The destruction in men's basketball over the weekend was almost uniform, in a historically chaotic way. The final damage: Eight top-25 teams lost, including each of the top six teams in the AP Top 25 poll on Saturday for the first time ever, and seven of the top 10.
So unless Duke, the highest-ranked team that didn't lose over the weekend, at No. 7, was to hop in the express lane and pass Gonzaga, Arizona, Auburn, Purdue, Kansas and Kentucky, each of which was off on the shoulder after their respective road losses, it's difficult to think much differently of the sport's elite after a stunning Saturday. Punish one, punish all, right?
Gonzaga: Chet Holmgren needs to be better against elite competition
Look, we're not breaking any new ground in saying the No. 1 team in the country needs to maximize the abilities of its best player. (Duh.)
But here's the skinny on why Holmgren's play is especially critical, given his recent trends and the time we're at in the calendar. On Saturday, we learned that Gonzaga will play what essentially amounts to a six-man rotation when its back is against the wall. In the Zags' 10-point road loss at then-No. 23 and now No. 19 Saint Mary's, they never led and found themselves nearly getting doubled up late in the first half, 31-16, and trailing by the same margin at halftime, 36-21.
This was not one of the handful of January WCC games where Gonzaga eclipsed the 100-point threshold in a 30 or 40-point victory. So on Saturday, each of Gonzaga's starters played at least 31 minutes, with point guard Andrew Nembhard playing all 40 and 2-guard Rasir Bolton logging 38.
Top reserve Anton Watson played 15 minutes, while talented freshmen Nolan Hickman and Hunter Sallis played just six and five minutes, respectively. Gonzaga has typically played an eight-man rotation, with those three reserves coming off the bench. But when push came to shove Saturday, players No. 7 and No. 8 saw the floor just slightly longer than the time in between media timeouts.
For the first time all season, 7-foot freshman Chet Holmgren fouled out, finishing with six points, six rebounds and four blocks in 32 minutes played. For being an elite shot-blocker (No. 16 nationally in the percent of opponents' 2-point attempts he blocks at 12.2 percent, per kenpom.com), he typically avoids foul trouble — more on this later — as he averages just 2.4 fouls per game and 3.5 per 40 minutes played.
After a relatively slow start to the season for a player considered to be the best freshman in the country when he arrived in Spokane, Holmgren has rounded into form into the type of All-America and potential national player of the year candidate he was believed to be.
At the end of Gonzaga's non-conference schedule and during the start of WCC play, Holmgren was maintaining an average of roughly 24 minutes per game, but in Gonzaga's last five games, he's at 32.2 minutes per game. Related or not, Holmgren's offensive efficiency has taken a dive during that stretch with a per-game average of 114.4, compared to the season-long national average in the sport of 103.7, per kenpom.com. Holmgren's offensive rating is 126.5, good for 26th nationally.
So, is the uber-talented, but perhaps unfinished physically, Holmgren running into a bit of a late-season wall, or did Gonzaga just so happen to play Saint Mary's twice in the final 15 days of the WCC regular season?
It's worth noting Holmgren has been just fine against many of Gonzaga's better opponents.
Here's how he's performed this season in 11 games against opponents that are ranked in the top 50 of the NET rankings, as of Feb. 28. Offensive rating is courtesy of kenpom.com. Once again, the season average across all of Division I is 103.7.
Scroll to the right to view the complete table.
|Opponent||Date||NET ranking||Points||FG-FGA||Off. Rating||Reb||TO||PF|
|Texas Tech||Dec. 18||10||5||1-4||108||11||1||4|
|San Francisco||Jan. 20||28||22||7-10||150||9||1||4|
|Saint Mary's||Feb. 12||19||11||5-10||98||13||2||2|
|San Francisco||Feb. 24||28||21||8-12||139||15||1||2|
|Saint Mary's||Feb. 26||19||6||3-7||76||6||2||5|
The teams listed above are the caliber of opponent that Gonzaga would need to beat in the NCAA tournament, likely four games in a row, in order to win its first national championship. The Zags are 8-3 in the games listed in the table above.
While it's true that Holmgren has generally been able to be a high-level rim protector without fouling this season, he committed 32 fouls in the 11 games listed above, while he had the same number in Gonzaga's other 16 games he's played in. That's an average of 2.9 fouls per game against top-50 teams and just 2.0 against everyone else. He had two first-half fouls against UCLA, Duke and Texas Tech, and he had four in the second half against Texas, in a game that was admittedly all but decided by then.
If Holmgren's offensive efficiency is often limited against elite competition and if he's more prone to fouling in those games, his willingness and ability to defend could be hampered in order to avoid potential foul trouble.
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Arizona: Avoid doubling down on offensive doom
For the 25-3 Wildcats, which are being coached by a first-time DI head coach, their to-do list could be as simple as don't play a top-15 team on the road in the NCAA tournament and voila, Arizona could check that off the list, because that, of course, is impossible.
The team's three losses have each come on the road and the first two were against Tennessee (No. 13 in the latest AP poll and No. 8 in the NET, as of Feb. 28) and UCLA (No. 17 and No. 13, respectively). Heck, Tennessee just toppled then-No. 3 Auburn inside Thompson-Boling Arena, as it also did Kentucky, so clearly there's no shame in a close loss in Knoxville this season.
But a common thread in those two losses, plus Arizona's latest at Colorado, is a cocktail of poor offensive components: below-average 3-point shooting and a much-too-high turnover rate. While Arizona's offense is very strong — it ranks 10th nationally in efficiency, per kenpom.com — the Wildcats are in the fat part of the bell curve when it comes to 3-point shooting (131st nationally at 34.4 percent) and taking care of the ball (181st in turnover percentage at 18.4 percent).
When they've lost this season, they've been subpar in both categories and twice, one of the team's greatest strengths, offensive rebounding, was nowhere near the level needed to bail out the Wildcats on offense.
In its three losses, Arizona has made an average of seven 3-pointers at an average of a 28.7-percent rate, while committing nearly 16 turnovers per game. When that happens, an offense needs to compensate in other ways, such as strong 2-point efficiency, offensive rebounding (in order to maximize the possessions the offense does have, even if it doesn't make its first shot attempt), and free throw shooting.
The Wildcats, which are the second-tallest team nationally in kenpom.com's average height metric with an average height of 6-foot-7 and four-tenths of an inch, are long and athletic, and that shows up in their offensive rebounding (they rebound 35.5 percent of their misses, which ranks 11th) and 2-point shooting (57.1 percent, seventh).
When two of Arizona's top five players in 3-point attempts shoot roughly 32 percent from deep — Justin Kier at 32.1 percent and Dalen Terry at 31.6 percent — and when three of the team's top five guards and wings have a turnover rate that's north of 20 percent — point guard Kerr Kriisa at 23.6 percent, Pelle Larsson at 24.3 percent and Kier at 21.1 percent, the Wildcats are susceptible to having occasional turnover issues or an off night from deep.
When both happen in the same game, Arizona needs to be extra efficient on the offensive glass and near the rim, while performing up to the standard of its top-15 defense.
Baylor: Get healthy, or as healthy as the Bears can
The Bears were the biggest mover in the latest AP Top 25 poll, as they climbed seven spots from No. 10 to No. 3 after knocking off then-No. 5 Kansas 80-70 in Waco. Baylor even received four first-place votes after No. 1 Gonzaga lost on Saturday night.
If that win wasn't impressive enough, here's the cherry on top: it was just Baylor's fourth game without key reserve Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua, who suffered a season-ending knee injury against Texas on Feb. 12, and it was sophomore guard LJ Cryer's third consecutive DNP. Cryer, the team's second-leading scorer at 13.5 points per game, has missed eight of the team's last nine games due to a foot injury. Somehow, Baylor is 6-2 in the eight most recent games he's missed, with the only losses coming at Alabama and Kansas.
That's in large part due to the recent success of freshman forward Jeremy Sochan, an athletic 6-foot-9 reserve who scored 17 points in two of Baylor's last three games, including the win over Kansas, and he earned kenpom.com's game MVP honors both times.
So, despite Baylor being down two of its top seven scorers, is considered by some AP poll voters to be the best team in the country as the calendar turns to March. That's not ideal, but that's not a bad deal for the Bears, which have reached No. 1 in the AP poll in three of the last six seasons and that doesn't include their national title season in 2021.
Baylor was the No. 5 team among the selection committee's top 16 teams during its mid-season reveal and likewise, it's the top No. 2 seed — the No. 5 team overall — according to the consensus published by Bracket Matrix, as of Feb. 28.
Baylor will finish the regular season with a road game at Texas and a home date with Iowa State, before it attempts to win its first Big 12 tournament title.
It's been a long time since we've seen Baylor at full capacity — and unfortunately, we technically won't again this season due to Tchamwa Tchatchoua's injury — but the Bears started the season 15-0 and now they're on the cusp of a potential No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. If Cryer can return to the court and if Sochan continues to develop into a more-than-suitable reserve, the Bears' ceiling may not be too different than it was believed to be when every player was available.
Duke: Prevent major disparities in turnovers
The phrase "turnover battle" is one typically associated with football, but it could be what keeps No. 4 Duke from winning the national championship in Coach K's final season. The Blue Devils started the season 25-4, with its four losses coming by a combined nine points, including two on the road and one in overtime on the road.
Comb through the annals of men's basketball history and you'll find a fair number of teams that won the national championship after a similar regular season to Duke — a handful of notable winning streaks with a few, narrow losses mixed in.
However, a potential and dangerous-to-Duke trend emerges when looking at the Blue Devils' losses this season. In their last three losses, they've committed at least 10 more turnovers than their opponent. The turnover percentages are courtesy of kenpom.com.
|Opponent||Score||Duke TO||Opp. TO||TO Margin||Duke TO%||Opp. TO%|
|Ohio State||L, 71-66||7||12||+5||10.0%||17.1%|
|Florida State||L, 79-78 (OT)||15||5||-10||21.1%||7.0%|
Here's the confusing crux of the issue: while Duke's defense doesn't force a high number of turnovers (it forces a turnover just 16.6 percent of the time, which ranks 290th nationally), the Blue Devils typically do take very good care of the ball. They turn it over on just 15.3 percent of possessions, which ranks 18th in the country.
But when things go bad, boy, do they go bad. It's a testament to the talent – both on the court and on the sideline — in Durham that Duke lost by a combined four points to Miami, Florida State and Virginia despite committing 32 more turnovers, but that's a dangerous trend for a Duke team that could go deep in the NCAA tournament bracket.
It's been more than a decade since Duke ranked in the top 50 nationally in defensive turnover percentage, so the lack of turnovers forced is somewhat to be expected, although the team's current ranking is the program's worst since 1997. But despite Duke's offensive talent, including by All-America candidate Paolo Banchero, the much-improved AJ Griffin and the most efficient scorer in the country, center Mark Williams, the Blue Devils don't necessarily have the elite primary ball-handler that past Duke teams have had.
For four of the team's main ball-handlers, there's not a big gap between their assist rate (the percent of the team's baskets that they assist on when they're on the floor) and their turnover rate (the percent of a player's possessions "used" that result in turnovers), per kenpom.com. While freshman shooting guard Trevor Keels' 12.2-percent turnover rate is impressive, especially given the amount of minutes he plays (30.7 per game), he's also only assisting on about one out of every six made baskets when he's on the floor.
|Player||Assist Rate||Turnover Rate|
Duke's play on both ends of the floor, with the sixth-most efficient offense and 22nd-ranked defense, puts the Blue Devils on a potential collision course with the Final Four, but they might find out they lack the elite floor general that it typically takes to win a national championship, unless the current group can prevent a major, single-game disparity in turnovers.
Auburn: Figure out its late-game identity on offense
Auburn has now lost three of its last six games, each of which came on the road — 80-76 in overtime at Arkansas, 63-62 at Florida and 67-62 at Tennessee. Before that, Auburn won by two at Georgia and by one at Missouri, so the Tigers had been flirting with danger on the road for about a month now and it has finally caught up to them on several occasions.
Ranked No. 5 in the latest AP poll and sitting at 25-4, Auburn is still in line for likely no worse than a No. 2 seed and it's firmly in the mix for a No. 1 seed, but as the Tigers approach the NCAA tournament, they'll need to determine who they are on offense late in competitive games. Freshman forward Jabari Smith is the team's most talented player and 7-foot-1 center Walker Kessler could make a case to be the team's most important, as he's the country's leading shot-blocker, a strong rebounder and a 73-percent shooter inside the arc.
The problem with having such a talented and imposing frontcourt duo is that both players require someone else to get them the ball in position to score. Yes, Smith has more mobility, ball-handling ability and shot-making than Kessler, but he's still playing the "four" for Auburn, putting pressure on guards Wendell Green, 5-foot-11, and KD Johnson, 6-feet, to make the right reads and decisions.
Johnson and Green can be electric and exciting, but their offensive ratings are both roughly average. They're a pair of 30-percent 3-point shooters and below-average shooters inside the arc. While Johnson has some physicality to him, as he's listed at 204 pounds, neither will be confused for a big guard.
So, if Smith, a 42-percent 3-point shooter and a player who can get to the free throw line with regularity, where he shoots 80 percent, is the team's No. 1 scoring option, he needs plays that are designed, or players that are determined, to get him the ball in the clutch. Auburn's final offensive possession in a narrow loss at Florida wasn't a pretty one and it was arguably the microcosm of what happens when a very talented team with Auburn's personnel finds itself in a one-possession game on the road. There are no road games in the NCAA tournament but there are one-possession games, and Auburn's postseason hopes hinge on how its two small guards and two elite bigs interact on those crucial possessions.