Power Rankings: Oklahoma stays on top, but No. 2 may surprise you
Vol. 10 of the Power Rankings looks at Oklahoma’s surging point guard and shot-blocking feats in the Big Ten, breaks down two Big 12 defenses, and has a No. 2 team that you might not agree with:
The difference between the performance of Isaiah Cousins, Oklahoma's senior point guard, in the first five games of the calendar year 2016 versus the most recent five ... is akin to the difference between a walk-on and an All-American. Cousins has, no joke, been more than a half of a point per possession better in this stretch from Jan. 18–Feb. 2 than he was from Jan. 2–16:
(Chart data source: kenpom.com)
Next up: 2/6 at Kansas State, 2/8 vs. Texas
I may regret going out on this limb, but I like this Virginia team’s chances of making a Final Four more than I did the previous two, which had far superior defenses. The Cavaliers are more proficient on offense this time around, and they have more positional flexibility—the ability to play two point guards alongside scorer Malcolm Brogdon; the ability to play small with Anthony Gill at the five, or go big by pairing him with 7-footer Mike Tobey; and the ability to mix in sophomore wings Devon Hall and Marial Shayok depending on matchups. They can still put the clamps on teams—their 0.77 points-per-possession suffocation of Louisville is a big reason why they jumped to No. 2—and they’ve beaten quality opponents of varied styles in West Virginia, Villanova, Notre Dame, Miami and the Cardinals.
Next up: 2/6 at Pittsburgh, 2/9 vs. Virginia Tech
The Tar Heels have been plagued by abysmal long-range shooting in ACC play, making just 23.5% of their three-point attempts. In Monday’s loss to Louisville they went 3-for-17 from deep, and the grid below shows the guarded-or-unguarded nature of each of those attempts. A handful of them are questionable (Nos. 3, 4 and 5 are too contested for my taste), but it seems like mostly a case of guys missing O.K.-to-good looks:
(Screengrabs source: ESPN)
Next up: 2/6 at Notre Dame, 2/9 at Boston College
Fairly big difference of what you get when you search Google Images for “diamond stone” blocks ...
... as opposed to “diamond stone” blocked shots:
Those became relevant searches after Maryland freshman center Diamond Stone had his defensive breakout game in Wednesday’s win at Nebraska, blocking eight shots (and obliterating his previous career high of three). Stone emerging as a decent rim-protector could elevate Maryland’s defense from merely good to national-title good. Watch him reject the Huskers, and watch the Terps keep five of those eight blocks:
Next up: 2/6 vs. Purdue, 2/9 vs. Bowie State
This section from Brian Hamilton’s regional-cover story on the Ridiculous Jarrod Uthoff triggered me to take a deeper look at his shot-blocking stats:
Uthoff’s athleticism and Mr. Fantastic limbs make him a natural shot blocker; [point guard Mike] Gesell remembers pulling up for a jump shot beyond the free throw line during one of his first Iowa practices and seeing Uthoff in the paint. “I thought there was zero chance of him making it to me,” Gesell says. Uthoff covered the ground and got a hand on the ball. “I thought every college player was going to be like that,” Gesell says. “I quickly realized Jarrod is just very good at closing out.”
It turns out that Uthoff has been so good at closing on shooters that he has a nation-high 12 blocked treys this season—afigure that puts him ahead of 342 Division I teams:
(Chart data source: hoop-math.com)
Next up: 2/7 at Illinois, 2/11 at Indiana
The Wildcats were without 6'11" center Daniel Ochefu for their past two games while he sat out with a concussion. Ochefu has so much value as a passer, offensive rebounder and interior scorer that missing him is never a good thing, but this situation did give us a rare glimpse at Super-Smallball Villanova.
Ochefu’s usual backup, 6'8" Darryl Reynolds, was on the floor for 49 of ‘Nova’s 65 offensive possessions in Wednesday’s rout of Creighton, according to hooplens.com data. That left them 16 possessions with 6'6" wing Kris Jenkins as the de facto center—and those five-shooter possessions yielded some amazing numbers.
Villanova scored 24 points (or 1.50 PPP) and went 5-of-7 from long range in those situations, when it was going against Creighton lineups with two traditional bigs. In the scenario freezed below, ‘Nova used a ballscreen to get one of the bigs switched onto point guard Ryan Arcidiacono, followed by ball-rotation to the left wing, where a dribble-drive by co-point guard Jalen Brunson created impossible help-and-recovery distances for the Bluejays’ bigs. This led to a wide-open three:
(Screengrab source: CBS Sports Network)
Next up: 2/6 at Providence, 2/9 at DePaul
The gap between Villanova and Xavier in the Big East is wider than it appears in the conference standings, where they’re separated by just one game. The Wildcats’ Big East efficiency margin is plus-16.9 points per 100 possessions—more than double the Musketeers’ margin of plus-7.6 P/100P. And the Wildcats have done their work against a more difficult schedule, too:
(Chart data source: kenpom.com)
Next up: 2/6 vs. Marquette, 2/9 at Creighton
The Mountaineers continue to have one of the wildest statistical profiles ever for an elite defense, as they rank No. 1 nationally in turnovers-forced percentage (at 26.7) and dead last, at No. 351, in free-throw avoidance, fouling so much that their opponents take 57.8 FTs per 100 FGAs.
This TO%/FT Rate matrix, featuring West Virginia and the rest of the Power Rankings’ top 10, shows just how far the Mountaineers stand apart from their peers:
(Chart data source: kenpom.com)
Next up: 2/6 vs. Baylor, 2/9 at Kansas
One should be cautious in praising the Jayhawks too much for what their triangle-and-two defense did to muck up Kentucky late in Saturday’s victory. As Bill Self put it, the fact that Kansas had to resort to a junk D was evidence that its core man-to-man had failed. Still, there was a possession of triangle-and-two in overtime that I particularly liked, because the Jayhawks seamlessly made a man-defender/zone-defender ballscreen switch ... and because Frank Mason delivered a great “I’m going to make amends for getting burned by Tyler Ulis dribble drives all game with this huge steal” moment. The film breakdown:
Next up: 2/6 at TCU, 2/9 vs. West Virginia
The reason I’d always play man against the Spartans? Senior shooting guard Bryn Forbes is one of the nation’s foremost zone-busters. He has shot 15-of-26 on threes (that’s 57.7%!) against zones this season, according to Synergy Sports Technology’s logs, and is a 1.62 points-per-possession scorer overall against zone D. That’s a small sample, but Forbes has been so locked-in from long range this season (connecting at a 48.2% clip on 6.0 attempts per game) that I’d be scared to do anything other than assign a man defender with instructions not to help off of him in any situations.
Next up: 2/6 at Michigan, 2/9 at Purdue
The Ducks’ slender —as in, sub-200 pounds slender—6'10" forward Chris Boucher has 13 blocks in his past two games, and is leading the Pac-12 in block percentage, having swatted 13.4% of opponents’ attempts inside the arc. Not bad for a dude who didn’t start playing organized hoops until he was 19 years old. The blocks combined with his high-level defensive rebounding should put Boucher in contention for Pac-12 defensive player of the year, his main competition being Colorado’s Josh Scott and Oregon State’s Gary Payton II.
Next up: 2/7 vs. Utah, 2/11 at Cal
On Thursday night in Nashville, Vanderbilt picked apart Texas A&M’s defense like no other team has this season, scoring 1.21 PPP just one game after the Aggies held Iowa State’s high-powered scoring attack to 0.86 PPP. Early on, Vandy did damage by pulling A&M freshman center Tyler Davis into pick-and-roll coverage, burning him on three consecutive possessions, in three different ways:
Next up: 2/6 vs. South Carolina, 2/10 at Alabama
Have the Hurricanes discovered a new member of their ACC rotation in February? Coming into this week, freshman guard Anthony Lawrence Jr. had averaged 4.8 minutes over Miami’s first eight ACC games. But he looked so good in practice as the scout-team point guard imitating Notre Dame's Demetrius Jackson that coach Jim Larrañaga saw fit to give Lawrence major minutes against the Irish. It was a good hunch, as Lawrence responded by scoring 18 points (including 4-of-4 shooting from deep) and add two blocks and a steal in 21 minutes. For an offense that stagnated in January after an excellent non-conference season, Lawrence was a welcomed infusion of efficient shooting.
Next up: 2/7 at Georgia Tech, 2/9 vs. Pittsburgh
Curious stat regarding the Boilermakers’ two-headed center that I stumbled upon while doing blocked-shot research:
Although senior A.J. Hammons (10.4% block percentage) is a more frequent swatter than sophomore Isaac Haas (7.0%), Purdue keeps a far higher ratio of Haas’s blocks. The Boilers have rebounded a remarkable 84% of Haas’s rejections, compared to 52.8% of Hammons’s.
Next up: 2/6 at Maryland, 2/9 vs. Michigan State
The Hoosiers played 13 games with sophomore guard James Blackmon Jr. before a knee injury sidelined him for (most likely) the rest of the season. They’ve played 10 games since—the entirety of their Big Ten schedule—without him, and the adjusted efficiency splits are pretty much what I expected after watching Blackmon score effectively but not put in much effort on D. The Hoosiers aren’t necessarily a better team without him, even though they’re 9–1 in the Big Ten, but they are a better defensive team:
Next up: 2/6 at Penn State, 2/11 vs. Iowa
The Big 12 is the conference where a team can go on a two-game losing streak and not have its reputation fall apart. I don’t feel great about the Cyclones after seeing them lose at Texas A&M and at home to West Virginia, but I also can’t bump them out of the top 16. They have, after all, beaten Iowa, Oklahoma and Kansas, and project to finish fourth in the nation’s toughest league. Foul-avoidance has to be the key for Iowa State’s defense going forward, as it doesn’t have the depth to weather disqualifications, and it’s lost the free-throw attempt war over its past two games by a combined margin of 45-31.
Next up: 2/6 at Oklahoma State, 2/10 at Texas Tech
The Next 16
18. Wichita State
23. St. Mary’s
32. Seton Hall