Arizona and Syracuse have separated themselves from the pack just a bit nationally, with both of them undefeated heading into the final week of January.
After that, a handful of teams could lay claim to the title of third-best team in the country. Wichita State is also undefeated, but the Shockers' best wins are at St. Louis and on a neutral court against BYU. Michigan State is 4-0 against teams ranked in the top 20 in RPI, but injuries to Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson have clouded the Spartans' outlook. Villanova owns wins over Kansas and Iowa, but lost to Creighton by 28 at home.
And then there's Florida, a team that, like the most dangerous gators in the swamp, still manages to lay in the weeds. That might not be the case for much longer.
Florida held Tennessee to 26.8 percent shooting -- including 1-of-19 from behind the arc -- in a 67-41 win in Gainesville. Fla., on Saturday. The Gators are now 6-0 in the SEC and will surely see their No. 15 adjusted defense ranking on KenPom.com rise on Sunday morning. They've allowed more than 62 points just once since Christmas, and that was in an overtime win over Arkansas in which Casey Prather sat due to injury and they surrendered 66 points in regulation. For all the deserved praise heaped on the defenses employed by Sean Miller at Arizona and Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, Billy Donovan's bunch is playing just as well on the defensive side of the ball as any legitimate title contender.
What is it that the Gators do so well defensively? First, they generally force their opponents into tough two-point shots. Teams have shot 41.4 percent on two-pointers against Florida this season, which ranks ninth-best in the country. Second, they take the ball away with aplomb, forcing turnovers on 21.9 percent of their opponents' possessions. In other words, they don't allow many easy buckets, and create transition opportunities for themselves by turning over their opponents on a regular basis.
Don't forget, too, that this team was short-handed for most of the first six weeks of the season. Their efficiency numbers would no doubt look even better if Scottie Wilbekin, Dorian Finney-Smith and Kasey Hill hadn't missed a number of games due to a combination of suspensions and injuries. Finney-Smith is the team's best defensive rebounder, posting a defensive-rebounding percentage of 20.2, good for fifth in the SEC. Wilbekin and Hill, meanwhile, both rank in the top 10 in the conference in steal percentage. The Gators' two losses this season were at Wisconsin and at Connecticut. Wilbekin and Finney-Smith both missed the loss in Madison, while Hill was out against the Huskies, a game the Gators lost on a buzzer-beater by Shabazz Napier.
Given the overall weakness of the SEC, the Gators have an inside track to be on the No. 2 seed line at worst in the NCAA Tournament. At the same time, that weakness may not afford them enough of a chance to rise up to a top seed by Selection Sunday. One way they can open some eyes? Beat Kentucky in Lexington on Feb. 15. So long as they bring their defense, they'll have a great chance to slow down the Wildcats. That could put them at the top of the second tier of contenders behind Arizona and Syracuse.
Dayton’s bubble continues to slowly deflate
There was no doubt heading into the season that the Atlantic 10 would be one of the toughest mid-major conferences. Saint Louis and Virginia Commonwealth were already relevant nationally, and Massachusetts looked as though it had finally reloaded. That’s why it was imperative for second-tier teams in the conference, like Dayton, to get out to strong starts.
The Flyers did just that, going 12-3 in non-conference play with wins over Gonzaga and California, and a one-point loss to Baylor. Unfortunately for the Flyers, the wheels have come off since conference play began. They’ve lost to Saint Louis and VCU at home, and after falling to Rhode Island, a team that was 10-10 overall heading into Saturday’s contest, they're now 1-4 in the conference and face a serious uphill battle if they are to earn a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
It has all gone wrong for Dayton on defense. They’ve allowed an average of 75.2 points in their five A-10 games. In its last two games, losses to VCU on Wednesday and URI on Saturday, its opponents shot a combined 55 percent from the floor. The A-10 is one of the best defensive conferences, top to bottom in the country. Five of the 13 teams in the conference are in the top 50 in defensive efficiency according to Ken Pomeroy, including top-ranked Saint Louis. Dayton ranks 180th, ahead of just Fordham and Duquesne among A-10 teams.
The good news for the Flyers is they have a chance to get back on track in the next month or so. They host St. Joe’s and George Washington next week, and a win over the Colonials would be one that would go on the tournament resume. After that, they visit George Mason and St. Bonaventure before returning home for games against Rhode Island and LaSalle. If they can go 5-1 in those games, they can get themselves right back into the tourney picture.
Ole Miss cruises, gets revenge on Mississippi State
Ole Miss is now 5-1 in the conference, tied with Kentucky for second and just behind Florida. Despite that, the Rebels cannot point to one impressive win on their resume. They’re 0-2 against teams in the top 50 in RPI and 1-4 against the top 100, with the lone win coming at home against LSU. What’s more, Mississippi State, which beat them in Starkville, is 126th in RPI.
So, no, Saturday’s win over the Bulldogs doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things. If the Rebels are going to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season, they will have to beat one of the big boys in the SEC. They’ll get their first opportunity to do so at Kentucky on Feb. 4. They’ll need a much better, and perhaps more measured, performance from Marshall Henderson if they’re eventually going to upend Kentucky or Florida. Henderson scored 19 points Saturday, but he was 2-of-12 from three-point land, the sixth time this year he missed at least 10 shots from behind the arc in a single game. That sort of inefficiency and usage rate simply isn’t going to cut it against legitimate competition. The Rebels can get away with it against most of the teams in the downtrodden SEC, but not against the ones that actually matter.