The inside scoop on the nation's top teams from the ACC, Big East, more
Florida State, despite some strong shooters, is still a hot and cold offensive team
Louisville's success will lie squarely on how junior guard Peyton Silva is playing
Guard Scoop Jardine isn't Syracuse's best player, but he is its most important
You are a hardcore college basketball fan. You don't want palaver and platitudes, clichés and coachspeak. You want to know what people who are in the know really know. You want the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the hardcore truth.
In other words, you want to go behind enemy lines.
You have come to the right place -- again. Your resident hoopnik has gone on his traditional reconnaissance mission to collect real and specific intelligence. The result: the most brutally candid assessments you will find anywhere on the primary teams who are hunting for an NCAA title.
Here's how I did it. I spoke with two coaches from each of the big six power conferences. Some were head coaches, others were assistants, but all were granted anonymity so they could speak freely about the teams in their league. I then took my quotes from each pair and forged a single paragraph for each team, which now reads as if it came from one person.
If it seems these scouting reports are overly negative or critical, that is my fault, not theirs. We all know these teams are good. I wanted to know where they weren't so good. So I peppered my coaches with questions like, "What is their team's Achilles' heel?", "What is their player's biggest weakness?", "What type of team would give them trouble in the NCAA tournament?"
So keep that in mind as you read. With March almost upon us, this is no time for the timid. There's a battle about to be waged, and the only thing that can defeat the enemy is the truth.
Can you handle the truth?
Duke: Defensively, the Blue Devils are just OK. I don't think their players are committed to guarding the ball consistently. Tyler Thornton is the toughest guard they have, but when they play him they hurt other players' ability to drive because you don't have to guard Thornton. You can also throw the ball inside against them and score. Austin Rivers can get a little wild at times and he's an overrated shooter, but he has the guts to take big shots. He might make a couple of threes, but at the end of the day he wants to drive, and at times he's a selfish driver. The Plumlees are freaks athletically and they're physically strong, but Duke doesn't go to them enough. Seth Curry has become a good player. He really understands how to play the game.
Florida State: The Seminoles' big weakness is turnovers. They don't have a point guard who can break people down and get them easy baskets. Luke Loucks tries to make too many difficult plays. They have a couple of guys who can shoot, like Michael Snaer and Deividas Dulkys, but they're a hot and cold offensive team. When Dulkys has room and rhythm, he's going to make shots. Bernard James is the warrior inside, but struggles in ball-screen situations. Xavier Gibson is a talented big guy, but it doesn't always seem like he and coach Leonard Hamilton are on the same page. I know Hamilton plays 10 or 11 guys, but I'm sure he wishes one or two would emerge a little bit more. Ian Miller is their most talented perimeter player, but he doesn't defend the way those other guys do. They don't like it when people go small against them.
Miami: The Hurricanes are one of the most talented teams in our conference. Ryan Brown is an underrated shot maker. Shane Larkin gives them a play starter and a good ball defender. Reggie Johnson is an immovable object and Kenny Kadji is a pro. Malcom Grant is unbelievably quick and has great range, but he has been up and down, so they can get a little sideways with him. Their biggest weakness is transition defense with their big guys. If they miss, you can go at them. Johnson is a good player, but he picks and chooses when he wants to change ends. Guys his size will be able to guard him, and there will be some of those in the tournament.
North Carolina: The Tar Heels are a streaky shooting team. If it becomes a half-court game, can they make enough shots? They've improved defensively as the year has gone on, but they don't guard for 40 minutes. They guard in spurts, which can hurt you in the tournament. It looks like sometimes they just want to get through the regular season. Kendall Marshall will pass up a shot with 18 seconds left on the clock when he's wide open because he knows his team can get a better shot. They've let some teams hang around when they shouldn't have. That could be a problem. If you take them out of transition, their motion can be extremely stagnant. You've got to jam Harrison Barnes with a bigger player and make him put it on the floor. Tyler Zeller is their best player. He has toughness and he's very versatile.
Virginia: This team is just so limited offensively. Everything is predicated on tempo. The Cavaliers' best opportunity to score is an easy basket by Jontel Evans. He's so fast and strong, it's like a tailback going downhill. Their motion offense is good, but for 20 seconds they're not really attacking, they're just moving you around. And they are terrible against extended pressure because they don't attack it to score. I think they're running on fumes a bit. The fact that they don't have Assane Sene right now hurts. It doesn't overly affect their offense, but it does defensively. He makes the big-to-big doubles hard because he can throw out of them. You have to take away Mike Scott's perimeter shot. I'd rather him try to go inside because you can double team him there. Sammy Zeglinski is a great shooter, but he can also be a no-show occasionally. They're undersized in the backcourt, so teams like to post up their guards. The good news is they play tournament basketball all year, those grinder possession games.
Connecticut: The Huskies don't run offense. I mean they literally don't run a fricking offense. They never have, but in the past they always had players that were better than you. Jeremy Lamb is not great at just getting his own shot. Andre Drummond doesn't have any post moves. It's all dunks and alley-oops. Shabazz Napier is a shoot-first point guard, but he still has a way to go with his lack of physicality, the way he uses ball screens. He tries to run away from everybody, whereas Kemba Walker would come at you, knock you off balance and get you in foul trouble. I liked Napier better last year in a secondary role. Sometimes when guys get too big of a role, they're not ready for it. Plus, they have two guys competing for every spot, and sometimes that's bad for chemistry. You can see there's a lot going on with Drummond and Alex Oriakhi. They're committed to Drummond, and as a result Oriakhi's numbers have dropped.
Georgetown: This team doesn't have an overall physicality, and it doesn't have someone who can just break you down off the dribble. The Hoyas' system is the same as it was last year, but the difference is the ball doesn't stick in people's hands. They bring 6-foot-8, 6-9 guys from all over the place, and then they play so damn hard. The type of team that would give them trouble is a team that doesn't mind playing at that pace. Henry Sims doesn't like contact; he likes to deal in space. He's the one thing you can take away and hurt them. Our staff loves Jason Clark. He is a great leader who really gets Georgetown basketball. Makes all the little plays that people don't see. He's just a winner.
Louisville: The Cardinals are really up and down. The team's success depends on how Peyton Siva is doing. When he's not playing well and with confidence, they're average. They don't overwhelm you physically. They're skilled, but they don't have big bodies. Chris and Russ Smith are good, but they play on athleticism and quickness. Siva is a good point guard, but I think people have figured out how to play him. He's shooting a very low percentage from three-point range, so people are going under his ball screens and collapsing on his penetration. I love Gorgui Dieng. He's so damn active. He's the best post defender in our league.
Marquette: Best transition team in Division I. The Golden Eagles' weakness is their lack of size, but I don't know that they're not better without Davante Gardner in there, because it slows them down at one position. Good luck with Darius Johnson-Odom. He's just so good at getting to your body with those shoulders. You can't help but go backward. And if Jae Crowder keeps doing what he's doing from the perimeter, he's a matchup nightmare because he can play the four or the five. All they scream on their bench is, "Paint!" They want paint touches, so you have to play shell defense and make them jump shooters. They could be a Final Four team, but I wish they had another 6-6, 6-7 muscle guy who could get some rebounds for them.
Notre Dame: A little too reliant on shooting from the perimeter. If you can defend the Fighting Irish well on the perimeter and you have someone to match up with Jack Cooley, then you have a chance. Eric Atkins is a good point guard, but he's not good enough to get shots by himself. He needs the system, he needs weak-side movement to get himself an advantage. They have trouble guarding quickness. That's why Rutgers beat them, that's why St. John's beat them. Mo Harkless had a field day penetrating against them. That can be a problem against a really good mid-major, because those teams usually have two or three guys who can go off the bounce, including the four men.
Syracuse: The team's Achilles' heel is defensive rebounding because Rakim Christmas and Fab Melo don't rebound out of their area very well. They don't go get it like Arinze Onuaku. Also, as soon as a shot goes up, their guards are at half-court because they want to run, so they're not getting in there to help on the boards. If they get a wrong matchup where a team has three perimeter shooters and someone who can play in the high post, they could get beat. A lot of those mid-major teams play like that. Scoop Jardine isn't their most talented player, but he's their most important. The reason they win so many close games is because of his poise and composure. Dion Waiters really wants to get to the basket, so you have to make him take a contested jump shot, even though he can hit it. Teams that are very organized offensively and have a high basketball IQ would give them trouble. Teams like Butler the last couple of years, or Notre Dame this year. Georgetown is another perfect example. Wisconsin-Syracuse would be a very interesting battle.
Indiana: When the Hoosiers were rolling, the kid who had it going was Christian Watford, but he has been struggling lately. I don't think he's playing with confidence anymore. Verdell Jones has been in the doghouse. I think they're searching for another scorer. Cody Zeller's moves are pretty predictable, but he's a tough kid and he's relentless. He is as good a freshman as I've seen. He does everything and he's got a little nasty in him. They have a lot of mistake makers and I don't think they defend. Jordan Hulls might be the worst defender in Division I. But they give a lot of teams trouble with their depth and size, and they shoot the ball well from the three.
Michigan: The Wolverines are dangerous because they shoot the ball so well and stay within their sets, but they can also lay an egg because they rely so much on threes. You almost have to play small with them because they force you to. If you have a big man, it's hard to guard them because everybody will step out and score. I don't think Tim Hardaway Jr. is a tough kid. He just wants to shoot jumpers. If you have a dominant person inside, you can go right at them because they're not real big. Hardaway has not had the kind of year we were all expecting, but he has an uncanny ability to make threes late even when he's not shooting well. Trey Burke is the best guard in our league, and Jordan Morgan is much better offensively than he was last year. They don't scare you defensively. They'll get after you and compete, but you can run your stuff and score on them.
Michigan State: This team's biggest weakness is consistent outside shooting. The Spartans are going to see some zone because you have to give up something, and they can really beat you up inside. Derrick Nix is a beast and Adreian Payne has really improved in the second half of the season. They scout the hell out of you. If you play them you have to bring a couple of new sets, because they're going to know everything you run. They don't have a lot of tricks. If you can't stop them they're going to run that same fricking play over and over again. I'm still not sure Keith Appling is a pure point guard. He has had a good year but I don't know that he has had a great year. Defensively I love him, but offensively he can be a mistake maker. Nix has really committed himself. Last year I thought he was fat and not worth anything, but he's really in shape and running the floor. Draymond Green is the player of the year in our league. He doesn't have a hole in his game.
Ohio State: I think this team became a fat cat. The Buckeyes got a little arrogant early. They beat the crap out of Duke and I think that put them on cruise control. They have the most weapons in the league; it isn't close. Anybody in that first five is capable of scoring. I like William Buford, but it seems like he just goes with the flow. He's not going to bring it to you. Jared Sullinger is a great college player, but I don't think he's a tough kid. He flops a lot. He's always looking for a call and he can get really frustrated. You have to stay between him and the basket and make him shoot over you, because he doesn't have much lift. That's what Josh Harrellson did to him last year in the Kentucky game. Aaron Craft is not a good shooter so guys are going under ball screens. They're probably kicking themselves a little for not taking Trey Burke. He's from Columbus and played AAU ball with Sullinger, but they passed on him because they had Craft. I love Craft, but he does some dumb stuff at the end of games. He puts his head down and drives into packs of people.
Wisconsin: I don't really respect the way they play. Jordan Taylor likes to run and grab you, and then throw his head back and try to get a call. If you set a pick, they take a dive. They cheat the game. Everybody raves about this defensive juggernaut, but that's bull. They dribble the clock out and mug you out of the building. Part of the reason they lost to Cornell and Davidson is because when you get into the tournament, refs outside the Big Ten don't fall for that. Taylor is kind of struggling, but they're always going to be in the game because they're not going to shoot until there are six seconds left on the shot clock. Then they give it to Taylor. That's their offense. They don't even run the swing as much as they used to. Taylor plays no defense because he's trying to save his energy. Jared Berggren, Josh Gasser and Mike Bruesewitz have all had fabulous seasons, and Ryan Evans has really taken his game to the next level. They're going to be in every game because of the way they play and the fact that they have a lot of weapons.