New Year's Resolutions for College Basketball's National Championship Candidates

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystDecember 28, 2018

New Year's Resolutions for College Basketball's National Championship Candidates

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    Kansas head coach Bill Self
    Kansas head coach Bill SelfAdam Hunger/Associated Press

    Most of the country will make New Year's resolutions to eat better and exercise more often, but college basketball's national championship contenders have slightly different goals for the first few months of 2019.

    Duke might be the favorite to win it all, but the Blue Devils have never shot as poorly from three-point range as they are this season.

    Gonzaga is the top challenger to Dukeand the only team to beat the Blue Devils thus far—but it has a ton of room for improvement on the defensive glass.

    And Kentucky would be in much better shape with just a little more luck defending the three-point arc.

    All of these teams are great, but they could be elite with just a little tweaking.

    The following teams are listed in ascending order of consensus national championship odds on OddsShark. Only teams with current odds of 20-1 or better are included.

Nevada Wolf Pack

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    Cody Martin, Jordan Caroline and Caleb Martin
    Cody Martin, Jordan Caroline and Caleb MartinMarcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Championship Odds: +1475

    Resolution: Quit Playing Nail-Biters

    Nevada is one of the most talented and most experienced teams in the country. It's no fluke that it is undefeated, with wins away from home against Arizona State, USC and Loyola-Chicago.

    And this team knows all about making dramatic comebacks. In each of its three games in the 2018 NCAA tournament, the Wolf Pack trailed by at least a dozen points in the second half before eventually storming all the way back to either tie the game or take the lead.

    But why does it insist on repeatedly playing close games?

    Nevada's four most recent wins each came by a margin of eight points or fewer. Against both Arizona State and South Dakota State, the Wolf Pack needed to erase a second-half deficit. The season opener against BYU was also tight until the final 10 minutes.

    Wins are wins, but this team does not go deep into its bench and would benefit from getting to rest its stars in blowout wins.

    Jordan Caroline, Caleb Martin and Cody Martin have averaged a combined 112.3 minutes (which breaks down to 37.4 per player) over the past six gamesand that number would be even higher if Cody Martin hadn't gotten into foul trouble against South Dakota State. If this continues, they will be playing on tired legs by March.

Tennessee Volunteers

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    Grant Williams
    Grant WilliamsWade Payne/Associated Press

    Championship Odds: +1450

    Resolution: Play Harder on Defense

    Despite opening the season at No. 6 in the AP poll, Tennessee has been one of the biggest surprises of the 2018-19 season. The Volunteers defeated Gonzaga on a neutral court. They also took a then-full-strength Kansas to overtime before suffering their only loss of the year.

    Grant Williams has been sensational and is one of the top early candidates for the Wooden Award, but he's no one-man show. Admiral Schofield put up at least 20 points in each of Tennessee's four games against noteworthy opponents, Jordan Bone is averaging better than six assists per game, and senior big man Kyle Alexander has gotten better with each passing year.

    That quartet is lethal, and there's a strong case to be made that this is the best team in the country at the momentas evidenced by Tennessee's 12 first-place votes in the latest AP poll.

    But the Volunteers need to bring more intensity on defense.

    Tennessee has already allowed at least 81 points in a game three timessomething it only did once during nonconference play last season, and that was on a neutral court against the eventual national champions (Villanova).

    We aren't even talking about cases of opponents getting red-hot, either. Memphis only shot 43 percent from the field in the process of dropping 92 points on the Vols. Louisville wasn't much better, shooting 44 percent while scoring 81 against Tennessee. And Kansas got to 87 (in overtime) despite only making five three-pointers. Even in the quality win over Gonzaga, Tennessee allowed better than one point per possession.

    This team has the talent to win it all, but it needs to get more invested on defense. This isn't a good enough three-point shooting team to consistently win while allowing 80 points against quality opponents.

Kentucky Wildcats

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    Ashton Hagans (2) and Keldon Johnson (3)
    Ashton Hagans (2) and Keldon Johnson (3)Rich Schultz/Getty Images

    Championship Odds: +1425

    Resolution: Get Better Luck Defending the Three

    One would think Kentucky would have one of the best three-point defenses in the country. Ashton Hagans is nothing short of relentless on defense. Keldon Johnson is no slouch, either. And Tyler Herro already has two games this season with at least five steals. Getting clean looks at the rim from the perimeter should be next to impossible against this defense.

    And yet, opponents are shooting 39.0 percent from downtown, good for 328th in the nation, per KenPom.

    Duke shot 12-of-26 (46.2 percent) in the process of destroying the Wildcats in the season opener. Seton Hall was only slightly worse (11-of-26) while handing Kentucky its second loss of the year. VMI lit up Kentucky for 19 made three-pointers, and Winthrop drained a baker's dozen a few days after that.

    The only opponent that didn't shoot at least 30 percent from distance was Monmouth, which is 0-12 this season largely because it is one of the worst shooting teams in the nation.

    This is out of character for Kentucky. In each of John Calipari's first nine seasons, the Wildcats ranked in the top 100 in three-point defense, never allowing a mark higher than 32.6. Last year, they were No. 4 in the country with a defensive three-point percentage of 30.1.

    If they can get back close to normal in that department in SEC play, they'll be almost unstoppable.

North Carolina Tar Heels

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    Coby White
    Coby WhiteGerry Broome/Associated Press

    Championship Odds: +1375

    Resolution: Stop Committing Live-Ball Turnovers

    North Carolina does a lot of things well.

    Per usual, the Tar Heels have one of the best rebounding margins in the country. Cameron Johnson is shooting just under 50 percent from three-point range, and Coby White, Luke Maye and Kenny Williams are all more-than-capable shooters. They run the floor like it's a track meet, and they have several guards who distribute at a high level.

    But they do have some live-ball turnover woes.

    In the loss to Kentucky this past Saturday, the Wildcats turned 12 steals into 14 points. And in the Tar Heels' previous game against Gonzaga, the Bulldogs scored 22 points from 13 steals and likely would have won the game if not for North Carolina controlling the action with second-chance points.

    These things happen when you have a true freshman starting at point guard, but this is more than just a Coby White issue. Johnson, Maye, Seventh Woods and Garrison Brooks each committed multiple turnovers against both Gonzaga and Kentucky, as sloppy play has become a team-wide concern.

    Teams like Duke, Syracuse, Virginia Tech and Florida State will prey on steals if the Tar Heels don't start valuing possessions soon.

Virginia Cavaliers

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    De'Andre Hunter
    De'Andre HunterSean Rayford/Associated Press

    Championship Odds: +1150

    Resolution: Shoot Better in the Paint

    Virginia has only played four games this season against KenPom Top 100 teams, and it struggled on two-point field-goal attempts and won by a single-digit margin in each one.

    Against both Dayton and Maryland, the Cavaliers made about 48 percent of their two-point attempts while allowing the other team to shoot better than 60 percent. Against Wisconsin, they only shot 43.2 percent. And in the process of nearly losing to VCU, they shot 30.8 percent and had to do nearly half of their scoring from the free-throw line.

    This is hardly a new problem for Virginia. Because fast breaks almost never happen and because the Wahoos don't get many offensive rebounds, there aren't easy buckets to be found. In most seasons under Tony Bennett, they have shot worse than 50 percent from inside the arc.

    Still, 30.8 percent? Were they blindfolded for that game?

    Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy are both great three-point shooters, but Virginia is going to struggle to score in any game where both guards are even a little bit cold.

Michigan Wolverines

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    Eli Brooks
    Eli BrooksPaul Sancya/Associated Press

    Championship Odds: +1150

    Resolution: Find One More Reserve

    When you've already beaten North Carolina, Villanova and Purdue by a combined margin of 63 points, what resolutions can you possibly have other than to change nothing?

    Well, if Michigan wants to win it all this year, the team would do well to work one more bench guy into the regular rotation.

    The primary six Wolverines have been excellent. Ignas Brazdeikis is one of the best freshmen on any roster. Sophomore Isaiah Livers might be the best sixth man in the nation. Jordan Poole is shooting the lights out. Jon Teske has blossomed into a key weapon in the paint, especially on defense. Charles Matthews isn't efficient, but he's a driving force on both ends of the court. And point guard Zavier Simpson is a lot like Trevon Duval was for Duke last year—a major asset as both a facilitator and defender, as long as he isn't trying to shoot often.

    Even seventh man Eli Brooks plays his role well, backing up Simpson at point guard with a solid assist rate and the occasional three-pointer.

    This team doesn't go any deeper than that, though, which could be a problem in March.

    When Michigan almost won it all in 2013, guys like Spike Albrecht, Jon Horford and Caris LeVert played key roles as deep reserves. And last year's trip to the national championship never would have happened if not for the eighth man (Poole) hitting a deep game-winner in the second round after Matthews and Duncan Robinson fouled out. Ninth man Jaaron Simmons also averaged more than seven minutes during that six-game run.

    Occasionally getting Austin Davis and Brandon Johns Jr. into games that matter should be the goal during Big Ten play, because those guys might be needed at some point in the tournament.

Kansas Jayhawks

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    Udoka Azubuike
    Udoka AzubuikeSarah Stier/Getty Images

    Championship Odds: +1000

    Resolution: Get Udoka Azubuike Healthy

    Not a whole lot of elaboration necessary here—Kansas needs its frontcourt phenom healthy for the home stretch.

    Udoka Azubuike has missed the past four games with a high ankle sprain, resulting in a pair of victories by a three-point margin (New Mexico State and Villanova) and a loss to an Arizona State team the Jayhawks probably would have defeated at full strength.

    Even though they still have Dedric Lawson racking up double-doubles on a nightly basisas well as Mitch Lightfoot and David McCormack as quality reservesit's obvious the Jayhawks aren't as good as they could be with Azubuike defending the rim and throwing down angry dunks.

    It was originally reported that he should be healthy for the start of Big 12 play, but Kansas shouldn't be in any rush to bring him back. Losing an early conference game or two would be a small price to pay if it means increasing the likelihood that Azubuike will be at full strength for the NCAA tournament.

    Secondarily, Kansas has to hope that Quentin Grimes figures things out sooner rather than later. The consensus No. 10 overall recruit was magnificent in the season opener against Michigan State and the subsequent game against Vermont. In nine games since then, however, Grimes has shot 3-of-24 (12.5 percent) from three-point range with 10 assists against 18 turnovers.

    He has a sub-80 O-rating in seven of his last eight games, which is unthinkable for a Kansas starting guard. Devonte' Graham had two such games last season, both in the first month of the campaign. Frank Mason didn't have any sub-80 O-ratings as a senior.

Gonzaga Bulldogs

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    Young Kwak/Associated Press

    Championship Odds: +800

    Resolution: Protect the Defensive Glass

    Good luck finding a team that has been more battle-tested on the defensive glass than Gonzaga. The Bulldogs had to deal with Duke, North Carolina and Texas A&M, each of which ranks top 20 in offensive rebound percentage. They also faced Tennessee, which only ranks 70th but which has several excellent rebounders in Grant Williams, Kyle Alexander and John Fulkerson.

    The problem is Gonzaga failed each of those tests.

    The Zags were able to beat Duke because of 10 blocks and 53 percent three-point shooting, but the Blue Devils got 22 offensive rebounds in that game. North Carolina also got back more than 46 percent of its misses, obliterating Gonzaga in second-chance points. Tennessee grabbed 16 offensive rebounds against the Zags, and Texas A&M corralled 13.

    All told, Gonzaga only got 60.1 percent of possible defensive rebounds in those four games, which is an abysmal rate. Killian Tillie's impending return might help a little bit, but he was no Dennis Rodman on the glass in his first two seasons, recording just one double-double thus far in his career.

    Eventually in the tournament, the Bulldogs are going to run into a team that thrives on the offensive glass, and it is going to be their undoing if things don't change.

Duke Blue Devils

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    Cam Reddish
    Cam ReddishLance King/Getty Images

    Championship Odds: +180

    Resolution: Find a Three-Point Shooter

    It's hard for Duke to complain about much of anything. Led by Zion Williamson, the defense has been phenomenal. The offensive rebounding and two-point field-goal percentage are also among the best in the nation. This is the clear early favorite to win the national championship.

    But for the first time in the history of the three-point arc, the Blue Devils are struggling to convert from downtown.

    They were on fire early in the season, shooting at least 40 percent in three of their first four games. However, they are at 29.2 percent over the past eight games and have not gone over 38.5 percent in any of those contests.

    Aside from Justin Robinsonwho barely plays but who made all three of his attempts in a blowout of Stetsonno one on the team is shooting better than 37.8 percent. RJ Barrett has missed all 10 of his three-point attempts in the past two games. Cam Reddish is 5-of-27 (18.5 percent) in his last four games. Tre Jones is 2-of-15 since making five of his first seven, and Williamson is 1-of-12 during that same stretch.

    Neither Jones nor Williamson was expected to shoot a ton, but both Reddish and Barrett are too gifted to be shooting this poorly. If either one can find his stroke, every other team will be fighting for second place.