It's the holiday season and I decided to take a crack at what some of this year's top men's basketball March Madness contenders might ask for on their holiday wish lists. These teams are already talented, which is why they're ranked in the AP Top 25 poll and/or Andy Katz's Power 36 rankings.
But surely every team has room to improve, somehow, some way, right?
So here are are few "gifts" which top March Madness contenders could get to help them improve before March.
Advanced stats courtesy of kenpom.com. Stats current through Dec. 14.
Wish list: 3-point shooting
Gonzaga is undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the AP poll and in Katz's Power 36 rankings, but the 'Zags aren't without room to improve. In fact, their 3-point shooting (29.1 percent) ranked 244th nationally through Dec. 14.
Now, their below-average 3-point shooting hasn't prevented the Bulldogs from posting the second-best offensive efficiency rating in the country, and Gonzaga already has wins over Kansas, Auburn and West Virginia.
But outside of senior Corey Kispert (9-for-20 from three), the rest of the team is 7-for-35 from deep, which is 20-percent shooting. Gonzaga is elite at 2-point shooting, with 65.3-percent shooting inside the arc that ranks second nationally, but opposing defenses can pack the paint if Kispert is on the bench or if he's having a cold shooting night.
Gonzaga's offense is already one of the most dangerous in the country. If the Bulldogs are able to add even average 3-point shooting — say, 33 or 34 percent from behind the arc — then they could be humming as the most efficient offense in the country.
Wish list: Free-throw attempts and makes
Through Dec. 14, Baylor is the only team in the country that's ranked in the top 10 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and the Bears hold the No. 2 ranking in both the AP poll and Power 36.
So the basketball team in Waco is pretty, pretty good.
But Baylor's No. 3-ranked offense can become even more efficient and the Bears can do so by scoring when the clock is stopped and capitalizing on free points. After all, they're called "free throws," right?
Baylor's free-throw rate, meaning how many free-throw attempts it has compared to its number of field-goal attempts, is 28.4, which ranks 214th nationally. So Baylor is taking less than three free-throw attempts for every 10 field-goal attempts, which maybe shouldn't be a surprise for a team that's so perimeter-oriented and often plays with a small-ball four in Mark Vital.
But with an offense that's making 46.8 percent of its threes, Baylor could also find opportunities to find driving lanes against opposing defenses that have to guard the Bears all the way out to the 3-point line and beyond.
Once Baylor is at the charity stripe, it makes only 68 percent of its attempts, which is 1.6 percentage points below the national average. The Bears are both taking and making fewer free throws than most of the country, on a percentage basis. As their 3-point percentage presumably comes back down to Earth at some point, capitalizing on easy points at the free-throw line is a productive way to score efficiently.
Wish list: Defensive rebounding
With the No. 1 offensive efficiency in the country, anything on Iowa's wish list is surely to come on the defensive end of the floor. Even with that being said, it's worth acknowledging the Hawkeyes have improved from being ranked No. 97 in defensive efficiency last season to No. 77 this season, through Dec. 14. That may not seem like a huge improvement, but when you have the best offense in the country, your defense only needs to be passable to still be a really good team overall.
But defensive rebounding is the most glaring statistic on Iowa's profile. Opponents grab 35.7 percent of their missed shots, which can allow them to capitalize on second-chance opportunities. For reference, Iowa's offensive rebounding percentage is 38.5 percent, which ranks 13th nationally, so the Hawkeyes are allowing their opponents, collectively, to crash the offensive glass almost as often as Iowa does.
Look, the Hawkeyes are humming, with a 6-0 record, having scored at least 93 points in every game and having won every game by at least 13 points. But if there are matchups in which an opponent can keep pace with Iowa offensively (think teams like Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Illinois), then the Hawkeyes can afford for those already-efficient offenses to get more chances to score.
RANKINGS REACTIONS: Houston, Villanova, West Virginia climb AP Top 25
Wish list: Improved 3-point shooting from Rocket Watts and Aaron Henry
At first glance, you might think Michigan State's No. 1 item on its wish list should be to force more turnovers because the Spartans' 14.7 percent defensive turnover rate ranks just 295th nationally, as of Dec. 14. But Tom Izzo's teams historically aren't ones that force a high percentage of turnovers; they have ranked 315th or worse nationally in defensive turnover percentage in each of the last six seasons.
So, Michigan State's defensive turnover rate may not improve and that may not be a problem.
That brings us to Michigan State's offense, and more specifically, its 3-point shooting. The Spartans make 36.4 percent of their attempts from deep, which ranks 82nd nationally, but their outside shooting success is handcuffed by Rocket Watts and Aaron Henry. The two starters are 8-for-26 (30.8 percent) and 3-for-19 (15.8 percent), respectively, as they're averaging more than four and three 3-point attempts per game.
Watts was a 28-percent 3-point shooter on 121 attempts as a freshman, so he has yet to show that he can be a high-attempt, high-efficiency 3-point shooter, while Henry's best 3-point shooting season was when he shot 38.5 percent on 39 attempts as a freshman. The pair leads the team in usage rate and shot rate — if they're on the floor together, they're going to take more than half of the team's shots, on average — and the Spartans' efficiency and spacing on that end of the floor will really be limited if the two players continue to shoot below average from three while taking a high number of attempts.
Wish list: Defensive turnover rate
Through six games, Villanova's defensive turnover rate is tied for the lowest of the Jay Wright era at 16.9 percent. The first time the Wildcats' rate was that low was in 2012, when they went 13-19. But as a counterexample, Villanova also had a 16.9 percent defensive turnover rate last season, when it went 24-7 and shared the Big East regular-season title.
Regardless of how many turnovers it has or hasn't forced this season, Villanova still has a top-30 defense in terms of efficiency. That's largely because the Wildcats do a great job on the defensive glass (78.8 defensive rebounding rate, which ranks 30th nationally) and keep opponents off the free-throw line (opponents have a 21.4 percent free-throw rate, which ranks 21st nationally). But when opponents are making an above-average percent of their threes (34.5 percent) and twos (50.7 percent), and Villanova's defensive turnover rate is almost three percentage points below the national average, the Wildcats could have trouble getting stops against some of the Big East's best offenses, such as Creighton, Marquette and Xavier.
Wish list: Stop fouling
The Cougars have a defensive free-throw rate of 51.3 percent, which, for reference, would've ranked second-to-last nationally if maintained over the course of the entire season. That means that for every two field-goal attempts that Houston's opponents are attempting, they're attempting just more than one free-throw attempt.
It means Houston has been fouling, and fouling shooters, a lot. It assuredly won't last (we think), but it's not an encouraging sign for a top-10 team once conference plays rolls around. Through four games, Houston's opponents have attempted 101 free throws — 22, 26, 24, 29 attempts, respectively. The Cougars have won all of their games by at least 10 points, including wins over Texas Tech, USC and Boise State, so they do have impressive wins to their name. But, at some point, allowing your opponents to average 25 free-throw attempts per game will come back to bite you.
Wish list: Better 3-point shooting and efficiency from Greg Brown and Andrew Jones
Texas has a similar wish list as Michigan State. While the Longhorns have the 19th-most efficient offense, through Dec. 14, their top two players in usage rate and shot rate — freshman Greg Brown and redshirt junior Andrew Jones — shoot a combined 11-for-53 from 3-point range. Brown is 5-for-24 (20.8 percent) and Jones is 6-for-29 (20.7 percent).
There could be a disconnect on Texas's offense, too. Brown and Jones rank third and fifth on the team in scoring yet they're No. 1 and No. 2 in shot percentage. Brown takes 31.6 percent of the team's shots when he's on the floor and Jones's rate is 27.9 percent. That means when they're on the floor together the two players are taking roughly 60 percent of the team's shots. No other player's shot rate is higher than 23 percent.
An offensive rating just above 100 is roughly average and Brown's rating is 87.4 and Jones's rating is 83.6, largely because the two players have really struggled from deep. Jones was a strong 3-point shooter last season, when he made 38 percent of his 162 attempts, so there's reason to believe he can be an above-average 3-point shooter, but the jury is still out on Brown, the freshman.
Texas has the No. 3 defense in the country, so the Longhorns' elite play on that end of the floor will carry them, but if they can find a way to maximize their possessions when Brown or Jones is the one taking the shot, then they can become even more dangerous.
Wish list: David McCormack to take a leap
For the last two seasons, Kansas big man David McCormack had the luxury of playing behind Udoka Azubuike and Dedric Lawson, each of whom played at an All-America level. Now as a junior, it's his turn. Despite leading Kansas in usage rate (31.1 percent) and shot rate (30.3 percent), McCormack has posted a below-average offensive rating of 84.2. He has made just 18-of-53 field-goal attempts (34.0 percent), turned the ball over on one out of every five possessions, and his block rate defensively has been cut in half since his freshman season.
Kansas' best teams under Bill Self have typically had (at least) one elite big man and McCormack is the only player taller than 6-8 in the Jayhawks' rotation, which puts all the more urgency for him to have a breakthrough junior season.
While redshirt freshman Jalen Wilson, 6-8, has been a sensation and veteran Mitch Lightfoot is productive in a reserve capacity while playing limited minutes, Kansas needs more out of McCormack, especially when he's commanding as large of a share of the team's offense as he has through seven games.
Wish list: Improved 3-point defense
When analyzing Creighton's advanced statistics, the Bluejays's offensive rebounding percentage (20.3 percent, 288th nationally) and free-throw rate (28.1 percent, 219th nationally) jump off the page, but those have long been areas that Greg McDermott's squad has been willing to sacrifice in order to spread the floor with a highly efficient, 3-point-heavy offense. So Creighton is used to being deficient in those areas, because it intentionally makes those trade-offs as part of its offensive philosophy. If you're a Bluejays fan, you can wish for marginal improvements, but Creighton isn't going to suddenly start rebounding on the offensive end like it's West Virginia.
What Creighton can, and should, hope to improve, however, is its opponents' 3-point percentage. Because through six games, Creighton's opponents are shooting 37.6 percent from deep, which is 0.1 percentage points better than the Bluejays. Now, Creighton is attempting more threes than its opponents — the Bluejays are shooting roughly 10 percent more threes than their opponents, when compared to overall attempts — so Creighton can still benefit more from 37-percent 3-point shooting than its opponents as long as it's taking more.
But as shown Monday's loss to Marquette — a high-level, 89-84 win for the Golden Eagles in Omaha — when an opponent can match Creighton's style of offense, the Bluejays are vulnerable. Marquette made 12-of-21 3-pointers, made 51 percent of its attempts inside the arc and grabbed 43 percent of its missed shots, which negated Creighton's 14 3-pointers and 43-percent 3-point shooting.