Longhorns surge to No. 2 behind suffocating defense
Last Week: 1
Ohio State Buckeyes (22-0)A box score rarely makes it clear who the best post-feeders are. If the big man must make a post move to score, the pass to him doesn't register as an assist. If the big man is fouled in the act of shooting, the pass doesn't qualify as an assist, either. So the question "Which Buckeye has done the best job of getting the ball to player of the year candidate Jared Sullinger?" could only be answered by watching a ton of tape of the nation's No. 1 team and keeping tallies.
After reviewing 86 successful post feeds to Sullinger, a clear leader emerged: Senior shooting guard Jon Diebler, who ranks fourth on the team in assists per game (2.6) but is by far the biggest Sullinger-enabler. Diebler was responsible for 38 of the 86 (44.2 percent), and the handy infographic below (which took way too long to make) shows the rest of the distribution:
Next Three: 2/3 vs. Michigan, 2/6 at Minnesota, 2/12 at Wisconsin
Last Week: 7
Texas Longhorns (19-3)Opposing Big 12 stars aren't just being bothered by the Longhorns' defense -- they're being suffocated. In each of their past three games, the 'Horns have forced a go-to scorer into his worst offensive rating of the season. And while the overall tone is set by bulldog defender Dogus Balbay, plenty of other 'Horns are chipping in.
Victim No. 1: Khris Middleton, Texas A&M
Jordan Hamilton did a nice job of taking Middleton out of the game early on, with Balbay and Cory Joseph taking later stints guarding the Aggies' star. Middleton missed a few open looks during his 0-fer night, but his backcourt did an atrocious job of getting him involved, in part because Balbay was being so disruptive to the flow of the offense.
Victim No. 2: Marcus Denmon, Missouri
Denmon didn't have much opportunity to impact the game because Joseph -- and, in a secondary role, J'Covan Brown and Dogus Balbay -- put in hard work either denying Mizzou's sharpshooter the ball or not allowing him to catch it in comfortable situations. Joseph's ability to fight over screens and stay on Denmon's hip was impressive.
Victim No. 3: Keiton Page, Oklahoma State
The Blank Page game was largely Balbay's work; he blew up screens that were intended to give the Pokes' 5-9 gunner space to shoot, and he relentlessly hounded the ball. Joseph also took a few turns guarding Page, showing him no mercy.
Next Three: 2/5 vs. Texas Tech, 2/9 at Oklahoma, 2/12 vs. Baylor
Last Week: 3
Kansas Jayhawks (21-1)Big 12 coaches: You will not play against a better low-post scorer this season than Marcus Morris. Not in your league, not anywhere else. Among players who average three-plus post possessions per game, he's No. 1 in efficiency at 1.26 points per possession, according to scouting data. Ohio State's Jared Sullinger is well behind Morris at 1.13 PPP, as is Purdue's JaJuan Johnson, at 1.08 PPP.
It does not seem wise to single-cover Morris on the block when he's more efficient there than KU's guards are in spot-up situations ... and yet, this is how Texas Tech started its game against the Jayhawks on Tuesday:
Score: 0-0. Morris gets the ball on the right block in one-on-one coverage against Mike Singletary, whom the Red Raiders probably don't want in foul trouble, since he's their best scorer and rebounder. Morris turns over his right shoulder, dribbles, and hits an easy fadeaway jumper.
Score: 2-0. Morris gets the ball on the left block. Same coverage, same defender. He turns over his left shoulder, dribbles, and hits another fadeaway.
Score: 4-2. Brother Markieff Morris -- a decent post scorer in his own right, although less efficient -- scores in single-coverage on the left block.
Score: 6-2. Marcus Morris gets the ball on the left block again, with deep position against Singletary, who has no help. Morris spins over his left shoulder and hits a baby hook. The visual evidence of KU's first eight points:
Using this "strategy," Texas Tech allowed Morris to make 8 of 11 two-point attempts and finish with 18 points in 28 minutes.
Next Three: 2/5 at Nebraska, 2/7 vs. Missouri, 2/12 vs. Iowa State
Last Week: 5
Pittsburgh Panthers (20-2)One of the stats I like to monitor on DraftExpress -- because it's the only place that has it -- is pace-adjusted rebounding per 40 minutes, which can give a truer measure of a player's productivity on the glass. The nation's leader, Morehead State's Kenneth Faried, is all the more impressive because he stays on the floor for 34 minutes per game, whereas Pitt's starting lineup features perhaps the best part-time rebounder in Gary McGhee. He only averages 21.5 minutes, but projects out to 15.6 boards per 40, ranking fourth nationally:
Rk Player, Team Min/ OR/ DR/ REB/
The Panthers have been able to dominate the glass by using hyper-productive rebounders such as McGhee, Talib Zanna and Dante Taylor in shorter bursts.
Next Three: 2/5 vs. Cincinnati, 2/7 at West Virginia, 2/12 at Villanova
Last Week: 2
Duke Blue Devils (20-2)There was much talk in the preseason about how the Blue Devils would pick up their pace to take advantage of freshman point guard Kyrie Irving -- and they did, playing at a speed of 74-plus possessions in six of their first seven games. They've slowed down a bit since losing Irving to a foot injury, but still ranked 19th nationally in adjusted tempo as of Tuesday, at 72.6 possessions per game. That represents a more than seven-possession jump from the speed of the 2009-10 title team, and is the nation's fourth-biggest speed increase from last season to this season. Here's the top 10 from my Excel calculations, using data from kenpom.com:
Team 2011 Pace Poss.
Asterisks denote coaching changes prior to the '10-11 season -- and show the obvious impact the hirings of Oliver Purnell (at DePaul) and Fran McCaffery (Iowa) have had on their programs' pace.
Next Three: 2/5 vs. N.C. State, 2/9 vs. North Carolina, 2/13 at Miami
Last Week: 6
Brigham Young Cougars (21-2)Wednesday night's Jimmer Show was considered a letdown, as he only scored 26 points on 7-of-21 shooting in a win at Wyoming. But to put that in context, only three players in the country scored more than The Jimmer did on Wednesday: St. Bonaventure's Andrew Nicholson (35 points against Dayton), Southeastern Louisiana's Trent Hutchin (32 against Lamar) and Ohio's D.J. Cooper (30 against Central Michigan). It's unrealistic to expect 40 points from Fredette every time he plays ... and yet I admit to being totally disappointed every time it doesn't happen. Is that wrong?
The other trend I'm noticing is that the "can he play in the NBA?" question is now a standard part of every Jimmer discussion. One scout said to me last week, alluding to the small number of white two-guards in the NBA, "People shouldn't be getting stuck on the black-white thing, because it doesn't matter here -- [Fredette] is going to find a way to score. I really believe that." The only negative portion of DraftExpress' latest evaluation of The Jimmer is about his defense: "The biggest concern about Fredette's transition to the NBA clearly lies on the defensive end. He is a poor defender, even at the college level, showing average length, heavy feet and unimpressive lateral quickness. He rarely gets into an actual defensive stance, fails to get a hand up on shooters and shows little interest in trying to fight through screens. The same laid-back approach that makes him so difficult to get off-kilter offensively is a serious detriment to his work on the other end, potentially making him a liability in the NBA."
I wonder how much of this is BYU trying to protect him from foul trouble -- Jimmer fouls just 1.4 times per 40 minutes, because the Cougs can't afford to not have him on the floor -- and how much is him not being interested in D. Thoughts, anyone?
Next Three: 2/5 vs. UNLV, 2/9 at Air Force, 2/12 vs. Utah
Last Week: 14
Notre Dame Fighting Irish (17-4)In last week's Power Rankings, I ran a photo quiz that asked readers to ID the hand-positioning of six of the nation's best shooters. The winner, via Twitter, was Emery Jordan of Carbondale, Ill., who was the first to correctly pick out Washington State's Klay Thompson, Missouri's Marcus Denmon, Vanderbilt's John Jenkins, The Jimmer, Baylor's LaceDarius Dunn and Ohio State's Jon Diebler.
This week's photo quiz involves suits instead of shots. The grid below contains images of nine current Big East coaches. The first reader to tweet all nine, in order, to @lukewinn will get name-checked there and in the next Rankings, as well as a copy of The Jimmer comic book from the SI preview issue. Hurry -- the contest is now open!
Next Three: 2/3 at DePaul, 2/6 vs. Rutgers, 2/9 vs. Louisville
Last Week: 8
San Diego State Aztecs (22-1)If you haven't heard of a stat called "FT+," don't be ashamed: It's something John Ezekowitz of Harvard Sports Analysts Collective conjured up last night (and I named). Ezekowitz's idea was to create a better free-throw metric by combining Free Throw Rate (the ratio of a team's free throw attempts to field goal attempts) with old fashioned Free Throw Percentage. His feeling was that when pundits reference Wisconsin's high FT% (81.8%), the importance of it is overstated due to the infrequency at which the Badgers actually draw fouls (they rank 330th in FTR). The flip-side of that would be a team like Duquesne, which ranks 311th in FT% (at 63.6%) but mitigates that by ranking 14th in FTR.
What FT+ does, in Ezekowitz's words, is calculate "the extra points created from the FT line by the team, as compared to what they would've done had they simply played out the possession instead of attempting free throws. This framework balances the three concerns: getting to the line, making free throws, and how going to the line compares to what you would have done if you hadn't gone to the line."
The FT+ database he produced was interesting on the low end: the bottom 11 in all of D-I included some highly regarded teams. This is in part because some of their normal offenses are so good that (in his words) "the opportunity cost" of going to the line is high. Being on this list, we concluded, is only a red flag if your overall offensive rating is poor (like NJIT, Rider or Youngstown State), or if you're drawing very few free-throw attempts per 100 possessions (like San Diego State).
Team FT+ FTA/100P
The bottom line here, if the concept of FT+ was hard to grasp: Aztecs fans should be a bit worried about their team's inability to impact a game from the stripe or get opponents into foul trouble.
Next Three: 2/5 vs. TCU, 2/8 vs. Utah, 2/12 at UNLV
Last Week: 18
Georgetown Hoyas (17-5)The return of the Hoyas to the Power Rankings gives us a good excuse to look at the individual efficiency rates of their three starting guards. (Or, in other words, to offer numerical proof that Austin Freeman is awesome.)
Georgetown's four biggest sources of offense are (in this order) spot-ups, isolations, cuts and transition, according to scouting data. The guards' points per possession (PPP) break down like this:
Player Spot-Up ISO Cut Transition
Freeman, as you see, is good across the board, while Clark excels mostly on spot-ups and cuts, and Wright excels only on isolations and lags well behind on spot-up shooting.
The guards' catch-and-shoot splits (between guarded and unguarded situations) break down like this:
Player C&S Guarded C&S Unguarded
Freeman is a killer jump-shooter no matter what. His guarded PPP is amazingly a half-point better than Wright's unguarded PPP. Clark is far more dangerous on wide-open looks; with a hand in his face, his efficiency suffers significantly.
Next Three: 2/5 vs. Providence, 2/9 at Syracuse, 2/13 vs. Marquette
Last Week: 4
Connecticut Huskies (17-4)The Huskies always seem to be playing under a cloud of doubt. They were a No. 1 seed in Andy Glockner's latest Bracket Watch, but a new feature on TeamRankings.com that assesses mock brackets gives UConn just a 2.91 percent chance of winning the national title. Those are worse odds than any of Glockner's No. 2 seeds, much less the 1 seeds. And when I left Kemba & Co. out of the Magic Eight on Tuesday, no one wrote in to call me a fool. (They did about the omission of Kansas and Pitt, but that was to be expected.) Yet the Huskies have better quality wins than anyone in this chart, and they scored 73 points in regulation against Texas' defense -- in Austin! It would take most Big 12 teams a game and a half to do that. Memories of the good Kemba who won that game, though, have faded and been replaced by ugly images of Wednesday's game against Syracuse, when he scored eight points on 3-of-14 shooting. A few more games like that, and no one will be left on the bandwagon.
Next Three: 2/5 at Seton Hall, 2/10 at St. John's, 2/13 vs. Providence
Last Week: 15
Wisconsin Badgers (16-5)On Tuesday against Purdue, the Badgers provided an excellent example of late-game unselfishness. Down 59-58 with one minute left, UW faced a Boilermakers man-to-man D that was matched up as such:
Purdue's D.J. Byrd is forced to switch onto Jordan Taylor off of the high ball screen, and Byrd stumbles beyond the baseline while pursuing the drive, setting up a 5-on-4 situation for the Badgers:
The Boilers' defenders, who are well-coached, cover for Byrd (who's still off-screen) by having E'Twaun Moore jump out on Keaton Nankivil and Lewis Jackson play a safety role in the paint. They leave UW's least-likely shooter, role player Ryan Evans, open on the left wing. Evans, though, gets credit for moving as far away from Byrd's spill as possible, making it harder for him to recover.
Nankivil unselfishly passes up a shot to get the ball to Evans, forcing JaJuan Johnson to choose between jumping out on Evans or Badgers star Jon Leuer (see arrows).
Johnson chooses to deny the ball to Leuer. Byrd is still too far away, and so UW is happy to let Evans, a little-used reserve, step up and knock down the biggest shot of the game, giving the Badgers a lead they won't relinquish.
Next Three: 2/6 vs. Michigan State, 2/9 at Iowa, 2/12 vs. Ohio State
Last Week: 9
Villanova Wildcats (18-4)In the Duke section, I ran a list of the teams that have increased their tempo the most from '09-10 to '10-11. The flipside of that chart -- the major-conference (plus A-10 and Mountain West) teams that slowed down the most -- is below, with the Wildcats checking in at No. 5:
Team 2011 Pace Poss.
(Asterisks denote coaching changes prior to the '10-11 season)
A few possible factors for 'Nova's 3.9-possession drop:
The Wildcats are forcing fewer turnovers, with their TO percentage dropping from 21.3 last season to 19.1 at present.
They're going with a shorter rotation, giving 24.2 percent of the minutes to the bench as opposed to 37.0 in '09-10.
Scottie Reynolds, who dominated the offense last season, was more likely to push the ball in transition or take a quick shot than his replacement at the point, Maalik Wayns.
Next Three: 2/5 vs. West Virginia, 2/9 at Rutgers, 2/12 vs. Pittsburgh
Last Week: 12
Kentucky Wildcats (16-5)I liked the Wildcats' upside enough to put them in the Magic Eight, but Darius Miller's offense of late is a cause for concern. He was an extremely volatile player in November, December and early January -- his jump from a 172.3 offensive rating against Penn on Jan. 3 to a 75.5 rating at Georgia on Jan. 8 was a typical back-to-back -- but has since turned into just a slumping offensive player.
His ratings in the Wildcats' past two games were 77.3 (against Georgia) and 44.3 (Ole Miss), and he's been on a consistent downward trend since mid-January. Kentucky has Final Four potential if Miller is clicking on offense and providing leadership for the fab freshmen, but if he's a non-factor, the 'Cats might not make it out of the first weekend.
Next Three: 2/5 at Florida, 2/8 vs. Tennessee, 2/12 at Vanderbilt
Last Week: 13
Washington Huskies (15-5)If you haven't yet, check out Pablo Torre's feature on Isaiah Thomas in the latest SI (with the Roger Goodell cover). It chronicles, in part, how the real Zeke, Isiah Thomas, has impacted Isaiah, by providing support (telling the Huskies guard he's his "biggest fan") and advice on how to expand his game. One example from Torre:
"After Isaiah's last-minute shot was blocked in a loss to Purdue in the second round of the '09 NCAA tournament, Isiah rang, telling him to take a defender and a broomstick to the gym that summer to hone his floater. Isaiah did. Then, after last season, when Isaiah's field goal percentage was a mediocre 41.5%, Isiah told him to develop his midrange game. Isaiah did, working out with still another NBA ally, Mavericks guard Jason Terry. (Thomas is now shooting 45.1%.) "Isaiah has matured into a complete player," says Washington assistant Raphael Chillious, who also coached Isaiah at South Kent. "I know with Twitter and all that, it looks like he's me, me, me. But when it matters, we know that he's all about winning."
Next Three: 2/3 at Oregon State, 2/5 at Oregon, 2/10 vs. Cal
Last Week: 28
North Carolina Tar Heels (16-5)Now would be a good time to buy stock in the Heels, whose freshmen are finally hitting their stride, keying a 6-1 start in the ACC. The insertion of Kendall Marshall into the starting lineup at point guard has done wonders to improve their offensive flow, particularly helping fellow rookie Harrison Barnes, who scored 25 points in a win over N.C. State on Saturday and 26 in a victory at Boston College on Tuesday. Barnes, who had a miserable start to his freshman season after being named a first-team preseason All-America by the Associated Press, is blossoming into a late-season star now that he's finally adjusted to the college game.
For an example of how much he struggled early on, examine the shot chart from his 0-of-12 shooting performance against Minnesota in Puerto Rico on Nov. 19 ... and then compare it to the shot chart from his career-high game against Boston College. (A quick key: colored circles are makes, clear circles are misses; JS = jump shot, DF = drew foul; LU = layup, green T = transition, squiggly line = dribble drive, straight line = cut/run to rim.)
In the Minnesota game, Barnes was cutting off most of his drives before the rim, settling for bad mid-range jumpers, and only getting a few looks in transition. In the BC game, he got threes and layups in transition, and cut the awkward midrange stuff out of his half-court attack. The results were impressive.
Next Three: 2/6 vs. Florida State, 2/9 at Duke, 2/12 at Clemson
Last Week: 23
Louisville Cardinals (17-5)The freshman-to-sophomore progression of point guard Peyton Siva is a big reason the Cards are a surprise member of the Power Rankings in February. His stats haven't just improved because he's playing more minutes (jumping from 11.3 per game to 26.1); he's become a better player in three key categories:
1. He's learned to create steals without committing too many fouls. As a rookie he had a high steal rate (5.2 percent) but a ratio of 66 whistles to 31 steals. This season his steal rate is similar (4.9 percent) but he has just 56 fouls against 50 steals.
2. He's now drawing fouls on drives at high frequency, with a free-throw rate of 62.3 (the second-highest in the Big East) compared to 46.5 last season.
3. Siva has figured out how to finish stronger around the rim, with his two-point FG% jumping from 46.3 percent to 63.1 percent as a sophomore.
Next Three: 2/5 vs. DePaul, 2/9 at Notre Dame, 2/12 vs. Syracuse
Checked In: Georgetown, North Carolina, Louisville
Dropped Out: Missouri, Texas A&M, Syracuse
The Next 16: 17) Florida, 18) Syracuse, 19) Texas A&M, 20) Purdue, 21) Missouri, 22) Vanderbilt, 23) Arizona, 24) St. Mary's, 25) Florida State, 26) Tennessee, 27) West Virginia, 28) Duquesne, 29) Utah State, 30) Illinois, 31) Xavier, 32) George Mason.
(If you have an idea for a future Power Rankings topic, drop me a line here.)