Power Rankings: Virginia is new No. 1
The Power Rankings welcomes the post-Super Bowl-and-Signing Day crowd to the college basketball season. This column has been deep-diving into hoop minutiae since November, and Vol. 11 is fully loaded with a contrarian No. 1, shot-chart breakdowns of Buddy Love and The Bern, research that puts a Pac-12 breakout star in the same conversation as Anthony Davis, and much more. Dig in:
Does it bother me that my No. 1 team is only ranked No. 7 in the latest Associated Press poll? No. The poll has fallen into a predictable week-to-week hierarchy of “How many losses do you have?” and “How long have you gone since losing?” that in a wide-open season, doesn’t always make sense. Meanwhile, an entirely reasonable case can be made for Virginia as No. 1. The Cavaliers have the most attractive combination of résumé (seven wins over the kenpom.com top 50), efficiency (ranked No. 3 overall), momentum (seven straight wins, including three on the road) and passing the eye test (they’re currently playing their best defense of the season).
The defensive data falls in line with the eye test, too. I adjusted all of Virginia’s ‘15–16 single-game efficiencies for competition and location, and charted the five-game running averages below.
The Cavs’ defense was considered somewhat suspect up until mid-January, but is now trending toward elite. Their most recent five-game adjusted defensive efficiency is 84.6, a rating similar to the Tony Bennett D that ranked No. 1 in adjusted efficiency last season. If Virginia can keep guarding this way and recapture its early season offensive magic, it’ll be a much clearer No. 1.
Next up: 2/13 at Duke, 2/15 vs. NC State
This week’s Sports Illustrated magazine includes my story about how Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield, fueled by gummy bears and dancehall reggae, is leading college basketball’s three-point revolution. Here, using shotanalytics.com data, we can take a detailed look at where Hield is taking his 8.3 threes per game. During the nearly three-hour shooting workout I observed for the story, he focused heavily on the wings, because that’s where he gets 68.8% of his in-game attempts. This shot chart, though, suggests it may be a decent idea for OU to get him more attempts in the left corner:
(Chart photo source: Getty Images)
Next up: 2/13 vs. Kansas, 2/17 at Texas Tech
The best moment of the 2016 presidential campaign happened Monday in New Hampshire, when Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, a former Brooklyn schoolboy hooper, put on a set-shooting exhibition while waiting for primary results. The footage of this is limited, but highly entertaining:
Piecing together the few available sources—the CBS clip above, as well as clips from NBC and Fox News—I was able to develop a shot chart for The Bern. DraftExpress has (inexplicably) yet to create a profile for Sanders, so this should be considered the most comprehensive scouting material available:
If Sanders’s college-eligibility clock had not run out many years ago, his 90% shooting from within five feet of the rim would rank first in the nation. Alas, the current top 11, according to ShotAnalytics’ data, includes zero presidential candidates, but it does have two Villanova Wildcats:
Next up: 2/13 vs. St. John’s, 2/17 at Temple
Maryland’s Feb. 6 win over Purdue was keyed (in part) by an offensive element that hadn’t been seen much in Big Ten play: junior power forward Robert Carter hitting threes. The Terrapins put the 6'9" Carter on the perimeter to pull Boilermakers freshman Caleb Swanigan away from the basket and into uncomfortable defensive situations, and it worked: Carter went 4-of-6 from deep, and only one of his attempts was seriously contested. All of Carter’s treys came out of either pick-and-pop or dribble-handoff-and-pop actions:
Carter’s final make came on a handoff-and-pop action with Melo Trimble that was executed perfectly, and could be a real weapon for Maryland in the future:
(GIF source: ESPN)
Next up: 2/13 vs. Wisconsin, 2/18 at Minnesota
The Iowa AP ran a story this week on how Hawkeyes senior center Adam Woodbury has finally “silence[d] critics” with his play, which includes double-doubles in four of his past seven games. Woodbury was a target of multiple Power Rankings blurbs last season, most notably after he poked three players in the eye—Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky and Nigel Hayes, and Maryland’s Trimble—so it seems fair to note that, this season, Woodbury has been a high-quality role player who has not eye-gouged anyone. The 7-footer has been Iowa’s best rebounder by a wide margin and an efficient interior scorer, but his biggest value may be as a massive screen-setter for the Hawkeyes’ shooters.
My favorite Woodbury screens happen as part of Iowa’s secondary break, when he’s the last-to-arrive trail man. It seems like he’s harmlessly lumbering into the action ... and then he sets a pin-down screen to free up a great shot. Here’s one example on the right side of the floor, from a Feb. 3 win over Penn State:
... and another example, this time on the left side, from a Jan. 24 win over Purdue:
(GIF sources: ESPN, Big Ten Network)
Next up: 2/11 at Indiana, 2/14 vs. Minnesota
Bracket-talk is fair game around these parts in February, and SI’s Michael Beller has the Jayhawks as a No. 1 seed in his latest NCAA tournament mock. Crashing The Dance’s formula-based seeding has Kansas as a No. 1, as does the Bracket Matrix’s aggregate of pretty much the entire mock-bracket Internet. So does that mean the Jayhawks are on solid ground for a No. 1? I’m not sold yet. If they lose at Oklahoma on Saturday (as Vegas expects), a first-place finish in the Big 12 is unlikely. And although if any conference deserves two No. 1s, it’s the Big 12, it’s not hard to envision a scenario where the No. 1s simply fall into the hands of the champs of the Big 12 (Oklahoma), ACC (Virginia?), Big Ten (Iowa) and Big East (Villanova), and Kansas, with a final record of something like 27–8, drops to the No. 2 line.
Next up: 2/13 at Oklahoma, 2/15 vs. Oklahoma State
Oregon’s 6'10" gem-of-a-juco-transfer, Chris Boucher, is still far from a household name, but his advanced stats put him in some amazing company. Boucher offers a rare combination of high-efficiency scoring and high-volume blocks and rebounds. There have only been six players in the past 10 seasons who’ve posted a 120-plus Offensive Rating on higher than 15% possession-usage, while also blocking more than five shots and grabbing more than 10 rebounds per 40 minutes, pace-adjusted:
If being on a shortlist with The Brow and Karl Anthony-Towns isn’t impressive enough, Boucher is also the only player in that group with the ability to hit threes as a collegian. He’s 25-of-73 from deep this season.
(Chart data source: DraftExpress)
Next up: 2/11 at Cal, 2/13 at Stanford
When I ran the same, five-game-running-average-of-adjusted-efficiency experiment on North Carolina as I did on its prime ACC competition, Virginia, the results were not as impressive. The Tar Heels’ offense is operating at its lowest level of the season, and their defense is trending in the wrong direction. Their adjusted efficiency margins in late December and early January looked like that of a national-title contender, but lately, not so much:
Next up: 2/14 vs. Pittsburgh, 2/17 vs. Duke
Kenpommers were treated to a valuable, new feature this week, when the site added a stat called “Continuity,” which measures each team’s percentage of minutes played that have carried over from the previous season. It’s notable because there’s a correlation between continuity and efficiency, especially on the offensive end—and it’s not surprising that seven Power-Ranked teams, including all the ACC and Big 12 contenders, have at least 65% continuity from last season. Miami ranks 35th nationally, at 69.5%:
(Chart data source: kenpom.com)
Next up: 2/14 at Florida State, 2/17 vs. Virginia Tech
Michigan State is responsible for the Power Rankings’ Play of the Week, from the final minute of overtime in its Tuesday loss to Purdue. The “Elevator Doors” play has been seen all over this season, from the NBA’s Warriors using it to free Steph Curry, and Virginia using it to free Malcolm Brogdon and London Perrantes. Here, coming out of a sideline-out-of-bounds entry, the Spartans isolate Denzel Valentine up high, then use an Elevator Doors action a decoy, with Bryn Forbes cutting from the right block to the left wing. This draws all of Purdue’s defenders—most importantly, the Big Ten’s best shot-blocker, A.J. Hammons—out of the paint, and draws their attention to Forbes, at which point Valentine does a spin dribble and drives down the right side of the lane, all the way to the bucket for a layup:
(GIF source: ESPN)
Next up: 2/14 vs. Indiana, 2/18 vs. Wisconsin
Revisiting the Xavier Zone Study from two weeks ago: The Musketeers, despite having success with heavy doses of 1-3-1 zone in January, have been going away from it in their second meetings with Big East opponents. I use Synergy Sports Technology’s halfcourt possession logs to estimate a “Zone%” for each game, and Xavier’s overall percentage in Big East play has dropped to 37.1%, which means they’ve been a 62.9% man-to-man team:
Next up: 2/13 at Butler, 2/17 vs. Providence
Michigan State sharpshooter Bryn Forbes, the decoy in that Elevator Doors play from the Spartans’ blurb, shot just 1-of-7 from deep in Tuesday’s loss to the Boilers. One reason why: the harassing defense of Purdue wing Rapheal Davis, whose rep as the Big Ten’s best all-around defender is well-earned. To get a sense of the work the conference’s reigning DPOY put in on Forbes, watch the possessions in the following edit, in which Davis fights around screens, closes out effectively, and even help-and-recovers off an elite shooter without giving up threes:
Next up: 2/13 at Michigan, 2/16 vs. Northwestern
Look for the Mountaineers to start climbing back up the rankings once they get forward Jonathan Holton back from an “indefinite suspension” that began on Jan. 28, and has kept him on the bench for the past four games. The 6'7" Holton isn’t a well-known name outside the Big 12—or maybe even outside of Morgantown—but he’s West Virginia’s best offensive rebounder and its best big man in its chaotic press. And seeing that the Mountaineers’ offensive success has been predicated on second-chance opportunities, and its defensive success has been predicated on turnover-creation out of the press, they haven’t been close to whole without Holton.
Next up: 2/13 vs. TCU, 2/16 at Texas
Doubling down on the advanced analysis of Bernie Sanders, Baller: His set point is really high, almost Durant-ian, and his hand position on the ball is legit, creating backspin without guide-hand interference. His closest college comp, form-wise, might be Oklahoma point guard Isaiah Cousins:
Our current president, meanwhile, shoots lefty, and comes set much lower, just above his left eye. While the guide-hand positions don’t entirely match up, Obama’s best college comp might be Arizona legend Salim Stoudamire, who’s the last major-conference player with a 90-50-50 season (90% on free throws, 50% on twos, 50% on threes), in 2004–05:
(Photo sources: NBC News, Getty Images)
Next up: 2/12 vs. UCLA, 2/14 vs. USC
Last season, 6'6" guard Dyshawn Pierre was Dayton’s highest-volume shooter in Atlantic 10 play, taking 26.1% of the Flyers’ shots while he was on the floor. He was expected to keep that role as a senior, but after getting suspended for the first semester of 2015—16, he’s returned in a different capacity—as a complementary scorer to Dayton’s new go-to guy, junior two-guard Charles Cooke. Cooke, a transfer from James Madison, is taking 28.4% of the Flyers’ shots in Atlantic 10 games, with an impressive 128.3 ORating. Cooke was a relatively inefficient scorer at JMU in ‘13–14, but has since made huge improvements in three-point accuracy and turnover rate.
Next up: 2/12 at Rhode Island, 2/17 at Saint Joseph's
Kentucky’s drop-off in reputation from “preseason title contender” to “not a lock to win the SEC” is probably the reason Tyler Ulis isn’t on national player of the year shortlists. But if you haven’t noticed, he’s having an incredible SEC season, with a 134.2 ORating on 24.5% usage, and a 4.0-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Aside from Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine, I don’t think there’s a point guard having a better year than Ulis. If the Wildcats can stage a late-season rally and win the SEC title outright (they’re currently in a three-way tie for the lead), Ulis could get himself back in the All-America conversation.
Next up: 2/13 at South Carolina, 2/18 vs. Tennessee
The Next 16
18. Texas A&M
21. Wichita State
25. Iowa State
26. Notre Dame
28. South Carolina