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The Scouting Edition: Buckeyes hit top three behind beastly Sullinger

This is the statistical backlash edition of the Power Rankings, in which minimal references to efficiency are made, and a multitude of (anonymous) assistants chime in with authentic scouting report intel. Enjoy, starting with the same No. 1 as always -- Duke:

NCAA Basketball Power Rankings
1Duke Blue Devils
Last Week: 1
Until there's a definitive answer on the Kyrie Irving situation -- his foot is in a cast awaiting another evaluation -- it remains the biggest story in college hoops. Last week in the Rankings, I illustrated the differences in assist distribution between Irving and Nolan Smith, who's had to take over the point full time in Irving's absence. This week, in search of more insight about how the loss of Irving might affect the Blue Devils, I had a conversation with an opposing assistant coach who had scouted them thoroughly.

"One thing that really hit me," the coach said, "was how fast and powerful Irving was from end line to end line. To have any chance of stopping him from getting to the basket, your defense would get drawn into the paint. And I think that when your defense is drawn in like that, it just magnifies all of Duke's strengths, with all those guys [Smith, Kyle Singler, Andre Dawkins, Seth Curry, Ryan Kelly] who have the ability to make shots from anywhere on the floor. ... And Irving doesn't just do this in transition; he puts so much pressure on your defenders in pick-and-roll sets, too. There's just no one who plays off the [screens] with the explosion and strength that he does."

The coach isn't from Michigan State, but I went to the video of that game to look for examples of the defensive "contraction" that Irving was creating. This pick-and-roll set with Mason Plumlee was particularly good, and it's broken down into four stages in the image below.

Kyrie Irving drive

1) Plumlee sets the ball screen, Irving surveys court.

2) Irving accepts the screen, goes left, and hesitates, freezing the soft-help man (who was guarding Plumlee) and gauging his lane to the basket. The Spartans' two strongside defenders have to decide whether to help on Irving, or stay glued to Singler (a 36.4 percent three-point shooter) and Curry (48.4 percent), and the weakside defender must decide whether to leave Kelly (58.3 percent) alone.

3) Irving is too fast for Plumlee's defender to keep out of the lane; Singler's man opts for a half-hearted swipe attempt, while Curry's man stays home.

4) Irving gets to the rim with ease, where he lays the ball up but also had a clear pass to Kelly in the right corner for a three; had Curry's man stepped in to the block, Curry would've been wide open for a corner three as well. If your two men guarding the pick-and-roll can't contain Irving, you're going to give up a layup or an open three -- and that is (or was?) what made the Irving-led Blue Devils impossible to defend.

Next Three: 12/20 vs. Elon, 12/29 at UNC-Greensboro, 1/2 vs. Miami
 
2Kansas Jayhawks
Last Week: 2
At the time of these Rankings, the eBay auction for Skype-ing With Bill Self on Christmas Eve was only up to $450. That's not even going to come close to covering the cost of repaying Josh Selby's extra benefits, people! (Actually, it's for a good cause: Self's Assists Foundation, which provides grants to Lawrence-area youth organizations, and earned the coach a nomination for a United Nations award.)

The odds are the winning KU fan will want to have some Selby-related discussion, given that he is the Jayhawks' early Christmas present, set to make his debut on Dec. 18 against USC. I covered that topic on Tuesday, pointing out that Kansas' offense without Selby has been nearly as good as Duke's with Irving, so there's a risk Selby could throw things out of whack. Don't be stunned if Selby isn't even the highest-scoring newcomer in that Dec. 18 game. Jio Fontan, who was formerly a star scoring guard at Fordham, is making his debut for USC that day as well, and Trojans coach Kevin O'Neill is hyping the kid as much as is humanly possible.

"He's our best player," O'Neill said of Fontan. "He's our best leader. He's our best scorer. He's our best defender. He's our best passer. He's our best guard. He's our best player."

Next Three: 12/18 vs. USC, 12/22 at Cal, 12/29 vs. Texas-Arlington
 
3Ohio State Buckeyes
Last Week: 4
In the same spirit of the Derrick Williams-vs.-Kansas shot/drive chart from a few weeks ago (which I can confirm Mr. Williams has seen!), I was interested in examining how Jared Sullinger amassed his Buckeyes freshman-record 40 points against IUPUI on Dec. 9. Sullinger generated points or trips to the foul line in five different ways, each represented by a different color on the chart: red for drop-step moves (DS); green for offensive-board putbacks of teammates' shots (OR); blue for spins over his right shoulder (RS); purple for standard layups (LU); and gold for dunks (DK).

Jared Sullinger shot chart

The red and blue circles are the most revealing, in that they represent the instances where Sullinger had to make an offensive move with a man on his back or hip. Of his scoring moves from the left block, he drop-stepped three times, and spun on his right shoulder twice. From the right block, he spun on his right shoulder five times and drop-stepped once. What's weird is that despite being right-handed, Sullinger never scored by spinning on his left shoulder or by shooting a baby hook over his left shoulder.

Next Three: 12/18 vs. South Carolina, 12/21 vs. UNC-Asheville, 12/23 vs. Oakland
 
4Connecticut Huskies
Last Week: 6
In a conversation with an opposing assistant who scouted UConn this season, this is what was said about Kemba Walker, who's second in the nation in scoring at 28.1 points per game: "Right now he's like a video game player. If you created your own guy in an Xbox game and made him almost unstoppable, that's what I think of Kemba, now that he has the perimeter game he didn't have as a freshman and sophomore. He wasn't a bad shooter then, but now, if you're guarding him and you go under a ball screen or a dribble handoff, he can knock down an NBA-range three on you. That's on top of his crossover and change-of-speed game off the dribble; he just has a burst that you can't teach. ... He's also picking his spots well, deciding when he needs to turn it on and score, and when he needs to get his teammates involved. ... I think defensively, your best option is blitz ball-screens and try to get the ball out of his hands. And other than that, just stay solid and try not to give him alleys for dribble penetration. As good as the jumper has been, I'd rather give that up than I would let him get into the lane."

Next Three: 12/20 vs. Coppin State, 12/22 vs. Harvard, 12/27 at Pitt
 
5Tennessee Volunteers
Last Week: 7
What does one do with the Vols? Since being ranked No. 7, they recorded the most impressive win by any team in the 2010-11 season (routing Pitt in Pittsburgh) ... and then paid somewhere between $40,000-50,000 in guarantee money for the pleasure of being upset by Oakland in Knoxville three days later. My solution: Move them up slightly, to No. 5, but devote their blurb space to Oakland's Larry Wright for his act of heroism.

With 6:52 left in a game the Grizz were trailing 76-70, Wright was leveled/clobbered by what The Dagger called the "screen of the year", a blind, midcourt pick set by Tennessee's Brian Williams. He's listed at 272 pounds in his official Vols bio, and may be heavier than that; Wright is listed at 165 pounds in his Oakland bio. It was a clean screen but an unfair collision.

Wright scraped himself off the deck and, in the game's final minute, had the composure to hit a dagger three with 38 seconds left to put the Grizz up five ... and then ice the victory with a couple of free throws 14 seconds later. Perhaps Williams knocked all the fear out of the kid.

Next Three: 12/17 at Charlotte, 12/21 vs. USC, 12/23 vs. Belmont
 
6San Diego State Aztecs
Last Week: 8
The San Diego Union-Tribune brings us the secret behind Malcolm Thomas' recent free-throw shooting surge, as the notorious brick-layer has made 16 of his past 21 from the stripe: He recites the names of his daughter, mother and sister ("Mikeala ... Lori ... Sheala") before each attempt. "Before, when I was shooting free throws, I was thinking, 'Man, if I miss ..." Thomas told the paper. "Thinking of them puts me at ease."

I watched tape of the Aztecs' win over San Diego, in which Thomas was 8-of-9, and it seems that his recitation isn't visible at a Karl Malone level; it's more of a subtle thing. Either way, it's helped convert a player who's been a 50s percent shooter from the stripe for his career into something more respectable. This is a trick Kansas State -- the third-worst free-throw shooting team in America -- might be interested in trying ...

Next Three: 12/18 vs. UC-Santa Barbara, 12/21 vs. San Francisco, 12/22 vs. IUPUI
 
7Georgetown Hoyas
Last Week: 5
Two quality thoughts from a conversation with an opposing assistant who scouted the Hoyas this season:

• "I honestly think, because their guards [Chris Wright, Austin Freeman and Jason Clark] are so talented and skilled, that the faster they play, the better off they are. Because the more chances you give those three guys to make decisions on the fly and create shots, the better off they're going to be."

(I alluded to this Hoya-speed thing a few weeks ago, noting that they're 7-1 in their past eight 74-plus-possession games.)

• "They're really well-coached, and their offense has changed a lot based on the personnel. Whereas they used to have a lot of post plays to get [Greg] Monroe in situations where he could shoot or make a play that led to a shot, now they're doing a lot more side pick-and-rolls, which do a good job of putting Wright, Freeman and Clark in position to make plays."

I screen-grabbed an example of this from the first half of Georgetown's win over Appalachian State on Sunday.



Wright (circled) gets a ball screen from Julian Vaughn on the right wing, while Freeman spreads the floor by sitting on the left wing. As Wright goes left off the screen, Hollis Thompson (rectangled) swoops from the right block up off a down screen. Wright then has five decent options: shoot a three; drive; pass to a rolling Vaughn; pass to a cutting Thompson; or pass to a stationary Freeman.

Next Three: 12/18 vs. Loyola (Md.), 12/23 at Memphis, 12/29 at Notre Dame
 
8Pittsburgh Panthers
Last Week: 3
I'm a fan of simple, direct slogans. There's no better one in college hoops right now than at Northwestern, where the official student shirt says "MAKE SHOTS." This is precisely what the Wildcats do; they rank No. 2 in the nation in effective field-goal percentage, at 60.6 percent. Their junior star, John Shurna, shoots an amazing 64.5 percent from long range. He makes shots. What does this have to do with Pittsburgh?Well, seeing that Northwestern shirt made me think of a potential Panthers derivation ... based on the fact that they still rank No. 1 in the country in offensive rebounding:

Pitt shirt

Next Three: 12/18 vs. Maryland-Eastern Shore, 12/22 vs. American, 12/27 vs. UConn
 
9Syracuse Orange
Last Week: 10
New information in the Fab Melo Mystery: The Brazilian 7-footer told the Syracuse Post-Standard that he doesn't have an Achilles injury, as was previously reported; he actually has a tear in his right calf muscle. Melo has not practiced all week and may not be available for Saturday's game against Iona, but the Orange are used to him being near-absent by now. He's averaging just 2.1 points and 2.2 rebounds in 12.7 minutes despite having been hyped for Big East Freshman of the Year honors in the preseason. The team's intention is to rest Melo until he's healthy, at which point it'll be nice to see what he can actually do. In the meantime, they'll keep leaning on senior Rick Jackson, who's having a phenomenal year, posting offensive/defensive rebounding splits of 14.4%/23.7% and an offensive rating of 117.8.

Next Three: 12/18 vs. Iona, 12/20 vs. Morgan State, 12/22 vs. Drexel
 
10Brigham Young Cougars
Last Week: 12
Thoughts on Cougars guard Jimmer Fredette, from an opposing assistant coach who's scouted BYU: "He's as good a player as there is in college basketball, but he doesn't try on defense other than gambling for the occasional steal. ... He can score in so many different ways -- go 1-on-1 with you and get in the lane or create space for his own shot; or come off of single- and double-screens on the side. He has great range. I think you can bother [his offensive game] with speed, though. You could see Jacob Pullen get [Fredette] out of his game during the NCAA tournament by picking him up full-court, but few teams have a guy who can do what Pullen did. You really need an elite-level defender to stop him."

Next Three: 12/18 vs. UCLA (in Anaheim), 12/21 at Weber State, 12/23 vs. UTEP
 
11Baylor Bears
Last Week: 11
Two thoughts on the Bears from an opposing assistant coach who scouted them this year:

• "LaceDarius Dunn has big ... balls. He's not afraid of any shot and if you leave him alone for a second, it's in the hole. He's a small guy with a push-shot -- it's not a real jumper, but he gets it out of his hands really quickly. When he puts the ball on the floor, he's not looking to get all the way to the basket, he prefers the pull-up or the step-back jumper. You can have your best defender on him and he'll still find a way to kill you with some step-back threes. He's just an elite shooter."

• "Unless you have an NBA post player, you really can't get any points from five feet and in. They're just too long; all their big guys have huge wingspans and will block or alter your shots. They try to turn it into a jump-shooting game, and they don't think you can make enough jumpers to beat them."

Next Three: 12/18 vs. Gonzaga (in Dallas), 12/22 vs. San Diego, 1/2 vs. Texas Southern
 
12Illinois Fighting Illini
Last Week: 13
Thoughts on the Illini from an assistant coach who scouted them this season:

• "Their biggest thing is, are they going to be able to score interior baskets against high-level teams? Or are they going to be primarily a jump-shooting team? Because [the latter strategy] isn't going to win them the Big Ten. [Mike] Davis or [Mike] Tisdale -- one of them needs to step up and start scoring more around the rim."

• "It really looks like [Demetri] McCamey and coach [Bruce] Weber are on the same page now. McCamey is doing such a great job finding guys, and he's become a really consistent shooter, so you have to play him straight up -- and he's strong enough to body most guards, so when he drives, he can put that shoulder into them and get space to score. He's just a great all-around player now."

Next Three: 12/18 vs. UIC, 12/22 vs. Missouri (in St. Louis), 12/29 at Iowa
 
13Missouri Tigers
Last Week: 16
Last week I hijacked Baylor's space to run Year-End Music Power Rankings; this week, Mizzou's spot is being used for the Christmas Book List, which is at least related to basketball (and the Tigers, because Mike Anderson's mentor makes an appearance). If you're scrambling for gift ideas, get a Hoophead one of my favorite basketball books published in 2009 and 2010 (in alphabetical order by author, with links to Amazon):

• The Art of a Beautiful Game: A Thinking Fan's Tour of the NBA, by SI's Chris Ballard
• Forty Minutes of Hell: The Extraordinary Life of Nolan Richardson, by Rus Bradburd
• Citrus County*, by John Brandon
• Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit, and the Youth Basketball Machine, by SI's George Dohrmann
• Freedom**, by Jonathan Franzen
• How Lucky You Can Be: The Story of Coach Don Meyer, by Buster Olney
• One Beautiful Season***, by Kyle Whelliston
• Underdawgs: How Brad Stevens and the Butler Bulldogs Marched Their Way to the Brink of College Basketball's National Championship, by David Woods

(* Not really a basketball book, but Brandon is my favorite new American author, and one of his characters, a middle-school teacher and [reluctant] girls' basketball coach named Mr. Hibma, proposes a genius defensive strategy he calls "Hyenas and Twin Towers." The plan "called for the other team's good player to be triple-teamed while the two remaining defenders stayed under the basket, one on each block, to rebound the misses of the other team's bad players. Hyenas and Twin Towers required two enormous girls who didn't mind being the girls who stood under the basket."

** Not a basketball book either, but the main female character does significant reminiscing about her days as an All-America at Minnesota.

*** I wrote the foreword, so I'm biased. But I'm not making any money off of it.

Next Three: 12/16 vs. Oral Roberts, 12/18 vs. Central Arkansas, 12/22 vs. Illinois (in St. Louis)
 
14Villanova Wildcats
Last Week: 14
Something to consider ... the combined three-point percentages of starting 1-2 guard combos in the upper portion of the Big East:

1. Pitt (Ashton Gibbs, Brad Wanamaker): 43-97 (44.3%)
2. Georgetown (Chris Wright, Austin Freeman): 43-98 (43.9%)
3. Notre Dame (Ben Hansbrough, Tim Abromaitis): 48-110 (43.6%)
4. UConn (Kemba Walker, Jeremy Lamb): 25-67 (37.3%)
5. West Virginia (Truck Bryant, Casey Mitchell): 29-81 (35.8%)
6. Louisville (Peyton Siva, Preston Knowles): 25-79 (31.6%)
7. Syracuse (Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche): 27-86 (31.4%)
8. Marquette (Dwight Buycks, Darius Johnson-Odom): 22-71 (31.0%)
9. Villanova (Maalik Wayns, Corey Fisher): 14-75 (18.7%)

Next Three: 12/18 vs. Delaware, 12/22 at Monmouth, 12/30 vs. Temple
 
15Kansas State Wildcats
Last Week: 15
"Now excuse for a sec while I violate"

That was the launching-off point for Wildcats guard Jacob Pullen's rant about fickle K-State fans on Dec. 12, following the team's narrow win over Loyola in his hometown of Chicago. After thanking the team's real fans and promising things would get better, Pullen wrote:

"To all the fake fans that just jump on and off the bandwagon who think we suck go cheer for somebody down the road then" (sic) ... then ... "And all the idiots that right on messages boards that say this team suck please just stop watching us FYI we have Internet to we read also" (sic).

I think we can all agree that the Wildcats are suffering through some offensive frustration this season, and that includes Pullen, whose scoring average has dropped from 19.3 last season to 16.3 in '10-11. He's in a bit of a cold spell from long range, making just a third of his attempts, but the main concern involves his free-throw rate. He should, theoretically, be drawing more fouls this year due to the fact that the ball is in his hands more often. But his free-throw rate has dropped about eight percent from last season (from 51.5% to 43.0%) -- and that almost mirrors the team's overall drop from '09-10 to the present (from 50.3% to 43.0%). The team's shooting woes should correct themselves over time, but the Wildcats' offense won't truly improve unless Pullen gets into full-attack mode off the dribble and elicits more whistles.

Next Three: 12/18 vs. Florida (in Sunrise, Fla.), 12/21 vs. UNLV (in Kansas City), 12/23 vs. UMKC
 
16Kentucky Wildcats
Last Week: 17
This is Awards Week for the Wildcats, it seems: Coach John Calipari was nominated for the same UN honor that Bill Self was, with Cal earning the nod for his work with the charity Samaritan's Feet. And in much bigger news, kenpom revealed that UK freshman Terrence Jones is his formula's early Player of the Year, providing more overall value to the 'Cats than Kemba Walker does to UConn or Derrick Williams does to Arizona. This should help Mr. Jones' case for being one of the top three players drafted next season (at least in the minds of the scouts who read kenpom, and there are some). What put Jones over the top was how many possessions he ends on D: He may have some lapses, but he grabs 24.6 percent of defensive boards, blocks 6.6 percent of opponents two-point attempts, and has a 2.8 percent steal rate.

Next Three: 12/18 vs. Mississippi Valley State, 12/22 vs. Winthrop, 12/28 vs. Coppin State

Checked In: Kentucky

Dropped Out: UNLV

The Next 18: 17) Texas A&M; 18) Michigan State; 19) Purdue; 20) Louisville; 21) Notre Dame; 22) Minnesota; 23) Wisconsin; 24) Northwestern; 25) Washington; 26) Texas; 27) UNLV; 28) Central Florida; 29) Memphis; 30) Old Dominion; 31) Boston College; 32) Vanderbilt; 33) North Carolina; 34) Temple.

(If you'd like to send the Power Rankings a note -- but preferably not about the order of the teams, because that's a profoundly dull topic you shouldn't waste your energy on -- I'm here.)

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