I'm not sure how I feel about Syracuse potentially wearing shorts with a cheese-grater pattern on the side, but I'm not going to let that affect their No. 1 ranking:
Last Week: 1
Syracuse Orange (22-1)The two most horrific on-court stills from this season:
On the left, of course, is Evan Turner's dunk mishap on Dec. 5 that resulted in three broken vertebrae and (miraculously only) a month on the sidelines. On the right is a freeze-frame from Tuesday's Providence-Syracuse game, when Friars forward Brian McKenzie undercut Orange star Wes Johnson on an alley-oop attempt, and Johnson did what looked like an aerial cartwheel, and landed on his neck. The best photo of it caught Johnson mid-rotation; the horror-flick scream-face on the cheerleader in the bottom left corner of that shot accurately summed up the collective fear of Syracuse fans at that instant -- both for Johnson's health and their season falling apart from a broken collarbone. Luckily, Johnson was OK, but after the Orange's 85-68 win, he didn't want to review the footage, saying, "I'll have nightmares if I see that."
Next three: 2/7 at Cincinnati, 2/10 vs. UConn, 2/14 vs. Louisville
Last Week: 2
Kansas Jayhawks (21-1)My midseason top 30 list for the Naismith Award was due on Wednesday night. Had the deadline been three weeks earlier, I would've considered leaving Jayhawks center Cole Aldrich, who had been struggling with illnesses, off the list. In KU's past four games, though, Aldrich has resumed playing at an All-America level, double-doubling in each contest, including a 16-point, 14-rebound, five-block effort in an overtime win at Colorado on Wednesday. His season-long contributions to the nation's fourth-ranked defense can't be overlooked, either: He ranks fifth in the country in block percentage (13.4) -- as Bill Raftery said on the air, "Cole doesn't block shots, he devours them" -- and 16th in defensive rebounding percentage (26.4) on a team where he's not the lone glass-crasher. There's no longer any doubt that Aldrich is among the nation's top 30 players. In the interest of transparency, here's the rest of my list:
Next three: 2/6 vs. Nebraska, 2/8 at Texas, 2/13 vs. Iowa State
Last Week: 3
Villanova Wildcats (20-1)In his Mailbag this week, my colleague Seth Davis said he believes Villanova's '09-10 team "is better than the one that reached the Final Four last season." He cites depth as the biggest reason why -- Jay Wright has 11 players averaging nine or more minutes. My stance on the 'Cats is that they're at about the exact same level they were in '08-09, just with a different formula: a little better offensively, a little worse defensively. The improvements are as follows:
• Scottie Reynolds has become a far more efficient scorer, with his efficiency rating jumping from 107.8 last season to 121.5 in '09-10 despite using even more possessions than he did as a junior.
• The Wildcats are slightly better on the offensive glass, with their rebounding percentage jumping from 36.5 to 39.4.
• They're also slightly better three-point shooters. With Reynolds being more accurate and Taylor King becoming eligible, their long-range percentage has risen from 35.2 to 38.2.
The area where they've slipped is with interior D. Last year's starters at the 4-5 spots, Dante Cunningham and Dwayne Anderson, were savvy vets who didn't commit a ton of fouls, whereas their new forwards do more hacking. King averages 4.9 fouls/40 minutes, Antonio Pena averages 4.7/40, Mouphtaou Yarou averages 7.9/40 and Isaiah Armwood averages 8.0/40. That's a big reason why opponents are shooting way more free throws against 'Nova this season -- 4.54 free-throw attempts for every 10 field-goal attempts, compared to 3.88 last year. It's not a huge problem, but it keeps their defense from ranking among the national elites.
Next three: 2/6 at Georgetown, 2/8 at West Virginia, 2/13 vs. Providence
Last Week: 4
Kentucky Wildcats (21-1)If you didn't notice in the Kansas blurb, I included not just John Wall but also DeMarcus Cousins on my Naismith 30 list. I make a point to watch as many Kentucky games as possible just to see what Wall might do, but have come to realize that Cousins is by far the Wildcats' most dominant player. As DraftExpress pointed out in an evaluation of Cousins last week, Cousins has the highest Player Efficiency Rating (40.2) of any player in the site's eight-year database (for context, Michael Beasley's freshman season is second, DeJuan Blair's sophomore season is third, and Andrew Bogut's sophomore season is fourth). Cousins is so productive in his 20.9 minutes per game that he leads the nation in points and rebounds per 40 minutes, pace adjusted.
Since there isn't a guaranteed star after Wall on the 2010 draft board, there will be teams that seriously consider taking Cousins at No. 2 overall. It's rather easy to see him being an effective post player in the pros. Right now NBA evaluators are weighing Cousins' reputation (he has an extensive history of hotheaded and/or foolish behavior) against his production, and as one scout said to me a few weeks ago, "There could be a point where the numbers are so good that teams are just willing to deal with the other stuff."
I think we're nearing that point.
Next three: 2/6 at LSU, 2/9 vs. Alabama, 2/13 vs. Tennessee
Last Week: 6
Kansas State Wildcats (18-4)Home-court branding matters in college hoops (just ask Tom Izzo), and K-State is faced with the question of how much it wants to officially embrace the rapidly spreading nickname for rowdy Bramlage Coliseum: "The Octagon of Doom." What started as a message-board phenomenon and a series of unofficial tees is now being mentioned on ESPN, mainstream newspapers and even Mixed Martial Arts Web sites. Wildcats coach Frank Martin seems cool with it, telling the Kansas City Star, "It's a great thing. ... That's what's special about college athletics. It makes it fun and gives your team a shtick that players take and kind of bond with along with the fans."
Why not take it a step further, then, and brand the court with something similar to the tees? Everyone's done the giant half-court team logo by now, including Kansas, so why not scrap the Wildcat and set Bramlage apart with a center-court Octagon of Doom that every potential recruit will instantly recognize on TV? Take this mock-up and get working for next season ...
Next three: 2/6 at Iowa State, 2/13 vs. Colorado, 2/17 vs. Nebraska
Last Week: 5
Michigan State Spartans (19-4)Just as Big Ten contender Purdue gets its starting point guard, Lewis Jackson, back from a foot injury, the conference-leading Spartans are in danger of losing their star floor general, Kalin Lucas, for a few games as he copes with a nasty high ankle sprain. X-rays on the injury he suffered Tuesday against Wisconsin (by landing on Keaton Nankivil's foot) didn't reveal any breaks, and Michigan State SID Matt Larson issued a statement that said, "We won't have any idea on [Lucas'] status for this weekend until at least tomorrow or later in the week, when we see how it responds to treatment and how quickly it heals." Updates are supposed to come today following the Spartans' practice; let's hope the injury doesn't spoil Feb. 9's marquee matchup against the Boilermakers. State has a two-game lead in the Big Ten race, but a loss or two with Lucas on the bench would leave the conference wide open, with Wisconsin, Purdue and Ohio State all capable of swooping in and stealing the title.
Next three: 2/6 at Illinois, 2/9 vs. Purdue, 2/13 at Penn State
Last Week: 11
Purdue Boilermakers (18-3)The Boilermakers have been easing Lewis Jackson back into their lineup after he missed their first 19 games following foot surgery. Instead of taking a medical redshirt, he opted to return to action after being cleared on Jan. 28, playing 11 minutes and scoring two points in a close win over Wisconsin. On Sunday against Penn State, he played 17 minutes, again scoring two points. Even though he was Purdue's starting point guard and assist leader last season, I don't think his return will have a massive impact on its offense, which has already been solid. Jackson wasn't all that efficient as a freshman, with a 91.7 offensive rating and a 1.6-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Senior Chris Kramer, who's seen the bulk of the minutes at the point, has an offensive rating of 119.2 and an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.8-to-1 this season. Jackson's impact is more likely to be felt on the defensive end in March, when he should be moving at full speed, and therefore able to harass opponents' quickest guards as the point man in the Boilers' aggressive man-to-man.
Next three: 2/4 at Indiana, 2/9 at Michigan State, 2/13 vs. Iowa
Last Week: 14
Wisconsin Badgers (17-5)After Tuesday's drubbing of Michigan State, the Badgers have now beaten the Big Ten's leader, the ACC's leader (Duke) and the Pac-10's leader (Arizona), as well as four other likely NCAA tournament teams (Oakland, Maryland, Ohio State and Purdue). That resume of wins should make Bo Ryan the leader for national coach of the year honors, given that the Badgers started the season outside the polls, and have stayed in the thick of the Big Ten race even after losing star forward Jon Leuer to a broken wrist on Jan. 9. Against the Spartans, UW managed to dominate a long stretch of the first half even with their other star, senior point guard Trevon Hughes, on the bench with two fouls.
To give you a sense of how well Ryan's Swing Offense can flow, no matter the personnel, I made the 10-screen grid below from a set in the first half of that State game, when Hughes was off the floor. It includes 10 passes, five screens, two post touches, plenty of movement, and ends with a Keaton Nankivil basket.
A brief guide (passes are in red, picks in blue, off-ball motion in green): In screens 1-2, the ball is rotated around the perimeter and into the post, where 6-foot-4 forward Rob Wilson backs down 6-3 guard Chris Allen. In screens 3-4-5, the ball is kicked out of the post, and to the other side, while Wilson and Jason Bohannon invert on the weakside (in 4-5), and then Tim Jarmusz and Wilson run a screening action that puts them on the right block and right elbow, respectively (in screen 6), while the ball is on the right wing in Nankivil's hands. The ball gets passed back to point guard Jordan Taylor at the top of the key, and he waits (in screen 7) as Jarmusz sets a back-pick on Nankivil's man, and they switch wing/post positions, creating a slight mismatch of Nankivil against Raymar Morgan on the right block. Taylor passes to Jarmusz on the wing (screen 8), he feeds Nankivil in the post (screen 9), and Nankivil scores on a turnaround jumper (screen 10).
Next three: 2/6 at Michigan, 2/9 vs. Illinois, 2/13 vs. Indiana
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