Is it premature to anoint Syracuse as the country's best team, in the wake of Kentucky's one-day-and-done run at No. 1? Not here, at least ...
Last Week: 2
Syracuse Orange (20-1)I'm usually loath to explain why teams are ranked in what order -- it's just too boring -- but this week it's necessary to justify why the Orange are the Power Rankings' new No. 1. The Associated Press and coaches' poll voters have Syracuse third behind Kansas and Villanova, so it seems the 'Cuse is the team least likely to be atop Monday's polls. Here's what separates the Orange from the nation's other one-loss teams (other than, of course, that Retro Plaid Jim Boeheim is the best cardboard cutout I've seen all year):
• Save for its loss to Pitt, Syracuse has played exceptionally well in games against potential NCAA tournament teams, rather than just scraping out victories. The Orange beat Cal by 22, North Carolina by 16, Cornell (the team that nearly knocked off Kansas) by 15, Memphis (another team that nearly upset KU) by 17, Florida by 12, Georgetown by 17 -- and in their marquee road game, held a double-digit lead over West Virginia before giving up a late run and winning by one. The Orange have been the most consistently impressive team on big stages, and that bodes well for their NCAA-title chances.
• Syracuse has a slightly better resume of true- and semi-road wins -- at tourney-bound West Virginia and Florida (in Tampa), as well as at Seton Hall and Notre Dame. Kansas' road-win resume only includes one team in SI.com's projected bracket (Temple), and so does Villanova's (Maryland).
Next three: 1/30 at DePaul, 2/2 vs. Providence, 2/7 at Cincinnati
Last Week: 3
Kansas Jayhawks (19-1)Kentucky has had more star power in its orbit than any other team this year -- Barack Obama, LeBron James, Drake, Ashley Judd, whoever's in Cougar Town. But Kansas can claim a HUGE name that the Wildcats can't: Eddie Money. He sang the national anthem before the Jayhawks' rout of Missouri on Monday -- ad-libbing the line "I love my country!" in the middle of the tune -- and then was caught in this ESPN screenshot, adjusting his toupee while sitting directly behind Bob Knight. Mr. Money also came on the Jayhawks' radio network and talked about betting lines as well as the hotness of KU coeds. Sez Eddie: "My son goes to junior college. I wish he was here today to see how beautiful the girls are who go to school in the Midwest. I've been to UCLA, all over the place. The prettiest girls in the country are right here."
Alert Rivals and Scout.com: We know the identity of KU's next big-time juco recruit!
On a different, basketball note: While we were obsessing about North Carolina earlier this week, I had the thought that the '09-10 Jayhawks might just be following the same path as the '08-09 Tar Heels -- stumbling in early January, causing people to lose confidence in them as a national title lock, then correcting themselves down the stretch and steamrolling their way to a title. UNC's slip-ups came on these two dates:
Jan. 4, 2009: 85-78 home loss to Boston College.
Jan. 11, 2009: 92-89 road loss to Wake Forest.
Kansas' slip-ups (or near slip-ups) came on these two dates:
Jan. 6, 2010: 71-66 home win over Cornell.
Jan. 10, 2010: 76-68 road loss to Tennessee.
After their Wake loss, the Heels went 20-2 the rest of the way. Might KU, now that Cole Aldrich is back in beast mode, be about go on that sort of run?
Next three: 1/30 at Kansas State, 2/3 at Colorado, 2/6 vs. Nebraska
Last Week: 5
Villanova Wildcats (19-1)In Big East games only, the Wildcats have the best efficiency margin (+0.17) of any team, while West Virginia is second (+0.16) and Syracuse is third (+0.12). The biggest difference between 'Nova and the 'Cuse, who were both candidates for No. 1 this week, is that the Wildcats have the league's top offense (1.21 PPP) and ninth-ranked defense (1.04 PPP), while the Orange have the league's best defense (0.97 PPP) and its seventh-best offense (1.09 PPP). It's interesting to look at how the two teams have played in their three common Big East situations this year:
Points/100 Poss. by Common Opponents
Points/100 Poss. Scored vs. Common Opponents
Last Week: 1
Kentucky Wildcats (19-1)I hope even the craziest Wildcats fans (at least before they started Facebook-slamming Patrick Patterson) were able to appreciate just how much of a college hoops EVENT Tuesday's game against South Carolina was.
You had buildup: President Barack Obama calling the Kentucky team to thank them for helping raise more than $1 million for Haiti relief efforts, congratulate them on being No. 1, and tell super-frosh John Wall, "What's going on, All-Star? I've been watching you." You had rising tension: Gamecocks star Devan Downey, when asked if he embraced the chance to face Wall, saying, "Why?" You had action: Downey putting up one of the all-time great-but-incredibly-inefficient performances -- 30 points on 9-of-29 shooting, scoring on drives, jumpers, sleight-of-hand tricks and black magic, with Wall trying to match him to the finish line. You had a powerful (albeit unhappy) ending: Kids mobbing the floor in a crazy/aggressive $25,000 party.
My lasting memory will be the move Downey made with 2:40 left, which is screen-capped (from ESPN) below: The first four screens show him making an absurd drive-left, spin-move-on-heels-right (with ball in left hand) move; the next three screens show him making a swim-and-hop move to split Wall and DeMarcus Cousins; the last one is him successfully releasing a shot over a player 14 inches taller.
UK faithful should just hope this inspires Wall to upgrade his YouTube reel by one-upping Downey in the coming weeks. Obama's All-Star might be the only one capable of making better highlights.
Next three: 1/30 vs. Vanderbilt, 2/2 vs. Ole Miss, 2/6 at LSU
Last Week: 8
Michigan State Spartans (18-3)Kalin Lucas picked the wrong four-day stretch to be a hero. Everyone's been so gaga for Downey Ball that Lucas isn't getting nearly enough national cred for hitting the dagger three in the Spartans' 13-point, second-half comeback at Minnesota on Saturday, and then a game-winning, zone-busting jumper with 3.5 seconds left at Michigan on Tuesday. Lucas' late-game prowess did evoke some Mateen Cleaves memories amongst the locals, though. Seems like he's popular enough around East Lansing of late that, had the school's new logo looked like the one at right, no one would be complaining.
Next three: 1/30 vs. Northwestern, 2/2 at Wisconsin, 2/6 at Illinois
Last Week: 6
Kansas State Wildcats (17-3)After the whole Bob Knight-hating-on-K-State's-offense thing happened (and was somewhat justified) in the Wildcats' upset of Texas on Jan. 18, I made a point to tape K-State's next few games to see if the Wildcats' offensive flow had improved. In their 73-69 home loss to Oklahoma State five days later, the offense didn't look much better, but it did in a 76-74 win at Baylor on Tuesday.
Early in the first half against the Bears' zone, the Wildcats had two nice possessions that reminded me just how important it is that they have an offensive-minded big man (Curtis Kelly) in the middle. The first shows Kelly flashing to the high post as guard Jacob Pullen cuts along the baseline; when Baylor's D opts to collapse on Kelly, he correctly finds a wide-open Pullen in the left corner for a three:
The second shows Kelly setting a ball screen for Denis Clemente, who rotates the ball to Pullen, who hits Kelly in the high post. With Baylor's zone stretched high and low, Kelly is able to knock down a wide-open jumper:
Next three: 1/30 vs. Kansas, 2/2 at Nebraska, 2/6 at Iowa State
Last Week: 4
Texas Longhorns (18-2)Is Longhorns forward Damion James, who's among the frontrunners in the national Player of the Year race, a lock to be a first-round pick? He's in NBADraft.net's first-round mock at 16, but is a second-rounder (at No. 36) on DraftExpress. The truth might be somewhere in between; I asked three NBA scouts about James this week and each said they'd guess he'd go in the mid-to-late 20s, although they couldn't guarantee it. "Unless there's some crazy run on foreigners late in the round, I can't see him not going there," one of the scouts said. "Someone's going to pick him late in the first and get a nice bench player they can use at the 3 and as a smaller 4 -- [James] plays so hard and he's such a great rebounder, and he's really improved his shooting, too." (I should note that all three scouts thought freshman guard Avery Bradley would be the highest drafted player on the 'Horns roster, although they hope he'll play at least one more season in Austin.)
Next three: 1/30 vs. Baylor, 2/1 at Oklahoma State, 2/6 at Oklahoma
Last Week: 11
Duke Blue Devils (17-3)Yet Another Basketball Blog has been running a series of great posts on coaches' efficiency numbers over the past seven seasons (including 2009-10). You can see the entire charts on YABB's site, but as a teaser, these are the top five coaches in adjusted offensive efficiency:
Roy Williams, UNC: 121.1
Mike Krzyzewski, Duke: 119.0
Bill Self, Kansas: 117.7
Billy Donovan, Florida: 117.4
Rick Barnes, Texas: 117.1
And the top five in average adjusted efficiency margin (offense minus defense) are:
Bill Self, Kansas: +31.8
Mike Krzyzewski, Duke: +31.6
Roy Williams, UNC: +31.6
John Calipari, Memphis/Kentucky: +26.9
Rick Barnes, Texas: +26.7
Even though Williams won two national titles during that stretch, and Coach K won zero, his Blue Devils have been exactly even with the Tar Heels in efficiency margin.
Next three: 1/30 at Georgetown, 2/4 vs. Georgia Tech, 2/6 at Boston College
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