Coaches scout top teams from Big 12, Pac-10, Mountain West, A-10
Big 12 coach: Baylor may be the most athletic team in our league
Cal can fill it up on the perimeter, but the Bears really lack an inside presence
Don't be surprised if Dayton gets it together and wins the Atlantic 10 tourney
Back by popular demand, it's time to once again go behind enemy lines.
You know the drill, Hoopheads. In recent days I have spoken with several head and assistant coaches from around the country and asked them to give me their opinions -- unvarnished and not for attribution -- on several of the top teams inside their own conferences. These folks have spent hours breaking down video of these teams and got up-close and personal views of their strengths and weaknesses on game day. Their insights are candid, fascinating and invaluable as we head into the NCAA tournament.
Keep in mind that in most of the write-ups that follow, I have combined quotes from more than one source. Last week, I gave you my reports from the ACC, Big Ten, Big East and SEC. Today you'll get a read on the Big 12, Pac-10, Mountain West and Atlantic 10. Herewith:
KANSAS: You need guards who can create plays off the dribble, because they like to pressure the ball and get in the passing lanes. If your guards play off screens and sets, it's going to be really hard to score. So a team like Villanova would be harder matchup for them. Tyshawn Taylor is playing better now. I think he came into the year with the wrong idea, like things were supposed to happen for him instead of him having to work for it. Xavier Henry has also been better. He has been having his ups and downs because he always had his butt kissed in high school. In AAU ball, his team quit a lot, and his high school team vastly underachieved. Physically, he can do anything. He's the key to their team, because when he's making threes, they're very difficult to beat. Even when he's not shooting well, though, he keeps shooting. They have had games where overall they have not shot the ball well. That's probably their only weakness. They're even better on defense than they are on offense. I think a team that plays four guards might hurt them, because then Cole Aldrich and the Morris twins have to defend away from the basket. That's what Cornell did to them -- just stretched them out, and then their bigs could not get out on the shooters.
KANSAS STATE: At times, you can use their pressure against them and create some easy baskets. I worry about a team that fouls as much as they do when you get into tournament play. They're one of the best teams in the country at getting to the free-throw line, but one of the worst at putting their opponents there. Their philosophy is, we're gonna beat the hell out of you and the refs are not going to call a foul every possession. They really have a chance to go deep in the tournament. Denis Clemente and Jacob Pullen can get 30 on any night. If you can take one of them out of the game, their other perimeter guys are not three-point shooters, so you can limit them offensively. Clemente is the fastest guy end to end with the ball in our league. You have to get two people on him in transition, but the problem is he can stop on a dime and shoot the three. You have to turn him away from his right hand as much as you can. Their big guys are not smooth scorers, but they post up very efficiently. You look at Frank Martin on the sidelines, he's yelling and screaming, and that's the way they play. That's how they post.
TEXAS A&M: They are the most cohesive and cerebral team playing in the Big 12 right now. They know that Donald Sloan and Brian Davis are their main guys, and the rest of those guys have no issues playing their roles. Dash Harris is one of the best on-ball defenders in the conference. He's not up pressuring guys, but you're not going to go by him. They don't try to pressure you like Kansas and Kansas State, but they keep you in front and make you take tough shots. David Loubeau may get two shots one game and then have 20 points the next game, but the way he plays doesn't change. When they run into some of those teams deeper in the tournament that are really loaded up on talent, they may have problems. They really don't want to rip and run, so if you can speed them up and make them take some bad shots, you can hurt them that way. If a team has a center that can contain Brian Davis without doubling him so you can deny Sloan, you can beat them even if you don't speed them up. I don't think they have any NBA guys on their team, to be honest, but it's a credit to the job Mark Turgeon has done that they're as good as they are.
BAYLOR: They may be the most athletic team in our league. They are night and day from last year because of two guys -- Ekpe Udoh and Tweety Carter. They play a lot of zone and it has a lot of gaps that you can attack, but the problem is, if you're not making threes and you attack the ring, Ekpe is cleaning it up. When they go man, you can get any shot you want, but he does the same thing there, so that's a world of difference. Offensively people like to talk about LaceDarius Dunn, but Tweety Carter is quietly having one of the best years in the Big 12. He's not just scoring, he's finding guys and making plays, whereas last year he stood around and shot threes. Their biggest weakness is their shot selection. They'll come down and take wild shots, and guys who shouldn't be shooting will take quick shots. There are a lot of holes in that zone, and I'm not sure if they need to go man-to-man they're going to be very good if they need a stop. If they went up against a team that had great shooters that could spread them out in that zone, it would be difficult for them.
TEXAS: Their problem is guys not knowing their roles and not knowing their identity offensively. They just ball-screen you and whoever has the ball tries to make a play. That's not a knock on Rick Barnes because it's not a schematic issue, but if you can guard their ball screens and block out, you have a great chance. A lot of times their best offense is to throw up a shot and let Dexter Pittman and Damian James go get it. Pittman does not have a left hand. If you can force him away from the basket and don't give him angles to turn and dunk, he's just okay. If you let him get deep then he's an NBA talent. I think he can be easily frustrated at times. If he doesn't get touches he doesn't play as aggressively on either end of the floor. It's hard to tell how losing Dogus Balbay will affect them. He can make it tough for you to bring the ball up the floor, but on offense you literally did not have to guard him.
MISSOURI: Their style of play makes it difficult in a one-game scenario in the NCAA tournament. If you haven't seen that pressure before and all the different spots it comes from, it's hard to prepare for. They're not as good as they were last year, because now it's easier to score at the end of their pressure against their frontline. So they have to rely more on perimeter shooting, but they have so many guys who can shoot the ball. Marcus Denmon, Kim English, Zaire Taylor, all those guys can shoot, and then you have Michael Dixon coming off the bench, as well. Their bigs shoot it well enough that you have to respect them at the three-point line. And the guy I haven't mentioned who stirs their drink is J.T. Tiller. He gives them toughness and energy.
CALIFORNIA: The thing that stands out is their lack of inside play. They've never found a consistent scoring presence in the post, so they have to play small. A lot of times, Jamal Boykin is their center, and he's not a back-to-the-basket player. But they can score; that's what they do. They spread you out and they have three guards who are as good as any guards out there in terms of being able to shoot. They don't get to the foul line very much. When Jerome Randle is not playing well and not going off, they are very susceptible. Generally they play man-to-man, but if you can get it inside on them you can score. Patrick Christopher can really shoot it, but he is not a great defender. Randle is really little, so it's tough for him to handle guys defensively. He'll jump into passing lanes, but if they don't get steals they're getting scored on. They get beat off the dribble more than they should. Their best defenders are Boykin and Omondi Amoke inside, and on the perimeter it's Jorge Gutierrez, so their best defenders are not any of their three primary players. Offensively, for some reason, they have a lot of trouble with zones, which is why they lost to Oregon State. They're just hoping against a zone that Randle and Theo Robertson will knock down 25-footers. It's hard to live and die with that.
ARIZONA STATE: Their main problem is they don't have a guy who can just break you down and beat you off the dribble. They're not running that Princeton offense anymore, but every year they've done some hybrid stuff where they run different sets. What they do is set a ton of ball screens for Derek Glasser. He's a great point guard who handles pressure and doesn't turn it over. Ty Abbott is a good shooter, and Rihards Kuksiks can really shoot. He causes mismatches because he's a four man who shoots it like a two. Like Cal, they don't have much of anything inside. Eric Boateng is a big body, but he's not a great scorer. He's not a guy you can dump it down to and have him go to work. If they got to the NCAA tournament, they could be a hard team to prepare for because they play a 3-2 matchup zone and it's different than any zone you see. It's basically like a switching man-to-man, and teams get confused because they don't know whether to run zone or man offense against it. They haven't played a possession of man-to-man all year.
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