Power Rankings: Gonzaga moves to No. 1—and will be hard to knock off
After a midseason edition that handicapped the national title race, this week’s Power Rankings are based on the traditional criteria: a blend of a team’s résumé of wins and losses, its efficiency and its recent performance. Gonzaga is the last undefeated team standing, leads the nation in adjusted efficiency, and has been destroying the rest of the West Coast Conference; therefore the Zags are the new No. 1, and they’ll probably stay there for a while.
The Zags are the new kings of the Power Rankings and the season-long kings of posting up. Smallball may be en vogue at schools like Kansas and Villanova, but Gonzaga plays two bigs at a time, and ranks second nationally in its volume of possessions (24.8%) allocated to post-ups or passes out of the post, according to Synergy:
The Zags are also highly efficient at working the ball through the post, ranking No. 1 nationally in (unadjusted) points per those possessions, at 1.16:
As you might expect, senior center Przemek Karnowski handles the bulk of this work—54.8% of it—and much of the rest goes through forwards Zach Collins and Johnathan Williams. But Gonzaga has some post-up wrinkles in its offense, too. One of these is to lift its 3, 4 and 5 men up to free-throw line height, feed the ball to its best passer—Karnowski—at the stripe, then have its guards make crossing cuts to the blocks. This is when they’re Making Plans for Nigel, setting up point guard Nigel Williams-Goss for a 1-on-1 post-up against an overmatched defender:
Next up: 1/26 vs. San Diego, 1/28 at Pepperdine
One way the Bears take advantage of forward Ish Wainright’s passing ability is to use him as slingshot from the wing to the post. In this, the Power Rankings’ quick-hitting Play of the Week, their first action of a halfcourt possession is to have Wainright make a hard cut from the top of the key to the right wing (with help from a cross-screen), after which he receives a pass, 180s, and slings it to big man Johnathan Motley directly under the rim, where he’s been freed by a well-timed backscreen:
Next up: 1/28 at Mississippi, 2/1 at Kansas
The Wildcats rank 326th in adjusted tempo on kenpom.com, with their 65.1 possessions per game being the slowest pace of the Jay Wright era. Playing at a controlled tempo hasn’t been bad for them—their 267th ranking last season was the previous low of the Wright era, and they won the national title—but they did spend the first five seasons of the aughts playing faster than the national average:
Villanova’s lack of depth has impacted its pace—with a strict, seven-man rotation, it can’t afford to run wild—and led to it playing its past three Big East games, including Tuesday’s upset loss at Marquette, at 65 possessions or fewer.
Next up: 1/29 vs. Virginia, 2/1 at Providence
The obvious way for Kansas to improve is to get its defense, which ranks 39th in adjusted efficiency, back to traditional Bill Self levels, which means the top 10. But there are still ways to optimize their No. 5-ranked offense—one being to get co-point guard Frank Mason III more catch-and-shoot three-point opportunities as an off-ball mover.
The Jayhawks’ main two catch-and-shoot options are co-point guard Devonte’ Graham (who averages 1.17 PPP in those situations) and two-guard Svi Mykhailiuk (1.13). Mason operates far more with the ball in his hands . . . but he happens to be a lethal off-the-catch shooter, shooting better than 50% from deep and averaging 1.63 PPP:
(Chart data source: Synergy.)
Next up: 1/28 at Kentucky, 2/1 vs. Baylor
Arizona’s perimeter defense wasn’t the only reason it beat UCLA in Westwood on Saturday, but the Bruins were in a hole after shooting just 3-of-14 from deep in the first half. I was impressed by how well the Wildcats contested some of UCLA’s treys, as evidenced by these freeze-frames . . .
. . . but also reminded how much of a crapshoot three-point defense can be, as UCLA went 0-for-7 on its open looks, and all three of Lonzo Ball’s makes were well-contested.
Next up: 1/26 vs. Washington State, 1/29 vs. Washington
I put four-loss West Virginia ahead of a group of two- and three-loss teams because the Mountaineers’ résumé of marquee wins (Virginia, Baylor, Kansas) is better than anyone else’s, and adjusted efficiency suggests they’re a top-three team overall. The fact that WVU beat Kansas without having to force a high volume of turnovers—the Jayhawks committed TOs on 19.7% of possessions, well under WVU’s opponents’ average of 30.6%—was promising, as was the offensive breakout of sophomore forward Esa Ahmad, who hadn’t scored 20-plus points in a college game until he put up 27 against KU. It’s not easy to gameplan against a balanced Mountaineers offense that has six different players who could feasibly end up as the leading scorer.
Next up: 1/28 vs. Texas A&M, 1/31 at Iowa State
Was Tuesday’s loss at Tennessee just a blip in an otherwise dominant SEC season for the Wildcats, or a preview of how they might get upset in the NCAA tournament—with Malik Monk going 3-of-13 from long-range and no one else stepping up to fill the shooting void? Either way, the Volunteers did an impressive job of contesting Monk’s three-point looks, getting a hand into his line of vision on eight of his 13 attempts, and limiting him to just two in-rhythm, uncontested catch-and-shoots:
Next up: 1/28 vs. Kansas, 1/31 vs. Georgia
Going by in-conference stats only, just two teams lead likely multi-bid leagues in both offensive and defensive efficiency: Gonzaga (WCC) and Oregon (Pac-12). The Ducks have been helped by playing the easiest early schedule of any Pac-12 team—they’ve had five out of seven games at home, and their only road trip has been the hospitable Washington-Wazzu run—but it’s also evident that this is a team playing at a much higher level than it was in November and early December.
I ran the schedule-adjusted adjusted splits on Oregon’s nonconference performance vs. its Pac-12 performance, and its efficiency margin has nearly doubled in league play:
Next up: 1/26 at Utah, 1/28 at Colorado
Justin Jackson has made a sophomore-to-junior leap from quality role player to star, with his scoring increasing from 12.2 to 18.2 points per game. His shot distributions used to be heavily skewed toward twos, but with his long-range stroke finally working (he’s making 40.0% of his threes in 2016–17, up from 29.2% a season ago), he’s achieving more balance and a higher level of efficiency.
Here’s how Jackson’s shot attempts per 40 minutes, pace-adjusted, compare over his three seasons as a Tar Heel:
(Data source: DraftExpress.com)
Next up: 1/26 vs. Virginia Tech, 1/28 at Miami
Something to keep an eye on in the Bulldogs’ offense: George Washington transfer Kethan Savage is growing into a significant role in Big East play after being a nonfactor early in the season while recovering from health issues. He’s evolved from a 12-minutes-per game guy with a role-player usage rate and terrible efficiency in nonconference action . . . to a valuable sixth man with a vital role in Butler’s scoring attack:
Next up: 1/28 vs. Georgetown, 1/31 vs. Creighton
In Lee Jenkins’s behind-the-scenes story on the Bruins that ran last week, coach Steve Alford was frank about the (rough) state of their pick-and-roll defense, which has been shredded by Pac-12 opponents. UCLA’s issues with the P&R got even worse against Arizona on Saturday, as the Wildcats exposed big men Thomas Welsh and T.J. Leaf in multiple ways. I put together this film edit to give you a sense of how the Bruins are struggling with coverage and rotation:
Next up: 2/1 at Washington State, 2/4 at Washington
A few weeks ago, I received an email from reader George Price, who asked an excellent question (which I’m paraphrasing here): “How is Ethan Happ leading the Big Ten in steal rate? I’ve never heard of a post player accumulating steals at the level he does.”
Well, George: I’ve finally watched the film and charted all the steals to get you an answer. Box scores credit Happ with 18 steals in Big Ten games, 17 of which are legit upon review. He has five takeaways from ballhandlers, while the majority of his steals (12, or 70.6%) are broken-up passes. Half of his broken-up passes are post-entry steals that occur on the left side of the lane, when Happ uses his lateral agility to get around his man and deflect the ball with his right hand. Here’s an Ethan Happ Steal Map . . .
. . . and here are three examples of his right-handed post-entry deflections:
Next up: 1/28 vs. Rutgers at Madison Square Garden, 1/31 at Illinois
It was no fluke that Florida State shot worse on the interior (30.4%) in Wednesday’s upset loss at Georgia Tech than it did against the vaunted defenses of Virginia (35.3%) and Louisville (40.9%). The Yellow Jackets have an incredible interior defender in 6' 10" junior center Ben Lammers, who offers rim protection that a team like Villanova would die for right now. On the Seminoles’ second possession—less than a minute into the game—Lammers corralled their fastbreak, altered a post shot attempt, and won a battle for a defensive rebound. Stuff like that kept happening all night. Their offense will be glad to move on to Syracuse on Saturday.
Next up: 1/28 at Syracuse, 2/1 at Miami
Senior point guard London Perrantes went into full scorer mode at Notre Dame on Tuesday, scoring 22 efficient points without dishing out a single assist. It was the first time he’d finished a game without an assist since a blowout of Lehigh on Nov. 25, 2015, and this wasn’t a bad thing. Backup point guard Darius Thompson came off the bench to provide five assists, including on the final two of Perrantes’s five treys. Perrantes—similar to Frank Mason III at Kansas—is a floor general who also happens to be his team’s most reliable shooter, and there are going to be games where it’s best to get him long-range looks off the ball.
Next up: 1/29 at Villanova, 2/1 vs. Virginia Tech
The Cardinals’ offense continues to produce weird results. When Quentin Snider—the hero of their December win over Kentucky—was ruled out for 2-3 weeks with a hip flexor on Jan. 17, it was reasonable to figure they’d struggle without their only true point guard. Then they went and scored 1.37 PPP against Clemson and 1.48 PPP at Pittsburgh—the best offensive performances by any team this season against the Tigers or Panthers—with a loss at Florida State in between. Sophomore combo guard Donovan Mitchell, who had 29 points and three assists at Pitt, has stepped up to the degree that he needs to start being considered for All-ACC honors.
Next up: 1/29 vs. NC State, 2/4 at Boston College
On a Tuesday night where the stage was stolen by the Nos. 1 (Villanova), 2 (Kansas) and 4 (Kentucky) getting beaten on the road, Purdue sophomore power forward Caleb Swanigan went to East Lansing, scored 25 points and grabbed 17 boards, and executed a perfect Dirk Fade over Michigan State freshman Miles Bridges in the mid-post. Swanigan had a game full of hard-work highlights, but this was his headiest move. He gets the ball just off the left block, gestures for freshman teammate Carsen Edwards to slide closer to the top of the key, to make it more difficult to double Swanigan, and then turns an iso against Bridges into two points:
Next up: 1/29 at Nebraska, 2/1 vs. Northwestern
The Next 16
18. Notre Dame
19. South Carolina
22. St. Mary’s
24. Iowa State
28. Illinois State
29. Wichita Sate