Power Rankings: Michigan State takes over top spot from Kentucky
North Carolina is the nation’s best team now that senior guard Marcus Paige is healthy, but the Tar Heels aren’t No. 1 in Vol. II of the Power Rankings—Michigan State is. With wins over Kansas, Providence and Louisville, and double-digit victories over the remainder of their schedule, the Spartans have earned it.
The Denzel Valentine-for-Player of the Year drumbeat is growing louder by the week. He has yet to surpass LSU’s Ben Simmons in media hype, but Valentine is already ahead on the statistical-production front. I’ve been tracking each player’s playing-time weighted percentages of overall team offense, and the points Valentine has been generating with his assists set him apart. He’s already created 26 or more points for teammates in three different games, and is generating an estimated (and incredible) 62.0% of Michigan State’s offense while he’s on the floor.
(Photo sources: Getty Images)
Next up: 12/5 vs. Binghamton, 12/9 vs. Maryland Eastern Shore
(I wrote approximately 1,600 words on Marcus Paige’s return after covering UNC-Maryland in Chapel Hill on Tuesday night, so I'll delve into a non-Paige topic here.)
The defensive activity of formerly massive, now-fairly-large center Kennedy Meeks continues to be impressive. Seven games in, the 260-pounder has the highest steal percentage (3.8%) of anyone in the Tar Heels’ rotation, and it doesn’t seem to be a fluke. Meeks’s increased agility is allowing him to fight over the top of posting-up opponents and disrupt entry passes; he has also jumped passing lanes on the perimeter and surprised guards with quicker-than-they-anticipated recoveries in the pick-and-roll. I didn’t expect to be making a Meeks Defensive Mixtape in December, but here it is:
Next up: 12/6 vs. Davidson, 12/12 at Texas
I already love Jayhawks freshman forward Chieck Diallo, who, due to a dragged-out NCAA-eligibility investigation, didn’t get to make his debut until Tuesday against Loyola (Md.) ... and celebrated by dunking like the Mailman in 1997:
The Kansas City Star reported that Diallo’s Karl Malone tribute sent KU coach Bill Self into a laughing fit, even though he didn't exactly approve. “I told him after, ‘Cheick, we don’t do that.’” Self said. “But that’s what he did.”
It's going to take at least 3 to 4 more games even to begin to gauge Diallo’s impact on the Jayhawks, so I’ll hold off on making conclusions based on a debut against a mid-level Patriot League team. The only responsible thing a pundit can do, at this early juncture, is Photoshop Diallo into Malone's Costacos Brothers poster:
Next up: 12/5 vs. Harvard, 12/9 vs. Holy Cross
One offense, one game, two identities: sloppy or unstoppable. The way the Terrapins opened their Dec. 1 duel with North Carolina was a mess, as they committed nine turnovers in their first 17 possessions, leading into the under-12 media timeout. Here’s a log of that stretch, with rolling efficiency and turnover percentages:
In the same stretch of the second half—16 possessions leading into the under-12 media timeout—Maryland’s offense was otherworldly. The Terps scored 18 points on their first nine possessions, limited their turnovers and managed to capture a brief lead after a Melo Trimble four-point play:
If First-Eight-Minutes-Of-The-Second-Half Maryland had been there from the opening tip, the Terps would be undefeated and Power-Ranked No. 1.
Next up: 12/4 vs. St. Francis (Pa.), 12/8 vs. UConn
I’m not ready to jump ship on the Wildcats after Thursday’s loss at UCLA, especially given that Tyler Ulis didn't seem to be at full strength and Marcus Lee only played four minutes due to a head injury. But I am a bit skeptical of how far they can go in the postseason while getting so little offense from beyond the arc.
Previous John Calipari teams have gotten by without relying heavily on long-distance shooting, including his 2012 national-title team, which scored just 21.8% of its points on threes—a portion that ranked 307th nationally. But these Wildcats are taking it to the extreme, scoring just 16.5% of their points on treys, which ranks 348th out of 351. They have the least-three-dependent point distribution of any UK team in the Calipari era:
Next up: 12/3 at UCLA, 12/9 vs. Eastern Kentucky
My from-the-Cameron Indoor-press-room column on Duke-Indiana took a deep look at Brandon Ingram‘s breakout and Indiana’s defensive breakdowns. But it wasn’t until I re-watched the game on Thursday, slowing down some perplexing Hoosier defensive possessions that I’d logged in my notebook, that the full extent of their issues became clear.
There were at least three possessions in which two Indiana defenders were playing man, and the other three were playing zone, or vice versa. There were multiple instances where the 2-3 zone seemed to be structured to give up a wide-open three at the top of the key. There were many instances where sophomore guard James Blackmon Jr. looked lost. I invite you to play, pause and rewind this film edit, and try to make sense of it.
Next up: 12/5 vs. Buffalo, 12/15 vs. Georgia Southern
Lee Jenkins’s story on father and son Rick and Jalen Brunson, which ran in the Nov. 30 issue of Sports Illustrated, is now online, and it’s a must-read. As Jenkins wrote, Rick used to run Jalen through pick-and-roll drills with folding-chairs as screeners, so he’d learn to master “attacking the trap, the hedge, the show.” And through seven games at Villanova, Brunson has been a smart passer out of the pick-and-roll, with his 33 P&R passes generating 1.303 points per possession—the fifth-highest rate of any major-conference guard with at least 20 P&R passing possessions. Some of that success is due to Brunson’s 'Nova teammates being great shooters, but plenty of it has to do with making the right decisions.
Next up: 12/7 vs. Oklahoma, 12/13 vs. La Salle
The Sooners weren’t too interested in showcasing the pick-and-pop-three skills of power forward Ryan Spangler last season, as just 14.1% of his shots came from beyond the arc. They seem more committed to Spangler pick-and-pops as an option in 2015–16, however: He’s taken 21.8% of his shots from deep, and OU looked for him as the pop-man three times in the first three minutes of its Nov. 29 rout of Wisconsin. The Badgers’ D didn't give Spangler much (if any) respect, and he burned them all three times:
Next up: 12/3 vs. Central Arkansas, 12/7 vs. Villanova
What do Iowa State and Oklahoma have most in common, aside from being Big 12 title contenders? They're the two AP Top 25 teams that have been fastbreaking the most on offense while completely avoiding pressing on defense in '15–16. Using Synergy Sports Technology's logs through Thursday, I created the below matrix of percentage of time spent in offensive transition vs. percentage of time spent in defensive press, and found the Cyclones fastbreaking 24.6% of the time while pressing 0.2% of the time. It would be accurate to describe them as opportunistic scorers and get-back defenders.
Next up: 12/7 vs. Buffalo, 12/10 vs. Iowa
Will this be the first season of Tony Bennett’s coaching career that his offense ranks ahead of his defense in efficiency? The Cavaliers’ offense, buoyed by torrid three-point shooting and single-digit turnover counts in every game, is sixth in adjusted efficiency on kenpom.com, while their defense is 14th. Unless some rim protection emerges from an unlikely source—and Darion Akins ain’t walkin’ through that door—Virginia’s D may not crack the top 10 nationally.
Next up: 12/5 vs. William & Mary, 12/8 vs. West Virginia (in New York)
Haas gets a pass for his casual poster expression, though, because he’s been a force for Purdue's top-10 defense (a lackluster performance in Tuesday’s win at Pitt notwithstanding). Haas leads the Boilers in block percentage at 10.4%, has been rebounding on par with Caleb Swanigan and A.J. Hammons, and for whatever reason, Purdue has defended MUCH, MUCH better with Haas on the floor.
According to Hooplens.com's data, in the 219 defensive possessions Haas has played, the Boilers have allowed 0.67 PPP and rebounded 84.8% of opponents‘ misses. In the 269 defensive possessions it's played without Haas, Purdue has allowed 0.96 PPP and rebounded 66.7% of opponents’ misses. That's an incredible gap, and while it’s too early to attribute it to Haas with any certainty, you better believe I’ll be checking to see if it holds up into January and February.
Next up: 12/5 vs. New Mexico, 12/7 vs. IUPUI
Arizona-Gonzaga is the best game of this weekend if you’re going by the AP rankings, but I’m just as excited—if not more—for Vandy at Baylor on Sunday night. In Seth Davis’ picks column, he takes the Bears, 85–82, on the reasoning that they’re “rested and ready to bounce” after playing four easy home games since Nov. 16. I’m going to go with the Commodores, who’ve been surprisingly stout at guarding the interior, holding opponents to just 36.5% on two-point attempts. That’s where Baylor does the bulk of its scoring, and Vandy’s length—and, on the other end, its ability to shoot threes over the zone—could be big issues.
Next up: 12/6 at Baylor, 12/9 Dayton
Interesting—not shocking, but not what we projected in the preseason, either—that the guy playing the most minutes for Zags thus far isn’t All-America candidate Kyle Wiltjer. It’s senior wing Kyle Dranginis, a guy with little-to-no media attention whatsoever, unless you count Gonzaga's SBNation blog calling him “the best glue-guy in NCAA hoops.” Duke’s Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones, Maryland’s Rasheed Sulaimon and any of Purdue’s eight glue guys might give Dranginis a run for that title, but he’s definitely in the mix. He’s averaged 32.7 minutes, 6.2 points, 6.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists against just 1.3 turnovers thus far, and proved to be the most indispensable member of the Zags’ rotation.
Next up: 12/5 vs. Arizona, 12/8 vs. Montana
These 'Canes could be the best offensive team of Jim Larranaga’s tenure at Miami, even better than the Shane Larkin-Durand Scott-Kenny Kadji team that won a regular-season ACC title and earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament in 2013. Theoretically, this team should be able to protect late-game leads, as it’s shooting 77.2% from the line thus far, and has a senior star, Sheldon McClellan, whose shot selection is impeccable. He rarely commits turnovers, and is making 89.7% of his free throws, 65.9% of his twos, and 50% of his threes. That’s an unsustainable pace for a whole season, but even if he drops off a bit, he’ll remain one of the country’s most efficient scorers.
Next up: 12/5 vs. Charlotte, 12/8 vs. Florida
Tyler Dorsey’s Summer Abroad foreshadowed his strong start at Oregon. From Crete in July, I wrote about how the four-star guard from Pasadena, Calif., found his way onto the Greek national team for the FIBA U19 worlds, and was a revelation, exhibiting as much elite scoring potential as anyone in the tournament. It’s striking how much certain aspects of his FIBA stats—the usage and free-throw rates, and two- and three-point percentages—almost mirror what he's done for the Ducks over a similar sample of games:
(Photo source: FIBA)
Next up: 12/4 vs. UNLV (in Las Vegas), 12/7 vs. Navy (at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii)
SI’s preseason projections, which had the Friars missing the NCAA tournament, didn’t underestimate Kris Dunn. (We thought he’d be great, and he has been great.) What our system did underestimate was the quality of his supporting cast. Sophomore Rodney Bullock, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, has been a solid frontcourt complement to the highly productive Ben Bentil, and freshman Ryan Fazekas has been an ideal stretch-big (hitting 45.5% from deep) to pair with the attacking Dunn. When Dunn is operating at a peak level, he only needs competent players around him to win, and Providence appears to have enough competent role guys to play its way into an at-large NCAA bid.
Next up: 12/5 at Rhode Island, 12/9 vs. Boston College
The next 16
20. West Virginia
22. Texas A&M
26. South Carolina
27. George Washington