Power Rankings: Baylor overtakes Villanova for top spot
The first Power Rankings of 2017 have a new No. 1—Baylor, for the first time ever!—and Butler and Oregon creeping into the top 10:
The best thing about Baylor ascending to No. 1 is that it provides a bigger platform for my Ish Wainright All-America Campaign, which aims to raise awareness about the immense value of a senior small forward who averages only 5.6 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game.
Wednesday’s 65–63 win over Iowa State was a microcosm of the Bears’ season, in that:
• Wainright had a weird, light-on-scoring, traditional stat line of two points, seven boards and eight assists.
• He made a crucial defensive play, switching onto Cyclones star point guard Monte Morris on the final possession and forcing this miss at the buzzer:
• Wainright’s on/off efficiency splits were wild. Baylor was 12 points per 100 possessions better than Iowa State when he was on the floor . . . and 18 points per 100 possessions worse than ISU when he was on the bench:
Those efficiency splits aren’t some small-sample fluke. In Baylor’s eight games against kenpom.com top-100 opponents this season, the Bears have been plus-30 points per 100 possessions with Wainright playing, and negative-12 with him on the bench. No other Bear comes even close to Wainright’s plus-42 on/off spread, with Al Freeman’s plus-12 coming in second.
Wainright’s All-America résumé could be boiled down to one line: Baylor has been a losing team when he sits, and arguably the best team in the nation when he’s on the floor.
(On/off data for Iowa State game was tracked by SI, then combined with hooplens.com’s season-long data for the final chart. Photo from Getty Images.)
Next up: 1/7 vs. Oklahoma State, 1/10 at West Virginia
After Villanova’s first seven games, the Power Rankings caught on to a very strange Jalen Brunson phenomenon: Every one of his assists within the halfcourt offense—and there were 18 at that juncture—had gone for three-pointers. While obviously not a bad thing, it did mean the Wildcats’ point guard was favoring kick-outs and perimeter passes over drive-and-drops or hitting the roll man in ballscreen actions. This chart shows the path of all of Brunson’s halfcourt assists in Games 1–7:
In the seven games that followed, Brunson underwent a noticeable shift. Only half of his 22 halfcourt-offense assists went for threes, and he had 10 assists that were downhill passes to cutters or roll men near the rim. His pass-path chart from games 7–14 is much more varied:
(Assists tracked by SI. Photos from Getty Images.)
Next up: 1/7 vs. Marquette, 1/10 vs. Xavier
Through Monday’s games, Bruins center Thomas Welsh was taking 81.8% of his shots as two-point jumpers, which was the second-highest rate in the nation for any player with at least 50 field-goal attempts.
Heavy reliance on what is typically a low-efficiency shot would usually be a bad thing. But Welsh appears to be one of the sport’s best short-corner snipers, and he’s frequently wide open in those spots thanks to drives by point guard Lonzo Ball.
Here’s a chart of all of Welsh’s face-up jumpers from this season, showing that he’s shooting 58.3% from the short corners:
(Table data from hoop-math.com; shot-charting is SI’s off of film.)
Next up: 1/5 vs. Cal, 1/8 vs. Stanford
First, a shameless magazine plug:
Now, a bit about their assists. . . .
In the Villanova blurb I covered the Brunson phenomenon, where nearly all of his early-season assists were going for threes. Here’s what the overall assist distribution, through Tuesday’s games, looks like for a selection of point guards from the top 10:
Mason is distinctly more drive-and-kick, while Graham is drive-and-dish. Half of Mason’s assists go for threes, and 39.0% of them go for layups or dunks . . . while 61.0% of Graham’s assists are at the rim, and 30.5% of them are for threes.
Next up: 1/7 vs. Texas Tech, 1/10 at Oklahoma
Although they’re centers with starkly contrasting body types, Gonzaga’s 7' 1" (and left-handed) Przemek Karnowski and Wisconsin’s 6' 10" (and right-handed) Ethan Happ often look like mirror images when they pass out of the post. Watch this edit of them assisting teammates from the left and right block, back-to-back:
Next up: 1/5 at San Francisco, 1/7 at Portland
I’ve started charting Malik Monk’s threes, which is a time-consuming project given that the freshman attempts eight per game. The early surprise for me is the accuracy gap between his shooting in transition versus halfcourt offense. While Monk’s signature shot—and maybe the season’s second-most famous shot after Frank Mason’s game-winner against Duke—was a transition three that sunk North Carolina. . .
. . . he’s shooting just 26.7% on transition treys this season, compared to an excellent 49.4% in the halfcourt, where most of his attempts occur. He seems to be more consistent with his form when he’s not on the (fast) move, but that’s just anecdotal speculation.
Next up: 1/7 vs. Arkansas, 1/10 at Vanderbilt
The Bulldogs’ pair of mediocre losses—at Indiana State and at St. John’s—dragged them down to No. 18 in the AP and Coaches’ polls entering this week, but they have a case for being a top-10 team after Wednesday’s toppling of Villanova. Butler just played the best defense of any team all season against the Wildcats, holding them to 0.99 PPP, and the Bulldogs now have five wins over projected at-large NCAA tournament teams—Villanova, Arizona, Cincinnati, Indiana and Northwestern. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that’s a No. 2- or 3-seed résumé for upcoming bracket projections.
Next up: 1/7 at Georgetown, 1/11 at Creighton
I’m committed to keeping the Power Rankings a Graymond Take-Free Zone, so the topic here is Harry Giles, for whom Wednesday’s rout of Georgia Tech was his fourth college game. The freshman power forward, who’s recovered from two ACL tears and then lesser knee surgery this preseason, has been coming along slowly. He missed Duke’s first 11 games, played single-digit minutes against Tennessee State and Elon, 13 against Virginia Tech, then made his first start against the Yellow Jackets.
Having seen Giles at relatively full strength in the FIBA U19 Worlds two summers ago, I can vouch for his skills—he made a bigger impact in that tourney than current teammate Jayson Tatum, Kansas phenom Josh Jackson, or Oregon star Dillon Brooks—and state that he is not yet his old, dominant self. Yet, 60–70% Harry Giles was good enough to score 10 points and grab 12 boards in 17 minutes against Georgia Tech. That is promising.
Next up: 1/7 vs. Boston College, 1/10 at Florida State
One of the Ducks’ losses came on the road to the now-No. 1 team, Baylor, while star Dillon Brooks was injured and unavailable. The other loss was to Georgetown in Brooks’s first game back, when he played 13 minutes off the bench. Ever since he’s been re-inserted into their starting lineup, on Dec. 17, the Ducks have passed the eye test as a top-10 team and have the adjusted efficiency margin of a top-10 team. Take a look at their (competition- and location-adjusted) splits in their games against top-200 kenpom.com opponents* with Brooks either injured or coming off the bench, and Brooks as a starter:
(* I omitted games against Savannah State, non D-I Western Oregon and Army, who all fall outside the kenpom.com top 200.)
Next up: 1/7 at Washington State, 1/14 vs. Oregon State
The Jays are—for the second time this season—responsible for the Power Rankings Play of the Week. This double-backline-seal set they ran against Villanova on New Year’s Eve, resulting in a dunk for lob collector extraordinaire Justin Patton, was a sneaky-good method of burning a 2-3 zone:
Next up: 1/7 at Providence, 1/11 vs. Butler
Continuing the “centers who pass” discussion from the Gonzaga blurb, where Karnowski and Happ were featured in the same film edit . . . According to DraftExpress.com’s data, Happ and Karnowski both rank in the top five for most assists per 40 minutes, pace-adjusted, by players 6' 10" or taller:
Two takeaways here: I need to watch more Isaiah Johnson film . . . and this is an amazing sophomore-year leap for Happ, who was not a passer of any real note as a freshman. Now, he and Nigel Hayes may very well be the nation’s best tandem of frontcourt passers.
Next up: 1/8 at Purdue, 1/12 vs. Ohio State
The toughest all-conference first-team to make in 2016–17 is the ACC, which came into the season with a crew of expected stars—Grayson Allen, Joel Berry, Dennis Smith Jr. and Jaron Blossomgame—and has seen additional, big-time players emerge. Dwayne Bacon was an inefficient leading scorer for Florida State in ’15–16, but by slashing his turnover rate (he’s only had one game with more than two thus far) and improving his long-range shot, he’s now a legit All-America candidate and an early frontrunner for first-team all-ACC. I’m still in awe of his second-half takeover in FSU’s upset of Virginia on Dec. 31, when he had 26 points on 10-of-13 shooting with zero turnovers—in just 16 minutes!
Next up: 1/7 vs. Virginia Tech, 1/10 vs. Duke
A one-point, overtime loss at Texas Tech isn’t enough to bump the Mountaineers out of the Power Rankings. The Red Raiders are quietly a fringe top-25 team and West Virginia’s season-long analytic profile is still impressive, as it ranks No. 2 overall in efficiency, according to kenpom.com, and is the only team other than Kentucky to be ranked in the top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency. Baylor is not the only threat to end Kansas’s run of 12 straight Big 12 regular-season titles; WVU is projected to be even with the Bears and Jayhawks in the conference standings.
Next up: 1/7 vs. TCU, 1/10 vs. Baylor
Yet another way the ACC is crazy this year: The Cardinals are the only winless team—yes, they’re in last place through two games—but they rank 11th nationally in efficiency and have the resume of a No. 4 or 5 seed in bracketology, with victories over Wichita State, Purdue, Kentucky and Indiana, and zero bad losses. There will be a few more games where this team just can’t muster the shooting to keep up with quality, ACC offenses—and that’s what happened at Notre Dame on Wednesday—but Louisville’s general formula of elite defense, elite offensive rebounding and turnover-avoidance gives it a chance against every opponent.
Next up: 1/7 at Georgia Tech, 1/11 vs. Pittsburgh
The Tar Heels’ New Year’s Eve loss at Georgia Tech was both inexplicable—the Yellow Jackets entered the game with a 6.8% chance to win, according to the kenpom.com projections—and evidence of how much a cold Joel Berry game can hold UNC back. The junior lead guard had just eight points and one assist against six turnovers in that defeat, and it was reminiscent of his clunker in their loss at Indiana on Nov. 30, when he also had just eight points. Berry’s scoring has been somewhat of a harbinger for the Heels over the past two seasons: He was only held to single-digits seven times in 2015–16, and four of them resulted in losses.
Next up: 1/7 vs. NC State, 1/11 at Wake Forest
Senior guard Steve Vasturia has evolved from a three-point specialist as a freshman and sophomore to a junior who increasingly attacks the basket, as he now has a ratio of 68 long-range attempts to 90 twos. What he did on this game-icer against Louisville on Wednesday night was . . . successfully unorthodox. He drove diagonally left with his right hand, across the lane, and hit a twisting, cross-body, righty floater:
Next up: 1/7 vs. Clemson, 1/12 at Miami
The Next 16
24. St. Mary's
25. Texas Tech
28. Virginia Tech
30. Iowa State
32. Seton Hall