The Greatest Strength of Top College Basketball Teams in 2014-15
The top college basketball teams for the 2014-15 season will each do one thing well enough contend for a national championship.
For some of them, it's three-point shooting. For others, it's interior defense. Others still will simply be taller, better, faster and stronger than the competition. Whatever it is, there's something that clearly sets them apart from the crowd.
After all, we wouldn't be expecting them to open the season ranked in the top 20 if they didn't have some sort of bread and butter.
Two weeks ago, we looked at the biggest question mark for every top team. Now, let's figure out their exclamation marks.
These 20 teams are based on the composite rankings posted in late April by ESPN's Eamonn Brennan, CBS Sports' Gary Parrish, USA Today's Scott Gleeson and Nicole Auerbach, and B/R's C.J. Moore and Jason King. If you feel like your favorite team was unduly left off the list, blame them.
The following slides are listed alphabetically by school.
Strength: Interior play
While teams like Duke, Kansas and Kentucky are expected to dominate in the post, they're each relying rather heavily on freshmen who may or may not be as good as advertised.
With Arizona, we already know that Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski are plenty capable of dominating in the paint.
Though the Wildcats will be without Aaron Gordon, they're still getting back three-fourths of the interior unit that anchored the most efficient defense in the nation, according to KenPom.com. In addition to playing solid defense, they ranked 27th in the nation in offensive rebounding and 13th in defensive rebounding.
They're also adding some great forwards in Stanley Johnson and Craig Victor.
Three-point shooting may be this team's biggest weakness, but Arizona will be so dominant in the paint that it shouldn't matter.
Strength: Shot blocking (as usual)
As we pointed out last week, being one of the best shot-blocking teams in the nation is sort of Connecticut's thing.
Expect more of the same this season, as Amida Brimah will only be a sophomore after ranking fifth in the nation in block percentage last year, according to KenPom.com.
He had trouble staying on the court between frequent foul trouble and a lack of offensive expertise, but he'll almost certainly play more than 16.2 minutes per game this year.
In addition to Brimah, coach Kevin Ollie will have Phillip Nolan and Kentan Facey patrolling the paint as secondary shot-blockers—joining the lineage of players like Jeff Adrien, Gavin Edwards and Alex Oriakhi who played second fiddle to Connecticut's top interior defenders of the past decade.
Duke Blue Devils
Strength: Ball Distribution
There has been a lot of offseason discussion about whether incoming freshman Tyus Jones or established veteran Quinn Cook will start at point guard for Duke.
Here's the thing, though: Rasheed Sulaimon can handle the ball, too. Despite pretty much never serving as the team's point guard last year, Sulaimon averaged 3.7 assists per 40 minutes and had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.2.
Only Mike Krzyzewski knows who will start where. But at least two of those three players will be on the court for the vast majority of minutes played, doling out assists to each other, Justise Winslow, Amile Jefferson and Jahlil Okafor.
This should give Duke a distinct advantage over its competition, not much unlike the one Connecticut had last season with Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright both playing as combo guards.
Strength: Three-point shooting
You could make an argument that there were better three-point shooters than Michael Frazier II last season. He shot better than 44.0 percent from downtown while making more than 100 triples, but so did Karvel Anderson, Langston Galloway, Brady Heslip and Ethan Wragge.
The biggest difference between them, however, is that Frazier still has two years of eligibility left while the others have played their final collegiate game.
Even if you don't have Frazier at the top of your list of shooting guards for the 2014-15 season, he has to be somewhere in the top five. He has been nothing short of an assassin over the past two years for head coach Billy Donovan.
Joining Frazier this season will be highly rated freshman shooting guard Brandone Francis. He hasn't been a very good three-point shooter in high school, but he is so strong and athletic that he hasn't had to settle for outside shots very often in his career. Whether he develops some range or serves as a drive-and-dish type of player, he should pair nicely with Frazier.
The Gators also have Dorian Finney-Smith in the mix for three-pointers. He was pretty dreadful last season (29.3 percent), but he shot 37 percent from downtown as a freshman with Virginia Tech.
Finney-Smith doesn't need to shoot 40 percent from three-point range to be effective. As long as he can establish the shot well enough to keep the defense honest, it'll open up so many other things in Florida's offense.
Strength: Perimeter play
Few teams in the country will be able to contend with Gonzaga's backcourt.
First and foremost, the Bulldogs have senior point guard Kevin Pangos. Pangos dealt with turf toe and ankle injuries throughout the bulk of the 2013-14 season and still managed to average 14.4 points and 3.6 assists per game. At full health with a great supporting cast, he should have one heck of a final year in Spokane, Washington.
The 2014-15 season will also mark the end of Gary Bell Jr.'s tenure with Gonzaga. The shooting guard has a career three-point percentage of 42.7 and plays more than enough defense to avoid being typecast as nothing more than a gunner.
The other pieces of the puzzle will each be making their debut with the Bulldogs this season.
Byron Wesley transferred over from USC this summer and will likely serve as the team's primary small forward. And 6'10" Kyle Wiltjer will play the stretch 4 after averaging 7.4 three-point attempts per 40 minutes during his two seasons with Kentucky.
Shutting down all of those players while also limiting Przemek Karnowski's production in the paint will be no easy task.
Iowa State Cyclones
Strength: Interior scoring
To play for Fred Hoiberg, it's almost a prerequisite to have some sort of three-point ability. All seven players who logged at least 120 minutes last season also made at least 22 three-pointers.
However, it's in the paint where the Cyclones really excelled last year and can be expected to do the same this coming season.
According to KenPom.com, they shot 54.4 percent from two-point range—good for ninth place in the country. Georges Niang shot 54.2 percent and Dustin Hogue made 64.6 percent of his inside attempts. Incoming transfer Jameel McKay shot 58.4 percent two years ago at Indian Hills CC and should be an immediate presence in the paint for Iowa State.
In addition to scoring in the paint, Hogue and McKay should be pretty dominant on the glass. Hogue averaged 11.2 rebounds per 40 minutes last year and McKay grabbed 10.5 rebounds per game when he last played in JUCO.
Since the start of KenPom.com data dating back to the 2001-02 season, Kansas has ranked in the top 45 in both offensive and defensive efficiency every single year. As a result, the Jayhawks have been ranked as one of the top 16 teams by KenPom at the end of 13 straight seasons, including 10 seasons in the top 10.
Using more conventional data points, Kansas has been a No. 4 seed or better in 14 straight NCAA tournaments.
At a certain point, inertia just kind of takes over.
One thing in particular that Kansas has done well for more than a decade is both score and defend in the paint. Not since the 2003-04 season has Kansas' two-point field-goal percentage on offense been within 10 points of how its opponents shot. Last year, that difference was 11.1 percent, with Kansas shooting 55.4 percent inside the arc and its opponents shooting 44.3 percent.
Assuming 38 two-point attempts per game—what the Jayhawks averaged on offense last season—that's a difference of more than 8.4 points per game. Throw in their rebounding prowess and occasionally great three-point shooting, and it's no wonder they've won so many consecutive Big 12 titles.
Yes, we're expecting a strong sophomore season from a healthy Wayne Selden. And yes, Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre are expected to be two of the best freshmen in the country. But as long as they're wearing jerseys with either "Kansas" or "Jayhawks" on the front, let's just assume they'll keep finding a way to win.
Strength: Ridiculous size advantage
There are too many college teams with "Wildcats" for a nickname. Arizona, Davidson, Kansas State, Northwestern, Villanova and a few others join Kentucky in that all-too-common category.
But there aren't any college teams nicknamed "Giants," so maybe we should start referring to Kentucky by that moniker this year.
By now, you're probably well aware of Kentucky's size advantage in the paint. Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson and Karl Towns Jr. all stand 7'0" tall. Trey Lyles is 6'10", Marcus Lee is 6'9" and Alex Poythress is 6'8". And unlike the plethora of incoming big men at Louisville, every single one of those six players would be a starter anywhere in the country.
What you may have forgotten, though, is that Kentucky has a distinct size advantage in the backcourt, as well. Both Aaron and Andrew Harrison stand 6'6" as the starting guards.
Against a team like Tennessee, which has virtually no options at forward or center on the entire roster, it'll look like a battle between the Monstars and the Looney Tunes.
Strength: Limiting turnovers
Russ Smith did a lot of exceptional things over the past few seasons with Louisville, but "limiting turnovers" never quite found its way into his wheelhouse. He averaged 2.8 giveaways per game last year, nearly committing twice as many turnovers as any other Cardinal.
In that regard—and probably that regard alone—the Cardinals will be better off without him.
According to KenPom.com, Terry Rozier and Wayne Blackshear each ranked in the top 60 in the nation with a turnover rate of less than 10 percent—an honor typically reserved for gunners like Phil Forte and Travis Bader, who shoot the ball just about every time they touch it, never even giving the team a chance to commit a turnover on possessions in which they are used.
Even Montrezl Harrell had an impressively low turnover rate for a big man. At 12.8 percent, he did a much better job of avoiding turnovers than the likes of NBA Lottery picks Julius Randle (18.7 percent), Noah Vonleh (21.8 percent) and Joel Embiid (24.1 percent).
Now they just need to figure out who is actually going to put the ball in the basket without Smith and Luke Hancock around.
Michigan State Spartans
Strength: Offensive rebounding
It's funny how quickly a weakness can become a strength in college basketball.
In terms of offensive rebounding, Michigan State was actually one of the more ordinary teams last season. The Spartans ranked 117th in the country, making a second-chance opportunity out of less than one of three missed shots.
That simply wasn't the strength of the personnel on the court. Of the five Spartans who logged the most minutes last season, Adreian Payne led the way with 48 offensive rebounds, grabbing 6.8 percent of the ones available.
However, this year's primary players were much more aggressive on the offensive glass. Kenny Kaminski (6.5 percent), Matt Costello (11.6 percent), Branden Dawson (13.0 percent) and Gavin Schilling (14.5 percent) each grabbed a strong percentage of offensive rebounds last year—while also blocking a good number of shots on the other end of the court.
We'll see how well those percentages hold up with more minutes, but it's hard not to like Michigan State's chances of leading the Big Ten in second-chance points.
North Carolina Tar Heels
Strength: Balanced scoring attack
Last week, we projected that North Carolina would end up with two ACC first-team players with another on the third team, yet some Tar Heels fans were complaining that we didn't also have J.P. Tokoto and Kennedy Meeks on the list.
Though it's more than a bit absurd to suggest that one team from a very strong 15-team conference could have all five of its starters on an all-conference team, it's not too hard to imagine each starter having multiple 20-point games this season for a team that ranks in the top 10 in the country in offensive efficiency.
If Marcus Paige has an off night, Brice Johnson can pick up more of the scoring load. Same goes for Justin Jackson, Theo Pinson, Meeks and Tokoto.
Holding North Carolina in check on offense will be all but impossible.
The more I look at Oklahoma's statistics from last season, the less convinced I become that the Sooners had a bread and butter. They were marginally above average in most aspects of the game but gave off a "Jack of all trades, master of none" impression.
The only thing that really stands out is that they played at one of the faster tempos in the country while also being one of the best free-throw shooting teams. In fact, the Sooners and Nebraska-Omaha were the only teams in the country to rank in the top 25 in both tempo and team free-throw percentage, per KenPom.com.
If there's one thing I remember from playing basketball in high school, every coach's interpretation of conditioning is the ability to run wind sprints and shortly thereafter have the legs to make at least 80 percent of your free-throw attempts.
At least in that sense, Oklahoma was better conditioned than every team it played.
Provided Buddy Hield, Jordan Woodard, Isaiah Cousins and Ryan Spangler haven't spent the offseason engaging in pecan pie-eating competitions, Oklahoma should be in great shape again next season—both literally and figuratively.
San Diego State Aztecs
Strength: Interior defense
San Diego State already didn't have a very efficient offense, and that's probably only going to get worse with Xavier Thames out of the picture.
But the defense was extremely solid last year for the Aztecs, particularly in the paint. They blocked 13.5 percent of opposing two-point attempts, held the opposition to 43.5 percent shooting inside the arc and grabbed 70.6 percent of available defensive rebounds.
Their top rebounder (Josh Davis) is gone, but their top defenders (Skylar Spencer, Winston Shepard and Dwayne Polee II) all return for another season, looking to improve upon what was already the ninth-most efficient defense in the country.
Coach Steve Fisher is also adding a couple of ESPN 100 forwards in Malik Pope and Zylan Cheatham who should help to further bolster the front line.
Southern Methodist Mustangs
Strength: Smothering defense
I'm going to go ahead and just start referring to this as Larry Brown's SMUthering D.
Led by the inside-outside duo of Nic Moore and Markus Kennedy, SMU had nine different players record at least 17 steals last season. Even top turnover-forcing defenses like Louisville and VCU can't make that claim.
Two of those nine players graduated, but Brown picked up Justin Martin (27 steals last year) and Jordan Tolbert (26 steals) on the transfer market this summer.
In addition to a proclivity for forcing turnovers, SMU had one of the best two-point defenses in the nation during the 2013-14 season. The Mustangs finished the year ranked ninth in that category per KenPom.com—joining No. 1 seeds Arizona and Virginia as well as Connecticut in the top 10.
Once they figure out how to stop committing so many turnovers on the offensive end of the court, the Mustangs will be a very difficult team to beat.
Strength: Depth for days
Rick Barnes' ability to find playing time for everyone was our biggest question mark for Texas two weeks ago.
So how is it that we're now listing depth as the biggest strength for the Longhorns?
Simply put, there's no telling when you have too much of a good thing. There may be some issues with playing time, but that's only because there are so many quality options on this team.
Having Demarcus Holland, Connor Lammert, Kendal Yancy, Martez Walker and Prince Ibeh come in off the bench is the equivalent of having a second line in hockey. Or switching the metaphor to a different sport, instead of needing seven quality innings out of every starter every night, Texas can rest assured that it has one of the best bullpens in the country.
It must be nice for Texas to know that it's almost impossible to ever really get into foul trouble.
Strength: Two-point offense and defense
Much like Iowa State, the 2013-14 Villanova Wildcats were an excellent team inside the arc but seemed perfectly content with living or dying behind it.
The Wildcats attempted 44.8 percent of their field-goal attempts from three-point range, per KenPom.com. That was the seventh-highest ratio in the country—even though their average three-point attempt was worth marginally less than their average two-point attempt.
Though they are losing their leading scorer from last season (James Bell), he was one of the worst two-point shooters among the regulars (51.4 percent) and was much more of a perimeter defender than a post presence.
The main interior players (Daniel Ochefu, JayVaughn Pinkston and, to an extent, Josh Hart) all return and should serve as the anchors for another great defensive unit—especially without Doug McDermott around to score a million points against them.
Strength: Tony Bennett's defensive scheme
Over the past eight seasons, head coach Tony Bennett has had one of the 12 most efficient defenses in the country five different times, according to KenPom.com.
That's not because his teams force a ton of turnovers. In fact, not one of those eight teams ranked in the top 120 in the country in turnover percentage.
Bennett's teams simply do a great job of defending without fouling, forcing contested shots and being in perfect position for defensive rebounds.
Akil Mitchell was one of the best in those categories over the past three seasons, and his contributions in the paint will be dearly missed. But the Cavaliers are in wonderful shape for the foreseeable future with Mike Tobey, Anthony Gill and Justin Anderson.
Virginia Commonwealth Rams
Strength: On-ball defense
For three consecutive seasons, Briante Weber has ranked No. 1 in the nation in steal percentage. Consequently, VCU has also been tops in the country in steal percentage for three straight years.
The Rams are more than just one ringleader, though. There were seven players last season who had at least 28 steals, and five of them will be back for another year of Havoc.
With the graduation of Juvonte Reddic, VCU's defense may need to be even more aggressive than ever. The Rams don't have a single returning player taller than 6'6" who logged more than 9.0 minutes per game last season.
Unless Mike Gilmore and Justin Tillman are ready to make an immediate impact as freshman power forwards, this may be the smallest VCU team since the 2006-07 squad that went 28-7 and beat Duke in the NCAA tournament.
Wichita State Shockers
Strength: Sheer offensive efficiency
Losing Cleanthony Early—Wichita State's leading scorer and rebounder—could be a tough pill to swallow. It was his 31-point effort that even gave the Shockers a chance at knocking out Kentucky in the round of 32.
Fortunately, Early was only the fifth-most efficient player on the team.
Early had an O-rating of 117.7—good for 207th in the nation. However, Tekele Cotton (118.2), Darius Carter (118.8), Ron Baker (120.9) and Fred VanVleet (130.3) were all more efficient than Early. All four of those players will be back for another season.
And at least in the case of Baker, we're expecting even bigger things this season.
After he served as one of the team's primary catalysts during the 2013 NCAA tournament, expectations for Baker's sophomore season were so high that his 38.0 percent three-point shooting almost felt like a disappointment.
If he can ratchet up that percentage a few points into the low 40s, he and VanVleet could be two of the most valuable players in the entire country.
Strength: Ball control
Almost every single year, Wisconsin is one of the most efficient teams in the country.
It's not because of lights-out shooting or hard-nosed defense that creates a lot of steals and blocked shots. It's because the Badgers are simply the most fundamentally sound team in the country.
On offense, the Badgers ranked second in the nation in turnover percentage by coughing up the ball just once every eight possessions, per KenPom.com. It was their sixth consecutive season ranking in the top five in that category.
On defense, they defend without fouling and restrict passing lanes. Last season, they ranked third in the nation in defensive free-throw rate by limiting their opponents to just 27.1 free-throw attempts for every 100 field-goal attempts. They also ranked third in defensive assist rate, allowing an assist on just 39.8 percent of opposing field goals.
They also limited second-chance opportunities by ranking 15th in the country in defensive rebounding percentage.
Ben Brust graduates this summer, leaving as the best player on the team at limiting both turnovers and fouls. But this program is still in great hands between Traevon Jackson, Josh Gasser, Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.
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