No. 1: Florida (23-2, 12-0 SEC)
Last Week: Summitted Tennessee, 67-58; erupted at Kentucky, 69-59.
Best Wins: vs. Kansas, at Kentucky, vs. Memphis (neutral site), at Arkansas, at Tennessee
Losses: at Wisconsin, at Connecticut
EfficiencHeat Check1: 1.18 points per possession (PPP), 1.02 PPP allowed
No. 2: Syracuse (25-0, 12-0 ACC)
Last Week: Ennded Pittsburgh, 61-59; stole one from N.C. State, .
Best Wins: vs. Duke, vs./at Pittsburgh, vs. Villanova
Losses: None. Still. Somehow.
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.06 PPP, 0.96 PPP allowed
The easy thing to do, after a week in which Syracuse stayed unbeaten via Tyler Ennis and other dark magic, would be to keep Syracuse at No. 1 in any rankings. But I can't convince myself that Syracuse is a better team at this moment than Florida — and it's not just the homer in me talking.
Syracuse's offense has been underwhelming of late, failing to crack 1.10 PPP in either game last week, and needing Ennis's ridiculous buzzer-beater at Pitt and some spectacularly poor play from N.C. State2 to rescue it in a game that produced the Orange's first sub-1.00 PPP mark in over a month. And that 0.92 PPP against N.C. State, 10th in the ACC in per-possession defense, came one week after 1.17 PPP against Clemson, 10th nationally in per-possession defense. Even Troy Nunes Is an Absolute Magician admitted "This is getting silly now" while winning the permalink game forever over the weekend.
And while I'll happily acknowledge that this last month of Syracuse farting luck has also featured some very good and genuinely exciting basketball, the Orange are decidedly not playing better basketball than Florida.
The Gators had been playing ferocious defense and merely good offense as January came to a close; now, after putting up 1.19 PPP in three of their last four games, one of which was the best offensive performance at Rupp Arena this year, the Florida offense is clicking. But the defense has been exceptional despite opponents getting hot: The Gators' last three foes have all been at or above 51.0 percent in Effective Field Goal Percentages, and none of the three have managed to get to the 1.10 PPP plateau.
Alabama's eFG% was 62.5 percent last Saturday, its best of the season against a Division I foe, and the Tide couldn't crack 70 points against the Gators in a 63-possession game; Kentucky shot 53.6 percent and didn't manage 60 in a 58-possession game this past Saturday, mustering 1.02 PPP, its worst number on the year. (And those opponents are not hitting a lot of open shots. Trust me on this one.)
That game at Kentucky was Florida's magnum opus — the Gators produced the best offensive number and the best defensive number anyone's gotten against a celestially talented Kentucky team this year. And they did it at Rupp, where Florida hadn't won since 2007; it all deserved the 4,000-word paean I wrote for them at Alligator Army. (I don't even have space to mention Florida winning for just the second time since 2004 at Tennessee here, either, but that, too, happened last week.) And while I'll freely cop to bias for my alma mater and the team I cover, I'd favor Florida by a point or two over Syracuse at a neutral site right now, and thus I feel fine with having Syracuse No. 2 to Florida's No. 1 this week.
And it's not like Syracuse can't take No. 1 back. If the Orange beat Duke at Duke this coming Saturday, things will probably be different next Monday.
No. 3: Duke (21-5, 10-3 ACC)
Last Week: Half-shelled Maryland, 69-67.
Best Wins: vs. Pittsburgh, vs. Virginia, vs. Michigan, vs. UCLA (neutral site), vs. Florida State
Losses: vs. Arizona, Kansas (neutral sites), at Notre Dame, at Clemson, at Syracuse
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.25 PPP, 1.03 PPP allowed
Yes, Duke. The Blue Devils cooled off on offense against Maryland, and their offense is no longer at 1.34 PPP in the EfficiencHeat Check after a 1.00 PPP afternoon against Maryland, but I firmly believe Duke should be favored over every team I have ranked behind the Blue Devils here.
That win over Maryland also proved that the team I praised as one of the deepest squads of shooters this century can win without significant contributions from distance. Duke made just five of 24 threes in its last ACC game against the Terps — barring an ACC Tournament meeting — and still survived the storm that was Dez Wells's second half, thanks largely to Jabari Parker's 23 points. I didn't think Duke played all that well, either, but the Blue Devils held Maryland (way better than its 13-10 record, mind you) under 1.00 PPP, marking the first time Duke's held a team to less than a point per trip since putting the clamps on the Miami team that is Jim Larrañaga's test of the theory that he can coach a team can look half-decent in the 2014 ACC without having a single player that would start for any other team in the conference.
I wouldn't read too much into that sudden effectiveness on the defensive end — if Charles Mitchell makes one of the nine two-pointers he missed for the Terps, Maryland's at 1.00 PPP, and, also, the game goes to overtime — but occasional flashes of defense to go along with possibly the best offense of the KenPom era make Duke about as dangerous as a Duke team flying under the radar nationally can get.
No. 4: Wichita State (27-0, 14-0 Missouri Valley)
Last Week: Outpaced Southern Illinois, 76-67; won chips from Evansville, 84-68.
Best Wins: at Saint Louis, vs. Tennessee, vs. BYU (neutral site), at Indiana State
Losses: Na ga happen until March.
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.17 PPP, 1.00 PPP allowed
Wichita State is Wichita State, a very good team that is better than every other team in the Missouri Valley Conference and will probably win every game it plays against Missouri Valley Conference teams. KenPom now gives the Shockers a 76.8 percent chance of finishing the regular season at 31-0; add in three MVC Tournament games, and the Shockers are probably about a coin flip to enter the NCAA Tournament undefeated.
But the best win Gregg Marshall's team has — or will have, until about the Sweet Sixteen — is a road win at Saint Louis that happened more than three months ago. Unless Tennessee gets its act together (don't bet on it), that's probably the only game Wichita State will have played against an NCAA Tournament team all season. It's fine to praise a team's ability to go undefeated over 27 games, which would be a feat even if the Shockers were playing the dregs of Division I, instead of the middle class, but that goose egg doesn't mean I have to throw concerns about quality of opponent to the wind.
No. 5: Arizona (24-2, 10-2 Pac-12)
Last Week: Forked by Arizona State, 69-66 (2OT).
Best Wins: vs. Duke (neutral site), at Michigan, at UCLA, at San Diego State, vs. Arizona State
Losses: at California, at Arizona State
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.03 PPP, 0.93 PPP allowed
Arizona's numbers would look a lot less impressive without its 76-54 home win over Oregon State — currently 2-8 on the road this year, though one of those wins is over Maryland (?) — from February 9; in the four games over their last five that weren't that win, the Wildcats have scored exactly as many points as their opponents.
Sure, Arizona's playing good teams night in and night out, because the Pac-12 is full of good teams; play enough of those teams and a very good team is bound to lose eventually. But these are teams that might be No. 7 seeds come the NCAA Tournament, if they're lucky. Arizona State was a No. 10 seed in Chris Dobbertean's most recent bit of bracketology, and the Oregon team that took 'Zona to the wire two Thursdays ago was in his "next four out."
And you can't blame all of this swoon on Brandon Ashley's injury, either. Arizona needed to bring the clamps out late to fend off Utah and Stanford just before he got hurt, and Nick Johnson hasn't scored 20 or shot better than 50 percent from the field since that Stanford game. No. 5 is fine for 'Zona as of now, but I would not be surprised to see the 'Cats lose either or both of their return trips to Utah and Colorado this week, and slide further, which would endanger their shot at a No. 1 seed.
No. 6: Virginia (21-5, 11-1 ACC)
Last Week: Flipped Maryland, 61-53; squeezed by Clemson, 63-58.
Best Wins: vs. SMU (neutral site), vs./at Florida State, vs. North Carolina, at Pittsburgh
Losses: vs. VCU, vs. Wisconsin, at Green Bay, at Tennessee, at Duke
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.03 PPP, 0.93 PPP allowed
Virginia has five ACC road wins, including ones over Pittsburgh, Clemson, and a dominant one over N.C. State; Syracuse has five ACC road wins, including one over Pittsburgh, and no others that are in any way impressive. Duke has three ACC road wins, and it, too, has one at Pittsburgh. (Step it up, Pitt!)
Virginia, not Syracuse, has the best defense in the ACC, and it scored 1.19 PPP on Clemson at Clemson on Saturday, after Syracuse scored 1.17 at home against the Tigers last Saturday. Virginia, not Syracuse, is projected to win the rest of its ACC games by KenPom, though getting to host the Orange for their March 1st showdown and not getting a return visit from Duke helps a lot in that regard.
Virginia, not Syracuse or Duke, had ugly losses to Green Bay and Tennessee in non-conference play, and I get that that matters a lot when it comes to NCAA Tournament seeding, but I'll ride for these Cavaliers, and I still have a sneaking suspicion they're going to run the table, upset Syracuse, and win a share of the ACC title.
No. 7: Creighton (21-4, 11-2 Big East)
Last Week: Left Butler blue, 68-63; nova'd on Villanova, 101-80.
Best Wins: vs. Arizona State (neutral site), vs. Xavier, vs./at Villanova
Losses: vs. San Diego State, George Washington (neutral site), at Providence, at St. John's
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.06 PPP, 0.98 PPP allowed
My Creighton blurb could really be about Doug McDermott alone every week — and that would be unfair, given that the other Bluejays still scored 62 on Villanova on Sunday — but the shoo-in Naismith Award winner just passed Larry Bird on college basketball's all-time Division I scoring list with his unchill 39 on Sunday, and so I had a little fun with the math.
McDermott has 2,863 points through 135 games, and ranks 13th on the list in question. If he merely maintains his career average, 21.2 points per game, over 14 more Creighton games — the Bluejays have final five regular season games, and could play three Big East Tournament games and six NCAA Tournament games — he would finish with 3,159 points in his career, good for fifth all-time. If he holds to his 25.9 points per game in 2013-14 over those same 14 games, he could score 3,225 points, and would end up third all-time. And if McDermott could score just ("just") 28 points per game over those last 14 games, he would finish second all-time to Pete Maravich, with 3,255 points.
But, uh, McDermott isn't gonna catch Pistol Pete: He would need to score 57.4 points per game over his final 14 games to reach Maravich's 3,667 career points — which Maravich scored in 83 games over three years without a three-point shot. No one is ever going to catch Pistol Pete.
No. 8: Kansas (19-6, 10-2 Big 12)
Last Week: Octagonged by Kansas State, 86-84 (OT); frog splashed TCU, 95-65.
Best Wins: vs. Duke (neutral site), vs./at Iowa State, vs. Oklahoma State, at Oklahoma
Losses: vs. Villanova (neutral site), at Colorado, at Florida, vs. San Diego State, at Texas, at Kansas State
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.17 PPP, 0.96 PPP allowed
On the Rise
On the Rise
Kansas rebounded nicely from its sleepwalking loss at Kansas State by thrashing TCU on Saturday: After 10 minutes, it was TCU 25, Kansas 21, and then the Jayhawks outscored the Horned Frogs by a latitude, 74-40, from there. But, uh, Kansas was still somnambulant for all but the final 90 seconds or so of regulation in Manhattan, and not having Joel Embiid only covers so much, and does not answer "Why is Will Spradling always friggin' open?"
Embiid looks likely to play at Texas Tech on Tuesday3, and that probably helps Kansas substantially, especially on defense, where the Jayhawks actually need help. But apart from Andrew Wiggins, who should serve as a cone of silence on whatever man he draws from now until the end of his Jayhawks career, Kansas just doesn't seem to have any perimeter defenders who are more than mediocre. And when Cinderellas start jacking threes in March, that might be an issue.
No. 9: San Diego State (22-2, 11-1 Mountain West)
Last Week: Lassoed by Wyoming, 68-62; shot down Air Force, 64-57.
Best Wins: vs. Creighton (neutral site), at Kansas
Losses: vs. Arizona, at Wyoming.
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.14 PPP, 1.06 PPP allowed
You know, I think San Diego State's loss to Wyoming is on me. I can't think that my telling the world to WATCH XAVIER THAMES only to have him go 3-for-16 in a team's first loss in months didn't factor into the Aztecs losing a game at altitude against a good Wyoming team; that would go against the cardinal rule ("You must be the star of every piece you write") of writing about sports on the Internet3, I think.
But San Diego State might have a problem in the form of having a second or third scorer behind Thames on nights when the other team can make shots. Wyoming's 64.5 percent eFG% was the best posted against SDSU this year, and Dwayne Polee had 15 points to lead the Aztecs, but getting 28 from Thames (who had 13) Plus X probably isn't going to cut it for more than the first weekend in March. Furthermore, February losses for teams like San Diego State — which has two excellent wins, a gaudy record, and nothing else selectors will be impressed by — increase the chances that they move closer to the seed lines where the peskiest mid-majors lurk.
I dunno, though: Maybe if I tell you DO NOT WATCH XAVIER THAMES, all will be well. Try it this week, now that the Aztecs are playing two games on channels you could actually conceivably find in your cable or satellite package!
No. 10: Villanova (22-3, 10-2 Big East)
Last Week: Defenestrated DePaul, 87-62; McDunked by Creighton, 101-80.
Best Wins: vs. Kansas, Iowa (neutral site)
Losses: at Syracuse, vs./at Creighton
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.10 PPP, 1.03 PPP allowed
Villanova against Creighton this year: 1.10 PPP, 1.46 (!!!!!) PPP allowed. Villanova against Big East teams that are not Creighton this year: 1.21 PPP, 0.97. Basically, Villanova is destroying most of the Big East — but Creighton has destroyed Villanova by an even bigger margin per trip. That is why those EfficiencHeat Check numbers don't look entirely hideous, and these are my full thoughts on Villanova this week.
No. 11: Wisconsin (21-5, 8-5 Big Ten)
Last Week: Did what Spackler couldn't against Minnesota, 78-70; clawed Michigan, 75-60.
Best Wins: vs. Florida, at Virginia, vs. Saint Louis (un sitio neutral), vs. Michigan State, at Michigan, vs. Iowa
Losses: at Indiana, vs. Michigan, at Minnesota, vs. Northwestern, vs. Ohio State
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.14 PPP, 0.87 PPP allowed
I ranked Michigan State, which has been scuffling through Big Ten play just like Wisconsin, No. 15 last week. For comparison, here's what the Spartans' best wins and losses sections look like right now.
Best Wins: vs. Kentucky, Oklahoma (neutral sites), at Texas, at Iowa
Losses: vs. North Carolina, vs. Michigan, vs. Georgetown (neutral site), at Wisconsin, vs. Nebraska
There's a decent argument that none of those wins is as good as Wisconsin's win over Michigan State! And while both the Badgers and Spartans lost to Michigan on their usually vaunted home courts, Wisky paid the Wolverines back on Sunday with two halves of great offense and one of great defense against a great offense.
Yeah, Wisconsin had a 1-5 stretch in the Big Ten, and three of those losses came at home; yeah, Wisconsin beat Florida while Scottie Wilbekin and Dorian Finney-Smith were still suspended, and it's hard to remember what Florida looked like pre-Wilbekin this year at this point (hint: not particularly competent on offense). But I'm trying to judge how good a team is right now, and those mitigating factors mean more for a tournament résumé. Wisconsin can be my No. 11 team this week and in line for a No. 4 seed; I'm not going to mind not having to think like the selection committee does.
No. 12: Saint Louis (23-2, 10-0 Atlantic 10)
Last Week: Wrecked HAVOC vs. VCU, 64-61.
Best Wins: vs. VCU, vs. Richmond, at Dayton
Losses: vs. Wisconsin (un sitio neutral), vs. Wichita State
EfficiencHeat Check: 0.97 PPP, 0.87 PPP allowed.
Can Saint Louis score enough to beat good non-Atlantic 10 teams? The Billikens didn't do that against Wisconsin (57 points in 65 possessions) or Wichita State (65 points in 67 possessions), and while both of those teams are more than "good," obviously, it's a concern. Certainly, the Billies grinding VCU's offense to nothingness — 62 points in 71 possessions = 0.87 PPP, and the first game with 70 or more possessions in which VCU has failed to top 65 points since 20095 — on Saturday was impressive, but VCU hasn't beaten anyone since beating Virginia in its second game of the season, so there's no transitive property of awesomeness here beyond Shaka Smart's bulletproof rep.
No. 13: Iowa (19-6, 8-4 Big Ten)
Last Week: Roared past Penn State, 82-70.
Best Wins: vs. Xavier (neutral site), at Ohio State.
Losses: vs. Villanova (neutral site), at Iowa State, at Wisconsin, at Michigan, vs. Michigan State
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.18 PPP, 1.07 PPP allowed.
More like Out of Sight, Out of Mindowa! (This structure is only good until the end of March, give me a break.) The Hawkeyes beat Penn State on Saturday, and nary a damn was given by most, but Iowa is now on a two-game winning streak for the first time since mid-January, and that pleases Black Heart Gold Pants. Maybe if this keeps up, Iowa can win the Big Ten while occasionally playing games like dolphins talk! (Okay, sorry.)
No. 14: Cincinnati (23-3, 11-1 American)
Last Week: Out-catted Houston, 73-62.
Best Wins: at Louisville, at Memphis, vs. Pittsburgh (neutral site)
Losses: at New Mexico, vs. Xavier (neutral site), at SMU
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.08 PPP, 0.96 PPP allowed
No. 15: Connecticut (20-5, 8-4 American)
Last Week: Gored South Florida, 83-40; Shabazzed Memphis, 86-81.
Best Wins: vs. Florida, vs./at Memphis, vs. Harvard
Losses: vs. Stanford, at Houston, at SMU, vs. Louisville, at Cincinnati
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.12 PPP, 0.89 PPP allowed
No. 16: Louisville (21-4, 10-2 American)
Last Week: Hootie-hoo'd Temple, 82-58; felled Rutgers, 102-54.
Best Wins: at Connecticut, vs. SMU, vs. Southern Miss
Losses: vs. North Carolina (neutral site), at Kentucky, vs. Memphis, vs. Cincinnati
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.32 PPP, 0.88 PPP allowed
How do you solve a problem like the American?
Digging for Fire
Digging for Fire
Cincinnati's the winningest team in the league, but its offense is bad enough that SMU just upchucked all over itself at Temple and still ranks ahead of the Bearcats in per-possession offense in conference play. Connecticut is doing that patented UConn thing where the numbers like but don't love the Huskies (that 0.88 PPP in UConn's last four games is thanks to South Florida managing just 40 on the Huskies), and yet an indomitable perimeter — Shabazz Napier is playing the role previously filled by Ray Allen, Khalid El-Amin and Richard Hamilton, Caron Butler, Ben Gordon, and Kemba Walker this year — makes them nearly unkillable. Per-possession numbers love Louisville6, because the Cards routinely do things like outscore three straight bad American teams by 0.44 points per trip, but Louisville's best win is over UConn, and its second-best win is over Southern Miss. SMU destroyed Cincinnati at home, then took a bad loss to Temple eight days later. Memphis is 1-4 against the other four teams listed here, but that win is one of two Louisville home losses this year, and the Tigers split games with Oklahoma State before Oklahoma State dove into a trash chute and took Florida to the wire at a neutral site.
Is the American secretly the Big Ten and/or Big 12 and/or the 2005-2013 Big East in disguise!? I have no idea, but I'm putting SMU and Memphis at No. 17 and No. 18 and am totally cool with you figuring that shit out, too.
To Fill A Top 25
SMU and Memphis go here, like I said. ... Michigan State is living on the best November in college basketball, and yet it is February. ... Kentucky played about as well as anyone has against Florida of late, and still looked broken by game's end. ... Texas rebounded from a really bad week by thumping Oklahoma State and West Virginia at home. ... Michigan still needs Nik Stauskas to wake up; he had 11 points on 4-of-11 shooting against Wisconsin. ... ... Ohio State held Illinois to 0.66 PPP on Sunday, which makes scoring 0.81 PPP funny, and not sad. ... I was wrong about Southern Mississippi getting ranked last week, but I think the Golden Eagles should be.
Seven (Okay, Eight) Sleepers
Oklahoma is going to be ranked again by the end of the year, you watch. ... Iowa State got Pittsnogled by West Virginia, and West Virginia hasn't had Kevin Pittsnogle in years! ... UCLA might be ranked again as of today, but the Bruins will have to earn it this week on a Bay Area swing. ... Stephen F. Austin got votes in both polls last week. Yay! ... Pittsburgh is a sleeper until further notice. ... Missouri pulled some Highlander stuff on Arkansas and Tennessee for that elusive and/or illusory third NCAA berth from the SEC last week. ... Arizona State is 3-0 in one-possession games over its last three games, and one of them was against Arizona. ... Michigan State's home losses since 2011-12: Ohio State, Indiana, North Carolina, Michigan, and Nebraska. Nice company for Tim Miles, your favorite blogger's favorite coach of the moment.
The EfficiencHeat Check — named by Chip Patterson — is a team's points per possession in games since February 3, based on KenPom's possessions totals for all teams listed. For most of these teams, this is four games; Duke, Arizona, Cincinnati, and Louisville all played just three games in the last 14 days. As always, this measure isn't exactly predictive, because of sample size, but it's meant to be sort of a thermometer, telling us how hot or lukewarm a team has been of late.
My dad texted me out of the blue after two Wolfpack turnovers helped Syracuse came back from a five-point deficit on Saturday, jokingly suggesting a) that Jim Valvano was rolling in his grave and b) that N.C. State players were on the take. I replied that I thought it was just dumb players being dumb, but, man, that finish was incredible in the "How on earth...?" sense.
It's really a shame that passionate Tech fan/possible racist Jeff Orr won't be at the game to (not actually) jeer "Go back to Africa!" or worse at Embiid, a Cameroonian who was actually born in Africa; it's a good bet Embiid wouldn't miss Orr with a swipe, given his arms. I suppose we'll have to settle for college basketball players being able to play a game without being antagonized, possibly by racial animus, to the point of provocation.
Michigan is third nationally in points per possession behind Duke and Creighton, even though Creighton averages almost 0.04 more points per possession, a difference of almost three points in a 70-possession game.
VCU failed to do that at Hampton during its 2009-10 non-conference schedule, the fourth game of Smart's time in Richmond, but still won, 63-52. Hampton went on to go 14-18, beating zero teams that finished in the top 250 in KenPom in 2009-10, while VCU won the College Basketball Invitational — over Saint Louis. Full circle!
Three teams are in KenPom's top 15 for offensive and defensive efficiency: Florida, Syracuse ... and Louisville.