Power Rankings: The Jah-Providers, Utah's secret advantage, more
The Jah-blessed Volume III of the Power Rankings, where we learn who's feeding Duke's star, study Kaminsky Clusters, and reveal Utah's secret advantage ...
In this week's Sportsman issue, SI names the Kentucky-Wichita State classic from March 23 our Game of the Year. I wrote the retrospective piece; my first, and favorite viewing angle of the game was from courtside in St. Louis, but after multiple re-watches on tape it held up as a classic, with two high-powered offenses exchanging blows for 40 minutes. One side thought I had while taking notes: This year's Kentucky team would not be guarding 6-foot-8 Cleanthony Early -- who lit them up for 31 points in the GOTY -- the same way.
Here's an edit I call "Casually Guarding Cleanthony," in which you can see the Harrisons losing him, as well as Julius Randle and James Young getting crossed up by screen-the-screener actions on the perimeter. As good as that freshman class was for the Wildcats, they did not always excel on D:
Contrast that with how Kentucky chose to guard another large, multi-dimensional scoring wing this season: Providence's 6-6 LaDontae Henton. Rather than use backcourt players to chase Henton around, the Wildcats sicced 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein on him in pass-denial mode, and still had another near 7-footer, Karl-Anthony Towns, in the game for rim protection. This edit shows the complications the Friars had the first six times they even looked to get Henton the ball on Nov. 30; it's the complete opposite of the freedom UK granted Early:
(Edits footage from CBS and ESPN.)
Next up: 12/13 vs. North Carolina, 12/20 vs. UCLA (in Chicago)
If you're a Power Rankings reader who goes way back -- all the way back to 2010-11! -- you might remember a feature called "Who's Feeding Jared," which tracked all points-generating post feeds to Ohio State's Jared Sullinger during his freshman season. (ESPN loved it so much, they pilfered it for a broadcast sans attribution.) Seeing that Jahlil Okafor is a taller, longer, and possibly better version of Sullinger, Duke's freshman center deserves similar treatment. And after reviewing and charting every single Okafor scoring play from this young season, I can tell you that the No. 1 Jah Provider -- averaging 3.3 successful feeds and 6.1 points created per game -- is Tyus Jones.
Next up: 12/15 vs. Elon, 12/18 vs. UConn in East Rutherford, N.J.
A small development that could be a boon for Arizona's offense: Brandon Ashley is hitting threes again. The 6-8 power forward became an occasional, pick-and-pop three-point weapon last season -- making him a valuable asset on an otherwise weak-shooting team -- before breaking his foot on Feb. 1 and missing the rest of the Wildcats' games. Early this season, I wondered if Ashley had lost that part of his arsenal: In their first seven games, he played an estimated 350 offensive possessions, took just five treys, and made none. But in their past two games, against Gonzaga and Utah Valley, he found his stroke, taking three threes -- and making each one -- over the course of 88 possessions.
Opposing defenses seem willing to give Ashley the three -- it's not hard to find him left wide open on the perimeter, many times over, on tape -- and he might as well capitalize until they respect him.
(Screengrabs from ESPN and Pac-12 Network.)
Next up: 12/13 vs Michigan, 12/16 vs. Oakland
In last week's Rankings I proposed holding an intervention for guard Chris Jones, who was, at the time, using a high volume of their possessions (27.0 percent) with a low field-goal percentage (28.6) -- a poor offensive formula for a national title contender. In the two games that followed, Jones gave us two very different looks. Against Florida International on Dec. 5, he dialed back his shot-happy ways and was slightly more efficient, taking a season-low six FGAs and making three. Against Indiana at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, he went shot-mad, taking 17 FGAs, making eight ... and it was his most efficient game of the season. Jones has plenty of value -- he's become a real pest in Louisville's pressure defense, and when he's hot, he's an electric scorer -- but the Best Louisville, going forward, is still a Louisville with More Montrezl Harrell. The dude is shooting 92.9 percent (!!) at the rim, according to hoop-math.com, and 73.4 percent on all of his twos. He's an incredible weapon, and yet is still using fewer possessions (22.9 percent) than either of the Cardinals' starting guards.
Next up: 12/14 vs. UNC-Wilmington, 12/20 at Western Kentucky
The remarkable clustering of Frank Kaminsky's shot chart continued as I charted him through nine games: Nearly all of his shots are from the paint area or a section of the three-point arc that stretches from the top of the key to the right wing. He's fond of dribble-driving from the perimeter or the elbows, and he's started a small cluster of mid-paint pull-ups, but Frank The Tank is still deadliest from his preferred pick-and-pop-three landing spot, just right of the top of the key. The latest edition of Tank Shots is updated through the Marquette game, with 99 field-goal attempts (and 14 shooting fouls drawn) that were available on film:
Next up: 12/13 vs. Nicholls State, 12/22 at Cal
Villanova has so many offensive weapons -- Dylan Ennis' long-range shooting, JayVaughn Pinkston's power moves, Darrun Hilliard's ambidextrousness -- that junior center Daniel Ochefu can easily get overlooked, but his growing confidence in his hook shot gives them a great interior option when threes aren't falling. Ochefu smoothly scored on Illinois on Tuesday with his go-to, righty hook -- and a surprising lefty jab-hook that I didn't realize was in his arsenal:
Speaking to the site City of Basketball Love in November, Ochefu credited associate head coach Baker Dunleavy -- a former 'Nova player and son of ex-NBA head coach Mike Dunleavy Sr. -- with helping develop the hook. Relying heavily on that shot, Ochefu has made 66.7 percent of his twos this season.
Next up: 12/14 vs. Temple, 12/20 vs. Syracuse
College hoops is not longer much of a post-up game. Of Division I teams that have at least six games charted by Synergy Sports Technology (and that's most of them), only eight were allocating more than 15 percent of their halfcourt offense to post-ups, and only two of those are Power-Ranked teams: Gonzaga and Texas. In the Zags' case, they have two Eastern Europeans, Przemek Karnowski and Domas Sabonis, who operate almost exclusively on the low blocks, and a third forward, Kyle Wiltjer, who's shown more interest in posting up this season than he did in his previous two at Kentucky.
Next up: 12/13 at UCLA, 12/15 vs. Texas Southern
The Cavaliers have a top-10 offense for the first time in the Tony Bennett era, and it's less due to their guards than it is the guys at the 3 & 4 spots, Justin Anderson and Anthony Gill. Anderson is a dead-eye shooter who can create off the bounce, while Gill fills an under-the-radar role as what I call a "lurker" -- a guy who hangs out on the blocks waiting to receive drive-and-dish assists, and also has a knack for cutting into the right spaces when defenses react to dribble penetration. Gill has good hands for receiving short-range passes and he nearly always gets results, either finishing (he's making 66.7 percent of his twos) or getting to the free-throw line (drawing 5.6 fouls per 40 minutes). This stuff won't make many highlight reels, but it has real value:
Next up: 12/18 vs. Cleveland State, 12/21 vs. Harvard
DraftExpress.com's video analysis of the Texas-Kentucky game illustrated the gap between the Wildcats' big men and Longhorns five-star freshman Myles Turner, who struggled to assert himself inside and fouled out in 18 minutes of a 63-51 loss.
Turner may still be a Lottery Pick based on his frame and potential, but to really win over scouts, he'll have to produce more against big-time competition. Against weaker opponents he's been off-the-charts good, but against top-60 KenPom teams he's been fouling an average of nine times per 40 minutes, without doing much else:
Next up: 12/13 vs. Texas State, 12/16 vs. Lipscomb
When the Jayhawks visited Georgetown on Wednesday, the Hoyas made a statement -- as the first college team to wear I Can't Breathe shirts in support of New York City Police-homicide victim Eric Garner. We rarely see activism in college hoops, and even though this was NBA-derivative, the Rankings very much approves:
The in-game story -- or at least the one I most cared about -- was the work of 6-7 freshman Kelly Oubre Jr., who arrived in Lawrence as a projected Lottery Pick but has been mostly buried on the bench (and in coach Bill Self's doghouse) until Wednesday. Oubre had career-highs of seven points, five boards and two steals in 16 minutes, coming off the bench with an energy level he lacked in earlier appearances. Self said that Oubre -- a long, springy prospect whose natural position is small forward -- might be used in an unnatural role, especially with power forward Jamari Traylor suspended following a recent arrest. "We’re going to start playing [Oubre] some at the four," Self told the Lawrence Journal-World, "to maybe make him a bad-matchup four."
(Photo source: AP)
Next up: 12/13 vs. Utah (in Kansas City), 12/20 vs. Lafayette
Utah's climb towards the top 10 has been aided by massive free-throw advantages over its opponents. In four of eight games this season, the Utes have enjoyed a +19 or better margin in free-throw attempts -- and the only game they lost, to San Diego State, is the only game they've been in the red:
Next up: 12/13 vs. Kansas (in Kansas City), 12/20 at UNLV
Ron Baker's progression from walk-on to All-America candidate is pretty much complete, given his starring role on last season's 35-1 team and what he's done thus far in 2014-15, which is look like one of the nation's most dangerous shooters. I isolated the volume shooters from the national leaderboard -- guys who take at least five three-point attempts per game -- to form a 50-percent-plus Gunners' Club, and Baker is the only member from a ranked team:
Next up: 12/13 at Detroit, 12/16 vs. Alabama
Even though they won 23 games in 2013-14 and 20 the year before that, there was reason not to take the Sooners seriously as a threat to make a deep NCAA tournament run: They didn't play much defense, ranking 91st and 89th in adjusted defensive efficiency the past two seasons. This year's version of Oklahoma is different. Despite only adding one major piece to the rotation (Houston transfer TaShawn Thomas), they've jumped to sixth in defensive efficiency, mostly by cutting down on fouls and doing a better job protecting the rim. The Sooners actually have a better defense than perennial Big 12 champ Kansas thus far ... which means they (along with Texas) have a real shot to end the Jayhawks' conference-title streak.
Next up: 12/13 at Tulsa, 12/16 vs. Oral Roberts
While we're on the topic of team defense ... Butler's D is getting back to where it was during the Brad Stevens glory years; it's not quite as stingy as the 2010 version that nearly won it all in Indy, but the '14-15 Bulldogs rank 12th nationally in efficiency. They are, like the old Stevens teams, controlling the defensive glass; but unlike the Stevens teams, they're forcing plenty of turnovers, ranking ninth in TOs-forced percentage. Two-guard Alex Barlow's on-ball pressure and off-ball ability to jump into passing lanes has been the catalyst, but the whole team seems more focused on getting deflections and/or forcing opposing drivers into making mistakes.
Next up: 12/14 at Tennessee, 12/20 vs. Indiana
The superlative I imagine Bryce Dejean-Jones was hoping for this season was Highest-Impact Transfer -- and he's still in the running for it, off to the best start of his career, averaging 17.1 points on 56.8 percent shooting, playing far more efficiently than he ever did at UNLV. Unfortunately in the meantime he's been subjected to the title of Most Pointless Arrest -- booked early Thursday morning by Ames police on a charge of "keeping a residence where a substance believed to be marijuana was discovered," or for short on the rap sheet, "hosting a drug house." The charge was dropped later Thursday morning due to lack of probable cause, but a few noise-related violations stand, and reporters got to take pictures of him at the courthouse. Congrats to the crime-fighters of Ames, for keeping the city safer overnight, by jailing a man who was in the vicinity of weed.
(Image source: @TommyBirch on Twitter)
Next up: 12/12 at Iowa, 12/14 vs. Southern
The Hurricanes aren't a fast team by any means -- at 63.4 possessions per game, they rank 294th in adjusted tempo -- but they've sped up significantly from the crawling pace at which they played in 2013-14. Their 4.9-possession-per-game jump ranks fifth in pace increases by major-conference teams, with Illinois and Alabama leading the pack:
(Chart source: kenpom.com.)
Next up: 12/19 vs. Eastern Kentucky, 12/22 vs. Providence
The Next 16
17. Ohio State
18. West Virginia
19. San Diego State
20. Colorado State
21. Notre Dame
23. North Carolina
24. St. John's
30. Northern Iowa
31. Michigan State
32. Seton Hall