No. 1: Syracuse (23-0, 10-0 ACC)
Last Week: Cooney'd Notre Dame, 67-57; Fared well against Clemson, 57-44.
Best Wins: vs. Duke, vs. Pittsburgh, vs. Villanova
Losses: Maybe Baye-Moussa Keita, if his knee injury keeps him out on more than a day-to-day basis.
EfficiencHeat Check1: 1.17 points per possession (PPP), 1.04 PPP allowed
Syracuse got a good win at Notre Dame and a decent win at home against Clemson in the last seven days, but both of those wins featured the Orange letting the other team hang around for a while before finishing them off. And I sort of agree with FreshSqueezed at Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician, at least on the "This Syracuse team gives you the feeling that at any game they can fall back down to earth" bit.
Syracuse fans would probably like to see the Orange blow a few more teams out, too. The only two ACC games in which Jim Boeheim's bunch has led by double digits for all of the last 10 minutes were wins over Virginia Tech and North Carolina that were Syracuse's second and third conference games of the season, respectively, and, other than that Virginia Tech game, the 'Cuse road trips in conference have been ... adventures. More await: Five road games are left on Syracuse's back-loaded conference schedule, including trips to Duke, Virginia, and, this Wednesday, Pittsburgh — specifically, the Petersen Athletics Center, which has yielded one win to the Orange, on February 29, 2004.
No. 2: Florida (21-2, 10-0 SEC)
Last Week: Outlasted Missouri, 68-58; outran Alabama, 78-69.
Best Wins: vs. Kansas, vs. Memphis (neutral site), at Arkansas
Losses: at Wisconsin, at UConn
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.14 PPP, 0.88 PPP allowed
Florida's defense was looking better than the nation's best as of last week. It relaxed this week, with the Gators allowing Missouri to take the lead heading into halftime and giving up 1.10 points per possession to an Alabama squad that has struggled with scoring all year, and Florida got two decent wins as a result. (That 36-point punishment of Texas A&M is still in Florida's last four games, and significantly skewing its four-game average.) But the Gators might weirdly be better for their week of leniency.
Florida's offense woke up in conjunction with the defense stepping back from its ferocious best, putting up 1.19 PPP on the Tigers and pouring 1.24 PPP on the Tide, its two best marks in SEC play. And the Gators did it with less long-range bombing than we usually see from Billy Donovan teams: Florida made just 12 of its 34 threes over those two contests, but made up for that subpar shooting by making 38 of its 56 two-pointers, including a staggering 25 of its 33 against Alabama.
Though I was in the O'Connell Center for both games, and have obviously been paying attention all year, it's still staggering to watch the same players who spent last year supporting a team of shooters — Kenny Boynton, Erik Murphy, and Mike Rosario launched a combined 546 triples in 2012-13 — hew to an offensive identity based on hunting for and finding easy twos. Ultimately, that more patient and reliable offense, coupled with a defense almost as good as the one the Gators had last year, makes me think Florida's a little lower-variance than the Elite Eight teams of the last three years have been, something that bodes well for March.
Florida's standing in the Savory Sixteen, though, is in danger this week: The Gators go to Knoxville, where they haven't won without needing overtime since 2005, and Lexington, where they haven't won since 2007 — and have only won twice this millennium, both times with teams that won national championships — on the most diabolical SEC road trip possible for Donovan's team.
No. 3: Arizona (23-1, 10-1 Pac-12)
Last Week: Slipped by Oregon, 67-65; dammed Oregon State, 76-54.
Best Wins: vs. Duke (neutral site), at Michigan, at UCLA, at San Diego State, vs. Arizona State
Losses: at California
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.02 PPP, 0.92 PPP allowed
No. 4: Wichita State (25-0, 12-0 Missouri Valley)
Last Week: Chopped down Indiana State, 65-58; declawed Northern Iowa, 82-73.
Best Wins: at Saint Louis, vs. Tennessee, vs. BYU (neutral site), at Indiana State
Losses: Not until the postseason, looks like.
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.10 PPP, 0.94 PPP allowed
I had a conversation on Sunday night with Black Heart Gold Pants's Adam Jacobi about the relative merits of Arizona and Wichita State, basically revolving around these two points: 1) Arizona plays much tougher competition in the Pac-12 than Wichita State plays in the Missouri Valley; 2) Wichita State's been playing much better basketball of late. Whether you believe more in one or the other probably determines which team you think deserves the No. 3 spot here.
Yet though I think the latter means more for power-ranking purposes, especially given that Wichita State came through late in both games of its week-long road trip to Indiana State and Northern Iowa, I also have to abide by the rule I use when breaking ties on BlogPoll and SEC Power Poll ballots — rank the team you think wins at a neutral venue more often higher — and give Arizona a slight edge.
The Wildcats present a lot of problems for the Shockers, even without Brandon Ashley: The physical advantages the Shockers have against mid-major competition are disadvantages in a hypothetical game against Arizona. T.J. McConnell is taller than Fred VanVleet, Nick Johnson is taller than Ron Baker, and there's no one in the Valley, not even in Wichita's practices, that is as good a defender as Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. And forget about boarding like the Shockers have this year (fourth in defensive rebounding percentage, 55th in offensive rebounding percentage), because that's a lot easier to do with 6'8" Cleanthony Early and 6'9" Chadrack Lufile as your biggest big against Valley competition than it would be against 7'0" Kaleb Tarczewski and 6'9" Aaron Gordon.
The biggest edge Wichita State has on most Valley teams — VanVleet being awesome — would remain an edge against an Arizona team that has the turnover-prone McConnell handling the ball, to be fair, and it's not like the Shockers didn't upset some teams in March last year. But we call them upsets because we thought the other teams were better.
And, besides, KenPom gives Wichita State a 68.8 percent chance of running the table in the Valley. Do that, and the Shockers can almost ensure that they'll avoid Arizona until the Elite Eight.
No. 5: Duke (19-5, 8-3 ACC)
Last Week: Laid Wake Forest to rest, 83-63; clipped Boston College, 89-68.
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: 1.34 PPP, 1.13 PPP allowed
Duke's offense has been stupid of late, and it has a lot to do with how many shooters the Blue Devils have, something Luke Winn brought up in his always-excellent power rankings for Sports Illustrated last week. Both Duke (Andre Dawkins, Rodney Hood, Rasheed Sulaimon, and Tyler Thornton) and Creighton (Austin Chatman, Jahenns Manigat, Doug McDermott, and Ethan Wragge) have four players who have made better than 40 percent of their threes on the season, and all of those players have taken at least 38 threes on the year.
But Winn published his rankings on Wednesday, and Hood made two of his four threes Saturday against Boston College, moving him to 45.0 percent from three on the year. This gives Duke four players making at least 45 percent of their threes on the year. Thus, there's a chance that Duke (or Creighton, if the Bluejays get really hot down the stretch) could join 2011-12 Northern Colorado as only the second team of the KenPom era (it dates to 2002-03) to lead the nation in three-point percentage and have four players shoot 35 or more threes and make at least 45 percent of them2.
And that all means Jabari Parker, who is a walking mismatch for all but two or three collegiate players and has made a very good 36.7 percent of his threes, is arguably Duke's least efficient rotation player. Have fun ("fun") stopping ("stopping") Duke the rest of the way, everyone!
No. 6: Villanova (21-2, 9-1 Big East)
Last Week: Jammed Xavier, 81-58; swashbuckled Seton Hall, 70-53.
Best Wins: vs. Kansas, Iowa (neutral site), vs. Providence
Losses: at Syracuse, vs. Creighton
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.17 PPP, 0.94 PPP allowed
No. 7: Kansas (18-5, 9-1 Big 12)
Last Week: Tranquilized Baylor, 69-52; summitted West Virginia, 83-69.
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
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.11 PPP, 1.01 PPP allowed
Villanova actually beat Kansas at a neutral site this year, so that gimmick isn't going to work for a tie-breaker here. Both teams have grown significantly since then, however: Villanova's defense is catching up to its superb offense rapidly (the 'Cats allowed 0.84 PPP this week, and Creighton's strafing dropped out of the rolling average), while Kansas has a more fully realized Joel Embiid and a more comfortable Andrew Wiggins.
They're also basically performing synchronized feats of dominance3: Villanova is at 118.6 (points per 100 possessions) and ranks seventh nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, while Kansas is at 118.4 and ranks eighth nationally; the Jayhawks are at 94.5 and rank 21st nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, while the Wildcats are at 94.6 and rank 22nd.
No. 8: Virginia (19-5, 10-1 ACC)
Last Week: Shot down Boston College, 77-67; sprayed Georgia Tech, 64-45.
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: 1.08 PPP, 0.89 PPP allowed
Intentionally suffocating basketball is Tony Bennett's ideal milieu, and games like Saturday's win over Georgia Tech, which can be the continuation of a "hot streak" despite Virginia posting an effective field goal percentage of 44 percent, are the masterpieces in beige that his teams produce. Only three teams have scored 70 points on the Cavaliers this season, but Virginia's 1-2 in those games, and lost a 69-65 game to Duke in January; the worry is about whether Virginia will be able to score with a team that can neutralize either Joe Harris or Malcolm Brogdon, the only 'Hoos that score more than 10 points per game.
We might not get another referendum on that until the ACC Tournament at least: The only truly daunting game left on Virginia's schedule is a home tilt with Syracuse, and that's in March; KenPom favors Virginia in every game from here on in. The road trip to Clemson, where the Tigers' quietly great defense awaits, is a tough proposition for this Saturday, but Virginia against Clemson's offense will be ugly. Should Syracuse stumble at Pittsburgh or Duke, Virginia's got the inside track to the ACC's regular season title.
No. 9: San Diego State (21-1, 10-0 Mountain West)
Last Week: Corralled Boise State, 67-65; muzzled Nevada, 73-58.
Best Wins: vs. Creighton (neutral site), at Kansas
Losses: vs. Arizona.
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.13 PPP, 0.99 PPP allowed
This week in San Diego State basketball, in two superlative Xavier Thames performances: Thames saves the final 10 points of his 23 against Boise State (on seven — yes, seven — shots) for the last six minutes of the game, then dishes an assist to Dwayne Polee II for the game-winning three; Thames has 17 points (on another seven shots), five assists, and three rebounds in an easy win over Nevada.
I implore you, America: Watch San Diego State on Tuesday at 11 p.m. Eastern on ESPNU (set your DVR if you, y'know, work or something) and watch Thames. He's in the midst of arguably the best season by a San Diego State player in the last five years, which includes great ones from Kawhi Leonard and Jamaal Franklin, and you will appreciate having seen him when it comes time to fill out your bracket.
No. 10: SMU (19-5, 8-3 American)
Last Week: Downed Temple, 75-52; poached Cincinnati, 76-55, in overtime.
Best Wins: vs. Connecticut, vs. Memphis, vs. Cincinnati
Losses: at Arkansas, vs. Virginia (in Texas), at Cincinnati, at Louisville, at USF
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.17 PPP, 1.02 PPP allowed
No. 11: Cincinnati (22-3, 11-1 American)
Last Week: Silenced Connecticut, 63-58; got stampeded at SMU, 76-55.
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
In addition to cataloguing Duke's shooters, Winn also praised the defense Cincinnati plays at home. After Cincy held UConn in check on Wednesday, the Bearcats had wins over Memphis, Louisville, and the Huskies, a full calendar year of holding teams under 1.0 PPP at home, and looked like a shoo-in to run away with the American. I felt pretty good about having the Bearcats at No. 6 in this column last week.
Then they went to SMU on Saturday.
The Mustangs put up 1.19 points per possession in the win, and held Cincy's offense — which I called "perilously depended on Sean Kilpatrick and Justin Jackson" last week — to 0.89 PPP. Kilpatrick and Jackson combined for 32 of Cincinnati's 56 points; no other Bearcat had more than eight, and only Titus Rubles had more than five. And Kilpatrick need 18 shots to get his 22 points, while SMU had four double-digit scorers despite no player taking double-digit shots.
Larry Brown's tenure at SMU is likely to be judged on years to come, when five-star recruit Keith Frazier becomes a go-to player, and the ultra-talented Emmanuel Mudiay and other studs who will follow him spend their time on campus. For now, it's impressive that got this team way ahead of schedule: The Mustangs swiped the American's efficiency margin mantle from Cincy on Saturday, meaning that they've been better in conference with no players you've heard of — save maybe Markus Kennedy, though that's probably for non-hoops reasons — than Louisville, Memphis, Connecticut, and Cincinnati.
A head-scratching loss to South Florida will likely prevent SMU from winning the American's regular season crown, and is the best reason to worry about the Mustangs away from home, but holding serve against the conference's non-elite teams and winning two of their three games remaining against Louisville, Memphis, and UConn would probably be enough to get the Mustangs a top-four seed on Selection Sunday with a good result in the American's tournament. And Brown's got more NCAA Tournament experience than virtually any coach he'll scheme against in March — even if not all of it is from the shot-clock era.
No. 12: Kentucky (18-5, 8-2 SEC)
Last Week: Quelled Mississippi, 80-64; fixed Mississippi State, 69-59.
Best Wins: vs. Louisville, vs. Tennessee, at Missouri
Losses: vs. Michigan State (neutral site), vs. Baylor (in Dallas), at North Carolina, at Arkansas, at LSU
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.16 PPP, 1.06 PPP allowed
Kentucky had one of the meh-est good weeks possible for an SEC team: The Wildcats cruised past Marshall Henderson (6-for-18, 4-for-12 from deep, 16 points) and Mississippi at Rupp on Tuesday, then clamped down on Mississippi State on Saturday. But, hey, that's better than a stunning Tuesday loss leading into a Saturday rebound, in theory, and the 'Cats are primed for that in their next two weeks: They'll be tripping to hot-and-cold Auburn then hosting Florida this week, and heading to the Tad Pad for another date with Ole Miss before hosting LSU next week. Kentucky could use more meh weeks, I think: They should allow John Calipari to fine-tune his rotation and light the fires necessary to carry this team deep into March.
No. 13: Creighton (19-4, 9-2 Big East)
Last Week: Did what everyone does vs. DePaul, 78-66; capsized at St. John's, 70-65.
Best Wins: vs. Arizona State (neutral site), vs. Xavier, 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
Doug McDermott is superhuman more often than not, but when he's not superhuman, Creighton is going to struggle against teams that can take away the perimeter. McDermott had 21 on Sunday in Creighton's loss to St. John's, on a night when the Bluejays made just five of 22 threes (and missed 11 free throws); he had 39 in the teams' first meeting on January 28, helping Creighton escape with a 63-60 win ... on a night when Creighton made just seven threes, though at an excellent 43.8 percent clip.
Creighton is third nationally in the percentage of points derived from three-pointers, behind only Princeton, the only team in the country taking more threes than twos, and San Jose State, which is second to Princeton in that stat, probably best referred to as three-point attempt percentage. Creighton is 10th in that stat, for the record, but it is also really, really good at shooting, and has Doug McDermott, so you might think Creighton can survive off nights better than other three-happy clubs. You would be more wrong than right: Three of Creighton's worst six shooting nights of the year, in effective field goal percentage, are three of its four losses4 this year; two more of those six nights were accompanied by brilliant defensive efforts; the sixth was Friday's win over DePaul, which is DePaul.
This isn't a fatal flaw for the Bluejays, and McDermott's Wooden Award-winning campaign (just wait on it) is proof that they're not just a team of shooters. But it's enough of a weakness that I'd imagine teams with long-limbed defenders might try to chase shooters off spots and let Dougie McBuckets try to get his points one-on-one when tournament time comes.
No. 14: Iowa (18-6, 7-4 Big Ten)
Last Week: Succumbed to zombie Ohio State, 76-69; striped Michigan, 85-67.
Best Wins: vs. Xavier (neutral site), at Ohio State, vs. Michigan
Losses: vs. Villanova (neutral site), at Iowa State, at Wisconsin, at Michigan, vs. Michigan State, at Ohio State
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.12 PPP, 1.06 PPP allowed
No. 15: Michigan State (20-4, 9-2 Big Ten)
Last Week: Knitted Penn State, 82-67; got badgered by Wisconsin, 60-58.
Best Wins: vs. Kentucky, Oklahoma (neutral sites), at Texas, at Iowa
Losses: vs. North Carolina, vs. Michigan, vs. Georgetown (neutral site), at Wisconsin
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.04 PPP, 1.00 PPP allowed
The last week in the Big Ten: Ohio State knocks off Iowa on the road; Michigan prompts the year's most wryly matter-of-fact press conference (which will endear Tim Miles to you for some time, I promise) by shellacking Nebraska; Minnesota loses in triple overtime to Purdue; Michigan State looks great for a change with Adreian Payne back in the lineup; Iowa dump-trucks Michigan in Iowa City; Minnesota beats Indiana with Rick Pitino and his fowl-feathered son in attendance; and Wisconsin bounces back from a rare three-game home losing streak by beating Michigan State on a late jumper. Illinois and Purdue didn't even go 0-2!
Iowa has the conference's best win this week, that dusting of Michigan, so the Hawkeyes get pole position in the race to the bottom of the Savory Sixteen, despite having six losses (all to KenPom top 20 teams), and Michigan State clings to Iowa's coattails because of its win in Iowa City last week. Michigan's schizophrenic play this week knocks the Wolverines out to the waiting room where Ohio State and Wisconsin also sit.
The official position of this column on the Big Ten, however, remains unchanged: "You figure this shit out. I can't."
No. 16: Iowa State (18-4, 6-4 Big 12)
Last Week: Outrode Oklahoma State, 98-97 (3OT); squashed TCU, 84-69.
Best Wins: vs. Michigan, vs. Iowa, vs. Oklahoma, at Oklahoma State
Losses: at Oklahoma, vs. Kansas, at Texas, at Kansas
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.11 PPP, 1.07 PPP allowed
Melvin Ejim's Saturday:
To Fill A Top 25
Saint Louis needed all of Jordair Jett's 25 points to edge a not-very-good La Salle team on Saturday, and so the Billikens fall out of the Savory Sixteen. ... Michigan needs Nik Stauskas, quiet as 4 a.m. in his last three games, to heat up again. ... Pittsburgh still has just four losses, and now they're all to teams in the top 10 of this week's rankings, but the Panthers needed OT against Miami and two of 'em against Virginia Tech, and don't have any knockout wins. ... If you replace Pittsburgh's "good losses" with "stunning efficiency numbers," you get Louisville ... I think this might be the best Memphis team Josh Pastner has had by season's end. ... Ohio State might be righting its ship, with three straight wins. ... Wisconsin might well be righting its ship, but it needs a lot more consistency from Traevon Jackson. ... Southern Mississippi has a great record, and will be ranked today, but it's for lack of better candidates on the fringe. ... For example: Texas had a bad week, but may yet hold on to a number next to its name because of its good wins prior to that.
UCLA is impossible to rank because it loses too many winnable games, and won't worm its way into the Savory Sixteen because it missed its shot at Arizona in Westwood, but the Bruins' length on defense is going to bother some high seed in March. ... Oklahoma can't be losing games at West Virginia with its résumé if it wants to be ranked, but the Sooners play fast and relentlessly on offense. ... VCU has five losses, and all five are, to a degree, baffling. ... It's tough to say Oklahoma State is anything but a sleeper at this point, but if Marcus Smart returns from his suspension refocused, the Cowboys could be more dangerous under the rader than they were on it. ... Gonzaga has talent — and yet its best win was at West Virginia in December. ... Tennessee, since its self-immolation at Florida: Win by 16 over Mississippi, win by 17 at Alabama, loss by four at absurdly short-handed Vanderbilt, win by 19 over South Carolina. ... Stephen F. Austin hasn't lost since November, uses the 6'6", 210-pound Jacob Walker as its primary center, basically runs a foul-based defense, leads the nation with 10 road wins — and got five of those road wins on the road in conference in consecutive games.
The EfficiencHeat Check — named by Chip Patterson — is a team's points per possession in games since January 27, based on KenPom's possessions totals for all teams listed. For most of these teams, this is four games; San Diego State and Creighton both played just three games in the last 14 days. Again, 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.
That Northern Colorado team (KenPom subscription required) would actually have had five players make better than 45 percent of their threes had Elliott Lloyd made one more or missed one fewer three: He shot 44.8 percent on the year, making 26 of his 58 triples. (The Bears, as a team, have the highest three-point percentage of the KenPom era: 45.1 percent.) The only other near-miss of a four-pack of 45 percent shooters by the nation's top-shooting team is 2009-10 Cornell, which would have had four had Grant Reeves (39-for-87, 44.8 percent) made one more or missed one less three, and had to settle for a Sweet Sixteen run and this Savory Sixteen mention.
Also on virtually the same wavelength, as mentioned in passing last week: Florida (114.8, No. 23/91.6, No. 11) and Wichita State (114.6, No. 25/91.3, No. 8), two teams that were separated by 0.1 in both efficiencies on January 29.
Creighton's fourth loss came against San Diego State, which earned its 86-80 victory by roaring back with a 31-9 run after McDermott scored 17 of Creighton's first 19 points in the first seven minutes of the game, drawing 31 free throws and converting on 26, and withstanding a late charge. McDermott finished with 30 points on 18 shots — but Thames had 26 on 10 shots. (WATCH HIM.)