In the single-elimination world of college basketball’s postseason, a contender’s season can end thanks to one weak link and an opponent to exploit it. Even the top candidates for the 2014 national title have holes that could send them to a very premature exit in March Madness.
Ohio State will be a Final Four favorite behind a smothering defense led by veteran PG Aaron Craft. However, the loss of frontcourt star Deshaun Thomas leaves Craft without any scorers to feed on the inside.
Herein, a closer look at the Buckeyes and 19 more high-level contenders who could be sunk by one crucial defect.
Rising junior P.J. Hairston would be the top returning backcourt player for the Tar Heels…if he ever gets on the floor. A morass of legal troubles has prompted Roy Williams to suspend the athletic SG indefinitely, but not to dismiss him from the team.
That uncertain status will leave Hairston’s specter hovering over Chapel Hill all season long, with every new AP poll bringing questions of “When will Hairston be reinstated?” or “How good would North Carolina be with Hairston back?”
Of course, Williams can’t really win, because if he does reinstate his star guard, he’ll be accused of going soft on a troubled player because of his on-court skills.
As always, the key to Virginia Commonwealth’s success will be forcing turnovers with its havoc press and turning them into transition baskets on the other end. When they can’t beat the other team down the floor, though, the Rams are in for a long year.
Heir-apparent PG Briante Weber is one of the best ball hawks anywhere, but he’s not nearly the playmaker that departed Darius Theus was when his team is on offense.
With sniper Troy Daniels also graduated, VCU will need rising senior big man Juvonte Reddic to contribute even more than the 14.6 points per game he was already scoring.
Swapping Gorgui Dieng for Montrezl Harrell in the Louisville frontcourt will likely improve the Cardinals’ offense, but defense is another matter. Harrell isn’t the shot-blocker that Dieng was, and he’s also (at 6’8”) three inches shorter.
The size concerns don’t just crop up in the paint, as Rick Pitino will once again send out a tiny backcourt: 5’10” JUCO transfer Chris Jones at the point and 6’1” Russ Smith at SG.
With big, physical teams such as Kansas and Kentucky potentially looming in the Final Four, all the quickness in the world might not save the defending champs.
With 7’1” Isaiah Austin leading a towering frontcourt, Baylor will have the advantage inside against pretty much any opponent. Whether the Bears’ big men will have anybody to get them the ball, though, is another matter.
Scoring leader Pierre Jackson and A.J. Walton, who combined to account for 10.7 of the team’s 15 assists per game, are gone. L.J. Rose, who was supposed to be the point guard of the future, has transferred to Houston.
That leaves the NIT champs having to hope that JUCO addition Kenny Chery or unremarkable backup Gary Franklin can keep the offense functioning in Jackson’s absence.
After making the 2012 national title game, Kansas lost its stars (Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor) but returned three other starters to carry the team to a 31-6 finish.
Now, though, Bill Self has an even tougher challenge after losing the entire starting lineup from last year’s Big 12 co-champs.
A high-powered recruiting class led by top freshman Andrew Wiggins joins former bench standouts Naadir Tharpe and Perry Ellis, but they have a total of six games postseason experience (and no appreciable time as starters) between them.
The only bona fide veteran on the roster is Memphis transfer Tarik Black, and his teams won a total of one NCAA tournament game in his three seasons as a Tiger.
*The original version of this slide incorrectly stated that Memphis had zero NCAA tournament wins with Tarik Black. The author regrets the error.
One of the biggest reasons Gregg Marshall’s squad managed to surprise everyone and make the Final Four was that the Shockers were ferocious on the boards.
The nation’s 27th-best rebounding team had the interior muscle to bang with bigger opponents from Gonzaga and Ohio State, but next year will be a different story.
Emotional leader Carl Hall has graduated, along with hardworking reserve Ehimen Orukpe, and their combined 11.2 boards per game leave with them.
Only Cleanthony Early remains from the Shockers’ Final Four frontcourt, and he’s a combo forward who needs to be able to play out of the paint as well as in it for maximum effectiveness.
Memphis coach Josh Pastner has an embarrassment of riches at the guard spots, with seniors Geron Johnson, Chris Crawford and Joe Jackson all bringing double-digit scoring punch.
However, an offense-by-committee is rarely a winning formula in the postseason.
In a close game, having one go-to player whom the entire team can count on—and whom the defense must account for—is often the difference between winning and losing.
Last year’s Tigers lacked that takeover scorer, and there’s no reason to believe any one of their many options will distance himself from the pack in 2013-14.
Considering that Colorado made the NCAA tournament last season, it’s mind-boggling that the Buffaloes ranked 328th nationally in assists (10 per game). Even worse, there’s no help on the horizon for Tad Boyle’s team.
Neither Spencer Dinwiddie nor Askia Booker is a viable point guard, and those two backcourt standouts proved it by posting assist-to-turnover ratios of 1.4 and 1.1, respectively.
Scoring won’t be a problem for next year’s Buffs, but the turnovers are going to pile up fast, especially with no PG prospects in the incoming freshman class.
Last year’s Cyclones ranked 272nd nationally in scoring defense, 174th in field-goal defense, 176th in steals and 84th in blocks. None of those categories will be improved by the loss of backcourt standouts Will Clyburn and Korie Lucious.
Fred Hoiberg has never focused on recruiting defenders, and this year’s JUCO-heavy additions continue that trend.
Only the arrival of Marshall transfer DeAndre Kane (1.8 steals per game) offers any hope for boosting the lackluster D that helped offense-challenged Ohio State bounce ISU from last year’s Big Dance.
Backcourt-driven Connecticut relied on DeAndre Daniels to carry the frontcourt, and the high-flying forward will do the job again next season. However, at 6’8” and a mere 195 lbs, Daniels doesn’t exactly push opposing big men around on the low block.
As for the rest of the forwards, none of them managed to outrebound the 6’1” Shabazz Napier on the season, which should tell you all you need to know.
Slender frosh Kentan Facey will likely face the same problems as Daniels, meaning that the nation’s 243rd-best rebounding team won’t be climbing those charts anytime soon.
Philip Jurick scored 2.8 points per game for Oklahoma State last season. This year, the Cowboys will wish they had a center of his caliber on the roster.
The 6’11”, 260-lb Jurick grabbed 5.8 rebounds per game and blocked 1.1 shots a night, accomplishments none of his prospective replacements—including Marek Soucek, pictured—is likely to match.
Losing Jurick's physical presence inside will also make life tougher for athletic PF Michael Cobbins, the one big man worth mentioning on this year’s Cowboys.
Marquette’s offense last season leaned heavily on three guards—Vander Blue, Junior Cadougan and Trent Lockett—who all played 26 minutes a game or more. All three are gone, and Buzz Williams’ cupboard is looking awfully bare.
The top returning vet, Todd Mayo, managed all of 5.1 points per game off the bench last season.
That puts a lot of pressure on Williams’ best recruits—SG JaJuan Johnson and PG Duane Wilson—to carry the load, and neither is the kind of 5-star wunderkind who’s a sure bet to succeed when handed a Big East starting job from day one.
The 2013 Big Ten title wouldn’t have gone to the Hoosiers if it hadn’t been for Victor Oladipo, and not just because of the athletic guard’s versatility or defense.
The emotional Oladipo showed a talent for rallying his teammates that saved IU time and again in Big Ten play, and with him gone, Tom Crean is hurting for a replacement in that department.
The new frontcourt has shooters to burn, but such talents as freshman Noah Vonleh and rising sophomore Hanner Mosquera-Perea have minimal college experience and will struggle to command instant respect, even on a young roster.
The natural player for Crean to turn to would be Yogi Ferrell, but the talented PG hasn’t been any too vocal as a leader. He‘s also a pass-first type who won’t be firing up the troops with clutch baskets very often.
When St. Louis wants to score, it feeds the ball inside to bruising PF Dwayne Evans. However, the rising senior has limited shooting range, and the number of scoring options around him will drop precipitously next season.
Kwamain Mitchell, Cody Ellis and Cory Remekun all graduated, costing the Billikens 25.2 of their middling 68.9 points per game.
Of particular concern, Ellis’ departure leaves Mike McCall Jr. as the only three-point threat on a roster that was already hurting for long-range options.
Tom Izzo’s veteran team has shooting, rebounding and loads of defense. If anything is going to cost the Spartans a critical game, it’s going to be another vanishing act by rising senior Keith Appling.
Appling led the team in scoring last season, but his erratic performance as a playmaker was a major factor in State’s ugly 5-5 finish.
Backup Denzel Valentine will help after a solid freshman campaign, but his fine passing skills come at the cost of losing Appling’s knack for penetration.
John Calipari has shown an extraordinary talent for getting individual stars to mesh as a team, but 2013-14 will be an especially difficult challenge.
Marcus Lee is the nation’s 25th-best recruit according to ESPN, but he might not even get off the bench as the third-best freshman post player on Kentucky’s roster.
Returning scoring leader Alex Poythress could easily lose his job to freshman James Young, while diametrically opposed centers Willie Cauley-Stein (a speedster) and Dakari Johnson (a monolith) will need radically different playing styles to succeed.
The playing-time issues up front will also add to the pressure facing star freshman PG Andrew Harrison, who will be trying to provide enough touches to keep everyone happy.
Deshaun Thomas’ departure for the NBA leaves the Ohio State offense in the hands of a collection of athletic wings.
Postseason standout LaQuinton Ross, dunk artist Sam Thompson and third-year starter Lenzelle Smith Jr. will all contribute, but none can give the Buckeyes the low-post threat that the versatile Thomas provided.
Thad Matta’s big men won’t be much help, with Amir Williams leading the returnees at just 3.5 points per game. Without a viable option to let it pound the ball inside, the Buckeyes’ offense could let a sterling defense down for the second year in a row.
The Orange made last year’s Final Four thanks in large measure to a starting backcourt that provided 25.5 points and 10.9 assists per game. Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche have both moved on, and replacing both at once won’t be easy for Jim Boeheim.
Although freshman Tyler Ennis should provide a high-level distributor at one guard spot, the SG position is a mystery.
Rising sophomore Trevor Cooney is the front-runner, but he played just 11.2 minutes per game last year. Freshman Ron Patterson, for his part, is an iffy ball-handler whose shot is worryingly streaky.
Even with Otto Porter Jr. to lean on, Georgetown scored just 64.6 points per game, 247th in the nation. Now that Porter is gone, the Hoyas are going to be hurting even more for scoring options.
Markel Starks is the leading returnee at just 12.8 points per game, but defenses will be able to key on him pretty much at will.
Greg Whittington’s ACL tear means that the only other shooter on the roster who will scare a defense at all will be D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, and even he scored only 8.9 points a night as a freshman.
Duke wouldn’t have come close to landing a No. 2 seed last March without the dominating seasons turned in by senior big men Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly. With that duo off to the NBA, the paint will be a very unfriendly place for next year’s Blue Devils.
Amile Jefferson has energy and rebounding acumen to spare, but he’s only 6’8” and 195 lbs.
Candidates to join him down low include the third Plumlee brother (inexperienced Marshall) and lackluster rising senior Josh Hairston (2.6 points per game as a reserve last year), hardly a group that screams "ACC champs".