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Andy Wittry | NCAA.com | December 26, 2021

4 holiday wishes for men's basketball March Madness contenders

2022 March Madness bracket predictions, less than 3 months to selections

We're in the midst of the holiday season, which means across the country, people are making holiday wish lists and exchanging gifts. With more than a month of the men's basketball season in the books and having taken stock of what we've learned about teams so far this season, and what has surprised us, I examined numerous March Madness contenders to identify an area in which each can improve.

These teams are perhaps good — maybe very good — but slightly flawed. Maybe they have a statistical Achilles' heel or their rosters aren't at full strength. I identified each team's weakness or shortcoming as its "holiday wish."

Here is one thing that several of the top March Madness contenders are likely wishing for this holiday season. The stats, which include advanced stats from kenpom.com and hoop-math.com, are through the games played on Dec. 19.

Petre Thomas | USA TODAY Sports Images Memphis ranks in the bottom 10 nationally in turnover percentage.

Memphis: Improved point guard play

Now in the fourth season of Memphis alum Penny Hardaway's head coaching tenure, the Tigers entered the season with a No. 12 ranking in the preseason AP Top 25 poll — the program's highest preseason ranking since the fall of 2011. They finished last season by winning the NIT and 11 of their final 13 games, then they enrolled what was considered the best freshman class in the country, headlined by the talented Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren.

Well, Memphis is now unranked, receiving just one vote in the latest AP poll, and it recently faced a four-game slide, as it now sits at 6-4.

It's not hyperbole to say that Memphis is one of the worst teams in the country at taking care of the ball. Through Dec.19, the Tigers rank as the fourth-worst team nationally at preventing steals (opponents steal the ball on 14.1 percent of Memphis' offensive possessions, per kenpom.com) and the seventh-worst in offensive turnover percentage (24.8 percent).

The Tigers are elite at a number of facets of the game, including getting to the free throw line (they attempt almost 4.6 free throws for every 10 field goal attempts, per kenpom.com), they rebound close to four out of every 10 shots they miss and they block 20 percent of their opponents' 2-point attempts. This is a tall, long and athletic team — as reflected in the stats mentioned — so even though Memphis is simply above-average at shooting, making 53.6 percent of its 2s and 35.1 percent of its 3s, the Tigers could still be a good — and perhaps very good — team on offense if they just took better care of the ball.

Getting as many second-chance opportunities and free throw attempts as the Tigers do, plus playing fast (they rank 17th nationally in tempo), means Memphis can potentially maximize its shot volume in a way that few other teams can. But the 18.4 turnovers per game – the most in the country – undermine that.

And the problem is rampant. The top seven players on the roster in terms of minutes played per game average at least 1.5 turnovers per game. Each of the team's top three scorers — Deandre Williams, Bates and Duren — average at least 2.3 turnovers, as does Alex Lomax, a point guard who's been a part-time starter this season. Lomax's 36.8-percent turnover rate is the highest on the team, per kenpom.com, which is far from ideal for a player who plays point guard.

Lester Quinones often initiates the team's offense, even though his natural position is playing off the ball.

From a personnel perspective, one potential way to limit the turnovers could be more playing time for senior Tyler Harris — now in his second stint playing for Memphis after transferring to Iowa State for the 2021 season, then transferring back — as he has a 20.1-percent turnover rate, which is significantly lower than almost all of his teammates. But Harris, 5-9, is eighth on the team in minutes per game and sixth in points, so giving him more than his current 12 minutes per game would limit the size advantage Memphis often has, and it would potentially cut into the playing time of players who are greater contributors statistically.

Plus, Harris' assist rate — the percent of the team's made baskets that he assisted, when he's on the floor — is a low 15.1 percent, per kenpom.com, and it's never been above 13 percent over the course of a full season in his career. (Although, Harris' assist rate has recently increased from 10 to 15 percent over the last few weeks, as his role has increased some.) For reference, the national leader, Cal Baptist's Taran Armstrong, is at 44.8 percent. Anything above 30 percent is a pretty respectable percentage for a play-making guard.

It's still relatively early in the season but Harris is having the most efficient season of his career, as he's shooting 53.3 percent inside the arc, 50 percent behind it and 78.9 percent at the free throw line. If he could maintain his improved efficiency, while still limiting turnovers, while playing increased minutes, then maybe he could help satisfy Memphis' metaphorical holiday wish, albeit with potential costs for the team's defense, rebounding and its best players getting the ball in areas of the floor where they can score effectively.

If not, then Memphis needs to find another solution in-house, or else its offense has a floor that will leave the Tigers susceptible to an early exit in the NCAA tournament — assuming they can make it to the Big Dance for the first time since 2014.

Alabama: No more games against Iona, or any defensive copycats, anytime soon

OK, that holiday wish was written in jest, but the underlying point remains.

With a 9-2 start to the season and a top-10 ranking after beating preseason No. 1 Gonzaga by nine points on a neutral floor, Alabama is in a strong position this winter, despite losing four regular starters from last season. The Crimson Tide's first loss this season came to Iona, 72-68, at the ESPN Events Invitational. It was a rematch of a first-round NCAA tournament game last season between the No. 2-seeded Crimson Tide and No. 15-seeded Gaels.

Alabama won that game, 68-55, in large part because of an 11-0 run that broke open a 49-46 game in which Alabama held a narrow lead. This time around, Iona got its revenge, using a similar defensive game plan: limit Alabama's 3-pointers.

Last March, Alabama attempted just 16 3-pointers, which was nearly half the total of its national-best, per-game average of 30.

In November, Alabama attempted just 17 3-pointers, which was far below its season-average of 29.5.

As numerous studies have shown, including one from Ken Pomeroy, who wrote that "with few exceptions, the best measure of 3-point defense is a team's ability to keep the opponents from taking threes," a defense's best option in trying to slow down a hot 3-point-shooting team is to simply limit the team's attempts. Three-point makes and misses are, at some level, random — or at least often beyond the control of the defense.

But 3-point attempts are more controllable.

That's a major reason why Iona squeaked out a four-point upset, as Alabama made just five threes on 17 attempts. In their meeting eight months prior, the Crimson Tide made just five of its 16 tries.

Under third-year coach Nate Oats, Alabama has generally optimized its shot quality by taking an overwhelming percent of its shots from 3-point range or at the rim, because that's where there's the highest payoff: either three points or a high-percentage two-point shot.

For a stretch last season, more than 90 percent of Alabama's shots came at the rim or behind the arc, per hoop-math.com. The Crimson Tide finished the season at 87.9 percent.

Iona coach Rick Pitino and the Gaels have tried, and succeeded, at facing one of the most 3-point-friendly offensive game plans in the country and essentially cutting its desired 3-point attempts in half. Now, Iona can't necessarily control how many of those 16 or 17 3-pointers Alabama will make, but at least that limits the ceiling of how many 3-pointers could go in.

In an admittedly very small sample size, Iona is 1-1 against Alabama in the last two seasons. Everyone else in the country is 8-34.

Iona's ability to prevent Alabama from even taking 3s has something to do with that. In fact, the Gaels have held the Crimson Tide to its two fewest 3-point attempt totals in the last two seasons.

In the last two seasons (since the start of the 2020-21 campaign), Alabama has only lost two games in which its number of 3-point attempts was more than its season average. Those were an 81-66 loss to Arkansas in which the Razorbacks attempted 43 free throws to the Crimson Tide's eight, when Alabama made 11 of its 33 3-point attempts in the game, and the second was a recent loss to the aforementioned Memphis team that we examined. Alabama also attempted 33 3-pointers in that game, making 10, but the Crimson Tide committed 20 turnovers, while the Tigers attempted 13 more free throws and made nearly 65 percent of their 2-point attempts.

In its nine losses since the start of the 2020-21 season, Alabama has averaged 26.8 3-point attempts per game, compared to the 30.4 attempts in its wins. When you consider that those eight losses include an overtime loss (to UCLA in the Sweet 16), a two-point loss (Western Kentucky), a three-point loss (Missouri), a four-point loss (Iona) and a five-point loss (Oklahoma), an average of roughly 3.5 fewer 3-point attempts per game potentially made quite a difference.

The biggest men's basketball surprises from the first month

Illinois: The return of a healthy Andre Curbelo

After losing first-team All-American Ayo Dosunmu to the NBA, from a team that earned a No. 1 seed last March, Illinois entered this season ranked No. 11 in the AP poll, thanks to the return of second-team All-American Kofi Cockburn, fifth-year senior Trent Frazier and electric guard Andre Curbelo, as well as the additions of transfers Omar Payne (Florida) and Alfonso Plummer (Utah).

No single player was likely to replace Dosunmu's production or late-game poise, but Curbelo was tracking to be a worthy heir apparent.

However, Curbelo suffered a concussion in a preseason exhibition and he missed the team's season-opener against Jackson State. He played in Illinois' next four games, but he has now missed the team's last four contests. While Illinois was riding a five-game winning streak and has won six of its last seven, that speaks to the return of Kofi Cockburn, whose 21.4 points per game since his return rank tied for sixth nationally, and the breakout from Plummer, who's averaging 16.9 points per game while posting career-high efficiency numbers. That doesn't mean that Illinois won't need Curbelo in Big Ten play, either.

In an eight-game stretch last February and March, Curbelo scored in double figures seven times (he only had six times in the previous 21 games) while shooting nearly 54 percent from the field and showing tenacity on the boards (49 in eight games, including 12 in a double-double against Nebraska). He showed all the signs and had the level of talent around him to have a breakout sophomore season in the way that Iowa's Keegan Murray and Wisconsin's Johnny Davis now are for Big Ten programs in neighboring states.

Understandably, given his concussion, Curbelo hasn't looked like the same player in the few times we've seen him this season. In four appearances, he's shooting 30 percent from the field and averaging four turnovers per game. He has since missed Illinois' last six games. Curbelo's health is what's most important, and once he returns to the court, the reemergence of the Curbelo who broke out in February and March of his freshman season would be a boon for Illinois.

Gonzaga: Three players that shouldn't shoot 3s; they're too efficient on twos

Now that we got that tongue twister out of the way, let's dive into the numbers.

Gonzaga, your 2021 national runner-up and preseason No. 1 team for the second consecutive season, leads the country with a 63.3 shooting percentage on 2-point attempts. The Zags make nearly two out of every three shots inside the arc.

That's not a new development, either. They led the country in the metric last season with 63.9-percent 2-point accuracy, just as they did in the 2019 season with a 61.4-percent mark. For the last two decades under coach Mark Few, Gonzaga has been relatively 3-point averse, in terms of what percent of the team's shots come from deep.

And hey, when you make at least 60 percent of your 2-point attempts, who can blame you?

This season, 38 percent of Gonzaga's shots have been 3s, which ranks 176th nationally, per kenpom.com. The Bulldogs have made 34 percent of them, which is less than a percentage point above the national average of 33.2 percent. So, compared to the rest of the DI men's basketball teams in the country, Gonzaga neither takes nor makes a particularly high percentage of 3s.

But it's not as if Gonzaga, now ranked No. 4, doesn't have the personnel to make a better-than-average percent of its threes. Iowa State transfer Rasir Bolton (42.9 percent) and breakout sophomore Julian Strawther (39.7 percent) have proven themselves over a fairly high number of attempts in the early going — 56 and 58, respectively.

However, Gonzaga's team-wide 3-point average is weighed down by point guard Andrew Nembhard (13-for-42), talented 7-footer Chet Holmgren (10-for-33) and Drew Timme (1-for-8). Nembhard is a career 32-percent 3-point shooter on 336 attempts and he's never made at least 35 percent of his tries in a season.

Timme, Gonzaga's leading scorer last season and the preseason national player of the year for many media outlets, is more of an old-school big man, with excellent footwork, who's just 8-for-32 from 3 in his career. Holmgren, more of a modern big but one of rare proportions, is averaging almost one made 3 per game, but at a merely averagee percentage.

It's unrealistic, if not unfair, for Gonzaga's coaches to tell those three players not to shoot any 3s, but when three of their teammates are having great 3-point shooting seasons, and while the 2-point shooting of Holmgren (77 percent), Timme (67 percent) and Nembhard (53 percent) is downright impressive, you can't help but wonder if the Zags' already impressive offense could get even better with improved shot allocation.

Based on each player's shooting splits this season, as of Dec. 19, here's how many points each player's 2-point and 3-point attempts are expected to result in:

player 2p% expected points 3P% expected  points
Drew Timme .667 1.33 .125 0.38
Julian Strawther .625 1.25 .397 1.19
Chet Holmgren .772 1.54 .333 1.00
Rasir Bolton .514 1.03 .429 1.29
Andrew nembhard .532 1.06 .310 0.93
Nolan Hickman .692 1.38 .333 1.00

On average, a Drew Timme 2-point attempt is nearly 3.5-times as valuable as a Timme 3-pointer. Holmgren's twos are 1.5 times as valuable as his 3s, and Nembhard's twos are more rewarding than his threes.

Gonzaga, with a Sweet-16-or-better finish in each of the last six NCAA tournaments, needs little advice on how to win games at the highest level, but its best players aren't always taking the best shots, which could be problematic when both those players are elite at closer shots and their teammates are at those from long-range.

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