UNSUPPORTED BROWSER
College Basketball

Arizona claims top spot after UNC bounces another top-five team

It took a month, but I wised up and upset-proofed the top spot in the Power Rankings. The third No. 1 of the season is, finally, a team without North Carolina on its schedule.

College Hoops Power Rankings
1Arizona Wildcats
Last Week: 9
A double-dose of blurbage on the new No. 1:

• The flaw of Sean Miller's first good team at Arizona -- the 2010-11 Derrick Williams squad that came within one possession of the Final Four -- was that it did not protect the rim, ranking 275th nationally in two-point field goal defense, at 50.4 percent. Most national champs are elite in this category, and Miller's current team ranks fifth, at 39.2 percent. The only title contender ahead of them is Kentucky (37.2 percent).

• My favorite sequence of events from the Wildcats' win over Duke in the NIT Season Tip-Off final: As a last-ditch defensive measure in the new era of fouls, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski calls a 2-3 zone for a short stretch of the second half. It gets one stop. Second time down the floor, Miller makes a thumbs-down sign. Aaron Gordon acts super-casual after a dummy post-up outside the three-point line on the left wing. Kaleb Tarczewski sneaks up for a backscreen on back-left defender Josh Hairston. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson pulls middle defender Jabari Parker up to the free-throw line. Ball is passed to T.J. McConnell. Aaron Gordon stops acting casual.

(GIF source: ESPN.)

Next three: 12/7 vs. UNLV, 12/11 vs. New Mexico State, 12/14 at Michigan

 
2Syracuse Orange
Last Week: 11
If strict man-to-man adherent Coach K is breaking out the 2-3, is that a sign that everyone's dipping more into zones as a way to avoid foul trouble? The best (as well as only) way I have of assessing this is through Synergy Sports Technology's possession logs. They aren't perfect at distinguishing between every matchup zone and man-to-man, but they do a pretty good job, and, with some at-home averaging, allow me to compare the average amount D-I teams are playing zone this season vs. the previous two. The early answer is that zone-usage is up 8.1 percentage points, to 23.5 percent of the time. The Rankings' Zone Watch™ will see if that trend holds up into conference play.

Next three: 12/7 vs. Binghamton, 12/15 at St. John's, 12/20 vs. High Point

 
3Ohio State Buckeyes
Last Week: 6
Thad Matta doesn't mess around with zones. The Buckeyes are a 100-percent man-to-man team this season, and their man-to-man is stingy as all hell, ranking No. 1 nationally in defensive efficiency. This could be Matta's best defensive team ever, which is saying a lot; only one opponent (Ohio, on Nov. 17) has even cracked the 1.0 point-per-possession mark against OSU, and it's barely been affected by the new rules interpretations. The Buckeyes have continued their trademark create-turnovers-without-fouling ways, ranking 10th in turnovers-forced percentage and 18th in defensive free-throw rate. Next week seems like a good time to re-unveil the Turnometer ...

Next three: 12/7 vs. Central Connecticut, 12/11 vs. Bryant, 12/14 vs. North Dakota State

 
4Wisconsin Badgers
Last Week: 12
What the Badgers did on Wednesday, holding Virginia to 0.664 PPP on its home floor, will go down as one of the best defensive performances of the season. The Cavs' shot chart in halfcourt situations, via Synergy, is something to behold. Wisconsin held them to 3-of-22 at the rim (the bottom row of numbers), and allowed just three made shots from outside the lane. The entire right side of the floor (the left side of the chart) is a dead zone. Guard Josh Gasser was deservedly lauded during the ESPN2 telecast for his tireless work in holding Joe Harris to two points, but this was a team-wide suffocation effort.

Next three: 12/7 vs. Marquette, 12/11 vs. Milwaukee, 12/14 vs. Eastern Kentucky

 
5Michigan State Spartans
Last Week: 3
Spartans coach Tom Izzo is the face of the "I hate the new officiating" movement, his argument being that raising scoring isn't worth it if it's just a bunch more free throws that lead to two-and-a-half hour games. His quote that appeared on CBSSports.com a few weeks back -- "What I'm worried about, guys: Are we gonna teach, 'Just dribble in and get fouled'? Is that good basketball?" -- is a reasonable complaint. No one wants to see more bail outs on reckless drives, especially in endgame situations.

But pay heed to what Ken Pomeroy wrote last week in a subscriber-only post: That the ratio of free-throw attempts to field-goal attempts always declines over the season's first few weeks, and this season is trending much like the five that preceded it. Teams are shooting more free throws on average -- 23.3 per game this season compared to 19.8 last season -- but free-throw volume typically doesn't level off until after finals week. It might be better off to wait until the middle of the conference season, when the game has reached a state of refereeing equilibrium, to evaluate the true impact of the new rules interpretations.

In the meantime, here's a thought as to why Izzo has been one of the most vocal anti-new-rules guys. It's not because of Michigan State's reputation for playing physical defense. It's because the Spartans are the elite team that's taking the least advantage of the tighter whistles. Through Wednesday, they had the lowest free-throw rate of any major-conference team in the nation. The data:

(Data source: kenpom.com.)

Next three: 12/14 vs. Oakland, 12/17 vs. North Florida, 12/21 at Texas

 
6Kentucky Wildcats
Last Week: 4
The non-Michigan State portion of the Wildcats' schedule has been weak, so digest this with an appropriate amount of early season skepticism: Willie Cauley-Stein's defensive numbers are in Nerlens Noel/Anthony Davis territory. The 7-foot sophomore is flourishing in the five-spot, blocking a similarly impressive amount of opponents' attempts as his Lottery Pick predecessors -- and Kentucky has kept two-thirds of those blocks. Cauley-Stein's defensive rebounding percentage isn't stellar, but it's unclear if that's due to double-double machine Julius Randle hogging boards.

(Photos: Getty Images. Data: kenpom.com and hoop-math.com.)

Next three: 12/6 vs. Baylor (in Dallas), 12/10 vs. Boise State, 12/14 at North Carolina

 
7Villanova Wildcats
Last Week: 32
The guy who hit the shot that kept Kansas from being No. 1, Ryan Arcidiacono, started that game-winning baseline-out-of-bounds play as a screener for James Bell. Defender Frank Mason's momentary hesitation about whether to help on Bell -- whom Andrew Wiggins had covered just fine -- freed Arcidiacono to make his way to the ball-side corner, and a cross-screen on Mason ensured he wouldn't recover in time to contest the shot. Here it is in three stills from Nov. 29 in the Bahamas:

(Screengrab source: NBC Sports Network.)

Next three: 12/7 vs. St. Joe's, 12/15 vs. La Salle, 12/21 vs. Rider

 
8Connecticut Huskies
Last Week: 16
More big-shot breakdowns! The following GIF is from the Huskies' penultimate possession against Florida -- the one that featured two offensive rebounds and the four-point play from Shabazz Napier, which put UConn up 63-62. Things to appreciate other than Napier's heroics:

• That Ryan Boatright, by zagging back into the middle after coming off the high ballscreen, draws FOUR of Florida's defenders into his orbit, helping create a look for Napier;

• That Niels Giffey, who was initially trying to set a fade screen for Napier to cut to the right wing, was able to adjust and sort of butt-check Napier's defender to prevent him from fully closing out on the three;

• That three-goggles keep popping into the bottom left corner.

Enjoy/try not to get dizzy:

(GIF source: ESPN.)

Next three: 12/6 vs. Maine, 12/18 vs. Stanford, 12/22 at Washington

 
9Louisville Cardinals
Last Week: 1
How much stock should we put in the Cardinals' turnover-creation abilities? They're leading the nation in turnovers-forced percentage, at 28.8, and according to according to TeamRankings.com, are getting an absurd 18.4 extra scoring opportunities per game, also tops in the country. But Louisville has also played the worst schedule of any team in my top 16; and against its one quality opponent, North Carolina, the Cards' personal fouls (29) were more than double their takeaways (14). They haven't offered proof, yet, that they can be disruptive against elite teams.

Next three: 12/7 vs. Louisiana-Lafayette, 12/14 vs. Western Kentucky, 12/17 vs. Missouri State

 
10Kansas Jayhawks
Last Week: 2
According to kenpom.com's non-conference strength of schedule ratings, North Carolina has played the toughest slate of any Power-Ranked team thus far, with wins over Louisville, Michigan State and Richmond and losses to Belmont and UAB:

I suspect, though, that Kansas will end up with the toughest NCSOS slate, given that they're already top 5 and still have games left against Colorado, Florida, New Mexico, Georgetown, San Diego State and possible MAC champ Toledo. The Jayhawks have the best top-to-bottom schedule of any title contender. In a year without much separation in the upper half of the polls, it could very well make the difference between them being a No. 1 or No. 2 seed.

Next three: 12/7 at Colorado, 12/10 at Florida, 12/14 vs. New Mexico (in Kansas City)

 
11Oklahoma State Sooners
Last Week: 5
When Marcus Smart scored 39 in a rout of Memphis on Nov. 19, the narrative was that he was the best player in college basketball, the best leader, the best story, the guy who silenced all the talk about freshmen. His making 5-of-10 threes in that game was also evidence that he had fixed his long-range shot after a 29-percent freshman season.

When Marcus Smart scored 12 and committed five turnovers in a loss to Memphis on Dec. 1, he was whining to refs, giving away crunch-time possessions, not acting like a leader and, given that he shot 1-of-10 from long range in the final two games of the Old Spice Classic, the same shaky jump-shooter he was as a freshman.

The real Marcus Smart is somewhere in between. He hasn't been the best lead guard in country this season -- that's UConn's Shabazz Napier -- but he's been the second or third. Smart isn't going to be an elite shoote,r but 34 percent from deep will be enough to force defenses to guard him. He won't be the No. 1 overall pick, but he'll go in the top five. He is a star who, like every other 19-year-old, still has flaws.

Next three: 12/6 vs. South Carolina, 12/14 vs. Louisiana Tech (in OKC), 12/17 vs. Delaware State

 
12North Carolina Tar Heels
Last Week: NR
I screwed up in not putting 6-9 forward Brice Johnson on my Breakout Sophomore Formula team this summer. Even though his freshman year numbers fit the profile, I wasn't sure if he would earn enough playing time to thrive in '13-14. The suspensions to P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald have freed up plenty of minutes in UNC's rotation, and Johnson, even though he doesn't start, has been the Tar Heels' best per-minute player. It seems wild to say this about a kid who gets very little publicity, but Johnson is scoring (ORating 118.6) and rebounding (OReb/DReb% splits of 12.4/23.9) at the same levels Jared Sullinger did as a sophomore at Ohio State.

Next three: 12/7 vs. UNC-Greensboro, 12/14 vs. Kentucky, 12/18 vs. Texas

 
13Iowa State Cyclones
Last Week: 10
Georges Niang is one of my favorite post players to study on tape, for the sheer variety of his offensive moves. Here's a four-clip reel of him putting on a clinic against BYU on Nov. 20, going over his right shoulder, then his left, then a drive-'n-spin, and finally, a face-up-and-cross move:

Next three: 12/7 vs. Northern Iowa, 12/13 vs. Iowa, 12/22 vs. George Mason

 
14Wichita State Shockers
Last Week: 18
Ron Baker will go down as one of the great recruiting steals of the high school class of 2012. He had a late growth spurt to 6-foot-3 and, before Wichita State swooped in, was a no-star prospect from Scott City, Kan., with offers from Eastern Illinois, Arkansas-Little Rock and South Dakota State (where he might have become the next Nate Wolters). After playing a big role in the Shockers' Final Four run last season, Baker has emerged as a star as a sophomore, scoring with a remarkable level of efficiency. His Offensive Rating of 140.3 (or 1.403 PPP) is seventh-highest in the nation among players using at least 20 percent of their team's possessions, according to kenpom.com.

Next three: 12/7 vs. Oral Roberts, 12/14 vs. Tennessee, 12/17 at Alabama

 
15San Diego State Aztecs
Last Week: NR
Aside from Casey Prather at Florida, I'm not sure if there's been a bigger breakout senior than Xavier Thames, who lit up Creighton (for 26 points) and Marquette (for 27) in the wins that propelled the Aztecs into the rankings. Thames, a 6-3 shooting guard, spent his freshman season at Washington State as a reserve and then two years at SDSU as an unspectacular role player. But he has taken on a huge offensive role (using 26.4 percent of possessions) in the season following star Jamaal Franklin's departure to the NBA. Thames wasn't the Aztecs' clear No. 1 scoring option coming into '13-14, but he deserves to be from here on out.

Next three: 12/5 at San Diego, 12/8 vs. Washington, 12/18 vs. Southern Utah

 
16Massachusetts Minutemen
Last Week: NR
One key to the Minutemen's offensive success: They get 54.2 percent of their attempts on layups or dunks, which ranks sixth nationally. Leading scorer Cady Lalanne takes 83.8 percent of his shots as layups or dunks, and makes 68.7 percent of them, which is an excellent formula for stardom. Here's the whole top 10 through Tuesday's games: (Data source: hoop-math.com.)

Next three: 12/7 vs. BYU, 12/14 vs. Northern Illinois, 12/18 at Ohio

 

The Next 16: 17. Duke, 18. Oregon, 19. Memphis, 20. Iowa, 21. Pittsburgh, 22. UCLA, 23. Gonzaga, 24. Boise State, 25. Dayton, 26. Baylor, 27. Creighton, 28. VCU, 29. Michigan, 30. Colorado, 31. Harvard, 32. Florida

Promoted Stories
Comments

More College Basketball

SI.com

Drag this icon to your bookmark bar.
Then delete your old SI.com bookmark.

SI.com

Click the share icon to bookmark us.