Without freshman point guard Kyrie Irving, who has not played since he injured his toe against Butler on Dec. 4, the Blue Devils are still a good team -- but they are now just one of many good teams. As long as Irving is out (and we still don't know how long that will be; see my Hoop Thought below for an update), the landscape will continue to look this way until the NCAA tournament. With no clear favorite, the little things will become that much bigger in deciding who will be crowned the champion next April.
I've always felt that foul shooting was no little thing, but it is going to be even bigger in the coming months. In a game between teams that are otherwise evenly matched, the free-throw game is often what determines the outcome. To win the necessary advantage, a team has to do more than just shoot a high percentage. It also has to get more attempts than its opponent.
With this in mind, I have assembled 26 top teams and divided them into three categories. The Free Loaders are teams that are making the most of the stripe. The Foul Shooters are really hurting themselves there. And the Free Tweeners are teams that do some aspect of foul shooting well but another not so well.
Besides the obvious category of free-throw percentage, I have borrowed two more from stat guru Ken Pomeroy's fantastic website, Kenpom.com. A team's free-throw rate is the number of free-throw attempts divided by the number of field-goal attempts. Thus, a team with a 50 percent free-throw rate has attempted exactly half as many free throws as field goals. The other category is free-throw-distribution rate, which reflects the percentage of a team's points that have come from the line.
With all three stats, I have also parenthetically included where a team is ranked nationally in that category. Keep in mind the numbers listed below reflect where everyone stood heading into last weekend's games.
FT percentage: 73.5 (56th nationally)FT rate: 51.0 (13)FT distribution: 26.8 (17)
Inside the numbers: Notre Dame's top four scorers all make better than 71 percent, and through the first nine games the Irish took 117 more free throws than their opponents. Notre Dame, you may move to the head of the class.
FT percentage: 68.4 (168)FT rate: 58.7 (1)FT distribution: 28.6 (3)
Inside the numbers: Past Tennessee teams have settled for too many jump shots, so kudos to this group for doing such a good job driving to the basket. Obviously the percentage needs to be higher, but the main offender is freshman forward Tobias Harris, who has taken more free throws than anyone on the team yet is only making 65.1 percent. The team's primary guards, Melvin Goins and Cameron Tatum, are making 81.8 and 71.8 percent, respectively, so you can expect those two to have the ball in their hands at the end of games.
FT percentage: 78.1 (11)FT rate: 37.3 (189)FT distribution: 22.9 (97)
Inside the numbers: Given that this team is loaded with athletic guards with high percentages (nobody on the roster is making under 70 percent), it's surprising -- not to mention disappointing -- that they don't get to the line more often. Something to work on before Big East play.
FT percentage: 76.7 (18)FT rate: 45.0 (60)FT distribution: 22.6 (119)
Inside the numbers: The Wildcats are even better from the stripe than these percentages indicate. Their top four scorers, and five of their top seven, are shooting better than 80 percent.
FT percentage: 75.0 (31)FT rate: 40.7 (133)FT distribution: 23.0 (91)
Inside the numbers: Somehow the Huskies are shooting a high percentage despite going 14-for-24 (58.3 percent) in their big win over Michigan State. (They were 17-for-19 the next day against Kentucky.) The big fly in the ointment is sophomore forward Alex Oriakhi, who checks in at 55.9 percent.
FT percentage: 74.2 (43)FT rate: 42.3 (93)FT distribution: 21.3 (175)
Inside the numbers: The Blue Devils' signature stat over the years has been their ability to make more free throws than their opponents have attempted. Through their first nine games this season, they made 213 while their opponents have attempted 182. (Of course, the only way this is possible is if the referees are cheating.) Even so, sophomore center Mason Plumlee's 41.2 percent clip is a potential problem.
FT percentage: 72.8 (62)FT rate: 46.0 (52)FT distribution: 24.5 (56)
Inside the numbers: Memphis fans still smarting from the nightmare of 2008 might be pleasantly surprised to see their Tigers included on my list of Free Loaders. The numbers will change over the next few weeks because the team's best foul shooter, junior forward Wesley Witherspoon (83.3 percent), is out following knee surgery.
FT percentage: 70.6 (95)FT rate: 52.0 (10)FT distribution: 26.2 (22)
Inside the numbers: It's either feast or famine with this bunch. Three starters (Casey Mitchell, Truck Bryant and John Flowers) are over 78 percent, while the other two (Kevin Jones and Deniz Kilicli) are under 60 percent.
FT percentage: 79.7 (4)FT rate: 27.0 (327)FT distribution: 17.2 (301)
Inside the numbers: The Badgers' top two scorers, Jon Leuer and Jordan Taylor, have taken more than half of the team's free throws, but as a whole Wisconsin attempted four fewer foul shots over the first 10 games than its opponents. This team needs to take better advantage.
FT percentage: 74.0 (48)FT rate: 30.9 (293)FT distribution: 16.3 (314)
Inside the numbers: The Hoyas' Princeton-style offense does not call for a lot of dribble driving, so it's not surprising they're not taking a lot of free throws. Still, the fact that the big three of Austin Freeman, Chris Wright and Jason Clark are all making better than 81 percent should help them salt away a lot of close games.
FT percentage: 70.5 (100)FT rate: 34.5 (232)FT distribution: 19.0 (250)
Inside the numbers: It's surprising that the Tigers, who play such an aggressive, up-tempo style, do not do a better job getting to the foul line. In their first nine games, Marcus Denmon hoisted 24 more three-pointers than free throws, but it's hard to fault him, considering he made 51 percent of those three-point attempts.
FT percentage: 70.1 (116)FT rate: 40.1 (141)FT distribution: 18.7 (262)
Inside the numbers: This is another Princeton offense that doesn't yield a lot of attempts, but it wouldn't hurt to figure out how to get Drew Crawford to the line more. The kid is making almost 92 percent, but he is only attempting 2.2 per game.
FT percentage: 63.9 (266)FT rate: 47.1 (40)FT distribution: 23.6 (76)
Inside the numbers: Most of the blame for the Tar Heels' low percentage ranking goes to John Henson, who made just 14 of his first 40 attempts (35 percent). The best news is that the player who has taken by far the most free throws, Tyler Zeller, is making 75.9 percent. He was 11-for-12 in the big win over Kentucky.
FT percentage: 63.8 (272)FT rate: 52.5 (9)FT distribution: 24.0 (64)
Inside the numbers: Trevor Mbakwe needs to spend a lot of extra time practicing foul shooting the rest of the season. He is attempting 8.5 free throws per game, but he is only converting 57.1 percent. Kid's leaving a lot of cheese at the line.
FT percentage: 63.4 (275)FT rate: 46.4 (47)FT distribution: 23.0 (90)
Inside the numbers: Paris Horne's 42 percent clip is weighing down the team's overall percentage, but it doesn't help that two other players among the top six scorers, Malik Stith and Malik Boothe, are both shooting under 69 percent.
FT percentage: 64.8 (252)FT rate: 41.4 (117)FT distribution: 21.9 (154)
Inside the numbers: The Orange are actually ranked 292nd in three-point percentage, so by comparison they're decent from the stripe. My advice to Jim Boeheim is he should stop asking Derrick Coleman to work with Rick Jackson. Jackson is a monster rebounder, but he is only making 54.5 percent from the line.
San Diego State
FT percentage: 64.6 (257)FT rate: 31.2 (291)FT distribution: 15.3 (327)
Inside the numbers: It's astounding to think that 6-foot-8 forward Billy White could be the Aztecs' second-leading scorer, yet through San Diego State's first nine games he attempted a total of 11 free throws. Then again, maybe that's not such a bad thing, considering he only made six of them.
FT percentage: 66.7 (209)FT rate: 38.9 (161)FT distribution: 19.4 (244)
Inside the numbers: The Panthers are like a lot of other teams in that their guards sink a high percentage while their big men lay bricks. They needed more than better free-throw shooting to beat Tennessee, but going 25-for-42 (59.5 percent) from the line sure didn't help.
FT percentage: 63.9 (269)FT rate: 40.7 (131)FT distribution: 17.2 (303)
Inside the numbers: Imagine how much worse the Jayhawks' percentage would be if Tyrel Reed didn't go 16-for-16 in his first eight games. It's a real problem when your best player and most prolific free-throw shooter is only making 58.5 percent. I'm talking about you, Marcus Morris.
FT percentage: 62.3 (292)FT rate: 40.8 (128)FT distribution: 18.8 (258)
Inside the numbers: Tom Izzo called his team a bunch of pretty boys after the loss to Syracuse, but these are some pretty ugly numbers. Durrell Summers' 60.7 percent clip is nothing to brag about, but the real problem lies in the frontcourt. Check out these digits: Draymond Green, 58.3 percent; Garrick Sherman, 28.6; Adreian Payne, 41.2; Derrick Nix, 30.8. In a word: Oy.
FT percentage: 62.0 (296)FT rate: 29.4 (316)FT distribution: 13.7 (341)
Inside the numbers: The Cougars aren't as bad a free-throw-shooting team as the percentage would indicate (big men Brock Motum and DeAngelo Casto are weighing them down), but it's a problem that through their first eight games their opponents have attempted three more than they have.
FT percentage: 62.0 (298)FT rate: 32.4 (271)FT distribution: 14.5 (337)
Inside the numbers: It doesn't make much sense that the team that is leading the country in three-point percentage would be ranked so low in foul shooting. Two players, Matt Bryan-Amaning (59.5 percent) and Aziz N'Diaye (41.9), share the bulk of the blame, but there's no way that leading scorer (and 36 percent three-point shooter) Isaiah Thomas should be making 67.3 percent of his foul shots. (Although it's a hopeful sign he went 8-for-8 in the Huskies' loss at Texas A&M on Saturday.)
FT percentage: 61.8 (301)FT rate: 35.8 (217)FT distribution: 18.3 (276)
Inside the numbers: I don't care that Trey Thompkins only shoots 56.3 percent from the foul line, there's no way he should only be taking 3.1 attempts per game. On the flip side, the perimeter trio of Jeremy Price, Dustin Ware and Travis Leslie are all making 77 percent or better.
FT percentage: 60.8 (315)FT rate: 40.2 (137)FT distribution: 19.7 (225)
Inside the numbers: Rut roh. Only two of the Monarchs' top eight players are shooting 75 percent or better. It's probably not a good thing their rate percentage is as good as it is.
FT percentage: 60.2 (321)FT rate: 33.3 (256)FT distribution: 14.6 (336)
Inside the numbers: This is another team that runs the Princeton offense, so it's not surprising the Spiders don't shoot a lot of free throws. Their percentage, however, is surprising considering how good they are from three-point land. It's a real head scratcher that Kevin Anderson can make 45.9 percent from behind the arc but only 67.4 percent from the foul line. Dan Geriot's numbers (43.8 percent from three, 54.5 from the foul line) are even more perplexing.
FT percentage: 54.0 (344)FT rate: 40.3 (136)FT distribution: 17.7 (292)
Inside the numbers: The Wildcats put the foul in foul shooting. Alabama State is the only team in America that makes a lower percentage than Kansas State. Jacob Pullen takes the most foul shots and he's making a respectable 69.8 percent, but even that's far lower than it should be.
• I'm guessing many people saw Michigan State's one-point win over Oakland as evidence that the Spartans are on the skids, but I only saw a quality win by a tired basketball team. Tom Izzo shook up his lineup, starting freshman guard Keith Appling in place of junior forward Delvon Roe, but it's worth remembering that nobody kills his guys early in the season like Izzo does. Despite their November and December struggles, the Spartans always seem to end up in the Final Four.
• Lots of teams have depth, but few have as much depth and balance as Louisville. Ten players are averaging at least 11 minutes per game (with no one playing more than 26), and six players are averaging between eight and 13 points (with no one scoring more than that). It's almost like the Cards aren't sure game-to-game where their points are coming from. In their impressive home win over UNLV on Saturday, their reserves actually scored more points (42) than their starters (35). How often do you see that?
• It's time to starting talking more about BYU guard Jimmer Fredette as a national player of the year candidate. All he did in the Cougars' thrashing of Arizona was put up 33 points, nine rebounds and three assists. That's still 16 fewer points than he scored against the Wildcats last year.
• Notre Dame unnecessarily frittered away a big lead in its win over Gonzaga by becoming too conservative on offense. As a general rule, I think coaches are way too inclined to slow things up with a big lead. It robs their team of the aggressiveness that got them there in the first place. I don't care about the score or the circumstances, a team shouldn't even think about working time off the clock before the two-minute mark. My CBS colleague Clark Kellogg calls it driving with the parking break on. Doesn't work.
• We won't know for another week or two whether Duke's Kyrie Irving will play again this season. From what I'm hearing, Irving's toe healed better than expected over the last couple of days, but while that might mean his recovery time will be shorter than originally thought, it is not likely to have much bearing on whether he will recover by season's end.
• Incidentally, if you're thinking Nolan Smith can simply slide over to the point and take up Irving's responsibilities, keep in mind that Mike Krzyzewski tried to play Smith at the point two years ago, and it was a disaster. That's what prompted the switch to Jon Scheyer at the point. The Blue Devils are going to have to man that position by committee, and I suspect freshman Tyler Thornton will be more of a help than you think.
• There's a very real possibility that Cincinnati could be undefeated when it plays Xavier in the annual Crosstown Shootout on Jan. 6. Wouldn't that be a hoot! The Bearcats are 8-0 but have played nobody. Their toughest games between now and then are against Oklahoma on a neutral court and against Seton Hall at home on New Year's Eve.
• We're also just a few days away from finding out whether undefeated Cleveland State is for real. The Vikings play at West Virginia on Saturday.
• By my estimation, over the course of any given game, the officials get about 85 percent of the calls (and no-calls) correct. Ten percent of the ones they miss are close, understandable errors. The other five percent are boneheaders. Sound right to you?
• Gotta go with Tennessee junior swingman Scotty Hopson as the most improved player in the country thus far, don't you think?
• What is going on with those Villanova guards? Corey Fisher was held out of the starting lineup for the Wildcats' win over Penn last week because he and Jay Wright got into an argument in practice. He played 37 minutes but was 1-for-6 from the floor. Moreover, Fisher and Maalik Wayns are a combined 14-for-75 from three-point range on the season. 'Nova barely escaped La Salle on Sunday night, winning a surprisingly tough road contest by three points.
• Speaking of Villanova, the school announced last week that freshman guard JayVaughn Pinkston would be suspended for the rest of season for getting into a fight at a fraternity party that sent two male students to the hospital. Pinkston was charged with misdemeanor assault. He is not allowed to take classes in the second semester and has to re-apply for enrollment next summer. The punishment was handed down by the university.
I certainly would never condone any kind of fighting, but this does strike me as a very harsh penalty. Contrast this situation with two other cases where the alleged victim was female -- making them much more egregious offenses. UNLV senior guard Tre'Von Willis was charged with multiple felony counts after a female friend alleged he choked her. He was given a suspended 90-day jail sentence after he pled guilty to a misdemeanor battery charge. Willis' suspension? Two games. Meanwhile, Baylor senior guard LaceDarius Dunn was suspended for just three games following an incident in which his girlfriend ended up in the hospital with a broken jaw. In Dunn's case, the female asked that the charges be dropped.
We can debate whether Pinkston's penalty was too harsh or Willis' and Dunn's were too lenient. Every university has a different mission. But at least you have to give Villanova credit for meting out such a strict penalty to a high-profile athlete. I'm sure Pinkston has learned a valuable lesson here. I'm also guessing that the next Villanova student, athlete or not, will think twice before letting his temper get the best of him.
• Through his first nine games, Arizona sophomore Derrick Williams, a 6-8 power forward, is 10-for-13 from three-point range. Just making sure you knew.
• I am officially retiring my Erving Walker Free-and-Three Meter and turning it over to North Carolina freshman Harrison Barnes. You want to know why he's struggling right now? Because even though he's only making 27 percent from three-point range and 79 percent from the foul line, Barnes took four more threes than frees in his first nine games. Gotta reverse that, young fella.
• The best part about Kentucky's week (besides getting two wins of course) was the way the Wildcats evolved their defensive identity. Notre Dame came out on fire, but only scored 18 points in the second half. Indiana hung tough, but didn't score a field goal in the final nine minutes. UK can be a really, really good defensive team if the guys stay committed.
• I visited with Bill Self at a lunch in New York last week, and he raved about Tyshawn Taylor. KU's junior guard has shown immaturity in the past, but Self said he has grown up a lot. "He fights me in all the right ways," Self said.
• Here's a blanket piece of advice to all television game analysts: Talk 15 percent less. I promise you nobody will walk away from the telecast wishing you had said more.
• Maryland has an All-ACC-caliber player in sophomore forward Jordan Williams, but the reality is the Terps' guards are just not good enough. Sean Mosley, Adrian Bowie and Cliff Tucker combined for 7-of-21 shooting in Maryland's home loss to Boston College Sunday night. Freshman Pe'Shon Howard, who began the year scoring 14 points including the game-winning field goal against College of Charleston, had zero points in 19 minutes off the bench. It's the fourth time in the last seven games that Howard failed to score.
• Two long-range shooters who are scary when they get hot: Georgia junior Dustin Ware (7-for-9 from three in the win at Georgia Tech) and Indiana sophomore Jordan Hulls (57.6 percent from behind the arc on the season).
• During my halftime segment on CBS last weekend, I was about to refer to a player as "the EF Hutton of his locker room." Then I realized that no one under the age of 38 would get that reference, so I bailed. It was a little depressing.
• Syracuse is the only top program I know of that never conducts a game-day shootaround.
• Who's the worst team in the country? Gotta go with Alcorn State. Not only are the Braves winless through eight games (all on the road), but their smallest margin of defeat was 18 points.
(Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Duke (1)2. Kansas (2)3. Ohio State (3)4. Tennessee (6)5. Kansas State (4)6. Syracuse (7)7. Pittsburgh (5)8. Villanova (8)9. Illinois (11)10. Connecticut (12)11. Michigan State (9)12. Kentucky (13)13. Baylor (15)14. San Diego State (16)15. Georgetown (15)16. Washington (16)17. BYU (NR)18. Texas (18)19. Minnesota (19)20. Purdue (20)21. Missouri (22)22. Memphis (23)23. Vanderbilt (24)24. North Carolina (20)25. Louisville (NR)
Dropped out: Gonzaga (17), UNLV (25)
Generally speaking, it is getting harder to penalize teams for losses, because most everybody has some losses by now. Tennessee was my high riser this week, climbing to fourth by virtue of their dominant performance against Pitt. But if I think that highly of Tennessee, I can't drop Pitt out of my top 10, even though it was a de facto home game. Also, I generally don't drop teams for losing to higher-ranked teams, but Michigan State's loss to Syracuse was so decisive I figured I needed to at least move the Spartans below UConn, whom they lost to in Hawaii.
I was probably a little late in ranking BYU, and I'm probably overcompensating now by installing them at No. 17. The Cougars are undefeated, but their only quality win came last weekend over Arizona in Salt Lake City. (They needed double overtime to beat South Florida.) I ranked them where they are largely out of respect to The Jimmer. Gotta love The Jimmer.
Georgetown and Washington both suffered close losses on the road to Temple and Texas A&M, respectively. I wanted to drop them, but those are pretty good teams. Plus, look at who's behind Georgetown and Washington. I tend to look more at the whole body of work than just what happened last week, and I couldn't honestly say any of those squads were better.
Likewise, I didn't think I should punish Vanderbilt for losing in overtime at Missouri. The Commodores' one-spot drop was a result of the reshuffling from adding BYU. I also reconsidered my ballot from last week and felt I needed to drop North Carolina behind Vandy, since Vandy beat the Heels on a neutral court last month. (Kudos to all the Vandy fans who so lovingly pointed that out to me via e-mail and Twitter last week.)
I didn't like leaving UNLV and Notre Dame off my ballot, but I had to make room for Louisville. They are the next men up. There are a few undefeated teams out there like UCF, Cincinnati, Cleveland State and Northwestern who are garnering love from my fellow voters, but I'm not there yet. Call me old-fashioned, but I think you need to beat somebody good before you get ranked. The only one among those squads who has any kind of quality win is UCF, which beat Florida (currently unranked) at home.