In our first college basketball power rankings of the season, Kentucky takes the No. 1 spot from North Carolina.
The season for amateurish infographics, spreadsheets, tables, game-film rabbit holes and screengrabs is upon us! THE POWER RANKINGS ARE BACK, and they are your only place on the Internet for analysis of Austrian free-throw routines, counter moves for point-guard post-ups and home-cooked free-throw-generation metrics:
Something to keep in mind when evaluating the early work of freshman power forward Skal Labissiere: He is, in a way, the inverse of the typical 6'11"-or-taller mega-prospect, whose value to college teams at 18 or 19 years old tends to be length-and-athleticism-based, with the hopes of adding polished skills as they age. While Labissiere is long and athletic, he has played in far fewer games than most prospects, due to a stress fracture in his back that robbed him of his junior high-school season, and then a senior-year move to a newly formed prep school that played a limited schedule. What Labissiere has done a ton of, however, is offensive skill development; I saw this first-hand while reporting a feature on him this off-season, and was awed by his level of polish.
I would venture to say that Labissiere has done more offensive skill work and played in fewer games than any other elite freshman big man, which is why he already has highlights like these on offense, and is shooting 13-for-17 on post-ups and around-the-basket attempts ...
... yet has so far to go when it comes to making instinctive plays on defense, and winning fights for rebounds. He's such a quick learner, though, that I suspect you won't see struggles like this come March:
Next up: 11/20 vs. Wright State, 11/24 vs. Boston U
It seems like a waste of time to analyze the Tar Heels' overall offensive or defensive performances while Marcus Paige—who played 82.5% of minutes last season—recovers from his hand injury. Something promising on the individual front that's unlikely to be affected by the presence of Paige is the early play of junior center Kennedy Meeks. An area of upside for the Tar Heels is simply MORE MEEKS: he's so productive on the glass and has such great touch around the basket that the more minutes he can handle, the better they'll be.
After averaging 23.3 minutes last season—and just 14.5 in UNC's final two NCAA tournament games—the slimmed-down, 260-pounder is up to 26.0 this season. He's been productive (as expected) on offense and more active on D than in previous years, with the Heels' highest block rate and second-highest steal and defensive rebounding rates. For a team that was held back by mediocre block, steal and rebounding rates in '14-15, a more active Meeks is a very good thing.
It was the best foul-drawing performance I could recall by a guard in a big game, and using bbstate.com's archives, I tried to put it in context. I pulled all of individual-high games in FTAs since 2013–14 (when the NCAA first tightened its whistles), then filtered them down to guards, against major-conference opponents, with at least 30 minutes played in the game. I then ran pace adjustments on the data, to see who generated the most FTAs per possession played—and Trimble's game was the second-best in that time span, behind only NC Central's Jeremy Ingram, who drew 0.360 FTAs per possession played against NC State on Nov. 20, 2013. Pretty remarkable feat for the Terps' leader on a big stage:
Do I dare call LSU freshman Ben Simmons—a preseason first-team All-American, possible No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft, and subject of an ESPN-and-SEC-Network November hype bomb—a poor man's Denzel Valentine? I won't go that far ... yet. But in the battle of Stars Who Could Be Classified As Point Forwards, Valentine has taken the early lead. I did a playing-time-adjusted* breakdown of the percentage of team points Valentine and Simmons have been responsible for thus far, and it shows the absurd workload Valentine has handled for the Spartans:
*An estimate of how many points were scored while each player was on the floor, based on minutes played.
The evolution of an offensive option, in just two games:
2. Early in the first half of the Wildcats' season-opening rout of Fairleigh Dickinson, they ended that post-up drought. They called a play to feed Arcidiacono on the right block.
3. On their first offensive possession of their win over Nebraska on Tuesday, the Wildcats called for the same Arcidiacono post-up, on the same block. Huskers coach Tim Miles is no dummy; they were prepared for this, and used the man guarding center Daniel Ochefu (a non-long-range shooter) to double down on Arcidiacono and thwart the scoring threat:
4. Undaunted, Villanova went back to the Arcidiacono post-up a few possessions later, this time on the left block. Once again, he drew a double-team from Ochefu's man. But here, it set up something on the kickout: A 2-on-1 handoff/screen action between Ochefu and Jalen Brunson, with no big man to step out and prevent Brunson from shooting a three. This is a great counter:
Next up: 11/20 vs. East Tennessee State, 11/22 vs. Akron
"What's holding back Kansas' offense?" is a question that I suspect will persist this season. After the Jayhawks' loss to Michigan State in the Champions Classic, various, valid diagnoses included failure to make layups, failure to get Perry Ellis enough shots, and failure to adjust schemes to fit KU's personnel. For me the most tantalizing thing is the same as it was last season—the Jayhawks have the potential to be a top-five offense if they really leverage the long-range shooting of Brannen Greene, Wayne Selden and Frank Mason, but that's unlikely given their commitment to inside-first basketball.
With all of that said ... this is still a very good team, one that should win the Big 12, and I doubt there will be many more games—if any—in which all three of their primary guards lay eggs like they did in Chicago. They had an ugly night and still only lost by six to a team that'll likely be a top-three seed in the NCAAs.
If you were a coach, which of these players would you prefer in your program?
1) A one-and-done big man who's an immediate starter and plays at an all-conference (but not All-America) level—basically an Aaron Gordon-level freshman
2) A top-50 recruit who's not ready to make a big impact as a freshman, but after that, gives you three seasons of highly efficient role-player scoring and strong rebounding?
Two is my answer, and two is, as you may have guessed, Blue Devils senior Amile Jefferson, who was one of the few bright spots in their loss to who was one of the few bright spots in their loss to Kentucky in the Champions Classic, and has grown into a valuable four-year asset for Coach K. Jefferson had 16 points and 15 boards on Tuesday, and looks well on his way to shooting better than 63% from the field for the third straight season, as well as serving as a major offensive-rebounding weapon. He already has 21 O-rebs this season in 91 minutes played.
A backcourt situation worth monitoring: In their season-opening win over Memphis, the Sooners did more alternating between junior Jordan Woodard and senior Isaiah Cousins at point guard than they did last season, when Woodard was mostly at the helm of the offense, and Cousins mostly played off the ball. Spending time on the wing worked out well for Woodard against Memphis; he had an efficient 15 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists against one turnover. He also shot 2-of-3 from long range—a nice start for a guy who only made 25.4% of his threes last season.
What I'm most interested in is how this impacts Cousins. He's a career 40.3% long-range shooter, and was Oklahoma's best perimeter weapon last season, when he shot 45.0%. Will he get as many quality looks while handling more point-guard duties? We shall find out, because OU coach Lon Kruger told The Oklahoman that the arrangement is likely to continue.
How I entertain myself while watching late-night, West Coast hoops on Internet streams: by collecting screengrabs in which a substantially bearded, 7'1", 287-pound center from Poland (Gonzaga's Przemek Karnowski) and a substantially pony-tailed, 6'7", 295-pound forward of Hawaiian descent (Northern Arizona's Ako Kaluna) appear together.
The game, which took place Wednesday night, was not ripe for analysis. Gonzaga won by 39. Kaluna hit a pick-and-pop three and an announcer called him a "poor-man's Kyle Wiltjer." I Googled Kaluna and found a YouTube of him shattering a backboard in high school. I prefer to think of him as a Hawaiian Darvin Ham.
SI projected Indiana to have the nation's No. 1 offense this season, so the fact that the Hoosiers scored 1.28 points per possession in their first two games (wins over Eastern Illinois and Austin Peay) is not all that surprising. The degree to which the Hoosiers are pushing the tempo early on, however, is beyond what I expected—and almost North Carolina-like in its speed.
I timed all of Indiana's offensive possessions from the Austin Peay game on Nov. 16, starting from the moment IU either secured a rebound or steal, or inbounded after a made shot or dead ball, and ending with the first action, whether it was a shot, foul or turnover. These were the results:
Yes, it was only Austin Peay, one of the lesser teams in the Ohio Valley Conference, but the Hoosiers were quick to strike off of turnovers, and most notably, showed a commitment to pushing the ball after defensive boards, often finding great looks for shooters in transition.
Georges Niang isolations haven't disappeared from the Cyclones' offense under new coach Steve Prohm. If their opener against Colorado was any indication, Niang isos actually may increase: They ran seven of them in that game alone, trying to put the Buffs' post defenders on an island against a forward with unlimited around-the-basket tricks.
The lane gets more crowded with McKay on the floor (he's on the weakside block in this screengrab), but the threat of a big-to-big lob/posterization keeps McKay's defender honest and gives Niang room to work:
A loss in a true road game at George Washington isn't enough to bump the Cavaliers from the rankings—but it is cause for concern about a few areas of their defense. When Virginia ranked No. 1 nationally in defensive efficiency last season, it excelled at foul-avoidance, ranking 22nd in rate of free-throw attempts allowed per field-goal attempt (0.286). In Monday's loss to GW, the Cavaliers allowed 28 free-throw attempts, and starters Anthony Gill and Darius Thompson had their minutes limited by foul trouble.
They also let the Colonials shoot 52.8% on the interior, struggling to protect the rim (Virginia had just two blocks) or stop straight-line drives. The assumption that the Cavaliers could remain impossible to score on even after losing defender extraordinaire Darion Atkins—you may know him as the star of 2014 Power Rankings video Keepin' Blocks With Darion Atkins!—may have been a bit misguided.
Time for the Power Rankings Play Of The Week, brought to you by your good friends at Farhang, Medcoff, Tarczewski, Stoudamire & Lofton, Attorneys at Law.
The Wildcats show you a basic-yet-effective way to create a driving alley through a 3–2 zone, by having the non-ball-handlers set four simultaneous cross screens (at the blocks and elbows), allowing point guard Kadeem Allen to glide to the rack:
Is potential Lottery Pick center Jakob Poeltl on his way to becoming an passable—as opposed to problematic—free-throw shooter? The Austrian 7-footer shot 43.3% from the stripe as a freshman, but through two games (and 21 attempts) as a sophomore, he's up to 61.9%. The sample is far too small to be significant, but Poeltl has made some noticeable changes to his free-throw routine. In his first game as a freshman, on Nov. 14, 2014, Poeltl shot free throws with his right toe near the stripe, and finished with a slight forward lean:
Back then, Poeltl was taking five right-handed dribbles, followed by a ball-spin, a knee bend, and then a pause during which he'd slightly flex his knees three or four times before shooting:
By Feb. 15, 2015, Poeltl had cut his routine down to four dribbles, with his feet moving during each one, and then he'd move his left foot back as he spun the ball. He was also finishing more straight-up than he did in November:
By Feb. 22, in the second half of a game at Oregon, Poeltl was experimenting with shooting from a half-step behind the line, and he kept doing this through the NCAA tournament:
Next up is a GIF of Poeltl from Monday's win over San Diego State. You'll notice that he walks into the pass from the ref, takes a deep breath, doesn't dribble at all, spins the ball into his knee-bend, cuts way down on his foot movement, finishes in a vertical posture, and shoots with slightly more arc:
Did I go overboard by digging through 100-plus video clips of Poeltl free throws to ID small routine changes? Maybe. I wouldn't mind having that hour back. But as mundane as this might be, Poeltl has drawn 9.2 fouls per 40 minutes thus far, and his free-throw accuracy will have a noticeable impact on Utah's offensive efficiency.
(Sources: Pac-12 Network, CBS, ESPN)
Cal's offense is a pain to defend when it gets senior point guard Ty Wallace and super-freshmen Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown involved in three-man pick-and-roll actions.Wallace is difficult to contain off the bounce; the 6'11" Rabb is a skilled finisher who commands attention as a roll man; and Brown is a power wing who, upon receiving pass-backs from Wallace, can hit threes or (better yet) attack recovering defenders off the bounce.
The two P&R examples in this video, from wins over Rice and UC-Santa Barbara, are simple stuff, but promising nonetheless: the Golden Bears' three most talented scorers are already playing well off of each other.
(Source: Pac-12 Network)
Human perceptions and SI’s statistical projections do not agree on the Commodores. They were ranked 18th in the preseason AP poll and 20th in the preseason coaches' poll. I like their combination of shooting and size enough to have them 16th here, but the projection system I collaborate on with economist Dan Hanner—the system that decides SI's 1-351 preseason rankings—was less fond of Vandy.
It ranked the Commodores 33rd, projecting them to have the nation's 14th-most efficient offense ... but just the 88th-best defense. It saw a team that ranked 114th in defensive efficiency last season, struggled at defensive rebounding and turnover creation—and lost its most active overall defender, James Siakam, who had impressive rebounding, block and steal rates. It expected Vandy to improve slightly on D due to getting more experienced and giving more minutes to the massive front line of Damian Jones (7-foot), Luke Kornet (7'1") and Josh Henderson (7'0")—but not improve enough to be higher than a 7 or 8 seed in the NCAA tournament.
The Next 16
17. Wichita State
21. Notre Dame
32. George Washington