Power Rankings: Kansas rises to No. 1
In Vol. 12 of the Power Rankings, Kansas vaults to No. 1, Michigan State rejoins the top five, and Kentucky and Duke continue their climb back in the direction of their preseason standing:
Let’s begin with the best defensive freeze-frame from Round II of Kansas-Oklahoma: The second-half possession where KU’s Devonte’ Graham and Frank Mason jammed up a handoff attempt to Buddy Hield, and then neither Jayhawk guard was willing to leave him, so they just stood there, giving Buddy an off-ball, double hug:
After winning a triple-overtime epic over the Sooners on Jan. 4 at Allen Fieldhouse, in which the Jayhawks survived a 46-point explosion from Hield, they changed their defensive approach for the Feb. 13 rematch. If you’ve been reading the Power Rankings all season, you’ll recall that I took a deep dive into every defensive possession against Hield from Round I, when the guarding-Buddy-in-regulation-time assignment mostly belonged to Frank Mason III (who did a solid job) and Wayne Selden (who barely let Buddy score):
(Key: PPP = points per all possessions guarded; %FGA or FTA = % of possessions Hield attempted a shot or a free-throw; %TO = % of possessions Hield committed a turnover)
On Feb. 13 in Norman, the Buddy assignment was almost all Graham’s, and he delivered an inspired defensive performance with just a few lapses, mostly on occasions where he lost Hield following Oklahoma offensive boards:
On Jan. 4, Hield did a decent amount of work inside the arc during regulation, scoring a combined 18 points on layups, tip-ins and shooting fouls drawn:
On Feb. 13, Kansas halved Hield’s interior scoring, limiting him to zero field goals inside the arc, and nine points from the stripe:
(Screengrab source: ESPN)
Next up: 2/20 at Kansas State, 2/23 at Baylor
Multiple Villanova blurbs this season have been dedicated to tracking a new wrinkle in the Wildcats’ offense: occasional post-ups by guards Ryan Arcidiacono (who’s 6'3") and Josh Hart (who’s 6'5"). The most recent instance came against St. John’s on Feb. 13, with Hart drawing four (and nearly five) defenders into the lane area before kicking out to Mikal Bridges for an open three:
(GIF source: CBS)
I had a chance to ask Villanova coach Jay Wright about his team’s guard-posting, and this is what he said:
“We just added that this year. We wanted to take advantage of a couple of guards that are strong, and the fact that we have other shooters around them, and [center] Daniel Ochefu is such a good passer from the perimeter. And everyone switches so much now, that we thought if we get mismatches with those guys, we want to take advantage of them.”
Is the intent more to score in the post, or set up passes out of double-teams? “Both,” Wright said. “We know [Arcidiacono and Hart] can score in there, but most offenses are set up to take advantages of doubles. It’s the same concept as pick-and-roll: you’re trying to force two guys to guard one.”
The Wildcats’ guard-posting has worked well with Hart: According to Synergy Sports Technology’s logs, his 15 post-up or pass-out-of-the-post possessions have resulted in 1.33 PPP. Arcidiacono’s have been less efficient, with 17 possessions yielding 0.65 PPP.
Next up: 2/20 vs. Butler, 2/24 at Xavier
Virginia adjusted-efficiency-margin trend-watching is the Power Rankings’ new favorite pastime. After Monday’s squelching of NC State—in which the Wolfpack were held to a season-low 0.88 PPP—the Cavaliers’ D remains in elite territory, and their overall adjusted-efficiency margins are at the highest they’ve been during the ACC schedule:
(Chart data taken from kenpom.com, then adjusted by me for game location and competition.)
Next up: 2/22 at Miami, 2/27 vs. North Carolina
Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine has be to considered the co-leader—along with Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield—for the Naismith and Wooden Awards, and Valentine’s all-around production is putting him in some rare statistical company.
According to DraftExpress.com, Valentine has a 127.9 ORating, and is averaging 24.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and 9.0 assists per 40 minutes, pace-adjusted. I searched for other players in the past 10 seasons with a 120+ ORating, and at least 20/7/7 in points/rebounds/assists per 40 minutes, pace-adjusted ... and there weren’t any other than Valentine. He really does have one of the best all-around stat lines of the past decade.
I had to lower my filter to 120+ ORating and 20/5/5 points/rebounds/assists to get three other names to pop up:
Pretty good company for Denzel: Jordan Taylor in his ridiculous junior season at Wisconsin, current Pistons point guard Reggie Jackson in his junior season at Boston College, and presumed 2016 No. 1 draft pick Ben Simmons, this year at LSU.
Next up: 2/18 vs. Wisconsin, 2/23 at Ohio State
Maryland made the cut for this week’s Magic Eight column, an annual SI.com tradition that guarantees to have the eventual national champion on its list of (duh) eight teams. I’m a fan of the Terrapins’ combination of consistent, strong defense and talent at the 1-5 spots. If there’s any reason to be concerned about that pick, it’s that their offense isn’t trending in the right direction. Here are Maryland and Michigan State’s running, five-game adjusted offensive/defensive efficiencies plotted together—you’ll see that the Spartans’ offense is really taking off, while the Terps’ is sputtering toward March:
(Chart data taken from kenpom.com, then adjusted by me for game location and competition.)
Next up: 2/18 at Minnesota, 2/21 vs. Michigan
If Oklahoma is going to win a national title, much less make a deep NCAA tournament run, its starting 4-5 combo of Ryan Spangler and Khadeem Lattin have to stay on the floor together as much as possible. Hooplens.com data shows that with the Spangler-Lattin combo on the floor, the Sooners’ efficiency margin in Big 12 games as well as the Jan. 30 visit to LSU is +0.18 points per possession—the margin of a very good team. With all other lineups over that same time span, Oklahoma’s efficiency margin is -0.07 PPP. A negative margin! That is scary.
(Photo source: Getty Images)
Next up: 2/20 at West Virginia, 2/24 vs. Oklahoma State
Something I had not realized until sifting through the numbers this week: Miami wing Sheldon McClellan is the most efficient pick-and-roll scorer on a major-conference team by a huge margin. According to Synergy Sports Technology, McClellan is averaging 1.31 PPP as a pick-and-roll ballhandler; the next-closest major-conference player (with a minimum 50 possessions) is Georgia’s J.J. Frazier, at just 1.06 PPP:
Why is McClellan so effective in the pick-and-roll? As the following film edit shows, it’s because he can do everything—get to the basket by driving off the screen or rejecting the screen and driving, pull up for a three behind the screen, or pull-up for a midrange jumper before he hits the next level of defense:
Next up: 2/20 at North Carolina, 2/22 vs. Virginia
I ran Arizona’s adjusted-efficiency splits with and without Allonzo Trier in Pac-12 play, and was surprised by the results: The eye test suggested the Wildcats were much better once they got Trier back from a broken hand, but the stats say they’ve simply been very good in both scenarios. With Trier’s scoring ability in the lineup, Arizona is slightly better on offense and slightly worse on D than it is without him, and either way, it has a massive positive efficiency margin of more than a quarter-point per possession:
Next up: 2/24 at Colorado, 2/27 at Utah
Blocked three-pointers aren’t all that common; according to hoop-math.com data, there were 67 teams with either “0” or “1” blocked three on the season through Tuesday. Iowa’s Jarrod Uthoff, however, has a nation-best 13 on his own, which is higher than the team totals for 339 D-I schools. Here’s the entire list of players with at least seven blocked treys:
Uthoff’s most recent three-block came on Feb. 7 at Illinois. Check out far away he was on Aaron Jordan’s catch, coming from the back-left spot of the Hawkeyes’ 2-3 zone ...
... and then watch how Uthoff uses his length to close that gap:
(Chart data source: hoop-math.com. Screengrab and GIF source: Big Ten Network)
Next up: 2/24 vs. Wisconsin, 2/28 at Ohio State
I’m still stunned at how the final 11 minutes of Duke-Carolina went down on Wednesday in Chapel Hill. I re-watched it on my laptop this morning and it was just as baffling as it was last night. Consider this progression:
• Duke center Marshall Plumlee, who has four fouls, checks into the game with 10:51 left in the second half. UNC is up 62–55, and its star power forward, Brice Johnson, has shot 12-of-16 from the floor en route to 27 points. Plumlee is assigned to guard Johnson when he checks back in at 10:15. Carolina’s plan of attack seems obvious. And yet ...
• Johnson plays from 10:15 to 5:55, and not only does he take zero shots during that span, he gets zero post feeds and zero paint touches. All he gets are a couple of perimeter touches, after which he immediately passes to a guard.
• Johnson re-enters the game with 5:22 left and plays until the buzzer. In that time he gets one paint touch—a dump-off pass from Justin Jackson for a dunk—and one mid-post feed that Plumlee bats out of Johnson’s hands.
• In the 16 offensive possessions Johnson plays in the final 11 minutes, he gets one field-goal attempt and one paint touch (on the same play). Plumlee plays the final 10:51 with four fouls, defending Johnson on all 16 of his possessions. Duke comes back to win, 74–73.
Next up: 2/20 vs. Miami, 2/24 at NC State
Xavier’s NCAA tournament bracket credentials are slightly better than its Power Rankings credentials (which are a combination of analytics, résumé and eye test). SI’s Michael Beller has the Musketeers as a No. 2 seed in his latest mock bracket, with “a decent claim to a No. 1,” and Iowa’s loss at Penn State, which occurred after that mock was published, could help Xavier’s case for moving up one spot on the seed line. Realistically, I think for the Big East to get two No. 1s, the Musketeers would need to come close to winning out the regular season, and get some help from say, a prolonged slump by Oklahoma or Iowa.
Next up: 2/20 at Georgetown, 2/24 vs. Villanova
This season has been so wild that the perception of one game can change three times over the course of a few months, and Kentucky-Duke in the Champions Classic on Nov. 17 is perhaps the best example. At the time it was hailed as a signature win for the Wildcats over a fellow national-title contender. By mid-January, when Kentucky was 13–4, coming off a loss at Auburn, and Duke was 14–5, coming off three straight losses, it looked like a mistakenly overhyped game between two flawed bluebloods. Now, in mid-February, it's looking like a high-quality win for the surging Wildcats, who are projected to win the SEC regular-season title, and a completely acceptable loss for Duke, which could creep into NCAA 2-3 seed range if it continues its hot streak through the ACC tournament.
Next up: 2/18 vs. Tennessee, 2/20 at Texas A&M
Duke went all-in on iso-ball in its comeback against win over North Carolina on Wednesday. And no one had more isolations—or more iso success—than freshman wing Brandon Ingram. He scored 13 points on 11 iso possessions, in large part because the Blue Devils spread the floor and leveraged favorable matchups.
The full breakdown of Ingram’s isos-vs.-Tar Heels:
• 4 vs. Brice Johnson for three points (1–3 FGs, one turnover)
• 3 vs. Theo Pinson for four points (2–3 FGs)
• 2 vs. Isaiah Hicks for four points (1–1 FGs, 2–2 FTs)
• 1 vs. Marcus Paige for two points (1–1 FGs)
• 1 vs. Justin Jackson for zero points (0–1 FGs)
Next up: 2/20 at Louisville, 2/25 vs. Florida State
Purdue has two freshmen in its rotation—power forward Caleb Swanigan and shooting guard Ryan Cline—and their on/off efficiency splits against quality competition are radically different. Swanigan was the Boilers’ highest-profile recruit in years, but in games against kenpom top-100 opponents, they’ve had a negative efficiency margin with him on the floor—and are 0.16 PPP better when he’s on the bench. On the other hand, Purdue is 0.23 PPP better with Cline on the floor as opposed to having him on the bench. As the Boilers head into a difficult closing stretch of their Big Ten schedule, and then the NCAA tournament, it might be in their best interest to give Cline more minutes and cut back on Swanigan’s PT:
(Chart data from hooplens.com)
Next up: 2/20 at Indiana, 2/27 vs. Maryland
In Tuesday’s win over West Virginia, Texas scored 25 of its 85 points from the free-throw line—a total that would seem high in pretty much every situation other than facing the Mountaineers. Their high turnover-creation allows them to remain competitive despite committing insane amounts of fouls. They give up a nation-high 29.8% of their points from the free-throw line, according to TeamRankings.com’s data, and commit fouls on an estimated 32.3% of their defensive possessions. That’s the seventh-highest foul rate in the country ... and they're still 20–6. This is a crazy, crazy team.
Next up: 2/20 vs. Oklahoma, 2/22 vs. Iowa State
The penalty for losing both games of your Bay Area weekend road trip: Your blurb gets hijacked for some truly weird Visual Trivia. There are no tangible prizes in this game, but the first person to correctly ID all nine of these current head-coach foreheads in a Tweet to @lukewinn will be hailed on Twitter as the sport’s foremost forehead-recognizer:
(Photos source: Getty Images)
Next up: 2/20 vs. Oregon State, 2/24 vs. Washington State
The Next 16
17. Notre Dame
21. Iowa State
25. St. Joseph’s
28. Wichita State
29. Texas A&M
32. Seton Hall