Power Rankings: Michigan State making late-season surge
Vol. 13 of the Power Rankings looks at Kansas’ magic frontcourt combo, weighs in on the player and coach of the year races, highlights a play called "The Runway" and unveils a new round of Visual Trivia:
During the first two months of this season, Kansas had the most unsettled frontcourt rotation of any elite team. Coach Bill Self couldn’t decide on a primary big man to pair with senior star power forward Perry Ellis. Senior Jamari Traylor was the opening-night starter in that spot, then it was fellow senior Hunter Mickelson, then it was freshman Cheick Diallo, until finally, on Jan. 23 against Texas, Self found an Ellis partner that worked: 6'10" junior Landen Lucas, whose rebounding, rim protection and efficient, low-usage offense have helped the Jayhawks rise to first place in the Big 12 and No. 1 in the Power Rankings.
The Jayhawks are 9–1 with Lucas as the starter, and their lineup efficiency data from that stretch, which I’ve pulled from hooplens.com, is strong evidence of the impact of the Ellis-Lucas frontcourt. KU has been a staggering 0.23 points per possession better while using that combo, compared to all other situations:
(Chart photo source: Getty Images)
Next up: 2/27 vs. Texas Tech, 2/29 at Texas
Former starting point guard Lourawls “Tum-Tum” Nairn is (very slowly) working his way back into Michigan State’s rotation after being sidelined for four weeks with plantar fasciitis. His presence gives the Spartans the option to run sets with their two most dangerous shooters, Bryn Forbes (49.5% from three in Big Ten play) and Denzel Valentine (50.0%), simultaneously running off of screens for open threes. The set they dusted off late in Tuesday’s rout of Ohio State is the Power Rankings’ Play of the Week, mostly because the Forbes-Valentine crossing route along the baseline caused their defenders to collide, allowing Forbes to catch a pass in the left corner with the closest defender 18 feet away:
Next up: 2/28 vs. Penn State, 3/2 at Rutgers
My list of 10 semifinalists for the Naismith Trophy is due tomorrow, and although the ballots are submitted unranked, this is my in-order top 10:
1. Denzel Valentine, PG, Michigan State
2. Buddy Hield, SG, Oklahoma
3. Tyler Ulis, PG, Kentucky
4. Brice Johnson, PF, North Carolina
5. Malcolm Brogdon, SG, Virginia
6. Perry Ellis, PF, Kansas
7. Jakob Poeltl, C, Utah
8. Grayson Allen, SG, Duke
9. Josh Hart, SF, Villanova
10t. Ben Simmons, PF, LSU
10t. Jarrod Uthoff, PF, Iowa
The tie at No. 10 is me still trying to decide whether to include anyone who’s on a non-NCAA tournament team. There’s no NCAA-tourney prerequisite for winning the award, but it’s hard to justify putting in Simmons, even with his amazing individual stats, over a guy who’s the star of a Big Ten title contender.
Also considered: Yogi Ferrell, Indiana; Kris Dunn, Providence; Trevon Blueitt, Xavier; Georges Niang, Iowa State; Brandon Ingram, Duke; Dillon Brooks, Oregon; Jamal Murray, Kentucky; DeAndre’ Bembry, Saint Joseph’s; Kay Felder, Oakland; Damion Lee, Louisville; Jameel Warney, Stony Brook
Next up: 2/27 at Virginia, 2/29 vs. Syracuse
Naismith Trophy voters’ lists of 10 coach of the year semifinalists are also due tomorrow, and it took me much longer to settle on this shortlist than it did to decide on the players. SI’s Seth Davis weighed in with a COY top 10 in extended (and well-reasoned) form on Monday, but my list only has 40% overlap with Seth’s. I exclusively focus on candidates whose teams have outperformed preseason expectations, either in high-profile ways (Lon Kruger and Jay Wright lifting their teams from top-10 material to No. 1), or lower-profile ways (Randy Bennett losing all five starters and leading the WCC; King Rice engineering Monmouth’s rise); or candidates who’ve overcome adversity (Tom Crean losing James Blackmon Jr. at midseason; Greg Gard rescuing a Wisconsin team in a tailspin):
1. Lon Kruger, Oklahoma
2. Fran McCaffery, Iowa
3. Chris Mack, Xavier
4. Randy Bennett, Saint Mary’s
5. Jim Larranaga, Miami
6. Jay Wright, Villanova
7. Bob Huggins, West Virginia
8. Tom Crean, Indiana
9. King Rice, Monmouth
10. Greg Gard, Wisconsin
Kansas’s Bill Self, Virginia’s Tony Bennett and Arizona’s Sean Miller have done fine jobs, too, and are worthy of votes, but their teams are playing at about exactly the level SI projected in the preseason.
Next up: 2/27 at Texas, 3/1 vs. Baylor
Cavaliers shooting guard Malcolm Brogdon has become a far more efficient scorer as a senior, and the following chart—using ACC-only data pulled from shotanalytics.com—takes a deeper look at his changes in shot distribution and increases in accuracy from 2014–15:
Brogdon is taking a higher volume of threes, and making more of them, but he’s also become a much better (and more selective) finisher within five feet of the rim, shooting 74.1% on those shots in ACC games as a senior.
(Chart photo source: Getty Images)
Next up: 2/27 vs. North Carolina, 3/1 at Clemson
The latest chart showing that this season ain’t like last season, by comparing kenpom.com’s top eight at the outset of this week to the top eight from the same time in ‘14–15:
Last season’s top six teams—Kentucky, Virginia, Gonzaga, Arizona, Utah and Wisconsin—at this juncture were all more efficient than the No. 1 at the start of this week, Villanova. (The Wildcats have since dropped to No. 2, following Wednesday’s loss at Xavier.)
Next up: 2/27 at Marquette, 3/1 vs. DePaul
Edmond Sumner barely got to play in Xavier’s 31-point loss to Villanova on New Year’s Eve; just two minutes into that game, he suffered a scary fall and had to be stretchered off the floor. That was a nightmare; what he did against the Musketeers on Wednesday, in a 90–83 win at the Cintas Center, was a dream performance. He scored 19 points, grabbed six rebounds, and dished out a career-high nine assists. Sumner was so adept at dribble-penetrating and sinking ‘Nova’s D to set up kick-outs, as well as looking ahead for wing shooters in transition, that his first five assists were all for threes:
Combine Sumner’s points scored (19) with his points assisted on (23), and he was responsible for 46.7% of the Musketeers’ offense against Villanova.
Next up: 2/28 at Seton Hall, 3/5 vs. Creighton
Thanks to DraftExpress’s Jonathan Givony for tipping me off to the Power Rankings BLOB* of the Week, a bold Miami play that I’m calling “The Runway.” The YouTube below shows the play with freeze-framed commentary; The Runway calls for a baseball pass from the inbounder all the way to the opposite three-point line, and then calls for the receiver (in this case, guard Ja’Quan Newton) to dribble rimward, building up a three-quarter-court head of steam that overwhelms a backpedaling defender. Enjoy:
(* Baseline Out of Bounds [Play])
Next up: 2/27 vs. Louisville, 3/2 at Notre Dame
Jamal Murray’s emergence as an elite, high-volume scorer has involved a change of approach from early in his freshman season. The three-pointer has wisely become his dominant shot, and of late he’s averaging approximately 10 long-range attempts per 40 minutes. But Murray has also made efforts to attack and draw more whistles, and his free-throw volume has skyrocketed:
Next up: 2/27 at Vanderbilt, 3/1 at Florida
It was around mid-February of last season that Melo Trimble began to take off, exhibiting high-efficiency scoring ability against high-level competition and setting himself up to be a preseason national POY candidate as a sophomore. Trimble looked the part early on in 2015–16, and he’s carrying a workload that’s just as heavy as last year’s, but his efficiency is plummeting, rather than rising, as he heads into March:
During Trimble’s past five games, he has an abysmal 78.6 Offensive Rating on 27.8% usage. The speculation that Trimble is dealing with some nagging injuries would make sense, as this (low) level of efficiency is out of character for one of the nation’s best guards.
Next up: 2/27 at Purdue, 3/3 vs. Illinois
Ducks 6'10" forward Chris Boucher, far and away the highest-impact juco transfer of 2015–16, blocked four more shots against Washington State on Wednesday, bringing his season block percentage to 12.7, which makes him the best major-conference shot blocker in the nation on a tempo-free basis. Boucher is also one of the best shot-blockers in the Pac-12 in quite some time. In the past 10 years, only one conference player, 7'2" Arizona State center Jordan Bachynski, has posted a higher block percentage (13.5, in ‘12–13).
Next up: 2/28 vs. Washington, 3/2 at UCLA
Arizona has allowed a Pac-12 opponent to rebound more than 32% of its misses just twice this season, and it has lost both games—at Cal on Jan. 23, and at Colorado on Wednesday. The Buffaloes rebounded 34.1% of their misses, which is how they managed to pull off the upset despite shooting 44.0% from inside the arc. Arizona is typically dominant on the defensive glass, as seniors Kaleb Tarczewski and Ryan Anderson are the Nos. 2 and 3 in the Pac-12 in defensive-board percentage, and as a team the Wildcats rank No. 1 in the conference and No. 2 in the nation. Rebounding is keeping their overall defense afloat despite dropoffs in turnover production and rim protection from last season.
Next up: 2/27 at Utah, 3/3 vs. Cal
A sign that Indiana’s offense is in solid shape: In the past two weeks, the Hoosiers scored the highest PPP of any team this season against Iowa (1.32 PPP on Feb. 11) and Purdue (1.24 PPP on Feb. 20). In the Purdue game, IU committed just four turnovers, for its lowest Big Ten-game turnover rate (6.5%) of the entire Tom Crean era in Bloomington. The Hoosiers still have turnover issues—they rank last in Big Ten play in TO%, at 19.3—but when they don’t give the ball away, they’re the conference’s most dangerous offense:
(Chart data source: kenpom.com)
Next up: 2/25 at Illinois, 3/1 at Iowa
There is no team with a stranger profile than the Mountaineers, who have one of the nation’s better defenses despite fouling like crazy, and who often succeed offensively by throwing up bricks and then hunting the offensive rebounds. A new anomaly, from Monday’s 97–87 win over Iowa State: coach Bob Huggins gave more minutes to his bench (108) than his starters (92). The backups took 60.9% of the shots and scored 71.1% of the points, powered by offensive-sparkplug guards Jaysean Page and Tarik Phillip. These sorts of things might happen elsewhere in a blowout, or a game in which starters were in foul trouble, but this wasn’t a blowout, and no one was in foul trouble. West Virginia just wins in weird ways.
Next up: 2/27 at Oklahoma State, 3/2 vs. Texas Tech
It’s Visual Trivia time! Last week’s subject, Coach Foreheads, was such a Twitter sensation—with co-winners @CardChronicle and @CoachLukeMurray—that the Rankings is doubling down on foreheads. This week it’s a grid of players, all of whom are starters on teams in the NCAA tournament conversation (i.e., either locks or on the bubble).
The first reader to Tweet all nine correct player names to me @lukewinn wins Twitter glory and the pride that comes with being recognized as a Forehead Expert:
Next up: 2/25 vs. Florida State, 2/28 at Pittsburgh
Finding something positive to say about a team that’s lost three of out its last four and no longer has control of its own destiny in the Big Ten title race ...
The Hawkeyes’ commitment to pushing the pace—at least in games that don’t involve Wisconsin—has helped keep the Big Ten from being the nation’s slowest major conference. It’s currently only the nation’s second-slowest conference, ahead of the ACC. Here’s the breakdown, from kenpom.com
Next up: 2/28 at Ohio State, 3/1 vs. Indiana
The Next 16
Self-Imposed Ineligibility, But Still Quite Good: Louisville
21. Iowa State
22. Texas A&M
24. Notre Dame
26. Saint Joseph’s
29. Wichita State
30. Saint Mary’s
32. Seton Hall
(Visual Trivia photos source: Getty Images)