Power Rankings: Handicapping the national title race at the midway point
For SI’s Midseason Report week—and Midseason Report week only—the Power Rankings have adopted new criteria. Rather than basing the 1–16 on overall résumés and recent performance, teams are ranked in order of likelihood of winning the national championship. And since no team this season is a juggernaut, I make a case for each contender as well as address its flaws.
Case For: A dual-point guard attack seems to be the ideal lineup for chasing a national title—evidence: the past four champs started two guys who could handle the point—and Kansas has the best duo in Frank Mason III and Devonte’ Graham. Mason is a clutch shot maker who seems to thrive in late-game situations, and his drive-and-kick game has improved as a senior to the point where he’s effectively setting up KU’s brigade of long-range shooters. And while the arrival of a highly rated, high-usage freshman can sometimes disrupt chemistry, wing Josh Jackson has fit in smoothly. His advanced passing skills have helped their offensive flow, and his athleticism has kicked their smallball transition game into a gear that many opponents can’t match.
The Flaws: The Jayhawks’ frontcourt is so thin that when senior forward Landen Lucas goes to the bench in Big 12 play, their defense goes in the tank. (They’re giving up 1.01 PPP when he’s on the floor, and an abysmal 1.21 when he sits.) That leaves them vulnerable to getting upset in an NCAA tournament game where Lucas gets in foul trouble. And weirdly, for a team with 3–4 high-quality guards on the floor at any given time, they aren’t shooting well from the foul line, ranking 322nd nationally at 63.7%. The closest thing they have to a foul-line “closer” is Mason—at just 74.1%. That could haunt them in March.
Next up: 1/21 vs. Texas, 1/24 at West Virginia
Case For: Deep NCAA tournament experience matters, and five of the seven members of the Wildcats’ rotation—everyone save for redshirt sophomore forward Eric Paschall and redshirt freshman guard Donte DiVincenzo—played meaningful minutes in the 2016 title run. Sophomore oint guard Jalen Brunson and senior wing Josh Hart have taken big steps forward since last season, with Hart emerging as a real go-to-guy and the co-frontrunner (along with Mason) for national player of the year. Their collective IQ makes their motion offense unstoppable at times, and it’s even more efficient now than it was heading into the 2016 tourney. In contrast to Kansas, this is a killer free-throw shooting team that makes 78.5% of its attempts, and has two 90%ers to ice games in Kris Jenkins and Mikal Bridges.
The Flaws: The guy the Wildcats wanted to start alongside Brunson in a two-point guard lineup, Phil Booth, may apply for a medical redshirt and miss the rest of the season, which gives them 1.5 options at the point in Brunson and the more combo-ish DiVincenzo. They don’t have any rim protection after losing underrated defender Daniel Ochefu to the NBA, and they’re not limiting opponents’ three-point attempts as well as they were last year, which could make them more upset-prone. While it’s possible to win in the NCAA tournament with a seven-man rotation, as ‘Nova is using now, it has no more room for injury setbacks.
Next up: 1/21 vs. Providence, 1/24 at Marquette
Case For: The Wildcats rank No. 2 overall in adjusted efficiency on kenpom.com and have the best national title odds on vegasinsider.com. They’ve blown out competition to the extent that coach John Calipari’s son, Brad, a freshman walk-on, has already logged 41 minutes of playing time. There isn’t an opposing guard who can keep up with floor general De’Aaron Fox in transition, and Malik Monk, when hot, is the nation’s scariest volume scorer—plus, he seems to thrive on neutral courts. Although their defense isn’t at the level of the 2015 Kentucky team’s alltime greatness, their aggressiveness and athleticism can overwhelm some opponents and lead to easy buckets in transition.
The Flaws: They play some lineups with just one proven long-range shooter on the floor—Monk, who’s prone to incredible hot streaks but also O-fers from deep. That could put a ceiling on their offensive efficiency. Kentucky has front-line size but has been surprisingly weak at rim protection, ranking 92nd in two-point field-goal percentage allowed—by far the worst ranking of the Calipari era. You have to go back to Tubby Smith’s penultimate season in Lexington, in ‘05–06, to find a UK team this easy to score on in the interior.
Next up: 1/21 vs. South Carolina, 1/24 at Tennessee
Case For: The deep tourney experience argument applies again here. Most of the rotation has been part of multiple runs, and it’s hard for me to envision junior Joel Berry II—one of the best big-game point guards—not having another string of great performances that gives Carolina a shot at a title. The Heels seem to be getting past their December lull, and auxiliary junior playmaker Theo Pinson should help them get closer to their ceiling. There are games when the trio of Justin Jackson, Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks look like the nation’s best offensive frontcourt.
The Flaws: Roy Williams’s two national titles at Carolina have come when he has a super-charged offense that ranks either No. 1 or 2 in adjusted efficiency. This version, which ranks 10th, is good but not great, and might be too reliant on offensive rebounding for its success. Also: the graduation of combo guard Marcus Paige, an under-appreciated, elite defender, may have left UNC’s perimeter D without enough assets to contain some backcourts.
Next up: 1/21 at Boston College, 1/26 vs. Virginia Tech
Case For: It’s not difficult to envision the Bruins pulling a 2016 Villanova and just shooting everyone out of the gym in the NCAAs—but doing it at an even faster pace, with a peerless point guard running the show in freshman Lonzo Ball. He’s likely only going to play in one NCAA tournament before he jumps to the top three of the NBA draft, and I suspect he’ll make it a memorable run. This team attacks relentlessly in transition, but its halfcourt offense, with a multitude of off-ball screens and 4–5 long-range shooters always on the floor, is incredibly difficult to defend.
The Flaws: The Bruins have a spectacular offense . . . but a defense that is not even close to title-worthy. Over the past decade, the worst defensive efficiency ranking on kenpom.com for an eventual national champ, heading into the NCAA tournament, is 2015 Duke, at 37th. UCLA is currently 101st. In a postseason format that requires six consecutive victories, you need some D to carry you through cold-shooting spells.
Next up: 1/21 vs. Arizona, 1/25 at USC
Case For: The regular season sometimes produces more noise than truth. Duke’s regular season has not gone well. A combination of the four losses, injuries major and minor, tripping madness, Grayson Allen’s suspension, Coach K’s absence, the lack of a true point guard, and some offensive chemistry issues has taken the shine off of this team. But the fact remains that the preseason AP poll has more predictive power over NCAA tournament success than the final regular-season poll. Duke was everyone’s No. 1 in the preseason; Duke is still immensely talented; and Duke is still among Vegas odds makers’ top four favorites to win the title. The Blue Devils aren’t going to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs, but they’re still fully capable of becoming a dangerous team.
The Flaws: All these talented pieces just aren’t fitting together as well as many of us expected. Their highest-volume shooters (on a per-possession basis) in ACC play are freshmen Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles and Frank Jackson, but it’s evident that their most efficient options are breakout sophomore star Luke Kennard and Allen. Due to early injuries and all the mania around the tripping incidents, Allen isn’t playing like a Wooden/Naismith award frontrunner, and with senior forward Amile Jefferson hobbled with a bone bruise, they don’t have enough effective frontcourt options to compensate.
Next up: 1/21 vs. Miami, 1/23 vs. NC State
(This ranking is contingent on the left leg injury Dillon Brooks suffered against Cal on Thursday not being serious, or season-ending.)
Case For: Early moments of mediocrity—both while Brooks was injured and when he first returned to the rotation—have limited the hype around the Ducks, but they’ve been playing like a powerhouse in the Pac-12. While going 6–0 to start conference play, Oregon has the league’s best offensive PPP (1.24) and defensive PPP (0.93), making them the only team other than North Carolina to lead a major conference in both categories. Senior big man Chris Boucher continues to be an advanced-stats monster, leading the Pac-12 in block percentage, two-point field goal percentage and turnover-avoidance.
The Flaws: Oregon’s point and combo guards have struggled to finish on the interior, as Payton Pritchard, Tyler Dorsey and Dylan Ennis are making just 38.8% of their twos in Pac-12 play. They’ve made up for it with strong three-point shooting (47.7% combined), but I’m skeptical that that percentage is sustainable. There will be games where they’ll need to attack, draw more fouls and produce more from the free-throw line than they’ve done much of this season.
Next up: 1/21 vs. Stanford, 1/26 at Utah
Case For: How many programs can lose their starting 4 and 5 men to the NBA and still improve? This version of the Zags is starting to look even stronger than the Sabonis-Wiltjer version that made the Sweet 16 last season. The backcourt is better this time around, as lead guard Nigel Williams-Goss is breaking out as an elite scorer in January, and he has efficient sidekicks in Jordan Mathews and Silas Melson. Center/giant Przemek Karnowski is dominant at close range and passes better than many point guards, and no team brings a better big man off the bench than freshman Zach Collins. Two of Collins’s top three most similar players in kenpom.com’s advanced-stats database are freshman-year Jakob Poeltl and freshman-year DeAndre Jordan.
The Flaws: There haven’t been many on display, so I’m reaching here: As good as Williams-Goss is, he’s yet to play in an NCAA tournament game, so leading a team to a title might be a stretch. . . . The Zags were in the 10–15 range in kenpom’s adjusted efficiency rankings before a series of West Coast Conference blowouts elevated them to No. 1. I think their true level is closer to the 8–10 range.
Next up: 1/21 vs. Portland, 1/23 at Portland
Case For: Seniors Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig have played major roles in 14 NCAA tournament games and two Final Fours; no other lead duo can match that level of postseason experience. Koenig is a proven, clutch shot maker and he’s made noticeable strides in efficiency in his final college season, improving his long-range shot and cutting down on low-percentage twos. Ethan Happ is making a big defensive impact with a rare combination of elite defensive rebounding percentage and the Big Ten’s best steal rate.
The Flaws: The Badgers’ overall defense is still underperforming. SI’s projections viewed them and Virginia as the Nos. 1 and 2 most efficient defenses coming into the season, and Wisconsin currently ranks 17th—and sixth in the Big Ten during conference play. They’re allowing opponents to attempt more threes than is usual for a Badger D, and that increases their risk of a premature knockout.
Next up: 1/21 at Minnesota, 1/24 vs. Penn State
Case For: This is a veteran team that seems to play better in bigger games, as it’s now 7–1 against kenpom.com top-50 opponents. Baylor’s interior D this season is excellent, and with Syracuse struggling, the Bears are clearly the best majority-zone team in the nation. (They alternate looks, including a 1-1-3 and a 2-3, and use zones 56.1% of the time, according to Synergy.)
The Flaws: Plus-Minus All-American Ish Wainright is so vital to the Bears’ success—both by moving the ball on offense and being versatile on D—that when he gets in foul trouble and needs to sit, they can really struggle. . . . As their turnover-ridden loss to West Virginia showed, the Bears will make mistakes when they get sped up and flustered. On the season, they haven’t taken care of the ball like a title-worthy offense should; point guard Manu Lecomte has been a huge transfer addition but he’s still somewhat turnover-prone.
Next up: 1/21 at TCU, 1/25 vs. Texas Tech
Case For: The full-court heat the Mountaineers bring—they press on 43.1% of their defensive possessions, according to Synergy—can annihilate opponents that have too many shaky ballhandlers or can’t match WVU’s depth and conditioning. And whereas Big 12 foes at least know what to expect, many potential tournament opponents won’t have played a single conference game against a heavy-press team, much less one that creates West Virginia-level mayhem. The offense has made notable gains this year, and this is no longer just a brick-and-putback team. It has attacking guards in Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles who are high-percentage finishers, and forward Nathan Adrien has become an efficient, ball-moving asset.
The Flaws: You’ve probably heard this before, but defenses that rely heavily on turnover creation often have trouble in the later rounds of NCAA tournament, where the guards tend to get more sure-handed. The prevalence of quality, two-point-guard lineups this season—some of whom are capable of adhering to a ball-control game plan like Texas Tech did in its upset of WVU—could put an Elite Eight or Final Four ceiling on the Mountaineers.
Next up: 1/21 at Kansas State, 1/24 vs. Kansas
Case For: Coach of the year candidate Chris Holtmann has the Bulldogs overachieving on so many levels that a deep tourney run wouldn’t be a shock. They seem to thrive in big games—they’ve now beaten Arizona, Cincinnati, Indiana, Villanova and Xavier—and know how to close out wins. They value possessions and work for quality shots, and they’ve found some excellent backcourt pieces who weren’t big-time recruits. George Washington transfer guard Kethan Savage is become a key part of their offense in Big East play, and Kamar Baldwin, as the Indy Star’s David Woods put it this week, is “the Bulldogs’ most impactful freshman since the 2008–09 season’s Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack.”
The Flaws: Butler really struggles to protect the rim or block/alter shots on the interior, and are thus not an elite defensive team. And while their offense is their strength, it’s still not optimized—it’s rare for a good team to get away with a player (Kelan Martin) taking 30-plus percent of their shots in conference play and scoring less than 1.0 points per possession. Martin is their established go-to-guy, but they might be better off with a more balanced shot distribution.
Next up: 1/21 at DePaul, 1/25 at Seton Hall
Case For: The Wildcats have done far more than stay afloat during guard Allonzo Trier’s PED-related suspension, getting off to a 6–0 start in the Pac-12 while relying heavily on Finnish freshman Lauri Markkanen for offense. They look like a Sweet 16 team without Trier, but if he’s cleared to rejoin the active roster, who knows? He can be one of the college game’s more dynamic scorers and would nicely complement Kadeem Allen in the backcourt.
The Flaws: Arizona seems to expect Trier to be available at some point this season, but we shouldn’t assume that he can seamlessly slide into the lineup and make them better. Let’s say he’s allowed back in February: It’s hard to imagine a team that’s played 10-ish games at full strength being capable of a deep tourney run.
Next up: 1/21 at UCLA, 1/26 vs. Washington State
Case For: The Cardinals rank No. 2 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, behind only South Carolina—and based on what they’ve done against Kentucky, Duke and Purdue, I think the Cards have the higher quality D. They have the nation’s best combination of rim protection and ball pressure, with unheralded defenders Anas Mahmoud and Mangok Mathiang manning the paint, and an aggressive turnover-creator in Donovan Mitchell on the perimeter. If they can put together enough late-season offense to complement the D—kind of like what the 2012 Louisville team did en route to a surprise Final Four run—they could make it to Phoenix.
The Flaws: The offense broke out for 1.37 PPP against Clemson on Thursday while point guard Quentin Snider was sitting out with a hip flexor, but the Cards have struggled to shoot on plenty of occasions earlier in the season. Things can get ugly in the games where they have zero effective long-range options, and I worry that their lack of elite shooting will be their second-weekend downfall in the NCAAs.
Next up: 1/21 at Florida State, 1/24 at Pitt
Case For: Other than that Caleb Swanigan has turned into the most beastly forward in all of college hoops? Well, he’s surrounded by a more optimized offense as a sophomore than he was as a freshman, as Purdue has experimented (and found success) with a small-ball lineup that has Vince Edwards at the 4 and Swanigan at the 5. That gives them five long-range shooters on the floor at once, raising their offensive ceiling—but they still have the option of super-sizing with the 7' 2" Isaac Haas at the five and Swanigan at the 4. Regardless of what lineup they use, they move the ball exceptionally well, ranking third nationally in percentage of field goals assisted, at 67.1%.
The Flaws: No one on the roster has NCAA tourney experience past the first round, as they’ve been knocked out by Cincinnati and Little Rock in back-to-back seasons. . . . Their relationship with turnovers—they rank dead last in Big Ten play in TO-forced percentage, and eighth in TO-avoidance on offense—could become a big issue in March. . . . Their lack of a reserve five-man (or reserve traditional power forward) means that foul trouble to Haas or Swanigan can force them to go small in instances where it’s not the ideal look.
Next up: 1/21 vs. Penn State, 1/24 at Michigan State
Case For: Florida State has a better résumé than the Irish do, and a better defense . . . but the Irish appear here because they still appear to be the more dangerous NCAA tournament team. They’ve reached back-to-back Elite Eights and have another high-efficiency, low-turnover, sweet-shooting offense that could get hot and carry them to Phoenix. The Matt Farrell-Steve Vasturia backcourt seems to specialize in daggers, and as the nation’s No. 1 free-throw shooting team, they know how to ice leads.
The Flaws: Their defensive rebounding leaves a lot to be desired, and they’re liable to give up a lot of putback points. . . . When you start a 6' 5" guy at the five-spot—even one with a near-7-foot wingspan like Bonzie Colson Jr.’s—you’re going to leave yourself exposed on the interior, and Notre Dame mostly just tries to wall up, avoid fouling, get the ball back, and outscore you.
Next up: 1/21 vs. Syracuse, 1/24 vs. Virginia