We're less than 50 days away from the start of the 2020 NCAA Tournament. Selection Sunday is March 15, and the first round of the tournament starts four days after that.
I looked at the top five teams in the AP Poll and found one thing each of them can improve upon to make them even more of a Final Four contender than they already are.
No. 1 Baylor (17-1)
It's hard to find too many holes in the performance of the No. 1 team in the country this season, one that has won 16 games in a row and whose only loss came on a neutral court by three points.
But somewhat surprisingly, the Bears are essentially an average shooting team relative to their 352 Division I peers.
That goes to show how much elite offensive rebounding (Baylor ranks fifth nationally in offensive rebound percentage) and elite defense (Baylor's defensive efficiency ranks fourth in the country) can cover up any blemishes shown by an offense that won't necessarily blow you away with its shooting percentages.
Baylor is exactly average with an effective field-goal percentage of 49.2 percent and it's only slightly above average in free-throw shooting, which is often an indicator on an individual basis of a player's shooting ability or potential, at 71.3 percent. The Bears' 2-point shooting, 47.3 percent, is almost two percentage points below the national average, and their 3-point shooting, 35.2 percent, is almost two percentage points above average.
It's a lot easier said than done to tell a college basketball team, especially the No. 1 team in the country, "Well, just make more of your twos," but to make this as simplistic as possible, Baylor needs to find more ways to make easy twos in order to maximize its potential this season.
In their lone loss to Washington — which starts talented 6-9 freshmen Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels in its frontcourt — the Bears shot just 34.1 percent inside the arc. They shot a season-low 31.9 percent on twos against Texas, which also started two 6-9 players, and a tall, athletic Arizona team held Baylor to 34.4 percent shooting inside the arc.
Baylor has won games in which it shot a low percentage inside the arc and from behind it, but is that sustainable against high-level competition throughout Big 12 play, then potentially deep into the NCAA Tournament?
Perhaps one solution is more spread pick-and-roll sets with sophomore Matthew Mayer, 6-9, who's the only one of the team's four bigs who has proven capable of making threes this season (11-of-24 for a 45.8 3-point percentage). That could force Mayer's defender into guarding him all the way out to the 3-point line, then ideally allow the Bears to draw the opponent's best rim protector away from the basket or for a smaller defender to get switched onto Mayer.
They have a higher percentage of their 2-point attempts blocked (13.8 percent) than all but five teams in the country, which is partly responsible for their 246th-ranked 2-point percentage.
Blocked shots can be a side effect of playing four-guard lineups, especially when four Baylor starters and its sixth man are 6-5 or shorter. Also, by placing an emphasis on scoring more near the rim, Baylor could find more free- throw opportunities (and yes, we realize that could also lead to more blocked shots, so something has to give).
The Bears currently rank 229th nationally with a free-throw attempt percentage (meaning how many free throws have they attempt compared to their number of field goal attempts) of 30.5 percent. Eighteen percent of Baylor's total points this season have come from the stripe, and in the postseason, it makes some logical sense that the more aggressive, athletic team will have more opportunities at the free-throw line. So what better way to run through potential first- and second-round opponents in the NCAA tournament than by becoming friendly with the free-throw line?
No. 2 Gonzaga (21-1)
If Gonzaga needed any extra motivation from outside forces, dropping to No. 2 in the Jan. 20 AP Top 25 poll even though the 'Zags had won 12 games in a row en route to becoming the season's first 20-game winner could be used as fuel.
It's hard to identify flaws in the country's most efficient offense — one that makes almost 57 percent of its shots inside the arc, more than 39 percent of its attempts behind the arc and rarely turns the ball over. The Bulldogs are elite at defensive rebounding and keeping its opponents off the free-throw line.
But the free-throw line is what we're focused on for Gonzaga.
It's one of the oldest (and in the age of Twitter, most popular) refrains by college basketball fans —"Why don't they make more free throws?"
Gonzaga has made 67.2 percent of its attempts from the line this season, which ranks 270th nationally.
Without knowledge of the team's playbook and stopping short of creating hypotheticals like "What if one of Gonzaga's NCAA tournament opponents made 16 3-pointers?" then the Bulldogs' free-throw shooting is probably their most glaring weakness.
They do have good free throw shooters — several of them, in fact — in Corey Kispert (79.7%), Admon Gilder (75.0%), Joel Ayayi (74.4%) and Killian Tillie (73.0%), so if they find themselves nursing a one-score lead late in an NCAA tournament game, they know which players to throw the ball to in anticipation of a quick foul by the defense.
But Filip Petrusev, the team's leading scorer and primary option on offense, is making just 65.5 percent of his attempts and Drew Timme (56.8%) and Ryan Woolridge (58.8%) make less than two-thirds of their free throws.
Gonzaga's area of improvement is one of the most common you'll hear in casual basketball discussions. The 'Zags need to work on their free throws.
No. 3 Kansas (17-3)
Kansas ranks No. 1 on kenpom.com as of Monday afternoon, so at least one metric suggests the Jayhawks are the best team in the country, despite their 12-point home loss to AP No. 1 Baylor.
They have a Big 12 Player of the Year candidate (and current leader in kenpom.com's national player of the year standings) at point guard, Devon Dotson, and the country's leader in effective field goal percentage at center, Udoka Azubuike, so what else does the No. 3 team in the AP Poll and the most-efficient defense in the country need?
To avoid defaulting into saying free-throw shooting again — Kansas entered Monday's game against Oklahoma State shooting just 66.1 percent from the line, which ranked 297th nationally, largely because of Azubuike's 42.2 percent — we're going to go with the development of 3-point-friendly lineups and rotations.
Dotson's 3-point shooting has fallen off as a sophomore, as he's making just 27.9 percent of his 4.2 attempts per game so far this season prior to Monday, and Kansas' starting frontcourt duo of David McCormack and Udoka Azubuike are just 0-for-2 combined this season, which leaves at most two 3-point shooting threats on the floor when Dotson, McCormack and Azubuike start games together.
But the Jayhawks have four wings capable of making threes, led by Ochai Agbaji (361. percent on 83 attempts) and Isaiah Moss (36 percent on 75 attempts). Reserve Christian Braun (17-of-39, 43.6%) has shown outside shooting potential this season. As a starter in Kansas' 65-50 win over Oklahoma State, he scored 16 points on 5-of-11 shooting, including 4-of-8 from three, along with a team-high nine rebounds, two steals and a block.
If Kansas is playing two bigs who aren't 3-point threats, as the Jayhawks often do, and Dotson's 3-point percentage doesn't climb in conference play, then that leaves at most two 3-point shooting threats on the floor.
This is arguably picking nits because Kansas has made at least 40 percent of its threes in eight of its 18 games this season. But the Jayhawks have also made less than 30 percent of their threes in seven games this season.
So there's some boom or bust to their outside shooting. In their losses to Villanova and Baylor they shot just 23.1 and 26.7 percent from three, respectively.
They made 11 total threes in their three losses this season so Kansas' past performances suggest that a poor 3-point shooting performance (based upon percentage or quantity of makes) against high-level competition is a recipe for defeat.
It's fairly common to see Garrett, Moss and Agbaji share the floor for Kansas, and Braun's role has increased since mid-December. The 6-6 Braun has been an efficient reserve (his 117.6 offensive rating is the highest among KU's rotation players), and he's enough of a rebounder (4.7 percent offensive rebounding rate, 13.0 percent defensive rebounding rate) that he can play stretches at the four for Kansas.
As of last week, four of Kansas' 10 most frequent lineups over its last five games involved Braun playing the "four," and a fifth featured him at the "three." The other five most frequent lineups had McCormack (0-for-2 from three this season) or freshman Tristan Enaruna (5-for-18 from three) at the four.
Granted, 3-point shooting isn't the only consideration when constructing rotations and lineups, but Bill Self moved away from his traditional two-big lineups in 2017 and 2018, when Kansas was a top-10 3-point shooting team, and maybe the Jayhawks should explore more diverse lineups if they need a 3-point shooting boost.
There's also a potential argument to be made that if Dotson's 3-point percentage doesn't turn around, he should limit his attempts per game, especially considering his ability as a creator (25.4 percent assist rate), to draw fouls (5.6 fouls drawn per 40 minutes) and make a high percentage of his twos (52.9%).
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No. 4 San Diego State (21-0)
People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw the first stone, and college basketball writers who haven't played basketball competitively since eighth grade shouldn't critique undefeated teams, or something like that.
The Aztecs are the last remaining unbeaten in college basketball, and they have a legitimate shot of running the table.
A recent projection from kenpom.com gives San Diego State a 23.6 percent chance of going undefeated in the regular season.
So, how do you improve upon perfection?
Here are a few ideas:
- Let Malachi Flynn's usage rate climb even higher. Flynn already has a team-high 25.8 percent usage rate, meaning that slightly more than one in four of San Diego State's offensive possessions ends with Flynn making a shot, missing a shot that's rebounded by the defense or turning the ball over. But despite his already significant role, his offensive rating of 122.4 ranks 60th nationally. For perspective, Gonzaga has the country's most efficient offense with an efficiency rating of 120.1. San Diego State ranks 267th nationally in free-throw rate (FTA/FGA); Flynn draws five fouls per 40 minutes and shoots 83.1 percent from the line, so he could score more point easy points for the Aztecs with a higher usage rate.
- Offensive rebounding isn't as simple as telling players to try harder to grab their teammates' missed shots or teaching better positioning to fight through box-outs. Oftentimes, individual players, if not teams as a whole, are taught to get back on defense to get set on the other end of the floor to prevent the opponent from scoring easy points in transition. So offensive rebounding can be as much about strategy as it is will. The Aztecs' defense ranks in the top 10 nationally in terms of efficiency and they're a strong defensive rebounding team, so there's a chance San Diego State prioritizes getting its defense set over sending all five players to the offensive glass. The Aztecs rank 148th nationally with a 28.8 offensive rebounding percentage — slightly above average but certainly not elite — and in their last nine games, they've only exceeded the national average for offensive rebounding (28.2 percent) just once. So while a team with a top-10 defense and an offense that produces one of the country's top 40 effective field goal percentages doesn't necessarily need to maximize its second-chance points, perhaps offensive rebounding becomes of greater importance against the caliber of opponents San Diego State might face after the first round of the NCAA tournament.
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No. 5 Florida State (17-2)
Somewhat surprisingly, Leonard Hamilton's Florida State teams have never ranked in the top 100 nationally in defensive rebounding percentage. The Seminoles, which have become synonymous with height, length, athleticism and deep rotations, are no different this season.
They have the tallest average height in the country at 6-7, according to kenpom.com, and 37.9 percent of their minutes are played by bench players, which ranks in the top 40 nationally. But despite a starting lineup that recently has featured players at 6-4, 6-5, 6-7, 6-8 and 6-9, Florida State ranks 312th nationally in opponents' offensive rebounding percentage, otherwise known as defensive rebounding percentage.
The Seminoles' opponents have rebounded 32.2 percent of their missed shots this season, so while Florida State currently ranks 23rd nationally in defensive efficiency with a defense that ranks in the top five in the country in turnover and block percentage, there's reason to believe they could be even better if they do a better job on the defensive glass.
Florida State's average defensive possession takes 18.1 seconds, which ranks 309th nationally, which at face value means its opponents have to work to get a shot they like, and just 43.6 percent of opponents' baskets are assisted (29th nationally), which suggests a significant amount of them are scored in isolation and potentially not in the flow of the offense.
Late-shot clock, isolation shot attempts are less than ideal, so if Florida State can find a way to scoop up more of the shots its opponents miss, whether it's through better technique and positioning in the Seminoles' box-outs, even more playing time for starters Malik Osborne (team-high 17.3 percent defensive rebounding percentage), Devin Vassell (16.4%) and occasional starter Raiquan Gray (15.7%), or less of an emphasis on transition offense, one of the country's better defenses could get even stronger.