Power Rankings: Wisconsin's absurd offense, UK's sliding defense, more
Volume X of the Power Rankings sees its favorite play proliferating among the elites, delves into the stat where Sabonis > Okafor, and reveals the Adam Woodbury Antics that no one's been talking about:
Just a week after SI looked at where Kentucky stood among the best defenses of the modern era—and concluded the Wildcats were on pace to be No. 1—their D has started to slip. Crashing The Dance's Andy Cox, a friend-o-the-rankings, ran his Net Efficiency Margin calculations on the 'Cats, comparing their offensive and defensive efforts to how a D-I average team would be expected to perform in each game, and these were the results:
Kentucky's defense was less than historic in its recent meetings with Alabama (Jan. 31), Florida (Feb. 7) and LSU (Feb. 10). This has been the worst defensive stretch of the Wildcats' season; they were at their best early on, while Alex Poythress was still a member of the platoons, but remained impressively stingy through most of January. I still have them on pace to finish as the best D of the modern era, but it's no longer a rout; any more slippage and they fall behind my No. 1-in-the-clubhouse, Rick Pitino's 1996-97 Kentucky squad that lost in the title game to Arizona.
Next up: 2/14 vs. South Carolina, 2/17 at Tennessee
Last week's Power Rankings showcased a killer 2-3 zone play the Cavaliers used to get a deep-post touch against Duke—a play so good it spread to Kentucky, which used it for a first-half Karl-Anthony Towns bucket against LSU on Tuesday.
To refresh your minds, here's the Virginia version, which I'm calling the stack-n-smother; they ran one of the nation's best corner-3 shooters, Justin Anderson, along the baseline to stretch out the zone, and then had the top half of a post-stack simply turn and smother the middle-of-paint defender. (Hover to play.)
Now for the Kentucky version, which I thank DraftExpress' Jonathan Givony for IDing instantly and alerting me to download. The Wildcats ran a mirror image of the Virginia play after a baseline out-of-bounds situation in which LSU seemed to be caught between a 2-3 and man-to-man; Trey Lyles is the baseline runner, Wille Cauley-Stein is the smother-guy, and Towns gets the glory. (Once again, hover!)
If you spot this play elsewhere in the wild, Tweet at me. I suspect it's not done spreading.
Next up: 2/14 vs. Wake Forest, 2/16 vs. Pittsburgh
Duke's Jahlil Okafor is the best post scorer of this year's class of five-star big men—the others being Texas' Myles Turner, Kentucky's Towns and Kansas' Cliff Alexander. But Okafor isn't the most efficient post scorer of this entire freshman class. I took Synergy Sports Technology's post-up logs for all freshmen with at least 50 post possessions, applied adjustments for defensive strength of schedule, and the No. 1 was none other than Gonzaga's Domantas Sabonis. He been shooting an amazing 67.8 percent in the post and scoring an adjusted 1.151 points per possession, compared to Okafor's 1.000:
Sabonis' moves are a little less varied than Okafor's; the Lithuanian lefty tends to his strong base to bury defenders deep in the lane with back-in dribbles, then score over his right shoulder. (Hover!)
Next up: 2/12 vs. Loyola Marymount, 2/14 vs. Pepperdine
The Blue Devils are 4-0 since guard Rasheed Sulaimon was dismissed from the team in late January, and the player who's made the biggest leap in Sulaimon's absence is freshman point guard Tyus Jones. His ACC-only splits show he's playing around seven more minutes per game, with a slightly higher usage rate, a significant jump in efficiency (largely due to improved 3-point shooting) and an assist-turnover ratio that's twice as good as it was when Sulaimon was in the rotation.
Next up: 2/14 at Syracuse, 2/18 vs. North Carolina
Further evidence of Wisconsin's offensive superiority to the rest of the Big Ten: The Badgers' entire starting five ranks in the conference's top 10 in individual offensive rating. Offensive ratings need to be considered in context with usage rates—as in, it's much, much easier for Josh Gasser to have a sky-high rating when he only uses 12.1 percent of Wisconsin's possessions, compared to say, Terran Petteway using 32.7 percent of Nebraska's—but having your whole starting lineup in the top 10 is unprecedented.
(Chart data source: kenpom.com.)
Next up: 2/14 vs. Illinois, 2/18 at Penn State
It's Visual Quiz™ time! This one's for the jerseyphiles: Can you ID these nine teams from only their jersey necklines? Clues: only two of the teams are in the top 16 of the Power Rankings, and none of them are Villanova.
Tweet your answers to me @lukewinn; the winner gets Twitter glory and a name-check in an edit to the rankings. High stakes, folks.
(UPDATE! John Mitchell, at @JohnMitch365, won the contest with this Tweet. Click for the spoilers.)
(Photo sources: Getty Images)
Next up: 2/14 at Butler, 2/16 vs. Seton Hall, 2/21 at Marquette
Last week's lauding of the Wildcats' free-throw-drawing prowess was a jinx. They went to Arizona State on Saturday and, for the first time in a Pac-12 game this season, lost the free-throw-margin battle by a wide margin—and lost the game as a result. Arizona, thanks to the work of Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, had consistently held free-throw advantages up to that point:
Next up: 2/13 at Washington, 2/15 at Washington State
The Topeka Capitol-Journal's Jesse Newell wrote a great blog post on the curious state of Kansas' offense. Bill Self has won 10 straight Big 12 titles using an offensive formula that doesn't rely heavily on the three-pointer. During that 10-year span his teams have never ranked higher than 183rd in ratio of 3PA to overall FGA, generally hovering around 30 percent of their attempts from long-range. Self likes to play inside-out, and sometimes just inside-inside, because he typically has strong low-post scorers. But that's not the case this year; the Jayhawks are shooting nearly 10 percent points worse on 2-pointers (45.6 percent) than they did last season, and their strength is obviously their three-point shooters. In Frank Mason, Brannen Greene and Wayne Selden, Self might have his best long-range trio ever at KU—but even though they're making 40.9 percent of their treys, he'd rather they not take too many of them. It's a strategy that, as Newell writes, limits the Jayhawks' offensive ceiling ... but it's also a strategy that's worked for Self for a decade, and he's unlikely to change.
Next up: 2/14 vs. Baylor, 2/16 at West Virginia
Sign the ACC is becoming a ball-control league: The Nos. 1 and 2 teams in the standings, Virginia and Notre Dame, are the Nos. 1 and 2 teams in offensive turnover rate. The Cavaliers turn the ball over on just 13.1 percent of their possessions, while the Irish turn it over on just 13.7. The best ACC teams at forcing turnovers, meanwhile, are not in the title race. Nos. 1-2-3 in that department are Syracuse (sixth place in the ACC), Virginia Tech (13th) and Pittsburgh (ninth).
Next up: 2/17 vs. Wake Forest, 2/21 at Boston College
The Power Rankings' Halfcourt Set Of The Week™ comes from the Utes, which had a crafty way of freeing their hottest three-point shooter, Brandon Taylor, for a corner look against Colorado. (Taylor is a scorching 57.1 percent from deep in Pac-12 games.)
After bringing up the ball, Taylor dishes to Delon Wright on the left wing, then cuts to the left block, using a backscreen from Dallin Bachynski. The point is to place Taylor's defender in a position where he's the only help option on the roll man in a left-wing screen-and-roll between Wright and Bachynski. Once Taylor's man gets caught up in that play, Taylor cuts to the opposite corner; the ball gets rotated, the potential help man on that side gets screened, and boom: open three. Watch it:
Next up: 2/12 vs. Stanford, 2/15 vs. Cal
Crazy stat via the Courier-Journal's Jeff Greer: When the Cardinals beat Pittsburgh on Wednesday, it was their first time since 1992 that they'd won a game without making a three-pointer. They were fine offensively, shooting 54 percent from the field -- as Rick Pitino put it, "Who needs a 3 when you're getting dunks and back-door cuts?" -- but it was yet another reminder that this is Pitino's worst three-point shooting team (at 30.1 percent) in his entire career at Louisville. They are, at the moment, better at throwing falling-down, over-the-shoulder alley-oops than making treys, which scares me re: their postseason prospects.
(HT for the 'oop: Card Chronicle)
Next up: 2/14 vs. NC State, 2/18 at Syracuse
Are the Sooners the national title contender no one is talking about? Their statistical case is fairly strong: They have the best defense in the nation's best conference, with a front line (TaShawn Thomas and Ryan Spangler) that's locking down the interior; they have an explosive scorer in Buddy Hield; and they have a mostly upperclass rotation with NCAA tournament experience. That the NCAA tournament experience has consisted of back-to-back opening round losses is troubling, but this version of OU has such a different, defense-first profile than Lon Kruger's other teams that I'm far more inclined to pick them to go on a deep run.
Next up: 2/14 at Kansas State, 2/17 vs. Texas
This blurb is getting hijacked to discuss persons from a lesser Iowa-based team: Adam Woodbury, the Hawkeye center who's been blowing up the Internet with his eye-poking Vines, and his coach, Fran McCaffery, who's still comically/embarrassingly defending Woodbury by insisting that he's not a dirty player, and that his actions aren't premeditated.
While discussing the latest eye business—a Woodbury-poke of Maryland's Melo Trimble—I received a Tweet from Tim Shoemaker, of the Ohio State blog ElevenWarriors.com, encouraging me to check out what Woodbury has a habit of doing on opening tips: tugging on the opposing tipper's arm while jumping for the ball. I started digging up clips of Iowa tip-offs, and let's just say there's a pattern ...
Nov. 21 vs. Syracuse (hover to play all of these -- and note that they are deliberately GIF'd in super-slow-motion):
Dec. 30 at Ohio State:
Jan. 5 vs. Nebraska:
Jan. 17 vs. Ohio State:
Jan. 24 at Purdue:
UNI's Seth Tuttle is one of the lucky ones: He at least got his arm to a 45-degree angle before getting grabbed on Dec. 20:
Fran McCaffery, I imagine, does not see a pattern.
Next up: 2/15 at Missouri State, 2/18 at Loyola Chicago
Fred VanVleet seems to have saved his best work for the backstretch: He had a triple-double (10 points, 10 boards, 11 assists, zero turnovers) against Missouri State on Saturday, and followed that up with a 26-6-4-0 line against Indiana State on Wednesday. He's been the Missouri Valley's most efficient offensive force in conference games (he has a 128.8 ORating on 25.1 percent usage, per kenpom.com), with a 3.5-to-1 assist/turnover ratio. This is yet another reason I remain bullish on the Shockers despite them having far less buzz than last year. They're almost buzz-free, but still a very scary-looking tourney team.
Next up: 2/14 at Illinois State, 2/17 at Southern Illinois
I chose the Bulldogs as my Final Four Darkhorse in SI's One-Month-To-Go Picks this week, and was promptly anointed by Butler fans as the ...
Next up: 2/14 vs. Villanova, 2/16 at Creighton
Once you're done here—if you haven't done it already—I urge you to go read Gary Smith's wonderful 1982 profile of the late Dean Smith from Inside Sports (revived by Deadspin) and Marc Tracy's piece in the New York Times about how Smith was an analytical pioneer. Most of the material I cover in the Power Rankings has its basis in per-possession, or tempo-free statistics, which Smith was a proponent of all the way back in 1959—roughly 50 years before they became a part of the college basketball lexicon. As Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey says, "All signs point to [Smith] being the father of basketball analytics." Smith was progressive in his politics, in his efforts for racial equality in the ACC and college basketball at large—progressive in pretty much everything but his view—expressed in a 1983 New York Times editorial—that freshmen should not be eligible. Smith was so adamant about setting the right academic tone that even though he'd won a national title with Michael Jordan playing as a frosh, the coach preferred college hoops go back to its old, freshman-free system.
Next up: 2/14 at Pitt, 2/18 at Duke
The Next 16
17. Oklahoma State
18. Iowa State
19. Ohio State
24. West Virginia
26. Bill Walton
27. Boise State
31. San Diego State
33. Ole Miss