Any last-minute Christmas requests? A lot of college basketball coaches must have them. There isn’t a team out there — not Kansas, not Duke, not anyone — who couldn’t use an upgrade here, a boost there. Gift wrapping optional.
As Tennessee’s Rick Barnes mentioned, “This time of year is when you don’t think, this is as good as we’re going to be.”
Of course, they can’t send an email to the North Pole asking for improvements, they have to work for them. And now is the moment, with a lighter schedule ahead of the holidays. “For me, it’s the greatest time of the year,” Michigan State’s Tom Izzo said. “It’s not because it’s Christmas. There is no school, no finals, there are no excuses. Most of the girlfriends are gone, most of their buddies are gone. We get four days to practice with no rules, no anything.
“I got enough (things to work on) to earn my money this week, and I promise you I am going to earn it.”
So here there is a Christmas wish of flaws to fix for all top-10 teams in the Associated Press poll.
No. 1 Kansas . . .
A healthy Udoka Azubuike would be way better than a tie or sweater for Bill Self. Azubuike missed the Big 12 tournament last spring with a knee, and is out now with an ankle. That leaves a conspicuous 7-foot hole in the middle of the Jayhawks’ offense and defense. They could also maybe use a bit more of a 3-point presence. They are tied for 340th in the nation in 3-point attempts, and have been outscored from the arc by 54 points. Maybe that’s one reason they play so many close games – five of the 10 being decided by six points or under.
No. 2 Duke . . .
Given the monstrous offensive talents of freshmen RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson, can Mike Krzyzewski ask for a rules tweak, where the Blue Devils get to use two balls on the same possession? No? OK, then better free throw shooting. They’re tied for 287th in the nation at the line. That hasn’t cost them yet, but it could one day.
No. 3 Tennessee . . .
Barnes had an urgent request, after beating his new best friend, Penny Hardaway at Memphis. “Guard the ball. We’ve got to guard the ball better, we’ve got to do a better job with ball screen defense. We can’t continue to give up straight-line drives.” He figures defense will have to carry the unbeaten Vols one day, even as Grant Williams continues to produce like the SEC player of the year he is, and Admiral Schofield is on a tear, with 30 points against Gonzaga and 29 against Memphis. In the meantime, after one meeting, Barnes and Hardaway remind you a little of Bo and Woody.
No. 4 Michigan . . .
The Wolverines could use a nice gust of second wind, especially for the defense. They charged into the top 10 shutting down one and all — from Villanova to North Carolina to Purdue — but have been a tad leaky lately, especially with the defensive rotation that is their specialty. South Carolina shot 51 percent. And make that second wind with a little more teeth in the defense. For all their glittering defensive numbers, the Wolverines started the week 261st in the nation in turnovers forced.
No. 5 Virginia . . .
How about defense that never, ever, ever falters? Because let’s face it, the Cavaliers are never going to make the scoreboard smoke. They shot under 30 percent against VCU and 37 percent against Wisconsin. They’re tied for 224th in the nation in scoring. The defense always has to be good. When it isn’t, history can be made. It wasn’t 41 percent shooting that doomed them against UMBC on the March day that will live in Charlottesville infamy. It was giving up 53 points in the second half – more than six teams have scored in the entire game this season against Virginia.
No. 6 Nevada . . .
Harder pre-game warmup. More dramatic national anthem. Tastier pre-game meal. Anything to help the Wolf Pack get off to better starts. Last four games, they trailed South Dakota State by eight points in the first half, Grand Canyon by 12, Arizona State by 15, USC by seven. OK, they ended up beating all of them, but nobody gets away with that forever.
No. 7 Auburn . . .
The Tigers suffered their second loss of the season Wednesday at North Carolina State. Auburn's only other loss came when it chased Duke to the wire, and they had good efficiency numbers at both ends, so what’s not to like? The stat sheet would suggest they could do with better guarding out on the arc. They’re 212th in the nation in 3-point percentage defense. The Wolfpack buried 10 of 22 from beyond the arc in Wednesday's upset.
No. 8 Gonzaga . . .
Never mind “Ho! Ho! Ho!” What Mark Few would much rather hear from Santa is “Dee-fense! Dee-fense!” Gonzaga’s powerful offense can’t always save the day. The Zags got away with giving up 87 to Duke and 92 to Creighton, but not 103 to North Carolina. Washington outshot them. They’re 302nd in the nation in points allowed. That number will come down in conference play. At least, it better.
No. 9 North Carolina . . .
Roy Williams doesn’t want more, he wants less. Turnovers, that is. The Tar Heels started the week a slovenly 212th in the nation in turnovers per game, and that’ll get you cooked in the ACC. Texas scored 31 points off turnovers when it beat North Carolina. Even on the Tar Heels’ best day so far this season — the 103-90 shootout with Gonzaga — they had 23 turnovers that led to 29 Zags points. “Just simple guard-to-guard passes,” Williams said then. “I mean, I’ve never seen anything like that.”
No. 10 Michigan State . . .
Not that Izzo is greedy, but it’s easy to imagine what areas of improvement he’d like to find under his tree. Everything. He talks a lot about finishing better . . . halves, games, seasons. No wonder. This from a guy who’s lost to 11 and 15 seeds two of the past three NCAA Tournaments. But let’s start with that 310th national ranking in turnover margin. To get where they want to go, the Spartans need to start causing more, or making fewer. Or both.