been thrilled to get the No. 3 seed in the Midwest and a path to the Final Four that runs through Auburn Hills and Indianapolis. However, he can't be pleased at all with a first-round pairing against Valparaiso.
Read on for thoughts on why the Crusaders could pose a threat to Michigan State, as well as the other nine teams that no coach wants to face. Each slide will successively feature an even bigger headache than the one before.
Check out the links below for all of your other bracket needs, and be sure to follow me on twitter throughout the tournament: @kerrancejames
Northwestern State (Headache Level: Mild Inconvenience)
Northwestern State getting into the tournament at all was something of a shock. Stephen F. Austin looked like the dominant team from the Southland conference, losing just three regular-season games. However, Northwestern State prevailed.
If you’re unaccustomed to playing basketball at a breakneck pace, Northwestern State could pose a serious problem. At 81 points per game, the Demons are the highest scoring team in the nation. However, they’ve demonstrated in three games against Stephen F. Austin—by averaging just 64 points in those games—that a defensive-minded team can slow them down.
The Gators have only once allowed a team to score more than 67 points against them this season, so it'll be an interesting clash of styles in the first round.
Villanova (Headache Level: Temple Massage Imminent)
Villanova will be tough to plan for because there’s no telling which Villanova team will show up. The Wildcats lost five games to teams that missed the tournament but beat the four best teams in the Big East.
The key to beating them is to defend without fouling—which if you haven’t figured out how to do at this point in the season, you won’t be able to learn overnight. They lead the nation in free throws made and attempted but only shoot 42 percent from the floor.
Unfortunately for Jay Wright, the Tar Heels have figured out how to defend without fouling. Well, at least they've figured out how to not foul, holding each of their final seven opponents of the regular season to 15 or fewer free-throw attempts.
Valparaiso (Headache Level: Allergy Season)
Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is an average team that benefited from Butler’s departure from the Horizon League. Valparaiso’s versatility makes it one of the most dangerous first-round opponents a top four team could draw.
Anchored by leading scorer Ryan Broekhoff, the Crusaders have a nine-man rotation of juniors and seniors that average at least 15 minutes per game. With the exception of Kevin Van Wijk—who’s making 65 percent of his field-goal attempts this year because of it—all nine of those guys are willing and able to step outside the three-point line to get their shots.
If and when Adreian Payne is able to shut down Broekhoff, it'll be interesting to see if any other Crusader is able to take the reins without their fearless leader.
New Mexico State (Headache Level: Pass the Aspirin)
If you work on your jumper and ball-handling every single day, you can play basketball at a high level. However, you can’t teach height, and you can’t very well prepare for how to deal with it on an opposing team.
New Mexico State has a 7’5” freshman by the name of Sim Bhullar who is averaging 11.9 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.4 blocks per game over the Aggies’ last 12 games. One of the commentators in Saturday night’s championship game against Texas-Arlington referred to him as “The Great Wall of India,” and I will continue doing the same until the end of days.
His Achilles' heel—as it is with most big men—is free-throw shooting. He makes just 46.5 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe. We’ve seen Hack-a-Shaq and Hack-a-Howard strategies over the past decade or so in the NBA. Could we be headed towards a Hack-a-Bhullar in the NCAA tournament?
Duke (Headache Level: Double Vision)
(If that's not the most Ryan Kelly picture of Ryan Kelly in the history of the Internet, I'm not sure what is.)
I wrote this about Duke back when Kelly’s foot injury first surfaced online:
“Three years ago, I never would have dreamt I’d be saying this, but Duke’s chances of winning decrease significantly if Kelly is unable to go. The four-year three-point shooting forward willing to take a charge has been the key to Duke’s success since they painted that arc on the courts. From (Christian) Laettner to (Shane) Battier to (Kyle) Singler, Duke has been at its best when its ‘power forward’ had some range, and at its worst when it didn’t.”
How Duke fared without Kelly really backed up that sentiment, and it’s what makes Duke so difficult to prepare for when he’s in the lineup. Mason Plumlee is hardly an offensive juggernaut, but he occasionally looks like one when he goes one-on-one with a big man because everyone else has to keep an eye on the perimeter shooters. If you double Plumlee in the post, he’ll find the open man at the three-point line.
With Kelly in there, Duke’s ball movement is better than your defense’s ability to rotate to defend it. Within two or three passes, there always seems to be a 40 percent three-point shooter wide open to do his thing. Either you live with Plumlee beating you in the paint or you hope that Duke will have a cold night from long range.
Iowa State (Headache Level: Serenity Now!)
The Cyclones made more three-pointers this season than any team in the country—by a margin of nearly 10 percent, no less.
All six players who average more than 13 minutes per game also average between 1.9 and 6.0 three-point attempts per game, with Will Clyburn being the only one who shoots below 35 percent. It’s one thing to shoot threes until your arms fall off, but it’s another thing entirely to shoot 37 percent as a team in the process.
If Duke is a matchup nightmare because it regularly has four guys on the court who can hit an open three, how much more difficult must it be to plan for an Iowa State team with five three-point shooters at nearly all times?
One has to wonder why coach Fred Hoiberg doesn’t just fully embrace the three-pointer by starting every half-court possession with all five guys on the perimeter. When facing a team like Kansas, wouldn’t that completely neutralize Jeff Withey on defense?
Missouri (Headache Level: Checking Symptoms on WebMD)
When the Tigers are on, there’s nothing you can do to stop them. And that has nothing to do with the fact that they’re the second-best rebounding team in the country.
They have scored at least 78 points in 17 different games this season. They have six different guys who average in double figures, each of which has scored at least 22 points in a game at some point this season.
Of course, there are a lot of high-scoring teams that spread the ball around. What makes Missouri uniquely difficult to plan against is there’s no telling which guys or how many of them are going to show up in a game.
Earnest Ross, for example, had the following point totals over a 13-game stretch earlier this year: 1, 16, 8, 16, 5, 19, 3, 15, 0, 21, 9, 7, 23. How can a 38-percent three-point shooter be that unpredictable?
Or take Alex Oriakhi, who has probably been Missouri’s most consistent guy,but at the end of January, followed up back-to-back double-doubles with a 16-minute, one-point, three-rebound dud against LSU.
Is it possible that the key to beating Missouri is to just ignore Phil Pressey? The Tigers are 12-1 when Pressey scores eight or fewer points and a pedestrian 11-9 when he’s more interested in creating his own shot.
VCU (Headache Level: Pass the Vicodin)
The blueprint for beating VCU isn’t a very complicated one, although it’s incredibly complicated to execute if you don’t have the right personnel for the job.
In the Rams’ eight losses, they are averaging just 6.25 steals per game while the opponent is turning the ball over just 12.1 times per game. In their wins, however, those numbers balloon to 13.2 steals and 21.5 turnovers forced per game.
“Yeah, but that includes a bunch of wins against RPI Sub-150 teams!”
You’re absolutely right, playing against those teams dragged down their average a bit. In their three wins against the RPI Top 50 (Belmont, Butler and Memphis), they averaged 15 steals and 21.3 turnovers forced.
So, you know, just go out there and withstand 40 minutes of non-stop full-court pressure every time you inbound the ball. And if it’s not too much trouble, keep them from scoring fast break buckets while you’re at it. What’s so hard about that?
Miami (Headache Level: Immobilizing Migraine)
The Hurricanes might just have the best seven-man rotation in the entire country.
With the exception of Malcolm Grant and the addition of Julian Gamble, it’s the exact same team that went to the NIT last season, but it was addition by subtraction with Grant. No disrespect to Grant wherever he is these days, but he was not the same shooter in his senior year as he was the previous three.
Unfortunately, that didn’t stop him from attempting 206 three-pointers over the course of the season. That's a lot of wasted possessions from a guy who shot just 33 percent that year.
Replacing him in the rotation with Gamble provided the ‘Canes with another shot-blocking post presence and opened the door for guys like Kenny Kadji and especially Shane Larkin to shine. As a result, Miami has the best backcourt in the nation.
That's right. I said it. Miami's backcourt is better than Michigan's, better than Indiana's and better than anyone else.
In the ACC tournament, the trio of Larkin, Durand Scott and Trey McKinney-Jones averaged 51 points per game and shot a combined 47 percent (22 of 47) from three-point range. That's just silly. And it doesn't even factor in the contributions from big men Reggie Johnson, Gamble and Kadji—the latter of which is even more of a matchup nightmare than Ryan Kelly because he can dunk and play solid defense.
If you didn’t come away from this weekend thinking you had just watched a legitimate Final Four contender in Miami, I’m not sure which ACC tournament you were watching.
Louisville (Headache Level: Kill Me Please)
Louisville is one of the best offensive teams in the nation. If you let up for a second on defense, it doesn’t take long for a 10-point lead to turn into a 15-point deficit—just ask Syracuse.
Russ Smith is one of the premier scorers at the collegiate level, and he’s surrounded by five of the best role players in the game.
Gorgui Dieng is a monster in the paint. Peyton Siva is essentially an assistant coach on the court with his heart and leadership. Chane Behanan is good for a handful of points and a whole lot of defense every night. Wayne Blackshear and Luke Hancock can stretch the defense by stepping out to hit the occasional three-pointer.
Where do you focus your efforts on defense?
Better yet, how are you going to score against them?
The Cardinals have a great offense, but their forte is forcing turnovers and blocked shots on defense. You have to earn every bucket on offense and every rebound on defense.
Best of luck.