By Luke Winn
December 09, 2010
NCAA Basketball Power Rankings
1 Duke Blue Devils
Last Week: 1
The Kyrie Irving Toe Watch began in earnest on Wednesday night, after Coach K said that the injury his freshman point guard suffered against Butler was "serious," and "could" keep him out for the rest of the season. Did the nation's best team just lose its MVP after only eight games? K said the answer will come in a week to 10 days, so the best thing to do now is not speculate about toe ligaments -- my knowledge of the metatarsophalangeal joint is limited -- but rather about how losing Irving will effect Duke's offense.

To do so, I borrowed an idea from the "Who's Assisting Who" project that the data-visualization geniuses at Hoopism released last week. Their graphics offered amazing insight into NBA passers' favorite targets, so I applied the concept to the Blue Devils' two point guards: Irving (who had 41 assists through eight games) and Nolan Smith (who had 40).

This is how Irving's assists were distributed (thicker line = more assists):

Kyrie Irving Assists

Irving had 13 assists to Smith, 10 to Mason Plumlee, five to Kyle Singler, four each to Andre Dawkins and Ryan Kelly, three to Seth Curry, and one each to Miles Plumlee and Tyler Thornton. Irving loved to find Smith for buckets; 31.7 percent of the freshman's assists went to his senior backcourt mate. Was it any surprise, then, that in his first game alone -- against Bradley on Wednesday -- Smith went 0-of-8 from the field and scored just two points?

This is how Smith's assists were distributed prior to facing the Braves:

Nolan Smith Assists

He had 10 assists to Dawkins, nine to Singler, eight to Mason Plumlee, four to Seth Curry, and three each to Irving, Kelly and Miles Plumlee. Smith had a much better connection with Dawkins than Irving did. So was it any surprise that against Bradley, in his first start of the year, with Smith as full-time point guard, Dawkins went off for a career-high 28 points? Four of Smith's 10 assists went for Dawkins trifectas. If the Irving Toe Watch lasts a while, Smith might continue to struggle to score ... but Dawkins will be in a nice situation.

Next Three: 12/11 vs. St. Louis, 12/20 vs. Elon, 12/29 at UNC-Greensboro
2 Kansas Jayhawks
Last Week: 2
I like to learn the tricks of great rebounders, and so after Tuesday's win over Memphis at the Garden, I asked the Jayhawks' Markieff Morris, "You're leading the nation in defensive rebounding -- can you explain why you've been so good at it this season?"

His response: "I'm leading the nation in defensive rebounding?"

"Not in raw numbers, but percentage-wise, yeah. You're getting like 36 percent." (It was actually 36.6, but saying that, and getting into a discussion, didn't seem like a good idea at the time.)

"In actual numbers, probably not -- I'm only playing 20 minutes a game."

"Anyway, is there any kind of technique to it, or philosophy of getting boards?"

"I've got quick twitches, you know? Once the ball goes up, I just find out where it's coming off. Most of the time, I don't even block out. Because I've got a knack for just going and getting it. Most of the time I just outsmart them -- go around them, fight around them, things like that."

Position apparently isn't the key -- the quick twitches are the key.

Next Three: 12/11 vs. Colorado State, 12/18 vs. USC, 12/22 at Cal
3 Pittsburgh Panthers
Last Week: 3
While Kansas' Markieff Morris dominates the defensive glass, the whole Panthers team is dominating the offensive glass, grabbing a national-high 48.5 percent of their own misses through the first nine games. Their offense isn't classically pretty, but they commit so few turnovers (on just 18.1 percent of possessions) and get so many second shots that they're the second-most efficient scoring team in the country. A few Pitt points to consider:

• When DeJuan Blair was the nation's best offensive rebounder in '08-09, the Panthers grabbed 42.0 percent of offensive boards as a team. This year, it's 48.5!

• Sophomore Dante Taylor only plays 14.9 minutes per game, but he's been incredible, dominant, a beast -- whatever you want to call him -- on the glass, pulling down 27.8 percent of available O-Rebs on his own. Blair had to pace himself through far more minutes in his epic rebounding season, but his OR% was 23.6.

• There isn't a single forward in Jamie Dixon's rotation who offensive rebounds at less than a 10 percent rate. That's kind of incredible.

Next Three: 12/11 vs. Tennessee, 12/18 vs. Maryland-Eastern Shore, 12/22 vs. American
4 Ohio State Buckeyes
Last Week: 4
Tuesday's Freshmen Who Fit column focused on Tennessee's Tobias Harris, a point forward whose father was hyper-analytical during the recruiting process -- and found perhaps the perfect playing situation for his son. I didn't include the Buckeyes' Jared Sullinger (one of the few forwards who's playing even better than Harris is) in the piece because Sullinger grew up in Columbus, had an older brother who played for OSU, and committed to the school in 2007. He was going to be a Buckeye no matter what. But he has made a seamless transition into starring for one of the country's best, undefeated teams, and I wonder: Does it have anything to do with the fact that he went 94-3 during his high school career, playing on a team that USA Today ranked No. 1 when he was a senior?

I ask that because of a conversation I had this week with ESPN's newly hired recruiting guru, Dave Telep. I had posited that there was no way to statistically project (from high school stats) which freshmen would thrive, and that the nebulous concept of "fit" was the best determining factor for success. He agreed, in part, but said, "What about winning percentage? Guys who have established, winning resumes often make the transition [to college] more easily. They have something of value to hold on to from high school, and they tend to be more coachable than other guys."

This is something that might need to be the subject of another study. Coaches, readers, do you have opinions on this? Anecdotes of high school winners working out, losers not working out, or vice-versa? Or some other way to predict freshman success? Send me your thoughts.

Next Three: 12/9 vs. IUPUI, 12/12 vs. Western Carolina, 12/15 vs. Florida Gulf Coast
5 Georgetown Hoyas
Last Week: 5
Not sure if this Hoya Trinity nickname for Georgetown's guard trio is going to catch on in the mainstream, despite its victory in a blog poll. I suggested the even worse "Sancta Triada" (in "Hoya Saxa," Latin/Greek mashup spirit) for that contest and was laughed at. Probably best not to force it; as one commenter wrote, "Its bad enough we stalk them on twitter. Having big serious discussions for weeks about creating a nickname for three college kids on a basketball team is sadder. Let a name come organically or (hopefully) not at all." (sic)

A better topic of discussion, then: the fact that Austin Freeman (and not Kemba Walker, who's getting far more attention) is the most efficient guard in the Big East. If conference defenses key on Walker and start to bring down his numbers, Freeman could very well end up beating him out for Big East Player of the Year, despite the wide disparity in their possession usage. Here's how the three early favorites for that award stacked up, through Sunday:

Player, Team             ORating   Poss%
Austin Freeman, G'town 140.4 22.0
Kemba Walker, UConn 139.9 32.8
Ashton Gibbs, Pitt 134.0 21.3

Next Three: 12/9 at Temple, 12/12 vs. Appalachian State, 12/18 vs. Loyola (Md.)
6 Connecticut Huskies
Last Week: 6
It's rare -- or at least, from poring over the past few NBA Draft boards, it seems so -- that a ball-dominating guard has a major breakout in his junior season. That's what's happened with the Huskies' Walker, who has flourished since taking over the go-to-guy role from departed guard Jerome Dyson. The only other, major sophomore/junior jump that I could find was from last year's Wooden/Naismith winner, Evan Turner, who went from "well-known in the Big Ten" to "household national name." But it's stunning to see how much more Walker has improved between seasons, statistically, than Turner did:

Kemba Walker   ORating   Poss%   Turnover%   FoulsDrawn/40
Sophomore 105.3 25.9 20.0 5.2
Junior 139.9 32.8 11.0 7.9

Evan Turner ORating Poss% Turnover% FoulsDrawn/40
Sophomore 107.5 29.8 20.9 5.8
Junior 108.5 34.7 21.5 5.8

Turner just took more shots as a junior (and had better rebounding numbers); Walker is not only taking more shots, he's making more of them, turning it over less, and earning more trips to the foul line.

Next Three: 12/20 vs. Coppin State, 12/22 vs. Harvard, 12/27 at Pitt
7 Tennessee Volunteers
Last Week: 7
My favorite blog post of the week came from Dan Hanner at Yet Another Basketball Blog, which is not just another basketball blog -- it's usually a lot smarter. He used plus/minus figures to identify the most important player on each team in the SEC, and revealed that the Vols' key guy isn't Tobias Harris or Scotty Hopson, but rather unheralded guard Cameron Tatum.
As Hanner writes, "I think plus/minus is a very important statistic for teams that use full-court pressure. The Tennessee player who gets the steal is not always the only important player on the play. And when you look at Cameron Tatum's splits this year, they have been unbelievable:"

Opponent       With Tatum   W/O Tatum
Chattanooga +20 0
Belmont +18 -9
Missouri St. +13 -9
VCU +19 -14
Villanova +9 +1
Middle Tenn. +24 +6

Total +103 -25

Think about that: The margin between when Tatum plays and when he doesn't has been 128 points. In just six games.

Next Three: 12/11 at Pitt, 12/14 vs. Oakland, 12/17 at Charlotte
8 San Diego State Aztecs
Last Week: 10
The 16 teams in these Power Rankings have won a grand total of 13 true road games thus far. Some teams, like Duke, Kansas, Pitt and Baylor, have yet to even play one. San Diego State has played more true road games (four) than any other team, and won all of them -- which means the Aztecs have earned their spot in the top eight. Here's the paltry list of TRVs (true road victories) by my ranked teams:

San Diego State (4): Long Beach State, Gonzaga, Miami (Ohio), Cal
Ohio State (2): Florida, Florida State
UNLV (2): Illinois State, Nevada
Illinois (1): Western Michigan
Georgetown (1): Old Dominion
BYU (1): Creighton
Kansas State (1): Washington State
Missouri (1): Oregon
Villanova (1): Penn

(The three most impressive TRVs of the season -- in this order -- are Ohio State over Florida, Georgetown over Old Dominion, and SDSU over Gonzaga.)

Next Three: 12/11 vs. San Diego, 12/13 vs. Cal Poly, 12/18 vs. UC-Santa Barbara
9 UNLV Runnin' Rebels
Last Week: 8
The only preseason recognition/list I considered Rebels swingman Chace Stanback for was my Top 16 Impact Defenders, and he didn't even make that one. (I think he was the last guy cut.) Now, though? He looks like a legit All-Mountain West first-teamer, and is quietly becoming an All-America candidate, having supplanted Tre'Von Willis as the centerpiece of the undefeated Rebels. Stanback is still making an impact on D, but his offense has been stunningly good through nine games: Of Mountain West players who use 20 percent or more of their team's possessions (he uses 21.3), he has the No. 1 Offensive Rating (at 134.0). He rescued UNLV from a scary near-upset by Boise State on Wednesday, scoring 16 points, and was the main force behind their biggest win to date, over Wisconsin on Nov. 20. Stanback might be the best, late-blooming player from that loaded freshman Class of 2007, when had him ranked 69th overall.

Next Three: 12/11 at Louisville, 12/15 vs. UC-Santa Barbara, 12/18 vs. Southern Utah
10 Syracuse Orange
Last Week: 17
I can't justify not having the Orange in my top 10. They're undefeated and they just (in the words of Tom Izzo and Draymond Green and Kalin Lucas and pretty much anyone you talked to on Tuesday night) "manhandled" Michigan State at Madison Square Garden. But I'm scared about this team in the long run. They're shooting 29.0 percent from three-point range, which ranks 288th in the nation. Before doing the research, I speculated that while this was a problem, I'd find at least a few teams that overcame a lack of three-point shooting ability to make decent NCAA tournament runs. Turns out ... that's not the case. In the past five years, do you know how many teams even made the NCAA tournament shooting sub-30 on threes?

None. None!

Now, Syracuse is probably capable of getting its percentage over 30, but hypothetically, let's say it finishes at 31.5. Here are the teams that have made the NCAAs in the past five years while shooting sub-32:

2010: Arkansas Pine Bluff (16), East Tennessee State (16), Oakland (14), Old Dominion (11), San Diego State (11), Wake Forest (9), Purdue (4)

2009: Cleveland State (13), Stephen F. Austin (14), Tennessee (9), Wake Forest (4)

2008: None

2007: Jackson State (16)

2006: Hampton (16), Southern (16), Arizona (8)

Only one of those teams -- Purdue, last season -- reached the tourney's second weekend. That's not a good sign.

Next Three: 12/11 vs. Colgate, 12/18 vs. Iona, 12/20 vs. Morgan State
11 Baylor Bears
Last Week: 9
The Bears haven't played since Dec. 2, so their space is being hijacked for metarankings. My Texan friends (and former Tourney Blog collaborators) at Gorilla vs. Bear released their top 100 songs of 2010 on Thursday, so for the sake of synergy -- and as a service to your iPod -- I'm dropping the Power Rankings 16 here:

1. Deerhunter - He Would Have Laughed
2. Gauntlet Hair - I Was Thinking ...
3. Black Keys - Everlasting Light // Next Girl // Tighten Up
4. Beach House - Silver Soul // 10 Mile Stereo
5. Richard Swift - Drakula (Hey Man)
6. Lambchop - Six O'Clock News (John Prine cover)
7. Mark McGuire - Brain Storm (For Erin)
8. Arcade Fire - We Used To Wait
9. White Denim - If You're Changing // Some Wild Going Outward
10. Gil Scott-Heron - Me and the Devil
11. Broken Social Scene - Texico B*tches
12. Beck & Bat For Lashes - Let's Get Lost (Twilight Saga: Eclipse)
13. Walkmen - Juveniles
14. Lower Dens - I Get Nervous
15. Local Natives - Airplanes
16. Andrew Bird vs. Konono N°1 - Ohnono-Kiwembo

(All mp3 links found on Hype Machine. Enjoy.)

Next Three: 12/18 vs. Gonzaga (in Dallas), 12/22 vs. San Diego, 1/2 vs. Texas Southern
12 Brigham Young Cougars
Last Week: 11
CBS College Sports was kind enough to bring us A Special Night of Jimmer (in HD!) from his hometown of Glens Falls, N.Y., on Wednesday. The Cougars beat Vermont 86-58, and Fredette scored 26 points on 9-of-19 shooting. There were plenty of classic moments from the homecoming trip: Jimmer was met by cameras at the airport. He appeared at an assembly at his old high school. He threw an around-the-back, fastbreak pass to Kyle Collinsworth for a layup. But the most indelible image from the whole viewing experience, for me, didn't involve Fredette: It was the moment, shown at right, when CBS' cameras zoomed in on the Evan Fjeld/Noah Hartsock duel in the post ... and I briefly worried that they'd cut to vintage footage from a Balkan-state senior league.

Next Three: 12/11 vs. Arizona, 12/18 vs. UCLA (in Anaheim), 12/21 at Weber State
13 Illinois Fighting Illini
Last Week: 22
Of the brigade of seniors sitting in the second round of DraftExpress' most recent 2011 mock (14 in all!), Illini point guard Demetri McCamey has done the most to potentially vault himself into the guaranteed-contract zone. He's putting up career highs in Offensive Rating (124.4), three-point percentage (52.4) and assist-to-turnover ratio (2.9-to-1), and has the third-best plus-minus rating in the country (+157). One Western Conference NBA scout I spoke with this week said of McCamey, "I think any scout would be lying to you if they said they weren't impressed with what he's been doing so far. I'm a huge fan of his; he's not Deron Williams the All-Star, but he's playing in a way that reminds you of Deron Williams, and moving up in a lot of people's minds."

Next Three: 12/12 vs. Northern Colorado, 12/18 vs. UIC, 12/22 vs. Missouri (in St. Louis)
14 Villanova Wildcats
Last Week: 13
While Illinois' Demetri McCamey has been playing his way into the first round, 'Nova's star senior guard, Corey Fisher, has been regressing. He was benched for the start of Wednesday's win over Penn as punishment for arguing with coach Jay Wright in practice earlier in the week. (Wright said, "You just don't do that, especially when you're a senior leader.") Over the Wildcats' past three games, Fisher is just 5-of-29 from the field, and on the season, he's posting career lows in field-goal percentage (32.7) and three-point percentage (21.2). His backcourt partner Maalik Wayns came into the season with first-round draft buzz, but has regressed as well; he has a 97.6 Offensive Rating, mostly because he's shooting just 15.6 percent on threes. What will it take for 'Nova's guards to get out of their funk?

Next Three: 12/12 at La Salle, 12/18 vs. Delaware, 12/22 at Monmouth
15 Kansas State Wildcats
Last Week: 12
The worst free-throw shooting team in America is Alabama State, at 53.1 percent. ASU plays in the SWAC and is 1-6 this season. The second-worst free-throw shooting team in America is ... you guessed it: Kansas State, at 54.0 percent. As much as Syracuse's three-point shooting scares me, that K-State stat scares me more. The Wildcats have the personnel to be a Final Four team, but they have no shot of getting there with such a low accuracy level from the stripe. The media obsessed over the free-throw shooting woes of the '07-08 Memphis team that made a run to the national title game, but the Tigers shot 61.4 percent that season. They look like Blake Ahearn in comparison to the '10-11 version of K-State. There was just one NCAA tournament team last year that shot worse than 63 percent -- and that was San Diego State, which lost in the first round.

Next Three: 12/11 at Loyola (Ill.), 12/18 vs. Florida, 12/21 vs. UNLV
16 Missouri Tigers
Last Week: 24
Great blog headline from the K.C. Star: "Marcus Denmon: In Some The Heart Rages". Denmon played Wednesday's thriller against Vanderbilt with a heavy heart, after learning about the shooting death of his cousin, Marion Denmon, in Kansas City on Tuesday. Marcus scored just two points in the first half, and fought through tears -- then exploded for 19 points in the second half and overtime, including the tie-breaking layup (and free throw) with 5.8 seconds left. Denmon played 39 minutes, more than any other Mizzou player, and also hit a huge, NBA-range three to keep the Tigers in the game in the waning minutes. Teammate Michael Dixon, who also grew up in Kansas City, said of Denmon, "He's just a warrior. That's just a tribute to where he's from and what he's been through his whole life."

Next Three: 12/11 vs. Presbyterian, 12/16 vs. Oral Roberts, 12/18 vs. Central Arkansas

Checked In: Syracuse, Illinois, Missouri.

Dropped Out: Texas, Michigan State, Kentucky.

The Next 16: 17) Kentucky; 18) Michigan State; 19) Washington; 20) Minnesota; 21) Arizona; 22) Memphis; 23) Purdue; 24) Northwestern; 25) Texas; 26) Notre Dame; 27) Old Dominion; 28) Central Florida; 29) Wisconsin; 30) Boston College; 31) Vanderbilt; 32) North Carolina.

(If you'd like to send the Power Rankings a note, I'm here.)

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