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Every Top 25 College Basketball Team's Greatest Strength

Scott HenryFeatured ColumnistFebruary 27, 2014

Every Top 25 College Basketball Team's Greatest Strength

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    There's always that one thing that strikes you about any great college basketball team.

    Whether it's an elite player, a talented group of players or one particular skill that the entire team executes to perfection, there's usually one strength that stands out above the rest.

    This week's Associated Press Top 25 has a group of teams laden with great positives. Some are obvious, some take a little digging and some are only going to be in evidence for a few more games.

    We can't cover them all, so leave a few constructive suggestions in the comments. (Operative word being "constructive.")

     

    Stats and rankings accurate through games of Feb. 26. All KenPom.com links should be assumed to require subscription.

New Mexico: Low Post Pair

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    Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

    Before the dust from last season had even settled, New Mexico's Alex Kirk was already drawing All-American buzz. And why not? He's a legitimate 7-footer who can score inside and out, crash the glass and block shots with the best of them.

    Meanwhile, power forward Cameron Bairstow was consideredat bestRobin to Kirk's Batman. He'd averaged 9.7 points and 5.9 rebounds as a junior.

    This season, the roles are reversed, with Bairstow exploding into a legitimate All-American candidate himself, averaging 20.2 points and 7.3 boards. Bairstow's career high entering this season was 17 points, making the 2013-14 average all the more impressive.

    Kirk has become the muscle to Bairstow's hustle, contributing 14.0 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game.

    Bairstow leads the Mountain West in scoring and field goal percentage while Kirk's handling the dirty work, standing sixth in rebounding and second in blocks.

    The Lobos are closing in on an NCAA bid in coach Craig Neal's first year in charge. Just making the dance would be an accomplishment on par with last season, minus the angst that follows when a No. 3 seed crashes and burns against an Ivy League foe.

    This year's squad won't be seeded that high, which could help alleviate some pressure and free the Lobos to simply play ball. Don't be surprised if this year's team survives to see the weekend, at least.

Texas: Offensive Rebounding

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    Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

    The Texas Longhorns' motto may as well be, "If at first you don't succeed, etc., etc."

    While the Horns aren't a tremendous shooting team, they're one of the best in America at getting themselves more opportunities. StatSheet.com lists Texas among the nation's top 11 teams in both offensive rebounds per game and offensive rebounding percentage.

    According to Hoop-Math.com, big men Cameron Ridley (pictured), Jonathan Holmes, Prince Ibeh and Connor Lammert have combined for 120 putback baskets, or about 4.3 per game.

    Earlier in February, Texas yanked down 25 offensive boards against TCU. Not much of an accomplishment, since everyone crushes big numbers on the Horned Frogs. One game before, though, UT pulled 19 against Kansas en route to a 12-point win.

    Texas' tournament opponents should be able to force the Horns to miss a lot of shots. It'll take a big, athletic team to keep them from getting those extra looks, though.

SMU: Defense

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    If you can score 70 on SMU, you have a strong chance of winning. The Mustangs have allowed 70 or more points in five of their six losses.

    Those, however, constitute five of the six times they've even allowed 70.

    KenPom.com ranks SMU in or near the top 40 nationally in a host of defensive categories, including overall efficiency, effective field goal percentage, block rate and steal percentage. Individually, forward Markus Kennedy stands near the top 100 in both block and steal percentage.

    Opponents make barely 40 percent of their two-point shots against this defense, but they do allow their foes to hoist threes to their hearts' content. Consistency is an issue, as the Ponies have dropped games to American cellar-dwellers Temple and South Florida. When they come to play, though, they'll give any offense in America serious fits.

Ohio State: Perimeter Defense

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    As I wrote about earlier this week, Ohio State can struggle to score early in any game. The Buckeye offense can be charitably called sporadic.

    Don't expect to pull too far away, however. OSU's perimeter defenders won't let opposing offenses get into any kind of rhythm without a major fight.

    Senior Aaron Craft is concluding a career that will almost certainly see him finish as the Big Ten's all-time steal king. He needs only four thefts to pass Illinois' Bruce Douglas, and he's got five games to get them. That's presuming Ohio State is one-and-done in both the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.

    Craft and junior Shannon Scott are the only pair of teammates in Ken Pomeroy's national top 10 in steal percentage. With Scott recently assigned to the bench, a ball-handler worn out from being chased by Craft in the early minutes suddenly has to contend with a fresh-legged Scott. Many will struggle with such a task.

    Opponents shoot a sickly 27 percent from three-point range against the Buckeyes, and that's no way to win a game in November, let alone March.

Memphis: Interior Scoring

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    Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

    The Memphis Tigers frontcourt lives in the lane. Guards Joe Jackson and Geron Johnson are frequent visitors. And nearly everyone's interior expeditions are productive.

    According to Hoop-Math, the average NCAA Division I team takes 38.3 percent of its shots from near the rim. Memphis far exceeds that, putting up 46.9 percent of its tries in the paint to rank among the nation's top 20.

    That Memphis frontcourt, consisting of center Shaq Goodwin (pictured) and forwards Austin Nichols, Nick King and David Pellom, has combined for a sparkling 70.4 field goal percentage at the tin. Goodwin and Nichols combined for a whopping 37 points in UM's most recent game against Temple, but the struggling Owls somehow still managed to take Memphis to overtime.

    The Tigers aren't a good perimeter shooting team, which sometimes makes life difficult for both posts and penetrators. Strong, athletic defensive teams can give them problems, which is why their final three games are compelling.

    Memphis is forced to close the regular season at home against Louisville, at Cincinnati and home against SMU. They'll need to score effectively in at least two of those games to build some confidence for the NCAA tournament.

Iowa: Depth/Versatility

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    Iowa coach Fran McCaffery can mix and match his lineups like a kid building different contraptions with a coffin-sized box of Legos.

    In Big Ten play, nine different Hawkeyes play at least 15 minutes per game. Stars Roy Devyn Marble and Aaron White (pictured) can each play multiple positions and provide matchup problems at any of them. Post trio Melsahn Basabe, Gabriel Olaseni and Adam Woodbury aren't tremendous scorers, but any of the three can hold his own on the glass and protect the rim.

    Indiana coach Tom Crean gushed over the Hawkeyes when prompted by Scott Dochterman of the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Gazette:

    “They have the ability to get to the basket. They’re an excellent passing team. They combine some of the best traits when it comes to passing, driving, inside-out, shooting, spacing, pressure defense, the ability to switch, do multiple things on defense. They’re very, very hard to get ready for."

    If any opponents want to get into an up-and-down slugfest with Iowa, they'll need to bring a lot of bodies on the bus. Thanks to the massive number of bodies McCaffery can call upon, the Hawkeyes are one of Pomeroy's 20 fastest teams in the nation.

North Carolina: Mid-Range Scoring

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    With three of North Carolina's top four forwards standing 6'9", one would expect that the Tar Heels would make their bones in the paint.

    Yeah, not so much.

    At 210 pounds, Brice Johnson is hardly built to slug it out in the low post. James Michael McAdoo (230 lbs.) is, but he's never shown much inclination to battle among the trees.

    Therefore, it's good that both playersand their team as a wholeare very reliable mid-range jump shooters. Hoop-Math says that the average team shoots 35.7 percent on two-point jumpers, but Carolina sinks theirs at 42.1 percent, good for 12th-best in the nation.

    The Heels nearly double the national average by taking jumpers on 57.7 percent of their shots, and their six most frequent overall shooters all sink better than 40 percent in the mid-range. Even 290-pound center Kennedy Meeks is dangerous, making 50 percent of his jumpers.

    UNC doesn't have a fleet of three-point shooters, and it doesn't attack the rim all that well. A steady diet of jumpers, however, can feel like death by a thousand paper cuts to an opponent that can't stop it.

Michigan State: Toughness

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    Doug McSchooler/Associated Press

    The injury bug hasn't just bitten Michigan State this season, it's pulled up a chair for an all-you-can-eat buffet.

    Sophomore guard Denzel Valentine and freshman forward Gavin Schilling are the only Spartans who have suited up for all 28 games. Starters Gary Harris, Adreian Payne (pictured), Keith Appling and Branden Dawson have missed a combined 23 of 112 possible games. Backup guard Travis Trice missed two. Post man Matt Costello missed four in a bout with mononucleosis.

    Even the games that Sparty's main contributors have played have been injury-marred. Appling only missed a few minutes of Sunday's loss to Michigan despite re-aggravating a nagging wrist injury he's been fighting through since December. Payne has occasionally played to the very limits of his conditioning as he's recovered from a case of plantar fasciitis in his right foot.

    All of which makes Valentine's continued effort level admirable.

    "The guy that should be deadest is the liveliest," coach Tom Izzo said to MLive.com's Gillian Van Stratt. "And that's Valentine." Valentine's last 11 games bear out Izzo's claim, as the sophomore has averaged an impressive 11.4 points, 7.4 rebounds, 3.7 assists and one steal per game.

    "He's brought it to practice," Izzo said. "He's in here morning, noon and night shooting. Valentine has gone straight through and I see absolutely no fatigue in him at all."

    Nobody's quitting in East Lansing, and that level of grit may be the duct tape holding Michigan State's Final Four hopes together.

Kentucky: Size

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    There aren't many teams in the nation whose shortest starter measures 6'6". Even fewer have players that size or bigger occupying the top seven spots in their rotation.

    That length is a primary reason Kentucky can't be written off as a Final Four contender, even though the hype about an undefeated season was rendered moot in about two minutes.

    UK can convert at the rim with the best of them, making two of every three shots at close range per Hoop-Math. The problem is that the Wildcats tend to settle for jumpers, as less than 38 percent of their shots are taken in the paint. The D-I average is 38.3.

    Defensively, the Cats can be driven on at the ball-handler's own risk. According to Pomeroy, 15.4 percent of opponents' shots get swatted, many by octopus-armed sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein.

    Opposing point guards should get swallowed up by 6'6" freshman Andrew Harrison, but he seems at a loss as to what to do with his impressive frame. As B/R's Thad Novak alluded to here, opposing point guards have averaged 19.2 points and 4.0 assists in UK's six losses.

    The big Cats have the ability to overwhelm opponents, but they need to play to this particular strength. Posting up opponents isn't always pretty, but it works when the opponent's eyes are at your shoulders.

Michigan: John Beilein

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    How in the world does a team lose a point guard who was the National Player of the Year, a shooting guard who was also a first-round draft pick and a center who drew preseason All-American votes, yet somehow become even more offensively efficient than the previous year's national runner-up?

    It all starts with good coaching, and Michigan's John Beilein gives as good as it gets.

    Beilein's offense is a sophisticated one, but unlike many coaches, he's willing to make changes to fit his personnel.

    "He's done a great job of finding our strengths and weaknesses very quickly," sophomore Nik Stauskas told USA Today's Nicole Auerbach. "Obviously, some of the sets carry over, but the majority of stuff we're running this year we didn't run last year; a lot was running through Trey and Tim. He's obviously good at recognizing these are the things that work and those are the things we need to continue to do."

    Freshman point guard Derrick Walton isn't expected to create as much for teammates as Burke did. He gets great help from Stauskas and Caris LeVert, both of whom are much freer to initiate the offense than they were while playing with Burke.

    “Once you understand all our concepts, this is much easier,” Beilein said to Shawn Windsor of the Detroit Free Press.

    Last season's Wolverines led the nation in offensive efficiency per Pomeroy. This year's team trails Creighton and Duke despite scoring 1.6 more points per 100 possessions than the Burke-led group. It takes an intelligent coach mentoring intelligent players to weather all this change and get even better. Now, can the Wolverines get one game better when it counts?

Iowa State: Georges Niang

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    Iowa State gets borderline All-American production from both forward Melvin Ejim and guard DeAndre Kane. The true engine driving the explosive Cyclone offense, however, could be Ejim's frontcourt counterpart Georges Niang.

    Over Niang's past 11 games, the sophomore has averaged an eyebrow-raising 19.3 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game. Only once in that span has he been held below 17 points, and that was when Ejim squashed TCU for a national season-high 48.

    If ISU needs a spark from three-point range, the 33-percent long-range shooter can provide it. If the defense sags on Niang, he can pass out of it, as that assist average attests. Leave him alone in the post, and he'll uncork a smorgasbord of interior moves, as he did on this YouTube clip from the Cyclones' win at BYU.

    Call his game dull if you like, but the results speak for themselves. "If I can have an old man's game and still give you buckets, then what does that say about you? Your new man's game is not working out too well for you. So I'm fine with my old man's game," Niang said to the Associated Press (h/t Fox News).

Wisconsin: Ball Security

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    Florida and Michigan State form an exclusive club. Sure, they're among the few schools that have held the No. 1 ranking this season, but they're all alone in another interesting category: They're the only two opponents to force a 20-plus turnover percentage against the Wisconsin Badgers, according to Pomeroy.

    Wisconsin's 2013-14 offense is the second-most efficient it's been since Pomeroy began his website in 2003. That's largely because the Badgers' turnover rate is nearly a full percentage point better than in any other season among those last 12.

    UW gives the ball away on only 12.7 percent of its possessions, and it's done it against the nation's second-toughest defensive schedule. The Badgers have only gotten stingier as the season goes on, committing a total of only 21 turnovers in its last four gameswins over Minnesota and Indiana at home and Michigan and Iowa on the road.

    Indiana coach Tom Crean gave all of the Badgers credit for keeping their offense humming.

    “All their starters can shoot the ball, but they can all pass the ball, and that’s such a big part,” Crean said to the Wisconsin State Journal's Jim Polzin. “A lot of times you are getting ready for one or two guys that are very good passers. Their whole team is (good at it)."

    Opponents can make shots and get rebounds against the Badgers, but they'll have to go take the game because Wisconsin's not about to give it away. After all, even in those Florida and Michigan State games, Wisconsin came out on top.

San Diego State: Clean Defense

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    San Diego State is so dominant defensively that it can get by with only one semi-reliable scoring option, that being point guard Xavier Thames (No. 2 above).

    The Aztecs are among Pomeroy's top 40 in both steal and block percentage, reflecting their ability to make the big aggressive plays on defense. However, trying for those steals and blocks can be counter-productive if the defense is giving away a bunch of points at the free throw line.

    UNLV and Clemson are the only other teams in either of those top 40s who also sit in KenPom's national top 20 in defensive free throw rate, meaning they don't put opponents on the foul line. The Aztecs give away fewer than three free throws for every 10 field goal attempts.

    Overall, San Diego State commits only 16.3 fouls per game, one of the 20 lowest averages in the nation according to StatSheet. Strangely, Mountain West doormat San Jose State has been the only opponent to bait the Aztecs into 20 fouls in any conference game.

Virginia: Interior Defense

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    Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

    Scoring on Virginia anywhere is difficult enough. The Cavaliers allow a mere 54.7 points per game, tops (bottoms?) in the nation. But penetrating the lane is particularly perilous.

    Hoop-Math lists only nine teams that allow less than 50 percent shooting at the rim. The Hoos rank sixth, allowing only 49.1 percent of close-range shots to fall.

    A highly capable post rotation of 6'11" Mike Tobey and 6'8" forwards Akil Mitchell, Darion Atkins and Anthony Gill get tremendous shot-blocking support from athletic 6'6" forward Justin Anderson, pictured looming over the unfortunate shooter above.

    Anderson has a knack for swooping LeBron James-esque blocks, snuffing opponents' already rare transition chances. He's done it to both Maryland and Notre Dame already this month.

    “Anytime he can get the crowd going, any time he can get excited, he thrives in that," Mitchell said to Mark Giannotto of the Washington Post.

Cincinnati: Justin Jackson

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    Like Justin Anderson at Virginia, Cincinnati's Justin Jackson thrives on game-changing defensive plays.

    Jackson is the only player in the nation ranking in Pomeroy's top 40 in both block and steal percentage. He's the primary reason that UC's team defense ranks among the top 10 in both categories, along with overall defensive efficiency and turnover percentage.

    Like a San Diego State or Arizona, the Bearcats are thriving in large part due to their stifling defense. While Sean Kilpatrick garners the headlines and makes the big offensive plays, Jackson's busy making the huge defensive stops.

    Jackson has eight games of three or more steals this season and a whopping 17 of three-plus blocks. Most importantly, he's done all that while cutting down on his fouls. After being disqualified six times as a junior, he's only fouled out twice this season.

    "You can't exploit him on defense, and that makes us so hard to play against," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin told Sports Illustrated's Kelli Anderson. "Most shot blockers struggle out on the floor in pick-and-roll defense. Justin can defend big guys, he can defend guards, he can defend power, he can defend the pick and roll."

    If Cincinnati's offense was what won it games, Kilpatrick would have fit nicely in this space. Not to say that he's a defensive slouch by any means, but he's getting All-American buzz for his scoring touch above all.

    There'll be an offensive juggernaut listed shortly.

Saint Louis: Perimeter Defense

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    The Saint Louis Billikens are another of those teams making a run up the rankings on the back of a stifling defense. Shooters aren't themselves when they face up against SLU, especially guards Mike McCall and Jordair Jett.

    Atlantic 10 rival St. Joseph's shoots 39 percent from three-point range on the season. SLU held the Hawks to an ugly one-of-15 night. Dayton went from 37.0 percent to 28.6 percent against the Billikens. George Washington fell from 35.5 to 23.5. And so on.

    A-10 strugglers Duquesne and George Mason, along with Wofford and No. 2 Wichita State, are the only teams to even crack 37 percent on Saint Louis this season. That figure would tie a team with Louisville for 60th in the nation.

    The intelligence of defenders like Jett, McCall and even 6'11" center Rob Loe shouldn't be overlooked. A knack for being in the right place to bail out an overplaying teammate isn't reflected in the box score, but that's a primary key to this lofty ranking the Billikens currently enjoy.

Creighton: Doug McDermott

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    In just the last few weeks, Doug McDermott has blown past the likes of Larry Bird, Tyler Hansbrough and Elvin Hayes on college basketball's all-time scoring list. By the end of the regular season, he should lap Danny Manning and Oscar Robertson. Another 150 pointsroughly six games' worthwill put him into fifth place.

    With all due respect to Ethan "Nine Threes" Wragge, the Jays' hopes for reaching a first-ever Final Fouror even a first Sweet 16 in 40 yearsbegin and end with the coach's kid. Not that McDermott will pop his jersey over it.

    “It's a lot of our offense. It's not Jimmer-ish, where I pull up from half-court and hit these crazy shots,” McDermott told CBS Sports' Matt Norlander. “It's more within the flow of the offense. I think my teammates deserve just as much credit.”

    No matter who gets the credit, McDermott has accounted for 32 percent of Creighton's points and field goals, along with 38 percent of its free throws. Subtract him and the most efficient offense of the last decade could barely win 10 games in a season.

Villanova: Offensive Balance

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    When we say "offensive balance," we don't mean that Villanova will evenly spread the zones where its scoring opportunities come from. This is a three-point shooting team all day, every day.

    The players producing the points, however, love to spread the wealth. The Wildcats have plenty of scorers, with four averaging in double figures and three more producing at least six points per game. More than 60 percent of Nova's baskets come off of assists, with seven players boasting 10-plus assist percentages per Pomeroy.

    Coach Jay Wright says the offense needs as much diversity as it can get. As he told Rich Hofmann of the Philadelphia Daily News:

    "Whatever play you run, if they don't have to guard a couple of guys, the plays don't look so good. Everything looks good when everybody can score. People say, 'This guy can coach offense, this guy can't coach,' but I'm telling you that everything looks good when you have multiple options. [...] You may be able to score, but it doesn't look good."

    With shooters like James Bell, Ryan Arcidiacono and Darrun Hilliard spreading the floor for burly forward JayVaughn Pinkston, the Cats can score with just about anyone. And the opponent must be prepared for anyone to put shots up at any time.

    As Hilliard told Hofmann, "I never worry about missing shotsthat's part of the game." It's easy to be cavalier when you know there are plenty of others able to get hot at any time.

Louisville: Russ Smith

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    If this season's Russ Smith was playing on last year's team, he would have given Trey Burke all the competition he could handle in the National Player of the Year stakes.

    The mad gunner who never met a shot he didn't like has scaled back his shooting just a bit, reducing his percentage of Louisville's shots from 35.6 to 32.7 to 30.0 over the past two-plus seasons according to KenPom. He's finding better looks now, as evidenced by his career-high 37.4 three-point percentage.

    Smith has adapted well to the point guard's role this year, pushing his assist rate above 30 with a better turnover percentage than former floor general Peyton Siva ever posted.

    The Cardinals have three other double-figure scorers, but the consistency hasn't been there for fellow perimeter threats Luke Hancock and Chris Jones. Hancock struggled through an early-season swoon, while Jones' issues have come during conference play.

    If Smith can get all of his supporting performers on the same page, there's enough scoring talent to supplement Louisville's always-fierce defense and make the Cards a serious threat to repeat as national champions.

Duke: 3-Point Shooting

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    The Duke Blue Devils have hammered home 269 three-point baskets this season, good for fourth in the nation per StatSheet. When the Durham, N.C. bomb squad gets hot, they're hard to stop.

    Just ask Pitt. Fifth-year gunner Andre Dawkins scored 11 points in a span of about three-and-a-half minutes on three triples and a tip-in, blowing Duke's lead open from one point to 13 and all but sealing the Blue Devils' victory.

    Ask Syracuse. Three straight threes from backup guard Tyler Thornton kept Duke afloat as the Orange kept pressure on. Rasheed Sulaimon picked up the slack with a pair in the final 48 seconds to force overtime.

    The Devils have only finished under 30 percent from long range in three games this season, losing to North Carolina and Arizona. They survived Maryland by two points.

    The shooters are essential to spread the floor and allow freshman sensation Jabari Parker to crush opponents in the paint. Likewise, defenses can struggle to crash the defensive glass to guard against Parker and Amile Jefferson preying on putbacks.

Kansas: Inside Scoring

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    Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

    The array of athletes on the Kansas Jayhawk roster can be kept out of the lane, but only if they want to be. When they're there, good luck making the stop.

    According to Hoop-Math, the average Division I team makes 60.9 percent of its shots at the rim. The only men on KU's roster below that mark are point guards Naadir Tharpe and Frank Mason. As a team, the Jayhawks put in 67.5 percent of their close range shots.

    Big men Tarik Black, Joel Embiid and Jamari Traylor all convert their paint shots at a rate north of 70 percent, with wing Wayne Selden recording a 71.2 mark himself.

    And that's not even mentioning blossoming power forward Perry Ellis and that Wiggins fellow, both of whom can get to the tin almost at will.

    KU does not have a superb foul-shooting team, but they get enough attempts to make their trips net positives.

    Even a great rim-protecting team like Texas was snowed under in its second meeting. Every March opponent will need to be prepared for a relentless onslaught when it takes the court against Kansas.

     

Syracuse: Forcing Turnovers

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    Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

    Pictured above: Tyler Ennis doing Tyler Ennis things and relieving an opponent of the ball.

    Syracuse's freshman point guard leads the ACC at 2.1 steals per game. Backcourt mate Trevor Cooney sits second at 2.0. For good measure, C.J. Fair's hovering around the low end of the top 20 as well.

    For the season, Ennis and Cooney have a combined 46 more steals than turnovers. Never mind a positive assists-to-turnovers ratiowhen you're pulling more turnovers than you commit, you're making a major positive impact on your team's success.

    The long, athletic Orange frontcourt combined with the quick, instinctive backcourt make this one of the most opportunistic defenses in the country, even if it's not quite as ferocious as others that coach Jim Boeheim's turned out in recent years.

    Even if opposing guards can get the ball inside against the 2-3 zone, they still have to contend with the flailing arms of Fair and center Rakeem Christmas. Be careful what you wish for.

Arizona: Defensive Patience

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    Arizona has not allowed an opponent to score 70 points since Jan. 9, when the Wildcats survived UCLA 79-75. Twelve games and one season-ending injury have passed since then.

    With underrated scoring forward Brandon Ashley out, Arizona's remaining players have struggled to adapt to their new offensive roles, but they've fallen back on a defense more than willing to wait out any opponent.

    The Cats don't gamble for steals because they're not deep enough to afford foul trouble. What they do is harass ball-handlers and pack the two-point area, forcing long possessions and contested shots.

    According to KenPom, Arizona's opponents take 19.8 seconds per possession, fifth-longest in the country. It's no coincidence that three of the four teams ahead of UAFlorida, Syracuse and Virginiaare also highly ranked.

    While Arizona games are exciting to watch, due to the potential for some vicious Aaron Gordon thunder dunks, the tempo won't exactly set the court aflame.

Wichita State: Backcourt

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    As it is for the rest of the Wichita State team, much of the nation is taking a wait-and-see attitude before getting on the bandwagon for the Shocker backcourt. Are the solid numbers a function of Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton's talents, or just a lackluster Missouri Valley Conference?

    Yes.

    The trio have a combined for a 2.67 assist-to-turnover ratio and 25 more steals than giveaways. They make a combined 58.6 percent at the rim and 36.8 percent from three-point range.

    VanVleet is one of the more difficult guards in America to keep out of the lane, because a large chunk of the offense is predicated on giving his defender a steady dose of screens to fight through. Baker's streaky shooting and Cotton's ladder-climbing, posterizing athleticism are hard to combat individually, let alone when they work in concert.

    The Shockers can struggle if the guards aren't hitting their long jumpers, but beyond that it's hard to find a great many issues that have plagued them this season. That would explain the undefeated record, eh?

Florida: Veteran Leaders

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    In the Year of the Freshman, how apropos is it that the No. 1 team heading into March is comprised largely of been-there-done-that seniors?

    Florida veterans Patric Young, Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather and Will Yeguete don't know any way to finish the season other than in the Elite Eight. The Gators are seeking an improvement over that impressive, yet ultimately unfulfilling run of three straight regional finals.

    Wilbekin may be among the two or three most improved players in America, especially in the past month. He averaged 15.9 points, 4.1 assists, 1.1 steals and only two turnovers per game over UF's eight February games. He rallied from an offseason suspension that cost him the campaign's first five games to become a productive and capable on-court leader, not just a defensive specialist or passer.

    Prather has blossomed into one of the elite slashers in the SEC. Young will officially never be a program-altering scorer, but he's a vicious shot-blocker and rebounder. Everybody has roles, they play them willingly, and the team comes first.

    "The name on the front of their jersey is the only thing they are playing for," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings told the New Orleans Times-Picayune's Ron Higgins after the Commodores fell just short of an upset in Nashville. "Nobody is playing for the name on the back of their jersey."

    It's a refreshing look in the one-and-done age, even if these Gators aren't sexy. Tough usually trumps sexy, especially in the survive-and-advance world of the NCAA tournament.

     

    For more from Scott on college basketball, including links to his new podcast, check out The Back Iron.

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