Opposing coaches reveal how top seeds can be beaten and by whom
With such scant margin between the top teams in the NCAA tournament this season, the champion will not be decided on talent alone.
It will instead come down to matchups.
Over the past week, Yahoo Sports spoke to assistant coaches from the nation's best leagues to get a better idea of how the top eight teams in this year's field can be beaten and by whom. The coaches were granted anonymity in exchange for their honesty.
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KANSAS (No. 1 seed, South Region)
Big 12 assistant coach on Kansas: "They want to score inside the arc. That's what they want to do. Perry Ellis is so important to them because when things don't go their way, they want to throw it to Perry. If they don't have that option, it makes them a little more perimeter-oriented. I don't think they want to win that way. I think they'd rather win with Perry scoring first or their guards driving it. Now if they hit a couple threes early, [Bill Self] will sit over there and they'll win. But when they aren't making it, he really stresses getting to the rim or throwing it down to the block. ... Wayne Selden surprises you with his lack of confidence when he misses one. I know that sounds crazy, but he'll make one and it changes the way he approaches the rest of them. Everyone is affected by that to some extent, but he's one of the most extreme. At the end of the year, it seems like he always goes through that where he's struggling with his confidence. Where I think he's improved is he has found ways to help them win even when he's not making threes. He'll get an offensive rebound or get to the rim. ... A point guard who's good on ball screens gives them problems. You've got a chance if you have a really good point guard, you can match their physicality inside and then you've got some guys who can make some threes. I know that's a lot to ask for from somebody, but that's what you need. ... Landon Lucas is always in the right place from a rebounding perspective. He really cleans up the glass and gives them extra opportunities. He doesn't make many mistakes defensively. He's also not a guy who requires shots, so those other four guys can be more aggressive."
Who does Kansas want to see in the South Region? Colorado. Without a point guard who can create off the dribble for himself and his teammates, scoring on Kansas is very difficult. The eighth-seeded Buffs have a strong back-to-the-basket center in Josh Scott and a couple shooters, but they would have a hard time initiating offense off the dribble or dealing with Kansas' toughness in the paint.
Who does Kansas want to avoid in the South Region? Maryland. The Terps didn't finish the season strong, but they do possess some of the qualities mentioned above. They have one the best ball-screen point guards in the country in Melo Trimble, a couple of capable shooters and plenty of size inside. Are they tough enough to handle Kansas' physicality though? Maybe we'll find out in the Sweet 16.
VIRGINIA (No. 1 seed, Midwest Region)
ACC assistant coach on Virginia: "They're playing well at the right time. They've got experience. You can't speed them up. Those guys are winners. ... With [Malcolm] Brogdon and [London] Perrantes, they really defend you on the perimeter. Brogdon's as good a defender as there is in the country. He's a fifth year guy, he's tough as nails, he's got size. They're so disciplined defensively, so they're going to take away your strength. ... They're style of play is so methodical on offense, so that's going to challenge a team that wants to get up and down. A team that wants to get up and down, they're going to control the tempo and take you out of that. But if you have a team that's more deliberate, runs its stuff but also has multiple shot makers? That's where I think you can get them. ... I thought Darion Atkins was such a key for them defensively last year because he guarded so many positions and was such an anchor back there. They were piecing it together for awhile, but I think they've found a nice little rhythm with their personnel lately. I know they've really been on Gill to be better defensively, and I think he has. But it starts with the perimeter guys. You can't get anything easy against them. They're in a groove now. ... If they see Michigan State in the NCAA tournament, that's their Achilles heel. Tony's going to be furious. They better not be a 1 and 2 in the same region. ... I've always thought the way you beat Virginia in my opinion is you have to make shots from the perimeter, so if you get a team that's cooking from the 3-point line, that's certainly key."
Who does Virginia want to see in the Midwest Region? Hampton. I hate to pick on the No. 16 seed here, but this is a nightmare draw for the Pirates. They're the worst 3-point shooting team in the field and play at the fourth highest tempo. Neither bode well against a Virginia team that controls pace and forces you to win with contested jump shots. If forced to pick someone besides the 16 seed, give me Texas Tech, which is comfortable at a slow pace but is also anemic shooting from the perimeter.
Who does Virginia want to avoid in the Midwest Region? Michigan State. Obviously, it's the Spartans, the Midwest's No. 2 seed and the team that has eliminated Virginia both the past two seasons. This Michigan State team is even more equipped to handle Virginia too because it can score multiple ways, it's comfortable playing at a methodical pace and it's leading the nation in 3-point shooting. Virginia's best Final Four chance is definitely the Spartans falling early.
OREGON (No. 1 seed, West Region)
Pac-12 assistant coach on Oregon: "Their best player is on the sidelines. Dana Altman could take me, you and three other guys and win games. He's very good at getting guys in the best position to play isolation basketball. They spread you out, they do that twirl action and then all it turns into is you're guarding one-on-one. If you can't guard them one-on-one, you're in trouble. ... Teams that are athletic enough to match up with them can give them problems, but when they get isolation situations and Dillon Brooks is being guarded by a 6-10 guy? The 6-10 guy has no chance. ... Chris Boucher is a difficult matchup too because he really isn't going to do anything in the post but all of a sudden he'll space out to the corner and your center has to decide whether to guard him to the perimeter. If you do, that clears the lane. If you don't, he hits the three. ... A team that can break the press, attack it and is very precise with their passing can give them issues. It can also give them problems if you have a player who's physical inside. That's hard for a guy as skinny as Boucher to handle. ... They do a great job of funneling drivers to their shot blockers. You think you've got them beat, and they know in the back they've got a rim protector. Those guys may not always block a lot of shots but they change a lot of shots."
Who does Oregon want to see in the West Region? Duke. While Duke might be able to score with Oregon, the Blue Devils' 110th-ranked defense is most susceptible to opponents who spread the floor, identify mismatches and attack off the dribble. That's Oregon's greatest strength. A Duke team that only plays six guys would probably have to resort to zone to avoid surrendering layups or getting into foul trouble.
Who does Oregon want to avoid in the West Region? Cincinnati. The physical, athletic Bearcats' boast a top 10 defense that really gets down and defends. Gary Clark is a mobile enough defender to limit some of Oregon's mismatches and he and Octavious Ellis might give the Ducks trouble with their physicality and ability to crash the glass.
NORTH CAROLINA (No. 1 seed, East Region)
ACC assistant coach on North Carolina: "All we talked to our guys about before we played them was keeping them out of transition and off the offensive glass. It was block-out drills, making sure our guards were helping us rebound. Then when they get a defensive rebound, it's like a jail break. You have to get back and make them play against a set defense. ... One thing that worries me about Carolina is they tend to get sloppy and loose defensively. They've gotten better lately, but I think against some good offensive teams, they're susceptible. You can spread those big guys out and maybe outscore them. We always tried to get their big guys in ball screens ... The other thing that worries me about Carolina is that they sometimes struggle to make shots. If you can pack in a zone and [Marcus] Paige, [Joel] Berry and [Justin] Jackson are struggling from the perimeter, that could give Carolina fits as well. Some nights Paige is making them. Other nights I feel like he's searching. ... Sometimes you can outscore Carolina. You have to pick your spots, but if you're smart and efficient, you're going to get good looks. They're not the toughest of guys, especially on the front line. We joke around it's like a country club down there. They don't have the innate toughness sometimes to dig in and get stops or offensive rebounds."
Who does North Carolina want to see in the East Region? USC. The eighth-seeded Trojans' biggest weakness is they're 275th nationally in defensive rebounding percentage. North Carolina's greatest strength is the way it attacks the offensive glass. USC will also try to run with the Tar Heels because that's its favored style of play. In other words, if this is a round of 32 matchup, it's not going to be pretty.
Who does North Carolina want to avoid in the East Region? Quite honestly, there isn't a terrible stylistic matchup here for North Carolina. The best way to beat North Carolina is to control the tempo, turn the Heels into a jump shooting team and limit their second-chance opportunities. Kentucky can match the Tar Heels' talent, but could the Wildcats rebound well enough or keep Brice Johnson in check in the paint? Indiana also might have trouble on the glass, while Xavier would be susceptible off the dribble and in transition.
MICHIGAN STATE (No. 2 seed, Midwest Region)
Big Ten assistant coach on Michigan State: "They're as complete a team as there is in our league. They have everything you can dream of — arguably the best shooter in the country in [Bryn] Forbes, arguably the best player in the nation in Denzel Valentine. They have one of the best freshman big men in the nation in Deyonta Davis. They have a senior who plays as hard as anyone in the country in Matt Costello. Their fifth option is [Eron] Harris, who averaged 17 points a game at West Virginia. ... The only weakness they have, if it's even a weakness, is they foul a little too much. They definitely are more foul-prone than ever before this year and they give up a little too much dribble penetration ... Iowa is the only team in our league that gave them problems, but I don't think it would be the same matchup if they played again. At that time, Iowa was fresh and playing at a really high level. ... What we tried to do is make Valentine a scorer more so than both a scorer and facilitater. We went under ball screens. If you blitz him on every ball screen, he's so skilled and so smart that he'll make plays out of that ... You have to try to get up in him for 92 feet, bump him right off the bat and slow him down as much as possible. If that doesn't work, you need someone with a little more length who can at least force him into contested shots."
Who does Michigan State want to see in the Midwest Region? Syracuse. The 10th-seeded Orange surrender the second most second-chance opportunities of any team in the field, which does not bode well for them if they meet Michigan State in the round of 32. The Spartans are top 20 in the country in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage. Michigan State's shooters Valentine, Forbes and Matt McQuaid would also get plenty of open looks against Syracuse's zone.
Who does Michigan State want to avoid in the Midwest Region? Seton Hall. Michigan State's Kryptonite this season is Iowa, which dealt the Spartans two of their only five losses of the season — both by double figures. But since Iowa is safely in another region, we'll go with Seton Hall because the Pirates are one of the Midwest Region's few teams capable of drawing fouls attacking Michigan State off the dribble. In the Spartans' five losses this season, opponents have shot an average of 25.2 free throws.
VILLANOVA (No. 2 seed, South Region)
Big East assistant coach on Villanova: "In our game plan, the two biggest things were stopping their drives and closing out on their shooters. They spread you out. Very rarely do they have two guys down near the basket. Usually it's four guys around [Daniel] Ochefu and those four guys all can shoot. ... Closeouts and driving lane defense are key, so you've got to have good individual defenders and you have to be disciplined. If they're going to beat you, they've got to beat you with twos. You don't want those guys to get off from the 3-point line, especially when they're driving the ball. You can be in the gaps, but you've got to make your way back out to shooters and try to stay between them and the basket. ... Early in league play, everyone was keying on Ryan Arcidiacono. He was putting up big numbers and so was Josh Hart. But the two guys that later in league play really changed them were Kris Jenkins and Jalen Brunson. Jenkins is playing at a high, high level and Brunson is being more aggressive and looking to score. Early in the season, he was just kind of feeling it out but he has evolved. ... Ochefu has improved offensively. He can score down there on the block a little bit or knock down a jumper. That gives them another dimension as well. ... I think you can really drive the ball on them. We had a lot of success that way. Their defense is all predicated on turning you over. If you look at the games they've lost, those teams have taken care of the basketball. You cannot be careless with the ball."
Who does Villanova want to see in the South Region? Arizona. The Wildcats might give Villanova problems on the backboards, but they're turnover-prone and they would struggle to keep Villanova from spreading them out and blowing by them. Gabe York and Ryan Anderson in particular struggled defensively in a similar matchup against Oregon in the Pac-12 tournament.
Who does Villanova want to avoid in the South Region? Kansas. The Jayhawks have multiple ball handlers, multiple capable perimeter defenders and enough size and physicality to give Villanova fits. The elite teams were really the only ones to enjoy success against the Wildcats this year. Four of their five losses came against RPI top 25 opponents.
OKLAHOMA (No. 2 seed, West Region)
Big 12 assistant coach on Oklahoma: "Buddy [Hield] can break the game open on you. He is so good at dribbling with his left hand and shooting it. I think that's his go-to. You want to force him right because he's not as good shooting it. ... They don't physically impose their will on you defensively, but they have enough veteran players that they know how to guard you and then Khadeem Lattin gives them a mistake eraser at the rim. Having him there helps them be a little more aggressive defensively. ... They are the best in the country at running to the 3-point line in transition. You don't face many teams that do that. It's hard to replicate in preparation for them. They got a layup against us and turned it down and threw it to the corner for a 3-pointer. ... I think they have a harder time with smaller teams. People with smaller guys that have the ability to guard stretch fours, they're more capable of guarding [Ryan] Spangler away from the basket, which is where he has a lot of success. What you need is enough defenders who can extend to the perimeter. If you're a team with multiple huge guys, you're in trouble. Things change if a team does a good job defending the arc. Then they really have to get to the rim. They can do that, but it's not really what they want to do. ... The type of team that can cause them problems is one that can make them guard longer. I would think a team that's calculated on its shots and isn't as vulnerable in transition can cause them problems."
Who does Oklahoma want to see in the West Region? Baylor. The Sooners feasted on Baylor's zone in two regular season matchups, distorting it to the point that the Bears all but had to come out of it. A third meeting in a regional final is unlikely, but not out of the question. Were it to happen, the smart money would be on Oklahoma's array of shooters.
Who does Oklahoma want to avoid in the West Region? Oregon. Duke is actually statistically the region's most effective team at limiting 3-point opportunities, however, that is partially because the Blue Devils are so susceptible against dribble penetration. The Ducks are better suited to guard Oklahoma off the dribble and also have a mobile enough set of forwards to stick with Spangler on the perimeter.
XAVIER (No. 2 seed, East Region)
Big East assistant coach on Xavier: "They're the deepest team in our league and top to bottom the most talented team in our league. They can mix and match their lineups so that one four-minute segment Trevon Bluiett is at the four — and he's a monster to guard at the four because he can drive bigger guys — and then the next segment they go big, [James] Farr and [Jalen] Reynolds play together and they just try to bully you. They give you different looks throughout the whole game. ... Sometimes I think they shoot too quick and it gets them in trouble. The games they lost they would go one pass, shot or no pass, shot. If those shots aren't going in, that backfires on them. ... The best thing they do offensively is how they play in transition. They run that ball down your throat. They have multiple ball handlers who attack. ... If you eliminate transition baskets and keep them off the offensive glass, you have a good chance to beat them. If they're doing both those things, I don't know if anyone can beat them. ... If you have to take one guy away, it's Bluiett. You have to try to make him a two-point shooter and make him work for everything. ... You can really drive them and you can hurt them in transition. A lot of times they're sending three or four guys to the offensive glass, so if you can rebound, you can run. That's one thing we stressed. Then you've got to make them work. I think if you move the ball two or three times, they get really spread out and you can drive the ball and attack the paint. ... One thing they have is that 1-3-1. It's like a changeup for them, and it's tough to go against, especially in a tournament setting when you don't have much time to prepare for it."
Who does Xavier want to see in the South Region? Indiana. A favorable matchup for Xavier is one in which it can bully the opponent on the glass and then get out in transition. The Hoosiers are vulnerable to both of those things, though the likelihood of them reaching a potential regional final against the Musketeers is probably slim given their difficult draw.
Who does Xavier want to avoid in the East Region? West Virginia. The Mountaineers' ability to attack off the dribble make them a potentially challenging matchup for Xavier. West Virginia's pressure could also get Xavier sped up and force the Musketeers into turnovers and quick shots.
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