With such scant margin between the top teams in the NCAA tournament this season, the pool of teams that can win a national championship is unusually large.
Oddsmakers in Las Vegas give nine teams a better than five percent chance of cutting down the nets in San Antonio in three weeks.
Over the past two weeks, Yahoo Sports spoke to assistant coaches from the nation’s best leagues to get a better idea of how some of the leading title contenders in this year’s field can be beaten and by whom. The coaches were granted anonymity in exchange for their honesty.
Seed: No. 1, South Region
Top player: Devon Hall (12.0 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3.2 apg)
Strengths: A balanced, deceptively efficient offense and the nation’s most formidable defense.
Weaknesses: They can be susceptible to giving up too many second-chance points; Do they score easily enough to win a title?
ACC assistant coach on Virginia: “I had so much respect for London Perrantes. When he graduated, I thought they would take a drop-off. Some of those young guards like Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome looked young at times last year, but those guys have really matured, Devon Hall has had an all-ACC season and then [De’Andre] Hunter gives them that extra dimension as a frontcourt scorer. … The key to their defense is their frontcourt guys. Their bigs hedge on ball screens and they are always in position to help. They kind of pride themselves on that. They had better perimeter defenders a couple years ago when they had [Malcolm] Brogdon and Perrantes. On this year’s team, Devon Hall is pretty good, but the other two guys? I remember Syracuse beating them at the Dome last year and their whole offense was whoever [Kyle] Guy or [Ty] Jerome were guarding, take them one-on-one. Those guys have improved, but I don’t think the bigs get enough credit for how much they do. … The one thing you always worry about with them is how slow they play. It gives people a shot if they get hot. It does make your margin for error smaller, which can be tricky in the NCAA tournament when one bad night ends your season. … They score it a little better this year than they have in the past depending on what lineup is in the game. With their starting frontline in the game, those guys are really good defensively, but they struggle to score. When they have Hunter in the game, he can get a bucket on the frontline. I also think Diakite is giving them a little more scoring than those other two guys when he’s in there too.”
Seed: No. 1, East Region
Top player: Jalen Brunson (19.4 ppg, 4.7 apg, 41.3 3P%)
Strengths: An ultra-efficient offense fueled by Brunson’s creativity off the dribble and an array of capable 3-point shooters.
Weaknesses: Some opponents have been able to beat them up on the boards and exploit their lack of a rim protection on defense.
Big East assistant coach on Villanova: “Everything they do starts with Brunson. He’s so poised, so heady. He makes the right play every time down the floor. He never gets rattled. He’s got an unbelievable poise to him. … The thing with Brunson that I don’t think people realize is he’s a lot bigger and more athletic than he looks on TV. When you see him in person, he’s thick, he’s strong. He’s got a great first step. He doesn’t have blazing speed, but he gets by guys because he can lull you to sleep and then, boom, that first step he’s gone. … Around Brunson, they have unbelievable shooting. [Mikal] Bridges is shooting at such a high level this year, which he really hadn’t done in the past. He’s an elite shooter now. [Donte] DiVincenzo is maybe one of the most underrated guys in the country. I think he’s a terrific player. Obviously he can shoot, but he’s really athletic. He has really good size, he can drive the ball and he makes plays at the rim. … We really tried to make them take jump shots off the dribble. We told our guys to switch ball screens, keep our man in front and don’t put ourselves into rotation. Where they get you is when they are able to get in the teeth of your defense and force you to devote two players to one guy. They are going to make the right play nine times out of 10. … You can drive the ball against them after movement. They’re good on the first ball screen, but if you can get them in rotation, you can really drive [Omari] Spellman and [Eric] Paschall and put pressure on the defense. And then in the middle, they don’t have a Daniel Ochefu, a guy who can just protect the rim all the time.”
Seed: No. 1, Midwest Region
Top player: Devonte Graham (17.3 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 41.2 3P%)
Strengths: Shooters galore, and one of the country’s great playmakers putting pressure on the defense.
Weaknesses: Frontcourt depth behind Udoka Azubuike; Kansas is also susceptible on the defensive glass
Big 12 assistant coach on Kansas: “I’m extremely impressed with Kansas. They’re not as talented as they usually are this year, but they have championship DNA and it just shows up. They find a way to get it done. … Devonte Graham is a really good scorer and facilitator, but I’ve been most impressed with his ability to be a two-way player and play all 40 minutes. They hardly ever rest him. They aren’t hiding him on defense. And yet he’s still able to be one of the most productive players in the country. … When we faced them, we tried to take away transition first, then the 3-point line and then you worry about the big guy inside. If you can stop them in transition, take away the 3-point arc and make them score inside it, you’ve got a chance. … [Svi Mykhailiuk] has gone from a young 17-year-old with potential to a productive all-around basketball player. He lapses on defense — sometimes he doesn’t switch when he’s supposed to — but for the most part he’s had a terrific year. He’s so deadly offensively and he’s not the defensive liability he was before. … They don’t have the three or four studs in the frontcourt that they usually do, but [Azubuike] has done a better job staying out of foul trouble and [Mitch] Lightfoot’s not a bum. He was a top 100 guy, just not what they’re used to. … You have to hope you can get a couple of touch fouls or an over the back on [Azubuike] and get him on the bench. When they’re not doubling big on big, you can play 1-on-1 with [Azubuike] and he’s so big that referees will assume there’s a foul when there’s contact. Then putting him in ball screens, when he’s moving, you can get him in foul trouble … With the tournament, it’s about being hot at the right time and matchups. I think they’re going to pose matchup problems for a lot of teams. I don’t know if there are too many teams that shoot it the way they do or have a big guy as good as theirs.”
Seed: No. 1, West Region
Top player: Trevon Bluiett (19.5 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 42.3 3P%)
Strengths: Xavier boasts a formidable offense that thrives in transition and in getting to the foul line.
Weaknesses: Opponents who are patient offensively can attack off the dribble and score at the rim.
Big East assistant coach on Xavier: “I think this is [Chris Mack’s] best team. Obviously they’re talented, but they’re a lot deeper, they’re a lot older and they’re winning all these games that are close. The ball is just bouncing their way. … Quentin Goodin has really taken a big step as a sophomore. You could see his confidence increase as Big East play went on. He started shooting the ball better and he’s a really good athlete, but the best thing he does for those guys is he passes the ball. He’s the one guy on their team who is pass-first and is looking to get other guys involved. … You can’t relax on Bluiett or mess up a ball screen. You have to guard him without fouling, pressure him and make him dribble. You can’t give him any daylight because he gets it off so quickly. … You’ve got to get them out of transition as best you can. Missed shot or made shot, they’re getting it inbound quick and getting it up. Also at one time they were leading the country in free throw attempts. You have to guard them and be physical without fouling. I don’t think people talk about that enough. … You’ve got to move the ball, be aggressive and attack the paint off the dribble. You’ve got to spread them out. Teams that are one pass shot, they’re going to be really good defensively. But if you can get them moving and get them spread out, you’ll be able to attack them. … They have all the pieces to make a deep run. Those guys were in the Elite Eight last year. I’m sure that experience is going to help them.”
Seed: No. 2, Midwest Region
Top player: Marvin Bagley (21.1 ppg, 11.5 rpg, 1.0 bpg)
Strengths: A multi-faceted, potent offense aided by Duke’s dominance on the offensive glass.
Weaknesses: While Duke’s defense has improved dramatically since committing to zone, ball screen defense and preventing second-chance points remain a concern.
ACC assistant coach on Duke: “They’ve lost games this year they had no business losing. They shouldn’t have lost at Boston College. They shouldn’t have lost at St. John’s. That worries you a little bit in a one-game situation, but nobody has as much talent as those guys do. … They’re as tough to stop as anyone we’ve played against this year. They have a lot of weapons. You have to limit their transition opportunities and keep them off the offensive boards to have any chance. … [Bagley] is an unreal offensive talent. You don’t find many guys that size who get off the ground the way he does but can also put it on the floor and make the occasional three. You can sit on his left hand a little bit, but he’s talented enough to spin back. … The defensive end is where he has the most room for growth. I don’t think he’s very comfortable showing on a ball screen. I do think he has the ability to be a good shot blocker though. He has really good timing in that regard. … When Bagley was out, it helped get Grayson Allen going. The floor was spread out a little bit. There was one less guy to throw the ball to. … You’ve got to play off Duvall. He’s a first-round talent. He has a lot of ability. But you want to invite him to take jump shots. … Defense has been their Achilles heel most of the season, but I do think they’re getting a lot more comfortable in their zone. Those guys are all offensive-minded guys, but they all have length and athleticism too. You can score on them, but then all of a sudden they’ll get a key block at a key time and run it back at you. When those guys played early in the season at Boston College, they were lost. I think they’ve gotten a lot better. They probably still have another step to go, but I think if they can do that, they can win the whole thing. ”
NORTH CAROLINA (25-10)
Seed: No. 2, West Region
Top player: Joel Berry II (17.1 ppg, 3.3 apg)
Strengths: They share the ball extremely well on offense and they rebound almost 40 percent of their missed shots.
Weaknesses: They don’t defend the 3-point arc very well and they don’t have much depth; The young big men aren’t ready to be impact players yet.
ACC assistant coach on North Carolina: “At the start of the season, I wondered if they would fall off a bit without last year’s frontcourt, but they’ve really impressed me. They’ve been as good as anyone since the start of February. … Roy [Williams] has always believed in the North Carolina system and the two bigs. I thought it was taboo for him to downshift, but he’s done that and they’ve gotten better with it as the year has gone on. [Luke] Maye has had a great year and Berry has been good too of course, but [Theo] Pinson is such a hard matchup. He can guard your fours a little bit. He’s a great driver and layup maker. He can really pass. He’s a really good offensive rebounder. He really makes that team go. You can’t play zone against them because he’s so good in the high post against it. I’ve never seen a guy pass so well from the high post. … Cameron Johnson has really improved. He was still coming back from injury when they lost to Wofford, but now he’s doing a little bit of everything for them. … Where they get you in a bind is they get to Pinson at the point guard and Maye ball-screening for him. That two man game, it’s a bear. You have to put your four man on Pinson and it becomes a nightmare because he can get in the lane and find guys. They’ve gone to that late in games. … They have that national championship moxie about them. Nothing fazes them. They’re rounding into form at the right time and I wouldn’t put it past them to be able to make a run.”
MICHIGAN STATE (29-4)
Seed: No. 3, Midwest Region
Top player: Miles Bridges (16.9 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 2.8 apg)
Strengths: They boast college basketball’s deepest frontcourt, a unit that excels at defending the rim and dominating the offensive glass.
Weaknesses: They turn it over and they don’t turn you over; That’s a combination that often results in a crippling possession deficit.
Big Ten assistant coach on Michigan State: “I don’t think there’s a deeper frontcourt in the country than theirs. To be able to bring a six-year veteran off the bench as your fifth big man, they’re pretty tough that way. … Jaren Jackson is a talent. I call him Kevin Garnett 2.0. He’s going to be a problem. He’s still trying to figure it all out, but he has a high ceiling defensively … He’s one of the best shot blockers in the country, but he also has a good grasp of where to be on defense position-wise. He played the four spot where most times people play more mobile players, guys who can shoot or put it on the floor. He was able to guard those guys as well as the power players. … You can tell [Bridges] has put in a lot of work on his shot because he has become a very good shooter. He’s effective whether’s mid-range coming off screening actions or just basic catch-and-shoot stuff from 3-point range. … When they go smaller with Bridges at the four and Jackson at the five, I think that lineup gives them a little more flexibility and versatility. They’re able to do a lot more defensively. … The one thing that hurts Michigan State is they average about 14 turnovers a game, but they don’t turn you over much. If you pressure and you can get after [Cassius] Winston, maybe it works in your favor. … They have the ability to shoot the three. They have the ability to pound it inside. They have guys who can attack off the dribble or shoot the mid-range shot. They can play in low-possession games and still come out on top. Or they can play in a high-possession game and outscore you. Their versatility, offensively and defensively, it really makes them a tough team to beat. You’re just trying to find chinks in the armor, and it’s hard to find them.”
Seed: No. 3, West Region
Top player: Moritz Wagner (14.5 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 39.6 3P%)
Strengths: This is John Beilein’s best defensive team at Michigan; They also surround Wagner with their usual array of shooters.
Weaknesses: They don’t get to the foul line often and they seldom make their free throws when they do.
Big Ten assistant coach: “No one was talking about them early in the year. They were just trying to find their way and figure some things out. But in true Coach Beilein fashion, they’ve really grown as a group. It’s really impressive. … They’re known for their offense, but this year they’re a really good defensive team. They’ve embraced his principles and they’re guarding people. People think of them as a finesse team, but they’re physical defensively. They get after you. Their guards are really tough to drive or get by. Their bigs do a really good job of stopping ball screen actions, stopping the ball and recovering. They have done a really good job this year. … You can see Xavier Simpson’s confidence grow throughout the year. Early on, I think he was in a battle for playing time. Now you see Simpson not only running the show but finding his own scoring opportunities and playing excellent defense. … When they put five guys on the floor who can shoot the three, that makes them so hard to guard. That’s why it was such a tough matchup for Michigan State in both games. Michigan State thrives on being able to shrink the floor and keep you out of the paint. When they get spread out, it’s tough for them. When Ward had to go out and guard Wagner on the perimeter, that’s not his strength. … They’re a team who has a great chance to get to the second weekend of the tournament, if not beyond that. They’re a tough team to prepare for in just two days. You don’t see a lot of Wagners in other conferences, where your five man has to guard on the perimeter, defend the three, defend the drive and defend the post. And then the way they spread you out so much, you have to be really disciplined and not allow that.”
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