Power Rankings: After Kansas’s loss, Michigan State reclaims top spot
Vol. 7 of the Power Rankings has a new No. 1 team, Perry Ellis analysis that doesn’t involve his age, an ArchPost Update, and assessments of the value of Denzel Valentine, Amile Jefferson and—because you weren’t expecting it—Ryan Fazekas. Dig in:
1last week: 3record: 16–1
Putting the Spartans at the top was not a difficult decision. They’ve beaten Kansas, Providence, Louisville and Florida; they’re undefeated in their 13 games with star Denzel Valentine in the lineup; and their with-Valentine efficiency numbers look like that of a No. 1 team.
With the help of my preseason-projections colleague, Dan Hanner, I calculated Michigan State’s efficiency splits with and without Valentine, and adjusted them for competition and game location.* The Denzel Effect is that the Spartans play like the most efficient team in the nation when they have him, and more like the No. 18 or 19 team when they don’t:
(* FYI: kenpom.com’s current formula includes efficiency-margin caps on individual games, as well as blends in his preseason projections, neither of which factored into the above chart’s data.)
(Photo source: Getty Images)
22Oklahoma Soonerslast week: 2record: 14–1
Here’s a defensive phenomenon that can’t be entirely explained by this season’s (slight) decline in national turnover rate: Three of the nation’s elite defenses are having success despite remarkably low turnovers-forced percentages. From this season and the 10 prior to it, I searched for the lowest TO% rankings by top-20 overall defenses on kenpom.com, and the current versions of Michigan State (No. 344), Oklahoma (No. 336) and Purdue (No. 330) are among the lowest:
This is a formula that can work—UConn reached the 2009 Final Four and won the 2011 national title with similar profiles, and Kentucky won the 2012 title—but it requires excellent rim protection to make up for the lack of turnovers.
33Kansas Jayhawkslast week: 1record: 14–2
I know there’s a large portion of readers only interested in Perry Ellis content if it involves jokes about his advanced age or eternal college eligibility, but I was intrigued enough by the senior forward’s game to chart all of his Big 12 halfcourt possessions. Ellis is interesting because the eye test is inconclusive on where he’s best deployed, there being four general options:
• In the post, where Ellis operates frequently
• As an off-the-dribble attacker either in isolation, spot-up-and-drive, or pick-and-pop-and-drive situations, which (collectively) he does frequently
• As a catch-and-shoot guy, which happens infrequently
• As a cutter or pick-and-roll guy, which also happen infrequently
Here’s my Ellis possession chart, plotted by where he started with the ball, and indicating, with arrows, his perimeter dribble-drives:
According to my charting*, Ellis’s post-ups (1.00 PPP) have been better options than his perimeter dribble-attacks (0.71 PPP), and in a tiny sample, he’s been an effective catch-and-shooter (1.50 PPP):
(* “Perimeter Dribble Attacks” are a subset of the ISO/Spot-Up and Pick&Roll or Pop categories. Ellis drove the ball in 17 out of 25 of those situations.)
4last week: 4record: 15–2
In Johnson’s first three college seasons, passing was not a big part of his repertoire. But as a senior, buoyed by the Syracuse-game stats, his passing numbers aren’t bad. He has an assist-to-turnover ratio above 1.0 for the first time, and his Pure Point Rating, an advanced measure of playmaking, is in the vicinity of 0.0, which is decent for a scoring big man.
(* Chart data source: DraftExpress)
Next up: 1/16 vs. NC State, 1/20 vs. Wake Forest
55West Virginia Mountaineerslast week: 16record: 15–1
That defensive phenomenon I highlighted in the Oklahoma blurb? Its inverse is happening in 2015–16, too, as three of the nation’s elite defenses are having success with notably high turnovers-forced percentages. From this season and the 10 prior to it, I searched for the highest TO% rankings by top-20 overall defenses on kenpom.com, and the current Mountaineers are the gold standard:
Wichita State and Little Rock are part of this conversation as well, but West Virginia being in the running for the title of nation’s No. 1 overall defense with such a heavy reliance on turnover-creation is a huge deal.
Next up: 1/16 at Oklahoma, 1/20 vs. Texas
66Villanova Wildcatslast week: 10record: 15–2
ARCHPOST ALERT! It’s a special occasion when Villanova posts up 6'3" senior point guard Ryan Arcidiacono, and the Power Rankings intends to chronicle the best ArchPosts all season. In Wednesday’s win over Marquette, near the 17-minute mark of the first half, an ArchPost-and-baseline-spin somehow collapsed the entire Golden Eagles defense to within eight feet of the basket, leading to a Jalen Brunson trey:
(GIF source: FS1)
77Xavier Musketeerslast week: 8record: 15–1
Trevon Bluiett, who’s listed on Xavier’s roster as a guard but is its de facto starting power forward, only gets used sporadically in ball-screen situations. According to Synergy Sports Technology’s logs, there’s an even split between how often he’s the ball-handler or the screener, but the results of those plays have been vastly different.
• Bluiett’s 14 possessions as the pick-and-roll ball-handler have resulted in 10 points, or 0.71 PPP.
• Bluiett’s 14 possessions as a pick-and-pop (or pick-and-slip to the perimeter) guy have yielded 19 points, or 1.36 PPP.
Here’s what one of the rare-but-efficient Blueitt-as-screener possessions looks like, from Tuesday’s win over DePaul; Bluiett (No. 5) is on the left side of a Horns set where he pops to the top of the key:
If the Musketeers’ ball-handler goes off the right-side screen in the same Horns set, the center rolls to the rim and Bluiett rotates to the top of the key, where he can receive the ball and initiate a pick-and-slip-to-the-wing action on the left side. Here he is doing it against Wright State:
(GIFs source: FS1)
Next up: 1/16 at Marquette, 1/19 vs. Georgetown
88Miami Hurricaneslast week: 6record: 13–2
Ex-Hurricanes coach Frank Haith was linked to yet another scandal this week, when news broke that the school he left Miami for, Missouri, was vacating its 2013–14 season—and banning itself from the ‘15-16 postseason—due to major NCAA violations involving impermissible benefits provided by boosters. The most ridiculous part of it: Haith high-tailed it out of Mizzou in 2014 four days after the NCAA served the school with a verbal notice of its allegations, taking a new job at Tulsa. Haith similarly did Miami dirty in 2011, leaving before the Nevin Shapiro scandal broke—a scandal that led to a five-game suspension for Haith, and a three-year scholarship penalty for Miami that ends in 2017.
Why am I mentioning Haith here? Because the fact that Miami has thrived after his departure is impressive. The violations on his watch at Mizzou impacted the hiring of the Tigers’ next coach (their top candidates all backed away) and the potential for a postseason ban may have impacted its recruiting. At Miami, Jim Larrañaga had the Shapiro scandal dumped on him, the specter of sanctions looming over the program, no winning tradition to build on, and has been working minus one scholarship for multiple seasons ... yet won an ACC title in 2013 and has a top-10 team in 2016. Larrañaga took on a potentially rough situation and made it work.
99Maryland Terrapinslast week: 5record: 15–2
The Terrapins, through Wednesday, have the nation’s No. 21-ranked offense in adjusted efficiency. If offenses were evaluated strictly on the possessions where they didn’t commit a turnover, Maryland would be No. 7:
Point being, when the Terps don’t give the ball away, they have a pretty incredible offense—but so do fellow Big Ten contenders Indiana and Michigan State.
(Chart data source: kenpom.com)
1010SMU Mustangslast week: 12record: 16–0
SMU senior forward Jordan Tolbert grabbed five more offensive boards in 26 minutes of Wednesday’s win over East Carolina, upping his nation-leading offensive rebounding percentage to 20.9—and an even more incredible 22.1 in AAC games only. Let this chart serve as a PSA that Tolbert is more productive on the offensive glass than 11 Division I teams:
(Chart data source: kenpom.com)
1111Iowa Hawkeyeslast week: 14record: 12–3
The Hawkeyes haven’t played a game since the previous Power Rankings, so everything I wrote on Jan. 7 stands: Jarrod Uthoff is still under-appreciated and as good of a Big Ten Player of the Year candidate as Denzel Valentine or Melo Trimble. And Iowa’s performance so far, even if no one had the Hawkeyes as a top-15 team in the preseason, seems mostly sustainable. The only area that seems ripe for a bit of regression is the three-point shooting of Uthoff, Mike Gesell and Dom Uhl, all three of which are well up from their 2014–15 percentages, but beyond that ... this looks like a team that can realistically challenge for a Big Ten title.
Next up: 1/14 at Michigan State, 1/17 vs. Michigan
1212Providence Friarslast week: 14record: 15–2
Providence has a résumé of wins befitting a Power-Ranked team, but its offense has been sputtering in Big East play, scoring just 0.99 points per possession. One reason why: It hasn’t had freshman stretch-four Ryan Fazekas at full strength. Fazekas started the Friars’ first nine games before he was sidelined with a case of mononucleosis on Dec. 9. He had to sit six full games—as well as return home to Indiana to recuperate—and returned on Jan. 5, but has averaged just 9.5 minutes in the two games since.
Providence’s location- and competition-adjusted splits show that its offense was 8.2 points per 100 possessions better with Fazekas as a starter, but its defense has been stronger in his absence:
Next up: 1/16 vs. Seton Hall, 1/19 vs. Butler
1313Virginia Cavalierslast week: 7record: 13–3
TOBEY IS ALIVE AGAIN! During the Cavaliers’ run of December wins over West Virginia, Villanova and Cal, senior Mike Tobey—their opening-night starter at center—looked like he was getting pushed to the fringes of their rotation. He averaged 8.0 minutes and 1.3 points in those three games, while Virginia thrived with a small lineup that featured 6'8" Anthony Gill at the five spot. But in Tuesday’s win over Miami, Tobey reminded us of his offensive value, scoring 12 points on 6-of-10 shooting (with three offensive boards). Through four ACC contests he’s been an efficient, high-usage scorer in 17.0 minutes per game (with a 128.9 ORating on 27.1% usage) and has the conference’s top offensive rebounding percentage. In halfcourt-oriented games against teams with traditional centers, Tobey is still an asset.
Next up: 1/17 at Florida State, 1/19 vs. Clemson
14last week: 21record: 14–2
Off to a 4–0 start in a weaker-than-expected SEC, with a schedule that only forces them to play Kentucky once, at home, the Aggies are now the most likely SEC regular-season champion. One reason for their huge surge in offense from last season to now—they’ve jumped from 80th in adjusted efficiency to 29th—is the addition of a pass-first-and-second-and-third-and-fourth point guard, South Florida graduate transfer Anthony Collins. In SEC games, Collins has an assist-to-turnover ratio of 24¬–3, and has only attempted nine field goals in 115 minutes played, or 5.0% of Texas A&M’s shots while he’s on the floor. He’s a great fit for a team that has volume shooters at the wing and the four in Danuel House and Jalen Jones, respectively.
1515Kentucky Wildcatslast week: 19record: 13–3
Kentucky beat Mississippi State on Tuesday using the “Jamal Murray lets it fly” approach, as the Canadian freshman launched 11 three-point attempts, making five en route to a team-high 22 points. Murray has been a less effective scorer in pick-and-rolls (just 0.71 PPP, according to Synergy) and isolation (0.81 PPP) than I expected, but he’s been the best catch-and-shoot option (at 1.29 PPP) in the Wildcats’ backcourt. All five of Murray’s makes against Mississippi State were off the catch. Three were zone-busters, one was in transition, and the last one, seen below, would be a good idea for Kentucky to replicate going forward against man-to-man defenses, even if it means avoiding the dribble-drive offense:
(GIF source: ESPN)
1616Duke Blue Devilslast week: 15record: 14–3
The Blue Devils are not the same team without senior forward Amile Jefferson, who remains sidelined indefinitely with a foot injury. They’re giving nearly all the minutes at the five-spot to traditional center Marshall Plumlee, and making do with what’s essentially a six-man rotation. I don’t think anyone would argue that Duke isn’t better off with an efficient, 11-and-10, veteran frontcourt option ...
... but the adjusted (for competition and location) efficiency splits for the Blue Devils with and without Jefferson aren’t all that different. I ran these following Wednesday’s loss to Clemson, and the difference in adjusted efficiency margin has only been 2.6 points per 100 possessions—a slight drop offensively, mitigated by a small gain defensively:
Next up: 1/16 vs. Notre Dame, 1/18 vs. Syracuse
The Next 16
19. Iowa State
26. South Carolina
Climbing: Wichita State