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Where top teams are vulnerable

1/15/2013

An upset, at its core, is composed of three parts. First, there are the underdog's weapons -- the things they do well enough to put them in position to win. There are the favorite's flaws -- the areas that can be exploited in a one-and-done format. Finally, there is the intersection between those qualities. We won't be able to examine that final issue until we're staring at a bracket. But Giant Killers focuses heavily on the first two, anyway.

Essentially, we are searching for the genetic markers that are inherent in teams involved on either side of a March upset. Although this season's formula is far from complete -- and certain categories aren't weighted more than another -- we know the key components. And with that in mind, it's time for an early look at 10 highly ranked teams that have at least one major cause for concern. You won't see Louisville or Indiana on this list, as they are doing all the right things to ward off GKs. But most other top teams have at least one weakness to correct.

Here is a look at where top teams are vulnerable, plus a couple of games on the remaining schedule of each that could result in upsets.


Arizona Wildcats (No. 7 AP, No. 7 BPI)

Area of concern: 3-point defense

Guarding the arc was a problem for Arizona long before the average-shooting Oregon Ducks made 7 of 11 treys Thursday night. Not only do the Wildcats allow opponents to shoot 37.4 percent from deep, they do little to limit foes' attempts, either. Against Arizona, teams score 33.5 percent of their points from 3-point range. According to KenPom.com, that's 28th in the country -- well above the average mark of 27.4 percent. If you're looking for the fastest way to give a low seed a chance come tourney time, this is it.

Upset alert: Washington (36 percent 3-point shooting) and Colorado (36.8 percent) will be salivating over the prospect of facing Arizona's perimeter D.


Creighton Bluejays (No. 12 AP, No. 10 BPI)

Area of concern: Pressure D; offensive rebounding

Say this for Creighton: The Bluejays have gone from being a brutal defensive team last season (178th in efficiency) to decent (60th). The biggest remaining problem, though, is an inability to generate turnovers. Opponents cough it up on just 17.8 percent of possessions against Creighton (the national average is 20.6 percent), which means not only are they able to run their offense but they're gaining extra possessions.

And the Bluejays squander possessions on offense, too. Yes, they are fourth in efficiency and are dynamic scorers from inside and outside the arc. But when they miss, they rarely generate a second shot, which you wouldn't expect with Doug McDermott and Greg Echenique inside. Creighton grabs just 27.8 percent of available offensive boards, 290th in the country.

Upset alert: Wichita State's greatest weakness is coughing the ball up; Creighton's D negates that problem. Northern Iowa is rock-solid on the defensive glass, so Creighton might never get a second shot.


Duke Blue Devils (No. 3 AP, No. 1 BPI)

Area of concern: Rebounding

The boards were an issue at both ends even before the Blue Devils lost Ryan Kelly to a foot injury for the foreseeable future. This is counterintuitive, but Duke might actually be a better offensive rebounding team without him despite his 6-foot-11 frame. Why? Kelly largely plays away from the basket, but Josh Hairston and Amile Jefferson only screen and cut in Duke's offense; that duo combined for five offensive rebounds against NC State.

But the defensive glass remains a huge problem, and that's unlikely to improve if coach Mike Krzyzewski continues to play the tiny perimeter trio of Quinn Cook, Tyler Thornton and Seth Curry for significant minutes together. If Jefferson or Alex Murphy can help at the 3 spot against bigger teams, Duke's defensive rebounding (32 percent, 173rd in the nation) should improve.

Upset alert: Alex Len and Maryland are monsters on the offensive boards (41.8 percent), and rival North Carolina is almost as good (38.7 percent).


Gonzaga Bulldogs (No. 8 AP, No. 11 BPI)

Area of concern: 3-point defense

At first glance, the Zags appear to do a decent job against long-range shooters. Opponents shoot 33.1 percent from deep against them, which is just about average for Division I. But here's the thing: Gonzaga is just inviting top-shooting teams to go off. Illinois went 11-for-26 from 3-point range to hand Gonzaga its lone loss, and someone else will exploit that same weakness. Why? Gonzaga allows opponents to take an absurd 37.9 percent of their shots from deep. That's 309th in the country and a big reason the Bulldogs are only 72nd in defensive efficiency. It's pretty simple: If you can't chase your opponent off the arc, you're susceptible to a tourney upset.

Upset alert: A Butler win Saturday night wouldn't be much of an upset, but the guys from Indy are built to hurt the Zags. San Francisco (39.9 percent), Loyola Marymount (36.8 percent) and San Diego (37 percent) all have a shooter's chance against Gonzaga; Saint Mary's has more than that.


Illinois Fighting Illini (No. 23 AP, No. 60 BPI)

Area of concern: Defensive rebounding

Given that Illinois has lost four of its past six games, more weaknesses seem to emerge every day. But although the Illini don't guard the arc especially well and rely too much on 3-pointers for a top team, neither of those problems matches their defensive rebounding. Illinois allows opponents to grab 34.3 percent of available offensive boards, which isn't that surprising, given that guard Brandon Paul is the team's top rebounder (4.9 rpg). Wisconsin got 18 second shots in a 23-point shellacking Saturday, and if coach John Groce doesn't change something soon, the brutal Big Ten will swallow his team whole.

Upset alert: What even qualifies as a Big Ten upset anymore? Beyond the ranked teams Illinois will still face, Purdue comes strong on the offensive glass (37.3 percent).


Kansas Jayhawks (No. 4 AP, No. 6 BPI)

Area of concern: Pressure D

With Jeff Withey playing volleyball with opponents' shots inside, it's no surprise that Kansas is a force in the paint. In fact, teams shoot just 37.1 percent from 2-point range against the Jayhawks, making their interior D the best in the country. You'd think that with Withey behind them, Kansas' guards would be free to gamble for steals and force shooters to put the ball on the floor. But that hasn't been the case. Kansas generates turnovers on just 19 percent of possessions (247th in the country). And the Jayhawks let opponents score 34.8 percent of their points from 3-point range, which is the ninth-highest mark in the nation.

Yes, part of that 3-point issue is simply the result of the fact that teams can't score inside. But for Kansas to get better, it needs to close out harder on shooters and force them to pump fake and settle for long 2-pointers.

Upset alert: The state of perimeter shooting across the Big 12 is brutal. But Iowa State (36.3 percent) can knock down treys. And if Kansas can't exploit Texas', Kansas State's and Oklahoma State's penchant for turnovers, those teams could all hang with the Jayhawks.


Michigan Wolverines (No. 5 AP, No. 9 BPI)

Area of concern: Perimeter defense

Michigan's problems are almost identical to those of Kansas, except the Wolverines don't have a shot-blocker like Withey inside. Michigan forces turnovers on only 18.7 percent of possessions and allows opponents to launch 36.9 percent of their shots from deep, placing it 295th in guarding the arc. It's a good thing the Wolverines clean up the defensive glass (they're second in the nation) because they sacrifice far too many possessions with their perimeter D.

Upset alert: If Illinois' shooters find their stroke again, their high-volume approach could cause problems. Northwestern's 3-heavy Princeton offense could pose a threat, too.


Minnesota Golden Gophers (No. 9 AP, No. 5 BPI)

Area of concern: Turnovers; defensive rebounding

From a GK perspective, Minnesota might be the most compelling top-10 team in the country. If the Gophers ever played against themselves, they'd struggle to get the ball over halfcourt. But if they did, they'd get an offensive board on every missed shot. That's how strange their stats are. They absolutely manhandle teams on the offensive glass, leading the nation with a 48 percent rate at that end. Yet somehow that doesn't translate to the defensive boards, where they give up offensive rebounds on 35.1 percent of misses (280th). Similarly, they steal the ball on 14.3 percent of possessions (seventh), yet hand it right back nearly as often (12.8 percent offensive steal percentage, 329th). Good luck figuring that out.

Upset alert: Minnesota's remaining Big Ten schedule is just nasty: Nine of its next 11 games come against KenPom top-50 teams. But if you're looking for something wild to happen, wait for the last two games of the season. Minnesota travels to Nebraska, then Purdue, and both squads take care of the ball and protect their own backboards, negating the Gophers' primary advantages.


Missouri Tigers (No. 17 AP, No. 26 BPI)

Area of concern: Forcing turnovers

My, how times -- and styles -- have changed at Mizzou. Two seasons ago, under Mike Anderson, Missouri ranked ninth in the nation in forcing turnovers. Now? Try 320th. Obviously, that's because of major systemic differences between Anderson and Frank Haith. And Mizzou is a much better rebounding team than it used to be. But if you face the Tigers, you're going to be able to run your offense. And it's a lot easier to shock the world when you hang on to the ball.

Upset alert: There are two schools of thought here. Watch out for the team that already takes care of the ball (such as Arkansas and old friend Anderson) or for the team that normally coughs it up (such as South Carolina or Mississippi State), and thus might be better off against Mizzou.


Syracuse Orange (No. 6 AP, No. 8 BPI)

Area of concern: 3-point shooting

First, the good news for the Orange: They're posting their best defensive rebounding numbers of the KenPom era, and that is almost always the team's greatest weakness. By grabbing 69 percent of available defensive rebounds, they are more than holding their own in the zone. However, Syracuse has a bigger problem on offense: The team can't shoot. The Orange are hitting only 31.9 percent of their 3-pointers, and now they're missing James Southerland, their top marksman, because of an eligibility issue. Expect teams to pack it in against Syracuse.

Upset alert: Watch out for teams that win despite allowing lots of 3-point attempts. Villanova, which the Orange just beat, could be scary in the rematch in Philly, and Georgetown also fits the bill (if you'd even consider that an upset).