In our first regular season Power Rankings, defending national champion Villanova moves to No. 1, with Kentucky, North Carolina, Indiana and Kansas rounding out the top five.
The preseason No. 1 in SI’s projections, Duke, has already lost once and its three best freshmen have yet to suit up, so for the first in-season Power Rankings, the defending champs—and owners of November’s most impressive true-road win—hold the throne:
‘Nova’s new toy is sophomore Fordham transfer Eric Paschall, a 6' 7" sophomore who comes off the bench to play the 4 and 5. The Wildcats’ most intriguing lineups have him at the 5 and Kris Jenkins at the 4, giving them five long-range shooters on the floor at the same time, and this arrangement was particularly devastating in their win at Purdue on Monday.
Due to foul trouble, Villanova only got to use the Jenkins-Paschall lineup for 10 possessions of offense and 10 possessions of defense against the Boilermakers, but ‘Nova had an efficiency margin of plus 1.00 points in those possessions, compared to negative 0.08 PPP in all other situations. On offense, Paschall’s presence put Purdue’s 7' 2" center, Isaac Haas, into some predicaments that may have been the difference in the game. These three second-half plays tell the story:
1. ‘Nova runs a high pick-and-pop with Jalen Brunson and Jenkins, and as Brunson drives, Haas stays planted in the center of the lane to protect the rim. His man, Paschall, slides along the baseline to the corner—for a wide-open, kick-out three:
2. Another high pick-and-pop, this time with Phil Booth and Jenkins. As Jenkins drives, Paschall slides to the left corner, and pay attention to where Haas is standing: with both feet outside the paint, leaving him unable to offer rim-protection assistance on Jenkins’ layup.
3. Another Brunson-Jenkins pick-and-pop, with Brunson driving and Paschall once again sliding to the corner. Haas opts to stay home this time, keeping both feet in the paint; Brunson recognizes this, kicks the ball to the corner, and it results in another Paschall trey. Haas just can’t win:
(GIFs source: Big Ten Network)
Next up: 11/17 vs. Western Michigan in Charleston Classic
It’s evident, even after just three games, that Kentucky’s best offense this season is going to come in transition. When you have a lightning bolt like De’Aaron Fox as your point guard, and a wing-runners like Malik Monk and Isaiah Briscoe as your go-to scorers, the best course of action is to push the pace, even after opponents’ made baskets. But will the Wildcats stay committed to that over the course of the season? They’ve spent 23.7% of their offense in transition thus far, according to Synergy Sports, but every John Calipari-coached Kentucky team aside from his first one—with John Wall at point guard, in 2009–10—has relied on more than 80% halfcourt offense. Perhaps the fact that Calipari recently teased Wall that Fox is faster than him is a sign that these ‘Cats can buck the recent trend and stay speedy.
For reference, here’s how Kentucky’s transition offense percentage and length of offensive possession rank breaks down over the Calipari Era:
(Data sources: Synergy Sports and kenpom.com)
Next up: 11/20 vs. Duquesne, 11/23 vs. Cleveland State
I say this with the asterisk that the Tar Heels have yet to play a marquee opponent, but point guard Joel Berry II is off to an absurdly good start that, if it continues, will warrant him being in the national player of the year conversation. Berry was one of the country’s better point guards as a sophomore, and in 2016–17 he’s ramped up his ability to draw whistles, averaging 7.3 free-throw attempts in 26.3 minutes per game, compared to 2.7 in 30.7 minutes last season. And as Carolina charting authority Adrian Atkinson pointed out this week, Berry’s impact on both ends of the court has been immense; the Tar Heels have been outscoring opponents by 49.7 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor, compared to 15.4 when he’s off, and their defense has been a turnover-creating machine when he’s pressuring the ball. If Berry and Frank Mason keep doing what they’re doing, the year of the freshman may turn into the year of the upperclassman point guard.
Next up: 11/18 at Hawaii, 11/21 vs. Chaminade in Maui Invitational
My favorite offensive curveball of the season’s first week comes from Hoosiers coach Tom Crean, who, with his team’s opener against Kansas tied 74–74 late in the second half, made a mid-possession call for a spread pick-and-roll set . . . with 6' 10" center Thomas Bryant as the ballhandler and 6’4" two-guard James Blackmon Jr. as the screener. This was completely intentional—you can see Crean directing it from the sidelines—and regardless of the fact that Bryant missed his pull-up-behind-the-screen three, could be a worthy option to revisit against less-mobile, opposing centers. Roll the GIF, and be entertained:
(GIF source: ESPN)
Next up: 11/19 vs. Liberty, 11/22 at Fort Wayne
If I were forced to throw out the preseason national player of the year forecasts and build a new list after one week—and no one’s forcing me to, but I’m gonna do it anyway, because it’s a harmlessly fun exercise—this would be the top three:
1. Frank Mason III, PG, Kansas
2. James Blackmon Jr., SG, Indiana
3. Joel Berry II, PG, North Carolina
The race gets harder to differentiate after that, but Iowa State’s Monte Morris, Creighton’s Mo Watson, Kentucky’s Isaiah Briscoe, Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan, Butler’s Kelan Martin, Duke’s Luke Kennard and UCLA’s Lonzo Ball—among others—would be on the shortlist. The scary thing about Mason is that he’s dominating and his three-point shot isn’t even falling yet. He’s been a 40.4% shooter from long range over the past two seasons, and he’s off to just a 1-for-6 start, but he’s still averaging 25.5 points and 7.0 assists, getting to the rack whenever he wants, and he already has a signature moment: Tuesday’s game-winning pull-up against Duke.
Next up: 11/18 vs. Siena, 11/21 vs. UAB in CBE Classic
Sophomore Luke Kennard, and not preseason player of the year frontrunner Grayson Allen, has been the offensive MVP thus far for the shorthanded Blue Devils, averaging 17.3 points on 68.4% shooting inside the arc and 50.0% shooting from the outside. Those are such efficient numbers that Duke may run Kennard’s bread-and-butter play—the "A" set where he lifts up from the corner and gets a handoff from a big man around one of the elbows—even more often. Here’s a quick compilation of Kennard A-sets (it’s called that because the team aligns in the shape of an "A" to start the play) from the first three games:
Next up: 11/19 vs. Penn State in Hall of Fame Tipoff Classic
November is lineup-tinkering season in college hoops, and I’m curious to see if the Zags struck gold with their backup big combo of freshman center Zach Collins and power forward Killian Tillie, who were the key to their 69–48 demolition of San Diego State on Monday. In their 24 Collins-Tillie possessions, the Zags had an efficiency margin of +1.02 PPP, compared to negative 0.05 PPP with their starting 4–5 combo of Johnathan Williams and Przemek Karnowski, according to Hooplens.com data. Collins and Tillie worked especially well together as the center and back-left defenders, respectively, in an active 2–3 zone, something I’d expect to see plenty of this season after they were heavily man-to-man in ‘15–16.
Next up: 11/18 vs. Bryant, 11/24 vs. Quinnipiac in AdvoCare Invitational
Always nice to see the younger players paying homage to their predecessors, like Joel Embiid breaking out a perfect Hakeem Olajuwon Dream Shake for the Sixers . . . or, on the college level, Louisville’s Donovan Mitchell evoking former Cardinal Russ Smith’s famed 1-on-5 fastbreak—from March 2013 against Syracuse—with a similar attack against William & Mary. Watch them, back-to-back:
(As an aside: Power Rankings Good Vibes go out to Russ, one of my favorite college players ever, who’s being publicly thrown under the bus by his current coach in Turkey. The guy needs to learn, like Rick Pitino did, that the longer the leash—and the bigger the stack of waffles—you give Russ, the better he gets.)
Next up: 11/17 vs. Long Beach State, 11/23 vs. Old Dominion in Battle for Atlantis
Austin Nichols’s Virginia debut was delayed by one regular-season game, as he served out a suspension for a violation of team rules, and then by six minutes and 42 seconds into the Cavaliers’ second game, as the Memphis transfer was surprisingly the fourth guy off the bench against St. Francis (N.Y.) on Tuesday. Nichols proceeded to put up a team-high 11 points in 16 minutes, and as the guy SI projected to lead Virginia in scoring this season, one would think he’ll eventually slide into the starting lineup. The world needs more of his throwback, lifted-knee, righty hook:
(. . . but perhaps less of his lefty jump hook.)
Next up: 11/20 vs. Yale, 11/22 vs. Grambling State
The early returns on Finnish stretch-four Lauri Markkanen have been excellent, as the 7-foot freshman is averaging a high-efficiency, 19.5 points and 7.0 boards through two games. He’s not a dominant low-post guy yet but his pick-and-pop game is already at a high level, as he has the shooting range to effortlessly knock down FIBA-length threes and the ballhandling skills to attack closeouts off the bounce. What I’ve seen on film thus far makes Markkanen look like a Euro Frank Kaminsky—not nearly as complete a player as Kaminsky was as a senior at Wisconsin, but well ahead of where Frank the Tank was as a freshman and sophomore.
Next up: 11/18 vs. Sacred Heart, 11/21 vs. Northern Colorado
A Commendable Scheduling Award goes out to the Musketeers, who didn’t settle for the 13-plus games they’re likely to play against top-50 opponents during Big East competition. Their nonconference slate puts them up against the potential champs of the Patriot League (Lehigh, whom Xavier already beat), Summit (North Dakota State) and AAC (Cincinnati)—and then as many as five more potential NCAA tournament teams in Baylor, Colorado, Utah, and (if the Tire Pros Invitational bracket holds to form) Clemson and Oklahoma. We’ll have a very good sense of who the Musketeers are by Christmastime—and hopefully they’ll get rewarded for their boldness by the Selection Committee.
Next up: 11/17 vs. Missouri in the Tire Pros Invitational
While the AP and Coaches’ polls both left Baylor out of their preseason Top 25s, SI’s projection system was an early fan of the Bears, ranking them 24th overall and third in the Big 12. That was largely based on the perceived strength of a Johnathan Motley- and Manu Lecomte-led offense; our system figured their defense would decline some from last season after losing their best rebounder (Rico Gathers) and an NBA-quality three-and-D wing (Taurean Prince). What the projection system didn’t take into full account—mostly because it’s cautious about forecasting juco transfers into major roles—was the defensive impact of junior Jo Lual-Acuil. The 7-foot juco acquisition, who sat out all of last season due to a heart issue, already has 11 blocks in 51 minutes, and he’s averaging 5.5 blocks and 11.5 boards per game. If Acuil’s rim protection isn’t an early-season aberration, and Motley assists him with interior D, Baylor is here to stay in the top 16.
Next up: 11/18 vs. Florida Gulf Coast, 11/23 vs. VCU in Battle for Atlantis
The Ducks had an ugly start without star Dillon Brooks, losing 66–49 at Baylor on Tuesday, but I don’t want to dock them too much: They have no depth behind Brooks at the small-forward spot, a lot of their offense runs through him, and he could be back as early as next week for the Maui Invitational if he can get cleared by their doctors. If Brooks is out for longer, Oregon will need transfer guard Dylan Ennis to step up on the creating-for-others front: He was a capable distributor and a key part of an elite offense two seasons ago at Villanova, but in 64 minutes of playing time for the Ducks, he has just three assists against six turnovers.
Next up: 11/17 vs. Valparaiso, 11/21 vs. Georgetown in Maui Invitational
This team doesn’t have the offensive-efficiency ceiling that the ‘13–14 Bluejays did—that Doug McDermott-led squad had the nation’s best three-point shooting attack—but it might be turn out to be more dangerous in the NCAA tournament. They’re more guard-oriented this time around, with backcourt starters Watson, Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas combining for 50 points in Tuesday’s win over Wisconsin. Watson is an assist machine, Foster is a pure scorer and Thomas has been one of the better early-season surprises, serving as a great catch-and-shoot option off Watson’s drives and a high-efficiency finisher in transition.
Next up: 11/18 vs. Washington State in the Paradise Jam
Coach Greg Gard said the Badgers’ offense looked “disheveled” at times in Tuesday’s 79–67 loss at Creighton, where they were doomed by their inability to score from the perimeter after the Bluejays hard-doubled the post. Wisconsin’s spacing around some of those double-teams was sub-optimal, allowing Creighton to easily guard four men with three defenders:
I would say, however, that Wisconsin is going to shoot better than 28.2% from deep in most games (it was 11-of-39 against Creighton) and that Gard proved, last season, that he’s capable of diagnosing and fixing offensive issues. The Badgers’ three-point percentages and turnover rates should get better in the coming weeks.
(Screengrab source: FS1)
Next up: 11/17 vs. Chicago State, 11/21 vs. Tennessee in Maui Invitational
Orange fans went out of their way to hype sophomore forward Tyler Lydon in the preseason, questioning his omission from our national player of the year race top 10, but Syracuse’s offensive success could end up being just as much about its graduate transfers as it is about Lydon. Andrew White III, just as he did at Nebraska, is taking a high volume of shots—a team-high 29.9% of attempts while on the floor, en route to averaging 18.0 points. And point guard John Gillon, whose transfer from Colorado State received much less attention than did White’s, has been excellent off the bench. In 19.5 minutes per game, Gillon is averaging 14 points and 7.5 assists—against just 0.5 turnovers—and could challenge starter Frank Howard for more playing time.
Next up: 11/18 vs. Monmouth, 11/22 vs. South Carolina State
The Next 16
19. St. Mary's
20. West Virginia
22. NC State
27. Iowa State
32. Virginia Tech