With a month of the season in the books, trends have begun to gain some statistical legitimacy. With the help of KenPom.com, here are five questions that have emerged, and what the data is starting to tell us.
Can North Carolina score consistently?
This has been something I and other hoops writers on Twitter have wondered since the earliest part of the season, and right now the answer appears to be no.
The Tar Heels have been living off offensive rebounds in the early part of the season. Their three poorest offensive performances -- in losses to Butler and Indiana and a win over East Tennessee State -- came in games in which the Heels grabbed 30 percent or fewer available offensive rebounds. Compounding their inability to score on initial possessions is their extremely low free throw rate. Right now, only two teams in the country get to the line with less frequency than the Heels (in terms of FTAs per FGA).
They're shooting the 3 at a decent rate, but they're well below normal North Carolina standards in terms of 2-point field goal percentage, a byproduct of the lineup they're rolling with this season. They have a freshman point guard (Marcus Paige) who is still learning on the job and their main frontcourt scoring threat (James Michael McAdoo) is converting less than 50 percent of his 2-point attempts, a poor rate for an athletic frontcourt player.
As inexperienced players settle into their roles, there may be some modest improvement, but preseason fears over a lopsided lineup with very little frontcourt pop and a rookie point guard seem to have been founded.
Could UNLV be better without Mike Moser?
On the surface, it seems like sacrilege and the answer over the long run is "probably not," but it's worth exploring. The arrival of Khem Birch on Dec. 17 was going to create some tough lineup and rotation decisions, and for the time being, the Moser-less roster seems to fit more easily into the roles that work best in Dave Rice's system.
The irony of this is it probably will provide minutes for UNLV's guards, and their shooting (or lack thereof) has been the major issue for the Rebels' offense this season. Rice continues to try to figure out his backcourt, with every combination having certain drawbacks. Overall, the Rebels need Katin Reinhardt and Bryce Dejean-Jones to take (and make) a good number of jump shots, but they haven't been doing it consistently enough, and the small doses of them on the court together, with Reinhardt replacing Anthony Marshall at the 1, has been a mess.
Rice's preferred alignment is one post, three wings and a point guard. The anticipated logjam in the frontcourt once Birch becomes eligible was going to push Moser to play a good number of minutes at the 3. That would leave UNLV short of shooters, and potentially short of players who can get the ball to the bigs in spots where they can be productive.
Now, Rice can use Savon Goodman more at the 3, or go with three of his four guards in concert with Anthony Bennett (who can step out a bit and face up, as needed) and one of the big men in the post. They will miss Moser's rebounding, defensive flexibility and ball-handling for a big, but the whole rotation may end up working better in the short term. Then decisions can be made if and when he's healthy.
Is Illinois for real?
Well, the Illini will be if they can sustain anything close to their current rate and frequency of 3-point shooting. According to KenPom.com, Illinois currently takes the ninth-most 3s (by percentage of total shots) in the nation and is making a searing 40.9 percent of them, which is the 10th best team rate in the land. They don't turn the ball over much, they don't shoot a ton of 2s and they don't get to the line very much. It's a very one-dimensional attack at the moment.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of signs (and history) that suggest this kind of offense isn't sustainable. Every significant 3-point shooter, save for Tracy Abrams, is well above last year's 3-point success rate. (Sidebar: How can a 6-foot-1 guard be 19-69 over a season and change from 3?) The Illini are one of the lowest assist-rate teams in the nation, meaning a lot of their offense is coming self-created off the dribble. There are 46 teams in Division I shooting at least 40 percent from 3, and Illinois has the lowest assist rate of any of them.
Understanding John Groce has better talent at his disposal here than he did at Ohio, this team is straying away from a pretty consistent footprint his Ohio teams had. Assuming a bit of a regression to the mean for the players and for the team vis a vis the coach's established style, and the offense should cool off a bit. Illinois is playing well enough defensively for now to absorb some of that decline, but we'll see how well the Illini can get away with this come league play, where there are very few soft spots.
Is Michigan for real?
Offensively, yes. Defensively, maybe no, but we'll see.
So far this season, the Wolverines have been humming offensively. They have scored at least 1.10 points per possession in every game this season, and the last seven games have all been played between 61 and 64 possessions, so they have found a tempo they like, as well. The addition of freshmen Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas has provided a massive boost to an offense that was solid last year but lost some key perimeter parts. They have a quality point guard in Trey Burke, enough solid shooters to help Stauskas from the outside, and even are hitting the offensive glass better than expected.
Robinson's emergence has helped make the Wolverines less 3-point dependent than most Beilein teams, and that's a good thing. They're getting a lot more easy baskets inside the arc, which is a much more consistent way to play good offense. Then again, if they can get shots for Stauskas, why not. He's shooting a scorching 23-for-38 from 3-point range (in addition to 90 percent from the line).
Defensively, there's some room for concern, though. Michigan currently is living off a totally unsustainable combination of defensive rebounding rate (currently No. 4 in Division I at 77 percent) and not putting opponents on the line (No. 3 in free throw rate). Even with that combo, the Wolverines are "only" 25th in the country in overall adjusted defensive efficiency. In laymen's terms, that means they're not stopping people all that well on initial shot attempts.
Beilein's teams normally are very disciplined in terms of not giving opponents free throws, so perhaps that will hold, even with three freshmen getting significant rotation minutes. It's hard to believe the defensive rebounding rate will hold, though. If that doesn't, then Michigan's not-great base defense will get exposed more than it has been. There are some very good offensive teams in the Big Ten that should test the Wolverines on this side of the ball. How they answer those questions will be very telling.
Florida is shredding everybody. How?
It's a great question that I look forward to having a better answer to after I see the Gators at Arizona on Saturday.
On offense, after losing Bradley Beal and Erving Walker from last season's team, they have cobbled together a more balanced offensive distribution. The biggest thing to me is that notorious gunners Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario have really evened out their shot distribution from last season. Boynton took almost twice as many 3s last season as 2s or free throws and he's rather close to a 1:1 ratio across the board so far this season. Rosario actually has taken 10 more 2s than 3s.
Is this the impact of subbing in pass-first point guard Scottie Wilbekin for Walker, who himself took 340 shots and another 135 free throws last season? If it is, it's also allowing stretch 4 Erik Murphy to rise to primary scoring threat level. He's easily the Gators' best perimeter shooter, and now contributes shot-wise on par with the two heavy-shot taking guards. Mix in a heavier dose of Will Yeguete this season, and the Gators have a nice inside-outside mix working.
Defensively, they have morphed into a destructive, dominant unit. They're turning opponents over at a crazy rate and, when opponents do manage to get a shot off, the Gators are No. 1 in the nation in 2-point field goal percentage defense. No one is scoring on them, and Florida has played some fairly credible teams. Can the insertion of Wilbekin and freshman Michael Frazier be that impactful? Florida's certainly bigger in the backcourt than it was last season, and maybe that's helping them with the increased amount of zone they are playing this season (as detailed in Luke Winn's Power Rankings).