New Year's Resolutions for Men's College Basketball's Top 10 Teams
A new year means turning over a new leaf, and that even applies to the top teams in men's college basketball. Their resolutions have nothing to do with diet or exercise, but sticking to them could mean celebrating the 2020 national championship.
Kansas is the current favorite to win it all, but the Jayhawks sure are giving a lot of points away with turnovers and dreadful free-throw shooting.
Oregon and Louisville could each benefit from force-feeding one of their most talented players for the next two months. And Memphis, frankly, just needs to keep proving to itself (and everyone else) that it can win without James Wiseman.
All these teams are great—in the context of this wild season anyway—but they could be elite with just a little tweaking.
The following teams are listed in ascending order of the current AP Top 25 rankings.
10. Villanova Wildcats
Resolution: Continue improving on defense
For the seventh consecutive season, Villanova is taking more than 42 percent of its shots from beyond the three-point line, making at least 35 percent of those shots as and hitting at least 53 percent of its two-point attempts. The names change, but head coach Jay Wright has this thing running like a well-oiled machine year in and year out.
Whether it's enough to be a title contender depends on the defense.
Last year, Villanova had a lot of trouble in that department, culminating in an embarrassing 87-61 loss to Purdue in the second round of the NCAA tournament. It wasn't one specific player or category that caused the Wildcats' struggles, either. They were just average at best across the board, frequently giving up at least 70 points despite playing at a slower pace than most teams.
In November losses to Ohio State and Baylor—and even in the win over Mississippi State—it looked like Villanova was destined for more of the same this season. Each of those three major-conference opponents averaged better than 1.1 points per possession. The Buckeyes and Bears did so by shooting above 56 percent from downtown, but the Bulldogs got there with offensive rebounds and limited turnovers.
In recent wins over Kansas and Xavier, though, Villanova was substantially better on defense, enabling victories despite shooting a combined 17-of-66 (25.8 percent) from three.
Perimeter defense was the key to both wins. Kansas shot 3-of-13 from deep. Xavier went just 1-of-11. And Villanova was plus-three in turnover margin during each game.
Both the Jayhawks and the Musketeers have turnover issues, though, and neither team does much three-point shooting, making it hard to know, at the moment, whether these were opponent-driven outliers or actual improvement. Villanova will play at Marquette and at Creighton in its next two games, which is just about the best possible litmus test for figuring out the capability of the perimeter defense.
9. Memphis Tigers
Resolution: Make people forget about James Wiseman
It has been 10 outings over seven weeks since James Wiseman played his final game with Memphis, and yet his name is still the first one that comes up in any conversation about the Tigers.
You guys do realize that Memphis has some other excellent freshmen on this roster, right?
Wiseman was, of course, the crown jewel of this year's class, but head coach Penny Hardaway also signed 5-star big man Precious Achiuwa and three other top-60 players in Boogie Ellis, DJ Jeffries and Lester Quinones.
Aside from Ellis struggling to find his shooting stroke, all four of those guys have been key starters for the Tigers. Sophomores Tyler Harris and Alex Lomax have also been solid in their roles as "veterans" coming off the bench.
They could have won a title with Wiseman, but they could still win one without him.
For the most part, this team has been excellent on defense, ranking top-five nationally in block percentage, two-point field-goal defense and opponents' effective field-goal percentage. The Tigers have also been fierce in the paint on offense with Achiuwa leading that charge.
The only major question mark has been point guard play, but Damion Baugh made some positive strides in the past week. In 22 minutes of the blowout win over New Orleans, he had six points, seven assists, seven steals and six rebounds. Two days later in a closer-than-anticipated battle with Tulane, he scored 15 with six assists against just two turnovers.
If Baugh continues to play with that type of efficiency, then the sky's the limit for this team.
The wins over Ole Miss, NC State and Tennessee weren't pretty, but Memphis was still adjusting to life after Wiseman and also only had Quinones for a total of nine minutes between those three games. This team is going to get better with time, and it's already quite good.
8. Auburn Tigers
Resolution: Find a reliable perimeter threat (and withstand the uptick in schedule strength)
Auburn was lethal from three-point range en route to last year's Final Four. The Tigers shot almost 38 percent from distance and had 17 games with at least 13 made triples. Between that and an abundance of both blocks and steals, there aren't many teams in recent memory who were more frustrating to prepare to face.
This year, Auburn is undefeated, but it is merely average both from three-point range (32.8 percent) and in the steals department (7.0 per game). The Tigers only have one game thus far with at least 13 made threes, and reserve wing Jamal Johnson is the lone player on the roster shooting 36 percent or better from deep.
Led by Austin Wiley, Isaac Okoro and Anfernee McLemore, Auburn has been primarily dominating in the paint. Per KenPom, the Tigers rank in the top 20 nationally in offensive rebound percentage, two-point shooting and block percentage.
How much of that 12-0 record and frontcourt prowess is just a byproduct of the schedule, though?
Auburn has faced only one KenPom Top 70 opponent, and that was a close home game against an NC State team that doesn't have much of a frontcourt worth mentioning. The SEC isn't exactly dripping with title contenders, but things are going to get tougher for Auburn in a hurry, starting with Saturday's road game against Mississippi State.
It might need to shoot better than 33 percent from downtown in that one. And maybe Samir Doughty (42.5 percent last year; 35.7 percent this year) will be the guy to start hitting those shots with more regularity.
As much as it can help it, Auburn's secondary resolution is to stay healthy for a change. The Tigers lost shot-blocking specialist McLemore to a nasty ankle injury in February 2018 and then lost Chuma Okeke to a torn ACL in the Sweet 16 this past March. They might have made even deeper runs into those NCAA tournaments if not for those late-season roster changes.
7. Louisville Cardinals
Resolution: Get Dwayne Sutton more touches
There's no question that Jordan Nwora is Louisville's star player. The Cardinals are 11-0 when he scores at least 15 points, and it's largely because he never got rolling against Texas Tech or Kentucky that they lost those two games.
Per KenPom, Nwora is taking more than 34 percent of the team's shots while he is on the floor, and rightfully so. When you've got a National Player of the Year candidate who can create and convert this well, you let him do so.
But there are still about 42 shots per game not coming from Nwora, and Dwayne Sutton needs to be getting a bigger portion of those.
Nwora is the star, but Sutton is the most efficient Cardinal, leading the team by a wide margin in offensive rating, true shooting percentage and box plus/minus. He is shooting 68.8 percent from inside the arc and 37.9 percent beyond it, but he's only averaging 7.3 field-goal attempts per 40 minutes, which is just an egregious under-utilization of talent.
Iowa State did something similar to Tyrese Haliburton last year (33.2 minutes and 4.8 field-goal attempts per game), but he has been one of the best players in the country now that the Cyclones have turned him loose as a sophomore.
Maybe he's not a 17-points-per-game guy, but at least start getting Sutton as many shots as last year (9.8 per 40). It's flabbergasting that this dude's rate of points per 40 minutes has dropped from 12.7 to 11.6 while his field-goal percentage has skyrocketed from 43.1 to 57.1.
6. Baylor Bears
Resolution: Get Tristan Clark healthy
Around this time one year ago, Tristan Clark was a legitimate first-team All-American candidate. He was averaging 14.6 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.4 blocks while shooting better than 75 percent from inside the arc. But a knee injury cut short his season after 14 games, and lower-leg soreness has limited him throughout the first two months of this year.
Clark has missed four games and is only averaging 19.1 minutes when he does play, and he has been nowhere near the force in the paint that he was at 100 percent health last year.
Thus far, the Bears have more than survived in spite of not really having what was supposed to be their best player.
Freddie Gillespie and Mark Vital have been outstanding in the paint, both on defense and on the offensive glass. Jared Butler has been red-hot from three-point range. Steals are coming from all over the place for a team averaging more than nine of them per game.
Getting Clark fully back into the mix would be huge, though, as frontcourt size and depth are big question marks at this point in time.
As good as Vital has been, he's still a 6'5" forward. If he's the primary 4 when Baylor plays Kansas in less than two weeks, David McCormack and Udoka Azubuike will be able to do just about anything they want in the paint. Neither Matthew Mayer nor Flo Thamba figure to provide much help off the bench in that game. You have to figure that would eventually be an issue in the NCAA tournament, too.
Clark played 20 minutes in Monday night's win over Jackson State, finishing with seven points, two rebounds, two blocks and an assist. Those are baby steps against a subpar opponent, but they're still baby steps in the right direction.
5. Ohio State Buckeyes
Resolution: Start winning the turnover battle
This has been the primary complaint about Michigan State for the past few years. Apparently, in supplanting the Spartans as the Big Ten's top team, the Buckeyes have acquired the Achilles' heel of struggling with the turnover margin.
For the season, Ohio State is actually dead even in turnovers, committing 179 on offense and forcing 179 on defense. That's a heck of a lot better than Michigan State posting a minus-95 margin or worse in each of the last three years.
However, it's a developing problem for the Buckeyes, as they are minus-18 over the past three games.
That carelessness was no problem in a blowout win over Southeast Missouri State, and they were able to rise above it against Kentucky by crashing the glass and thriving at the free-throw line.
As is often the case against a Bob Huggins-coached team, though, those turnover woes were exploited in the loss to West Virginia. The Buckeyes coughed the ball up 21 times in that one. And in the "points off turnovers" category, the Mountaineers outscored Ohio State 21-7 in the process of winning the game by eight.
When Ohio State shoots at least 36 percent from three-point range, it is 9-0 with all nine wins coming by double digits. But when the Buckeyes shoot a more mortal 31-35 percent from downtown, they're 2-2 with a pair of single-digit wins. That trend will continue if they don't put an increased emphasis on both forcing and preventing turnovers.
4. Oregon Ducks
Resolution: Keep bringing along N'Faly Dante
Before the season began, it didn't feel like the Pac-12 had any legitimate Elite Eight candidates. Arizona (No. 25 in this week's AP poll), Colorado (first among others receiving votes) and Washington (fourth among others receiving votes) are more in line with what was expected from the league's top tier.
Oregon might be the best team in the nation, though, and it could get even better in the not-so-distant future.
Anthony Mathis and Chris Duarte have been two of the best transfers this year. Francis Okoro improved considerably after his freshman season and has been a standout in the paint. Will Richardson also looks way better as a sophomore than he did as a freshman and would have to be a leading candidate in any debate about the national Sixth Man of the Year. And if Payton Pritchard isn't in the top 10 of your Player of the Year rankings, you should probably stop making said lists.
Now, imagine that team with 5-star freshman center N'Faly Dante playing a prominent role.
Dante was unavailable for the first nine games of the season due to some eligibility/clearance baloney, and it actually ended up being a 10-game "suspension" when head coach Dana Altman opted not to baptize him in fire during a road game against Michigan.
Thus, to date, his college career has consisted of coming off the bench in wins over Montana, Texas Southern and Alabama State. The numbers were nice in those limited minutes, but it's hard to make much of anything from that level of competition. Upcoming road games against Colorado and Utah should tell us a lot more about where he's at in his development than those three contests did.
Even if he's just an offensively raw energy guy who can provide a spark with the occasional dunk or defensive play, it would be a nice addition to an already great team. But if he blossoms into the type of frontcourt presence that Kenny Wooten and Jordan Bell were in recent years for Oregon, then you're probably looking at the best candidate to win the national championship.
3. Kansas Jayhawks
Resolution: Fewer turnovers and better free-throw shooting
There have already been three games this season in which Kansas committed at least 20 turnovers while shooting worse than 64 percent from the free-throw line: the season-opening loss to Duke and December wins over Colorado and Stanford.
That means it only took the Jayhawks 12 games to match the number of times they performed that poorly in both categories over the previous eight seasons combined.
And yet, according to Caesars, Kansas is the current betting favorite to win the national championship with 7-1 odds. Welcome to the gong show that is the 2019-20 men's college basketball season.
The free-throw woes might not be salvageable.
Udoka Azubuike is worse than usual at 31.8 percent, but the big man entered his senior season at 39.4 percent for his career. Silvio De Sousa (56.5 percent), David McCormack (68.2) and Ochai Agbaji (68.8) are certainly better than Azubuike, but they still aren't guys you want at the charity stripe in crunch time. It's pretty much Devon Dotson (83.5 percent) or bust in that regard.
They could at least stop being so sloppy with the ball, though. There's no good reason for a team with this much talent to be constantly leveling the playing field by committing this many turnovers.
It's not just a point guard problem, either. All nine regulars in the rotation have a turnover rate of at least 15.5 percent, per KenPom. All five starters committed multiple turnovers in each of the three previously mentioned games against Duke, Colorado and Stanford. It's almost like a disease or a domino effect that afflicts the entire team at once.
Naturally, Kansas' next game will be against West Virginia—a team that has been at its best in recent years when forcing a lot of turnovers and committing a lot of fouls, and a team that has beaten the Jayhawks at least once in five of the past six years. The WVU moneyline will be a tempting bet on Saturday.
2. Duke Blue Devils
Resolution: Figure out if Wendell Moore Jr. is going to figure it out
Before the season began, most experts—especially NBA draft prognosticators—felt that Wendell Moore Jr. was Duke's most promising prospect.
Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman had Moore projected as the No. 16 overall draft pick, tops among Blue Devils. Sports Illustrated's Jeremy Woo was in a nearly identical boat with Moore as the first Dukie off the board at No. 15. Stadium's Jeff Goodman had Moore going at No. 20.
But he hasn't come anywhere close to living up to that hype.
Moore had two points on six shots with four turnovers in the season opener against Kansas. In Duke's other marquee nonconference game, he played 10 minutes against Michigan State, committed three fouls and scored no points.
Three days later against Virginia Tech, he was out of the starting lineup and hasn't been back in it since. By most advanced metrics, he has been the ninth- or 10th-best player on the roster.
He's still playing a ton, though. Prior to Tuesday night's game against Boston College, Moore ranked third among Blue Devils in minutes played, trailing only Tre Jones and Vernon Carey Jr.—otherwise known as the clear-cut two best players on the team.
Aside from the Stephen F. Austin debacle, Duke is winning in spite of his struggles, so no harm, no foul.
If he doesn't come around soon, though, and head coach Mike Krzyzewski continues to play him this much, it will keep the team from reaching its full potential. When Moore is on the floor, it means guys like three-point assassin Joey Baker (43.6 percent) or defensive and rebounding specialist Javin DeLaurier aren't playing as much as they arguably should.
I'm not suggesting the Blue Devils relegate Moore to the end of the bench tomorrow or anything like that. But it may soon be time to start divvying up some of his minutes.
1. Gonzaga Bulldogs
Resolution: No West Coast Conference letdowns
Gonzaga should be used to this mandate by now: Get through the WCC schedule without any embarrassing losses and there's a good chance the Bulldogs will be the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.
Aside from taking one on the chin from Michigan when the Wolverines were the hottest team on the planet, Gonzaga has been perfect thus far. That includes three wins away from home over teams from the Pac-12's top tier (Oregon, Arizona and Washington), a convincing home win over North Carolina and a 30-point annihilation of likely SEC bottom-feeder Texas A&M.
But it's going to be about 11 weeks until the Zags face a major-conference foe again, and they'll need to consistently take care of the likes of Pacific, Pepperdine and Portland in order to still be regarded as a top team come March.
A road loss to Saint Mary's (Feb. 8) or BYU (Feb. 22) wouldn't be the end of the world. The Gaels certainly look like a tournament team, and the Cougars would be much closer to that conversation if they hadn't been without their best player (Yoeli Childs) for the entirety of November.
However, one minor misstep in Moraga or Provo is probably all this tournament resume could handle before it starts taking on water. Anything short of a 15-1 league record would elicit major questions.
Then again, we're talking about a team that has gone 57-3 in conference play (including WCC tournaments) over the past three years, and one that hasn't lost to a WCC opponent aside from BYU or Saint Mary's since February 2014. It's almost a given at this point that Gonzaga is going to cruise to victory in at least 12 of its next 16 games—possibly all 16, considering how ridiculously potent this offense is.
Recruit rankings courtesy of 247 Sports.
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.