I've updated my list of the toughest individual matchups in college basketball a couple of times this season, and as you read through my latest version here, you'll notice a theme emerging.
For several of the guys on this list, their inclusion is as much about the intangibles they bring to the table as it is their physical abilities. That's because we're getting to the point in the season when intangibles take on greater importance.
You might think the toughest players to prepare for are the ones who are lightning quick in transition or can light it up from 3-point range (and don't get me wrong, those are tough players to account for), but great passers who always know where to go with the ball and defenders who can lock down your best offensive player and force a lot of turnovers can cause just as many sleepless nights for opposing coaches. They can be the difference in winning and losing, and often the toughest to account for when writing up your game plan.
Here you have it -- my latest ranking of the top 10 matchup nightmares in college hoops.
Oladipo is one of the most complete basketball players in the country, and his versatility is something that, as an opposing coach, it's almost impossible to account for. He's efficient on offense (averaging 14 points per game on 64 percent shooting, including 51 percent from 3-point range), relentless on the boards (6 rebounds per game) and a lockdown defender.
What makes him so difficult to prepare for is his high motor. You simply can't totally prepare your team to face someone with his talent who also plays as hard as he does. He never takes a play off, and his energy is infectious; without question, Oladipo is the player who sets the tone for the Hoosiers.
Moreover, on the defensive end, it's agonizing to have to write a game plan for your team knowing that your opponent has a shutdown defender who can guard three positions (point guard, shooting guard and small forward). Indiana's opponents are forced to adjust their offense on the fly, depending on which of their players is being guarded by Oladipo.
At 6-foot-4, Dellavedova can see over the defense, and his ability to see all five defenders makes him impossible to plan for. Every defensive player needs to be alert on every possession when Dellavedova is on the floor. In transition, if you turn your head, it will result in a layup. And in the half court, Dellavedova is a threat every time he comes off the ball screen. He sees rotations and delivers the ball on time and on target.
As a coach, you can prepare for a player's athletic ability or shooting ability (even if doing so still doesn't enable you to stop him or her), but it's almost impossible to get your players to account for an opponent's basketball IQ. Dellavedova has a Ph.D. in seeing plays before they develop, and he might have the highest basketball IQ in the country. His intangibles and toughness set the tone for the Gaels, and you cannot undervalue the experience he gained this past summer as a member of the Australian Olympic team.
As an opposing coach, it is difficult to prepare for your opponent's leadership. It is also very difficult to prepare for a player with the ability to take things over at the end of games. Smart gives opposing coaches nightmares in both areas.
He might be only a freshman, but Smart has changed the culture in Stillwater. The Cowboys don't just find a way to win games -- they expect to win games. Smart is an elite leader, making Le'Bryan Nash and Markel Brown better players.
At the end of games, Smart can lock down your lead guard by virtue of his being a relentless on-ball defender and really hard to beat off the dribble. On offense, his strength (he might be the most physically mature guard in the country) makes him hard to keep out of the lane and gives him the ability to play through contact in short-clock situations. No matter how good your defensive game plan, that's a tough thing to deal with at the end of a game.
Roy Williams' move to a small lineup didn't just turn the Tar Heels into a lethal offensive team -- it made Bullock and Hairston two of the toughest matchups in college basketball.
Bullock and Hairston are interchangeable at the 3 and 4 spots, and it puts tremendous pressure on their opponents to decide whom to match up with at both positions. Very few power forwards are capable of chasing either one out on the floor. By basically playing four guards on offense, the Tar Heels can spread the floor, giving Hairston and Bullock the space to receive a kickout and either take a rhythm 3 or drive by the long close-outs of less agile defenders.
Another advantage of UNC's small lineup is that it puts tremendous pressure on the defense to get matched up in transition. And because Bullock and Hairston both have good size for perimeter players, the solution for opponents is not as simple as matching the Tar Heels with a small lineup or trying to punish them with several big post players.
Mason Plumlee is as athletic a frontcourt player as there is in the country, and there are several ways in which he puts pressure on an opposing defense. He can run the floor, is a relentless rebounder and can score from the low post, particularly when he catches the ball on the left block, enabling him to work to the middle for his jump hook or make a quick spin to the baseline.
Whether it is an explosive crossover and dunk from the high post, a rim run for a pass and flush in transition, or a quick move on the block or a weakside block that creates a fast break, Plumlee's freakish athletic ability is unparalleled and is impossible to simulate in preparation.
Burke is the nation's best point guard, averaging 18.9 points and 6.9 assists per game. His ability to stop and start makes him almost impossible to contain in the half court or in transition. When you're going up against a player with that kind of quickness and ability to beat his defender who can also knock down 3s at a 40 percent clip, it causes problems for your defensive game plan.
But his intangibles warrant a mention, as well. In his two seasons in Ann Arbor, Burke has raised the profile of the Michigan program, and, along with Tim Hardaway Jr., has helped take a group of freshmen and put them in line for a potential Final Four run. Burke keeps everything running smoothly for the Wolverines on the floor, and, as an opposing coach, you simply cannot prepare for Burke's toughness and leadership skills.
Yes, Craft is the best on-ball defender in the game and his lower-body strength helps him explode through screens when defending ball screens, making him almost impossible to screen off the ball. And yes, this defensive ability wreaks havoc on opponents' offensive game plans and isn't something that teams can simulate or adequately prepare for. But what makes Craft a matchup nightmare has more to do with how he affects others.
Craft is a great teammate and keeps the Buckeyes in the present every possession. He draws a line in the sand each and every play. He is tough physically and mentally. What he does won't show up in the stat sheet, but it will in the win column. A good example of Craft's leadership came after Shannon Scott took an ill-advised late-game shot versus Michigan State earlier in the season. Craft was the first person to reach out to Scott, leaving the court standing beside his disappointed teammate.
It is this type of unconditional leadership that every coach is looking for -- and no opposing coach can account for. The X's and O's are tough enough to master; you can't prepare your team for a player who can elevate all the players around him.
Coaches preparing for the Zags have no answers for Olynyk. At 7 feet, he is one of the most skilled post players in the game. His footwork is second to none; he can shoot it out to the 3-point line (39 percent) and from the foul line (80 percent) and can score it inside and outside (averages 17.7 points per game).
That versatility and skill level make it close to impossible to guard Olynyk (good luck finding someone who can defend him in the post and chase him out to the 3-point line), but to me, what makes Olynyk a nightmare matchup is his maturity. Instead of getting discouraged while playing behind Robert Sacre, he embraced his redshirt season and used it to develop into the most complete center in college basketball. In a basketball culture in which players want instant gratification, Olynyk is an anomaly.
It took almost half a season for McLemore to embrace his role as the go-to player for the Jayhawks. Some might have felt that this was too long, but McLemore has tremendous respect for his teammates and Kansas basketball. This patience is paying off because it allowed him to learn where his shots were coming from in the Jayhawks' offense.
Now, when coaches prepare for KU, they are never sure when McLemore will impose his will on the game. At any moment, he can get on a run. He runs the floor, plays above the rim, has an explosive first step in isolations and can shoot it from deep (43 percent from 3). He does it all within the flow of the Jayhawks' offense. This, coupled with his alertness on defense, makes McLemore nearly impossible to prepare for.