Last Week: 3
Ohio State Buckeyes (17-0)I chose Jared Sullinger as Midseason Player of the Year in this week's SI, but after seeing the latest episode of The Jimmer Show, I'm no longer certain of that vote. The Buckeyes are the new Power Rankings' new No. 1, after Duke lost to Florida State, but I'm not certain that Ohio State is a significantly better team than Kansas, which has been No. 2 for much of the season. I just like OSU's road resume a bit better, and think the Buckeyes are a more fine-tuned team right now. What I can be sure of, regarding the Buckeyes, is that I'm a fan of David Lighty, the senior glue guy who made a series of big plays in the second half of their Escape from Ann Arbor on Wednesday.
Some of Lighty's work showed up in the box score -- he had 12 points and five assists against one turnover -- but some, like the play I'll outline below, go into that nebulous "glue" file. A preface: Sullinger was not having his best game (he took just six shots in 35 minutes). The Wolverines were playing man-to-man defense with just under nine minutes to go; they were switching on screens, and Lighty's man, Zack Novak, would leave him to double-down on Sullinger if the ball was fed into the post. Ohio State ran a set that aimed to get Sullinger in a one-on-one situation on the right block:
Above, Lighty (circled) is setting a screen for Jon Diebler, a 50-percent three-point shooter who'll fade to the weakside wing and spread the floor. The key, for Lighty, is to set a hard enough screen on Tim Hardaway Jr. -- with an immovable right foot and shoulder -- that it forces Novak to switch onto Diebler. Meanwhile, Buckeyes point guard Aaron Craft looks to pass to William Buford in the right corner. The next frame shows Buford with the ball:
Because of the switch on Lighty's screen, Novak (shown between the arrows) is trapped near the left wing, preventing a skip pass to Diebler. It appears that it's now Hardaway Jr.'s job to place himself in the vicinity of Sullinger -- except Hardaway Jr. can't get there, because Lighty is pinning him outside the three-point line with a sort of wrestling move. This ensures that Sullinger will be isolated against the outmatched Evan Smotrycz on the block. The ball gets fed inside:
Sullinger is already drop-stepping with his left foot while the pass is in the air. His easy two-pointer will be on the stat sheet, but Lighty's removal of two players from the defensive possession (Novak, via the switch, and Hardaway, via the pin) will go undocumented. Until now, that is.
Next Three: 1/15 vs. Penn State, 1/19 vs. Iowa, 1/22 at Illinois
Last Week: 2
Kansas Jayhawks (16-0)Player Efficiency Rating, or PER, is an all-encompassing stat John Hollinger created to measure NBA players' per-minute, pace-adjusted performance across a host of statistical categories, both positive and negative. DraftExpress applies the formula to college players in its database, and here we'll use it to compare the relative productivity of players in Kansas' rotation versus the two other, major-conference undefeateds (Ohio State and Syracuse), as well as newly imperfect Duke.
In the graph below, Syracuse's nine-man rotation is displayed left-to-right in order of average minutes played (Rick Jackson gets a team-high 33.7 minutes, while Fab Melo gets a rotation-low 11.4), and each player's column represents his PER through 16 available games. The Orange are listed first because I get the sense that they have a "normal" elite-team profile, in that their top three rotation guys have high PERs, as does one super-sub (in this case, Dion Waiters):
Duke (with an eight-man rotation) and Ohio State (with seven) follow a similar pattern of a big three at the front:
The Jayhawks, meanwhile, look completely different:
Their top six players in PER come from the back seven spots in the rotation, with Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford making pretty strong cases for playing time. (A flaw in PER is that it can't capture a player's total defensive value, so it's possible that Brady Morningstar is more vital than the graph would indicate, but he needs to be pulling more weight on offense.) This is something to follow for the rest of the season: Will the hierarchy of coach Bill Self's rotation change, or will the back-end PER stars (Thomas Robinson, Johnson and Releford) remain in their current roles? After slotting the Morris twins into the two starting forward spots, Self is faced with some tough personnel decisions.
Next Three: 1/15 vs. Nebraska, 1/17 at Baylor, 1/22 vs. Texas
Last Week: 1
Duke Blue Devils (16-1)I spent approximately 1,000 words discussing the Blue Devils' first loss in a column late last night, so a different topic is in order here ...
Duke -- and this is not surprising, with its volume of talent and superior sense of court-spacing -- is one of the country's jump-shooting elites. The Blue Devils rank fourth in three-point percentage (at 42.8) and have been schooled to avoid long twos (just 3.9 percent of their shots come from that danger zone between 17 feet and the line).
Prior to the Florida State game, they had four rotation players shooting better than 38 percent from long range: Andre Dawkins, at 52.9; Seth Curry, at 44.9; Kyle Singer, at 39.8; and Nolan Smith, at 38.6. Percentages don't always reveal the full profile of a shooter, however, and I was curious as to who was benefitting the most from wide-open looks created by teammates in half-court sets. Using available scouting data on each player's catch-and-shoot jumpers (not just threes) through 15 games, let's look at their efficiency (in points per shot attempt, or PPS) in "contested" against "uncontested" situations:
Player Overall Contested Unc'tested Diff
Last Week: 4
Syracuse Orange (17-0)The first blockbuster in-conference game of 2011 is set for Monday at the Peterson Events Center, where the Orange and Pittsburgh have their only meeting of the Big East regular season, thanks to the league's unbalanced schedule. It's amazing that Syracuse hasn't beaten a Jamie Dixon team since the finals of the 2006 Big East tournament -- and it hasn't beaten the Panthers in a normal conference game since Feb. 29, 2004. A win on Monday, although improbable, would go a long way toward putting the Orange in the conversation with Ohio State and Kansas for the No. 1 overall ranking.
It may only be mid-January, but looking around the nation, there aren't many major-statement conference games left that are on par with Syracuse-Pitt:
ACC: Duke is the only ranked team. Ouch.
Big East: Villanova, the other team tied for first place, meets 'Cuse and Pitt twice.
Big Ten: The Ohio State-Purdue series, on Jan. 25 in Columbus and Feb. 19 in West Lafayette.
Big 12: Kansas' dates with Texas (Jan. 22), Mizzou (Feb. 7, March 5) and Texas A&M (March 2).
Mountain West: The BYU-San Diego State series, on Jan. 26 in Provo, and Feb. 26 in San Diego.
Pac-10: Washington is the only ranked team. Sad.
SEC: Kentucky-Vanderbilt, on Feb. 12 in Nashville, March 1 in Lexington.
Next Three: 1/15 vs. Cincinnati, 1/17 at Pittsburgh, 1/22 vs. Villanova
Last Week: 5
Pittsburgh Panthers (16-1)The Panthers are ranked second in the nation in assist percentage, with assists being credited on 70.2 percent of their field goals.* In three games this season, according to StatSheet's advanced data, Pitt has assisted on at least 80 percent of its made baskets -- 87.1 percent at home against Rider, 80.5 at home against Maryland-Eastern Shore and 80.0 at home against Marquette. Four Panthers (Brad Wanamaker, Ashton Gibbs, Gilbert Brown and Travon Woodall) are averaging more than three assists per game, but as a comparison chart of their assists from the Marquette game shows, they do their playmaking in different ways.
(A key to the chart below: The location of the passer is shown with a blue circle containing his initials. The location of the scorer is shown with a clear circle containing his initials. Zigzagging black lines represent dribble-drives, and red arrows represent passes. "SF" means a shot-fake started the drive. "OOB" means the pass came on an out-of-bounds play. The yellow numbers show the order in which the assists occurred.)
It becomes clear -- if it wasn't already on TV -- that Wanamaker is the one doing the serious playmaking, using dribble-drives from the wings to create shots for others from scratch. He's by far Pitt's most valuable player. Gibbs does some creating off the dribble, in part because opponents close out on him so hard to contest would-be shots, but both he and Woodall earned two of their assists from inbounds plays.
* One thing that I regret to have to mention: For the purposes of making that chart, I film-reviewed 18 of the 24 assists the Panthers were credited with in that Marquette game, and at least two of the 18 were not assists as defined in the NCAA Statistician's Manual. It states that "an assist should be more than a routine pass that just happens to be followed by a field goal," and that pass to a player who is "well guarded and had to make a move to get free" before scoring is not an assist. On the fourth assist Gibbs is credited with, he merely brings the ball up and makes a standard pass to Wanamaker on the left wing; Wanamaker, who's fully guarded, faces up against his man, pauses, drives right into the lane, and pulls up for a jumper. The pass gave him no advantage. On the second assist Woodall is credited with, he makes a similar pass to Wanamaker on the right wing, prior to Wanamaker facing up his man, pausing, and driving to score. Again, it was a normal pass in the course of the offense that gave no advantage. The Panthers are excellent passers, but there's a chance their assist totals may be inflated by friendly scorekeeping: Their assist percentage in 12 home games is 73.5, while in five neutral/road games, it's just 60.9.
Next Three: 1/15 vs. Seton Hall, 1/17 vs. Syracuse, 1/22 at DePaul
Last Week: 10
Villanova Wildcats (15-1)The Wildcats' starting guards (Corey Fisher, Maalik Wayns and Corey Stokes) thrive in different situations. Using the same scouting data we used to break down Duke's shooters, we can look at the points per possession of 'Nova's backcourt across four categories -- transition, pick and rolls (including passes to teammates who score), isolation and spot-up shots:
Player Trans. Pick&Roll Isolation Spot-Up
Last Week: 8
Purdue Boilermakers (15-1)On Wednesday, when Mike Rothstein of the Ann Arbor News released the results of his first Player of the Year poll, Boilermakers forward JaJuan Johnson received just one vote (for second place) on the 55 submitted ballots. Should there be more buzz around him for the Wooden and Naismith Awards? Are we overlooking his productivity and paying too much attention to the crooked numbers being posted by Sullinger, UConn's Kemba Walker and BYU's Jimmer Fredette (who were 1-2-3 on my ballot)? The kPOY Rankings -- Ken Pomeroy's formula that takes into account player productivity and team strength, and has no TV-exposure or hype bias -- had Johnson ranked second overall behind Sullinger as of Sunday, which suggests that the Purdue big man deserves closer examination leading up to his showdown with the Buckeyes on Jan. 25. A dominating performance there will no doubt swing him a bunch of Sullinger's votes.
Next Three: 1/13 at Minnesota, 1/16 at West Virginia, 1/19 vs. Penn State
Last Week: 6
San Diego State Aztecs (18-0)The midseason edition of SI.com's college hoops Style Archive dropped on Tuesday, with UCLA's Reeves Nelson (and his Reeves Sleeve) as the primary West Coast representative. I regrettably compiled the top 20 before becoming aware of the "Raise the Roof" renaissance being led by Washington guard Isaiah Thomas via his Twitter account. He announced his plan to bring back the roof-raise celebration against Oregon on Jan. 6, and did so after his first dunk of the season.
It then spread to San Diego State -- this is Aztecs-related! -- when forward Malcolm Thomas roof-raised after a dunk against UNLV on Wednesday night. Isaiah Thomas noted it on Twitter, writing, "Haha Watchin sportscenter and they showed my bro @Malcolm4Thomas #RTR" (sic). To which Malcolm replied, "Its a movement bro!" (sic) We will be monitoring any further cross-pollinated celebrations between Washington and San Diego State.
Next Three: 1/15 at New Mexico, 1/19 vs. Air Force, 1/26 at BYU
Last Week: 17-1
(Key: Filled-in circles are makes, empties are misses. JS = jump shot, RU = runner, LU = layup, DF = drew foul. Yellow numbers indicate the sequence of the shots.)
Pretty insane -- especially the fact that Fredette makes almost all of his shots from the right side of the floor -- isn't it? It's as if the left side is only of use to him for drawing an occasional foul on a drive. I didn't have room to show his dribbling paths, but suffice it to say, he created most of these shots on his own off the bounce.
Jimmer's night was better than we initially thought -- by a few percentage points, at least. The box score lists him as 16-of-28 from the floor, but a review of the tape reveals that a missed shot he's credited with at 7:42 in the first half was actually taken by Kyle Collinsworth. So Fredette, for the sake of accuracy, shot 16-of-27 against the Utes.
Next Three: 1/18 vs. TCU, 1/22 at Colorado State, 1/26 vs. San Diego State
Last Week: 23
Connecticut Huskies (13-2)Time to make amends for giving up on the Huskies. I'm normally loath to discuss the ranking part of the rankings (not fun enough), but I feel bad for burying them at 23 last week, and was impressed by what I caught of the Texas game (on ESPN3.com while sitting in the press section of Stegeman Coliseum). Their upset of the 'Horns gave them one of the country's best true road wins out of conference; only Tennessee's victory at Pittsburgh on Dec. 11 carries more weight for bracketology purposes. UConn's neutral wins (Wichita State, Michigan State and Kentucky) are similarly impressive, and its two losses (at Pitt and Notre Dame) are respectable. Upon further review, Kemba & Co have the clear resume of a top-10 team, hence their big jump this week. What they need to prove to rise any further is an ability to defend against great perimeter teams, and to control the defensive glass. Their defense (ranked 41st nationally in efficiency) is lagging behind in three-point percentage allowed (ranking 180th) and offensive rebounds allowed (ranking 188th).
Next Three: 1/15 at DePaul, 1/17 vs. Villanova, 1/22 vs. Tennessee
Last Week: 13
Texas A&M Aggies (15-1)Andy Glockner appropriately called the Aggies the country's "Mystery Team" in an SI.com column this week. They have quality wins (neutral over Temple, home over Washington), no terrible losses (the one blemish is against Boston College), a solid efficiency profile (with the 17th-ranked defense) ... yet no one knows what to make of them, and I suspect the average college hoops fan can't even name their star (it's Khris Middleton, a sweet-shooting small forward). Coach Mark Turgeon said his team was "probably a little overranked right now." He'll find out what's appropriate in the next six days, when A&M faces Missouri at home and then Texas in its first true road test. In the meantime, I have to trust in the numbers that show the Ags are the only BCS-conference team that ranks in the top 15 in offensive and defensive rebounding percentage. They aren't going to earn hype by controlling the glass, but they are going to have a fighting chance in every Big 12 game.
Next Three: 1/15 vs. Missouri, 1/19 at Texas, 1/22 vs. Kansas State
Last Week: 7
Texas Longhorns (13-3)In a column this week, FoxSports' Jeff Goodman picked his 2010-11 Dream Team, which he said "isn't the top 13 players in the nation, but a group that would be nearly impossible to beat because it wouldn't lack anything: Scorers, quality big men, big-time wings, lockdown defenders and intangibles." He then picked almost all of the best players, including a starting lineup of UConn's Kemba Walker, Purdue's E'Twaun Moore, Florida State's Chris Singleton, Arizona's Derrick Williams and Ohio State's Jared Sullinger. Ballin' is a Habit followed suit with a more obscure "dream" starting lineup of Penn State's Talor Battle, Hofstra's Charles Jenkins, Georgia's Travis Leslie, Maryland's Jordan Williams and Texas' Tristan Thompson (there's your Longhorns reference), a squad that would get annihilated by Goodman's. Which leaves it to me to assemble a team that could beat Goodman's, using none of his or BIAH's starters:
PG: Demetri McCamey, Illinois (better three-point percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio than Walker)
SG: Brad Wanamaker, Pitt (superb playmaker from the wing)
SF: David Lighty, Ohio State (even more glue-y than Singleton)
PF: Kenneth Faried, Morehead State (will single-handedly outrebound Williams and Sullinger)
PF: Marcus Morris, Kansas (versatile post scorer who's about to have a monster second half)
(I intentionally avoided the Jimmer, just because I think he's best off in a situation where he's the undisputed "guy," and I'd rather my Dream Team be more balanced.)
Next Three: 1/15 vs. Oklahoma, 1/19 vs. Texas A&M, 1/22 at Kansas
Last Week: 9
Missouri Tigers (15-2)If I needed a Microwave Sixth Man for that Dream Team, I'd take Tigers two-guard Marcus Denmon, who made his first four treys against Nebraska on Wednesday and is now 49-of-97 from long range (50.5 percent) on the season. Huskers coach Doc Sadler called Denmon a "no-catch guy," meaning that defenders had been instructed not to let him even receive the ball, but that's easier said than done. He can run defenders ragged, and he's willing to launch from NBA range. Denmon is also unflustered when his shot is being contested. Scouting data shows that about half of his catch-and-shoot situations are guarded, and his efficiency while guarded (1.545 PPS) is actually better than his efficiency while unguarded (1.471 PPS). Those numbers put Andre Dawkins' -- which I referenced above, and praised -- to shame. (The best guarded, high-volume shooter in the country, by the way, is Pitt's Ashton Gibbs, who averages 1.706 PPS.)
Next Three: 1/15 at Texas A&M, 1/17 vs. Kansas State, 1/22 vs. Iowa State
Last Week: 16
Washington Huskies (12-3)Vegas Watch's Jacob Wheatley-Schaller, the blogosphere's best man at odds-related analysis, was kind enough to help on a project this week. The question I posed to him was, "Which teams have seen the biggest jumps -- up or down -- in their futures odds for the national title between the preseason and the present?"
Wheatley-Schaller compared the latest odds from TheGreek.com with the futures he archived on Oct. 28, converted them to implied percentages (IP), and deduced that the following five teams have improved the most in oddsmakers' eyes:
Team Oct.28IP Jan.12IP Odds Change
Last Week: 14
Notre Dame Fighting Irish (14-3)Brian Hamilton's profile of Ben Hansbrough in the Chicago Tribune describes him, quite effectively, as "live like a third rail and taut as a bridge cable." Hansbrough, who's averaging 15.8 points and 3.8 assists as a senior, has been the key to the Irish's surprise start, and the story attributes some of his rise to sit-down talks with Knicks point guard Raymond Felton after summer pickup games in Chapel Hill, N.C. Felton essentially schooled Hansbrough on how to lead a team without driving his teammates nuts. "I used to play pickup ball with Ben and sometimes ... he'd turn teammates off by being too hard on them," his father, Gene, told the paper. "The diplomacy of being a leader on and off the floor, Ray Felton helped him with that."
Next Three: 1/16 at St. John's, 1/19 vs. Cincinnati, 1/22 vs. Marquette
Last Week: 13
Kentucky Wildcats (14-3)Continuing the discussion from the Washington section: The teams that lost the most ground in Vegas Watch's national championship futures odds study -- Wake Forest, Oregon, Memphis, Indiana and Seton Hall -- weren't the most interesting cases. I was most intrigued by these three:
Team Oct.28IP Jan.12IP Odds Change
Checked In: UConn
Dropped Out: Michigan State
The Next 16: 17) Illinois, 18) Temple, 19) Vanderbilt, 20) Central Florida, 21) Michigan State, 22) Wisconsin, 23) Louisville, 24) Florida, 25) St. Mary's, 26) St. John's, 27) Cincinnati, 28) Gonzaga, 29) Baylor, 30) North Carolina, 31) Georgia, 32) Missouri State.
(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.)