By Luke Winn
December 12, 2012

The precarious position of having a team at No. 1 that deserves to be there after surviving an incomparable schedule, but believing that teams Nos. 2, 3 and 5 are more likely to win the national championship ...

College Hoops Power Rankings
1 Duke Blue Devils
Last Week: 1
Blue Devils power forward Mason Plumlee is the early frontrunner for the Naismith/Wooden Awards, and the funny thing about his candidacy is that in a lot of ways, he's the exact same player he was the previous two seasons, when no one even considered him an All-America candidate. His senior-year offensive- and defensive-rebounding rates are exactly the same as his junior- and sophomore-year rates, and his field-goal percentage is close to the same, too. The only two things he's doing differently are:

* Creating more contact that generates more free-throw attempts
* Making far more of those free-throw attempts (thanks to his no-dribble routine)

The pertinent numbers are in blue:

(Photo credit: US Presswire)

Next three: 12/19 vs. Cornell, 12/20 vs. Elon, 12/29 vs. Santa Clara
2 Indiana Hoosiers
Last Week: 2
Big Saturday coming up in Hoosierland: Not only do they face Butler in Indy, but backup freshmen big men Peter Jurkin (a 7-footer) and Hanner Mosquera-Perea (who's 6-8) finally become un-suspended by the NCAA. What it means for IU, if you read into remarks by Tom Crean and Cody Zeller (who said, "Have you seen their arms?") is an infusion of frontcourt depth that should help interior defense and, most importantly, shot-blocking. For all of Zeller's skills, he is not a great shot-blocker, and neither was anyone else in the rotation for the first nine games.

While it is not required for a national-title team to excel at blocks, I don't think it's a coincidence that six of the past 10 champs have ranked in the top 25 in block percentage. It certainly helps a team contend. This table breaks down inside-the-arc defense and block% for title teams since 2003:

Next three: 12/15 vs. Butler (neutral court), 12/19 vs. Mount St. Mary's, 12/21 vs. Florida Atlantic
3 Florida Gators
Last Week: 3

Last week's Power Rankings looked at the Gators' increased reliance on zone defense after using it just 11.5 percent of the time in 2011-12. Billy Donovan is dialing up zones (mostly, if not exclusively, 2-3s) 28.9 percent of the time this season, and last Wednesday's 72-47 rout of Florida State was a zone clinic.

I charted the 35 possessions of zone that Florida played in that game, according to Synergy, and tallied just 25 points allowed, which comes out to an excellent 0.714 PPP. What's even more impressive is that on their first 28 possessions of zone, the Gators gave up just 12 points, or 0.429 PPP. The final numbers are inflated by the fact that the Seminoles scored 13 points on their final seven possessions vs. zone, all of which were in garbage time.

(Zone screenshot from ESPN.)

Next three: 12/15 at Arizona, 12/19 vs. Southeastern Louisiana, 12/22 vs. Kansas State (in Kansas City)
4 Michigan Wolverines
Last Week: 4
While we're on the topic of zone defense ... in his Monday column, SI's Seth Davis had this exchange with Wolverines coach John Beilein:

SD: "Is it me, or are you not using the 1-3-1 zone as much as you used to?"

JB: "We've done it in spots, but we haven't done it at length for a while. We used it in the NCAA tournament and that was all people wanted to talk about. One of my assistants calls it Big Foot. Everybody talks about it, but nobody sees it anymore."

According to Synergy, those are both accurate statements.

In its first 10 games of this season, Michigan played zone just 11.1 percent of the time (and that wasn't all 1-3-1, either). Last season, Michigan played zone just 11.7 percent of the time.

But in the 2011 NCAA tournament, when they knocked off Tennessee and nearly upset Duke? The Wolverines played zone 32.8 percent of the time. Tourney memories, it seems, take a long time to fade.

Next three: 12/15 vs. West Virginia (Brooklyn, N.Y.), 12/20 vs. Eastern Michigan
5 Louisville Cardinals
Last Week: 5
I've been watching a lot of Russ Smith defensive tape lately, because the Cardinals rank No. 1 nationally in defensive turnover percentage and he ranks No. 5 in steal percentage. I thought there might be a chance that Smith is creating turnovers at an even higher rate than Ohio State's Aaron Craft ... which is why, for the first time, the Power Rankings presents Dueling Russ vs. Craft Turnometers. First up, Russ, with numbers charted from film review of all of Louisville's forced TOs:

It almost feels sacrilegious to write it, but Smith is out-TOing Craft thus far, on the strength of traditional steals. (The four offensive fouls Smith has drawn are all push-offs by frustrated opponents.)

Next three: 12/15 at Memphis, 12/19 vs. Florida International, 12/22 vs. Western Kentucky
6 Ohio State Buckeyes
Last Week: 6
Next up, the Craft Turnometer, which lags slightly behind Russ', and has the curious split of more uncredited than credited turnovers:

(Craft still has the upper hand in single-game turnovers created, though, with 9.5 -- four steals and 4.5 uncredited TOs -- against Northern Kentucky.)

Next three: 12/12 vs. Savannah State, 12/15 vs. UNC Asheville, 12/18 vs. Winthrop
7 Syracuse Orange
Last Week: 7
Does Michael Carter-Williams deserve his own Turnometer, too? His steal percentage is quite good, but it's hard to tell on film if he's actually a thief. He calls the whole thing a "misunderstanding", and since it's hard to tell what really happened, I'm putting any charting of his steals on hold until more concrete evidence emerges.

In the meantime, will you settle for some music? This is as good a place as any to counter my friends at Gorilla vs. Bear's best songs of 2012 list, which goes 100 deep, has its own Spotify playlist and is, as always, excellent. I'm only going 10 deep, and I'm going heavy on Frank Ocean, whose Channel Orange album produced as many hits in 2012 as Kentucky did draft picks:

10. The Walkmen :: Southern Heart
9. Johnny Greenwood (The Master OST) :: Alethia (Instrumental)
8. Kendrick Lamar :: Money Trees
7. Oneohtrix Point Never :: I Only Have Eyes For You
6. Neil Young & Crazy Horse :: Ramada Inn
5. Frank Ocean :: Super Rich Kids
4. Frank Ocean :: Sweet Life
3. Frank Ocean :: Thinkin Bout You
2. Japandroids :: The House That Heaven Built
1. Frank Ocean :: Pyramids

Next three: 12/15 vs. Canisius, 12/17 vs. Detroit, 12/22 vs. Temple (NYC)
8 Kansas Jayhawks
Last Week: 8
In honor of Jeff Withey's early graduation, I charted all of his 2012 blocks by location, handedness and primary/help situation:

If you were asking yourself, "Is it impressive that Kansas is keeping the ball after 73.8 percent of Withey's blocks?" the answer is YES, that's an insanely good number. When I charted Anthony Davis' blocks last season, Kentucky only kept the ball 58.4 percent of the time, and that was considered good.

Next three: 12/15 vs. Belmont, 12/18 vs. Richmond, 12/22 at Ohio State
9 Arizona Wildcats
Last Week: 13
Way, way off-topic here, mostly because it's best to wait until after Saturday's Florida game to pass serious judgment on the Wildcats ...

Their former coach, USC's Kevin O'Neill, pulled the weirdest defensive experiment of the year way back in the Maui Invitational, and I never found occasion to write about it. With 1:23 left in the fifth place game against Marquette, and the Trojans trailing by 10 -- pretty much go-for-broke territory -- the Golden Eagles were in a sideline out-of-bounds situation near their basket. This is what happened:

O'Neill put in two seven-footers, Dewayne Dedmon (14) and James Blasczyk (31), and put them BOTH on the ball, jumping up and down (see yellow box). USC's other three defenders were in a sort of triangle zone trying to deny close-proximity passes. It was an inbounds-special, super-sized triangle-and-two ... but Marquette managed to throw a deep, high-arcing pass to the opposite side of the court, and that was the end of the experiment. No steal, no five-second count, no comeback for the Trojans.

(Screengrab from ESPNU.)

Next three: 12/15 vs. Florida, 12/18 vs. Oral Roberts, 12/22 vs. East Tennessee State
10 Illinois Fighting Illini
Last Week: 10
After watching him for three seasons, I had written off Brandon Paul as a high-usage, low-efficiency drain on Illinois' offense. New coach John Groce took a better approach: "I didn't have any presupposition about Brandon," he told The (Alton, Ill.) Telegraph. What Groce did was move away from Bruce Weber's motion offense, put Paul into predominantly pick-and-roll sets -- accounting for 35.7 percent of his offense, compared to just 18.8 percent last year, according to Synergy -- and watch him blossom into a legitimate star. Paul is using exactly the same amount of possessions as he was as a junior, but he's taking higher-percentage shots and committing fewer turnovers, as this chart shows:

Next three: 12/16 vs. Eastern Kentucky, 12/22 vs. Missouri (in St. Louis), 12/29 vs. Auburn
11 Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Last Week: 10
This is a bit shocking: There are only two major-conference freshmen taking more than 29 percent of their team's shots ... and neither is Shabazz Muhammad, Anthony Bennett, or any of the other five-star prospects in the Class of 2012. One is UCLA's Jordan Adams, the unlikely go-to-guy of the bumbling Bruins, and the other is Notre Dame's Cameron Biedscheid, whose shot-happy ways are hidden in traditional stats because he only plays 17.2 minutes and scores 9.0 points per game.

These are the eight highest-volume frosh shooters:

Next three: 12/15 vs. Purdue (in Indianapolis), 12/17 vs. IPFW, 12/19 vs. Kennesaw State
12 Cincinnati Bearcats
Last Week: 11
This week, the NCAA released its lists of the top 75 March Madness players, 35 best moments and 25 best teams in NCAA tournament history, all of which will be counted down in the lead-up to 2013's tournament.

Three Bearcats made the players cut:

* Oscar Robertson, G, 1958-1960
* Paul Hogue, C, 1960-1962 (Tourney M.O.P. in '62)
* Tom Thacker, G, 1961-1963

... and then there were no Cincy mentions on any of the lists after 1963. I wonder if Kenyon Martin or the 2000 Bearcats team could have cracked a list had he been able to play in his final NCAA tournament. Had the NCAA made a list of the most devastating pre-tourney events, the broken leg Martin suffered in the 2000 Conference USA tournament might have been No. 2, right after the March 1990 death of Loyola-Marymount's Hank Gathers.

Next three: 12/15 at Marshall, 12/19 vs. Xavier (neutral court), 12/22 vs. Wright State
13 Minnesota Golden Gophers
Last Week: 12
Senior power forward Trevor Mbakwe grabbed a season-high 18 rebounds in just 21 minutes against North Dakota State on Tuesday. Six of them were offensive, helping the Gophers retain their spot atop's offensive-rebounding percentage leaderboard. The primary reason they have an elite offense is because they're pulling down 47.9 percent of their own misses, and that's with Mbakwe only playing 18.2 minutes per game. Rodney Williams, Joe Coleman, Elliott Eliason and Austin Hollins are all chipping in on the offensive glass, too; those contributions are vital for a team that struggles to make shots from beyond the arc and commits more turnovers than other Big Ten elites.

Next three: 12/22 vs. Lafayette, 12/31 vs. Michigan State, 1/6 vs. Northwestern
14 Gonzaga Bulldogs
Last Week: 7
The Illinois blurb mentioned how John Groce had gone heavy on the pick-and-rolls this year, especially with Brandon Paul; as many Zags fans might know, they were absolutely destroyed by the pick-and-roll in Saturday's 85-74 home loss to the Illini.

According to Synergy, Illinois ran 24 pick-and-rolls against Gonzaga, and according to my charting, the Zags yielded 34 points. That comes out to 1.42 PPP, an unacceptable rate for any respectable defense; give up that many PPP on a team's bread-and-butter play and you're pretty much guaranteed to lose. I imagine the Zags are working heavily on P&R defense during finals week; they're a good team but won't be an elite one until they solve their P&R problem.

Next three: 12/15 vs. Kansas State (in Seattle), 12/19 vs. Campbell, 12/28 vs. Baylor
15 Creighton Bluejays
Last Week: NR
The Bluejays have done enough since their loss to Boise State (with wins over St. Joe's, Nebraska and Akron) to be re-anointed the Power Rankings' favorite team in the Valley. And my favorite Creighton stat comes from colleague Rob Dauster, who pointed out the incredible run that senior Grant Gibbs is on:

"[Against Nebraska and Akron], Gibbs had 12 points, 11 boards and 18 assists while committing just a single turnover. Those numbers don't include the nine assists without a turnover that Gibbs had in a 29 point drubbing of St. Joe's last Saturday. In his last 102 minutes of basketball, Gibbs has 27 assists and just one turnover, which is probably why his assist to turnover ratio right now is 7.4:1."

Gibbs possesses a combination of superb court vision and restraint -- he rarely looks for a home-run pass or takes a risky shot -- that makes him the best point forward in college hoops. He might even be the most notable point forward on an elite team since Terrence Williams powered Louisville to a No. 1 seed in 2009.

Next three: 12/15 at Cal, 12/19 vs. Tulsa, 12/29 vs. Evansville
16 New Mexico Lobos
Last Week: 15
Coming into this season, Alex Kirk's last double-double occurred on Nov. 13, 2010, the first game of his freshman season. He went the rest of that year without another one, then redshirted all of '11-12 while recovering from back surgery, and returned to the Lobos as somewhat of a forgotten man this fall. The former top-100 recruit (Kirk was No. 97 in ESPN's 2010 rankings) has since filled in rather nicely for departed star Drew Gordon, putting up double-doubles in three of New Mexico's past five games, and scoring in double-figures in each of their past seven games. Guards Kendall Williams and Tony Snell are the Lobos' stars, but their unsung frontcourt of the 7-foot Kirk and 6-9 Cameron Bairstow -- both of whom are excellent rebounders on both ends of the floor -- has played a big role in getting them to 10-0.

Next three: 12/15 vs. New Mexico State, 12/19 at New Mexico State, 12/22 vs. South Dakota State

The Next 16: 17. Georgetown, 18. Wichita State, 19. UNLV, 20. San Diego State, 21. Missouri, 22. Pittsburgh, 23. Michigan State, 24. NC State, 25. Wyoming , 26. North Carolina, 27. Oklahoma State, 28. Kentucky, 29. VCU, 30. Oregon, 31. Virginia Tech, 32. Kansas State

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