College Basketball: Faults at the Top

Ben GunbyAnalyst IFebruary 14, 2008

San Antonio may very will wind up covered in blue when the NCAA tournament concludes this season. Memphis, UCLA, North Carolina, Duke, and Kansas—four of the nation's top five teams—have the color in common. However, blue might actually be a more accurate description of the way some of these teams will feel as March concludes. None of the nation's top teams are without faults.

In fact, the top two—Duke and Memphis—have such glaring weaknesses that it would be hard to say they are really even favorites to be cutting down the nets in San Antonio.

You would think that championship caliber basketball teams don't miss 20 free throws in one single game, but Memphis did against UTEP earlier this season. You would think championship caliber teams would be able to easily put away an opponent when holding a double digit lead in the game's final minutes, but, if the Memphis Tigers are indeed a true championship caliber basketball team, you would be wrong.

No Memphis lead is safe thanks to the opportunity their dreadful free throw shooting provieds opponents. This will certainly be the case in March. Inevitably, their pourous free throw shooting will catch up to them. As good as the Tigers are on the defensive end, from beyong the arc, and on the boards, it's their inability to execute one of the most fundamental aspects of basketball that will be their undoing.

Take their most recent tilt with Houston for example. The Tigers won by nine points, a margin that should have been much larger. However, when you go to the free throw line 32 times and miss 13 of those shots, you're leaving a lot of points at the door for your opponent to take advantage of.

Thus far, nobody has been able to fully walk through the numerous doors left open by the Tigers, but you've got to think it's coming. By the time we hit March and some of the nation's top teams (which are not found in Conference USA, by the way) are playing at their best, somebody will be ready to capitalize on the Tigers' major shortcomings.

Only one Tiger is shooting above 70 percent from the charity stripe. Memphis can't even put a couple of reliable guys on the floor late in games to keep the ball in their hands and help ice away basketball games.

John Calipari will face quite a few major decisions late in games about which five guys to put on the floor. Leading rebounder Joey Dorsey shoots below 40 percent from the line. Can you afford to have that kind of liability out there? At the same time, don't you want your best rebounder on the court at the close of games to prevent opponents from getting multiple shots per possession?

The Tigers leading scorer, Chris Douglas-Roberts, and primary ball handler, Derrick Rose, both shoot below 70 percent as well. Factor in that Rose is a freshman and you've got to wonder how the Tigers are going to handle late game situations. 

Memphis is as talented as any team in America. They are great defensively, in transition, and in the half court. However, their free throw woes are just too much of an eyesore to really buy a lot of stock in this team. These free throw problems don't seem to be very correctable either.

The Duke Blue Devils are the other of the nation's top two teams and, while their flaw may not be as egregious as the one Memphis boasts, their style of play doesn't bode well for a deep run in March. It might seem odd to suggest a team that has lost only once all year doesn't play a style conducive to winning six straight games in March, but upon closer examination it makes sense.

Duke and Coach K have adopted a rather new identity. The days of Elton Brand, Carlos Boozer, and Josh McRoberts are gone. These Devils like to run and shoot, and a lot of that shooting takes place from beyond the three point line.While that lends to an extremely exciting style of play, one made for big runs to put teams away or to bring themselves back into games they were seemingly out of, a reliance on this style of play can also lead to an early exit in March.

In March the defenses will be better and the number of open shots will decrease. Five Dukies currently nail three pointers at a clip of 39 percent or better, a most impressive feat. However, nobody on the roster averages more than one block or six rebounds per game. It takes balance to win national titles, something Duke is seriously lacking.

What happens when their shooters go cold? What happens when their opponent is able to dictate the pace of play by protecting the basketball and making it a half court game? Does Duke have the ability to win such a battle? If the game gets physical, do the Devils have the ability to scrap their way to wins if their shooters aren't carrying the day?These are questions the Devils hope to be able to answer yes to, but they've still got a lot to prove.

There is no question that Memphis and Duke are two of the most talented teams in college basketball, if not the most talented. However, it would be foolish to go ahead and pronounce them Final Four combatants. While both certainly have the ability to make it to San Antonio, both also have flaws that are pronounced enough to cast doubt on their ability to get past the second weekend.