The Achilles' Heel for College Basketball's Top 10 Teams

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistFebruary 28, 2018

The Achilles' Heel for College Basketball's Top 10 Teams

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    Everyone has a weakness, even the best college basketball teams in the country. It's their job to hide that flaw, and it's the goal of every opponent to find a way to exploit it.

    As we move into March and the NCAA tournament creeps closer, the teams that figure to be most likely to make a deep postseason run are noted as such because of their key attributes and what they do best. But ultimately, what may determine their fate is how well they address their own deficiencies.

    Conceal all you want, contenders, but we're exposing them anyway. Using the current Associated Press Top 25 as a guide, here's a look at the Achilles' Heel for each top-10 team with some tips on how to exploit them and a potential nightmare matchup for these teams in the NCAA tournament.

No. 10 Cincinnati Bearcats

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    Achilles' Heel: Free-Throw Shooting

    Cincinnati shoots 68.9 percent from the line, second-worst among Top 25 teams, and has made only 69 percent of its foul shots in conference play.

    The overall level of competition the Bearcats have faced in the American Athletic Conference has mostly rendered this issue moot, but in the NCAA tournament, the likelihood of close games with free throws that matter goes up.

           

    How to Exploit It

    Going full-on hack-a-Bearcat isn't the answer. Instead, an opponent must be judicious with its fouling, making it count by defending hard on drives and paint touches so the Bearcats have to earn those points at the line rather than giving up the basket followed by an and-1.

           

    Nightmare Matchup: North Carolina

    While free-throw defense isn't a real thing, the Tar Heels have somehow managed to avoid being hurt by opponents at the line. UNC allows only 15.7 free throws per game, and its foes have shot a collective 66.9 percent, with ACC teams shooting a paltry 64.4 percent.

No. 9 North Carolina Tar Heels

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Achilles' Heel: Perimeter Defense

    Perennially one of the masters of protecting the rim, or at least making teams earn their baskets inside, North Carolina isn't nearly as strong at defending against the three-point shot.

    Opponents are making 38.3 percent of their three-point shots; ACC teams are even more successful at 39.2 percent. The Heels give up just over 10 threes per game.

            

    How to Exploit It

    It's all a matter of ball movement to get a good shooter open, passing it inside to collapse the defense and then back out to the perimeter.

    Not surprisingly, the seven teams that have beaten UNC this season have assisted on 57.4 percent of their made baskets. More than 41 percent of those makes were from three-point land.

            

    Nightmare Matchup: Villanova

    Six of the seven teams the Heels have lost to should be in the NCAA tourney, and each can exploit the three-point defense. But not counting them or other teams UNC has already played, Villanova would be the scariest sight.

    The Wildcats shoot 40 percent from deep, where 46 percent of their shots originate, and their top four scorers all make at least two threes per game.

No. 8 Purdue Boilermakers

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    Achilles' Heel: Rebounding

    For a team with two 7-footers in its nine-man rotation, it's befuddling that Purdue doesn't rebound better.

    The Boilermakers have a scant 2.7 per-game edge on the boards, which is in the top 100 nationally but not nearly as good as you'd expect with 7'2" senior Isaac Haas and/or 7'2" freshman Matt Haarms on the court most of the time.

    They average a combined 8.6 rebounds per game. senior Vince Edwards (6'7") is their top rebounder, with 7.6 per game.

              

    How to Exploit It

    Purdue is a great defensive team, forces bad shots and shoots well on the offensive end. Solving those areas isn't as easy as taking advantage of when shots are missed on either end, which comes from strong positioning for the rebound.

    Purdue has been outrebounded 13 times this season, including in four of five losses and nine of 14 non-home games.

            

    Nightmare Matchup: Duke

    Duke leads the nation in offensive rebounding rate. It grabs 39.8 percent of opponents' missed shots and is fourth overall in rebounding percentage. The Blue Devils average 13.7 offensive boards per game, ninth overall.

No. 7 Gonzaga Bulldogs

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Achilles' Heel: Three-Point Defense

    In reaching the national title game last season, Gonzaga held its opponents to just 28.9 percent on three-point shots, with only a 23.8 percent success rate in the NCAA tournament.

    This year, the Bulldogs allow 35.5 percent from outside, which would be more damaging if teams were taking more than 35.8 percent of their shots from three.

             

    How to Exploit It

    Launch more from deep. While Saint Mary's shot 61.5 percent from three in its win over Gonzaga, that came on only 13 attempts. Florida took 36 threes and made 17 in its epic double-overtime win against the Bulldogs at the PK80 tournament.

            

    Nightmare Matchup: Purdue

    Purdue is fourth in the nation in three-point shooting at 42.1 percent, and about 40 percent of its field goals are taken from outside. The Boilermakers spread you out well by forcing you to pay close attention inside to their big men, which often means leaving open one of their five players with at least one made three-pointer per game.

No. 6 Kansas Jayhawks

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    Achilles' Heel: Rebounding

    A 14th consecutive Big 12 title certainly didn't come easy for Kansas, mostly because league foes took advantage of the Jayhawks' horrible effort on the boards. Kansas has been on the losing end of that statistic in 19 of 29 games, including all but three conference tilts.

          

    How to Exploit It

    Sophomore center Udoka Azubuike is Kansas' leading rebounder, at 7.1 per game, but he's also a major liability in close games because of his abysmal 42.9 percent free-throw percentage. The Jayhawks often sub him out late in contests to avoid teams putting him on the line, which opens them up to rebounding woes.

          

    Nightmare Matchup: Cincinnati

    Cincinnati outrebounded opponents by 230 total boards this year, and the Bearcats allow just 37.1 percent shooting from the field.

No. 5 Duke Blue Devils

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    Achilles' Heel: Depth

    Now that Duke has suddenly become a defensive juggernaut, at least in comparison to how it used to play, there isn't a statistical area where it shows major flaws. But there's still the issue of the minutes the Blue Devils starters play, particularly since in March, the time between games is much shorter than in the regular season. Duke's normal starting five—now that freshman forward Marvin Bagley III has returned—has played 78.5 percent of available minutes, compared to 69.8 by ACC leader Virginia's starters.

          

    How to Exploit It

    Duke has the stamina to run with anyone. In fact, it's the Blue Devils' preferred speed, but they don't like it when things get physical. Teams that pressure in the backcourt and go for steals tend to be the most successful, like when St. John's recorded eight steals and forced 18 turnovers in its shocking upset in early February. Five of Duke's six losses have come when having the ball stolen seven or more times.

          

    Nightmare Matchup: Rhode Island

    In winning 18 of 19 at one point, Rhode Island had seven or more steals seven times (including four of the last six games) and for the season the Rams force 16.6 turnovers per game.

No. 4 Villanova Wildcats

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    Achilles' Heel: Three-point Rate

    When the shots are falling there's no stopping Villanova, which attempts 46 percent of its field goals from the perimeter (20th-most in Division I). A 40 percent three-point shooting team, the Wildcats' top five scorers all average better than that rate and they've combined for 27 occasions when at least one has made four or more threes in a game. But they also have had six games where they have missed 20 or more triples, resulting in three of their four losses.

    They're 6-4 when shooting below 35 percent from three, compared to 19-0 when shooting better than 35 percent. And three of their losses have occurred when they've shot at least 33 from deep. 

                    

    How to Exploit It

    Opponents can try to pack in the defense in hopes that it makes Villanova flat-out forget about the two-point option. The Wildcats shoot 60.1 percent from inside the perimeter, but no other certain NCAA tourney team takes fewer shots from two-point range than them.

               

    Nightmare Matchup: Kentucky

    For all of its youth-fueled flaws, and there are many, one thing Kentucky does not struggle at is defending the three. Opponents are shooting just 29.3 percent from outside. Only four have reaching the 40-percent threshold and just eight have made 10 or more.

No. 3 Xavier Musketeers

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    Achilles' Heel: Defense

    The easy (and trolling) answer here would be Villanova, since it is responsible for half of Xavier's four losses. But while a third meeting is likely in the Big East Tournament final, when it comes to the NCAA tourney, they shouldn't cross each others' paths until the Elite Eight at the earliest. That leaves the Muskeeters' relatively leaky defense as their biggest problem, with six of their 12 worst defensive ratings coming since mid-January.

          

    How to Exploit It

    Playing fast would seem to be the best approach, but that plays right into Xavier's hands, since it shoots well and rebounds better than most teams. Where the Musketeers struggle is when the pace slows, which forces them to defend longer on each possession.

          

    Nightmare Matchup: Virginia

    This is a nightmare matchup for pretty much every team in the country, but Virginia is particularly troubling for teams that prefer to run. Every Cavaliers opponent this season has been held below its average possessions per 40 minutes, and Xavier is 10-3 when held under its normal pace with six single-digit wins (compared to a 15-1 mark with five single-digit victories when above its pace).

No. 2 Michigan State Spartans

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    Achilles' Heel: Turnovers

    It's a good thing Michigan State leads the nation in field-goal-percentage defense, at 36.2 percent. Otherwise, its tendency to give the ball away way too much would be a huge problem. Their 13.4 turnovers per game are 215th in the nation. It's still concerning, though, since not every team is going to shoot that poorly against the Spartans, and all those wasted possessions will come back to haunt them.

          

    How to Exploit It

    Almost half (46.2 percent) of MSU's turnovers come via the steal, either from a bad pass or getting the ball stripped. Staying active on defense will make the Spartans play right into their opponents' hands.

          

    Nightmare Matchup: West Virginia

    It's not the same level of Press Virginia as in previous seasons, but the Mountaineers continue to pressure their opponents into a lot of mistakes. West Virginia forces 16.8 turnovers per game and gets a steal on 11.5 percent of defensive possessions.

No. 1 Virginia Cavaliers

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    Steve Helber/Associated Press

    Achilles' Heel: Free-Throw Attempt Rate

    The nation's best defensive team also happens to be one of the most efficient on offense. Virginia makes the most of the limited possessions that occur in its games. But in the rare occasion when Virginia is forced to play from behind, that slow pace is problematic when combined with the Cavaliers' infrequent trips to the free-throw line. Only one Division I team has attempted fewer than their 366 foul shots. They take just 0.242 free throws for every field-goal attempt.

          

    How to Exploit It

    It sounds next to impossible, but if a team can speed Virginia up when it's on offense, it can lead to defensive breakdowns that will make scoring on the other end a little easier. And if a lead can be gotten late, the Cavaliers don't have the mindset to stretch the game by stopping the clock.

          

    Nightmare Matchup: Auburn

    A team that can score quickly but also defend well might have the only thing close to a winning formula against Virginia. Auburn has those ingredients. The Tigers are 20th nationally in offensive rating and 39th in pace, leading to 84.3 points per game, and they hold foes to 42.1 percent shooting.

          

    Statistics courtesy of Sports-Reference.com and are through games of Monday, Feb. 26. Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.