Power Rankings: Kentucky's place in history, how big men get open, more
Volume IX of the Power Rankings doubles down on the post, examining deep-position plays, crafty Poles and the unmatched volume of Jahil Okafor:
In this week's Sports Illustrated, I have a feature on on Kentucky's defense, one section of which tries to place the Wildcats in historical context -- to determine whether they are, as Eastern Kentucky coach Jeff Neubauer put it, "the best defensive team in the modern era of college basketball." The modern era is generally agreed to be the three-point-line era, which spans from 1986-87 to the present, and the best metric for evaluating team defense is adjusted efficiency ... which, unfortunately, is only available on kenpom.com from 2002-present. I filled in the gaps by converting season box-score stats for elite defensive teams from '87-01, and then applying estimated strength-of-schedule adjustments based on Basketball-Reference.com's historic SOS ratings. The final step was to compare all the best-defense-ever candidates' adjusted efficiencies with the national-average offense from their respective seasons, and then rank them according to points-per-possession under the national average.
What I found is that yes, Kentucky is on pace to be the greatest D of the modern era ... and its greatest competition is the Rick Pitino Kentucky team that came after The Untouchables, and lost in the 1997 title game to Arizona. Read the magazine for a full breakdown of the modern-era top five, but here's a peek at the data:
Virginia had its perfect season spoiled by Duke, but the Cavaliers should take solace (a tiny bit, at least) in having devised a simple-but-perfect play to get a deep-post touch against the Blue Devils' 2-3 zone in the final minute.
What you need to know before watching it is that Virginia's Justin Anderson is a lethal corner three-point shooter -- and especially so from the right side, where he's made 61.5 percent of his treys from below the free-throw line extended:
What the Cavs did (seen in the GIF below) was have Anderson cut down the center of the lane, then along the baseline to the right corner, forcing Duke's back-right defender, Justise Winslow, to stretch out along with him. As Winslow started toward the corner, the double-stacked posts on the right block -- Darion Atkins and Mike Tobey -- went into action, with Atkins turning and smothering Duke's back-center defender, Jahlil Okafor, allowing Tobey to post up so deeply -- and without fear of a digging Winslow -- that points were almost guaranteed.
(Hover over the image to start playing. The clip ends when Tobey gets fouled.)Next up: Louisville
While we're on the subject of post position ... let's take a few moments to appreciate the transition post-up craftiness of Gonzaga center Przemek Karnowski. He's a 7-foot-1, 288-pound, 18-wheeler who's always conscious of what's happening in his side mirrors during rim-runs. Here, from a fastbreak against Memphis, Karnowski senses a fast-closing Austin Nichols and deftly butt-pins him at the free-throw line, setting up a lob entry and two-shot foul (hover to play):
This clip, from the Zags' rout of Saint Mary's, shows Karnowski's favorite transition move, in which he exploits his defender's forward momentum to execute a spin-and-seal, and get a deep, 1-on-1 look in the post (again, hover to play):
He's become so effective with over-the-right-shoulder moves that the only way to be sure of stopping him is ... the quadruple-team, with a big-to-big double and two diggers (you don't need the hover-to-play instructions anymore):Next up: Santa Clara San Francisco
The Blue Devils don't run many plays to free up Jahlil Okafor in the post. Occasionally (such as when he was being defended by St. John's center Chris Obekpa) they'll have Amile Jefferson or a guard set a cross-screen in the lane, but most of the time, Okafor can establish position in his ideal spot -- one step off the block -- without any help. He's been averaging 9.0 post possessions per game, which is the highest of any major-conference player not just this season but the past four seasons. Only five different mid- or small-conference players have averaged more post-ups during that span.
(Chart data source: Synergy Sports Technology.)
A big reason the Wildcats made my Magic Eight: Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson's ability to draw fouls in isolation keeps their offense from stagnating like it frequently did in '13-14. Arizona is averaging 17.3 made free throws per 65.2 possessions (the tempo of an average D-I game), which ranks third nationally among major-conference teams.
(Chart data source: TeamRankings.com.)
Next up: 2/7 at Arizona State, 2/13 at Washington
To get a better sense of how the Badgers have performed in the Bronson Koenig-as-starting-point-guard portion of their season vs. the Traevon Jackson portion, I turned to Crashing The Dance's Andy Cox, who tracks a stat he calls Net Efficiency Margin. It measures how a team performs in each game compared to what the national-average expectation would be, given the opponent and game location. For example, when Wisconsin had an offensive efficiency of 152.2 points/100 possessions against Iowa on Jan. 20, the D-I average expectation was 98.2, giving UW an offensive NEM of +54.0.
Here's how the Badgers' season-long offensive NEMs look (the divider is game 17, their loss to Rutgers in which Jackson was injured):
Three of their four best offensive performances of the season, according to NEM, have come in the five games Koenig has started. That's promising -- but the defense is a different story. In this chart, lower (the white bars) are better:
Wisconsin's defense has gone from above-average to below-average during the Koenig phase, which has included three of its six worst defensive NEMs. Jackson wasn't regarded as a defensive stopper, but his absence seems to be having a sizable effect on how well the Badgers guard.
Next up: 2/7 vs. Northwestern, 2/10 at Nebraska
Cliff Alexander has been an efficient finisher at point-blank range -- as long as he's not trying to score on a back-to-the-basket post-up. I compared Alexander's post-up efficiency (according to Synergy) with that of his five-star freshmen peers, and the results weren't pretty:
Alexander seems capable of developing some reliable back-to-the-basket moves. Seeing him do this gives me confidence that he still has potential as a post scorer (hover to start):
The issue, for the moment, is that Alexander also does things like this:
(GIF sources: ESPN)
Next up: 2/7 at Oklahoma State, 2/10 at Texas Tech
Bracket talk is fair game now that we're in February. SI's Michael Beller put out his latest field of 68 on Monday, with Villanova as the No. 2 seed in the East Region, and the latest update of the Bracket Matrix has 'Nova as a solid No. 2. After Kentucky and Virginia, there's disagreement in the matrix over who should receive the other two No. 1s -- Gonzaga, Kansas, Duke, Arizona and Wisconsin are all on the top line in various brackets. With only one high-quality win outside its league (VCU), Villanova needs to make up some ground on the elites -- and with seven regular-season games left against KenPom.com top-100 opponents, it has ample opportunity.
Next up: 2/7 vs. Georgetown, 2/11 at Providence
One thing that I picked up from re-watching the end of Notre Dame's loss to Pittsburgh from Jan. 31: Getting Jerian Grant isolated at the top of the key after a pick-and-roll switch -- when he's being defended by a forward -- might be the Irish's optimal offensive scenario. This happened on four occasions in the final three minutes, and the results were a shooting foul, a made floater, a made three and another shooting foul. Points every time. Check the tape:
This wasn't an isolated instance of success for Grant, either. He's the fifth-best iso scorer in the country, when Synergy's logs are filtered to players with at least two iso possessions per game:
Next up: 2/7 at Duke, 2/10 at Clemson
When the Cardinals won at Miami on Tuesday, all of their points were scored by just four players: Terry Rozier, Chris Jones, Montrezl Harrell and Wayne Blackshear. And for a 14:02 stretch in the second half, Rozier was their only source of offense, scoring 12 straight. In an (anecdotal) attempt to convey Louisville's extreme scoring concentration, I color-coded all the scoring plays from the Miami game, side-by-side with a Cardinals win from one year earlier, at Houston, when the distribution was much wider. This is what it looks like when a five-option offense turns into a three-option offense:
Next up: 2/7 at Virginia, 2/11 vs. Pittsburgh
My midseason 30 watch list for the Naismith Trophy is due on Monday, and while I'm going to wait until the deadline to finalize the entire thing, I'm fairly certain of my top 10, in this order:
1. Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin
2. Jahlil Okafor, Duke
3. Jerian Grant, Notre Dame
4. Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky
5. Stanley Johnson, Arizona
6. Delon Wright, Utah
7. Justin Anderson, Virginia
8. Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga
9. D'Angelo Russell, Ohio State
10. Terry Rozier, Louisville
Cauley-Stein's box score stats pale in comparison to the rest of this crew, but he's the clear leader of a historically great defense, and thus needs to be recognized. Wright, meanwhile, probably needs a few signature performances -- particularly against Arizona -- to push back ahead the two perimeter players in the top five (Johnson and Grant).
Next up: 2/7 at Colorado, 2/12 vs. Stanford
Something that has not happened in the entire tempo-free stats era but is in danger of going down in the Missouri Valley and WAC this season: an entire conference averaging fewer than 60 possessions per game. Both leagues are currently at the basketball-on-quaaludes speed of 59.9 possessions per game, with Northern Iowa as the slowest, at 56.8. Hard to argue that it's not working for the Panthers, though; they have a top-15 defense nationally and are looking like the class of a league that was initially thought to just be Wichita State et al.
Next up: 2/7 vs. Drake, 2/11 vs. Illinois State
Iowa State message-boarders have taken offense to their team's omission from my Magic Eight title picks. (They troll hard in Ames: "How ironic. I left him off my Magic Eight list of relevant college basketball writers. He did make my Magic Eight list for worst haircuts.") The decision came down to defense, and the low odds of a team ranked 115th in adjusted efficiency even reaching the Final Four, much less winning it all. It's extremely difficult for a jump-shooting dependent team with a suspect defense to win six neutral-court games in a row against legit competition. The best template for Iowa State at this point is 2011 VCU, which long-range-bombed its way to the Final Four with the 145th-ranked defense entering the tourney, but no other team with a defense in that ballpark has made the Final Four over the past decade. Even last season, when the crew in Arlington was somewhat unexpected, they all had top-60 defenses heading into the tourney: UConn was 11th, Kentucky was 35th, Florida was fifth and Wisconsin was 59th.
Next up: 2/7 vs. Texas Tech, 2/9 at Oklahoma
Best thing gleaned from watching clips of Wichita State's win over Bradley on Wednesday? The Braves have a forward with a consonant combo that even makes Montrezl Harrell jealous: Xzavier Taylor! The weirdest thing gleaned, meanwhile, is that the Shockers managed to win (by three) without scoring a field goal in the final 12:38, putting up their last 12 points on free throws. I'd like to petition Ken Pomeroy's play-by-play theatre to ID games in which the victor doesn't make a basket for the final 12 minutes or more. This cannot be common.
Next up: 2/7 vs. Missouri State, 2/11 vs. Indiana State
Bulldogs senior Alex Barlow is the Power Rankings' Unheralded Player of the Past Two Weeks. He was 8-of-12 from long range in wins over Seton Hall, Marquette and St. John's while also averaging five boards and six assists. Barlow has been putting up better point-guard stats of late than one of his more famous comps, Kevin Pangos of Gonzaga -- and Barlow makes a bigger impact on defense, too. He's a big part of why Butler has its best team defense since the 2010 club that went to the national title game.
Next up: 2/7 vs. DePaul, 2/14 vs. Villanova
The Terps, as you saw in the Arizona section, lead the country in free-throw production, averaging 17.4 makes per 65.2 possessions. They're also second in my pace-adjusted free-throw margin stats, at +7.5 -- behind only Wisconsin, which combines solid free-throw production with extreme foul avoidance, and not coincidentally has the nation's best offense.
(Chart data from TeamRankings.com.)
Next up: 2/8 at Iowa, 2/11 vs. Indiana
The Next 16
17. North Carolina
20. West Virginia
22. Oklahoma State
24. Michigan State
25. San Diego State
26. Ohio State
32. Stephen F. Austin