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.