Power Rankings: Cliff Alexander propels Kansas back into top five
Volume VII of the Power Rankings introduces Super PAC defense, digs into the Miller-Bennett Archives, and reveals the kings of shutting down ball-screens:
11Kentucky Wildcatslast week: 1record: 16-0
The way Kentucky gets its points has been evolving. The November-December portion of the Wildcats' season was heavy on points in the paint; in nearly every game, twos accounted for more than 50 percent of their scoring. Then came SEC play, and a huge shift that John Gasaway astutely IDed: With Ole Miss and Texas A&M packing in their defenses, Kentucky, for the first time, had to lean more heavily on threes than twos. Here's a visualization of the full-season change:
Texas A&M took the Wildcats to double overtime using what I'll call the Super PAC defense, because there were so many occasions where ALL FIVE Aggies had a foot in the paint. Here they are in man-to-man, reacting to a post feed to Karl-Anthony Towns; note that they're giving Aaron Harrison no respect as a right-wing shooter, using his man to drop down and double Towns:
Here's another man-to-man example in which Tyler Ulis has turned the corner on a ballscreen, only to see THREE defenders -- one more than normal -- waiting for him in the paint. The extra guy is once again helping off of Aaron Harrison, while the only Kentucky player capable of stretching a defender outside the paint is Devin Booker, in the bottom right corner:
I suspect the Wildcats will be seeing more of the Super PAC. For an inferior team -- and that's everyone left on their schedule -- it's the best path to an upset.
22Virginia Cavalierslast week: 3record: 16-0
We aren't done talking about packed-in defenses! With Virginia getting No. 1 votes in the polls and suffocating various ACC offenses, the Bennett Family's Pack Line is becoming one of the season's Big Schemes. I hope its cool origin story won't get lost, though; a recent analysis linked the Pack Line to Dick Bennett's teams at Division III Wisconsin-Stevens Point in the '80s, but in actuality, Dick was famous (in coaching circles) at that time for being a guru of turnover-creating, on-the-line-up-the-line pressure D. As was detailed in SI in 2012, Dick did a philosophical about-face in the '90s while at Division I mid-major Wisconsin-Green Bay, devising the Pack Line as a scheme for lesser athletes to contain dribble-penetrating offenses by offering early help. The Pack Line has evolved to address the heavy doses of ball-screening that didn't exist in college hoops in the '90s, and Tony Bennett, who has legitimate athletes at Virginia, is now running the best modernized version.
To get a sense of how sound the Cavs are, watch this possession (with helpful freeze-frame annotations!) from their win over Notre Dame. They defend all six stages of it so well that the ridiculous ending is irrelevant:Next up: 1/17 at Boston College, 1/22 vs. Georgia Tech
33Villanova Wildcatslast week: 8record: 16-1
It seems that Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim still isn't over his overtime loss to Villanova ... even though it happened more than three weeks and eight games ago. Following the Orange's overtime win over Wake Forest on Tuesday, Boeheim veered back to the topic of the officiating that he believes cost him an upset of the Wildcats. This is the play in question (hover over to start):
Boehiem didn't air any specific complaints after the Dec. 20 game -- in which Syracuse blew a five-point lead with 20 seconds left -- but this was his 24-days-delayed gripe, from Syracuse.com: "[Rakeem Christmas] got fouled. We can't overcome someone grabbing your arm. That wasn't a mistake. That was clear. If [tonight's] refs were reffing they would have called that foul because they called everything else on us tonight. You can't ask a player to catch the ball when someone is holding his arm. That's hard to do. Clearly evident on the tape. Nothing we can do about that now."
In relevant bracket-projection news, now that Villanova is 16-1, it should be considered the frontrunner for the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament's East Regional ... which is being held at the Dome Jim Boeheim Built.
44Gonzaga Bulldogslast week: 6record: 16-1
Why, you ask, is it OK to place Gonzaga ahead of Arizona, even though the Zags lost the head-to-head meeting in Tuscon? Because rankings need to be big-picture and location conscious. Gonzaga lost a one-possession game in overtime, on the road in a gym where non-conference visitors never win -- and the result was in line with what advanced stats expected. However, if that game moves to Spokane or a neutral court, the Zags would be projected to win. Using kenpom.com's efficiency data and his location adjustment of a 1.4% efficiency gain for the home team, here's how Gonzaga-Arizona is projected to play out in all three scenarios:
I'd love to see them rematch as the 1-2 seeds in Los Angeles, but for the Zags to get the No. 1, they'll probably have to run the table in the West Coast Conference.
Next up: 1/15 at Pepperdine, 1/17 at Loyola Marymount
55Kansas Jayhawkslast week: 11record: 14-2
If you're among the few who hasn't watched The Wrath of Cliff Alexander yet, here's the Vine:
Maybe a little unfair for Alexander to have a Taser implanted in his left shoulder, and hit Le'Bryan Nash with it while posting up pre-dunk, but whatever: It's the closest thing we've seen in college to a Blake Griffin rim-throw since Blake turned pro. I'd like to think that Alexander is helping KU in other ways, too. The Jayhawks have the best defense in Big 12 play thus far, and much of that is due to controlling the defensive glass and altering close-range shots -- and Alexander just happens to be the best defensive rebounder and shot-blocker in their rotation. He has yet to supplant Jamari Traylor in the starting lineup, but from a production standpoint, Alexander is KU's best option at the 5.
Next up: 1/17 at Iowa State, 1/19 vs. Oklahoma
66Utah Uteslast week: 7record: 13-2
Any discussion of Utah's defensive success -- and the Utes are really good, ranking fifth nationally in adjusted efficiency -- needs to start with their disciplined-and-advanced ball-screen coverage. According to Synergy's logs of pick-and-roll plays, which include possessions used by the ballhandler, roll/pop man and other pass recipients, only Kentucky has been stingier than Utah at defending these situations. This is what happens when a smart NBA assistant (Larry Krystkowiak) moves back into the college game:
Next up: 1/15 at Arizona State, 1/17 at Arizona
77Duke Blue Devilslast week: 2record: 14-2
Any discussion of Duke's defensive flaws -- and the Blue Devils have looked mighty suspect over the past week -- needs to start with their guards in isolation. Miami coach Jim Larranaga said the Hurricanes' heavy ball-screen usage keyed their rout at Cameron ("Our goal was to set one, if not two or three or four ball screens on every possession because our guards are best when they’re on attack"), and Rob Dauster dug into Duke's P&R issues over at NBC. But the easiest points against the Blue Devils seem to come when opposing guards put Tyus Jones or Quinn Cook on an island. They get beat easily off the bounce, and unlike guards at, say, Kentucky, they can't funnel drivers toward a menacing shot-blocker. Star freshman center Jahlil Okafor seems to prioritize foul-avoidance over shot-alteration, and thus you get plays like these, from Tuesday:Next up: 1/17 at Louisville, 1/19 vs. Pittsburgh
88Arizona Wildcatslast week: 5record: 14-2
There's a junk shop in the Wisconsin town I grew up in that traffics in loads of nearly worthless sports cards, and while there over Christmas vacation, I bought a $10 wax box of 1992 Front Row Basketball Draft Picks. I was mostly hoping to find Shaq (alas, he wasn't in the set), Harold Miner and Latrell Sprewell (got five of each!), but did not realize I'd be discovering Power Rankings material:
That's Sean Miller, wearing White Men Can't Jump-era Nike Air Flights, playing point guard for Pitt. Somehow he sneaked into the set undrafted; I'm imagining his rights were cheaper to obtain than Shaq's.
Also in the set? Tony Bennett, the No. 35 pick out of Wisconsin-Green Bay, looking pretty much the same age as he does now:
Miller had Bennett beat in career free-throw percentage, 88.5 percent to 84.0.
Next up: 1/15 vs. Colorado, 1/17 vs. Utah
99Wisconsin Badgerslast week: 4record: 15-2
With Traevon Jackson out for as many as six weeks with a fractured foot, it's Bronson Koenig time in Madison. The sophomore combo guard will take over the point and have a bigger platform for his contrarian offensive habits. Koenig loves to hunt off-the-dribble Long2s, to the extent that he seems more comfortable pulling up with both feet on the three-point line rather than behind it. In most cases this is a horrible idea -- it's the game's least efficient shot! -- but Koenig is the rare dude who's more efficient at Long2s (1.316 PPP, according to Synergy) than he is at threes (1.050 PPP). Let him wow you in this mixtape of contrarian pull-ups:Next up: 1/15 vs. Nebraska, 1/20 vs. Iowa
1010Notre Dame Fighting Irishlast week: 9record: 16-2
The Irish move down one spot, not for losing to Virginia, but for losing Zach Auguste for an indeterminate stretch. The junior forward, who's suspended due to an academic issue, was their highest possession-user on offense and the only real shot-altering/rebounding big man on their roster. They've been barely hanging on in the rebounding department, ranking 14th (out of 15) in ACC play in offensive and defensive rebounding percentage; with Auguste out, it could get ugly.
Next up: 1/17 vs. Miami, 1/22 at Virginia Tech
1111Maryland Terrapinslast week: 13record: 16-2
Where would the Terps be without foul-line production? They're one of two Big Ten teams -- along with Iowa -- creating at least one free-throw attempt per every two field-goal attempts in conference play. They shot just 30.3 percent on their twos against Rutgers on Wednesday, but survived by going 20-of-28 from the line, and that's been their formula for much of the season. Nationally, Maryland ranks ninth in ratio of FTA/FGA, at .495. Of major-conference teams, only Arizona, Kansas State, Texas Tech, TCU and Georgia have higher ratios.
Next up: 1/17 vs. Michigan State, 1/22 at Indiana
12last week: 16record: 15-2
On Tuesday, Oklahoma was the latest team to look overwhelmed against West Virginia's total-chaos defense, as the Sooners committed turnovers on a season-high 30.1 percent of their possessions. Even when Oklahoma tried to rush their after-made-basket inbounds passes in hopes that the Mountaineers couldn't set the press, bad things happened, like this Isaiah Cousins Dribbling into a Death Trap GIF. (Hover to start.)(GIF source: ESPN.)
Next up: 1/17 at Texas, 1/24 vs. TCU
13last week: 14record: 15-2
The Power Rankings' marveling over the outsized offensive role of senior center Darius Carter continues: On a team with preseason All-America candidates Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet in its backcourt, the unheralded Carter is taking by far the highest volume of shots. In Missouri Valley Conference play, Carter is taking a whopping 30.3 percent of the Shockers' shots while he's on the floor, according to Statsheet.com. In their win over Southern Illinois on Wednesday, Carter scored 25 points by taking 54.3 percent of their shots. For some context, Jahlil Okafor, one of the frontrunners for the Wooden Award, is only taking 20.6 percent of Duke's shots in ACC play.
Next up: 1/17 at Evansville, 1/21 at Missouri State
1414Louisville Cardinalslast week: 10record: 15-2
Time for the season's first Visual Quiz! The following grid contains pictures of the exterior of nine college basketball arenas*. First person to name all nine correctly, in order, in a Tweet to @lukewinn gets the glory of being name-checked on Twitter, and mentioned in an update to this column.
*Two clues: Louisville's arena is in the grid, and some of the nine are not arenas of Power Ranked teams.
Next up: 1/17 vs. Duke, 1/25 at Pittsburgh
1515Butler Bulldogslast week: 15record: 13-5
There's no better five-loss team in America than the Bulldogs, who despite their losses already have high-quality wins over North Carolina and Georgetown on neutral courts, and Seton Hall and St. John's on the road. This isn't the best version of Butler I've ever seen, but it may be the best rebounding version I've seen; through five Big East games, the Kam Woods-and-Rosie Jones-led Bulldogs are leading the conference in offensive and defensive rebounding. They're thriving in pretty much the opposite way that Notre Dame is in the ACC.
Next up: 1/17 at Georgetown, 1/21 vs. Creighton
1616Virginia Commonwealth Ramslast week: 17record: 14-3
Shaka Smart has the Rams jacking threes at a much higher rate than last season -- 39.8 percent of their attempts are from long range, compared to 33.8 in '13-14 -- and they've become one of the nation's better offenses as a result. He's only had one team that's put up more than 40 percent of its shots from deep: the 2011 squad that made a Cinderella run to the Final Four as an 11-seed. The biggest difference between that 2011 team and the current one is that the Final Four team had six players who put up 80 or more treys, while the '14-15 team's threes are mostly coming from two gunners, Melvin Johnson and Treveon Graham.
Next up: 1/17 at Duquesne, 1/23 at St. Louis
The Next 16
17. North Carolina
19. Ohio State
20. Northern Iowa
21. Seton Hall
22. Iowa State
24. Oklahoma State
27. Michigan State
28. St. John's
31. San Diego State