By Luke Winn
January 26, 2012

Kentucky takes over No. 1, and all the clichés that come with it: having a target on your back, getting everybody's best game, being the hunted, blah blah blah. I like to imagine the Wildcats being hunted by Scout Troopers on Segways, and amazingly, it looks like folks mocking up the new Rupp Arena Concourse imagined exactly the same thing.

NCAA Basketball Power Rankings
1 Kentucky Wildcats
Last Week: 2
Kentucky has earned its way into this spot, with non-conference wins over Kansas and North Carolina, and an unblemished record in the SEC. But a word of warning to those calling UK the nation's best defensive team: The Wildcats haven't even been the best defensive team in SEC play.

In conference games only, Vanderbilt has been more efficient defensively than Kentucky, and the Commodores -- whose league schedule is even in strength with UK's so far -- have a better overall efficiency margin. Tennessee has actually allowed fewer points per possession than UK as well, while playing the league's toughest schedule. The breakdown (an updated version of what Mr. Gasaway posted on Tuesday) is as follows:

Team (SEC Rec.)   DefPPP   OffPPP   Margin
Vandy (5-1) 0.891 1.100 +0.208
Kentucky (6-0) 0.934 1.130 +0.196
Tennessee (1-4) 0.924 0.870 -0.054

All of this is to say: The eye test suggests that Kentucky has the potential to be the best defensive team in the country -- it certainly has two of the highest-impact defenders in Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist -- but the Wildcats haven't played to their full potential yet. And Vanderbilt, whose defense we didn't have much faith in at the start of the season, has gotten its act together. The 'Dores might just turn into a scary NCAA tournament team after all.

Next three: 1/28 at LSU, 1/31 vs. Tennessee, 2/4 at South Carolina
2 Kansas Jayhawks
Last Week: 3
When I covered the Kentucky-Kansas game at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 15, I didn't realize I'd be watching the teams that would be Nos. 1 and 2 in the nation in mid-January. The Wildcats did a superb job of holding Player of the Year frontrunner Thomas Robinson in check that night; he had 11 points on 5-of-12 shooting, with two turnovers. That translated into his second-worst offensive rating of the season (88.3). It's not as if every Kansas opponent can follow the UK Plan, because no one else has an Anthony Davis, but the Wildcats did do more, strategically, than just have him harass T-Rob. Below are two examples:

(1) Terrence Jones sits on Robinson's high side, not really denying the ball into the post, but (2) forcing Robinson to spin baseline after the catch. As soon as he makes a move, (3) Davis shifts over to double-team or block a quick shot, while (4) Doron Lamb leaves his initial assignment, in the far corner, to "dig" on Davis' man, Jeff Withey. (5) Kidd-Gilchrist sags into the lane, off of his man, to protect against basket cuts.

(1) Jones walls up on Robinson after a post feed from the wing, and Kentucky is so focused on T-Rob that (2) both of its strong-side perimeter defenders sag down to bother him. (3) Davis once again slides across the lane, while Kidd-Gilchrist digs Withey. This is an example of over-committing -- the Wildcats are leaving two three-point shooters open -- but it still resulted in a defensive stop.

Next three: 1/28 at Iowa State, 2/1 vs. Oklahoma, 2/4 at Missouri
3 Syracuse Orange
Last Week: 1
There was much hand-wringing, and deservedly so, over Nike's latest push toward a color-neutral college basketball world: the release of the "Hyper Elite Platinum" jerseys that will be worn over the next month by eight former championship teams. Syracuse is one of those teams, and as Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician reports, the Orange will wear "platinums" against South Florida on Feb. 22. Do not confuse these with the gray alternate jerseys that more than 20 Nike schools have worn this season. The platinums are apparently five percent lighter, which, combined with the further erosion of soul/identity that the teams wearing them experience, should make players almost float, apparition-like, and allow them to throw down super-sick dunks.

Photo Credit: Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician

(Really, though, look at that picture from the unveiling. It's like some post-apocalyptic scene where school spirit and identity have almost completely disappeared, and everyone has been auto-drafted into a Sneaker Army whose various battalions are named after the institutions over which Nike has now assumed total control. The goal is no longer to bring glory to your school; it's to destroy Adidas. In other words, like a heavier-handed version of AAU.)

Next three: 1/28 vs. West Virginia, 2/4 at St. John's, 2/8 vs. Georgetown
4 Ohio State Buckeyes
Last Week: 5
The Craft Turnometer will return next week -- I'm trying to limit myself to once-a-month readings -- but turnovers are still the topic du jour when it comes to Ohio State, or better yet, the State of Ohio.

Just take a look at kenpom's national standings for defensive turnover percentage:

1. Ohio: 27.2%
2. VCU: 27.4%
3. Cleveland State: 27.2%
4. ETSU, 26.8%
5. Ohio State: 26.7%

John Groce, Thad Matta's former top assistant, has turned the Ohio Bobcats into a turnover-forcing machine, while Gary Waters' Cleveland State squad is wreaking havoc on the Horizon, and Matta's Buckeyes are forcing the most takeaways in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes are the only one of the five teams above that also ranks in the top 50 in defensive rebounding (No. 3), free-throw rate (No. 30) and eFG% allowed (No. 35) ... which is why they're the most efficient defensive team in the country.

Next three: 1/29 vs. Michigan, 2/4 at Wisconsin, 2/7 vs. Purdue
5 Missouri Tigers
Last Week: 6
Ricardo Ratliffe entered Wednesday night's loss to Oklahoma State shooting an absurd 77.6 percent from the field during Big 12 play. His overall field-goal percentage of 77.2 was on pace to break the all-time Division I record. I plotted out all 49 of Ratliffe's Big 12 shots on this chart, and it illustrates how he's the most effective role player in the game, almost always lurking within a few feet of the basket in Missouri's 4-out, 1-in offense:

Some curious Ratliffe Big 12 stats:

• He had attempted just three shots with both feet outside the lane, and missed all of them.

• He was 4-for-4 in transition, 9-of-10 on pick-and-roll finishes, and 13-of-18 on post-up plays.

• His 18 post-ups were evenly split between the right and left block, but he was 8-of-9 from the left block, and 5-of-9 from the right.

• On his 14 back-to-the-basket post plays (the others were post pins), Ratliffe attempted 14 right-handed hooks. The man is consistent.

Next three: 1/28 vs. Texas Tech, 1/30 at Texas, 2/4 vs. Kansas
6 Baylor Bears
Last Week: 4
The Bears often get called a "zone team," because there are games -- such as Saturday's home loss to Missouri -- in which they play predominantly zone defense. Against the Tigers, Baylor played 52 possessions of zone and just 27 of man-to-man, according to Synergy Sports Technology's logs. Baylor's loss at Kansas earlier in the week was the complete opposite, though, featuring 52 possessions of man-to-man D and just 16 of zone (which the Jayhawks destroyed).

The truth, this season, is that Scott Drew has his defense almost evenly split between man (50.6 percent of the time) and zone (49.4 percent), and the Bears have been a stingier team in man-to-man (allowing 0.735 PPP) than they have zone (0.795 PPP). The zone label may be sticking from last season, when they only played 34.5 percent man-to-man and struggled at it, allowing 0.834 PPP compared to 0.794 in zone.

Next three: 1/28 vs. Texas, 2/1 at Texas A&M, 2/4 at Oklahoma State
7 North Carolina Tar Heels
Last Week: 7
The loss of Dexter Strickland to an ACL tear could make a huge impact on the Tar Heels, whose only backup at point guard is now Stilman White, a two-star freshman who was brought in as an insurance policy behind Kendall Marshall. White, it seems, had accepted a scholarship offer understanding that he'd be a little-used backup before going on a two-year Mormon mission from 2012-14 and then returning to UNC.

If there's a bright side to this for the Tar Heels, it's that their new starting lineup configuration -- with Reggie Bullock at the two in Strickland's place -- is actually their optimal lineup from an efficiency standpoint. According to charting from @FreeportKid, the Marshall-Bullock 1-2 combo has been significantly more efficient than Marshall-Strickland:

1-2 Combo              Mins     OffEff  DefEff   Margin
Marshall-Bullock 361.1 1.256 0.841 +0.414
Marshall-Strickland 125.2 1.131 0.887 +0.244

Next three: 1/26 vs. NC State, 1/29 vs. Georgia Tech, 1/31 at Wake Forest
8 Duke Blue Devils
Last Week: 8
Mason Plumlee had his best game of the season on Wednesday night at Maryland, scoring 23 points on 9-of-13 shooting, grabbing 12 rebounds, and most importantly, going an improbable 5-for-5 from the free throw line. Plumlee entered the game with a season free throw percentage of 44.3 (47-for-106), which meant that his chances of making five straight were about 1.7 percent.

The rise in his free-throw accuracy over the four games since the hack-a-Plumlee mess against Virginia on Jan. 12, when he was repeatedly fouled and went just 2-for-10 from the stripe, is a big development for Duke. Plumlee has gone 15-of-18 since that game. The old version of him was so inept from the line that intentionally fouling him -- especially in one-and-one situations -- was a very wise move against an offense that averages 1.207 points per possession. The expected points from hacking Plumlee on team fouls 6-9 is still only 0.687 PPP, but his recent hot streak has to give opposing coaches pause.

Next three: 1/28 vs. St. John's, 2/2 at Virginia Tech, 2/5 vs. Miami
9 Michigan St. Spartans
Last Week: 4
Last season I did some occasional harping on the Spartans' tendency to take the "Long Two" -- a jump shot from 1-2 steps inside the 3-point line, which tends to be the least efficient shot in basketball. Departed point guard Kalin Lucas was the king of the Long Two; he attempted 96 of them, according to Synergy's logs, and they accounted for 36.8 percent of his overall jump shots. As a team, 26.2 percent of Michigan State's jumpers fell into the Long Two category, and the team converted them at a clip of just 0.682 PPP. This wasn't the only reason the Spartans' offense ranked 62nd in the country in 2010-11, but it was part of it.

This season, the Spartans are being much smarter about their jump-shot selection: Just 17.3 percent of their jumpers are Long Twos. Their two-point field goal percentage has jumped from 46.7 percent last season to 52.9 percent now, and their offense ranks ninth nationally in efficiency. Their re-commitment to offensive rebounding has been a big factor, too, but I'd like to think the eradication of ill-advised jumpers is what matters most.

Next three: 1/31 at Illinois, 2/5 vs. Michigan, 2/8 vs. Penn State
10 Michigan Wolverines
Last Week: 12
Michigan gets erroneously called a zone team almost as much as Baylor does, probably because coach John Beilein used to use a 1-3-1 trap as his base defense at West Virginia and in his first few years in Ann Arbor. This year's Wolverines are heavily man-to-man, though, playing 87.9 percent of their possessions in man according to Synergy.

What's curious is that, in a small sample, Michigan's defense has been much better this year in zone, holding opponents to 0.667 PPP using a combination of 2-3 and 1-3-1, as opposed to 0.856 PPP in man. Beilein seems to be employing the zones as a very effective changeup, in groups of just a few possessions at a time.

Next three: 1/29 at Ohio State, 2/1 vs. Indiana, 2/5 at Michigan State
11 Creighton Bluejays
Last Week: 13

Photo Credit: US Presswire

Creighton center Greg Echenique made my midseason Style Archive update for having the audacity to wear pink shoes on a regular basis this season. His entire team wore them for last season's Creighton vs. Cancer event, but Echenique has continued a one-man awareness campaign in 2012. It was not entirely surprising, then, that Echenique's jersey and shooting shirt for last Saturday's "Pink Out" game supporting cancer research garnered a team-high $3,275 in an online auction. The auction for National Player of the Year candidate Doug McDermott's duds earned $319 less, despite the fact that he has 299 more points and 30 more rebounds than Echenique.

Next three: 1/28 vs. Bradley, 2/1 vs. Illinois State, 2/4 at Northern Iowa
12 San Diego State Aztecs
Last Week: 14
The Aztecs' win at Wyoming on Tuesday might be their most impressive road victory of the season -- even more so than their win at New Mexico on Jan. 18 -- due to the travel issues. As the San Diego Union-Tribune's Mark Ziegler recounted, SDSU opted for the rare luxury of a charter flight to Laramie ... and it took them 19 hours and 55 minutes, with two refueling stops and a night at a Cedar City, Utah, inn to get to the game. It would've been a 16.5-hour drive. Weather and weight complications -- they had to switch to a 19-seat plane at the last minute, which required refueling -- held up the journey. Bettors expected the Aztecs to be so travel-weary that the line on the game, which opened at even, shifted to favor Wyoming by 2.5 points by tipoff. None of it seemed to matter to SDSU, which won by 10 and extended its winning streak to 11. The Aztecs should be 7-0 in the Mountain West by the time they travel to UNLV on Feb. 11.

Next three: 1/28 at Colorado State, 2/1 vs. Boise State, 2/4 vs TCU
13 Murray State Racers
Last Week: 15
The Racers' odds of having an undefeated Ohio Valley Conference season, according to, have risen to 45.8 percent after they improved to 20-0. Their biggest "risk" of a loss is their Feb. 25 game at Tennessee Tech, in which they only have a 79 percent chance of winning. Those projections, in reality, should be even more bullish, because they've been depressed by the absence of leading rebounder Ivan Aska, who's missed the past six games with a broken hand. Aska has been cleared to return to the team, and he should shore up their one deficiency in OVC play: defensive rebounding. The Racers currently rank ninth in the league at controlling the defensive glass, even though they have the OVC's best overall defense. What this means is, they're about to get even more dominant.

Next three: 1/28 vs. Eastern Illinois, 2/2 vs. SE Missouri St., 2/4 at Tennessee Martin
14 UNLV Rebels
Last Week: 16
The Rebels are very much a man-defense team: Synergy has them logged as playing man-to-man on 96.3 percent of their possessions. But among teams with 900 or more possessions in the database, UNLV ranks only 62nd in its avoidance of zone, and there are nine teams logged as playing man 99 percent* of the time or higher:

1. Drexel: 99.60%
2. Virginia: 99.50%
3. Murray State: 99.40%
4. Illinois: 99.40%
5. Saint Louis: 99.40%
6. Tulsa: 99.20%
7. Evansville: 99.10%
8. Connecticut: 99.00%
9. Tennessee: 99.00%

* I should offer the warning that Synergy's defensive logging is an imperfect science, and it's possible that a few of these teams haven't even played a single possession of zone D.

Next three: 1/28 at Air Force, 2/1 vs. Colorado State, 2/4 at Wyoming
15 Georgetown Hoyas
Last Week: 17
The last time Georgetown was in the Power Rankings, we pointed out that freshman Otto Porter was receiving more playing time than any other reserve on an elite team. He made one start against DePaul on Jan. 17, when Markel Starks was out, so Porter can no longer claim status as a full-time reserve, but he's still making his biggest impact off the bench. When the Hoyas were in serious danger of an upset on Saturday at Rutgers, Porter scored the team's final six points, including the game-winning free-throws, to pull out a 52-50 win. Taking into account Porter's defensive contributions -- he's the team's best defensive rebounder, and second in both steal and block percentage -- he needs to be considered one of the nation's top 10-15 freshmen.

Next three: 1/28 at Pittsburgh, 2/1 vs. UConn, 2/4 vs. South Florida
16 Mississippi St. Bulldogs
Last Week: NR
I had to re-evaluate the Bulldogs and give them a provisional spot in the top 16 after their win at Vanderbilt on Saturday. They have wins over Arizona, West Virginia, Alabama and Vandy, and only one bad SEC loss, at Ole Miss. At 17-4, they deserved to be ranked somewhere. But the reason I've been hesitant to hype Mississippi State is because they're the one team in the voter polls whose advanced stats just don't stack up to their peers. The Bulldogs are No. 57 in kenpom and No. 51 in the LRMC, mainly because their defense has been atrocious on a point-per-possession basis. They have the front-line size to stop people, with 6-foot-11 Arnett Moultrie, 6-10 Renardo Sidney and 6-9 Wendell Lewis, and they have great perimeter athletes in Dee Bost and Rodney Hood ... yet they don't block many shots or create many turnovers. Unless their defense makes big strides, they can't be considered a serious challenger to Kentucky in the SEC.

Next three: 1/28 at Florida, 2/4 vs. Auburn, 2/9 vs. Mississippi

The Next 16: 17. Florida State,18. Florida,19. St. Mary's,20. Virginia,21. Wichita State,22. Vanderbilt,23. Marquette,24. Cincinnati,25. Wisconsin,26. St. Louis,27. Indiana,28. West Virginia,29. UConn,30. New Mexico,31. Memphis,32. Cal

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