Power Rankings: How top teams block shots, how Pitino stops flops, more
Although the Wildcats swatted just three shots (all by Marcus Lee) in their win over Louisville, they're still leading the nation in percentage of opponents' two-point attempts blocked, at 22.4. That's a ridiculous block percentage -- Kentucky is the only team above the 20-percent mark, and it's on pace to have the highest block rate of the past decade.
The lone thing the Wildcats' defense lags at is rebounding those blocks; they've been keeping the ball after 54.2 percent of them, which is below the Division I-wide rate of 57.5. (They seem to sacrifice some retention in favor of swatting-your-sh*t-out-of-bounds intimidation.) This matrix of the block percentages and blocks-kept percentages for all 351 Division I teams lets you visualize how Kentucky is an outlier in block rate, but not in block retention:
Next up: 1/6 vs. Mississippi, 1/10 at Texas A&M
Here's the Block Matrix filtered down to the top 10 teams from the Power Rankings, and then zoomed in:
Duke is a low-block, decent-retention team; its defensive success is based on limiting and/or bothering shots from the perimeter, rather than protecting the rim. Meanwhile, the Blue Devils' toughest competition for the ACC title, Virginia, excels at blocking shots and keeping them: The Cavs' retention rate is a remarkable 71.2 percent.
Next up: 1/3 vs. Boston College, 1/7 at Wake Forest
Why is Virginia keeping more of its blocks (71.2 percent) than any other title contender? Watch tape of one of the little-known guys who makes the Cavs' Pack-Line Defense great, 6-foot-8 senior Darion Atkins, and you'll get some clues. Atkins has studied at the Roy Hibbert School of Verticality, which prefers the straight-up method of affecting shots over the swatting technique. This compilation shows some of Atkins' perpendicular-to-the-floor handiwork:Next up:
(This is the first blurb that does not discuss blocks. It does not discuss basketball, either.)
While watching the Badgers' win over Buffalo from the stands -- I tagged along with the fam on Sunday while visiting for Christmas -- it was pointed out to me that the Kohl Center's concourse-level advertising displays were making the following transition:
That's Novo Nordisk, the diabetes-drug manufacturer, going back-to-back with an ad for the Qdoba concession stand's queso. How very Wisconsin!
If any Power Rankings readers can top -- or just equal -- this ad juxtaposition with footage from another college hoops arena, alert me to it on Twitter at @lukewinn, and you might get mentioned in a future column.
Next up: 1/4 at Northwestern, 1/7 vs. Purdue
The next time Arizona gets into a crunch-time, on-the-brink-of-being-upset situation on the road, it'll be interesting to compare its final offensive possessions with those from Dec. 23, 2014, when it lost 71-67 at UNLV.
In the final five minutes of that game, the Wildcats started nine offensive possessions. Three were in transition -- a Stanley Johnson steal that resulted in free throws; a steal and pass-ahead to Johnson that resulted in him missing a layup; and a wild, last-second possession in which Johnson committed a turnover. The other six were halfcourt sets, and they played out like this:
UNLV 63, Arizona 62, 4:38 left: T.J. McConnell runs a top-of-key pick-and-roll with Kaleb Tarczewski; Tarczewski's man sags off of McConnell so far that he has an open leaner from the free-throw line, which front-rims. UNLV rebounds.
UNLV 65, Arizona 62, 3:50 left: Some Gabe York-Brandon Ashley action on the right wing. York sets a backscreen to try to free up Ashley for a lob, but it's more of a decoy for York to pop out beyond the three-point line for a catch-and-shoot. He front-rims it, and UNLV rebounds.
UNLV 66, Arizona 63, 2:50 left: After an early backscreen lob look for McConnell doesn't pan out, McConnell runs another P&R with Tarczewski. His man sags back again, allowing McConnell a floater, which misses. The rebound goes out of bounds, to UNLV.
UNLV 68, Arizona 63, 2:07 left: A baseline screen for Brandon Ashley frees him for an isolation in the left-wing mid-post area. He draws a foul and makes two free throws.
UNLV 68, Arizona 65, 1:30 left: This set starts with the same screen-and-pass to Ashley from the previous possession, but adds another layer. He passes out of the iso, back to the perimeter, and then serves as the second of two staggered screens that free a baseline-cutting York for an open three in the left corner. York misses, Arizona gets the offensive rebound, runs another P&R with McConnell and Tarczewski, and scores on McConnell's putback of a Tarczewski missed layup.
UNLV 68, Arizona 6: 0:17 left: Ashley sets a ballscreen for McConnell on the right wing. McConnell rejects the screen, drives right and hits Ashley for a pick-and-pop three, which misses (but may have been goaltended). UNLV rebounds.
I realize that was a lot of tedious play-by-play, but tally up what the Wildcats ran in the halfcourt in that stretch:
• 3 P&Rs with McConnell/Tarczewski
• 2 set plays for York catch-and-shoot threes
• 1 pick-and-pop with McConnell/Ashley
• 1 iso for Ashley
• 0 plays for Johnson, who's their highest possession-user on the season, at 28.1 percent. He was involved in all the transition possessions, but in the midst of a seven-turnover game, the Wildcats' star freshman was relegated to a bystander role in the halfcourt.
Next up: 1/4 vs. Arizona State, 1/8 at Oregon
I have a thing for Oversized Assisters -- see the Georges Niang charting from Volume IV as evidence -- and my latest lovefest is with Przemek Karnowski's passing from the low post. The 7-1 Polish lefty thrives on the right block, where he can turn his right shoulder toward the rim, survey the court, and make killer passes out of double-teams. At San Diego on Monday, he drew a double-team from the back line of the Toreros' 2-3 zone, and then delivered this around-the-back gem to a cutting Kyle Dranginis:
That's Karnowski's finest pass of the season, but it's hardly the only time he's hit a cutter from the right block. I went film-hunting and found enough instances to create a mixtape:Next up:
Nice way to open Big East play for the Wildcats, which beat Butler 67-55 on Wednesday, in large part because they had a 26-8 advantage in free-throw attempts and a 16-5 advantage in free-throw makes. If Villanova can keep creating these huge foul-line gaps -- a similar thing happened in the Wildcats' overtime win at Syracuse on Dec. 20, when they had a 32-18 advantage in FTAs -- they're going to cruise to the Big East's regular-season title. The conference's surprisingly competent start to 2014-15 drew some attention, but I don't foresee a tight race at the top. The gap between Villanova and the rest of the league is significant.
Next up: 1/3 at Seton Hall, 1/6 at St. John's
While we're on the topic of free-throw advantages ...
A big part of the top-10-crashing Terps' offensive success has been due to Melo Trimble's whistle-drawing ability. Trimble, the No. 34 overall recruit in the Class of 2014 RSCI, has been the nation's best freshman guard at drawing fouls, generating 6.9 fouls and 9.5 free-throw attempts per 40 minutes. (The next-closest frosh guard is Arizona's Stanley Johnson, at 6.5 fouls drawn and 9.0 FTAs per 40.) Even on an abysmal shooting night at Michigan State, where Trimble went 2-for-13 from the field, he contributed by scoring 12 points from the stripe in an overtime win.
Next up: 1/3 vs. Minnesota, 1/7 at Illinois
Rick Pitino removed senior guard Chris Jones from the starting lineup for the Cardinals' win over Long Beach State on Tuesday. The reason, according to Pitino, wasn't because Jones used 20 possessions in Louisville's loss to Kentucky and scored just 13 points. It was because of Jones' meme-worthy flop -- and subsequent sore-jaw acting -- after a phantom elbow from Kentucky's Dakari Johnson. "We don't do that type of thing, and then to fake with the jaw like you got hit, you can't fake like you got hit," Pitino told the Louisville Courier-Journal.
As Yahoo's Jeff Eisenberg pointed out, this is a rare, admirable stance on flopping (as long as you believe it was Pitino's sole reason for benching Jones). The most egregious, repeat-offending flopper of 2013-14 was Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart, who was never penalized by his coach, Travis Ford. When asked about Smart's flops last season, Ford just went into that's just your opinion, man-denial mode. "We don't condone flopping or anything like that, but the Big 12 is a physical basketball league and we have big guards and sometimes people think it looks like flopping," Ford said last January. "That's everybody's opinion. Everybody's got one, but it's not something we practice or condone."
Next up: 1/4 at Wake Forest, 1/7 vs. Clemson
The Cyclones have been easing former juco All-American (and Marquette transfer) Jameel McKay into their rotation over the past two games, playing him an average of 15 minutes off the bench in wins over Drake and Mississippi Valley State. McKay, a 6-9 forward with a 7-4 wingspan, became eligible on Dec. 20 and could help shore up Iowa State's most glaring weaknesses: rim protection and offensive rebounding. The Cyclones have phenomenal spacing when they use a five-shooter lineup with Georges Niang as the point-center, but their defense over the first two months has not been stout -- and that's where McKay is expected to help the most. Their best shot at winning the Big 12 and/or making a Final Four run is with McKay making big defensive contributions at the five spot.Next up:
Jordan Loveridge is back after a seven-game absence for bone-spur surgery on his right leg, and that should be big for the Utes' offense. The 6-6 junior wing returned for their rout of NAIA Carroll on Tuesday, scoring 14 points in 16 minutes. Loveridge's main value is on the perimeter. In the five games he's played, he's 11-for-20 on threes; and in key games during his rehab period, Utah did not shoot all that well from deep. The Utes had to grind out a 65-61 win at BYU on Dec. 10 while making just 2-of-14 three-point attempts, and their 63-60 loss to Kansas on Dec. 13 featured just 4-of-19 long-range shooting.
Next up: 1/2 vs. USC, 1/4 vs. UCLA
One of the conclusions coach Bill Self had after reviewing film of the Jayhawks' 77-52 loss at Temple on Dec. 22? "We need to play faster." He wanted to see more transition scoring after getting just two fastbreak points against the Owls. In KU's following game, a 78-62 win over Kent State on Tuesday, the Jayhawks responded with 19 fastbreak points and a higher tempo.
KU's best defensive performances have come in higher-paced games (namely against Kent State, UC-Santa Barbara and Georgetown), and on each of the five occasions the Jayhawks have forced an opponent to play faster than its average adjusted tempo, they've won:
(Tempo data from kenpom.com.)
Next up: 1/4 vs. UNLV, 1/7 at Baylor
I'm still on the fence about the Huskies. Their resume, which includes wins over Oklahoma, San Diego State and UTEP, warrants them appearing in the Power Rankings. Their defense, led by the country's best shot-blocker, Robert Upshaw, has been surprisingly solid. But their long-range and free-throw shooting percentages are troubling, and their overall efficiency -- they rank 46th in kenpom.com's adjusted efficiency rankings -- suggests that their 11-1 record might be deceptive. Was Sunday's home loss to Stony Brook just a holiday-season fluke, or is Washington headed for a middle-of-the-pack finish in the Pac-12?
Next up: 1/2 at Cal, 1/4 at Stanford
Will Myles Turner -- whose overall stats are among the nation's best for freshman big men -- have a major impact in Big 12 play, or fade when he faces consistently tough competition? The conference has eight teams ranked in kenpom's top 50, and Turner's early-season splits reveal that he's been a monster against weak opponents, but a pedestrian role player against quality opponents:
Next up: 1/3 at Texas Tech, 1/5 vs. Oklahoma
The Shockers' defense has taken a slight step back from 2013-14, when they ranked 12th in defensive efficiency. They've dropped to 49th this season, and a bit of it may be due to the randomness of opponents being hot from the three-point line, but losing three of their four best shot-blockers from the 35-1 team -- Kadeem Coleby, Chadrack Lufile and Cleanthony Early -- has hurt. Wichita State ranked 14th in block percentage in last season, and has slid to 224th. They're still more than talented enough to win nearly all their Missouri Valley Conference games, but that dropoff in rim protection is likely what'll keep them from running the table.
Next up: 1/4 vs. Illinois State, 1/7 vs. Bradley
The Panthers, aka the one team good enough to possibly steal the Mo-Valley crown from Wichita, are in this position because they've made massive improvements on defense. Their defensive performance in '13-14 was the worst of coach Ben Jacobson's then-eight-year tenure, as they ranked 187th in efficiency. They've moved up to 45th this season -- about equal with Wichita -- by significantly cutting down on fouls and protecting the rim at a more respectable level, despite having a starting lineup with no one taller than 6-8.
Next up: 1/1 at Evansville, 1/4 vs. Loyola (Chicago)
The Next 16
17. West Virginia
18. North Carolina
19. Notre Dame
22. Seton Hall
23. St. John's
24. Colorado State
27. George Washington
29. San Diego State