In this week's Power Rankings, North Carolina rises to No. 1, with Oklahoma, Villanova, Iowa and Maryland rounding out the top five.
Vol. 8 of the Power Rankings, like last week and the week before that, and the week before that, and so on, has a new No. 1. More importantly, it has looks at the diversified Tar Heels, the lockdown Terps, and perhaps the most important frontcourt combo in the nation. Dig in:
North Carolina doesn’t shoot threes often—it attempted just 18 treys while taking 55 twos in Wednesday’s win over Wake Forest—but the Tar Heels have a more diversified distribution of three-point attempts than they did last season. In 2014–15, Marcus Paige took an overwhelming 46.3% of their three-point attempts; this season they have five players with between a 12.9% and 25.2% share of overall attempts: Paige (who missed six games, it should be noted), Joel Berry II, Justin Jackson, Nate Britt and Theo Pinson.
Just how important is it for the Sooners to keep their 4-5 combo of Ryan Spangler and Khadeem Lattin on the floor together? On the season, they’re plus-41 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents when those two are on the court ... and negative-two points in all other situations, according to hooplens.com data. The stretches of Big 12 play when OU hasn't used the Spangler-Lattin combo have been scary, to the tune of negative-20 points per 100 possessions, compared to plus-17 with them.
Here’s the detailed PPP breakdown:
A similar breakdown for Villanova—looking at its splits while its starting 4-5 combo of Kris Jenkins and Daniel Ochefu are on the floor together vs. all other situations—reveals that the Wildcats have been able to survive, on the season, using different lineup combinations. They have an efficiency margin of plus-22 points per 100 possessions in either situation, according to hooplens.com data.
But when we isolate their seven Big East games only, maximizing the Jenkins-Ochefu combo’s minutes seems like it might be a good idea: ‘Nova is plus-40 points per 100 possessions with them, while playing opponents dead even in all other situations:
One element to Jarrod Uthoff’s game that you pick up on after extended film study: He’s a dangerous catch-wait-and-shoot guy. His rhythm doesn’t seem to be overly affected by pausing after a catch, either to get into triple-threat position or merely to wait for the big man guarding him to put an arm down. Anecdotally, Uthoff seems to shoot around 50% in these situations—or 100% if you view only the clips in the Power Rankings’ edit.
It’s natural to be drawn to the Terrapins for their offense—particularly Melo Trimble’s clutch plays and Diamond Stone’s recent interior dominance—but their defense is keeping them in the top five. They’ve yielded the lowest in-conference PPP (0.931) of any Big Ten team, and although they’ve done that without having to face Iowa, Purdue or Michigan State yet, their D passes the eye test. The additions of transfers Rasheed Sulaimon and Robert Carter have made noticeable impacts in that regard.
Next, take a look at Sulaimon funneling a Demps drive into Carter, who rim-protects without fouling, and then grabs the defensive board:
Next up: 1/23 at Michigan State, 1/28 vs. Iowa
The Aggies have won nine straight games and have six wins over kenpom.com top-50 teams on the season, more than justifying their spot in the top 10. They start dual point guards in Anthony Collins and Alex Caruso, and Collins remains fascinating to me for how he plays major minutes while barely taking any shots. He’s accounted for just 5.4% of A&M’s shot attempts while he’s been on the floor in SEC play, and on the season, is averaging just 5.2 field-goal attempts per 40 minutes, pace-adjusted. That’s the third-lowest shot volume* by any major-conference player who averages at least 20 minutes per game:
(* Chart data source: DraftExpress)
The Mountaineers entered Wednesday’s game against Texas as the nation’s No. 1-ranked* defense in adjusted efficiency on kenpom.com. This was notable because West Virginia’s strategy is completely unlike any of the No. 1 defenses of the previous 10 seasons. The aggro Mountaineers ranked No. 1 in turnovers-forced percentage and dead last, at No. 351, at free-throw avoidance, creating the highest ratio of opponent FTA/FGA.
Here’s a matrix of the TO% and FTA/FGA rankings of the No. 1 defenses from 2005–06 to present:
(* Their loss to the Longhorns dropped them to No. 2; Louisville is the new No. 1.)
Next up: 1/23 at Texas Tech, 1/26 vs. Kansas State
The bewildering element to the Jayhawks’ 86–67 loss at Oklahoma State on Tuesday was just how atrocious KU was defensively. It allowed 1.311 PPP, its worst defensive effort in the 13-season Bill Self Era—an era that has produced nine top-10 defenses.
One of KU’s most cringe-worthy possessions came while it trailed 71–57 with just over five minutes left and was in dire need of a stop to kick-start a comeback. The Cowboys spread out and ran a high ballscreen for point guard Jawun Evans, and the Jayhawks, rather than using a third defender (ideally Perry Ellis, on the right wing) to help on the roll man, or trapping Evans to get the ball out of his hands, allowed themselves to get stuck in a mismatch switch that left forward Jamari Traylor on Evans. He had been destroying KU’s backcourt off the bounce all night, and the 6'8" Traylor had no chance of containing him. The result was a driving layup and an insurmountable, 16-point lead:
Next up: 1/23 vs. Texas, 1/25 at Iowa State
In their win over Houston on Tuesday, the Mustangs rebounded 54.8% of their missed shots—the fifth time this season they’ve grabbed at least half of their misses. SMU ranks second nationally in offensive rebounding percentage (at 43.6), and its formula is more than just having high-effort rebounders such as Jordan Tolbert, Ben Moore and Markus Kennedy on its front line. The Mustangs are also committed to sending three guys to the offensive glass on most of their shots, whereas many teams are too concerned about stopping transition to allot more than two.
While I was reviewing SMU’s December win over Michigan—in order to remind myself of what the Mustangs look like against a Power-Ranked opponent—I took occasional screengrabs as jumpers hit the rim. SMU would often have two bigs in decent rebounding position near the circle, one longer rebounder and then two guards monitoring transition:
(Screengrabs source: ESPN)
Xavier is what I’d call an occasional zone team. The Musketeers use their 1-3-1 situationally, or as a change up, and zone accounts for 30.6% of their defensive possessions, according to Synergy Sports Technology’s logs. The 1-3-1 might be worth employing even more often, though, as it’s been Xavier’s best defensive weapon, yielding just 0.77 PPP. That makes Xavier the seventh-stingiest zone team in the nation according to Synergy’s unadjusted data, and among the group in the following chart, only Cincinnati, Eastern Michigan and Xavier have played respectably strong schedules:
Next up: 1/23 vs. Seton Hall, 1/26 at Providence
Yes, the Cavaliers remain in the top 16 despite losing three of their past five games and having a .500 record in the ACC. Those facts, in a vacuum, sound damning. But no one at this point in the rankings has anything close to an unblemished resume, and Virginia has what may be the nation’s best list of quality wins—on a neutral court over West Virginia, and at home over Villanova, Cal, Notre Dame, Miami and Clemson. If the NCAA tournament were played on the road, where the Cavs are 1–4, I’d be afraid. But it’s not, and I actually think they have the offense to make a deeper tourney run than they did the past two seasons.
Next up: 1/23 vs. Syracuse, 1/25 at Wake Forest
The Cyclones now have wins over the Power Rankings’ Nos. 2 and 4 teams, but their rotation keeps getting tighter. Reserves played just 16 minutes in Monday's 82–77 win over Oklahoma, and in conference games, Iowa State is giving just 13.1% of its minutes to its bench.
I don’t have in-conference bench-usage stats for all teams readily available, but what I can tell you is that the team with the lowest bench usage overall is Syracuse, at 16.0% according to kenpom.com. Ever since the Cyclones lost senior starter Naz Mitrou-Long in December, they may very well have the shortest rotation in the country.
Next up: 1/23 at TCU, 1/25 vs. Kansas
The Hurricanes powered through the nonconference season on the strength of their offense. On Christmas Day, they were 10–1 and ranked No. 6 in adjusted offensive efficiency. But they’ve flipped the script in ACC play, where through five games they have the league’s second-worst offense (at 0.989 PPP) and its second-best defense (yielding 0.939 PPP). Miami’s ice-cold three-point shooting needs to change for it to make a run at the ACC title, but it’s nice to see that the 'Canes can grind out wins with their defense.
Next up: 1/23 vs. Wake Forest, 1/25 vs. Duke
There’s a good chance Providence-Villanova, one of the Games of the Year in the Big East, will be played in front of an eerily small crowd on Saturday. With a snowpocalypse about to hit the Northeast, the Big East is intent on getting the game in at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center, telling ESPN that it will be played unless a state of emergency is declared. The Friars are traveling to Philly on Thursday, a day earlier than usual, and wouldn’t mind some of the home(ish)-court advantage being stripped away from the Wildcats, who are likely to be double-digit favorites.
(FRIDAY UPDATE: The game has been rescheduled to Sunday at 1 p.m.)
Next up: 1/23 at Villanova, 1/26 vs. Xavier
If you score 1.56 PPP against Rutgers, does it even count for the record books? I didn’t think I’d see a team top Duke’s 1.53 PPP-depantsing of Indiana from Dec. 2, but Purdue dropped 1.56 PPP on the Big Ten's basement-dwellers on Monday. The formula for such dominance included shooting 54.9% on the interior and grabbing 60.0% of missed shots ... and only having Rutgers force the Boilers into four turnovers, two of which were by walk-ons playing human-victory-cigar minutes.
Next up: 1/21 vs. Ohio State, 1/24 at Iowa
Three weeks into Big 12 play and it’s not Iowa State, Oklahoma or Kansas leading the league (in conference games only) in offensive PPP. It’s Baylor, at 1.15 PPP, and the Bears have been getting serious lifts from SI Breakout Sophomore Formula pick Johnathan Motley. The reserve forward scored 15 points (on 7-of-7 shooting!) and added nine boards and four blocks in Wednesday’s double-OT win over Kansas State. Last week he had 27 points (on 13-of-14 shooting!) in Baylor’s road upset of Iowa State, and very well may be the best backup in the Big 12.
Next up: 1/23 vs. Oklahoma, 1/27 at Oklahoma State
The Next 17
17/On hold while we figure out what the hell is going on: Michigan State
24. Wichita State
25. South Carolina
27. Notre Dame