Thursday January 7th, 2010

My No. 1 team was in serious danger of losing to some Ivy Leaguers in a local-cable-TV game on Wednesday night -- a near-upset that I'm sure some will see as evidence that Kansas shouldn't be atop the polls. I'm sticking with the Jayhawks instead of Texas, though. Kansas showed it could play crunch-time defense against Cornell's version of Stephen Curry, Ryan Wittman, who was on fire in the first half but didn't hit a three for the final nine minutes; and Sherron Collins reminded us that he might be the country's best guard with the game on the line. The Longhorns can play D, but they don't have a playmaker like Collins -- and that's why they're not No. 1.

NCAA Basketball Power Rankings
1Kansas Jayhawks
Last Week: 1
The Jayhawks seem to be the elite team that's least likely to see zone defenses this season. Of the members of the Undefeated Club, I'd zone Texas because it ranks 205th in the country in three-point shooting at 33.2 percent, and I'd zone Purdue because it's even worse than Texas from long-range, ranking 262nd at 31.4 percent. Although Kentucky shoots the trey quite well (at 40.6 percent, 20th in the country), I'd consider zoning the 'Cats just to contain point guard John Wall in dribble-drive and screen-and-roll situations. But why even try to zone Kansas? It ranks third in country from distance (at 43.1 percent), and when it uses its "gunner" lineup, with Sherron Collins at the point, either Tyrel Reed or Brady Morningstar at the two, and Xavier Henry at the three, it's scary against a 2-3 defense.

Case in point: The first possession in which Belmont tried a 2-3 on Dec. 29. The eight-frame grid below shows how the Jayhawks dissected that D to obtain a wide-open three for Henry on the left wing. (If the arrows are confusing, don't worry -- a full breakdown follows.)



In Frames 1 and 2, Collins (who had previously passed back-and-forth to Morningstar to shift the defense to the left) rotates the ball to Henry in the right corner, which draws out the backline wing defender (highlighted by the orange oval). In Frames 3, 4, 5 and 6, KU rotates the ball back to Collins and Morningstar, while Henry runs along the baseline and Cole Aldrich (who had shifted over from the opposite post to overload the right corner) flashes to the left elbow. The genius of this zone action is in Frame 6: That right-corner overload leaves Marcus Morris occupying two defenders on the right block, and the other back-line defender (highlighted by the yellow oval) is lured into chasing Aldrich's high-post flash as Henry makes baseline run. That leaves Henry all alone on the left wing, and the defender can't recover in time to challenge the shot in Frame 8, which is a made three. That, folks, is perfect execution.

Next three: 1/10 at Tennessee, 1/13 at Nebraska, 1/16 vs. Texas Tech
 
2Texas Longhorns
Last Week: 2
Big news in the world of hoops video games: EA Sports is reviving SEGA Genesis classic NBA Jam for the Wii. New York Magazine's The Sporting Scene blog posted Power Rankings of potential 2009-10 NBA Jam duos, surmising that the Magic's Dwight Howard and Rashard Lewis would be the beasts of the East, and the Lakers' Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom would be the best in the West. New York Magazine says that "the ideal lineup is a shooter and a big man," although "the perfect NBA Jam player is a shooter and a dunking, shoving big man, which is why LeBron James would, without question, be the greatest player in NBA Jam history."

The reason I mention this here is to ask you to ignore, for a moment, that the game's name is NBA Jam, and come up with the ultimate college-team duo for the game. If the LeBron hypothesis is true, then a Texas duo of Damion James (an OK shooter and a great dunking, shoving big man) and Jordan Hamilton (the 'Horns' best shooter and a slashing, dunking big man) would be hard to stop. My top four NCAA Jam combos would be:

1. John Wall and Patrick Patterson, Kentucky
2. Damion James and Jordan Hamilton, Texas
3. Da'Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks, West Virginia
4. Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich, Kansas
5. Jerome Dyson and Stanley Robinson, UConn

What Jam-worthy duos am I forgetting? Feel free to send e-mail using the link at the end of the rankings.

Next three: 1/9 vs. Colorado, 1/13 at Iowa State, 1/16 vs. Texas A&M
 
3Kentucky Wildcats
Last Week: 3
It's not a stretch to say that Wildcats freshman center DeMarcus Cousins, who plays just 20.1 minutes per game, is the best rebounder in the country. He's third in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage at 30.1, and No. 1 in offensive rebounding percentage at 24.7 -- a rate that, it should be noted, is better than DeJuan Blair's from last season. So why isn't Cousins viewed as more of a national star? Part of it is because he's thought of as a headcase, and his Elbowgate (or Forearmgate) Incident against Louisville is still a huge topic in the Bluegrass State. The bigger issue, though, is that he's a black hole on offense: Despite playing on a team with two All-America candidates in John Wall and Patrick Patterson, Cousins takes 37.6 percent of Kentucky's shots while he's on the floor. That's the third-highest percentage of any player in the country, according to kenpom.com. Of the top five major-conference shot hogs, only Cousins is on a team with other offensive stars:

Rk. Player School %Shots
2 Lazar Hayward Marquette 38.6
3 DeMarcus Cousins Kentucky 37.6
12 Klay Thompson Wash. St. 35.5
15 Luke Harangody Notre Dame 35.4
21 Jeremy Hazell Seton Hall 34.6
The Wildcats were 11th in the Pomeroy efficiency rankings through Tuesday, but would make an offensive jump if more of Cousins' shots -- particularly the ones when he's double-teamed in the post -- went to Patterson instead. Patterson's offensive rating (137.4) is more than 20 points higher than Cousins' (115.3).

Next three: 1/9 vs. Georgia, 1/12 at Florida, 1/16 at Auburn

 
4Purdue Boilermakers
Last Week: 5
Among the weird things that happened during Christmas break: For the Boilers' 79-60 win over Minnesota on Tuesday, the Paint Crew was filled with old people (otherwise known as alums) rather than Purdue students. Boiled Sports ran a screengrab of the Chipped Paint Crew, which included a few guys wearing collared shirts under their black tees. The lack of undergraduate noise didn't bother the Boilers, who bullied their way to the free-throw line: Robbie Hummel, JaJuan Johnson, Chris Kramer and E'Twaun Moore combined for all of the team's 27 makes from the stripe, while the Gophers had just 16 total. Purdue won the free-throw battle in similar fashion in its monumental victory over sixth-ranked West Virginia on Jan. 1, making 17 free throws compared to the Mountaineers' nine. That, in part, was how the Boilers withstood WVU's 75 percent shooting from beyond the arc. Will they get the same whistle treatment at the Kohl Center on Saturday, when they face a Wisconsin team with one of the best home-court advantages in college basketball?

Next three: 1/9 at Wisconsin, 1/12 vs. Ohio State, 1/16 at Northwestern
 
5Duke Blue Devils
Last Week: 6
It's difficult to make a case against Jon Scheyer as a first-team All-America. After Wednesday's 31-point, four-assist performance in his United Center homecoming against Iowa State, he's averaging 19.7 points per game, which is second-best among ACC players. He's also tops in the league in assists (6.1 per game), free-throw percentage (91.5) and minutes played (35.3). There's also the fact that he leads the country in assist-to-turnover ratio (4.5-to-1), despite not being officially referred to by his coach as a point guard. My All-America squads through Jan. 6 would look like this:

First Team*: John Wall, Fr. guard, Kentucky; Jon Scheyer, Sr. guard, Duke; Wes Johnson, Jr. forward, Syracuse; Damion James, Sr. forward, Texas; Luke Harangody, Sr. forward, Notre Dame.

Second Team**: Sherron Collins, Sr. guard, Kansas; Klay Thompson, Soph. guard, Washington State; Quincy Pondexter, Sr. forward, Washington; Ekpe Udoh, Jr. center, Baylor; Omar Samhan, Sr. center, St. Mary's.

(* Ohio State's Evan Turner, who returned from injury hiatus Wednesday, could play his way back to first-team status, but I'm leaving him off for now. ** Three more who might as well be second-teamers: West Virginia's Da'Sean Butler, BYU's Jimmer Fredette and Purdue's JaJuan Johnson.)

Next three: 1/9 at Georgia Tech, 1/13 vs. Boston College, 1/17 vs. Wake Forest
 
6Syracuse Orange
Last Week: 4
The Orange's 74-57 win over Memphis on Wednesday featured a curious personnel decision. In a game that mostly drove Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim nuts (he threw off his suit coat and said afterward, "I'm not happy about anything I saw out there tonight"), backup point guard Scoop Jardine played so well in the first half, making both of his three-point attempts and dishing out three assists against zero turnovers, that he only played 60 seconds in the second half. Boeheim told The Post-Standard that the benching had nothing to do with Jardine and everything to do with starting point guard Brandon Triche, who had struggled through the previous two games as well as the first half against the Tigers (zero points, one assist, two turnovers). "I wanted Brandon to get going," Boeheim told the paper. "He'd played the last couple games like a freshman and he shouldn't be."

The strategy worked. The game was tied 32-32 at the break, but the Orange went on a 14-7 run to open the second half, with Triche hitting a three and dishing out two key assists to Wes Johnson and Arinze Onuaku.

Next three: 1/10 vs. South Florida, 1/13 at Rutgers, 1/16 at West Virginia
 
7West Virginia Mountaineers
Last Week: 7
The longest game-winning shot of this young season belongs to Florida's Chandler Parsons, who stunned N.C. State on Jan. 3 by grabbing a missed free-throw in the waning seconds and swishing a 70-foot heave. Time expires while the shot's in the air, and the YouTube is beautiful. The most exciting game-winner of this season belongs to Harvard's Jeremy Lin, who hit a three-point runner (after being bumped twice) to beat William & Mary in triple-overtime on Nov. 15. The most controversial game-winner belongs to Butler's Gordon Hayward, whose bunny against Xavier on Dec. 19 was determined to be the game's last shot after referees used a stopwatch to correct a clock error. And the most nonchalant game-winner ... belongs to West Virginia's Da'Sean Butler, who beat Cleveland State that same day with a shot straight out of a layup drill. It may go down as the least-contested clutch shot of the season.

Next three: 1/9 at Notre Dame, 1/13 at South Florida, 1/16 vs. Syracuse
 
8Villanova Wildcats
Last Week: 8
Less than three weeks after welcoming suspended senior Reggie Redding back to their rotation, the Wildcats got another huge addition: Freshman center Mouphtaou Yarou, who missed the past 11 games while battling hepatitis B, returned (wearing double arm-sleeves to play 14 minutes in a 99-72 mauling of DePaul. He scored just four points and pulled down two rebounds, but simply having him available was a big deal; when a blood test in November initially revealed the hep B, it was thought Yarou might miss the entire season. If he gets back into shape and becomes a force alongside Antonio Pena in the paint, 'Nova's defense should improve. Without him, the 'Cats' D was porous enough to earn them headliner status on my Early Warnings list.

Next three: 1/9 vs. Marquette, 1/11 at Louisville, 1/17 vs. Georgetown
1 - 8 9 - 16

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.