The Biggest Concern for Every Top 25 College Basketball Team
Cracking the Associated Press' national Top 25 is an accomplishment for some teams and a birthright for others. No matter the expectations in the preseason, after six weeks, a clearer picture of each team's capabilities begins to crystallize.
During frequently weak nonconference schedules, the top teams paint a picture of their strengths, and weaknesses are often obscured. Still, every team has a weak spot, a point that even an unheralded opponent could crack with the right matchup.
Some of these concerns can be seen as nit-picking, but each of the AP's Top 25 teams has at least one. Let's go digging.
Statistics and rankings through games of December 18th.
Concern: Late-game execution
Depending on your feelings about Xavier and Notre Dame, Iowa has had only two games against elite competition so far this season. Both Villanova and Iowa State got the better of the Hawkeyes on those nights.
Iowa has an obscenely balanced offense, with nine players averaging at least five points per game in the early going. There always seems to be a guy who can put the ball in the basket—until the last couple of minutes in a tight game, that is.
After falling behind Villanova with 48 seconds left in regulation, Iowa had multiple looks at a go-ahead basket. In what amounted to three possessions thanks to effective offensive rebounding, both Roy Devyn Marble and Melsahn Basabe missed on good looks. Marble, who's made 77.3 percent of his foul shots over the past two seasons, could only split a pair of free throws to tie the game and force overtime.
Marble hit a three-pointer with 2:23 left in OT, cutting Nova's lead to only one point. From there, Iowa allowed James Bell to pull down a pair of key offensive rebounds, and the only basket the Hawkeyes could score in that final two-plus minutes was largely meaningless.
The story was similar against Iowa State, with Marble making the last field goal with about two minutes left, then Iowa going stone cold from the line. Five misses in six attempts allowed the Cyclones to pull ahead. Key turnovers and fouls allowed ISU to ice the game.
Both Marble and Aaron White have the ability to hoist the Hawkeyes on their backs, but neither showed the makeup of a closer in Iowa's two defeats. Someone will need to be counted on for these plays once Big Ten games begin.
24. San Diego State
Concern: Mid-range scoring
San Diego State guard Xavier Thames and freshman forward Matt Shrigley are both stroking the ball from deep right now. The two are making a combined 52 percent from behind the arc, a pace that seems unsustainable.
Perhaps it's not, though. Maybe the pair can keep bombing from long range, and more power to them if they can. However, what needs to improve is SDSU's current struggle on two-point shots.
Ken Pomeroy shows the Aztecs as 44 percent two-point shooters, a figure that ranks close to 300th nationally (subscription required). Hoop-Math.com breaks it down into 67 percent near the rim, but only 29 percent on two-point jumpers. The latter figure is not only in the bottom 50 nationally, but six percentage points short of the Division I average.
Eight games into his Aztec career, Tulane transfer Josh Davis (pictured) is the team's top mid-range scorer but has been an overall disappointment in the scoring column. He's had only three games with more than three made baskets, and those came against San Diego Christian—which is an NAIA school—and the imposing duo of Southern Utah and UC Riverside, which may as well be.
Coach Steve Fisher needs to see more consistent production from both Davis and sophomore Winston Shepard (38.3 percent from the floor) if the Aztecs are to make a long-term home in the Top 25.
Concern: Turnovers on both ends
The Missouri Tigers are operating both a potent offense and defense so far this season. Only one opponent has put up an offensive efficiency greater than 105, while Mizzou has topped that mark in seven of its 10 games. Those marks come courtesy of the illustrious Pomeroy.
The solid efficiency figures, however, mask an area of concern that will need fixing in SEC play. Namely, the avoiding of turnovers by the offense and the procuring of the same by the defense.
It's a good thing the Tigers contest shots well, holding three of their last four opponents below 40 percent from the floor. That's major when you force an average of nine turnovers per game over the same span. The offense committed 14 per game between the meetings with Nevada, West Virginia, UCLA and Western Michigan.
Freshman point guard Wes Clark (pictured) has been a culprit behind the offensive woes, packing an unsightly 28.1 turnover percentage through 10 games, per StatSheet.com. On defense, Earnest Ross (3.1) and Jordan Clarkson (2.2) are the only regulars pulling steal percentages greater than 2.0.
Once conference play begins, the shooters are better. More disconcertingly, the ball-handlers are better, too. If the Tigers are struggling to force turnovers against Nevada, will they be able to do it against Florida?
Concern: Chaz Williams' shot selection
Listed at a very generous 5'9", UMass point guard Chaz Williams is always at a physical disadvantage. There's nothing he or coach Derek Kellogg can do about that, because sticking him in platforms or Prince high heels would blunt his natural quickness. That, and Chaz still won't be able to bust out the solo from "Purple Rain."
Nine games into Williams' senior season, he's off to a start that will recall 2011-12, his first year at UMass. That season, Chaz dropped in 41 percent from the floor but 41.9 percent from three. So far this season, Williams is again below 42 percent on all field goals and draining 44.9 percent from the arc.
A player of Williams' size who loves to penetrate and attack the rim may have no choice but to suffer anemic field-goal percentages. Hopefully for the Minutemen, the bad days for Chaz never get as epically terrible as his 1-of-12 effort against Clemson.
Concern: Drawing free throws
Gonzaga is a very solid free-throw shooting team, knocking down better than 72 percent of its charity tosses. Now, imagine if the Zags could actually take more of them.
According to StatSheet, Gonzaga has drawn 33.6 free throws per 100 field-goal attempts. That rate stands among the 50 lowest in the country. If we leave out sophomore behemoth Przemek Karnowski, the rest of the team pulls barely 28 FTA/100.
It's to be expected that jump-shooters Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell won't draw many foul shots, but what of power forward Sam Dower (pictured)? He's taken a mere 37 free throws against 106 field goals.
Somehow, a team that gets to the rim with the best of them—45.2 percent of all attempts, 45th in America, per Hoop-Math—isn't getting to the line. The past three games have been GU's worst shooting efforts of the year, and some extra foul shots will come in handy against opponents like St. Mary's, BYU or Memphis, never mind the teams in March who won't fear the Zags after last season's early flameout.
Concern: Askia Booker's shot selection
Unlike Chaz Williams, Askia Booker of Colorado is not 5-foot-something. At 6'2"—albeit a slight 170-pound 6'2"—Booker doesn't have as much of an issue getting his shots off.
Booker's only real issue lies in differentiating between a good shot and a bad one. He takes the shot on 32.4 percent of his available possessions, per Pomeroy. That's 14 points higher than his supremely efficient backcourt mate Spencer Dinwiddie. Dinwiddie's 67.5 true shooting percentage dwarfs Booker's 46.7.
Nothing wrong with being aggressive, but Booker's taken 49 threes already in this young season. He's made 13 (26.5 percent). His three-point attempts constitute nearly 40 percent of his total field-goal attempts. Finally, he's taken more threes than freshman forward Wesley Gordon has taken overall shots.
Did we mention that Gordon averages more minutes per game (26.1 to 25.7) than Booker? There's a reason for that.
In an interview with CUBuffs.com, coach Tad Boyle said of (and perhaps to) Booker, "Be who you are but take good shots. ‘Ski’ has a tendency to force things—that’s who he is, it’s part of his personality. I don’t want to take that away from him, but decision making is what it comes down to.”
It's an implicit threat, and one Booker should heed, considering his minutes have twice dipped into the teens in the season's first six weeks. The Kansas buzzer-beater was a wonderful moment, but Booker should be learning just as much from the 5-of-16 night against Baylor or the five of 15 against Harvard.
Those games against solid tournament-quality opposition don't offer much confidence that Booker can keep it together come March.
Concern: Forcing turnovers
With the exception of reserve point guard Dominique Hawkins, every contributor on the Kentucky roster stands at least 6'6". Most have arms that go all the way up and make shoulders out of themselves. (You're right, that line does make much more sense when applied to legs. Let's move on.)
Why, then, with all that length, are the Wildcats currently in the 300s nationally in both steal percentage and opponent's turnover percentage?
The top steal percentage on the team (2.1) belongs to octopus-armed center Willie Cauley-Stein. Andrew Harrison, despite a frame that can smother many of the point guards he matches up against, has only three swipes on the season.
Turnovers in and of themselves don't win games, but the ability to force them can influence opponents' decisions. Without fearing that Harrison will pick their pockets, opposing point guards can concentrate on turning the corner and getting into the lane.
Other Wildcats aren't helping, a fact that was laid bare when North Carolina's Marcus Paige repeatedly penetrated and scored at will in the Heels' 82-77 loss last weekend.
According to Hoop-Math, Kentucky's opponents get the largest portion of their shots (36.1 percent) near the rim. While Cauley-Stein is there to send back a staggering amount of those attempts, the opposition still manages to convert about 59 percent of its unblocked close-range efforts.
The perimeter defense needs to buy in and make some plays, or backcourts like Louisville's, Florida's and LSU's will be able to feast, no matter how much smaller they are.
Concern: Perimeter shooting
The Jayhawks are a pretty solid shooting team from the mid-range area, drilling 36.3 percent, according to Hoop-Math.
Outside that mid-range, however, there are problems. Andrew Wiggins and Naadir Tharpe are the only shooters making more than one triple per game, and they're shooting a combined 35 percent. The rest of the team scuffles along at about 30 percent.
To Kansas' credit, it doesn't live and die by the long ball. Less than 30 percent of KU's shots come from deep. We knew coming in that jump-shooting wasn't a major strong suit for either Wiggins or fellow frosh Wayne Selden, and the offense reflects that.
The Jayhawk offense is actually imbalanced in the other direction, with half the shots emanating from near the rim. The lack of snipers makes their ability to penetrate all the more impressive, but when defenses adjust, can Kansas spread them back out?
KU shot a solid eight of 18 (44.4 percent) from three against Florida, so the potential is there.
17. Iowa State
Concern: Offensive rebounding
Iowa State could ask forgiveness for its struggles on the offensive glass, as it has no major contributors taller than 6'7". We hesitate to quote Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson and tell you that "Size doesn't matter," but it's not quite everything, either.
Forward Melvin Ejim—all 6'6" of him—has never had an offensive rebounding percentage south of 11.3, but he's scuffling along at 7.2 this season, according to StatSheet. As a team, the Cyclones sit in the bottom 40 nationally at 25.7 percent.
The only times ISU climbed over 30 percent on the offensive glass came against UNC Wilmington and Missouri-Kansas City, and neither serve as much of a barometer for predicting success in Big 12 play. In more representative games against Michigan, BYU and Iowa, the Cyclones pulled an anemic 18 percent of the offensive boards.
Luckily for coach/"Mayor" Fred Hoiberg's crew, the Big 12 boasts only three of the nation's top 140 defensive rebounding teams, those being ISU itself, Texas and Kansas. (Another h/t to Pomeroy, and yes, subscription still required.) The Cyclones need to keep hitting the first shots and making the second ones moot, a task for which they're admirably equipped.
Concern: Interior scoring
Florida keeps getting pieces back, one by one, and when the whole is complete (or as complete as it will get, anyway) the Gators have every capability to be a Final Four team.
Senior forward Casey Prather, at the ripe old age of 22, has blossomed into a full-fledged leader on the court after three years of being a handy, yet undistinguished, performer off the bench. His classmate Patric Young, meanwhile, occupies the other end of the spectrum, being a hyped prospect who might have peaked as a sophomore.
The 6'6", 212-pound Prather has become a slasher who can get to the rim at will and convert when he gets there. Hoop-Math has him down as getting 58 percent of his shots at the tin and making 70 percent of those.
And what about Young, the 6'9", 240-pound behemoth? He takes 36 percent of his shots inside and makes 57 percent. Division I averages are 38 and 61.
As a team, UF doesn't obsess about getting to the rack much. The Gators as a whole take 36 percent of their shots inside and only make 55 percent of those. After Prather's 38 inside baskets and Young's 15, the next most prolific interior scorer is walk-on Jacob Kurtz with 10.
McDonald's All-American Chris Walker is now on campus and practicing, but Florida coach Billy Donovan is trying to calm the inevitable hype. "He's 6-10, he weighs 203 pounds," Donovan told USA Today's Nicole Auerbach. "He just got absolutely annihilated by Patric Young for three days."
If Young and his 230-pound sidekick, Will Yeguete, aren't terribly concerned about settling for jumpers—Yeguete takes 35.7 percent at the rim and makes only a third—the spindly Walker likely won't, either. Some nights, though, the jumpers just won't fall.
Concern: Keeping Michael Dixon available
Memphis has the best four-guard lineup in the country when Joe Jackson, Geron Johnson, Chris Crawford and Michael Dixon are all available to take the court. While the first three have always been able to answer coach Josh Pastner's call, each averaging better than 27 minutes per game, Dixon sometimes runs into trouble.
Dixon's always been an aggressive defender, never averaging less than one steal per game at Missouri. This year, he's ripping 1.4 despite only playing 21 minutes per game. But there's the rub.
The reason Dixon's only on the court slightly more than half the time is that he's getting whistled for fouls every time he pulls his shorts up. Dixon has finished with four fouls in six of the Tigers' first nine games. Overall, he's committing nearly six fouls per 40 minutes.
Having the other three on hand means that Pastner can allow Dixon to play with greater aggression, trying to generate transition chances. After all, the Tigers get almost 38 percent of their shots in the transition game, according to Hoop-Math.
When Dixon's aggression lands him in trouble, however, the Tiger defense loses some of its bite.
Florida committed 15 turnovers in the first 29:27 against Memphis on Tuesday. After Dixon's fourth foul sent him to the bench with 10-plus minutes to go against Florida, the Gators committed only two turnovers the rest of the way. Memphis was never able to recapture the lead.
14. North Carolina
Concern: Free-throw shooting
We know that Marcus Paige was the last of the Mohicans when it comes to North Carolina's perimeter shooters. He's made 26 of the team's 34 three-pointers through nine games. Leslie McDonald's return against Texas—and his 4-of-9 debut—equals some sweet relief for Paige.
What's a bit more concerning is the Tar Heels' malaise from 15 feet straight away. The team is in the bottom 10 nationally with an ugly 59 percent mark from the foul line.
At a smooth 91 percent, Paige is the only player making more than 70 percent of his foul shots. The team's most prolific shooter, James Michael McAdoo, takes more than 11 per game and hits a mere 54 percent.
In the Heels' wins over Louisville and Michigan State, they shot 69 percent from the line. In the woe-is-us losses to Belmont, UAB and Texas, UNC made a combined 47 percent. A whopping 56 foul shots clanked off the tin.
Those losses came by a combined 10 points. You do the math.
Oregon, unlike Iowa State, has multiple players who can at least measure up in the low post. How much a team can really rely on 6'8" Richard Amardi and 6'11" Waverly Austin is up for debate, though. The other big Duck, 6'8" Mike Moser, isn't very interested in camping on the block, preferring to toss up four three-pointers a game.
Another 6'8" forward, sophomore Ben Carter, returned from a nine-game suspension Tuesday night against UC Irvine. He may immediately be the best hope for steady interior play. Rein in the optimism, though, as Carter pulled only 2.4 points and 2.3 rebounds last season.
The Ducks are still undefeated despite ranking outside the top 100 in both offensive and defensive rebounding. They've surrendered at least nine offensive rebounds in every game, at least 12 in six of the 10.
Forwards Amardi and Elgin Cook are both very solid offensive rebounders, and they may need to see more run than a combined 36 minutes per game. Doing so, however, would require taking minutes away from a highly efficient four-man backcourt rotation—now expanded to five with the return of Dominic Artis.
Moser is a great defensive rebounder, but forget about any production from him on the other end as long as he's camped out around the arc.
The Baylor Bears are among the 50 worst teams in America when it comes to turning the ball over and making their opponents do the same. It's left them stuck in games that are much closer than they perhaps should be.
The below table illustrates the turnover percentages for Baylor and its opponents in games decided by 10 or fewer points this season. All percentages per Pomeroy.
|Opponent||Baylor TO%||Opp. TO%||Margin|
|South Carolina||23.0||12.3||Baylor by 2|
|Charleston So.||19.8||13.7||Baylor by 5|
|Dayton||21.3||21.3||Baylor by 1|
|Syracuse||32.5||11.4||Syracuse by 7|
|Kentucky||21.6||14.9||Baylor by 5|
|NW State||14.3||17.1||Baylor by 7 (OT)|
Baylor shot the ball fantastically against Syracuse, draining 55 percent from the floor, but the 20 turnovers cost the Bears what would have been their best win all season.
There's something to be said for surviving close games, but the Bears are the ones making the games close. A five-point win over Charleston Southern could have been a 15-point defeat to Kansas or Oklahoma State. Five Bears currently sport turnover percentages north of 20, led by the pictured Ish Wainright's 42.3. Until that's tightened up, Baylor will continue to be a risky bet every night.
11. Wichita State
Concern: The first half
Emporia State and DePaul. Those are the only two opponents that Wichita State has led by more than two points at halftime this season. The Shockers are one of the most dominant second-half teams in America, but they first put fans through 20 minutes of head-scratching.
One-point deficits against William & Mary and Tennessee State. Two points down against BYU. A whopping eight-point shortfall against Oral Roberts. These games all ended with double-digit final margins, telling us exactly how well the Shockers crushed their opposition after the break.
Aside from the two aforementioned games, the Shockers actually sport a minus-11 first-half score differential, according to StatSheet's results. In the second half, the number flips to a sizzling plus-127. That's an average second-half margin of 14.1 points per game.
Wichita State is one of the only teams in the Top 25 with an effective field-goal percentage (eFG%) below 50 (currently 49.7 according to KenPom), and it's not difficult to imagine that the bulk of the bricks are getting laid before halftime. At some point, an opponent will figure out how to keep Wichita from running them over like an Amtrak train crushing a Smart car.
Sometimes, it's as if the Shockers need a reminder that the other team isn't quivering in fear as the team bus drives up to Koch Arena. Everybody overlooks an opponent and gets out to a slow start, but nine of 11 games? If this problem is corrected by March, the Shockers are going back to the Final Four. If not, they'll have done to them what they did to Gonzaga in last season's tournament.
So it was then, so it shall always be. Analysts far and wide harped on UConn's glass presence in the preseason, and there's been little to change anyone's mind.
The quartet that was supposed to help with the Huskies' interior anemia has been largely invisible so far. Tyler Olander, Phil Nolan, Amida Brimah and Kentan Facey are playing about 38 minutes per game—combined.
Even when the four big men are on the court, they're barely providing any presence. Facey packs impressive rebounding percentages of 13.8 offensive and 26.7 defensive, per Pomeroy. The only other one with a double-digit average on either end is Nolan's 10.2 DR%.
Brimah somehow has 12 more blocked shots than rebounds. At 6'1", point guard Shabazz Napier leads the team in rebounding by nearly two per game.
Somehow, UConn hung with a big Stanford team on the glass, which may have been the key to keeping Wednesday night's game close. Cardinal big men Dwight Powell and Josh Huestis did, however, card double-doubles.
The Huskies have more big bodies than some of their top-10 brethren, but the elongated set needs to put up more of a fight under the glass if UConn is to make the deep tournament run this ranking suggests is possible.
Concern: Post defense
Never mind the fact that Duke's big men have been invisible offensively. Jabari Parker, Rodney Hood and Quinn Cook can score enough to win most of the games Duke will play in the regular season.
Defensively, however, the talented trio needs help.
According to Hoop-Math, Duke's opponents are scoring on an impressive 65.6 percent of their attempts at the rim, and that's not even factoring out blocked shots. Without the swats, the percentage balloons to 71.9 percent.
Where are Amile Jefferson, Josh Hairston and Marshall Plumlee while all this is going on? Chained to the bench, primarily. The three are playing a combined 34.4 minutes per game, and when they're on the court, more whistles follow them than Kate Upton walking past a construction site. The three commit a combined total of 20 fouls per 40 minutes.
None of the three will be potent shot-blockers any time soon, but somebody's got to prove able to alter shots without hacking—preferably following up the miss and getting some rebounds. If not, don't be a bit surprised if ACC and NCAA tournament opponents gleefully drag the Devils into the paint and pummel their frontcourt into submission.
Concern: Team shot selection
Even though the Wildcats are making great hay on the glass at both ends, swatting plenty of opponents' shots and forcing copious amounts of turnovers, this is not a big team. Without a lot of length and bulk, Villanova's offense has focused on the jumper through its first 10 games.
More than 45 percent of the 'Cats' shots have come from beyond the arc. It's great when you're converting a gaudy percentage, but Nova really isn't. Its 32.1 percent rate ranks in the 220s nationally.
Villanova's two most prolific long-range gunners, forward James Bell and point guard Ryan Arcidiacono, have taken 131 triples between them. Unfortunately, only about 28 percent have fallen. The two shot a combined four of 24 in the Battle 4 Atlantis wins over USC and Kansas, making that KU victory all the more impressive.