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Pittsburgh climbs into top spot behind ruthless road efficiency

NCAA Basketball Power Rankings
1Pittsburgh Panthers
Last Week: 3
We've reached the point of the season where reading too much into the result of a single game, as Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim kindly put it, is an exercise in "bullsh--." Our impressions of teams heading into the NCAA tournament need to be based on bigger-picture data. In-conference efficiency margins can be more telling than conference records -- and it's of major importance to understand how home/road splits factor into those efficiency margins. Teams with massive drop-offs between home and road play aren't exactly primed for success in the NCAA tournament.

Using the "Game Plan" pages on kenpom.com, I created a database of all Big East games through Tuesday, and then placed the splits of the league's 11 NCAA tournament candidates on a Hoopism-style grid. The visualization makes it clear that Pitt is the class of the nation's deepest conference -- and it's even more impressive that a portion of the Panthers' road work (wins at West Virginia and Villanova) came without star guard Ashton Gibbs.



Three revelations from the above graph:

• Syracuse is the Big East's only team that gets better on the road. Even Boeheim would admit that's not a bullsh-- stat as it relates to NCAA tournament success.

• Louisville has the most "home-built" efficiency margin in the league, with a significant split of 0.209 points per possession.

• I said this already ... but Pitt is really good this season. It's not easy to be +0.131 points per possession on the road in the Big East.

Next Three: 2/24 vs. West Virginia, 2/27 at Louisville, 3/2 at South Florida
 
2Ohio State Buckeyes
Last Week: 2
The Buckeyes drop off far more than Pitt does when they hit the road: I did the same database-and-graph project for the Big Ten, and the results show that its three kings (Ohio State, Purdue and Wisconsin) all regress about fifteen hundredths of a point away from home, but they're also the league's only NCAA tournament candidates with positive road margins.

Big Ten Efficiency Margins


Three revelations from the above graph:

• The biggest home/road differential belongs to Michigan State, which is 0.224 points per possession better at the Breslin Center than on the road. The Spartans will probably crack the Field of 68, but they've been an atrocious away team this season.

• Minnesota has only won two Big Ten road games (at Iowa and Michigan), and may miss the dance, but the Gophers are the best away team other than the league's Big Three.

• Illinois' home efficiency -- considering its talent level and the ultra-loud atmosphere at Assembly Hall -- should be regarded as a big disappointment.

Next Three: 2/27 vs. Indiana, 3/1 at Penn State, 3/6 vs. Wisconsin
 
3Duke Blue Devils
Last Week: 4
Barring some kind of catastrophic injury to BYU's Jimmer Fredette, it's doubtful that Duke's Nolan Smith will win the Naismith or Wooden awards. Fredette took a sizable lead (by 35 out of 50 first-place votes) in the latest AnnArbor.com straw poll, with Ohio State's Jared Sullinger second and Smith third. The BYU scoring machine also holds a solid lead in the computer-generated kPOY, although Smith moved into second place this week. I imagine my final Naismith vote will be for Fredette, and there will be little controversy about him being honored.

And yet, if voters were asked the question, "Which guard would you most want running your team in the NCAA tournament?" ... I think they'd overwhelmingly pick Smith. I'd pick Smith. Fredette has been phenomenal, but he hasn't played beyond the first weekend of the dance, whereas Smith was the South Region's Most Outstanding Player last season, and has only gotten better since. I suspect that Ohio State and Texas will be the two most popular national-champ picks in office pool brackets, but don't overlook Duke: No other title contender has a guard with the combination of postseason confidence and experience that Smith provides. The two others whom I'd trust the most to run my team -- Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor and Pitt's Brad Wanamaker -- have yet to play a major role in even a second-weekend NCAA tournament game.

Next Three: 2/26 at Virginia Tech, 3/2 vs. Clemson, 3/5 at North Carolina
 
4Texas Longhorns
Last Week: 1
I did the same graphing project for home/road efficiency margins within the Big 12, which resulted in visual evidence of the Longhorns' juggernaut status:

Big 12 Efficiency Margins


The three things we learned:

• Texas is so good that even its road efficiency margin is better than Kansas' margin at Allen Fieldhouse. That said, the Jayhawks still have respectable splits, dropping off less from home-to-road than do any of the Big Ten's powerhouses.

• I'm skeptical about Missouri or K-State doing much in the NCAA tournament this year, given that their efficiency levels drop off a cliff once they leave home.

• Texas A&M is the Georgetown of the Big 12: Ranked in the top 25, with a respectable record ... but a very underwhelming efficiency margin within its league.

Next Three: 2/26 at Colorado, 2/28 vs. Kansas State, 3/5 at Baylor
 
5Kansas Jayhawks
Last Week: 5
Point guard Tyshawn Taylor is on an "indefinite suspension" for a violation of team rules, although my guess is that he'll be back for next Wednesday's showdown with Texas A&M. In the meantime, let's look at three ways Kansas changes with Elijah Johnson in the lineup:

1. Coach Bill Self called the D Johnson played on Oklahoma State's Keiton Page on Monday "the best point guard defense we've had in a long time" ... and yet, the season numbers suggest KU will experience a drop-off in D with Johnson at the point. As of mid-February, the Defensive Score Sheet project blogger David Hess was compiling on KU showed Johnson to be the team's worst defensive guard.

2. In a small sample of playing time, Johnson has been a better offensive guard than Taylor in a few categories. Synergy Sports Technology scouting data lists Johnson as a 1.12 points-per-possession player in pick-and-roll situations, compared to Taylor's 0.92. And Synergy lists Johnson as the Jayhawks' most efficient overall player in spot-up situations, at 1.24 PPP, whereas Taylor is at just 0.91 PPP.

3. Taylor, though, has been KU's most frequent isolation player at the end of shot clocks, logging 38 such possessions at 1.0 PPP. Johnson is almost never used in these situations, logging only three iso possessions all season. The burden to create broken-play offense likely falls on freshman Josh Selby while Taylor is out.

Next Three: 2/26 at Oklahoma, 3/2 vs. Texas A&M, 3/5 at Missouri
 
6Brigham Young Cougars
Last Week: 6
The Jimmer's trademark jump-shot elevation appeared in the late-season edition of the Style Archive, which dropped Tuesday:

Jimmer Fredette


Presumably after seeing this, a reader e-mailed me to express concern that The Jimmer's legs were fading late in the season, and were the reason for his slight declines in scoring (he went five straight games without hitting the 30 mark) and efficiency. That inspired me to create the two charts below, estimating the total number of offensive possessions played by the country's elite players as of Wednesday. For the first chart, I took all the players who earned votes in the AnnArbor.com POY poll or appeared in the kPOY, and ranked them in order of ironman status. The top 10:

Rk. Player, Team                  %Mins    G      Poss/G   Poss
1. Jimmer Fredette, BYU 85.6 28 72.5 1,738
2. Nolan Smith, Duke 83.3 28 71.1 1,658
3. JaJuan Johnson, Purdue 87.0 28 66.2 1,613
4. Kenneth Faried, Morehead St. 85.0 29 65.0 1,602
5. Kemba Walker, UConn 90.7 26 67.5 1,592
6. E'Twaun Moore, Purdue 83.6 28 66.2 1,550
7. Jordan Hamilton, Texas 78.8 28 69.0 1,522
8. Jared Sullinger, Ohio St. 79.1 28 65.2 1,444
9. Terrence Jones, Kentucky 78.1 27 68.1 1,436
10. Jordan Taylor, Wisconsin 88.6 27 58.4 1,397

So ... due to The Jimmer's high volume of minutes and the fast pace at which BYU plays, he's endured almost 300 more trips up and down the court than Ohio State's Jared Sullinger has in the same amount of games. Will that wear and tear make any kind of impact in the postseason? For the sake of all of our NCAA tournament enjoyment, I hope the answer is no.

Next Three: 2/26 at San Diego State, 3/2 vs. New Mexico, 3/5 vs. Wyoming
 
7Purdue Boilermakers
Last Week: 10
Boilermakers coach Matt Painter should be getting serious consideration for national coach of the year honors, according to a bunch of pundits ... and my statistical formula. Using a simple "Exceeding Expectations" model, which measures the jump between a team's preseason projection in Basketball Prospectus* and its current kenpom.com rating, and limiting candidates to top-25 teams only, these are the four leading coaches:

"Pure Jump Division"

1. Jim Larranaga, George Mason (+64 jump, from 84-20)
2. Mike Brey, Notre Dame (+46 jump, from 68-22)
3. Sean Miller, Arizona (+29 jump, from 44-15)
4. Rick Pitino, Louisville (+20 jump, from 36-16)

If we narrow our focus to top-10(ish) kenpom teams only -- because it's reasonable to want a COY to come from one of the nation's elite teams -- the list looks like this:

"Elite Division"

1. Matt Painter, Purdue (+19 jump, from 24-5)
2. Dave Rose, BYU (+15 jump, from 22-7)
2. Steve Fisher, San Diego State (+15 jump, from 26-11)
4. Rick Barnes, Texas (+13 jump, from 17-4)

( * The BP projections are compiled by Ken Pomeroy, and were adjusted before the book's release to take Robbie Hummel's injury into account. That's why the Boilers started at No. 20.)

Next Three: 2/26 at Michigan State, 3/1 vs. Illinois, 3/5 at Iowa
 
8San Diego State Aztecs
Last Week: 8
My Mountain West efficiency margin graphing experiment reveals that the Aztecs and BYU have vastly different profiles. SDSU is a powerhouse at the Viejas Center but only a decent team elsewhere ... whereas the Cougars experience a Syracuse-level jump in efficiency when they leave the Marriott Center:

Mountain West Efficiency Margins


The biggest thing this means for Saturday's rematch in San Diego? That we should get to see the best version of both teams -- the BYU club that's +.206 points per possession on the road, and the Aztecs squad that's +.270 PPP at home.

Next Three: 2/26 vs. BYU, 3/1 at Wyoming, 3/5 vs. Colorado State
 
9Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Last Week: 7
Four teams in this week's Power Rankings are in the top five nationally in defensive free-throw rate (which is your ratio of FTA/100FGA, or in layman's terms, means you rarely foul): Ohio State is No. 1 at 20.0, North Carolina is No. 2 at 24.9, Florida is No. 4 at 25.1, and Notre Dame is No. 5 at 25.8. A low free-throw rate alone, though, will not ensure that a team has an elite defense. It needs to combine foul-avoidance with strength in at least a few other categories. For example:

• The Buckeyes rank No. 10 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency because they're also ninth in turnover percentage and 34th in defensive-rebounding percentage.

• The Tar Heels rank No. 2 in defensive efficiency because they also use their length to block and challenge tons of shots, ranking 33rd in effective field-goal percentage allowed and 27th in block percentage.

• Notre Dame only ranks 76th in defensive efficiency because it hardly creates any turnovers (ranking 334th in TO%) and doesn't defend the three-point line all that well (ranking 243rd in 3PT% allowed). The fact that the Irish can do that and remain a top-10 team is a testament to their Ben Hansbrough-led offense, which is one of the smartest and most experienced attacks in the country.

Next Three: 2/26 vs. Seton Hall, 2/28 vs. Villanova, 3/5 at UConn
 
10Wisconsin Badgers
Last Week: 9
The Badgers have never missed the NCAA tournament in Bo Ryan's 10 seasons in Madison, which is an impressive feat ... but they've also only beaten one team seeded higher than them in the tourney during that time -- thus the "respect gap" between their Big Ten rep and national rep. This could be the season where that changes, though, because it's the first time since 2004* that Bo Ryan has had the combination of a team with a top-10 efficiency ranking and an elite point guard. Junior Jordan Taylor is the best floor general Ryan's had since Devin Harris entered the '04 NBA draft -- and Taylor's junior season has actually been superior to Harris' in a number of categories (data from StatSheet.com):

Player, Season           ORating   Poss%   3PT%    FT%    A/T
Devin Harris, '03-04 122.7 27.3 37.3 79.2 +2.1
Jordan Taylor, '10-11 131.7 26.2 41.3 84.4 +4.1

(*One somewhat-insane thing I discovered while looking back through statistics from 2004: Wisconsin finished that season ranked No. 5 in kenpom's efficiency standings, and Pitt finished No. 4 ... yet those two teams met in a 3-6 game -- with Pitt as the 3, UW as the 6 -- in the second round of the NCAA tournament. That may be one of the worst "bad seeding" cases of all-time.)

Next Three: 2/27 vs. Northwestern, 3/3 at Indiana, 3/6 at Ohio State
 
11North Carolina Tar Heels
Last Week: 13
Ballin' is a Habit tipped us off to a curious, contrarian column in Mississippi State's student newspaper that argued Renardo Sidney is 1) deserving of praise, 2) not at fault for being horribly out of shape, and 3) a more effective freshman than the Tar Heels' Harrison Barnes. No. 3 might be the only defensible point, because Sidney has been near Barnes' level in conference games:

Player              ORating     Poss%    EFG%      DR%     OR%
Harrison Barnes 103.4 26.3 48.5 13.5 6.8
Renardo Sidney 96.0 28.9 52.1 24.8 7.6

Despite Sidney's decent numbers, he remains second-round draft material while Barnes is a likely Lottery Pick. Having a workmanlike attitude matters ... as does not assaulting teammates in the stands while watching a nationally televised game during a holiday tournament.

Next Three: 2/27 vs. Maryland, 3/2 at Florida State, 3/5 vs. Duke
 
12Florida Gators
Last Week: 14
The Jordan Taylor/Devin Harris comparison chart inspired me to do a similar analysis of the Gators' current backcourt against the one from the '06-07 title team. The gaps between the point guards and two-guards weren't as big as I expected, but Taurean Green and Lee Humphrey were, clearly, more effective in a number of categories:

Player, Season           ORating   Poss%   A/T    EFG%    FT%
Erving Walker, '10-11 113.8 23.6 1.3 53.5 77.5
Taurean Green, '06-07 116.0 20.5 1.4 56.1 84.9

Kenny Boynton, '10-11 107.1 21.9 1.5 43.9 83.1
Lee Humphrey, '06-07 126.8 13.2 1.1 66.0 69.2

The big thing of note is that Florida's current guards are counted on to use a much bigger chunk of possessions (around 45 percent, combined) than the '06-07 guards were (about 34 percent). That makes the efficiency gap more of an issue when assessing the Gators' chances of making a deep NCAA tournament run.

Next Three: 2/24 vs. Georgia, 2/26 at Kentucky, 3/1 vs. Alabama
 
13Arizona Wildcats
Last Week: 16
USC coach Kevin O'Neill claimed this week that Wildcats forward Derrick Williams, who averages a nation-high 9.2 free-throw attempts per game, "is the most protected dude I've seen since Michael Jordan." Williams chimed in on Twitter to say he doesn't get Jordan treatment, but later joked, "someone just told me I'm 16 free-throw attempts away from breaking Khalid Reeves single season record ... Let's get that against USC hahaha."

Williams' high free-throw rate is in part due to the fact that he's an excellent driver, and there are few opposing bigs who can move fast enough to contain him. But O'Neill may have a point with his protection claim: I pored over fouls-drawn-per-40 stats for the past five years, and no major-conference player has topped Williams' current mark of 8.6 (including Tyler Hansbrough, whom opposing ACC coaches always claimed was the recipient of major star treatment). This is the top five from that span:

Rk. Player, Team, Season                 FD/40
1. Derrick Williams, Arizona, '10-11 8.6
2. DeMarcus Cousins, Kentucky, '09-10 8.3
3. Tyler Hansbrough, UNC, '07-08 8.1
4. Blake Griffin, Oklahoma, '08-09 8.0
5. Michael Beasley, Kansas St., '07-08 8.0

Next Three: 2/24 at USC, 2/26 at UCLA, 3/3 vs. Oregon State
 
14Georgetown Hoyas
Last Week: 12
The Hoyas lost a home game to Cincinnati on Wednesday ... and lost point guard Chris Wright for at least a few weeks with a broken left hand. Coach John Thompson III said Thursday that "we expect to have Chris back before the end of the season" after his rehab from a successful surgical operation. But Georgetown, unlike Kansas with Elijah Johnson, doesn't have another elite point guard to fill the void. The gap between Wright's Big East numbers and that of freshman backup Markel Starks are enormous:

Player          ORating    Poss%    EFG     A/T
Chris Wright 103.5 24.5 46.0 1.7
Markel Starks 57.6 20.1 27.4 0.5

Wright, as I mentioned in a previous Power Rankings, was by far the Hoyas' most efficient pick-and-roll player, at 1.07 PPP according to Synergy. Austin Freeman lags well behind at 0.89 PPP and Jason Clark is listed at 0.73 PPP; one imagines that small portion of Georgetown's offense (they run it 6.7 percent of the time) may disappear in Wright's absence.

Next Three: 2/26 vs. Syracuse, 3/5 at Cincinnati, Big East tournament TBD
 
15Louisville Cardinals
Last Week: 17
I stumbled upon this a few weeks late, but graphic designer Jake Donahue did some excellent work creating fantasy courts based on Oregon's crazy "Deep in the Woods" concept. Donahue is a pro, so his designs were more polished than my Photoshopped proposals for a Florida Swamp court and a Screaming Frank Martin surface back in November. Among Donahue's prototypes was a Colonel Sanders-themed surface for Louisville's KFC Yum! Center:

Louisville court

I'd like to suggest that he take it a few steps further, adopting two more signature traits: Trapezoidal, international-style lanes demarcated by KFC buckets ... and four "Double Down" hot spots for six-point shots that can be used twice each per half. What say you, Cards fans?

Louisville court

Next Three: 2/24 vs. Marquette, 2/27 at Cincinnati, 3/2 at West Virginia
 
16Syracuse Orange
Last Week: 20
I imagine that most people who look at the adjusted tempo rankings on kenpom.com assume that the fastest-paced teams have the most transition possessions, but this is not necessarily the case; tempo can also be upped by taking quick shots in half-court settings ... or by giving up quick points with bad defense. In Synergy Sports Technology's "possession type" logs for '10-11, the eight major-conference teams with the most transition possessions aren't the eight highest-tempo teams on kenpom (T-Poss = transition possessions, Trans% = percent of poss that are transition, TempoRk = rank amongst major-conference teams in poss/game):

Rk. Team            T-Poss    Trans%     TempoRk
1. BYU 509 22.1 6
2. Providence 483 21.0 2
3. Louisville 478 21.5 27
4. North Carolina 475 19.7 4
5. Duquesne 461 22.2 7
6. Missouri 447 18.2 5
7. Maryland 431 18.7 8
8. Syracuse 412 17.3 48

Syracuse is the most interesting case: The Orange aren't regarded as a fast-paced team because they slow down the game so much on defense, with teams prying away at the 2-3 zone ... but Boeheim's guards are encouraged to push the ball off all the steals they get out of the zone, and at any other opportunity -- so much so that they have a similar amount of transition possessions to teams with "speedy" identities, such as Missouri or North Carolina.

Next Three: 2/26 at Georgetown, 3/5 vs. DePaul, Big East tournament TBD

Checked In: Louisville

Dropped Out: UConn

The Next 16: 17) UConn, 18) Villanova, 19) George Mason, 20) St. John's, 21) Texas A&M, 22) Missouri, 23) Xavier, 24) Washington, 25) Vanderbilt, 26) Kentucky, 27) Utah State, 28) Cincinnati, 29) Tennessee, 30) West Virginia, 31) UNLV, 32) Belmont.

(If you have an idea for a future Power Rankings topic, drop me a line here.)

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