2019 NCAA Tournament: The case against the title contenders

Rob Dauster
NBC Sports

All that you are going to hear about this week is how good this team is, why that team can make a Final Four and how those guys are going to win a national title.

That’s not what this space is for.

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Here, we’re going to spend some time discussing the other side of the coin. 

This is the case against the national title contenders.

REGIONS: East | South | Midwest | West

DUKE

As weird as it sounds, Duke is the heavy favorite to win this year’s national title the same way that Villanova was the heavy favorite to win last year’s title, but the Blue Devils are also the easiest team to project out a loss for. That’s because they are, frankly, a horrible jump-shooting team. Duke ranks 338th nationally in three-point percentage, making a measly 30.2 percent of their shots from beyond the arc. Cam Reddish is supposed to be their floor-spacer and he’s shooting 32.7 percent from beyond the arc, which is actually the highest number of all the freshmen on the roster. Tre Jones is under 25 percent from three. Jack White, an alleged shooter who missed 28 straight threes at one point this season, is at 28.4 percent. There are just two players on the roster that make more than a third of their threes: Alex O’Connell, who has not even shot 75 threes this season because of how limited his minutes end up being, and Justin Robinson, a walk-on that doesn’t play.

Now, to be clear, keeping Duke from getting to the basket whenever they want is a lot easier said than done, and part of what makes them so dangerous is that they are absolutely lethal in transition. They don’t need to be effective running halfcourt offense because they get so many points on the break and on second-chance points. But they are eventually going to run into someone that isn’t going to turn the ball over, that can keep them out of transition and does just enough defensively to force the Blue Devils to rely on the three-ball.

Who that is, I don’t know. But the 2010 Kentucky team that featured John Wall, Demarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe and Patrick Patterson shot 33.1 percent from three, and we all thought that team has major issues from beyond the arc. They lost in the Elite 8 on a night they went 4-for-32 from three. Will that happen to Duke too?

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: A healthy Virginia Tech is dangerous, but I think a matchup with Texas Tech in the Final Four does Duke in.

NORTH CAROLINA

The biggest thing standing between North Carolina and a run to the Final Four is the region that they were put in. The Midwest is a tough play to be. If seeds hold — which is no guarantee — they will be playing Kansas in Kansas City in the Sweet 16. They also have to travel twice as far to get to the Sprint Center as No. 2 seed Kentucky or No. 3 seed Houston, and Iowa State fans already consider that building to be Hilton Coliseum South.

So that’s not ideal.

But that, to me, is not the biggest concern that I have with the Tar Heels. It’s the inconsistency of Coby White. North Carolina’s offense is so heavily based on the way that a point guard can play, especially in a year where they don’t really have a guy that can be a creator outside of him. White is a freshman and a volume scorer, meaning that everything about him is inherently streaky. So while that gives them a ceiling to be just about anyone in the field on the right night, it allows means that an Auburn team whose press is working or a North Carolina team that can harass White and run Cam Johnson off the three-point line will have a real shot at a win.

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: Whoever they get in the Elite 8 — Kentucky, Houston or Iowa State — is going to be dangerous.

VIRGINIA

I’m just going to get this out of the way now: Yes, I think what happened last season might have some lasting effects on Virginia mentally. No, I don’t think they’re going to lose in the first round of the tournament again, but I do wonder how they are going to be able to handle someone making a run on them with five minutes left in the game.

Beyond that, there are two real concerns with this group. Let’s start with the pace of play. They average the fewest number of possessions in the sport which opens them up to upsets. Think about it like doing a study with a small sample size. There’s a reason that scientists want to get to a certain number when doing an experiment or that pollsters need a certain amount of people to get a correct feel for public opinion. That’s because variance can skew things in a small sample size. The same happens in basketball. It’s easier to hang with Virginia in a 60 possession game than it is to hang with Duke, or UNC, or Gonzaga in an 80 possession game.

I’m also worried about the athleticism factor, and it’s not because of Kyle Guy or Ty Jerome. Those guys tend are usually just fine against bigger and more athletic defenders. I know they lost to Florida State in the ACC tournament semifinals, but they also humiliated Florida State in a game earlier this season. Jerome didn’t seem to have any problem carving up Duke in either of the two games they have played this year. The concern for me is Tony Bennett’s infatuation with Kihei Clark. The fact that he is playing 25 minutes a night is concerning to me. He’s not good enough defensively — yes, he’s a pest on the ball, but he’s also 5-foot-7 — to make up for the lack of an impact he has offensively.

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: I can see Virginia losing to Tennessee in the Elite 8, but watch out for that Sweet 16 matchup with Oregon, too.

GONZAGA

With Killian Tillie back in the rotation and, seemingly, healthy, I’m not super-worried about the depth of their frontcourt or whether or not they will be able to space the floor. I’m also not all that worried about some of the issues that the Zags have on the defensive end of the floor. Brandon Clarke makes a lot of mistakes disappear, and you only have to be so good defensively when you score the way Gonzaga scores. For context, in 2009, North Carolina, like this Gonzaga team, was No. 1 in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and they entered the tournament 39th in adjusted defensive efficiency. Gonzaga is 16th. They’re fine.

My concern is Josh Perkins. He has been terrific this season, and there are smart people that will tell you that he has been Gonzaga’s most important player this year. The reason that is a concern for me is that he has not proven to be 100 percent reliable, and we saw that come to fruition in the WCC title game against Saint Mary’s. Perkins had arguably his worst game of the season, and the Zags had inarguably their worst performance of the year.

When your most important player is a guy that has proven to have off-nights the way Josh Perkins has off-nights, you are just one game away from flaming out of the NCAA tournament.

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: I think potential matchups with Syracuse and Florida State are just awful draws for the Zags.

MICHIGAN STATE

I have no idea how Tom Izzo is doing it, but he just took a team that starts Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins as the No. 2 and No. 3 offensive options to a Big Ten regular season title, tournament title and No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.

And look, I love Cassius Winston. He is a sensational player that can take over games and a joy to watch if you appreciate someone that can run a pick-and-roll. But the burden that he is going to carry for this team is heavy, and the way the bracket unfolded, the Spartans seem fairly likely to see teams they’ve played this season in the second round and in the Sweet 16. You have to think that at some point Winston’s load will become too much to bear.

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: Can you see Cassius Winston beating Duke?

TENNESSEE

When we recorded the ‘Why Your Team Sucks’ podcast above last month, the concern that both Brian Snow and I had with Tennessee was whether or not their guards were good enough to win big games. Jordan Bone and Lamonte Turner have proven that they can be OK against some of the biggest games of the season.

I’m not worried about the Vols offensively.

I’m worried about them defensively.

They’ve been lit up by Auburn twice in the last eight days. They couldn’t guard LSU in a loss in which the Tigers did not have Tremont Waters available. Kentucky has done whatever they wanted offensive against Tennessee in two of the three games they’ve played. This is basically the same team that was a top ten defense last year. What happened?

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: Tennessee’s offense is built around making two-pointers, and Virginia’s defense is designed to take that away.

KENTUCKY

The big question for me with this Kentucky team is pretty simple: Are they good enough?

I know, I know, I know. Let me talk this through. Kentucky turned into a top seven team in January when P.J. Washington turned into a superhuman, and as he came back to earth, so did Kentucky. Can he put together a three-week stretch where he is that guy in March? And if he doesn’t, who picks up the slack? Reid Travis has been useful in certain matchups and has looked like a guy that put up massive numbers against a bunch of soft Pac-12 frontlines in others. Tyler Herro has looked like a first round pick at times, and so had Keldon Johnson. They’ve also looked like freshmen in some big games and big moments. And while Ashton Hagans is a terrific player with a bright future, he’s also a point guard that gambles a bit too much defensively and cannot shoot on the offensive end of the floor.

Put another way, Kentucky has a ceiling when their best players are all playing at their best. But more than any of the other top six teams — Duke, UNC, Gonzaga, UVA and Tennessee — I can see the Wildcats having a floor-game at the wrong time.

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: They’ve already lost to Seton Hall once this year, but the dangerous matchup to be is a potential showdown with Iowa State in the Sweet 16.

MICHIGAN

The Wolverines just have too many players that are liabilities offensively. Zavier Simpson does not have to be guarded all that tightly. Jon Teske has his moments, but he goes through stretches where he isn’t really a threat. Charles Matthews was really good last year in the NCAA tournament, but that came at a time when he was playing the four in a lineup that featured knockdown jump-shooters at three spots on the floor, including at the five.

That spacing isn’t there this year, and that is why the Wolverines can see their offense get bogged down for long stretches. If that happens in the NCAA tournament against someone like Texas Tech, they could be in real trouble.

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: Texas Tech is a dangerous team for Michigan to draw in the Sweet 16.

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