Sweet 16 2014: Biggest Roadblock for Each Team to Win NCAA Title
Making it to the 2014 Sweet 16 is an accomplishment to be proud of, but just because a team has played well enough to get this far doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have a weak spot that can be exploited. Even the best of college basketball’s remaining contenders have flaws that are just waiting to cost them a shot at the national title.
Top-seeded Virginia, for example, looked every bit the ACC champion in slaughtering Memphis on Sunday. However, the Cavaliers’ feast-or-famine outside shooting leaves them more liable to a severe upset than any of the remaining No. 1 teams.
Herein, a closer look at what happens to UVA when its shots aren’t falling, along with the most dangerous vulnerability each other remaining 2014 Sweet 16 squad must overcome if it’s going to cut down the nets in Arlington.
Florida: Foul Shooting
Blessed with one of the country’s most physical front lines, Florida has no trouble getting to the free-throw stripe. However, when it’s the Gators’ big men who come to that line, the results haven’t been encouraging.
With center Patric Young shooting just .597 on free throws, Florida as a team ranks a woeful 285th in the country at .669. Not helping matters is the fact that Michael Frazier II, the Gators’ best shooter of any skill, has only made it to the stripe 57 times all season.
UCLA: Interior Scoring
UCLA has three outstanding offensive players in its starting lineup and a fourth very good one (Zach LaVine) coming off the bench. The only catch is, all four are guards.
Even big Kyle Anderson—a point-forward type at 6’9”—rarely posts up, meaning that when the Bruins aren’t beating defenders off the dribble, they aren’t getting easy baskets.
For a case in point, just look to UCLA’s embarrassing loss at Washington State, in which the trio of Anderson, Jordan Adams and Norman Powell combined for a mere 33 points (10 below its average) in a 73-55 blowout.
Dayton’s offense is at its best playing under control and getting opportunities for its shot-makers in the half court. However, unlike most teams that adopt that approach, the Flyers have struggled when it comes to holding on to the basketball.
With swingman Dyshawn Pierre as the worst offender, Dayton turns the ball over on 18.3 percent of its offensive possessions.
With so many elite ball hawks left in the Sweet 16 field—including Chasson Randle on the Stanford squad UD faces next—that’s an awful lot of potential points the Flyers could be giving away.
In the half court, power forward Dwight Powell has proven himself more than capable of running the Stanford offense with sharp decision-making and crisp passing.
However, as Kansas demonstrated in its hard-fought third-round loss, Powell isn’t equipped to bring the ball up the floor if any kind of defensive pressure presents itself.
The Cardinal players who do handle that responsibility, starting with Randle, have had some significant turnover issues (2.4 per game, in his case).
Any team with an effective full-court press (such as potential Elite Eight foe Florida) will be a serious concern for Johnny Dawkins’ team.
Virginia: Shooting Slumps
Every team goes through a half or an entire game in which its jump shots aren’t falling. For Virginia, even though Malcolm Brogdon and Joe Harris are excellent shots under normal circumstances, those droughts have been far more severe than they are for most teams.
The Cavaliers shoot a respectable .457 from the floor on average, but that figure plummets to .369 in the team’s six losses. As a result, UVA has logged such ghastly final scores as a 48-38 defeat at home (against Wisconsin) and an 87-52 collapse at Tennessee.
Michigan State: Interior Defense
Led by Gary Harris, Michigan State’s perimeter D is as tough as any in the nation. Indeed, when the Spartans have gotten burned, it’s usually been by teams that can attack them inside the three-point arc.
In a blowout loss to North Carolina, for example, Michigan State surrendered just two three-pointers all night, but the Tar Heels hit 50 percent of their two-point tries in piling up 79 points (tied for the most MSU has allowed).
Georgetown, another team with a wealth of mobile big men to attack Adreian Payne and company, enjoyed similar success, knocking down 54.1 percent of its two-pointers in a win at Madison Square Garden.
Iowa State: Size
Georges Niang’s season-ending foot injury hasn’t left Iowa State short on talent by any stretch, but it has left Fred Hoiberg’s roster a bit short. Melvin Ejim and Dustin Hogue (both listed at 6’6”) are the only healthy regulars over 6’4” for the Cyclones.
Even with the rebounding prowess of Ejim and point guard DeAndre Kane, that’s an awfully small lineup to take on the 7-footers who might be left on ISU’s schedule (including UConn’s Amida Brimah in the Sweet 16).
First-time starter Daniel Edozie did his best in the win over North Carolina, but the 6’8” junior was clearly out of his depth against that level of competition.
UConn: 2-Point Shooting
There’s no question that UConn, with Shabazz Napier leading the charge, has one of the best three-point shooting offenses in the country this season.
However, even the Huskies shooters are only human, and they’ve been relying on the long ball to an astounding degree lately.
In each of UConn’s first two March Madness wins, the team has shot a higher percentage from beyond the arc than from inside it, with just 28 of its 77 points against Villanova coming on two-point baskets.
Even if Napier stays as scorching hot as he’s been through two games, nobody else is getting to the rim, and that’s never a good long-term sign for an offense.
Arizona: Free-Throw Shooting
Arizona’s last three losses have come by margins of three, seven and four points. In those games, the Wildcats have missed (respectively) 14, eight and 10 free throws.
Thanks in large measure to Aaron Gordon’s deplorable performance, Arizona ranks 312th out of 351 Division I teams in free-throw shooting. With Gordon, a .429 shot, making nearly five attempts per game, the Wildcats are unlikely to turn that record around anytime soon.
San Diego State: Secondary Scorers
Xavier Thames has done an amazing job of carrying the San Diego State offense by himself for most of this season. Eventually, though, some opponent is going to make some other member of the Aztecs score.
Winston Shepard, nearly six points per game behind Thames, is the only other double-digit scorer on the roster, and his subpar jump shot means that he does most of his damage on fast breaks.
As long as its senior PG continues accounting for almost 40 percent of the offense by himself, SDSU is going to be one bad defensive matchup away from a blowout loss.
Strange as it may seem after the Baylor Bears locked down the great Doug McDermott in the round of 32, Baylor hasn’t necessarily been able to count on stopping the other team’s offense this season.
And although many of the team’s worst games came prior to Scott Drew’s decision to switch to playing zone full time, there are still holes to be found.
Most obviously, despite Creighton’s disastrous effort, even the best zone can be burned by three-point shooters, as the Bears were by Iowa State (10-of-25 from deep) in their Big 12 opener.
In addition, a front line that can match Baylor’s muscle—as Texas did at the end of February—can still find openings against slender Isaiah Austin inside, especially off of offensive rebounds.
With 7’0” Frank Kaminsky and 6’8” Sam Dekker in the starting lineup, Wisconsin doesn’t seem like an obvious candidate to get beaten up on the boards.
However, as that duo weighs in at a combined 454 pounds—hardly robust by Big Ten standards—Bo Ryan’s team hasn’t had nearly its usual success on the glass this year. The Badgers average just 33 rebounds per game as a group, placing all of 261st in the national rankings.
Even accounting for the exceptionally slow pace of a Wisconsin game, a team that only gets 50.6 percent of the available rebounds (157th nationally) is guaranteed to be vulnerable to a stronger frontcourt—such as the Baylor unit on tap for Wisconsin in the Sweet 16.
Kentucky: On-Ball Defense
It’s one thing to give up 23 points to a great scoring point guard such as Marcus Paige, as Kentucky did in a December loss to North Carolina.
However, when you give up 24 points (including 15 free throws) to South Carolina’s anonymous Brenton Williams, it’s time to worry about the defense.
Kentucky’s losses this season have routinely been sparked by huge scoring days from opposing ball-handlers.
Part of the issue has been a recurring problem with pick-and-roll defense, but more broadly, the Wildcats just aren’t that effective at staying in front of the dribbler at any perimeter position.
Louisville: Ball Security
Louisville forces the second-most turnovers per game of any defense in Division I. That success in getting the ball has tended to mask the fact that the Cardinals aren’t especially good at keeping it.
In their first two Big Dance games, the Cards won in spite of a combined 31 giveaways (nearly half of them by Russ Smith).
Even Smith’s prolific scoring may not be enough to overcome another mistake-filled performance against a team with the offensive firepower to capitalize on Louisville's errors.
Tennessee: Point Guard Play
No single position can control an NCAA tournament game as thoroughly as the point guard, directing his own offense or disrupting the opposition’s.
That’s great news if your team has a Shabazz Napier or a Scottie Wilbekin running the attack, but not so much for Tennessee’s backcourt-by-committee.
Memphis transfer Antonio Barton is the nominal ball-handler, but at just 7.5 points and 2.1 assists per game, he doesn’t produce very much.
That puts an extra burden on scoring leader Jordan McRae to create for the other Vols, and while he’s leading the team in passing (at a scanty 2.5 assists a night), he’s far from the kind of dynamic playmaker Cuonzo Martin would like to have around when the game's on the line.
Michigan: Inside Defense
As much as the Michigan Wolverines are missing Trey Burke’s leadership, he’s not the only absent player who had played a big role for last year’s national runners-up.
The back injury that ended Mitch McGary’s season has left Michigan without anything resembling an effective rim protector on D.
Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford do a respectable job on the glass, but neither can approach McGary’s talent as a shot-blocker, and it’s shown in several Michigan losses.
The brutal Big Ten title game against Michigan State, in which Payne blasted the Wolverines for 18 points and nine rebounds, is just the most recent case of Michigan paying for its inability to control the paint.