The Achilles' Heel for Every AP Top 25 College Basketball Team Entering March

Jason Franchuk@@harkthefranchukCollege Basketball Featured ColumnistMarch 3, 2016

The Achilles' Heel for Every AP Top 25 College Basketball Team Entering March

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    Every college basketball team has a flaw.

    Even current No. 1 Kansas—coming off a never-even-close win at Texas—isn't immune from something that could hurt it down the road.

    The legend of Achilles is that, as a baby, he was held by the heel while being dipped into magical waters. His heel never touched the water that was supposed to make him invincible. Achilles survived many great battles until a poisonous arrow pierced his heel, killing him shortly after.

    You see where we're going with this…

    We're less than one month from the start of the NCAA tournament, meaning you're less than one month from filling out a bracket. Knowing each Associated Press Top 25 team's biggest weakness should play a big part in your decision-making process.

    We've already done that research for you. Now all you have to do is decide how crippling these deficiencies are compared to the matchups presented to them in the tournament.

    Can West Virginia make enough free throws? How about Villanova with that three-point shooting? Can Kentucky find more than two guys to lean on?

    Heel, yeah, every team has a weakness—let's take a look at one for each of this week's AP Top 25 teams.

25. Cal Golden Bears: Lack of Steals

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    A team that is so bouncy, young and athletic sure would be fun to watch in transition, getting some opportunities out of steals.

    Cal could be that team, but it is not.

    The Golden Bears rank near the bottom of the country in forcing turnovers. In fact, only Delaware and George Mason are more passive than a team built on freshmen.

    Cal is solid in half-court situations at both ends of the floor. But an inability to force the issue, and letting quality teams get comfortable, could mean doom against a more experienced team that moves the ball around and can find quality shots.

    Its current seven-game winning streak—while impressive—has been built on inferior teams or ones (like Oregon) that have a knack of hurting themselves with quick shots.

    Head coach Cuonzo Martin has one of the top groups this year at packing it in and not letting teams score. But it's a shame it can't get some more easy baskets using its length and speed by forcing some turnovers and getting to the rim and/or the foul line.

24. SMU Mustangs: Not Caring About Getting Fouled

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    Lance King/Getty Images

    We'll keep this short and sweet, like (unfortunately) the rest of SMU's season.

    But one thing the Mustangs don't really do well is get aggressive enough to get to the foul line.

    While head coach Larry Brown and Nic Moore can't go to the NCAA tournament, their team has a chance in the last two games to affect the postseason seeding of AAC mates Cincinnati and Connecticut.

    Moore, a senior, has only attempted 98 free throws (third on the team), which is a shame because he shoots 80 percent from the line.

23. Texas Longhorns: An Honest-to-Goodness 'Heel' Problem

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    All of this talk about heels has hit Texas in a more profound way.

    Top contributor (per KenPom.com's numbers) Isaiah Taylor has plantar fasciitis in his right foot, according to Longhorns coach Shaka Smart after the loss to Kansas.

    "Plantar fasciitis, an injury to the heel, causes pain in the tissue on the bottom of a person's foot," according to Chris Hummer of 247Sports.

    Smart told reporters, via Hummer, "the issue flared up Sunday and Taylor wore a boot on his foot as a precaution the last two days."

    Taylor was 1-of-10 shooting against Kansas on Monday.

    It's an awful time to have a health problem that often requires being off one's feet to heal.

    On an overachieving Texas team, no one plays more minutes or takes more shots than the junior guard. Sure, he could stand to be more efficient (45 percent from inside the arc, 25 beyond it), but UT finds itself wondering how he'll be down the stretch and if big man Cameron Ridley (foot) will be available as the season reaches its crucial points.

22. Kentucky Wildcats: Reliance on 2 Players

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    James Crisp/Associated Press

    Kentucky has two supremely talented players in Jamal Murray and Tyler Ulis. But perhaps no team uncomfortably relies more on a duo than the Wildcats, and coach John Calipari recently expressed concern about that.

    Derek Willis went off February 18 against Tennessee (25 points), but otherwise, it's almost always been the Murray and Ulis show, especially over the past five games.

    The February 27 loss to Vanderbilt was a really alarming sign. Murray (33 points) and Ulis (12 points, six assists) were fine. But it's been an ongoing problem getting production out of Alex Poythress, Skal Labissiere and Isaac Humphries—post players who did not score and combined for five rebounds.

    Isaiah Briscoe is a scary 1-of-20 from three-point range since Dec. 19.

    It's worth noting, as the Lexington Herald-Leader's Jerry Tipton did after the Vandy game, that Ulis and Murray have been right at the top of the SEC standings in minutes played.

    “We just can’t play through one or two guys,” Calipari told Tipton and other reporters.

21. Iowa State Cyclones: Avoiding the Foul Line

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Iowa State is an old-fashioned shootout kind of team.

    The Cyclones are more than happy to play fast, let you take a shot and come right back.

    That could be scary later this month, because they're on pace to repeat history.

    It's a terrific shooting, experienced team that is so-so at the other end of the floor and ranks about No. 350 nationally in free throw-to-field goal ratio.

    That's important if you look at how last year ended: a one-point upset loss to UAB in the NCAA tournament.

    UAB only shot 11 free throws in the 60-59 outcome, making nine. Meanwhile, the Cyclones took just seven attempts (making five) and were out-rebounded by 15 (including 19-9 on the offensive glass).

    A team with limited depth needs to get some freebie points.

20. Texas A&M Aggies: The Foul Line

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    Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    Texas A&M is no stranger to close games. It also knows how those things can be determined: Free throws.

    The Aggies, for all of their brilliance in jumping to share the SEC lead with Kentucky, are a horrendous foul-shooting team.

    Their 66.2 percent average is in the low 300s nationally. Scarier, there's not really a go-to guy to get to the line, though 6'7" senior Jalen Jones has taken the most attempts and stands at about 73 percent efficiency.

    They've had five games since a January 27 loss at Arkansas determined by one possession (three points or less).

    That's included a 66.9 percent rate at the foul line while going 2-3. One win came in overtime against Kentucky on February 20.

    “We’ve got to do a better job at the free-throw line and that will keep us out of late-game situations," A&M coach Billy Kennedy told reporters recently, including Richard Croome of the Bryan-College Station Eagle. "You don’t want to be in them a whole lot because it can go either way and hopefully we’ll be able to do that.”

19. Baylor Bears: Relying on Zone Defense

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Baylor's become a rarity, like Syracuse, that focuses a lot on zone defense.

    The Bears can mix it up, but this year, it hasn't always produced the intended results. Mainly because opponents have made three-pointers.

    They're shooting about 37 percent, which ranks right around No. 300 nationally.

    “It does give an edge if a team hasn’t seen it,” Baylor coach Scott Drew told John Werner of the Waco Tribune last year. “Sometimes our zone is a 2-3, sometimes it’s a 1-3-1, sometimes it’s a 1-1-3. When we trap and when we don’t all depends on the opponent. But no matter what defense you play, if you give up second-chance points, it’s not a good defense.” 

    The question is whether the Bears can appropriately adjust. Kansas went to Waco on February 23 as one of the hottest-shooting three-point teams in the country. Granted, it's been an anomaly of the Bill Self-coached era at KU, but Kansas has knocked down better than 40 percent of its three-pointers this season.

    Baylor let Kansas do whatever it wanted from the arc, making 8-of-19 (42 percent) in the Bears' six-point loss.

    The Jayhawks were out-rebounded by five total (eight on the offensive glass), so the bigger issue for BU was good looks and not recognizing the need to change it up a little.

    Giving a good three-point shooting team what it wants could end Baylor's postseason plans fast.

18. Arizona Wildcats: 2-Point Defense

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Arizona coach Sean Miller has been brutally honest about his team's bad defense all season.

    The numbers—especially inside the three-point line—back it up. And it hasn't gotten any better since Pac-12 play started, as the Wildcats are virtually out of the hunt for a share of a third consecutive regular-season title.

    This is arguably his worst defensive team since taking over at UA. That forgettable 2009-10 team (which went 16-15) was ranked 244th nationally as opponents shot just shy of 50 percent from inside the arc. The last couple of years hovered around 40 percent, but the Wildcats have swung back to 45 this season.

    There are some trust issues, and Miller seems to be having trouble getting on the same page with this group. He's even reverted to some zone defense.

    Ryan Anderson may be 6'9", but he only blocks about 2 percent of shots.

    That's forced Miller's hand lately to play 6'11" freshman Chance Comanche to try and get some rim protection. Anderson may be the Achilles' heel overall—while he scores, he is too prone to give the points back at the other end of the floor.

17. Duke Blue Devils: Endurance

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Former Duke player J.J. Redick just criticized the media for making Duke out to be a villain.

    He may have a point. But really, this is a fun Duke team to watch—or at least respect—even for the heartiest Christian Laettner haters.

    The big issue, of course, is depth. That means endurance. And the lack of size inside leads to some menacing numbers.

    It is one of the country's worst defensive-rebounding teams. That's going to play havoc on head coach Mike Krzyzewski's short-handed team for the rest of the month.

    Not since 2007 has Duke had such little "minutes continuity," as calculated by KenPom.com. That team was at 22.8 percent—compared to this year's 24.6—and was a fairly forgettable bunch, going 22-11 and getting a No. 12 seed in the tournament before losing in the first round of the NCAA tournament to VCU. (The go-to guy was 7'1" freshman Brian Zoubek.)

    That team didn't have health issues, it just wasn't particularly talented. This one has Allen and Brandon Ingram playing well, but who knows how much longer this six-man crew can hold on? Both of them play more than 80 percent of the minutes available.

16. Iowa Hawkeyes: Bench Play

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Iowa's hit a wall. The Hawkeyes would love to ram through it with a bench.

    As much as Jarrod Uthoff has thrived this season, and the starters have been good to get this program to the Top 10, the recent lull—four losses in five games—has exposed it as a shallow group.

    In the most recent four defeats, Iowa's reserves added 24 points on 23 shots.

    Chad Leistikow of the Des Moines Register wrote on Feb. 15, as the team he covered was amid its slump: "[Head coach Fran] McCaffery has for weeks credited the bench as a catalyst for helping Iowa become a well-rounded team that on Monday will be ranked in the nation’s Top 10 for the fifth consecutive week."

    Iowa's bench is full of size, mostly using three players (sophomore Dom Uhl plus freshmen Nicholas Baer and Ahmad Wagner) who all are at least 6'7". A little more help could go a long way to make Iowa a threat again.

15. Purdue Boilermakers: Handling Pressure

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    Nati Harnik/Associated Press

    Purdue's issue is fresh and real. It defeated Maryland on February 27, but in the process, it showed it has some work to do handling pressure to its guards.

    Full-court pressure nearly prompted a wild comeback. Maryland forced four turnovers from the final media timeout (3:50 left) to two minutes remaining, slicing deep into a 10-point deficit before falling by four.

    That came at home, too, so who knows how the Boilermakers will handle the neutral courts in the conference and NCAA tournaments?

    Purdue's top six contributors are all 6'6" or taller (led by A.J. Hammons, who is really coming on strong). P.J. Thompson and Co. are going to have to learn from the Maryland game, when he had more turnovers (three) than assists (two).

14. Maryland Terrapins: Rebounding

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    Facing a monstrously large team can expose a rebounding problem.

    That happened February 27 for Maryland in a loss at Purdue. It was bad, as in 41-22 bad, and coach Mark Turgeon could only express afterward, according to Phillip Suitts of the Diamondback: "They've got to fix it. I can only do so much. You talk about it. You work on it. We run for them. We've got to fix it."

    Purdue scored 24 second-chance points in the 83-79 win, even getting 19 offensive boards while shooting nearly 52 percent from the field.

    It's simple. When Maryland wins, it out-rebounds teams by five. In its losses, it is minus-five on the glass, most notably down 10 apiece after losing to Michigan State (January 23) and Wisconsin (February 13).

13. Utah: Jakob Poeltl Finishing Inside

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    George Frey/Associated Press

    Utah is built to get the ball to Jakob Poeltl inside. Going to the sophomore is a wise move.

    It's just a matter of hoping he finishes.

    Teams may be fouling him more, considering he's a dazzling 66 percent shooter inside the arc (70 percent at the rim, according to Hoop-Math). However, the sophomore center is at only 68.8 percent at the foul line.

    To his credit, Poeltl has made leaps-and-bounds improvement since being a 43 percent foul shooter last year. We'll have to see how he fares mentally, as well, after making 6-of-12 in the NCAA tournament's three-game run last year.

12. Indiana Hoosiers: Turnovers

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    As good as Indiana is shooting the ball—an effective field-goal percentage that ranks No. 2 nationally—the Hoosiers are pitiful when it comes to squandering chances with turnovers.

    About 20 percent of their trips up the floor end in a miscue, which ranks in the bottom third of the country.

    It's had an obvious affect in Big Ten play. Consider that IU had 19 turnovers in the overtime loss to Wisconsin on January 26. Penn State, hardly a steals machine, forced 15 in a surprising win February 6.

    Michigan State and the Hoosiers each had 11 giveaways in Sparty's Valentine's Day blowout.

    So the big question regarding head coach Tom Crean's marvelous turnaround with this group (remember the sad performance at Duke in December?) is not if it can shoot, but if it will get to do so enough.

11. Louisville Cardinals: Aggressiveness

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    Timothy D. Easley/Associated Press

    Just like with SMU, we'll keep this short and sweet. Louisville unfortunately doesn't have much time left.

    The Cardinals, for all of their in-season woes, have a chance, if they can win at Virginia on March 5, to potentially share that league championship. Miami and North Carolina will have to help.

    But the broader point is, UL has fared well since announcing a self-imposed postseason ban Feb. 5.

    The only question against Virginia is if the Cardinals can resist the urge to fire away. They're shooting 35.4 percent from three-point range, a number that dropped after going 2-of-17 in their final home game against Georgia Tech on Tuesday.

    For all the love expressed toward Virginia's defense, it's not great this year (210th nationally) at guarding the three-point line. But it's usually good at forcing opponents into shots it wants them to take.

    It becomes a question of whether Louisville will take the bait and keep jacking threes or get inside the arc, where it is a team that shoots 52 percent (top 50 nationally).

10. West Virginia Mountaineers: Getting to the Line

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    Mike Stone/Associated Press

    West Virginia has quite the conundrum.

    No Big 12 team (during conference games only) has shot more free throws than the Mountaineers. On the flip side, none of the 10 teams shot a worse percentage.

    The 66.2 percent accuracy makes you wonder about simple math: Can WVU shoot twice as many free throws as opponents in the NCAA tournament and make it all even out?

    The tough part is that it's an awful three-point shooting team (32 percent) and a so-so group inside the arc.

    The answer needs to be three-point plays, which would guarantee points while taking advantage of its No. 1 status as the country's best offensive-rebounding team.

    In the case of free throws, more is not always better for West Virginia.

9. Oregon Ducks: Protecting the Glass

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Oregon has embraced head coach Dana Altman's repeated instruction to "bend your knees."

    Two more words that might help the Ducks moving forward: box out.

    Opponents secure about 31 percent of their missed shots, which ranks about 240th nationally.

    The Pac-12 this year isn't the most bruising league inside, either, so Oregon has to figure out how to get tougher on the defensive glass or risk death by second-chance points.

    Oregon should know better. It's a solid offensive-rebounding team itself.

8. North Carolina Tar Heels: Settling for Outside Shots

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    We saw against Duke how North Carolina could dominate but then wouldn't get its main man the ball.

    The problem with these Tar Heels is if they settle for three-pointers that may be open, that action falls right into their opponents' desires.

    UNC doesn't take a ghastly number of shots from the arc (that number's comfortably in the bottom half of ACC teams). But it's the worst-shooting team in the 15-team league, making an awful 29.2 percent.

    Remember that one-point loss against Duke on February 17? Brice Johnson was killing it inside, making 13 of 17 shots, but he had just two attempts in the last 12 minutes.

    Meanwhile, UNC was 1-of-13 from three-point range. There were probably a few threes in there that should've been Johnson near the rim getting easier points.

    On February 27 at Virginia, the Tar Heels were just 9-of-19 from three-point range.

    UNC averages about 17 threes a game, but it probably could afford to get that number down to about 15 and either get points that way or try and get to the foul line—where it's a respectable 73 percent as a team.

7. Miami Hurricanes: Perimeter Defense

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    What head coach Jim Larranaga has done to bolster interest in Miami basketball has been amazing.

    Then there's the KenPom.com consideration—hardly any red at all to mark a statistically damning category.

    But if there's one spot the Hurricanes could afford to be better, it's guarding the three-point line. Opponents are shooting a comfortable 33.5 percent, ranking them 110th nationally. In three of their four ACC losses, they've allowed teams to shoot right around 45 percent.

6. Oklahoma Sooners: Stopping and Popping

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    Alonzo Adams/Associated Press

    We're certainly not here to say shooting is a weakness for Oklahoma.

    It can make baskets from all over the place and has the second-highest percentage of any team in the country from three-point range.

    But while going a pedestrian 4-4 in February, the Sooners showed they might be better off getting the ball to the rim a little more often.

    In the four defeats last month, OU was close to 30 percent from the three-point line (32-of-107) but also near 80 at the foul line (57-of-74).

    This is a solid 72 percent team from the charity stripe, so either Buddy Hield or coach Lon Kruger has to figure out how to tone it down and go for the less mesmerizing points in March.

5. Xavier Musketeers: Perimeter Defense

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    It requires a closer look to see Xavier's biggest concern.

    Xavier guards the three-point line great as far as teams shooting from there (31.4 percent), but it isn't as strong when they look to drive.

    Xavier was manhandled by 31 points in December, as Villanova's backcourt players combined for 67 points.

    Good guards clearly present problems for the team.

    Starting Georgetown guards D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera and Tre Campbell, along with L.J. Peak off the bench, combined for 54 of Georgetown's 81 points in the Hoyas' nine-point victory at Xavier. That's 23 points more than the combined scoring average of those three guards.

    Maurice Watson Jr. of Creighton had a point guard's dream game February 9, going off for a career-high 32 points. It's worth noting the 5'10" guard was 10-of-13 inside the arc and 1-of-8 beyond it.

    Quality, quick guards should want to see Xavier in their part of the bracket.

4. Virginia Cavaliers: London Perrantes' Turnover Woes

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    Ryan M. Kelly/Associated Press

    There's not much to complain about with a rock-solid team like Virginia.

    But we're going to nitpick London Perrantes for a second. The junior guard has shown a habit of committing costly turnovers. He had three against the Tar Heels on February 27, a couple of which really helped the Tar Heels in what ultimately was a five-point UVA win.

    The miscues come in bunches, though, and it's not like North Carolina is a team built on steals.

    Perrantes has coughed up at least three turnovers in seven games, already one more than last year.

    This is a nationwide season built on no dominant teams and razor-thin margins. Virginia needs to shore up a few of these loose ends to take advantage of all of the good things it has in its favor.

3. Villanova Wildcats: Reliance on the 3-Point Shot

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    About 45 percent of Villanova's field-goal attempts come from beyond the three-point line.

    Shooting 32 percent doesn't help one believe that the Wildcats should be shooting the three-pointer quite this much.

    It's a team built on guard play, which is good but also a shame—only 20 percent of the Wildcats' points come from the foul line, even though they lead the country in free-throw percentage (78.2 percent).

    Look no further than the game against Oklahoma early in the season (granted it was in an odd battleship environment in Hawaii), when Nova clanked 28 of its 32 tries from the arc.

    In its three other defeats (at Virginia and Xavier and home versus Providence), head coach Jay Wright's crew shot less than 30 percent on a high volume of three-point tries (31-of-88).

    Talk about living and dying by the three with little inside game to speak of, though center Daniel Ochefu is making 62 percent of his two-point shots.

2. Michigan State: Forcing Turnovers

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    Al Goldis/Associated Press

    Michigan State has won eight of its last nine games, including the last four by double digits.

    There isn't much to complain about, even as coach Tom Izzo has an earned reputation as a complainer. But big picture, we'll note this team doesn't force many turnovers. It's ranked No. 345. Perhaps oddly, two NCAA tournament-caliber teams, Cal and Purdue, are ranked below them in the final six on the list.

    But MSU's still got a defense that controls opponents. And as long as Denzel Valentine continues to stay healthy, anything's possible.

    A few more turnovers forced would create a few more shots for ultra-hot Bryn Forbes (50 percent from three-point range for the season), so it's something to keep an eye on.

    During the three-game losing streak, when Valentine was out, MSU forced just 21 turnovers.

1. Kansas Jayhawks: Landen Lucas' Development

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Kansas has won its last 10 games. In the process, it's ranked seventh in adjusted offensive efficiency and eighth in adjusted defensive efficiency—the only school that ranks in the top 10 in both categories.

    Just like with Michigan State, there's not much to complain about these days.

    But the Jayhawks are a little limited inside. Cheick Diallo hasn't developed enough, and the question remains if junior Landen Lucas—figured at the beginning of the season to hardly play—can continue being what Kansas needs him to be.

    Lucas' numbers are modest: 5.3 points and 6.3 rebounds per game.

    But he's been a whole different dude since the start of February, averaging nine points and nearly nine rebounds.

    That includes averaging 12 boards against West Virginia, Oklahoma and Baylor—the top tier of a ruggedly tough conference.

    KU doesn't need any more of him. But how will Lucas react to having a presence in the season's most important month for the first time?

    That's the big-time question for the country's No. 1-ranked team and the rest of the field.