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Sprintin' Spartans take over top spot in power rankings

Kentucky's Pursuit of Perfection shirts are now on the $1.99 rack, but the 'Cats haven't gone on clearance in the first regular season Power Rankings. They've just made room for a clear 1-2 of Michigan State and Louisville.

College Hoops Power Rankings
1Michigan State Spartans
Last Week: 3
On Tuesday night at the United Center, a (relatively) elderly Big Ten team outscored a one-and-done SEC team in fastbreak points by a margin of 21-2. It was the unveiling of the Sprintin' Spartans. "We've been trying to run since last year," said shooting guard Gary Harris, one of the stars of their 78-74 win over Kentucky, "but this year we're actually doing it."

They were more like the Standin' Spartans last season. The chart below shows the percentage of Michigan State's (and its opponents') overall points that came on fastbreaks in the final six games of 2012-13, versus the first two in 2013-14. There's been a remarkable spike:

There were better transition highlights from the Kentucky game than this one by Matt Costello. But this is the bucket that made Wildcats fans cringe the most: a mere former four-star recruit outrunning Willie Cauley-Stein, Aaron Harrison and James Young for a two-pass, no-dribble layup.

(GIF source: ESPN)

Next three: 11/15 vs. Columbia, 11/18 vs. Portland, 11/22 vs. Virginia Tech (Coaches vs. Cancer)

 
2Louisville Cardinals
Last Week: 1
Based on his juco stats at Northwest Florida State, I did not expect 5-foot-9 guard Chris Jones to be an overwhelmingly efficient player in Division I. Jones was a force-the-issue guy at NFS, taking an estimated* 32.6 percent of his team's shots with an assist/turnover ratio of 4.2/2.9. He had five or more turnovers in 10 of his 32 games last season.

But in his first two games at Louisville, Jones has played 55 minutes while dishing out 12 assists against zero turnovers. He's acting like Jordan Taylor -- and Jones has even dialed back his shot-taking (to 27.8 percent) to accommodate for the high-usage presence of Russ Smith. The opponents will get tougher than College of Charleston and Hofstra, but if the Cardinals' starting backcourt keeps playing this well, I propose this as their theme song:

Smith and Jones Forever, together forever and ever ...

Next three: 11/15 vs. Cornell, 11/19 vs. Hartford, 11/23 vs. Fairfield (Hall of Fame Tipoff)

 
3Kentucky Wildcats
Last Week: 2
One reason why Michigan State coach Tom Izzo called junior Branden Dawson the "unsung hero" of the win over Kentucky: Dawson delivered a stunning defensive performance that wasn't fully evident in a box score of six defensive rebounds and four steals. Friend-of-the-Rankings Chris Mackinder did full defensive score sheet charting of Tuesday's game and credited Dawson with 6.5 forced turnovers and four forced misses, and blamed him only for 2.5 made shots. Here's a condensed version of Mackinder's chart, with the top seven of the Spartans' rotation:

On the Kentucky side, Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein combined to force 16 misses, but there was little-to-no turnover creation, and starting guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison had negative defensive impact. Perimeter and transition D are the areas where the Wildcats have the most room for improvement.

Next three: 11/17 vs. Robert Morris, 11/19 vs. Texas-Arlington, 11/25 vs. Cleveland State

 
4Kansas Jayhawks
Last Week: 5
Andrew Wiggins' prep-school coach, Rob Fulford, told me back in October that Wiggins' biggest impact could be on defense. "One thing that people don't give Andrew enough credit for is his lockdown defense. Jabari Parker couldn't get a shot off against him [in All-Star games], and he dominated Julius Randle in the Peach Jam. The bigger the defensive challenge, that's when Andrew steps up the most. When his defensive switch is on, you're not scoring."

On Tuesday, for a too-short period of the second half, we got to see Wiggins check Parker. That was when Parker's momentum from a brilliant first half finally slowed. Plays like the one below are why NBA scouts like Wiggins' potential as a two-way talent. Parker tries to post him up, gets bumped off his initial spot, and attempts a nice, fadeaway J -- only to have Wiggins spring out of a squared-up defensive stance and manage to get a fingertip on the ball. Even when you're 6-8, deflecting another 6-8 star's fadeaway isn't easy.

(GIF source: ESPN)

Next three: 11/19 vs. Iona, 11/22 vs. Towson, 11/28 vs. Wake Forest (Battle 4 Atlantis)

 
5Duke Blue Devils
Last Week: 4
First thing: When you're done here (or right now, if you're already bored), you must go read Seth Davis' story on Duke's Andre Dawkins that appeared in SI's preview issue. It is excellent. You can find it with one of these covers:

Second thing, related to coverboy Jabari Parker, who was the star of stars in the Champions Classic: I didn't realize how much Duke would have to rely on him for defensive rebounding. Parker has grabbed 30.8 percent of available defensive boards thus far, while the Blue Devils' five-man in its smallball lineup, Amile Jefferson, has just one defensive board in 37 minutes of playing time. Ideally Duke would defensive rebound by a committee of Parker, Jefferson, Rodney Hood and Rasheed Sulaimon, but that has yet to be the case. A second strong glass-cleaner needs to emerge for them to be a true title contender.

Next three: 11/15 vs. Florida Atlantic, 11/18 vs. UNC-Asheville (NIT Season Tip-Off), 11/19 vs. East Carolina/Norfolk State (NIT)

 
6Michigan Wolverines
Last Week: 6
A trend worth tracking: Will Nik Stauskas continue to be a more attack-minded wing as a sophomore, or will he fall back into a "designated three-point sharpshooter" role when the Wolverines face tougher competition?

Through Michigan's first 10 games last season, Stauskas had 46 three-point attempts and 26 free-throw attempts (a 1.8-to-1 ratio). For his full freshman season he had 182 long-range attempts and 87 free throws (a 2.1 ratio).

But in two 2013-14 games against cream-puffs UMass-Lowell and South Carolina State, Stauskas has been taking advantage of the new freedom-of-movement rules and generating more trips to the line. He's attempted nine treys and 16 free throws (a 0.6 ratio). The more work he does off the bounce, the more cautious defenders will have to be on closing out on his perimeter catches.

Next three: 11/17 at Iowa State, 11/21 vs. Long Beach State (Puerto Rico Tip-Off), 11/22 vs. TBD (Puerto Rico Tip-Off)

 
7Oklahoma State Sooners
Last Week: 10
On the night everyone was paying attention to Parker, Wiggins and Randle in Chicago, player of the year candidate Marcus Smart was giving a tutorial in the art of the steal in Stillwater. In what was the the greatest early season act of turnover creation since VCU's Briante Weber had 10 steals in 18 minutes against Florida Gulf Coast last November, Smart had nine steals in 25 minutes in a rout of Utah Valley. They were a diversified lot, too, mixed between traditional pocket-pickings, intercepts as a back-line zone defender and intercepts as a front-line, full-court presser.

(Images source: Fox Sports Oklahoma)

Next three: 11/15 vs. Arkansas-Pine Bluff, 11/19 vs. Memphis, 11/25 at South Florida

 
8Ohio State Buckeyes
Last Week: 7
In this, the season of the 102-free throw game, we might as well hold a contest to celebrate the new rules: Which player can generate the most attempts from the stripe in one game? The NCAA record is 31, by Pistol Pete Maravich, and while that may be safe, six players -- including Buckeyes point guard Aaron Craft -- have already attempted 18 or more. Seton Hall's Sterling Gibbs is the early leader with 23. The full top 10, through Tuesday's games, is here:

(Anyone wanting to crack this list better do so ASAP, before teams adjust to the tighter refereeing, or refs get tired of blowing so many whistles.)

Next three: 11/16 at Marquette, 11/20 vs. American, 11/25 vs. Wyoming

 
9Arizona Wildcats
Last Week: 9
Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell has been taking a smart approach to ingratiating himself as Arizona's new point guard: by hardly taking any shots. McConnell has played 59 minutes in two games, and put up just seven shots while dishing out 14 assists.

If McConnell keeps this up, he could be the rare point guard who attempts less than 10 percent of his team's shots while he's on the floor. He's at 9.5 percent thus far, which makes him the anti-Mark Lyons. Lyons transferred from Xavier last season, became Arizona's starting point guard and put up a team-high 27.9 percent of its shots. The only Wildcat who'll come close to (or maybe even surpass) that level this season is freshman Aaron Gordon.

Next three: 11/14 at San Diego State, 11/18 vs. Fairleigh Dickinson (NIT Season Tip-Off), 11/19 vs. Rhode Island/Metro State (NIT)

 
10Syracuse Orange
Last Week: 13
After serving a frivolous one-game suspension for playing one game in a Washington D.C. summer league, Jerami Grant made his debut against Fordham on Tuesday and looked very much like a sophomore on the verge of a breakout season. He scored 16 points and grabbed 10 rebounds (including seven offensive!) in 27 minutes off the bench against Fordham. If Grant continues to serve as Syracuse's sixth man, he'll follow follow in the esteemed footsteps of James Southerland (2012-13), Dion Waiters ('11-12), C.J. Fair ('10-11) and Kris Joseph ('09-10). And like Waiters, Grant could be the rare non-freshman sixth man who jumps straight into the first round of the NBA Draft. In the new 2014 mock that DraftExpress released this week, Grant is slotted at No. 29 overall.

Next three: 11/16 vs. Colgate, 11/18 vs. Saint Francis N.Y., 11/25 vs. Minnesota (Maui Invitational)

 
11VCU Rams
Last Week: Not Ranked
My biggest preseason rankings mistake was underestimating how good the Rams would be despite losing Darius Theus and Troy Daniels. The new rules don't seem to be restricting Havoc's turnover-forcing abilities, as VCU's defensive turnover percentage through two games is 27.3 -- exactly the same as it was in 2012 and nearly what it was in 2013. Tuesday's win at Virginia is the season's most stock-boosting victory outside of Michigan State's work in the Champions Classic ... and it featured this delirious radio call (from Robby Robinson and Michael Litos) after Treveon Graham's last-second dagger:

As chaotic as that one is, this Ram Radio clip from the end of their 2011 Sweet 16 upset of Florida State is far better. BLOCKED! BLOCKED! BLOCKED!

Next three: 11/16 vs. Winthrop, 11/21 vs. Florida State (Puerto Rico Tip-Off), 11/22 TBD (Puerto Rico Tip-Off)

 
12Oregon Ducks
Last Week: NR
When it comes to seamless integration of immediately eligible transfers, nobody beats Ducks coach Dana Altman. He did it last year with forward Arsalan Kazemi, who received a waiver from the NCAA due to alleged racial discrimination at Rice, and was the defensive force behind their trip to the Sweet 16. Altman tripled his efforts this season, landing UNLV's Mike Moser and Detroit's Jason Calliste as graduate transfers and Houston's Joseph Young as a waiver transfer following his father's departure from the Cougars' basketball staff. Young's waiver case was no lock, and getting him eligible immediately was a major victory for Oregon, as he's emerged as one of the nation's scoring stars (with 24 against Georgetown and 36 against Western Carolina). The attacking, 6-2 guard is one of the early winners of the freedom-of-movement movement, as he's averaging 14 free throw attempts per game.

Next three: 11/19 vs. Utah Valley, 11/24 vs. San Francisco, 11/29 vs. Pacific (Global Sports Classic)

 
13Connecticut Huskies
Last Week: 14
Shabazz Napier's triple-double against Yale on Monday is a reason to be excited about the Huskies. He looks capable of playing at an All-America level and leading them back to the NCAA tournament. The fact that Napier is the best offensive and defensive rebounder (by percentage) in UConn's starting lineup is a cause for alarm, though. DeAndre Daniels, the 6-9 forward the Huskies need to crash the glass, has just three rebounds (all defensive) in 50 minutes; and 7-foot freshman Amida Brimah, while a promising shot blocker, has just four rebounds (one offensive) in 39 minutes. Things could get ugly when Florida's frontcourt comes to visit on Dec. 2.

Next three: 11/14 vs. Detroit, 11/17 vs. Boston, 11/21 vs. Boston College (2K Sports Classic)

 
14Wisconsin Badgers
Last Week: 16
While we're on the topic of guards outrebounding frontcourts, the Badgers are in a similar (albeit much less dire) situation. Starting guards Treveon Jackson, Ben Brust and Josh Gasser have combined for 33 rebounds in wins over St. John's and Florida, while their top three forwards, Sam Dekker, Frank Kaminsky and Duje Dukan, have combined for 21 boards. Wisconsin has long been a proponent of inversion in the swing offense, and now it's also inverting backcourt/frontcourt roles on the glass. It has yet to be a problem, though, as UW is the only team in the Power Rankings that already has two victories over potential NCAA tournament teams. With the potential champs of the Horizon League (Green Bay), Southland Conference (Oral Roberts), OVC (Eastern Kentucky), Atlantic 10 (St. Louis) and Big East (Marquette) left on their non-conference schedule, plus a trip to Virginia, the Badgers have the chance to build a legit NCAA tournament resume before the New Year.

Next three: 11/16 at Green Bay, 11/19 vs. North Dakota, 11/21 vs. Bowling Green

 
15Memphis Tigers
Last Week: 15
Oregon's Joseph Young, Georgetown's Josh Smith, Duke's Rodney Hood and Missouri's Jordan Clarkson are the best transfers we've already seen play ... but 2013-14's highest-impact transfer may be the one who has yet to make his debut: the Tigers' Michael Dixon Jr., who was arguably the best guard on Missouri's No. 2-seeded team in 2012 (despite coming off the bench). He's good enough to keep an established crew of Memphis guards -- seniors Joe Jackson, Geron Johnson and Chris Crawford -- in auxiliary roles, and good enough to challenge Louisville's Russ Smith and UConn's Shabazz Napier for title of best scoring guard in the AAC. Dixon projects to be the focal point of an offense that desperately needed help. Memphis had an elite defense last season, but finished 96th last season in scoring efficiency and bowed out in the third round of the NCAAs.

Next three: 11/14 vs. Austin Peay, 11/19 at Oklahoma State, 11/23 vs. Nicholls State

 
16Creighton Bluejays
Last Week: NR
New goal for Doug McDermott this season: average more than one point per minute played. It's an impossible pace to maintain, but through two games McDermott has 57 points in 51 minutes. He's doing it by taking 45.5 percent of the Bluejays' shots while he's on the floor -- the most of any major-conference player, with Louisville's Russ Smith coming in second at 41 percent.

In a conversation with McDermott and teammate Grant Gibbs for the college hoops preview issue, I brought up the fact that McDermott had actually taken a higher percentage of shots than Smith last season, too. This was a surprise to them.  "Maybe the way Russ plays is just a little more loud," McDermott said. "I'm not putting it on the floor, shaking dudes. That's just weird to think about." Gibbs then made the point that McDermott often scores while holding the ball for less than a second. It's perhaps best to describe him as a quiet scorer with loud numbers.

Next three: 11/16 at St. Joe's, 11/23 vs. Tulsa, 11/28 vs. Arizona State (Wooden Legacy)

 

The Next 16: Suspension Purgatory: North Carolina, 17. Florida, 18. New Mexico, 19. Gonzaga, 20. Marquette, 21. Virginia, 22. Boise State, 23. UCLA, 24. Notre Dame, 25. Iowa, 26. Pittsburgh, 27. Wichita State, 28. BYU, 29. Baylor, 30. Georgetown, 31. St. Louis, 32. Arizona State

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