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