Power Rankings: Where are the truly elite teams this season?
Volume IV of the Power Rankings, in which Oklahoma cracks the top two, the secret of Brandon Ingram’s success is revealed, and much more:
These were the quietest weekdays of the regular season—finals week or post-finals week for most teams—so I’m using the first two sections to address a big-picture topic: the lack of truly elite teams in 2015–16.
This is what it looks like when you compare a snapshot of kenpom.com’s adjusted efficiency rankings from this time last season vs. the present (thanks to Ken Pomeroy for providing the historical data):
The top five teams at this point in ‘14–15 (Kentucky, Duke, Virginia, Wisconsin and Louisville) were all stronger than kenpom.com’s current ‘15-16 No. 1, Virginia. Pomeroy suggested that NCAA tournament seeds be numbered 2–17 this season, since no one is profiling, statistically, like a classic No. 1, and I tend to agree.
Now, let’s zoom out on that 2014–15 vs. 2015–16 comparison and see where the gap in quality begins to shrink:
The big difference is still the top 5 to 6—the gap between last year’s elites and this year’s is significant. After that, things narrow, but it does take until the No. 18 spot for a ‘15–16 team to be better than its ‘14–15 peer. This could be the year of weak No. 1s but stronger 5s-10s.
Last week, Kansas coach Bill Self talked about his frontcourt rotation being an unsolved puzzle, in the sense that he has six guys who can justify playing time, and only 80 minutes to divide between them. Self is using some of KU’s December games to experiment with rotations so that he has a better sense of what works heading into Big 12 play. “I don’t want to go into February saying, ‘You know, I think, maybe ...’ because that’s not the best way to do it,” he told the Topeka Capital-Journal.
One experiment has been giving senior center Hunter Mickelson more action—and the combination of the former Arkansas transfer at center and Perry Ellis at power forward is intriguing. They’ve only played 71 offensive possessions together this season, according to HoopLens.com data, but Kansas is averaging 1.49 points on those possessions, as opposed to 1.18 in all other situations. The Jayhawks made their big, second-half run against Oregon State on Dec. 12 with a Mickelson-Ellis frontcourt. While that combo was hardly the sole reason for KU’s comeback, this sequence was particularly impressive:
My one-third-of-the-way-into-the-season Impact Transfer Rankings:
1. Damion Lee, SF, Louisville: The former Drexel star is scoring with mind-boggling efficiency as the Cardinals’ top option. He’s averaging 18.8 points per game with a 141.0 Offensive Rating—the highest of any player in the nation who’s using at least 20% of his team’s possessions. (Louisville’s runner-up: Cleveland State transfer Trey Lewis.)
2. Tyler Cavanaugh, PF, George Washington: He was a bit player at Wake Forest two years ago, but has emerged as the go-to-guy for one of the nation’s surprise teams, averaging 16.1 points and 7.8 boards.
3. Rasheed Sulaimon, SG, Maryland: He’s been the Terps’ glue guy, complementing star point guard Melo Trimble by shooting 45.0% on threes, dishing out assists as a secondary ball-handler (including 10 against Maryland Eastern Shore on Saturday), and playing more minutes than anyone on the roster. (Maryland’s runner-up: Georgia Tech transfer Robert Carter.)
4. Ryan Anderson, PF, Arizona: The ex-Boston College big man has stepped in and become the Wildcats’ highest-usage scorer (averaging 15.6 points per game) and second-best rebounder, and might be even more valuable to their frontcourt rotation than injured center Kaleb Tarczewski.
5. Duncan Robinson, SG/SF, Michigan: He started his career hidden at D-III Williams College, but Robinson is no longer a secret. He’s arguably the most dangerous designated shooter in the country, making 60.9% of his treys, and attempted 5.8 of them per game.
I’m cautiously excited for the Saturday debut of Marquette transfer Deonte Burton for Iowa State. Excited because SI’s Breakout Sophomore Formula tabbed Burton for potential stardom back in 2014, after a season in which he (in very short spurts) used possessions at a higher rate than all but one major-conference freshman: Duke’s Jabari Parker. Excited because teammate Georges Niang described Burton as a “freak of nature” due to his athleticism and aggressiveness. Excited because Burton is a ridiculous dunker, even when he’s wearing Timberland boots:
But I’m cautious because Burton has already run afoul of two coaches, first Buzz Williams and then Steve Wojciechowski at Marquette, and what Iowa State coach Steve Prohm has been saying about Burton suggests that we shouldn't expect instant stardom. “Deonte’s a terrific player,” Prohm told the Des Moines Register, “but we’ve just got to slowly work him into the lineup, in practice, and in games.”
Next up: 12/19 vs. Northern Iowa (in Des Moines, Iowa), 12/22 at Cincinnati
Point guard Tyler Ulis hasn’t been the long-range weapon for the Wildcats that he was last season, when he shot 42.9% from deep; he’s made just 28.2% of his threes thus far. Has Ulis just hit a cold streak, or has something changed?
As a freshman, 36% of Ulis’s shots in halfcourt situations were off the catch, and he scored an amazing 1.55 points per attempt, according to Synergy Sports Technology. As a sophomore, 28.6% of his shots in halfcourt situations are off the catch, and he’s scoring just 0.41 points per attempt. We’re still in the very-small-sample stage, but I’m curious if this huge change is, in some way, a result of how he’s getting his catch-and-shoot three feeds. Last season, Kentucky had post-up scoring threats in Karl Anthony-Towns, Trey Lyles, Dakari Johnson and (sometimes) Willie Cauley-Stein who could attract defenders and kick the ball out to the perimeter; this season, UK’s one frontcourt scoring threat, Skal Labissiere, is more of a face-up operator. I watched all 22 of Ulis’s catch-and-shoot attempts on film and just one has come on a post-up kick-out; all the others came on passes from fellow guards. This is the most rare action in Kentucky’s offense:
Next up: 12/19 vs. Ohio State (in Brooklyn, N.Y.), vs. Louisville
On Wednesday, I wrote a few thousand words on the retirement of Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, which is relevant here because Virginia’s Tony Bennett—and not Ryan’s preferred successor, interim coach Greg Gard—is thought to be athletic director Barry Alvarez’s No. 1 candidate for the job. Bennett grew up in Wisconsin, played at UW-Green Bay, was an assistant in Madison under his father and Ryan, and Bennett’s parents still live in the state. Wisconsin could offer Bennett a raise on his annual salary, given that Ryan was making $2.75 million in 2015 and Bennett was at $2.1 million at Virginia.
But the Cavaliers did a smart thing this off-season, trying to “Wisconsin-proof” Bennett’s contract by adding in a $3 million buyout if he leaves before March 15, 2018. Wisconsin boosters would need to come up with a sizable chunk of that to lure Bennett away—and that’s if he even wants the job, given the very attractive situation he has in Charlottesville. His teams compete for ACC titles without having unrealistic expectations from the fanbase, he’s already in one of America’s best college towns, and even though he’s losing stars Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill after this season, Bennett has another strong team coming back in ‘16–17. I suspect he'll be able to get back to the NCAA tournament with rotation that includes London Perrantes, Darius Thompson, five-star recruit Kyle Guy, Marial Shayok, Isaiah Wilkins and Memphis transfer Austin Nichols, who’s an elite power forward. All of which is to say that I think Gard, or a different candidate such as Northern Iowa’s Ben Jacobson, is more likely to be at the helm of Wisconsin next season than is Bennett.
Next up: 12/19 vs. Villanova, 12/22 vs. Cal
The Power Rankings made a major discovery (!) this week, uncovering the secret to Brandon Ingram’s success: Duke’s freshman star only plays well in games where he makes his first three-point attempt.
The primary focus of every Coach K offensive gameplan, moving forward, should be to get Ingram a clean three-point look as early as possible.
My preference is to write about the order of the rankings as little as possible, but this is one of those occasions that warrants an explanation. Why have a two-loss UNC team in the top 10, and ahead of undefeated Purdue and Xavier? The first part of the answer is that the Heels should be evaluated as a one-loss team, given that they’ve only lost once with Marcus Paige in the lineup; the second part is that they have quality wins (by eight points over title-contender Maryland, and by 33 over Atlantic-10 title-contender Davidson); the third part is that I still think they’d beat everyone ranked below them on a neutral court. Do I have concerns about UNC after our projection system forecasted them as the No. 1 team in the preseason? Definitely. The Heels’ defense hasn’t made the kind of strides it needs to be regarded as a clear title favorite, or even the clear ACC favorite; as of now they're merely one of four very good teams in the ACC, along with Virginia, Duke and Louisville.
Saturday, Dec. 19 is a big day in college hoops: Villanova-Virginia, North Carolina-UCLA, Duke-Utah, Kentucky-Ohio State, Iowa State-Northern Iowa, Arizona-UNLV, but the game I might be most interested in is Butler-Purdue in Indianapolis. Mainly because the Boilermakers’ defense, powered by two-headed center A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas, has risen to No. 1 in kenpom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings, and I’m looking forward to evaluating them against a top-flight offense. Butler ranks sixth in adjusted offensive efficiency, has co-stars in gunner Kellen Dunham and linebacker/playmaker Roosevelt Jones, and efficient interior scorers in Tyler Wideman, Kelan Martin and Andrew Chrabascz. If the Boilermakers lock down Butler’s offense, I’ll be willing to move them higher in my top 10.
Next up: 12/19 vs. Butler (in Indianapolis), 12/22 vs. Vanderbilt
Musketeers blog Banners on the Parkway asked a reasonable question this week: Has Xavier ever been this good? The topic warrants discussion because analytically, Xavier has not been this good: It currently ranks ninth in adjusted efficiency, which is higher than any previous Chris Mack team ever finished—or any Sean Miller or Thad Matta team, for that matter. Matta’s 2004 Elite Eight team is the standard-setter, finishing 15th that year with its excellent trio of guards in Lionel Chalmers, Dedrick Finn and Romain Sato. My favorite Xavier team, the one that had Jordan Crawford and Tu Holloway as its starting backcourt in ‘09-10, and lost in double-OT to Kansas State in the Sweet 16, missing a shot to steal Butler’s Final Four thunder, finished ranked 17th in efficiency. While the current Xavier squad could analytically outpace those two, it doesn’t have the same level of backcourt talent, and that makes it slightly less of a threat in the NCAA tournament. Myles Davis, Edmond Sumner, Remy Abell and (if you want to call him a guard) Trevon Bluiett are great, but they aren’t Crawford-Holloway-Mark Lyons or Chalmers-Finn-Sato.
Next up: 12/19 vs. Auburn, 12/22 at Wake Forest
The Hurricanes haven’t played since Dec. 8, so there’s nothing new to report or analyze on this front. But since I touched on the best-teams-ever topic in the Xavier blurb, it’s worth noting that Miami’s current efficiency ranking (12) is higher than its final ranking when it earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament and won the ACC in 2013. That team was ranked 30th in efficiency at this point last season, and finished 12th.
As ugly as the Wildcats’ loss to Oklahoma was, I still like their chances of upsetting Virginia in Charlottesville on Saturday. The Cavaliers’ defense looked fantastic against West Virginia in the Jimmy V Classic, but the Mountaineers were the perfect team for the Pack-Line to suffocate: they couldn’t shoot, they relied too much on offensive boards for success, and they didn’t have passing big men to beat Virginia’s post double teams. Villanova is pretty much the opposite: When not on military bases in Hawaii, the Wildcats are a pretty strong shooting team; they have one of the game’s best passing centers in Daniel Ochefu, and their guards and wings are adept at making basket cuts to exploit double-teams. Villanova’s core group has performed well in true road games, too; last season in February and March, they won at Providence, Butler and Xavier, and on Dec. 1 of this season they looked impressive in a win at St. Joe’s.
Next up: 12/19 at Virginia, 12/22 vs. Delaware
Last week’s Ben Bentil injury news turned out to be nothing more than a scare. The Friars’ breakout-star forward was X-rayed (results: negative) after a nasty ankle injury against Boston College on Dec. 9, was seen on crutches and in a boot the following day, wasn’t expected to start or even play against Bryant on Dec. 12 ... but he suited up, played 25 minutes off the bench, scored 16 points, and was moving so fast and displaying such explosiveness that refs, apparently, couldn't even count his steps:
Next up: 12/19 vs. Rider, 12/21 at UMass
Like Bentil, Arizona’s Kadeem Allen has toughed it out through a Dec. 9 ankle injury to avoid missing any games—which is a big deal for the Wildcats, seeing that Allen has locked down the starting point-guard job over Parker Jackson-Cartwright, and has proved to be an invaluable defender. Arizona is at its best offensively when Gabe York and Allonzo Trier are playing the 2-3 spots, but neither is an elite (or even strong) defender, and so having Allen alongside them at the 1 is an effective complement. He’s a physical, 6'3" guard whose advanced stats show a high rate of defensive activity, as he leads the Wildcats in steal percentage (4.5) and is, surprisingly, tied for third among rotation players in block percentage (3.2).
Next up: 12/19 vs. UNLV, 12/22 vs. Long Beach State
Lester Medford looked like a liability in Baylor’s Nov. 16 loss at Oregon, scoring just two points and committing six turnovers (against one assist), but he’s been a different player in December, emerging as a reliable, playmaking point guard. He was a key to the Bears’ Dec. 6 win over Vanderbilt—as SB Nation's Ricky O'Donnell wrote then, Medford was fearless in crunch time, scoring 11 points in the final eight minutes—and has an assist-to-turnover ratio of 34-to-3 this month. Baylor has enough quality offensive options that it doesn’t need Medford to score the way Pierre Jackson did a few seasons ago; Medford’s role is to limit mistakes, keep feeding Rico Gathers, Taurean Prince and Johnathan Motley, and contribute the occasional clutch bucket.