On Thursday, 16 seed Penn will face 1 seed Kansas and attempt to become the first 16 seed to ever beat a 1 seed. If it were ever going to happen – today is the day – this is the matchup.
First, it’s worth noting that these teams are both slightly mis-seeded. Analytically, Kansas resembles more of a 2-3 seeded team, while Penn that of a 14/15 seed. We’ve seen 15s beat 2s and 14 beat 3s. If this game was a 14 vs. 3, would people be more likely to pick Penn? It shouldn’t change your mind. The matchup is still the same - the teams are still the same.
Kansas plays 4 guards with 7-footer, Udoka Azubuike, manning the inside. They’ve been very successful so far this season, especially from beyond the arc - 10th in the nation in 3P%. It’s not surprising as playing 4 guards and a dominant post player often leads to an elite 3P%.
However, Penn is the 2nd best team in the nation at defending the 3. This is primarily driven by their ability to force and contest tough shots. According to a ShotQ, they have the best shot quality defense on jump shots.
Using season long statistics and trends, Penn could not have asked for a better 1 seed matchup.
Two questions still remain.
1. “Can Penn defend 7’0” center Azubuike?”
2. “Penn could stifle Kansas defensively, but can they score on Kansas?”
Azubuike hurt his leg and missed the entire Big 12 Conference Tournament. He’s a game time decision for their matchup and it doesn’t seem promising.
If he can’t go, both of these questions are answered.
Kansas doesn’t really use their bench. Of 351 D1 teams, their starting lineup plays the 6th highest percentage of available minutes in non-garbage time situations. That starting lineup consists of Devonte’ Graham, Malik Newman, Legearld Vick, Svi Mykhailiuk, and, usually, Azubuike.
With the 7-footer out, the Jayhawks have been using Mitch Lightfoot and freshman Silvio De Sousa.
I analyzed their last 7 games, which includes the 3 conference tournament games they played without Azubuike. The graphic below shows how their starting lineup performed when Azubuike was on the court with them compared to the starters with Lightfoot or De Sousa.
The results are incredible. Yes, their 2P% is higher offensively without Azubuike, but Penn may be able to mitigate this effect in their matchup due to the fact that they have the lowest percentage of shots inside the paint.
The starters are significantly worse defensively without Azubuike – dropping them from .95 Def PPP to 1.16 Def PPP. Their 3P%, both offensively and defensively, also deteriorated without Azubuike on the floor.
Penn could have its way from deep if Azubuike can’t play. The Jayhawks’ starting lineup allowed their opponents to shoot 40% when Azubuike was replaced by Lightfoot or De Sousa – 16% worse than with Azubuike.
Good news for Penn fans, the Quakers have the ideal lineup to exploit the Jayhawks’ 3-point woes if Azubuike is out.
The graphic below shows Penn’s ‘small ball lineup’, which was their most efficient lineup in 14 games of conference play this season.
This lineup shot over 52% from 3, which was almost 20% higher than all of Penn's other lineups. Their +.33 NetRtg is Penn’s most efficient lineup and by a wide margin.
They only played this lineup around 6% of the time in conference play, but it’s worth noting that in their final regular season game they played this lineup almost 25% of the game – the most of any Penn lineup.
Shots have to drop for the Quakers and Kansas needs to miss some tough deep jumpers, but it’s possible. If Azubuike is ruled out, watch for this lineup vs. the Jayhawks’ starters. It will probably decide the game.
The NCAA tournament is finally here and by now you’re starting to rethink your bracket. You may want to choose a different 12 seed to beat a 5 or you'd like to switch one of your elite 8 matchups.
You want to switch your pick, but you just don’t have any facts to back up the late change!
Look no further…
DribbleHandoff has officially released Tournament Central – the home of advanced tournament analytics featuring Team Shot Charts, ShotQ (shot quality), Player Splits, and much more,
Plus, 10 stats that you need to perfect your bracket using insights from Tournament Central.
1. Virginia attempts the highest percentage of non-paint 2s of any team in the Tournament. No team seeded 2-10 in the South bracket is in the top 10 in defensive shooting percentage on non-paint shots. Only Cincinnati (12th) is in the top 20.
2. Texas Tech guard, Keenan Evans, leads all NCAA tournament players in PPG difference in wins vs losses – he’s averaging 19.9 PPG in wins compared to just 10.4 PPG in losses. Texas Tech is 18-2 when Evans scores 15+ or more points, while just 6-6 when he fails to reach this mark.
3. Since Feb 1, only two players on NCAA tournament teams averaged 20+ PPG with an eFG% over 65% - Villanova’s Mikal Bridges and College of Charleston’s Grant Riller.
4. Kansas ranks 240th in offensive JumpShotQ and 216th in defensive JumpShotQ – a metric that measures shot quality on jump shots. Their first round opponent, Penn, ranks 3rd and 4th, respectively.
5. Despite the early season success from 3, Oklahoma freshman, Trae Young, has the lowest 3P% among NCAA Tournament players who have attempted at least 5 3PA/G since Feb 1 – Young shot 25.5% from beyond the arc.
6. Villanova’s defense has the 8th worst shooting percentage defending the corner 3 and 15th worst defending the paint. Purdue, the 2 seed in the East, has the 2nd highest shooting percentage from the corner 3 and the 8th highest shooting percentage in the paint.
7. Only two teams rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive ShotQ (shot quality) – Michigan State and Gonzaga.
8 and 9. Dominant Bigs – 1 Post Player & 2 Stretch Players – Since Feb 1, only 3 players have averaged 20+ PPG and 9+ RPG. Arizona Center, DeAndre Ayton, averaged 21.5 PPG, 13.2 RPG, and 2.2 BPG.
Mike Daum of South Dakota State, who I wrote about earlier in the season, and Peyton Aldridge are the only other players over 20 and 9. Both of them are over 24 PPG in this span, while shooting 44+% from 3.
10. #1 Seed in the West, Xavier, has the 4th worst defensive shooting percentage in the paint. #3 Michigan, #4 Gonzaga, and #5 Ohio State all boast top 12 shooting percentages inside the lane. I pointed out a few weeks ago, opponents are scoring with ease inside (69% on 2s) when Kanter is on the court for Xavier.
Sometimes good shots are missed. Sometimes bad shots are made. A team’s field goal percentage only tells half the story – the percentage of shots that are made. It’s time we start quantifying the shot itself and not just the result.
I’ve developed a metric called ShotQ that will quantify team’s offensive and defensive shot quality. This stat evaluates the type of shot, defender distance, location of the shot, and more to measure the difficulty of the shot.
It incorporates many of the same variables we use when we yell out “Why?!” or “NO!” after we see our player attempt a bad shot.
ShotQ helps us better understand a team’s shooting performance. First, we need to do away with FG%. Effective field goal percentage (eFG%) is the best measure of shooting performance as it accounts for the extra point awarded on made 3s.
There is about a .70 correlation between eFG% and ShotQ, indicating that shot quality is an excellent predictor of shot results. This is what we should expect. Good shots should lead to higher shooting percentages and visa versa.
Knowing that these two metrics are so highly correlated, we can compare a team’s eFG% and ShotQ to gain insight about their players and project the trajectory of their eFG%.
For example, as of today, William & Mary ranks #2 in offensive eFG%, but #43 in ShotQ. Offensive shot quality is a little trickier because we can interpret this difference in two ways. We could infer that William & Mary has really good shooters who can make the tougher shots in addition to the easier ones.
Or we could claim that they’ve been lucky in making some difficult shots and we expect their eFG% to decline.
Defensively, it’s a little easier to interpret. Defenses guard many players throughout a season, which mitigates the impact of players making tough shots. When the sample size is large enough there is really only one way to interpret the difference between defensive eFG% and ShotQ.
Villanova currently ranks #105 in defensive eFG%, while ranking much higher in ShotQ at #233. The Wildcats could see a hike in their eFG% rank over their next few games.
It’s important to note that just because we could expect a change in shooting percentage based off a ShotQ doesn’t mean that the increase or decrease will occur in the next game or games. Due to sample size limitations, the change could take weeks and, in some cases, it may not happen at all.
Think of flipping a quarter: On 20 flips, it may come up heads 20 times or 100% of the time. Knowing that a fair coin should have a probability of 50-50, we should expect that as we continue to flip the quarter, our overall percentage will move closer to 50%. However, our next 10 flips could still be heads. Over time the percentage will correct itself, but it doesn’t mean it will happen right away.
ShotQ finally allows us to measure the quality of shots our team attempts offensively and gives up defensively. Shot quality metrics have existed in the NBA for a few years now – I think it’s time to bring the metric to college basketball fans and coaching staffs.
I will be posting daily updates to all 351 D1 teams offensive and defensive ShotQ on this page.
You may notice there are two ShotQ columns. The JumpShotQ is the shot quality specifically for jump shots. The other is the overall ShotQ. It’s important to understand how a team shoots on jump shots alone as well as on all of their shots. When comparing to eFG% it is best to use overall ShotQ.
Finally, we have a way to distinguish shooting luck from shooting skill.
Xavier is in position to win the regular season title for the first time since the formation of the new Big East. However, this team has even bigger goals for this season. Trevon Bluiett, JP Macura, and Sean O’Mara have made it to three consecutive NCAA tournaments – making it as far as the Elite 8 last season.
This season, they want nothing short of an NCAA Championship.
The Musketeers are having their best offensive season under Head Coach Chris Mack – ranking 5th in offensive efficiency per KenPom. However, as the graphic below shows, they have struggled on the defensive end similar to the other offensive powerhouses.
Yet, of these teams, Xavier’s defensive issues may be the easiest to fix.
Their struggles are personnel related. They recently promoted Kerem Kanter to the starting lineup, but the move has come with awful defensive results. The graphic below shows the on-court metrics for the rotation players over the last 11 games.
Opponents shot 69% from 2 with Kanter on the floor during this span, which led to the worst defensive PPP on the team. He is the only rotation player with a negative NetRtg.
Over the last 11 games, they’ve made the defensive problem worse. Not only does Kanter start, but he is playing 4.3 more minutes now than he was before this stretch. Kanter’s minute increase has been funded by the two players who can least afford playing time cuts – Kaiser Gates and O’Mara.
O’Mara and Gates are much better defensive options, as the numbers suggest, and they need to get both on the floor as much as possible. Gates leads the team with a +.15 NetRtg and his impact on his teammates' performance is incredible.
Gates is built for today’s game – a small ball 4, who is shooting 39% from beyond the arc this season. Defensively, he does a really good job switching on ball screens and his length and athleticism helps him contest shots.
Chris Mack should rebuild his lineup starting with the 3 highest players in NetRtg over the last 11 games – Gates, O’Mara, and Quentin Goodin. This trio only played together for 14% of the possessions, but the results were remarkable, especially on defense.
Add in Bluiett, a likely All-American, to play the 2-guard spot. The final spot becomes an option for Chris Mack between Macura and Naji Marshall. This lineup, with the flexibility of Macura/Marshall, remains a strong lineup on the defensive end allowing just .94 PPP.
Compare the lineups. The decision isn’t even close.
To get better overall, Xavier needs to sacrifice slightly on the offensive end to see large gains defensively. With these changes, they will be better equipped to make a tournament run.
However, to win an NCAA Championship, teams need to be able to win close games. Xavier does just that. In their first 16 games, they beat their opponents by an average of +14.9 points per game. But, during the last 11 games, they won by only +4.6 points. They're 9-2 in that span.
It helps to have a clutch scorer. During the 11-game stretch, Bluiett has been ridiculously good in crunch time (last 10 minutes of games within 10 points + overtime).
These numbers include this game saving 4-point play against Georgetown…
… and this dagger against Butler the following game:
It also helps to have a team full of good free throw shooters. In the final 5 mins of the games that are within 4 points, Xavier is shooting 82% from the FT line. They know how to end games.
If they make the changes to get better defensively, this could be the team to beat.
Here we go…
1. Virginia Cavaliers
Virginia now takes the top spot in the power rankings! Last week I wrote about their offensive scheme and why De’Andre Hunter is Virginia’s zone beater. They run more screens than anyone in D1 because of their blocker-mover offense and teams may decide to start playing zone to counter their screen action.
However, Bennett and the Cavaliers have a counter to everything as De’Andre Hunter has been incredible operating in the middle of team’s zone – he’s knocked down elbow jumpers, attacked the basket, and made the right passes. He’s their x-factor.
On Saturday, the Cavaliers faced Syracuse and their notorious zone. Shocker…Hunter finished with a team high 15 points and 6 assists on 5/6 shooting. Zone is not a bad option against Virginia, but teams need an answer for Hunter or he’ll pick it apart all game.
2. Villanova Wildcats
The Wildcats dropped 1 spot after their home loss to an unranked St. John’s team. In the last 8 years #1 teams had a combined record of 109-3 at home against unranked opponents until last night.
Big picture – Nova will be ok. They played this game shorthanded with Phil Booth out a few more weeks and Eric Paschall out with a concussion. Both players are key rotation players and Jay Wright was forced into giving two of his freshman more minutes.
Jay Wright’s team is as efficient as they come. They are destroying teams on baseline out of bounds (BLOB) plays this season – ranking #1 in points per possession for BLOB plays. On Sunday, Villanova scored on all but 1 of their BLOB possessions against a good Seton Hall team.
They do a great job of spacing the floor and will set a screen to get a catch and shoot shot right off of the pass. Sometimes they’ll slip it and have a wide-open shot at the rim. Teams looking to take down the Wildcats need to scout their BLOB plays and lock down defensively. They are too good to give them easy buckets.
3. Purdue Boilermakers
Purdue center, Isaac Haas, is one of the best big men in the low post this season. His 1.17 PPP leads the nation in post-up efficiency among players who post-up at least 50% of their possessions. Not only has he been super efficient on post-ups, but no one attempts post-ups at the rate Haas has this season. A ridiculous 72% of his possessions are post-ups.
His dominance down low sets up even better scoring chances for their guards and wings, who are tremendous shooters. He does a great job finding his teammates when opponents bring a double team. It’s pick your poison with this offense with the way the rest of their starters shoot – Haas posting up 1 on 1 or double him and they give up an open 3 for the best 3-point shooting in D1.
Haas is a tremendous screener as well. They’ll play him high around the free throw line extended and he’ll set a pin down screen to free up one of their shooters. They also use him and Vincent Edwards to set elevator screens for Dakota Mathias, the team’s best 3-point shooter. The Golden State Warriors run similar pin down and elevator screens for their shooters.
4. Cincinnati Bearcats
The Bearcats continue to impress as they have won 15 straight games, including 11-0 in conference play. The top 3 teams are in a tier, but Cincinnati is closing the gap and could soon be in that top tier. Two wins against Wichita State will do it.
If it wasn’t for Virginia’s historically elite defense this season, analysts would be giving Cronin and his defense more praise. Their defensive efficiency is higher than the top defensive team each of the last 2 seasons.
The most impressive part of Cincinnati’s style is their dominance on the offensive glass and in transition defense. Most coaches view it as give or take. You can either go for offensive rebounds at the risk of poor transition defense or pull back after a missed shot to contain transition opportunities. Every coach has their own style.
Yet, the Bearcats haven’t suffered in transition defense despite their offensive rebounding aggressiveness. They are 2nd in offensive rebounding percentage and 3rd in transition defensive.
Their guards do a great job of getting back right away to slow down the break in time for their bigs to get back to make plays like this:
5. Michigan State Spartans
The Spartans are one of one only 2 teams to rank in the top 15 for both offensive and defensive efficiency this season. The other? Purdue. They square off Saturday in their only regular season matchup. It’s a game that not only has regular season champion ramifications, but also could affect NCAA tournament seeding.
It will be interesting to see how each coach decides to use their personnel. The Spartans front court of Bridges (6’7” 230), Nick Ward (6’8” 230), and Jaren Jackson (6’11” 242) could give Purdue fits on defense. Purdue will have to figure out how to cover them with Haas (7’2” 290), Edwards (6’8” 225), and Mathias (6’4” 200).
Purdue could expose one of their bigs by getting 3s on the other end from Edwards or Mathias, but they also may want to make a change in personnel. They rotate Haas and another 7-footer, Matt Haarms (7’3” 250), but they may want to play them together in this game when those 3 from Michigan State are on the floor.
This is the game to watch on Saturday.
6. Duke Blue Devils
The Blue Devils have lost 3 of their last 4 games and have looked very vulnerable despite elite talent. Road losses to Virginia and even North Carolina are somewhat understandable, but a loss to St. John’s is hard to ignore.
St. John’s guard, Shamorie Ponds, dropped 33 points against Duke. They had no answer for him. This isn’t the first time they haven’t been able to cover guards. Boston College’s Ky Bowman and Jerome Robinson scored a combined 52, while shooting 8/14 from 3. Virginia’s Kyle Guy gave them fits running through screens.
Trevon Duval and Alex O’Connell haven’t been able to stay in front of athletic guards and get tripped up going under ball screens on good shooters. Their defensive IQ isn’t there yet either. Virginia beat them both on back door cuts in the first half when they began to overplay Ty Jerome.
In the last edition of the Power Rankings, I stated that Duke’s numbers were not good enough on the road and it would eventually lead to some road losses in the future. Since then they are 0-3 on the road.
If this team wants to be elite, they need to learn how to defend guards and play on the road. Otherwise, this could be one of those talented Duke teams we see lose in an early round.
7. Texas Tech Red Raiders
Chris Beard has done a phenomenal job at Texas Tech this year. This is only the beginning for them as he’s done a great job building this program.
The Red Raiders are as deep as any potential NCAA tournament team. They have 9 players who are averaging 15 minutes per game and no player averages more than 30 minutes. Their depth is really going to help spell their starters in the NCAA tournament and help with potential foul trouble. It matters too because they do have a fairly high foul rate on defense.
They are deep, but the guy at the top for them has been as good as it gets – Keenan Evans. Evans is averaging 18.4 points per game and has hit clutch shot after clutch shot for this team in close games.
They really like to get Evans isolation opportunities - as they should. He is the most efficient ISO player in D1 with a ridiculous 1.23 PPP.
If the Red Raiders win out they will win the Big 12 title ending Kansas’ run of 13 straight titles (or at least a share of the title).
8. Xavier Musketeers
Xavier continues to play close game after close game, but they keep winning them. Good teams know how to close games out. They have a top 20 free throw percentage and their rate is even better in the final minutes of the second half. They are led by 4 seniors who really know how to end games and hit big shots – JP Macura, Trevon Bluiett, Sean O’Mara, and Karem Kanter.
They have all played well down the stretch, but none more than Blueitt.
He hit this 3 against Georgetown and drew the foul to tie the game. They would later win the game in overtime thanks to more big shots from Bluiett. This was an excellent play design by Chris Mack.
Bluiett hit this bomb to knockout Butler in overtime the very next game.
NCAA tournament games are close games – Xavier is as prepared as any team to win those games.
Bruce Pearl and the Tigers may be the surprise story of the year. They are first in the SEC standings despite being picked 9th in the SEC preseason poll.
It’s been a great story and with the way they have played it’s too hard to keep them out of the Power Rankings right now. However, I’m not sure how much longer they can keep this up.
To finish the season they play @ Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina twice, Alabama, @ Florida, and @ Arkansas. I think, at best, they come out of this 4-3.
Their style isn’t even what helped them win games. They are a top 20 team in tempo, according to KenPom, but they haven’t been efficient playing that fast. Among potential NCAA at-large teams and even bubble candidates, they are the worst team in overall transition (includes offense and defense).
Defensively, they rank 22nd in half court defensive efficiency and 296th in transition defense. It’s the same story on offense, but slightly less drastic. They rank 33rd in half court offensive efficiency and 183rd in transition offense.
Bruce Pearl and the coaching staff need to slow the pace down a little and create more half court possessions. It’s what has won them these games.
10. Saint Mary’s Gaels
The Gaels move up a few spots from the last edition of the Power Rankings going from 14th to 10th this week. They haven’t lost in the new year and have a 19-game winning streak. You can argue they are playing as well as any team in the nation.
Jock Landale must be in the conversation for National Player of the Year along side Trae Young and Jalen Brunson. Landale has been a beast inside shooting 66% on 2-point shots. He leads the nation in scoring efficiency as the roll man in ball screen situations. He is so good at getting to the rim and is attempting 95% of his shots in the restricted area.
He has forced teams into double teaming him inside. Similar to Purdue, the Gaels surround Landale with 4 proficient shooters. The other 4 starters all shoot 39% or better from 3 and have attempted at least 30 shots from beyond the arc.
Landale’s best option is fellow senior, Calvin Hermanson, who is shooting 46% from deep. Hermanson is just one of 7 players in the 40-60-80 club this season – players shooting at least 40% from 3, 60% on 2s, and 80% from the free throw line.
Last season, only two players finished the year in the 40-60-80 club. You guessed it – Hermanson and Liberty’s Ryan Kemrite.
To beat the Gaels, a team needs a strong enough defender in the post to guard Landale 1 on 1 so that they can avoid giving open shots to players like Hermanson.
College Basketball fans should hope for an NCAA tournament game of Saint Mary’s vs. Purdue or Villanova. It would be an incredible display of perimeter shooting and post play dominance.
Virginia’s defense has been incredible with Tony Bennett at the helm. In the last 5 years they have been a top 5 defense 4 times, according to KenPom. This year is historically elite – the best defense in the last 15+ years.
Yes, better than Kentucky’s 2015 defense with Towns and Cauley-Stein that won 38 games.
The graphic below shows their defensive dominance compared to the top defenses over the last 15 seasons.
It’s not close.
To beat Virginia, opponents should plan to win a game in the 60s by finding ways to limit Virginia’s offensive production. They are too good on the defensive end. The 2nd best offensive team in the country, Duke, struggled to get to 63 points on Saturday.
In their one loss this year and their last 4 NCAA tournament losses they have surrendered less than 69 points.
Many fans and analysts claim they are a poor offensive team as they mistakenly equate total points to offensive efficiency. According to KenPom, the Cavaliers have the slowest offensive pace in D1 causing their point totals to sit below the D1 average. After adjusting for pace, they are 38th in offensive efficiency.
Tony Bennett adopted the mover-blocker offense his father ran at Washington State. It's a role-based motion offense predicated on reading the defense.
There are 3 “movers”, who are responsible for most of the scoring and ball handling. The 2 “blockers” set screens for the “movers” to get them free for open shots. The “movers” have freedom in coming off of screens as long as they maintain the top-side-side alignment.
They have the freedom to set flare screens, pin-downs, and curl or fade off baseline screens. All 3 “movers” are making cuts throughout the possession and once one defender makes a wrong read they capitalize on the open shot.
Two of their ‘movers” – Kyle Guy and Devon Hall – shoot 15% and 21% better from 3 when shooting off of a screen. Their 3rd starting “mover”, Ty Jerome, shoots 42% in both situations.
Having three guards shooting at these rates from 3 when coming off of screens causes nightmares for man-to-man defenses. On Saturday, Duke’s guards started to overplay the “movers” in fear that they would get free for open 3s.
Virginia noticed so they back cut it. 3 times.
The offense works so well because most college teams don’t have 3 players who can each make 4-6 correct reads each possession.
Finally, Duke went to their 2-3 zone defense in the second half. It worked.
The Cavaliers ran a zone offense and settled for contested jumpers allowing Duke to climb back from a 10-point halftime deficit to take the lead in the second half.
Virginia used Isaiah Wilkins, a “blocker” in the mover-blocker offense, to run the middle of the zone. Wilkins struggled to make the elbow jumper Duke was giving him and it led to multiple empty possessions.
Zone defense seemed like the best way to beat Virginia, until they put De’Andre Hunter in the middle for Wilkins. Hunter, also a “blocker”, changed the game with the plays he made from the middle of the zone. He hit the elbow jumper, attacked the rim, and made great passes to open shooters.
The graphic below shows Virginia’s offensive efficiency by defensive scheme in the second half. They were much more efficient with Hunter, a red-shirt freshman, running the middle than when they used Wilkins or one of their guards to fill the spot.
It’s no surprise that Hunter worked better in the middle than Wilkins – he’s been a more efficient scorer this season. According to Synergy, his offensive scoring efficiency is 1.04 PPP – 12 points/100 possession better than Wilkins.
“De'Andre is so skilled offensively - he has a great mid-range game and he always did a good job of taking what the defense gave him,” said Ryan Tozer, Hunter’s head coach at Friend’s Central High School in Philadelphia.
He added, “He’s a mismatch for opposing teams. He was so humble, I don't think he realized just how good he was early in his high school career.”
College basketball meet Tony Bennett’s x-factor – De’Andre Hunter. Teams will need a game-plan for Hunter if they want to go zone against the Cavaliers. This is Bennett’s best team…and to think they weren’t even ranked in the pre-season AP Top 25.
*All Data is through Tuesday night 1/30/2018.
Now that we have a legitimate sample size to evaluate teams, I’m kicking off the start of the analytics-based Power Rankings. This column will be posted bi-weekly on DribbleHandoff.
Here we go…
1. Villanova Wildcats
As I wrote a few weeks ago, Jay Wright has found the formula. He’s 19-1 this year with two potential National Player of the Year Candidates in Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges.
Jalen Brunson has been phenomenal – probably the best offensive guard he’s ever coached. He’s improved across the board, but most significantly scoring in ball screen situations. Brunson’s scoring efficiency in ball screen situations is 1.28 PPP (points per possession) – the highest efficiency for players with a minimum of 50 possessions, per Synergy. This is a drastic improvement from his 1.00 PPP last season in these situations.
Brunson has always been a super efficient passer coming off the ball screen – both hitting the roll man and finding his teammates along the perimeter. This season 72% of his assists coming off of a ball screen have resulted in a 3, up slightly from the 69% he posted last year.
There’s really no easy way to guard him coming off a ball screen because he can score and pass at an elite level. We’ll see if Marquette can provide a blueprint on Sunday…
Upcoming Games: Sun 1/28 @ Marquette, Thurs 2/1 vs. Creighton
2. Purdue Boilermakers
It’s rare when a team can lose a top 10 player in the country and maintain their performance the following season. Purdue lost a double-double machine in Caleb “Biggie” Swanigan and are now even better than last year. The boilermakers can play 4 legitimate shooters alongside 7’2” big man Isaac Haas at the 5. They have 5 guards currently shooting over 40% from 3 in Vincent Edwards (46%), Carsen Edwards (41%), Dakota Mathias (46%), PJ Thompson (51%), and Ryan Cline (41%).
This has led to an incredible 43.7% from 3 – the highest 3P% in the country. Their personnel groupings provide them with great defensive speed to defend the perimeter, holding opponents to just 31.8% from deep.
You can’t beat the Boilermakers trading 3s for 2s. Only a few teams have the defensive capabilities to stop their barrage from 3 – one is right ahead of them in the Power Rankings and another one is next up…
Upcoming Games: Thurs 1/25 vs. Michigan, Sun 1/28 @ Indiana
3. Virginia Cavaliers
Tony Bennett always gets credited for being a great defensive coach, but this is the best defensive team in the last 15+ years. How does this not get more attention? It’s much better than the 2015 Kentucky defense with Towns that was constantly praised.
In fact, this Virginia is far and away the best defense over this time. It’s not close.
A really good defensive efficiency can provide some directional insight. This list shows the top 10 best defenses since 2002 – 4 of the 9 made it to the Final 4 and 2 of those teams won the Championship.
Is this Tony Bennett’s year?
Saturday will be a great test when they take on Duke’s high-powered offense. Edge: Virginia
Upcoming Games: Sat 1/27 @ Duke, Wed 1/31 vs. Louisville
4. Duke Blue Devils
Duke was a favorite to win the Championship coming into the season (and will be next year as well after securing the top 3 players in next year’s recruiting class). They’ve stumbled at times, but it appears Coach K’s group is finally clicking.
Their highly touted recruiting class this year has led to a dynamic offense – 2nd in the nation in offensive efficiency. As well as their starting lineup has performed, Coach K has played this lineup together for over 40% of their possessions. Their depth remains a concern. According to KenPom, the Blue Devils bench accounts for just 24.3% of their total minutes - 23rd lowest rate in D1.
The bigger concern is their shooting numbers outside of Cameron Indoor Stadium. As of now, it looks like the Blue Devils could be susceptible a few losses on the road due to their narrow margins. In their 2 losses this season, they have a -26% 3P% margin.
Cameron Shooting Effect:
Cameron Stadium: 2P% Margin: 20% -- 3P% Margin: 7%
Not Cameron Stad: 2P% Margin: 7% -- 3P% Margin: -2%
Duke has it all – the talent, the coach, and the lineup. They just need to play better on the road before I’m convinced they are in the tier with the first 3 teams.
Upcoming Games: Sat 1/27 vs. Virginia, Mon 1/29 vs. Notre Dame
5. Michigan State Spartans
The Spartans were another favorite to win the Championship this year with Miles Bridges returning to join fellow sophomores Cassius Winston and Nick Ward in addition to top recruit Jaren Jackson. The frontcourt pairing of Bridges, Ward, and Jackson has created one of the best interior defenses in the last 15-20 years.
The Spartan’s have held opponents to just 36.3% on 2-point shots – the best mark in KenPom’s database dating back to 2002. However, they have started to slip recently in conference play. Big Ten opponents are shooting 45.4% from 2 against Sparty after they allowed just 32.7% to non-conference opponents.
Their upcoming schedule is even tougher inside than the teams they have already played (adjusted for playing the Spartans). Which defense will show up? The historic 32.7% we saw in non-conference play or the average one we’ve seen so far against Big Ten opponents.
My projections have them maintaining this level and finishing around 36.5% for the season, which would put them in the record books.
Upcoming Games: Fri 1/26 vs. Wisconsin, Sun 1/28 @ Maryland
6. Cincinnati Bearcats
This is the best team Mick Cronin has had in his coaching career - the Bearcats defense is for real. They have the 2nd best interior defense, a few ticks behind the Spartan’s, with a 39.4% defensive 2P%.
Their strength is their press defense. For years everyone has talked about West Virginia aka ‘press Virginia’, but the Bearcats have now taken over the top spot. Despite, being #1 and 2 in press defense PPP, Cincinnati’s defense is about .06 PPP better than West Virginia’s this season.
Cronin has always had tough teams, but they’ve never been this talented or this tough defensively. For now, they are the class of the American Conference, but they still have two games left in conference play against Wichita State. The American is going to have a great finish.
Upcoming Games: Sat 1/27 @ Memphis, Wed 1/31 vs. Houston
7. Xavier Musketeers
If there is a team that can knock off Villanova in the Big East tournament, it’s Xavier. The Musketeers are a big team, 10th largest according to KenPom, who bully their opponents inside. This group has more than just size; they have a great shooting touch.
They're just 1 of 4 teams to shoot over 56% on 2s, 36% on 3s, and 76% on free throws this season. Chris Mack has done an excellent job creating a program this is both tough and skilled.
Junior forward Kaiser Gates fits that mold.
Gates is currently ranked 4th in transition efficiency in D1, according to Synergy. He’s shooting 61% from 3 in transition, up 22% from his half court 3P%. As the video below demonstrates, most of his damage has come from the trail spot. Xavier is too good already to give them open looks to a knock-down shooter in transition. Upcoming opponents need to game plan for the pitch back to Gates.
Upcoming Games: Tues 1/30 @ St. John's, Sat 2/3 vs. Georgetown
8. Gonzaga Bulldogs
The Bulldogs have been in the top 30 in offensive efficiency for 14 of the 17 years Mark Few has been at the helm. This year is no different as they are currently 7th in offensive efficiency on KenPom.
It’s the other side of the ball where the Bulldogs coaching staff should be concerned as they rank 115th in half court defensive efficiency. However, they may have already found their answer.
Few is playing more zone defense than he has in the last four years… and it’s working really well. The Bulldogs have the 2nd best DefRtg among teams that have played zone at least 15% of their possessions.
Look for Few and the coaching staff to increase their zone defense usage in future games since it’s been so effective this season.
Upcoming Games: Thurs 1/25 @ Portland, Sat 1/27 vs. San Francisco
9. Kansas Jayhawks
It’s been a tough week for Jayhawk fans. Billy Preston announced he was leaving Kansas for a Bosnian pro club this weekend and then they dropped a close conference game on Tuesday night. But, it’s not all bad for the perennial Big 12 Champs.
The loss came on the road to a good Oklahoma team – road games against top 25 teams are really, really hard.
Billy Preston’s departure would have had a greater impact on Kansas’ frontcourt if it weren’t for the improvements of Udoka Azubuike. The 7’0” sophomore has made incredible strides on the offensive end - shooting a D1 leading 77% on 2-point shots among qualifying players.
Azubuike clearly worked hard this offseason to upgrade his post-up game. His 1.16 PPP leads the nation in post-up efficiency among players who post-up at least 50% of the time. A drastic improvement compared to his dismal .64 PPP from last season.
Bill Self and the coaching staff have done an excellent job finding ways to get him the ball in the post. I’ve noticed there are two plays they typically run to set up an Azubuike post pin.
Azubuike Post Pin 1
Azubuike Post Pin 2
Upcoming Games: Sat 1/27 vs. Texas A&M, Mon 1/29 @ Kansas St
10. West Virginia Mountaineers
Javon Carter has received some praise over the last few weeks, especially after his performance defending Trae Young. He deserves even more credit.
The senior guard is arguably the best two-player in basketball. Carter’s effort on both ends has led to an extremely rare season stat line. He’s just the 2nd player in the last 15 seasons to average more than 15+ PPG, 5+ RPG, 5+ APG, and 3+ SPG. He’s by far the heart of the Mountaineers.
West Virginia has been more successful when Carter plays more of the facilitator role. In their wins he averages 4.3 less shots per game and 1.8 more assists per game.
Upcoming Games: Sat 1/27 vs. Kentucky, Wed 1/31 @ Iowa St
11. Oklahoma Sooners
Trae Young is the superstar college basketball needed this season. He’s been absolutely incredible for the Sooners this season posting point and assist averages we’ve never seen from one player. Especially not a freshman.
However, his greatness has overshadowed the influence of fellow freshman, Brady Manek. The 6’9” freshman has provided the Sooners’ with a pure stretch player to set ball screens for Young. He is just 1 of 3 players this season to grab 5+ rebounds per game and shoot over 63% from 2 and 43% from 3.
The Sooners have been at their best when Manek has converted on his attempts from beyond the arc.
On the most important offensive possession on Tuesday night, Lon Kruger and the coaching staff drew up a player with a ghost action for Manek and Young. Both Kansas defenders stayed with Young and he made the right read to find Manek open for a catch and shoot 3.
It’s worth noting, former Indiana Head Coach Tom Crean predicted the entire play in a Tony Romo-esque manner for ESPN.
Upcoming Games: Sat 1/27 @ Alabama, Tues 1/30 vs. Baylor
12. North Carolina Tar Heels
The reigning National Champions find themselves in the top 12 of this installment of the Power Rankings. They are a strong team on both sides of the all - top 20 in offensive and defensive efficiency.
Like their rival, Duke, they’ve had the problems defending shots from beyond the arc. Teams are getting 41.9% of their points from 3 against UNC – the 3rd highest percentage in D1. They’ve also had some problems defending teams in transition.
However, the Tar Heels have been able to win despite these weaknesses because of their substantial rebound percentage margin. Their top 5 offensive rebound percentage also explains some of their issues in transition defense.
North Carolina has some big-time rebounders in Luke Maye, Sterling Manley, Theo Pinson, Garrison Brooks, and Cameron Johnson. It’s not the most talented team Roy Williams has had at North Carolina, but if they can continue to own the glass they should remain a top 3 seed on Selection Sunday.
Upcoming Games: Sat 1/27 vs. NC State, Tues 1/30 @ Clemson
13. Ohio State Buckeyes
How about the job Chris Holtmann has done this season at Ohio State? The Buckeyes were outside the top 70 in KenPom last year and find themselves currently at #11 in KenPom and 13 in the Power Rankings.
After playing only 9 games last year before suffering a stress fracture in his leg, Keita Bates-Diop has been a beast this season. Diop has combined with Jae’Sean Tate and Kam Williams to force one of the best 2-3-4 combinations in the country.
In the Buckeyes wins, they have almost 15 more PPG than they have in losses. Diop, Tate, and Williams combine for 12.1 of the 14.9 PPG.
What explains the 12.1 PPG gap between wins and losses? Primarily because of their efficiency in the paint. According to Synergy, they are shooting 65% in the paint in wins compared to just 49% in losses.
Ohio State’s won 13 of their last 14 because of the strides Diop, Tate, and Williams have made under Holtmann. It’s quite possible the Buckeyes could steal the Big Ten regular season title after many analysts projected them to finish in the bottom quarter of the conference.
Upcoming Games: Thurs 1/25 vs. Penn State, Tues 1/30 vs. Indiana
14. Saint Mary’s Gaels
The Gael’s are a tough older team led by senior big man Jock Landale. He’s a National Player of the Year candidate and is averaging a double-double with 22.4 PPG and 10.2 RPG. The only other player with 20+ PPG and 10+ RPG is projected top 3 NBA draft pick Marvin Bagley.
The Gael’s are the 20th most experienced team in college basketball and have lineups they get to frequently consisting of 4 seniors. This group has helped them to a top 5 offensive TO% in addition to a top 5 offensive eFG%. Winners of 14 straight, it’s safe to say not many teams want to play this senior-laden squad.
Upcoming Games: Thurs 1/25 vs. BYU, Sat 1/27 vs. Portland
*Numbers are current through Wednesday 1/24/2018
A few years ago, the NBA had an analytics movement. Similar to the one that occurred in baseball years prior, some of the long-held strategies were challenged. Teams began to prioritize efficiency over counting stats. This resulted in personnel changes; front offices began to favor stretch players and smaller lineups. Coaching staffs made strategic adjustments to improve ball movement, spacing, and pace at the expense of hero-ball.
Front offices tracked everything – shots, touches, lineups, player’s on/off court impact, expected shot value, etc. One of the earliest findings was that the corner 3 has the highest expected shot value.
Data from the 2016-17 NBA season shows that corner 3s had a 3P% of 39.4%, while center and wing 3s were shot at 34.4% and 34.9% clips, respectively. Expected shot value is calculated using the location’s shooting % and point value. Therefore, the expected point value of a corner 3 in the NBA is 1.182 (.394 x 3).
This marginal lift on corner 3s became a competitive advantage for the teams that studied the play types that generate these shots, why there was a lift, and how they could shoot more of them.
So now everyone’s wondering: Does the lift on corner 3s exist in college basketball?
Yes. An analysis of 2016-17 NCAA D1 data shows that there is a 2.5% increase in 3P% between corner 3s and non-corner 3s, or above the break 3s.
Some have argued that the corner 3’s value was due to the shorter distance to the rim as the NBA 3-point line is 22’ feet in the corner and extends up to 23’9”. However, the college 3-point line is equal at all spots along the line at 20’9” and there is still a substantial lift on corner 3s.
Furthermore, using NBA data, a comparison can be made between corner 3s taken from 22’ and 2-point shots also taken from 22’. The 22’ corner 3s are made at a 39.4% clip compared to a 37.7% clip on 22’ shots from inside the arc. It’s not distance.
So, then, what is the cause of the lift on corner 3s?
An analysis of shot quality, using data from NBAsavant.com, provides the best explanation. The graphic below shows average dribbles, average touch time, and average defender distance for corner 3s and above the break 3s.
The corner 3 is less contested, on average, and a higher percentage of these shots are catch and shoot, which are made at higher rates than shots off the dribble. The database doesn’t provide true catch and shoot data, but 91% of the corner 3s were shot without a dribble compared to 72% for above the break 3s.
This suggests it’s all about what happens before the shot – the corner 3 is the byproduct of the possession.
The teams that take the most corner 3s get the defense to collapse and lose their assignments. The best ways to get a corner look is to penetrate the defense or getting a touch in the paint. Defenses that decide to double team players in the post risk getting beat on a pass to the corner.
Is it possible to identify the teams with the highest lift on corner 3s through a specific stat?
There isn’t a metric in college basketball that measures these types of possessions. However, the teams with the highest lifts on corner 3s had a player in common – a 6’8”+ big man who shot at least 60% on 2s, an assist rate above 8%, and a usage rate above 20%.
These are taller big men who dominate in the paint and frequently draw double teams or extra attention. Once the double comes, they are adequate passers to find the open man in the corner.
Teams with these players shot 5.1% better on corner 3s than above the break 3s - 2.6% better than the D1 average lift.
Which teams had the highest lift last season?
Creighton – 51% on Corner 3s (14.5% lift Corner 3 vs Above the Break)
Middle Tennessee – 44.1% on Corner 3s (9.4% lift)
Texas A&M – 40% on Corner 3s (9.1% lift)
Shooting at a high percentage from the corner is only part of the equation. Teams need to try to create as many opportunities for corner 3s as possible.
The NBA has used the data to their advantage – the NBA average for percentage of 3s that are corner 3s continues to increase. The chart below shows the percentage of 3s from the center, wing, and corner for the NBA and NCAA.
NBA teams take 7% more 3s from the corner than D1 teams – they studied this shot and know how to take more of them. Corner 3s remain an untapped goldmine in NCAA basketball right now. It’s time college coaches study and follow their NBA counterparts.
Some have already caught on. In a press conference last year, Marshall Head Coach Dan D’Antoni, brother of 3-point revolutionist Mike D’Antoni, said, “The best shot in basketball is that corner three.” Who listened?
“We don't measure our performance on if shots go in. We measure it on -- I don't mean to be too analytical -- expected shot value.” – Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics Head Coach
Marquette’s Andrew Rowsey just posted his 4th 30+ point game this Tuesday against Seton Hall. Rowsey’s teammate, Markus Howard, also has 4 of these games – combining to become the only duo in the country with 4 or more 30+ games.
In the 2nd half of the game, Rowsey drew a shooting foul on a 3 with a nice shot fake. But, to Marquette fans, it’s more than just a shot fake. It's called #TheThing and he’s done it 16 times already this season.
Why are teams still falling for this fake? According to Synergy, he’s the most efficient ball screen scorer in D1 (min. 100 possessions). Defenses are so worried about Rowsey pulling up from deep that they're easily drawn into the air for Rowsey to lean into them.
Here are this season’s clips of #TheThing:
2. Weird Week of Game Ending Fouls
On Tuesday, Texas A&M trailed Kentucky by 1 when PJ Washington missed 2 free throws with 3.9 seconds left in the game. Texas A&M guard JJ Caldwell whipped a pass up court to Tyler Davis who was clearly hugged by Wenyen Gabriel – but no foul was called!
Davis is shooting 68% from the line. A&M is now 0-4 in SEC play, but they should turn it around now that their guards are healthy.
Here’s the no call that ended the game:
Hours later, another game came down to the last play. Purdue and Michigan were tied 69-69 when Moe Wagner was called for the foul on an entry pass into Isaac Haas. The 7’2” center, a 78% free throw shooter, hit the front end and Purdue won 70-69.
It’s interesting because there’s less contact, but in this case the foul was called.
However, the strangest foul came on Wednesday night when TCU intentionally fouled Texas with 6.5 seconds left IN A TIE GAME. Texas was in the double bonus so it wasn’t even to set up a 1 and 1.
The craziest part is it almost worked out in their favor! Texas freshman, Jericho Sims, who is shooting just 38% from the line this season, made 1 of 2 to put Texas up 99-98. On TCU’s final play Jaylen Fisher got a wide open look at the rim and it rimmed out. Fisher is shooting 60% at the rim.
3. Giving Robert Williams Some Love
Earliest this week, Jeff Eisenberg tweeted “Something I haven't seen discussed enough this season: Robert Williams hasn't gotten any better, has he?” Sam Vecenie added on that he’s slipping in his mock draft and that he’s made very few strides in his game.
He's been better. His 2P% is up - lifted by 71% at the rim compared to 65% last year. Defensively, his DRTG is up, blk% is the same, and reb% is way up. When they play only one big man at a time, he has a much higher NetRtg than both Davis and Morelos - an absurd +.50 NetRtg.
These stats all show positive signs that he’s continuing to develop and improve in his second season. I think part of the reason people are questioning him is because he’s been pulled in games by the coaching staff and he’s doing less. It’s true he’s less involved offensively as his usage rate dropped around 5% since last season, but he’s been really efficient in his time on the floor.
Check out the graphic below to see how their bigs have performed in different personnel groupings.
He’s improved despite missing games this year with a concussion and virus. Once he plays more games consecutively and his conditioning comes back I think there could even be another level for him.
4. Svi at Home and in Wins has been Deadly from 3
Kansas lost their top two scorers from last season to the NBA in Frank Mason (21 PPG) and Josh Jackson (16 PPG). That’s about 45% of their scoring from last season. A big question for Bill Self and his staff was who would pick up the scoring load.
So far Svi Mykhailiuk has stepped up to the challenge, raising his PPG average from 9.8 to 16.9. He’s been dominant from beyond the arc shooting 47% this year, substantially higher than his 40% the past two seasons.
Svi has been locked in from deep at home shooting 20% better at Allen Fieldhouse than on the road.
He’s not only been better at home, but also in their wins. They’ve needed him to step up this season as a scorer and legitimate threat outside. He’s clearly a different player in their wins than in their losses this year.
The Jayhawks are going to need Svi to keep up his scoring production, especially as they wait for the NCAA's clearance process to approve Billy Preston and Silvio De Sousa for play this season.
5. Big Time Scorers (Not Named Trae Young)
Trae Young is ridiculous and has scored 30+ points in 5 games. As I mentioned above, Rowsey and Howard each have 4 games. However, two players have had 6 of these performances – Mike Daum and Kendrick Nunn.
I wrote about Daum earlier this year – he is a legitimate NBA draft prospect and scoring machine for South Dakota State.
The surprise player on the list is Nunn.
It shouldn’t really be a surprise - he was ranked #63 in ESPN’s recruiting rankings in 2013 and was a talented scorer in high school playing alongside Jabari Parker. He played his first 3 years at Illinois and averaged 15.5 PPG his junior year.
On May 24, 2016, he was dismissed from the team after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor battery charge and transferred to Oakland for his senior year. This season, he's averaging 25.7 PPG and he’s more than doubled his assists from 1.7 to 4.1 APG.
It’s great to see Nunn succeeding at Oakland – scoring at the level most thought was possible.
On December 18th, Texas A&M was ranked #8 in the AP poll with a 9-1 record. Since then, they lost 3 of their last 5 games and fell out of the top 25 in this week’s poll.
Despite their recent struggles, don’t dismiss the Aggies. They are a top 10 in the country at full health.
Head Coach Billy Kennedy had to shuffle his rotation almost every game because of injuries, illnesses, and suspensions. But it looks like he may finally have most of his rotation back for Tuesday night’s game at Kentucky.
Kennedy’s starting lineup was projected to be Duane Wilson, Admon Gilder, DJ Hogg, Robert Williams, and Tyler Davis. However, that lineup has only played 11% of the non-garbage time possessions this season.
Over this 5 game stretch where they struggled to a 2-3 record, Williams, Wilson, and Hogg missed at least 2 games, and Gilder missed all 5. Kennedy needs all of these players back on the court, but none more than Gilder.
Without him, they’ve struggled from beyond the arc on both ends of the floor.
This shouldn’t be a long-term problem for the Aggies with Gilder on his way back. In an analysis of their season, Gilder has the highest NetRtg (PPP margin) on the team highlighted by team bests in both offensive 3P% and defensive 3P% when on the court.
Gilder’s return should help reinstate this team as a top 10 in the country. He leads the team in both offensive and defensive efficiency in non-garbage time. This is largely because he’s the team's top shooter, converting on 44% of his 3s, as well as their best guard defender.
According to Synergy, Gilder ranks 21st in the nation in defensive efficiency for players with at least 70 possessions as the primary defender. Opponents are shooting just 28.5% from 3 and 5% in the paint when Gilder is sticking them.
Gilder is not the only one who will help flip the 3pt line back in the Aggies favor. Junior wing, DJ Hogg, is shooting 48% from deep and has used his length to defend at a high level. Texas A&M’s stats are staggering with both players on the court.
The graphic below shows how their teammates have performed with both Gilder and Hogg on the court with them compared to having just one or neither player on the court.
The NetRtgs of the rotation players with both Gilder and Hogg on the court show the potential of this team at full strength. Robert Williams (+.31) and Tonny Trocha-Morelos (+.41) are two bigs who really excel playing with Gilder and Hogg.
These four players have played together for only 6% of the team’s total possessions this season, but the results are ridiculously good. Their defensive PPP is .64 leading to a NetRtg of +.55.
If Kennedy can get to a lineup featuring these four players, the Aggies will be back in the top 10 of the AP poll very soon.