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Boilermakers vault into top 10

Take it from Tre'Von Willis: "These are supposedly the best Power Rankings on the Internet."

NCAA Basketball Power Rankings
1Duke Blue Devils
Last Week: 1
While some of us can't help but focus on the Kyrie Irving toe situation to the extent that we're making YouTubes of him merely flexing the digit in a cast and scoring them with the opening music of Also sprach Zarathustra, Nolan Smith is doing his best to remind the country that he, too, is an All-America candidate. The Blue Devils' senior, who assumed the role of "scoring point guard" after Irving was hurt against Butler on Dec. 4, had a season-high in points (with 33) against UAB on Wednesday, and has scored 22 or more in each of his past five games.

Of the two players, Irving was more exciting to watch on TV due to his defender-splitting on the perimeter and acrobatics in the lane, whereas Smith is better appreciated for what's probably best described as his "economy of motion." At the Chris Paul's camp this summer in Charlotte, I recall watching him do a drill that required players to build up a head of steam in the open floor, take their last dribble around the three-point line and then explode and extend toward the basket with long strides -- and was pleased to see him replicate that off a high screen for his first basket against the Blazers on Wednesday, taking his last dribble just past the pick, then shielding off the defender (rather than bringing the ball down to his inside hip, where it could be stripped) on his way to the rim:

Nolan Smith

Smith is also excellent at squaring his feet before catches on the perimeter, and avoiding "dipping" the ball much before he rises to shoot threes -- something that was on display on a simple, two-man inbounds play with Mason Plumlee later in the first half. When Smith leaps from the baseline to the corner, moving away from the basket, he actually pivots in the air so he'll land in perfect position to shoot:

Nolan Smith

I realize these are somewhat boring free-frames, but next time you watch Duke, pay attention to just how fundamentally sound Smith is compared to opposing guards. The difference tends to be immense.

Next Three: 1/9 vs. Maryland, 1/12 at Florida State, 1/15 vs. Virginia
 
2Kansas Jayhawks
Last Week: 2
Coming into this season, the perceived hierarchy of the Jayhawks' Morris twins was that Marcus was the really good one, and Markieff was the pretty good one. Marcus did the elite summer circuit (LeBron camp, etc.) and appeared in the first round of NBA Mock Drafts, whereas Markieff mostly stayed in Lawrence and worked on his own. The perception was justified, as Marcus had earned more minutes in '09-10 and been a far more efficient offensive player. A visualization of the Morrises' comparative per-game EFF -- a comprehensive, NBA stat with the formula of ([Points + Rebounds + Assists + Steals + Blocks] - [Field Goals Att. - Field Goals Made] + [Free Throws Att. - Free Throws Made] + Turnovers) -- from last season shows that Marcus had a higher impact for nearly all of the Big 12 campaign:

Morris Twins

This season, the gap between the brothers isn't as clear; they're both improved, but Markieff's playing more, high-efficiency minutes and making such an impact on the glass that he surged ahead of Marcus in KU's games 8-13. I'm curious to see if this trend continues into the Big 12 ... and if NBA scouts have a tougher time distinguishing which brother is the better prospect.

Next Three: 1/9 at Michigan, 1/12 at Iowa State, 1/15 vs. Nebraska
 
3Ohio State Buckeyes
Last Week: 3
Wednesday, I wrote about Buckeyes coach Thad Matta's philosophy of avoiding fouls, which has led to his team ranking No. 1 in the nation in defensive free-throw rate, giving up just 0.187 free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt. Read the story first to get a grasp on why Ohio State plays like it does, but be aware of a few points:

• The Buckeyes aren't the nation's best per-possession defensive team solely because they don't foul; it's possible for a foul-avoiding team to be terrible, if it's lazy enough. What makes OSU interesting is that it combines the nation's lowest free-throw rate with its third-highest forced-turnover percentage (27.3). It's extremely rare for a team to be near the top of both of those categories at the same time.

• I got into a good Twitter debate with the Marquette bloggers at Cracked Sidewalks over how much free-throw rate actually matters. They claim (and back it up with regression data) that the stat only represents three percent of total defense, and is therefore insignificant. My feeling is that it matters far more than that -- in Ohio State's case, at least, free-throw rate has a stronger correlation with its overall defensive efficiency than does defensive-rebounding percentage or turnovers-forced percentage. A low foul rate also allows a team to keep its best players on the floor and dictate its desired matchups at all times, which can boost defensive efficiency. Matta uses only a seven-man rotation, and the size and length of his starting lineup is a big reason why the Buckeyes are able to disrupt so many passes and contest so many jump shots.

Next Three: 1/9 vs. Minnesota, 1/12 at Michigan, 1/15 vs. Penn State
 
4Syracuse Orange
Last Week: 5
After shooting an abysmal 9-for-34 (26.5 percent) from long range in the Orange's first 10 games, junior Kris Joseph found his stroke and made 10 of his next 19 three-point attempts. He credited the correction, in part, to assistant coach Rob Murphy's suggestion to shoot with an oversized (by six inches) ball before and after practice. "The bigger ball demands a lot more concentration," Joseph told the AP, "and you have to be more precise."

The oversized ball isn't a new invention; the original Bigball was created in 1984 and was the subject of a story in an April '91 issue of SI that had a killer Ian Woosnam mullet cover. The ball's inventor was a retired Columbus, Ohio parks superintendent who'd also created "an after-sports citrus beer that doesn't leave the drinker dehydrated." It seems that the beer did not catch on, but the Bigball -- whose prototype was formed by simply stripping off a normal basketball's skin, overinflating the bladder and re-covering it with leather -- made it into mass production, still serving as an antidote for ice-cold shooters 16 years into its existence.

(If you'd prefer to read an undersized-ball story instead, Chris Ballard's paean to Pop-A-Shot ran Wednesday on SI.com, and it's excellent.)

Next Three: 1/8 at Seton Hall, 1/12 at St. John's, 1/15 vs. Cincinnati
 
5Pittsburgh Panthers
Last Week: 8
Nolan Smith isn't the only guard in the Power Rankings' top five with crisp footwork: As fellow film-and-screengrab obsessives at the Mikan Drill recently highlighted, Panthers' point guard Ashton Gibbs excels at moving without the ball, making crisp cuts off of screens. Of any scoring guard I've seen this season, Gibbs runs the tightest curls to free himself for shots -- and that's part of the reason he ranks 10th nationally in offensive rating (at 130.3) among players using 20 percent or more of their team's possessions. Although he's Pitt's de-facto point guard, he has the luxury of sharing the floor with 1-2 other playmakers: Backup point Travon Woodall, who sees major minutes, has an assist rate of 30.9 percent, and two-guard Brad Wanamaker, one of the country's best creators on the wing, has an assist rate of 33.6. If Gibbs were forced to generate most of his offense off the dribble, he wouldn't be nearly as effective.

Next Three: 1/8 vs. Marquette, 1/12 at Georgetown, 1/15 vs. Seton Hall
 
6San Diego State Aztecs
Last Week: 6
The Aztecs have a pair of athletic star forwards in 6-foot-7 sophomore Kawhi Leonard (15.6 ppg) and 6-9 senior Malcolm Thomas (12.0 ppg), but their offensive games are vastly different. As the following shot chart from Wednesday's win over TCU shows, Thomas does all of his work directly around the rim. He took 10 shots against the Horned Frogs, and only one of them was from outside the lane -- a three he was forced to launch with the shot clock expiring. Leonard, on the other hand, likes to take either step-back threes off the dribble, or turnaround, fadeaway jumpers around the fringes of the paint. His two dunks came in transition, and his lone layup was a putback of an offensive rebound. (Key: Filled-in circles are makes, empty circles are misses. JS = jump shot, LU = layup, DK = dunk.)

Kawhi Leonard

Next Three: 1/8 at Utah, 1/12 vs. UNLV, 1/15 at New Mexico
 
7Texas Longhorns
Last Week: 9
In our Midseason Crystal Ball feature on Tuesday, I picked the 'Horns as my Final Four dark horse -- classifying them as a dark horse because they didn't have high expectations in the preseason and have only recently begun to ascend the national rankings. Texas lost three NBA Draft picks (Avery Bradley, Damion James and Dexter Pittman) off last year's team, but appears to be better constructed for a tourney run this time around. It has a clear, go-to guy on the perimeter in Jordan Hamilton, who's the nation's biggest breakout sophomore, and is taking 34.0 percent of the 'Horns' shots. Starting guards Dogus Balbay and Cory Joseph are moving the ball better than the '09-10 backcourt did. Joseph and fellow Canadian Tristan Thompson, who should be NBA prospects for 2012 or '13, have yet to hit their offensive peaks, although Thompson has grabbed at least five offensive boards (that's a huge amount) in each of the past three games. What impresses me most, though, is that Texas already has its defensive game together, ranking seventh nationally in efficiency, mainly because the 'Horns hold opponents to 38.6 percent shooting inside the arc. When they realize all of their offensive potential, they could be scary.

Next Three: 1/8 vs. UConn, 1/11 at Texas Tech, 1/15 vs. Oklahoma
 
8Purdue Boilermakers
Last Week: 13
Seth Davis' hotly anticipated midseason Stock Report dropped on Tuesday, with his lone "Buy-Plus" rating going to North Carolina, and 17 other squads listed as "Buys." Mr. Davis and I are mostly of the same mind -- purchasing Baylor and Kentucky, selling UConn and Memphis -- but I differ with him on the Boilers, whom he advised stock-owners dump. They're ranked No. 11 in the latest AP poll. Seth thinks that's inflated due to an average nonconference schedule, and writes, "Expect the Boilermakers to get knocked down a few pegs toward the end of January, when they hit the teeth of their Big Ten schedule."

I would actually buy Purdue at No. 11, because the supporting cast around JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore -- who are both off to phenomenal starts -- is only going to get better. Freshman Terone Johnson is seeing extended minutes in Big Ten play and gaining confidence as a slasher-scorer. Sophomore guard John Hart was an early revelation as their most accurate three-point shooter (16-for-35, 45.7 percent), but has been out with a stress fracture in his foot since Dec. 4. His return could be imminent, according to reports. And junior shooting guard Ryne Smith, who scored in double-figures just once in nonconference play, has blown up against the Big Ten, scoring 17 against Michigan, 13 against Northwestern and 20 against Penn State on Wednesday. Hart, Smith (49.1 percent on threes for the season) and Moore (44.3) could form a lethal long-range trio that creates more space for JaJuan Johnson to operate in the lane, where he's becoming difficult to defend 1-on-1.

Next Three: 1/9 vs. Iowa, 1/13 at Minnesota, 1/16 at West Virginia
 
9Missouri Tigers
Last Week: 10
Only four players in the country have attempted more than 80 threes and made them at a 50-percent clip or better. Tigers guard Marcus Denmon is in that prestigious club:

Player, Team                      3PM    3PA    Pct.
Nemanja Mitrovic, Portland 46 84 54.8
Scott Christopherson, Iowa St. 46 89 51.7
Jon Diebler, Ohio State 48 94 51.1
Marcus Denmon, Missouri 43 86 50.0


Denmon was the subject of a recent Kansas City Star piece by Sam Mellinger that's one of my favorite college hoops stories of the season to date. It mentions Denmon's shooting prowess -- "Every shot I take in a game I've taken that shot thousands of times," he tells the paper -- but is primarily about the family crisis he's endured this winter, leading with a chilling scene of gunshots ringing out at the November funeral of his cousin, who was murdered in cold blood in Kansas City. It'll help you understand why Denmon seems so fearless when he's on the court.

Next Three: 1/8 at Colorado, 1/12 vs. Nebraska, 1/15 at Texas A&M
 
10Villanova Wildcats
Last Week: 11
I've been playing around with the new plus-minus data that's appeared on StatSheet this season, and although it's not perfect -- no pace-adjusted plus-minus data exists like it does in the NBA -- we can learn some things about a player's value from his net plus-minus rating per 40 minutes. After hearing various opinions on what 'Nova's best lineups are -- some opposing scouts think the 'Cats are better with just one big man on the floor and Dominic Cheek as a fourth guard; some think they're better with two bigs in the paint -- it seemed worthwhile to rank the plus-minus-per-40 ratings of everyone in Jay Wright's rotation. Data was available from 11 of the Wildcats' 13 games, yielding the following chart:

Rk.  Player             Mins     +/-     +/- per 40
1. Isaiah Armwood 160 73 18.3
2. Maalik Wayns 371 163 17.6
3. Corey Stokes 425 186 17.5
4. Corey Fisher 424 181 17.1
5. Antonio Pena 384 146 15.2
6. Mouphtaou Yarou 319 120 15.0
7. Dominic Cheek 284 94 13.2
8. Maurice Sutton 149 28 7.5


It appears that Armwood has been somewhat of a super-sub, with a slightly higher per-40 rating than any of 'Nova's starters. Its three starting guards (Wayns, Stokes and Fisher) are almost indistinguishable from each other. The two starting bigs, Pena and Yarou, have better numbers than Cheek, suggesting that the team isn't being held back by its current starting lineup. The Wildcats' lone, serious drop-off occurs when Sutton steps into the frontcourt; he's playing roughly 7.5 points worse per 40 than the first-line forwards.

Next Three: 1/6 at South Florida, 1/9 vs. Cincinnati, 1/12 vs. Louisville
 
11Kentucky Wildcats
Last Week: 14
Here's a big reason to feel good about "buying" the Wildcats: Dan Hanner's study of teams' efficiency splits between cupcake games (opponents outside the kenpom.com top 100) and tough games reveals that Kentucky has played significantly better defense against quality opponents than it has against weaklings. The 'Cats have yielded 0.843 points per possession against their top-100 foes (Portland, Washington, UConn, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Indiana and Louisville), and 0.913 points per possession against their cupcakes. Some of the sample sizes in Hanner's study are too small to yield solid conclusions, but Kentucky has seven top-100 games, with five of those coming against teams in kenpom's top 32. Which means that John Calipari's defense might actually be better than the overall numbers suggest -- and the overall numbers aren't that bad. UK currently ranks No. 19 in defensive efficiency. Vanderbilt might have a tougher time challenging the 'Cats for the SEC title than I expected.

Next Three: 1/8 at Georgia, 1/11 vs. Auburn, 1/15 vs. LSU
 
12Brigham Young Cougars
Last Week: 16
Well, we have a candidate (and some subject matter) for the title of T.J. Fredette's next Jimmer-themed rap single: "Supposedly." The loaded adverb was at the center of the season's most high-profile trash-talking to date. In a Rebel Nation article leading up to Wednesday's home game against one-loss BYU, Rebels guard Tre'Von Willis called Cougars star Jimmer Fredette "supposedly the best player in the conference." Then, referring to the fact that Fredette had yet to win a game at UNLV in his career, Willis said, "he's got all those accolades but he's got to come in here and prove it."

Fredette, who read the comment ("I definitely saw it and was reminded of it," he said) came into the Thomas & Mack Center and put up 39 points on 12-of-25 shooting. He did some friendly jawing with Willis, walked out with a 89-77 victory and clear status as the best player in the Mountain West. Fredette also made it clear that he'll be giving Ohio State's Jared Sullinger a fight for national player of the year honors. Sullinger may have a 40-point game to his name, but that was against IUPUI -- and he can't make shots like the one I have freeze-framed below, which Jimmer launched (and made) while even with the end of UNLV's center-court logo:

Jimmer Fredette

Next Three: 1/8 vs. Air Force, 1/11 at Utah, 1/18 vs. TCU
 
13Texas A&M Aggies
Last Week: 12
Ken Pomeroy used his efficiency ratings to simulate the remainder of the season 10,000 times, and published the results of each conference race in his blog. The Big 12 was deemed to be the sixth-most lopsided race, with Kansas winning 8,352 of the scenarios. (The ACC is first, with Duke winning 9,381 of its scenarios.) The Aggies were projected to win the league the fifth-highest number of times -- and not fourth, where they stand in the Power Rankings -- because kenpom's numbers still consider Baylor a more serious threat.

Kansas State has fallen apart in the simulation's eyes, projected to win only about 1/5 of the times A&M is. Did anyone out there expect the Aggies to be in better standing than K-State at the outset of the Big 12 season? Now, with A&M having emerged as a better all-around rebounding team than the normally dominant-on-the-glass Wildcats, it would be a disappointment if the Ags fell behind Frank Martin's dysfunctional bunch.

Next Three: 1/8 at Oklahoma, 1/12 vs. Oklahoma State, 1/15 vs. Missouri
 
14Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Last Week: 20
How much will the Irish be impacted by the loss of forward Carleton Scott, who missed Tuesday's win over UConn with a slight hamstring tear and is expected to be out for the rest of the month? While gunners Ben Hansbrough and Tim Abromaitis are their best-known players, Scott was quietly putting together a monster senior season -- so much that he was leading the team in Player Efficiency Rating (or PER, an all-encompassing Hollinger stat), and ranked ninth in PER among Big East players averaging 25-plus minutes per game. The entire top 10 is below, led by a certain UConn scoring guard:

Player           Team            PER
Kemba Walker Connecticut 42.1
Rick Jackson Syracuse 40.0
Marshon Brooks Providence 38.9
Austin Freeman Georgetown 37.0
Justin Brownlee St. John's 36.0
Brad Wanamaker Pittsburgh 34.7
Jimmy Butler Marquette 34.5
Casey Mitchell West Virginia 31.0
Carleton Scott Notre Dame 30.4


Next Three: 1/8 vs. St. John's, 1/10 at Marquette, 1/16 at St. John's
 
15Michigan State Spartans
Last Week: --
The last time I saw Spartans point guard Kalin Lucas in person -- against Syracuse on Dec. 7 -- he wasn't in full health and wasn't attacking the rim, opting to stand still and shoot mostly threes instead. That was a miserable game for him: He only made one layup and one three in half-court situations, one layup in transition, and missed his other six shots. Lucas at least looked better when I watched him beat Northwestern on Tuesday, showing more speed in his two transition layups and the three times he attacked the rim in half-court sets (as well as two other drives that resulted in assists).

But when I mapped out his shot chart from that NU game to see if he'd changed much since the Madison Square Garden debacle, something strange came to light: Lucas may have been healthier in Evanston, but he'd lost all sense of how to locate the three-point line:

Kalin Lucas

The "Long Two" is regarded as the worst (or least-efficient) shot in basketball, and against Northwestern, Lucas took six jumpers with his feet on or just inside the three-point line, and one more jumper a few feet inside the arc. He went 2-for-7 on those shots, with one of them getting blocked and converted into points on the other end of the floor. It's one of the most inexplicable shot charts I've ever seen -- a heady senior point guard taking the lowest-percentage shot on the floor seven times in one game! No wonder the Wildcats managed to stay in it until the final shot.

Next Three: 1/8 at Penn State, 1/11 vs. Wisconsin, 1/15 vs. Northwestern
 
16Washington Huskies
Last Week: 26
Man, I feel for Abdul Gaddy, the Huskies sophomore point guard who tore his left ACL in practice this week and will be out for the remainder of the season. He was the subject of a column I wrote from the FIBA Americas U18 tournament in San Antonio this summer. There, he told me how despondent he'd been at times during his freshman year at UW, when he arrived as Rivals.com's No. 2-rated point guard and didn't even come close to living up to the hype. He'd watch his AAU friend, Avery Bradley, doing well at Texas and setting himself up to be a first-round draft pick, and Gaddy would wonder, Why aren't I doing the same thing?

At that tournament in Texas, I couldn't say with confidence that Gaddy would turn things around in '10-11, because he was buried on that team's bench behind a high school senior, Kyrie Irving, and a high school junior, Austin Rivers. In retrospect, that may have been a statement of just how good Irving and Rivers are, not how weak Gaddy was -- because he was enjoying a breakout sophomore campaign with the Huskies, seeing major improvement in nearly every main statistical category, including these:

Season    Mins.   Pts.   ORating   A/T ratio
'09-10 18.2 3.9 84.5 +1.3
'10-11 23.2 8.5 126.4 +3.1


Now he'll have to wait 'til '11-12 to truly break out -- and miss the rest of Washington's likely run to the Pac-10 title.

Next Three: 1/6 vs. Oregon, 1/8 vs. Oregon State, 1/13 at Stanford

Checked In: Notre Dame, Michigan State, Washington

Dropped Out: Central Florida, Georgetown, UConn

The Next 16: 17) Illinois, 18) St. John's, 19) Central Florida, 20) Georgetown, 21) Vanderbilt, 22) Temple, 23) UConn, 24) Wisconsin, 25) Louisville, 26) Florida, 27) Cincinnati, 28) Gonzaga, 29) Baylor, 30) Tennessee, 31) North Carolina, 32) St. Mary's.

(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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