The New Year's Resolution for Every AP Top 25 Team
While the rest of us are committing to eating better, exercising more and spending less, the nation's best college basketball teams should be making New Year's resolutions of their own.
For example, Purdue should make it a point to become less reliant on the long ball, while Oklahoma ought to attempt even more triples than it currently is.
Kentucky needs to play its struggling freshman more often, and Texas A&M needs to feed the rock to its dominant freshman far more frequently than it has been.
SMU needs to remain undefeated to stay on our radar, and undefeated South Carolina should probably beat someone of value if it wants to ever show up on that radar.
But everyone needs to buckle up, because conference play is officially underway. If the first seven weeks were any indication of the future, these next two-and-a-half months will be a wild ride.
25. UCLA Bruins
Resolution: Less emphasis on freshmen
A lot of freshmen around the country have had trouble adjusting to the increased difficulty level, but the gap between first-year guys and everyone else is especially pronounced at UCLA.
Eight Bruins have logged at least 50 minutes this season—three freshmen and five players in other classes.
Each of the three freshmen currently has an O-rating on KenPom of 98.3 or lower, as well as a win shares per 40 minutes ratio on Sports-Reference.com of 0.080 or lower. Each of the other five players has a KenPom O-rating of 105.3 or higher and a win shares per 40 minutes ratio of 0.109 or higher.
We're not saying Aaron Holiday, Prince Ali and Alex Olesinski should never touch the floor again, but the more that Jonah Bolden and Thomas Welsh play, the better UCLA's chances are to win.
24. South Carolina Gamecocks
Resolution: Prove something
Has an undefeated team ever entered January with less national attention than South Carolina will? Even TCU was a topic of much debate last season, though mostly because we were curious if the Horned Frogs could go undefeated in nonconference play and then winless in conference play.
Here's the 4-1-1 on the Gamecocks:
They play significantly above-average defense, as has been the case for Frank Martin's teams. Excluding his first two seasons at South Carolina, Martin's teams have always had an adjusted defensive efficiency rating of 96.0 or lower, per KenPom. This year's Gamecocks sit at 93.3, good for 18th in the nation.
Another staple of Martin's coaching, they crash the offensive glass with reckless abandon. In all five of Martin's years at Kansas State, the Wildcats ranked in the top six in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage. South Carolina is on pace to make it three out of four seasons ranked in the top 15 nationally in that category.
The Gamecocks also shoot well, which is the biggest variance from the norm. In each of the past three seasons, South Carolina ranked in the bottom 100 nationally in effective field-goal percentage, but the Gamecocks are in the top 100 this year. A 30.1-percent three-point shooting team last year, they've converted on 40.9 percent of attempts from beyond the arc against D-I opponents this year.
But no one seems to care because they've done it against opponents no better than Tulsa, Clemson and Hofstra. And outside of a home game against Vanderbilt two weekends from now, they don't play anyone particularly good until early February.
Somewhere along the way, though, South Carolina needs to prove that it not only deserves to go dancing but that it deserves to be picked to win a game or two in the tournament.
23. Baylor Bears
Resolution: Learn to play away from home
Drastic home-road splits in college basketball are hardly uncommon—especially this year, when it seems like no one is playing all that well away from home. But Baylor at the Ferrell Center and Baylor elsewhere are polar opposites.
In nine home games, Baylor is undefeated with an average score of 83.2 to 60.6. The Bears are shooting 48.6 percent from the field, averaging 10.9 turnovers per game and have an average rebounding margin of plus-14.1 at home.
We'll exclude the "semi-home" game against D-III Hardin-Simmons, but in the other two games away from home, Baylor is winless with an average score of 77 to 64. The Bears are shooting 37.5 percent from the field, averaging 17.0 turnovers per game and have an average rebounding margin of plus-1.0 on the road.
Now, the level of competition also plays a big factor. Baylor has played just three game against teams in the KenPom top 125, and two of those three games were on the road. But the competition isn't about to get any easier, as two of Baylor's first three Big 12 games are at Kansas and at Iowa State.
There are no gimmes in this conference, and the Bears will need to win at least a couple of games away from home in the next two months to feel even remotely assured of a NCAA tournament bid.
22. Cincinnati Bearcats
Resolution: Play better defense against quality opponents
Over the past few years, "defense" and "Cincinnati" have been synonymous. The Bearcats played a ton of slow-paced, low-scoring games, but it worked perfectly for them. Only four times in the past two seasons did an opponent score more than 68 points against them.
But just 14 games into this season, the Bearcats have already given up at least 72 points four times.
The increased pace of play across the nation is at least partially to blame, but this team simply isn't playing with its usual fire on defense.
The Bearcats were great early in the year. Cincinnati was impenetrable on defense, averaging 14.3 steals and 7.3 blocks per game through its first four contests. But that aggression has been absent for the past month.
In the 78-76 loss to Butler, the Bearcats allowed 12 offensive rebounds and forced just six turnovers. In last week's 81-79 loss to Iowa State, they had just four steals and allowed 15 offensive rebounds. Against Temple on Tuesday, they had a grand total of two steals and two blocks in the 77-70 loss. They weren't even stepping out to contest threes against the Owls.
This is not Mick Cronin basketball, and Cincinnati is going to continue to lose winnable games until it gets back to committing to defense. And he certainly felt as much after the most recent loss to Temple.
According to Joe Danneman of Fox 19 in Cincinnati (h/t CBS Sports), Cronin said in the postgame press conference: "I'd like to apologize to all of our former players who had to watch us play defense like that. ... Right now they're a disgrace to everyone who's helped build the program. They owe those guys an apology."
Yikes. Best of luck to those guys in their next practice.
21. Utah Utes
Resolution: Defend the perimeter
Defense by Utah's guards has been less than ideal.
D-I opponents are shooting 39.8 percent from three-point range against the Utes while committing turnovers on just 13.8 percent of possessions. The Utes rank 323rd in the nation in the former and 348th in the latter.
Three times already this season, they have allowed an opposing team to shoot better than 52 percent from three-point range. And on four separate occasions, they have recorded no more than two steals.
Fortunately, Utah does have Jakob Poeltl averaging 17.8 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game, but even amidst his Wooden Award campaign, 50 percent of the team's games against D-I opponents have either resulted in a loss (two) or a win by a single-digit margin (four). If the guards don't start doing a better job on defense, this season could go downhill in a hurry.
20. Texas A&M Aggies
Resolution: More touches for Tyler Davis
How's this for efficiency? Tyler Davis has not attempted a three-pointer yet this season, but he is averaging 2.16 points per field-goal attempt.
The guy is a gold mine for points—and a darn fine shot-blocker and rebounder, to boot—so why the blazes is he only playing 21.2 minutes per game, only being used on 21.9 percent of possessions and only accounting for 17.7 percent of Texas A&M's field-goal attempts while on the court?
Even more unforgivable about Davis' low usage rate is that Texas A&M starts two point guards (Alex Caruso and Anthony Collins) who are combining to average one field-goal attempt for every 5:36 spent on the court. The Aggies have two primary players who strive to set up teammates as often as possible, yet the most efficient scorer in the country is barely getting touches.
Meanwhile, Danuel House is shooting 21.4 percent from three-point range in the month of December, but he's still jacking up enough shots to make Marshall Henderson jealous.
Eventually, House should revert to the guy who was shooting 40 percent from downtown in his first six months with the Aggies. Davis' shooting percentage will inevitably decline to some degree. But strike while the iron is hot! Davis needs to get a touch on at least two out of every three possessions until he proves unworthy of such a workload.
19. West Virginia Mountaineers
Resolution: More minutes for Jonathan Holton
You never want to tinker with a good thing, and West Virginia has a good thing going. The Mountaineers are No. 1 in the nation in steal percentage, offensive rebounding percentage and three-point defense. Save for the loss to Virginia, they have been embarrassing the opposition all season long.
Because of their aggressive, uptempo style of play, they cycle guys in and out on a regular basis. Nine Mountaineers average between 14.3 and 26.8 minutes per game.
But for some strange reason, Jonathan Holton—the nation's leader in offensive rebounding percentage—is only playing 18.9 minutes per game.
Holton isn't a one-trick pony, either. He's also WVU's second-best shot-blocker, a 61.3 percent shooter from inside the arc and a good source of steals for a 6'7" forward. One would think he should be on the floor as often as possible, but he's not even in the top five on the team in minutes played.
Part of that is due to foul trouble. Holton fouled out in nine minutes against Stetson and had four fouls in just 12 minutes against Richmond, but he isn't even playing all that much when he's able to avoid the whistles.
He did have a season-high 27 minutes in the game against Virginia, though, so we'll see if he gets more playing time when WVU actually needs him against Big 12 opponents.
18. Louisville Cardinals
Resolution: Win some marquee games
Louisville looks the part of a very good team.
Each of its 11 wins has come by a margin of at least 20 points. Its two losses were closely contested true road games against a pair of teams that may well meet for the national championship (Kentucky and Michigan State).
The Cardinals are solid on defense and are among the best offensive rebounding teams in the country. Blame the weak schedule all you want, but 35 offensive rebounds and 15 steals against the Spartans and Wildcats would suggest they can bring it regardless of who they're facing.
If anything, the damning statistic from those two games is that Louisville—a 39.4 percent three-point shooting team in its 11 wins—shot 8-of-31 (25.8 percent) from three-point range, while UK and MSU shot a combined 20-of-46 (43.5 percent) from downtown. The Cardinals were the better team in both games. They just weren't the better shooting team in either of them.
As a result, they enter ACC play with a computer resume that doesn't nearly line up with the eye test.
Over the course of the next 18 games, one of those tournament factors will win out and pull on the other like a magnet. Louisville is hoping that the eye test will reign supreme in the form of some marquee wins over the likes of Virginia, North Carolina, Miami and Duke. However, the Cardinals won't play any of those teams until Jan. 30, giving them seven ACC hurdles to clear (or trip over) before getting their next chance to really prove something to the selection committee.
This is hardly unfamiliar territory for this team, though. Two years ago, the Cardinals went 11-2 in nonconference play with close losses to Kentucky and North Carolina and a bunch of blowout wins against unremarkable opponents. Despite going 15-3 in conference and winning the AAC tournament, the No. 1 team on KenPom for that season ended up with a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Playing in the ACC should carry more weight than being a part of that inaugural AAC season, but Louisville does have a lot to prove.
17. SMU Mustangs
Resolution: Stay undefeated
No hard-hitting analysis is needed here about what SMU needs to improve before we get into March, because the Mustangs won't be there.
This is a team that ranks top five in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency, effective field-goal percentage, offensive rebounding and three-point shooting, but it apparently won't get out of jail on good behavior. Even if the Mustangs get to 30-0 and No. 1 in the AP Top 25, they will be ineligible for postseason play.
So, that's the resolution. Remain undefeated for as long as possible.
Sure, that's also something that Oklahoma, Xavier and South Carolina would love to do, but it doesn't mean nearly as much to those teams. One loss (before the tournament) doesn't end their season. Heck, even a .500 record in conference play might not be enough to keep them out of the NCAA tournament at this point.
But SMU wants nothing more than to spend the next 10 weeks in a permanent state of being one loss away from irrelevance.
As soon as the Mustangs lose, we'll no longer care about them. It's harsh but true. We'll probably still mention in our projected brackets where SMU would have been seeded, and the Mustangs will still get AP Top 25 votes until they suffer too many losses. However, the outrage over their completely unfair ineligibility will rapidly dissipate as we instead focus on teams that are actually allowed to go dancing.
Until it loses, though, SMU remains a legitimate story to follow.
16. Villanova Wildcats
Resolution: Protect the defensive glass
The Wildcats did a good job on the glass against an undersized Penn team on Monday, but average-height opponents have given them fits.
Villanova had just nine defensive rebounds in the loss to Virginia. Stanford got an offensive rebound on nearly 45 percent of its misses. Five other opponents already this season have gotten back at least 30 percent of their misses against Villanova.
These things happen when you don't have a true power forward.
You would think that 6'6", 240-pound Kris Jenkins would be a force on the glass, but he wants nothing to do with that part of the game. On the season, he has nearly three times as many three-point attempts (80) as defensive rebounds (29). In a span of four games against Oklahoma, La Salle, Virginia and Delaware, Jenkins played 89 minutes and grabbed precisely one defensive rebound.
If Jenkins was shooting better than 28.7 percent from three-point range, perhaps he would be more of an asset than a liability, but that isn't the case right now.
Unfortunately, Villanova doesn't have many other options. With Daniel Ochefu and Darryl Reynolds platooning at center and Kevin Rafferty nowhere near effective enough for anything more than garbage-time minutes, Jenkins is the only remaining player on the roster with a listed weight of more than 205 pounds.
The Wildcats have no choice but to embrace a lineup with four perimeter guys—hence their extreme reliance on three-pointers, even though they haven't been falling thus far this season.
But that doesn't mean they can't rebound. Oregon State's Gary Payton II is 6'3" and 190 pounds after a big meal, but he's still averaging 5.3 defensive rebounds per game. Coach Jay Wright simply needs to convince his guards that Ochefu and Josh Hart can't be responsible for corralling every single defensive rebound.
15. Duke Blue Devils
Resolution: Keep Marshall Plumlee out of foul trouble
At no point in the previous four seasons did I ever think this statement would be uttered, but at least until Amile Jefferson returns—and there's still no timetable for that—Marshall Plumlee might be Duke's most important player.
In the four games since Jefferson's injury—three of which were wins by a margin of at least 22 points—Chase Jeter has 11 rebounds and seven points in 47 minutes of action, while Sean Obi is still barely even touching the court, recording two points and four rebounds in 10 minutes.
Most of that production came during garbage time. Neither one scored in the one close game during that stretch, as Jeter played six scoreless minutes against Utah and Obi never got off the bench.
Brandon Ingram can certainly play the 4. He has averaged 21.3 points and 8.2 rebounds per game in the month of December. But he becomes the 5 when Plumlee is out of the game, and he's no more suited for that role than Jabari Parker was two years ago.
For brief stretches, it's not a problem. Duke has more than enough capable guards to play small ball, and Grayson Allen and Luke Kennard grab just enough rebounds that the Blue Devils aren't going to get ripped to shreds on the glass with Ingram playing center.
However, it's not a great long-term solution against any team with a capable big man—aka at least 75 percent of the teams in the ACC. Ingram has put on some muscle, but he's like a gnat on a hippopotamus compared to the likes of Charles Mitchell, Zach Auguste, Devin Thomas, Tonye Jekiri, Kennedy Meeks, Chinanu Onuaku, etc.
Though they don't need him to do much scoring, the Blue Devils could be in serious trouble any time Plumlee is riding the pine because of fouls.
14. Purdue Boilermakers
Resolution: Quit shooting so many threes
Purdue has one of the biggest and baddest frontcourts in the country.
Isaac Haas (7'2") and A.J. Hammons (7'0") both appear in the top 10 of the KenPom Player of the Year rankings. Both do an excellent job of blocking shots, grabbing rebounds, drawing fouls and making two-pointers.
The Boilermakers also have a 6'9", 250-pound power forward in Caleb Swanigan who played well in the five games prior to being held scoreless by Wisconsin. And Vince Edwards is beastly for a "small" forward at 6'8" and 225 pounds.
Yet, for some ridiculous reason, more than 40 percent of Purdue's field-goal attempts are coming from three-point range.
I appreciate that having a dominant big man or two frequently leads to open shots on the perimeter as opposing defenses focus more on guarding the paint. We saw it time and again last season at Duke, as opponents had to decide whether to double-team Jahlil Okafor or just let him have free buckets.
However, Duke had a ton of reliable shooters, while Rapheal Davis is the only Boilermaker who is shooting better than 37.5 percent from beyond the arc—and he's only averaging 2.0 attempts per game. With most of the options shooting poorly, Purdue is doing opposing teams a favor by settling for a three-point attempt on two out of every five shots rather than consistently feeding the post.
As demonstrated in Tuesday's win over Wisconsin, Hammons can lead Purdue to the promised land. Swanigan put up a doughnut, Haas played 10 minutes, and the Boilermakers were minus-nine in the turnover battle, but they won on the road because the Badgers had no answer for Hammons. When all three of those big men show up, how does anyone beat this team?
13. Miami Hurricanes
Resolution: Get Sheldon McClellan more involved
Miami's offense has been spectacular. A lot of the Hurricanes' great numbers stem from the red-hot start to the season in which they were averaging 91.8 points per game through the first five, but they're still sizzling on most nights. Save for the 66-55 win over Florida, they've scored at least 76 in every game this season.
There's almost nothing negative you can say about this offense.
Sheldon McClellan needs more touches. Even with Tuesday night's dreadful performance against Princeton—he posted his worst O-rating (59) since leaving Texas in 2013—McClellan is shooting 59.4 percent inside the arc, 47.5 percent beyond it and 88.5 percent from the free-throw line. He rarely commits turnovers or fouls (2.75 combined per game) and has been one of the most efficient scorers in the country this season.
Yet, Angel Rodriguez and Ja'Quan Newton are taking a higher percentage of the team's shots while on the floor.
To be fair, balanced scoring has been a hallmark of Jim Larranaga's best teams. The 2006 Final Four George Mason team had five guys average between 11.0 and 13.7 points per game, and Shane Larkin led 2012-13 Miami in scoring at 14.5 points per game.
But if anyone is going to lead this team in percentage of shots taken, why not make it the guy who is averaging 1.70 points per field-goal attempt?
12. Providence Friars
Resolution: Rest and fluids for Ryan Fazekas
Providence has the best point guard in the country in Kris Dunn and a way-better-than-anyone-could-have-realistically-expected frontcourt tandem in Ben Bentil and Rodney Bullock. With that trio, the Friars have gobs of interior scoring, reliable free-throw shooting, shot blocking, playmaking, rebounding and on-ball defense.
The only thing missing from the equation is three-point shooting, and that's because Ryan Fazekas has missed the past few weeks while recovering from mononucleosis. The 6'8" freshman wing started the first nine games of the season and was shooting 47.2 percent from beyond the arc before coming down with the sickness.
He didn't shoot much (5.3 field-goal attempts per game), but he was lethal when he did. And with no other player on the roster shooting better than 33.3 percent while averaging at least one three-point attempt per game, Fazekas should provide a real spark when he does finally return to the court.
The Friars have been able to continue winning against mediocre teams without him, but this could be a championship team if he's shooting anywhere near that well in March and April.
11. Iowa State Cyclones
Resolution: Keep implementing Deonte Burton into the rotation
Monte Morris, Georges Niang and Jameel McKay are every bit as good as we thought they'd be, if not better. And while Abdel Nader still isn't even remotely the most efficient thing since an automated bread slicer, his improved play while inheriting a much bigger piece of the pie has been critical for Iowa State thus far.
However, with the loss of Naz Long for the rest of the season—who was quietly having a poor season while dealing with that hip pain—the Cyclones need another guy from their shallow rotation to step up.
It can't be a coincidence that Long decided to shut it down right before Marquette transfer Deonte Burton became eligible. Long gave it everything he had for eight games, but Burton's arrival in the rotation made it possible for Long to call it a year.
Now it's time to get Burton up to speed.
Matt Thomas has started all four games since Long hit the injured reserve list and will likely continue to start for the foreseeable future, but Burton is going to be crucial as the sixth man for this team. A capable rebounder and above-average scorer and defender, Burton should play a ton and could have the type of "midseason addition" positive impact that McKay had for the Cyclones last season.
10. Kentucky Wildcats
Resolution: Keep Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee fresh for March
This isn't groundbreaking news, but Kentucky is going to make the NCAA tournament. With wins over Duke and Louisville already on the resume and a nonconference game against Kansas still forthcoming in late January, the Wildcats could probably lose eight SEC games before we even entertain the notion of their being in any danger of missing the dance.
John Calipari needs to use this to his advantage by not running his upperclassmen bigs into the ground.
No. 1 seeds are nice to have, but Kentucky proved as recently as two years ago that a No. 8 seed can reach the title game if it peaks at the right time. And based on early returns, the only way Kentucky will be peaking in March and April is if Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee are healthy and fresh enough to play as many minutes as the referees will allow.
Intentionally limiting the duo's minutes has a twofold positive effect, though. Not only does it keep them fresh, but it gives Skal Labissiere another two months to at least start to live up to his potential.
If you've been sleepwalking through the first six-plus weeks of the season, Labissiere's extended debut has been...not great. Yet, it has only been 12 games. It might be fun to harp on players and teams that fall short of our expectations, but let's give him at least 20 more games before we start stressing over whether he deserves to be a top-five draft pick this June.
Here's the side of the story that people seem to be neglecting: Labissiere doesn't need less playing time because he's hurting the team; he needs more playing time because he should eventually be able to help the team.
There may well be more struggles in his immediate future. Those struggles might result in disappointing losses to middling SEC teams. But trust the process, Big Blue Nation. Being a Top 10 team right now isn't nearly as important as being one three months from now. And if Labissiere doesn't eventually come around, you're going to want versions of Lee and Poythress that aren't fatigued.
9. Butler Bulldogs
Resolution: Get Kellen Dunham back on track
A lot of people noticed that Butler somehow managed to beat Purdue despite Kellen Dunham missing every single one of his field-goal attempts, but that was hardly an isolated incident in what has to be the worst four-game stretch of the shooting guard's career.
Dating back to Dec. 12, Dunham is 7-of-46 from the field and 2-of-27 from three-point range. That's a 7.4 percent mark from behind the arc from a guy who shot 41.0 percent last season and entered this cold spell shooting 43.6 percent this season.
The senior has now scored eight or fewer points in three straight games. Between his sophomore and junior season, he never once went consecutive games without scoring at least 10 points.
So, yeah, this is a bit out of the ordinary, but Butler is still winning games and scoring a ton of points without him. Kelan Martin, Andrew Chrabascz and Tyler Wideman have been great during this stretch to keep the offense humming along without a hitch.
But that might not be enough in the immediate future. It's one thing to cobble together wins against Southern Utah and IUPUI, but three of Butler's first four Big East games are against Providence, Xavier and Villanova. The Bulldogs are going to need more than 0.59 points per field-goal attempt out of Dunham for those games.
8. Arizona Wildcats
Resolution: Keep the big men happy
Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports reported a little more than a week ago that Arizona's Kaleb "Zeus" Tarczewski—who was originally expected to miss four to six weeks with a sprained ankle suffered before Thanksgiving—is still without a timetable for return.
But he'll eventually be back, and things could get a little messy in Arizona's frontcourt when he does.
In Tarczewski's absence, sophomore Dusan Ristic has been solid, averaging 11.3 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game as a full-time starter in December. Both with and without Zeus, Ryan Anderson has been outstanding, putting up 15.5 points and 10.3 rebounds per game. Mark Tollefsen has played a solid 24.3 minutes per game as a hybrid forward, and even 6'11" freshman Chance Comanche has gotten some run over the past four weeks.
If and when Zeus returns, that's five big men vying for playing time. Comanche's minutes will almost certainly drop to nil, but can the Wildcats really send Ristic back to the pine after the job he has done lately? Would Sean Miller dare further reduce the minutes of Anderson and Tollefsen, who are already playing less than they deserve?
Whatever the solution, keeping the status quo is crucial. At plus-12.8 per game, Arizona has one of the best average rebounding margins in the country. The Wildcats are also reliant on their post offense, averaging just 5.4 made three-pointers per game.
7. North Carolina Tar Heels
Resolution: Keep finding minutes for Isaiah Hicks
North Carolina has had little choice but to play Isaiah Hicks with Kennedy Meeks sidelined for the past five games, but the Tar Heels now have little choice but to keep playing Hicks at least 20 minutes per game, given how well he has responded to the increased workload.
A lot of people have forgotten this because he has been buried on the depth chart for the past two-plus years, but Hicks was a 2013 McDonald's All-American. Both ESPN and 247Sports actually rated Hicks as a much better recruit than Kennedy Meeks, but Meeks got to play at center right away, while Hicks barely touched the court while sharing a position with James Michael McAdoo and Brice Johnson.
So, no, it shouldn't come as a surprise that he has scored in double figures in six straight games while shooting better than 75 percent from the field or that he now has at least three offensive rebounds in four consecutive contests.
It took a few years for Hicks to finally get a legitimate opportunity, but if North Carolina aims to give 26 minutes per game to Hicks, Johnson and Meeks (once he's healthy), that's probably the most unstoppable frontcourt in the entire country.
(And let's not forget that Marcus Paige was the Tar Heels' top preseason Wooden Award candidate or that Joel Berry II, Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson have been phenomenal in their sophomore season in this backcourt. If you can still find North Carolina at 10-1 or better odds to win the 2016 NCAA tournament, you're crazy not to take it.)
6. Xavier Musketeers
Resolution: More Edmond Sumner dunks
There are some more practical things that Xavier might resolve to accomplish.
A better job of denying three-point attempts would probably be near the top of the Musketeers' list. Dayton is their only opponent thus far this season that hasn't attempted at least 20 three-pointers, and that's largely because the Flyers committed four more turnovers and attempted five more free throws than any other Xavier opponent has this year.
Xavier has been fortunate thus far in holding opponents to 30.1 percent from beyond the arc, but three-point field-goal defense might be the most unreliable statistic in all of basketball.
Another desirable for Xavier might be another reliable scorer. Trevon Bluiett (44.9 percent) is the only Musketeer who is shooting 39 percent or better from three-point range, and the team doesn't have a single player who is converting on better than 60 percent of two-point attempts. The Musketeers are scoring in bunches but largely due to the high percentage of offensive rebounds.
But what we really want out of Xavier in the new year is more highlight-reel material from Edmond Sumner. Between what he did against Cincinnati and what he did against Wake Forest 10 days later, we need to see this guy fly as much as we possibly can.
5. Virginia Cavaliers
Resolution: Start a joint Player of the Year campaign
There are a lot of dynamic duos, but none is more efficient than Virginia's Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill.
Those Cavaliers are No. 3 and No. 5, respectively, in the KenPom Player of the Year rankings. They are the focal points of one of the nation's most efficient offenses, as well as crucial contributors to Virginia's typically stagnant defense.
Yet, cursed to live in a world where per-game numbers are referenced a million times more often than per-possession numbers, they're lucky to even get mentioned in current Player of the Year conversations.
Perhaps this will be an eye-opening comparison (numbers through the start of play Wednesday, via Sports-Reference.com):
- Gill per 100 possessions: 34.0 points, 15.1 rebounds, 136.7 O-Rating, 94.8 D-Rating, 0.289 win shares per 40 minutes
- Georges Niang per 100 possessions.: 32.2 points, 10.8 rebounds, 127.0 O-Rating, 95.2 D-Rating, 0.252 win shares per 40 minutes
The Cavaliers need to hire a PR firm to promote how great Gill and Brogdon have been.
As far as the team goes, it's good as is. London Perrantes is suddenly the most cold-blooded shooter in the country, Darius Thompson has been a fantastic addition, and Isaiah Wilkins has really emerged as Virginia's indispensable glue guy. Mike Tobey and Marial Shayok have also been solid contributors in relatively limited minutes.
Health is what derailed this team last season, but if they can avoid the infirmary this year, the Cavaliers might be the most complete team in the country come tournament time.
4. Maryland Terrapins
Resolution: Take better care of the ball
Turnovers were a colossal issue in the first half of Maryland's loss to North Carolina, but it wasn't a one-time occurrence. Despite playing at a considerably below-average pace, the Terrapins have committed at least nine turnovers in every game this season, including three games with at least 18 giveaways.
It's not just one or two players, either. It's something of a team-wide epidemic, as seven different Terps are averaging at least 0.9 turnovers per game.
When it is able to hang onto the ball, Maryland is efficient on offense. This team ranks third in the nation in two-point percentage, 17th in free-throw percentage and 29th in three-point percentage. It's how the Terrapins were able to score 81 points against the Tar Heels despite committing 21 turnovers.
They just need to make sure that more possessions result in shots rather than careless passes.
3. Oklahoma Sooners
Resolution: More three-point attempts
In what Ken Pomeroy has already declared to be the most three-point-reliant season in college basketball history, it might seem crazy to suggest that any team needs to take more three-pointers. But for the Sooners, more is unquestionably better.
They're shooting 46.2 percent from beyond the arc as a team, ranking second in the nation in that category. But their attempt rate is slightly below the national average.
If they were also shooting well inside the arc, it would be one thing, but they're shooting just 50.0 percent from two-point range. It makes no sense for them to be so dependent on something that isn't paying ample dividends.
Two-point attempts do lead to substantially more free-throw attempts than three-point attempts, so this isn't entirely accurate, but based on the shooting percentages, Oklahoma is averaging 1.386 points per three-point attempt and just 1.0 points per two-point attempt.
Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard have each taken at least 46 shots from both inside and outside the arc, and each one is shooting better from three-point range than two-point range.
Let it fly, Sooners. Let it fly.
2. Kansas Jayhawks
Resolution: Find a reliable fifth player
Kansas' primary quartet has been solid.
We expected big things from Perry Ellis, Frank Mason and Wayne Selden, and they have delivered. And Devonte' Graham has been a pleasantly efficient surprise after a turnover- and injury-prone freshman season. Each of those four is averaging at least 10.1 points and 26.9 minutes per game.
But the drop to the team's fifth-best option is staggering.
Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk is fifth on the team in both points and minutes, but he has done most of his damage in blowouts. He has only scored in double figures in games that Kansas has won by at least a 19-point margin, and he has been held to 17 scoreless minutes over the Jayhawks' last two games.
Brannen Greene and Cheick Diallo are the other primary options, but they've each missed five games this season due to a suspension from either Bill Self or the NCAA. Greene is starting to really work his way into the mix, but Diallo still hasn't gotten into the flow of things, logging 10 minutes or fewer in each of the last four games.
Throw in frontcourt reserves Jamari Traylor, Carlton Bragg, Hunter Mickelson and Landen Lucas, and Kansas has more than enough options. But do the Jayhawks have anyone who can be trusted as the fifth guy late in a close game, or will they just be in a permanent state of riding the hottest hand from game to game?
1. Michigan State Spartans
Resolution: Force more turnovers
Michigan State has never had much of a turnover-forcing defense under Tom Izzo, but the inability to create takeaways seems especially pronounced this year.
The Spartans have lost the turnover battle in nine of their 14 games and have played to a draw in that category in two other contests. They are minus-18 over the past five games and minus-36 over the course of the season.
Take away the 11 steals they had against Arkansas-Pine Bluff—a team that scored 25 points in an entire game against Missouri on Tuesday—and the Spartans are averaging just 4.2 steals per game. Even with that game included, they rank 318th in the nation in steals per game, per NCAA.com.
In the first half against Iowa on Tuesday night, Michigan State committed 11 turnovers and forced just three. The lack of Denzel Valentine was largely to blame for the loss, but the Spartans added insult to injury by digging themselves into an inescapable hole with their sloppy play.
Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn and Bryn Forbes have combined for just 12 steals in 700 minutes of action this season. It would be great if Michigan State's starting backcourt could be a little more active on defense than that.
Stats courtesy of KenPom.com unless otherwise indicated.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @kerrancejames.