Thursday November 11th, 2010

The first Power Rankings of 2010-11 are siding with Duke. There's a time for making shock-value picks, and there's a time for acknowledging when one team -- even if it has a freshman point guard -- is far superior to the rest. The other No. 1 candidates are hardly neglected, though: Michigan State, my No. 2, receives an ode to its unsung point-forward; and Kansas State, my No. 3, receives a ludicrous (but fantastic) court-design proposal. It should suffice as consolation.

NCAA Basketball Power Rankings
1Duke Blue Devils
Last Week: --
Kyrie Irving is special. He's the only college basketball player LeBron James follows on Twitter, and the only player Mike Krzyzewski has allowed to wear No. 1 at Duke. Coach K has been effusive in his praise for Irving, saying he'll "transform" the Blue Devils' offense. But what does Irving actually do that Jon Scheyer didn't last season?

I watched tape of the Blue Devils' final scrimmage, against Cal Poly Pomona, to find the answer: Irving acts as a "knife." The only other recent college point guard with defender-splitting skills like Irving's is John Wall. And while Wall displayed more raw speed in his year at Kentucky, Irving appears to be a better decision-maker on the fly. Watch this sequence against Pomona's 3-2 zone, in which Irving takes the ball on the left wing, waits for a Mason Plumlee screen, and comes off of it so sharply and without hesitation that he catches the other two top-line defenders moving in the wrong direction:

Kyrie Irving

Once in the lane, Irving has no trouble drawing the left-block defender into the air, then dishing to Josh Hairston for an easy two.

The whole sequence isn't mind-blowing -- I imagine Irving will pull off crazier splits in pick-and-roll sets during the regular season -- but it certainly represents a departure from the staid point-guard play of Scheyer.

Next Three: 11/14 vs. Princeton, 11/16 vs. Miami (Ohio), 11/19 vs. Colgate
2Michigan State Spartans
Last Week: --
Junior forward Draymond Green is one of those players whom Spartans fans adore and Big Ten fans are well aware of, but nationally, he's still underappreciated. Kalin Lucas is the face of Michigan State hoops, and Durrell Summers emerged as a go-to scorer during the NCAA tournament, so it's natural that those two seniors received most of the preseason attention. But there will be plenty of games this season in which Green, who's now a starter, will be the most important player on the floor. The reasons, which I wrote down while watching the Spartans' exhibition rout of Nebraska-Omaha:

• He's one of the country's best playmaking big men -- perhaps the best now that Greg Monroe is in the NBA. Green's assist-to-turnover ratio was a team-best 1.8-to-1 last season, he's also capable of acting as a pressure-release and bringing the ball up the floor if Lucas is being hounded.

• Green talks more than any other Spartan -- to his teammates, and the other team. He's a constant vocal presence.

• He's the best defensive rebounder on the team (with a 24.9 DR%), and the second-best offensive rebounder (10.3%).

• Green added a three-point shot to his arsenal this year, making 2-of-4 attempts in the exhibition. He only made two all of last season.

Next Three: 11/12 vs. Eastern Michigan, 11/16 vs. South Carolina, 11/22 vs. Chaminade (in Maui Invitational)
3Kansas State Wildcats
Last Week: --
Last week, in its latest affront to athletic traditionalists, the University of Oregon unveiled the design of Matthew Knight Arena's new court. It's the first basketball surface on which about 60 percent of the hardwood has been encroached by graphics of a dense, brown forest. Much in the same way that the Ducks' avant-garde football apparel was first mocked, then accepted as iconic, then heavily borrowed-upon by a few Nike schools desperate for an edge in branding/recruiting, I wonder if we'll see a proliferation of absurdist courts over the next decade. Florida, for one, would be wise to commission the design of a completely disorienting Swamp theme, following the general template below:

And Kansas State -- you were just starting to get irritated that this wasn't about the Wildcats, weren't you? -- should consider upping the "fear" quotient on the "Octagon of Doom" court theme I proposed in this space last season. Upon encountering those giant Frank Martin faces, opposing point guards with weak constitutions might just turn around and commit a backcourt violation.

Next Three: 11/12 vs. James Madison, 11/16 vs. Virginia Tech, 11/18 vs. Presbyterian
4Kansas Jayhawks
Last Week: --
Bill Self has the luxury of a deep roster this year -- probably the deepest roster of any title contender. Once center Jeff Withey is healthy, and if combo guard Josh Selby is eligible, the Jayhawks' rotation could go 11 deep. Assuming an ideal starting lineup of the Morris twins in the frontcourt, Brady Morningstar at small forward, and Selby and Tyshawn Taylor in the backcourt, KU's second team might be good enough to finish seventh or eighth in the Big 12:

PG: Elijah Johnson
SG: Tyrel Reed
G/F: Mario Little/Travis Releford
PF: Thomas Robinson
C: Jeff Withey

Will Self actually use (or need) all of those weapons, though? He went with eight-man rotation despite having a deep team last year, and he's aware of what happened at Texas, which was a case study in the failings of super-sized rotations. The Longhorns were ultra-talented in '09-10 but had no chemistry down the stretch, whereas Duke won a national title using mostly a seven-man rotation in the NCAA tournament, and runner-up Butler only used eight players.

Next Three: 11/12 vs. Longwood, 11/15 vs. Valparaiso, 11/19 vs. North Texas
5Pittsburgh Panthers
Last Week: --
Hoops Nation, your co-MVPs three days into the season, at which point only 3.5 percent of Division I teams have played an official game: Maryland's Jordan Williams, who's averaging 21.5 points and 15.0 rebounds; and Pitt's Brad Wanamaker, who's averaging 20.5 points and 8.5 assists with a 4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Williams was expected to be impressive, enough so that he made the preseason Wooden watch list. Wanamaker was just a guy people expected to be solid, not a 20-and-8 guy with a field-goal percentage of 66.7. Given how good Ashton Gibbs has been as well (23.0 ppg, 5.0 apg), perhaps the Panthers' backcourt rating -- No. 7 in's preview -- was a tad too low.*

(* I realize they've only played Rhode Island and UIC, but still, you have to admit, those are promising stats.)

Next Three: 11/13 vs. North Florida, 11/18 vs. Maryland (in New York), 11/19 vs. Illinois/Texas (in New York)
6Ohio State Buckeyes
Last Week: --
I watched the Buckeyes' exhibition against Walsh on Sunday to gain some intel on their nebulous point guard situation. It seems that William Buford, who played the two-guard spot last season, has been designated the first-string point for the time being -- although it was interesting that his first shot was generated via off-the-ball movement. On OSU's second possession of the game, Buford (who's circled below) rotated the ball to Jon Diebler, then ran off of staggered screens to get freed up for an open three:

William Buford

About 10 minutes into the first half, Buford moved to shooting guard when freshman Aaron Craft -- previously mentioned on national Web sites only for his role as a recruit in the Bruce Pearl kitchen-photo scandal -- came off the bench to run the point. Craft logged 26 strong minutes, dishing out eight assists against zero turnovers. If Craft plays like that in games that count, coach Thad Matta will have the luxury of moving Buford back to his natural position.

Next Three: 11/12 vs. North Carolina A&T, 11/16 at Florida, 11/20 vs. UNC-Wilmington
7Syracuse Orange
Last Week: --
The good folks at College Basketball Prospectus sent over a review copy of their excellent 2010-11 guide last week. Its most intriguing new feature is a hype-free, statistical prediction system for teams' offensive and defensive efficiency based on returning personnel and projected freshman performance. I was coming around on the Orange after watching their first two exhibitions, and a point made by BP's Ken Pomeroy made me even more bullish: "Syracuse's 2010 offense was remarkably evenhanded in terms of how possessions were distributed," he wrote. "So even though Wesley Johnson, Andy Rautins and Arinze Onuaku are gone, on paper they are replaceable." The BP formula ranks the Orange No. 5 overall.

One other, hype-and-tempo-free conclusion about Syracuse: Junior forward Kris Joseph has been hyped as the team's next star, but possession-usage data indicates that fellow junior Scoop Jardine might've been the better focus of preseason attention. He was the team's top possession-user last season (at 22.6%) and has the highest offensive rating (at 113.6) of any returnee who played significant minutes in '09-10.

Next Three: 11/12 vs. Northern Iowa, 11/14 vs. Canisius, 11/16 vs. Detroit
8Villanova Wildcats
Last Week: --
The Wildcats were one of the teams that the Basketball Prospectus projections were least excited about, compared to their standing in the AP's preseason poll. Villanova ranked sixth in AP, but just 23rd in BP. The main reason is the Wildcats' defense, which ranked 62nd in adjusted efficiency last season and isn't projected to get significantly better. Pomeroy admits, though, that his system has a "blind spot" for rising sophomores who were buried in rotations as freshmen, and so big years by Maalik Wayns and Mouphtaou Yarou -- which I'm banking on -- would result in them exceeding their BP expectations.

(The other much-hyped team BP's system dislikes is Gonzaga, which Seth Davis just put in his Final Four. The efficiency-predictor has the Zags 40th -- right between Miami and Boston College.)

Next Three: 11/12 vs. Bucknell, 11/16 vs. Marist, 11/20 vs. Lafayette
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.