Earlier in the preseason, we looked at the statistical traits that recent national champions had in common as well as how the annual preseason poll predicted NCAA tournament seedings.
College basketball fans understand that quality point guard play is essential for teams aiming to make a deep run in March.
Now, as opening day approaches let’s look deeper at five legitimate contenders for the national championship, identifying the lingering statistical flaws they’ll strive to erase this season.
Kentucky and Duke obviously start the season in the hunt. And as long as John Calipari and Mike Krzyzewski are coaching those two storied programs, they’ll be in the national championship conversation annually. But they won’t be found on this list, because in both cases what happened last season has little bearing on this year’s team. Kentucky watched seven of its top eight players depart, including Karl-Anthony Towns, the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft. Duke lost its top four scorers - including three first round picks.
Both the Wildcats and Blue Devils have reloaded with top flight talent, but each team’s personality, strengths and weaknesses will be revealed over the coming months.
Just expect this to be true:
Kentucky will have an elite defense. Going back to his last four seasons as the Memphis coach, Calipari has had a top 10 defense (per the KenPom.com adjusted efficiency ratings) in 8 of the last 11 years.
And, Duke will have an elite offense. The Blue Devils have finished in the top 10 of the KenPom.com adjusted offensive efficiency ratings in eight consecutive seasons, landing in the top five in six of the last seven.
These questions about the remaining favorites will be answered soon. Is it Friday yet?
North Carolina (26-12 last season, No. 1 AP preseason poll)
Last season was hardly a vintage one in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels squandered second half leads and showed their inexperience at times in key moments. They led eventual national champion Duke in the second half of both regular season meetings, and lost both games. Still, the talent and potential were apparent as UNC faced the most difficult schedule in the nation per KenPom.com
With every key piece returning, it’s easy to understand why voters tabbed Carolina at the top of the preseason poll. A nucleus of Marcus Paige, Justin Jackson and Brice Johnson gives coach Roy Williams the firepower necessary to win a third national title.
More 3-point production is imperative, however. Williams’ teams have always played inside-out, yet the Tar Heels were hardly a threat from long range last season, scoring 18.7 percent of their points behind-the-arc (344th of 351 DI schools).
The way the smooth sophomore Jackson ended the season is encouraging. He snapped out of a season-long funk in February, hitting 13 of 26 in the last eight games - including an 0-for-7 effort in the ACC championship game loss to Notre Dame.
Freshman Kenny Williams should also help the Heels’ perimeter shooting and Paige, who shot 39.5 percent, will give the Heels a boost when he returns from a hand injury.
Maryland (28-7, No. 3)
The Terrapins are a popular choice to win the strong, deep Big Ten and become national champions for the second time in school history. The expectations surged when talented point guard Melo Trimble chose to return. To reach those goals, the Terps must improve on the boards.
Last season Maryland was 251st in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage (28.9), and failing to create enough point blank attempts hampered its 2-point field goal production. It was also 143rd in defensive rebounding percentage (69.5), a rate just slightly better than the D1 national average.
Yet fans in College Park and coach Mark Turgeon have two big reasons to feel optimistic about a rebounding resurgence. The first is Robert Carter, a 6-9 power forward who averaged 8.4 rebounds per game in 2013-14 at Georgia Tech. The other is 7-foot freshman center Diamond Stone, who snagged five rebounds in 17 minutes of the Terps’ exhibition win over Southern New Hampshire.
Kansas (27-9, No. 4)
The Jayhawks have won 11 consecutive Big 12 regular season championships under coach Bill Self. Such consistency can be traced to a suffocating defense that’s finished in the top 11 nationally in adjusted efficiency in 10 of 11 seasons.
Dominating their conference opponents is great for the fans in Lawrence, Kansas but this season starts like every other - with sights set on a larger prize.
Shooting a better percentage inside the arc is pivotal for these Jayhawks, who return four starters. Kansas was 234th in the nation in 2-point field goal percentage (46.4 pct.) in 2014-15. Perry Ellis, a senior forward, and guards Frank Mason and Wayne Selden combined to make 322 of 726 2-pointers, which at 44.4 percent was nearly three percentage points below the national average.
Kansas’ offense got worse as the season unfolded. The Jayhawks failed to score one point per possession in six of their last nine games.
Iowa State (25-9, No. 7)
The Cyclones have enjoyed a sweet five-year run, winning 67.3 percent of their games and two Big 12 tournament titles under coach Fred Hoiberg, who rode the success into a job leading the NBA’s Chicago Bulls.
New coach Steve Prohm welcomes back 71 percent of the team's scoring from a year ago, and optimism abounds in Ames.
Seriously pursuing a national title revolves around upgrading a defense that’s been a glaring weakness. Prohm does have Big 12 defensive player of the year Jameel McKay, a 6-9 rim protector. But the Cyclones ranked 71st in the nation in adjusted efficiency last season (allowing 0.98 points per game) and every recent champion has been significantly better on that end of the floor. Iowa State struggled to defend the 3-point line, allowing DI foes to shoot 34.7 percent.
Prohm’s teams at Murray State were average at best on the defensive end in all games. However they did lead the Ohio Valley Conference in adjusted efficiency in conference games the last two seasons. He’ll need to impart similar principles this season to take the Cyclones to the season’s final weekend.
Virginia (30-4, No. 6)
What coach Tony Bennett has built in seven seasons in Charlottesville is remarkable. He’s conquered a conference dominated by Duke and North Carolina by perfecting the Pack Line defense. The Cavaliers led the nation in adjusted efficiency the last two seasons, forcing opponents to work late into the shot clock for what was typically a contested shot.
Yet all the regular season success hasn’t translated into a deep NCAA tournament run in part because the Cavaliers haven’t had enough perimeter firepower. In their four losses last season, the Cavs were 18 of 66 (27.3 percent) behind the 3-point line. They shot 35.2 percent from long range on the season (125th nationally), which contributed to a pedestrian effective field goal percentage (50.6 percent, 97th nationally).
Will Virginia make more shots this season? It’s hard to say. Justin Anderson, who shot 45.2 percent and made 47 3-pointers, left for the NBA. Improvement from Malcolm Brogdon (34.4 percent) and London Perrantes (31.6 percent) will be critical for the Cavaliers.