The New Year’s Eve edition of the Power Rankings looks at a surprisingly good thing* about each team from 2015, and whether it’s sustainable:
(*These things vary in their degree of surprising-ness, and certain all-knowing fans will not view these as surprises at all, in part because it’s the habit of such fans to claim that their insider-ness allows them to see everything coming, but in the context of SI’s preseason projections and previous seasons’ data, they do qualify as surprisingly good things.)
11Oklahoma Soonerslast week: 2record: 11–0
The early surprise: That three of Oklahoma’s core long-range shooters—guards Buddy Hield and Jordan Woodard, and forward Ryan Spangler—have three-point percentages well above their previous career stats. Hield and Woodard are making more than half of their treys despite career percentages in the 30s:
Is it sustainable? Coming into this season, Hield had 572 three-point attempts that suggested he was a 35.3% shooter, so I expect him to regress towards that mark in the second half. Woodard’s move to a more off-ball role is helping him get better looks than he did in the past, so he might be able to keep this up, while Spangler didn’t have much long-range data available (just 44 attempts), so his case is harder to call.
22Kansas Jayhawkslast week: 3record: 11–1
The early surprise: How well Kansas is taking care of the ball on offense. The Jayhawks have committed turnovers on just 13.8% of possessions in games against kenpom.com top-100 opponents, compared to 19.5% of possessions against top-100 opponents last season. Their core playmaking trio of point guards Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham and power forward Perry Ellis has been impressively sure-handed: On only three occasions has one of them committed three or more TOs in a game.
Is it sustainable? The Jayhawks have made some stylistic changes—capitalizing on more quality catch-and-shoot opportunities from long-range, and cutting down on silly, driving turnovers—that should keep their TO% from rising too much when they start facing tough, Big 12 defenses.
Next up: 1/2 vs. Baylor, 1/4 vs. Oklahoma
33Virginia Cavalierslast week: 7record: 11–1
The early surprise: That the Cavaliers have become an offensive, rather than defensive, powerhouse. I’ve said as much in prior pieces: Virginia lacks a rim protector inside or an exceptional shot-bothering, ball-pressuring defender on the perimeter, but what it does have—especially when it goes with its small lineup of London Perrantes, Darius Thompson, Malcolm Brogdon, Isaiah Wilkins and Anthony Gill at the 1-5 spots, respectively—is a super-efficient offense. For the first time in the Tony Bennett era, the Cavs rank higher in adjusted offensive efficiency (2nd) than they do in D (18th), and I find myself marveling more at their offensive sets than their long, ground-out defensive possessions. One prime example: the gorgeous “Elevator Doors” play they ran for their penultimate overtime three in a comeback win over Cal on Dec. 22:
Is it sustainable? Sure. The Cavs have scored effectively against four top-40 defenses and six top-100 defenses already, and aside from Louisville, they aren’t going to face any elite defenses in ACC play.
4last week: 1record: 13–1
The early surprise: That senior Denzel Valentine has been able to take on a bigger role in everything from scoring, to playmaking, to rebounding ... and be a more efficient offensive player than he was as a junior. (This is not normal. When Steph Curry had to come Davidson’s primary assist guy in addition to its high-usage scorer as a senior, even his efficiency dropped a bit.)
(Chart data sources: DraftExpress.com and kenpom.com)
Is it sustainable? As long as Valentine recovers from arthroscopic surgery on his left knee—and he’s expected to be fine in a week—I don’t see why not. He’s played well in six games against top-100 competition and the Big Ten is not as strong, defensively, as it has been in past years.
55Xavier Musketeerslast week: 11record: 12–0
The early surprise: The extent to which Xavier is dominating the glass. Last season, the Musketeers ranked 158th in offensive rebounding percentage and 35th in defensive board percentage; this season, they’re up to 16th in OReb% and third in DReb%. The surge began with them elevating 6'10" junior Jalen Reynolds into a starting role as well as giving more minutes to 6'10" senior rebounding machine James Farr. High-level rebounding from guards Trevon Bluiett and (of late) Edmond Sumner has pushed Xavier from good to elite.
(Chart data source: kenpom.com)
Is it sustainable? The Musketeers look like they’re for real. Their defense is structured to control the glass, and with Reynolds & Farr dividing up the center minutes, they always have an elite offensive rebounder on the floor.
6last week: 9record: 12–2
The early surprise: That Justin Jackson has proved he can be a key component of the nation’s No. 1 offense without making threes. The lack of a consistent long-range shot seemed to hold the 6'8" small forward back as a freshman. He’s only made 26.1% of his treys as a sophomore ... but he’s providing major value as a low-turnover playmaker—especially out of wing pick-and-rolls—and a smart finisher around the basket. Jackson’s assist-to-turnover ratio is up from 1.7-to-1 as a freshman to 2.6-to-1 as a sophomore, and he’s assisting on a similar percentage of his teammates’ baskets (19.9) as Marcus Paige is (20.2).
Is it sustainable? As long as Jackson keeps running 3-4 pick-and-rolls with Brice Johnson, who’s a great roll man and finisher ... and as long as the Tar Heels’ guards pick up Jackson’s three-point slack, he’ll remain an asset.
77Maryland Terrapinslast week: 4record: 12–1
The early surprise: That the Terrapins are getting quality offense out of the post. This isn’t a huge surprise—Diamond Stone, Robert Carter and Jake Layman were expected to comprise one of the nation’s better frontcourts—but having quality bigs doesn’t guarantee you’ll have efficient post possessions. Just one major-conference team, Xavier, scored more than 1.00 PPP on post-ups last season, and Maryland managed just 0.75 PPP in those situations. This season, the Terps are up to 1.02 PPP:
(Chart data source: Synergy Sports Technology)
Is it sustainable? Yes. Stone, the five-star freshman, is just hitting his stride, and the Terps have four different players scoring at least 1.00 PPP in the post: Stone, Carter, Michal Cekovsky and Jake Layman.
88Miami (FL) Hurricaneslast week: 12record: 11–1
The early surprise: That the ‘Canes are generating 27.0 points per 100 possessions from the free-throw line*, a big step up from the 21.9 points/100 possessions they scored from the stripe last season. Their top five in minutes played (Sheldon McClellan, Tonye Jekiri, Angel Rodriguez, Davon Reed and Ja’Quan Newton) are all shooting better than 73% from the line and drawing fouls at an impressive clip.
(*Chart data source: TeamRankings.com)
Is it sustainable? The Hurricanes’ free-throw accuracy is in line with most of their career numbers. But I doubt that they can keep drawing fouls at this rate; they’ve faced just one team that’s in the top 50 in defensive efficiency, and the ACC has quite a few teams that excel at foul-avoidance.
Next up: 1/2 vs. Syracuse, 1/9 vs. Florida State
99Butler Bulldogslast week: 18record: 11–1
The early surprise: Better ball movement, higher-quality looks, fewer turnovers: the Bulldogs have gone from ranking 82nd in adjusted offensive efficiency in ‘14–15 to seventh this season. The addition of NC State transfer Tyler Lewis, a pass-first point guard with a 3.7-to-1 assist-turnover ratio, has helped, and Butler’s point-linebacker, Roosevelt Jones, has improved his shot selection and cut down on his mistakes, upping his assist-TO ratio from 1.4–1 last season to 2.8–1 in ‘15–16. Butler’s big men have benefited from having multiple playmakers on the floor, as starting forwards Andrew Chrabascz and Tyler Wideman are shooting a combined 65.3% from inside the arc.
Is it sustainable? The Bulldogs have inflated their two-point percentage and kept their TO% down against some suspect defenses (six of their opponents have been outside the top 200 in defensive efficiency), so they’re likely to experience some regression. But they’ve also put up big offensive numbers while their primary marksman, senior Kellen Dunham, has been in a deep freeze, shooting 2-of-27 from long range over his past four games. They have enough efficient options to weather individual slumps.
Next up: 12/31 vs. Providence, 1/2 at Xavier
1010Purdue Boilermakerslast week: 10record: 13–1
The early surprise: That the Boilers are leading the nation in defensive efficiency, having held 10 of their 14 opponents to less than 0.90 PPP. They’re protecting the rim with a two-headed, 14-foot center (the 7'2" Isaac Haas and 7-foot A.J. Hammons), forcing opponents to take plenty of bad two-point attempts, and limiting offensive boards. This is coach Matt Painter’s best defense at Purdue since the ‘09–10 team that tied for the Big Ten regular season title and was anchored by Chris Kramer and three future NBA players in E’Twaun Moore, JaJuan Johnson and Robbie Hummel.
Is it sustainable? Can the Boilers keep holding opponents to a ridiculous 37.0% on twos? Highly unlikely. But they’re excelling at things—interior D, rebounding, whistle-avoidance—that aren’t based on luck. Plus, they have great depth, which gives them flexibility to adjust to opponents and foul trouble. This looks like a defense that can stick in the top five nationally.
1111Iowa State Cycloneslast week: 5record: 11–1
The early surprise: That the Cyclones have shown a strong commitment to the running game under new coach Steve Prohm, who was more of a mid-tempo coach at Murray State. Synergy Sports Technology classifies 24.1% of Iowa State’s offensive possessions as happening in transition this season; ISU’s transition rate in ‘14–15 was 21.9%, and its average over Fred Hoiberg's final four seasons was 16.1%. It also has the nation’s fifth-shortest average offensive possession length, according to kenpom.com.
Is it sustainable? The Big 12 has some excellent defenses that will try to temper the Cyclones’ running game, but they should remain one of the nation’s fastest offenses. They don’t give any minutes to lumbering big men—“center” Jameel McKay runs as well as most guards—and floor general Monte Morris is hard-wired to push the ball after opponents’ missed shots.
Next up: 1/2 at Oklahoma, 1/6 vs. Texas Tech
1212Kentucky Wildcatslast week: 6record: 10–2
The early surprise: Expectations were so high for Kentucky that most of the discussion around this team is about what hasn’t gone well—Skal Labissiere not making an impact against high-level competition, Jamal Murray not scoring efficiently enough to justify using a huge share of possessions, and Tyler Ulis going cold from long range. But there have been some surprises, namely that the Wildcats’ veteran big men have been impressive after either toiling in small bench roles for two years (Marcus Lee) or recovering from multiple knee injuries (Alex Poythress). Lee has been productive in expanded minutes, giving UK the rebounder/shot-blocker/dunker that it needs at the five-spot, and Poythress has emerged as one of the country’s best veteran role players, scoring efficiently around the rim, rarely committing turnovers, serving as the team’s best defensive rebounder and a versatile, inside-outside defender.
Is it sustainable? Lee’s advanced stats in short spurts as a freshman and sophomore suggested he was capable of this, so I don’t think it’s a fluke. Poythress has always had the potential, but lacked the consistency; I suspect he’ll have a number of excellent games (like how he played against Louisville) mixed in with some flops (like how he played against UCLA.)
Next up: 1/2 vs. Mississippi, 1/5 at LSU
1313Duke Blue Devilslast week: 8record: 11–2
The early surprise: That Grayson Allen is a legitimate Naismith/Wooden Award candidate. I thought Allen’s ceiling as a sophomore might be as a second-team All-American, but he’s been such an efficient, high-usage scorer (with a 131.6 ORating on 25.4% usage) that he’s in the NPOY mix, in the tier directly after Valentine, Hield and Providence’s Kris Dunn. Allen has already had three 30-plus point games, and shown a remarkable ability to avoid turnovers despite making frequent, aggressive drives to the basket.
Is it sustainable? Allen can score in a variety of ways (basket attacks, pull-ups, threes off the dribble, threes off the catch) and needs to remain Duke’s go-to scorer. That he struggled mightily against the Blue Devils’ two strongest opponents, Kentucky and Utah, however, could be a sign that he won’t be able to maintain an elite level of efficiency through the ACC schedule.
1414Providence Friarslast week: 14record: 12–1
The early surprise: That 6'9" forward Ben Bentil has gone from a relative nobody as a freshman—a 21.5 minutes and 6.5 points per game role player whose only strong attribute was offensive rebounding—to an All-Big East level player as a sophomore. He’s taking a higher percentage of the Friars’ shots than Dunn is, scoring more efficiently than Dunn is, and already has seven 20-plus point games and three double-doubles. There was no human or statistical forecast that saw Bentil averaging 18.8 points and 8.0 boards in his second college season.
Next up: 12/31 at Butler, 1/2 vs. St. John’s
1515Arizona Wildcatslast week: 15record: 12–1
The early surprise: That juco transfer Kadeem Allen has clearly established himself as the Wildcats’ starting point guard. Allen redshirted in ‘14–15 after he couldn’t crack Arizona’s guard rotation, but he outplayed sophomore Parker Jackson-Cartwright this preseason, and Allen’s perimeter defense has been an essential complement to the offensively minded Gabe York and Alonzo Trier. The physical, 6'3" Allen is leading the Wildcats in steal percentage, and has the highest block and defensive rebounding percentage of any of their guards. He’s endeared himself to coach Sean Miller by being a reliably active defender.
Is it sustainable? Allen has the size, athleticism and drive to keep making a defensive impact against Pac-12 opponents. His offensive inconsistency—he’s had some abysmal games on that end, particularly against Gonzaga, Missouri and Providence—is a cause for concern, though, and could open the door for Jackson-Cartwright to earn more minutes in the latter half the season.
Next up: 1/3 at Arizona State, 1/7 at UCLA
1616SMU Mustangslast week: 20record: 12–0
The early surprise: That Texas Tech transfer Jordan Tolbert is making such a positive impact on SMU’s offense. The 6'7" Tolbert was a merely decent role player in the Big 12 two seasons ago; after bulking up to 240 pounds, he’s owning the offensive glass for the Mustangs, with the nation’s third-highest OReb% (19.9). He and 6'8" Ben Moore comprise one of the country’s best rebounding front lines.
Is it sustainable? SMU is not going to continue rebounding 44.0% of its missed shots; there hasn’t been a team from a multi-bid conference with a season OReb% that high in the 14 years kenpom.com has been tracking that stat. But Tolbert is a high-activity forward who’s found a nice, complementary role to go-to-scorer Nic Moore, and as long as the Mustangs keep taking large amounts of two-point shots, there will be plenty of short-range rebounding opportunities.
The Next 16
19. West Virginia
20. Texas A&M
26. South Carolina
32. George Washington