No. 1: Florida (29-2, 18-0 SEC)
Last Week: Hot Pocketed South Carolina, 72-46; made Kentucky bleed blue, 84-65.
Best Wins: vs. Kansas, vs./at Kentucky, vs. Memphis (neutral site), at Arkansas, at Tennessee
Losses: at Wisconsin, at Connecticut
EfficiencHeat Check1: 1.13 points per possession (PPP), 0.88 PPP allowed
I am biased about Florida, I will freely admit, what with just less than two decades of passion for the Gators in my past, a University of Florida degree on my c.v. and an apartment in Gainesville. I think I'm right about Florida being the best team in college basketball, because Florida's got balance only one other team has — we'll get to the other team in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency soon enough — and has been tested time and again, only to prevail each and every time.
But I know my love for the four seniors — Casey Prather, Scottie Wilbekin, Will Yeguete and Patric Young — who are this squad's vertebrae clouds my judgment a bit, and that a 19-point win over Kentucky, the largest margin of victory for Florida over history's lord of the SEC in the history of a series between the two schools that dates to 1927, doesn't carry the weight it might have a month ago.
I am sure, however — partiality be damned — that Michael Frazier II has the best organic nickname in college basketball this year: Hot Pockets.
It came about in February, while Frazier was in the midst of a bizarre stretch of streaky shooting: "Waiting for Frazier to warm up," an Alligator Army commenter wrote in a game thread, during Florida's slow start against Missouri. "He's like a hot pocket." That nickname got reused that night, and has become shorthand for Frazier at Alligator Army, because it's perfect for him: Through a month of SEC play, he'd been cold in the first half, then piping hot in the second half.
He's gotten more consistent since then, and is still capable of explosions: On Tuesday, Frazier sank 11 threes, a new Florida record, in an incineration of South Carolina. His 37 points were more than the 35 the rest of his teammates scored combined, his 21 shots were as many as those four senior starters attempted combined, and his shooting was so unstoppable — despite no other Gator making a three on the night — that it was likely the root of that profane Frank Martin exhortation that got South Carolina's fiery coach suspended.
Martin should've known better: When you accidentally heat up a Hot Pocket a little too much, it will burn you.
No. 2: Wichita State (34-0, 18-0 Missouri Valley, MVC Tournament champions)
Last Week: Aced Evansville again, 80-58; declawed Missouri State, 67-42; felled Indiana State, 83-69.
Best Wins: at Saint Louis, vs. Tennessee, vs. BYU (neutral site), vs./at/neutral over Indiana State
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.20 PPP, 0.86 PPP allowed
Last week, I wrote this long defense/contextualization of Wichita State, in which I tried to make the points that any team going undefeated is an incredible achievement, that Wichita State's awesomeness helped leave the Shockers with precious little good competition to steel themselves against, and that we need to figure out a way to reconcile those two fair assessments.
Here is a simpler takeaway on the Shockers: They are very, very good, and their excellence resembles Florida's balance of elite play at both ends more than anything else.
Florida is ninth in both adjusted offensive (1.174 points per possession) and defensive (91.8 PPP allowed) efficiency; Wichita State is eighth in adjusted offensive (1.177 PPP) efficiency, and 10th in adjusted defensive (92.6 PPP allowed) efficiency. That's the combination of top-10 offense and top-10 defense that I've been touting as magical for the last 13 months, and for good reason: Of the 19 teams that have been in that range at the end of the year, seven celebrated to "One Shining Moment."
The comparisons go beyond performance, to personnel and style. Both teams have a greyhound at point guard (Wilbekin for Florida, Fred VanVleet for Wichita State), a solid frontcourt, a can't-leave-him sniper (Frazier for Florida, VanVleet again for Wichita State), a versatile sixth man (Dorian Finney-Smith for Florida, Darius Carter for Wichita State) and a set-him-and-forget-it defender (Wilbekin for Florida, Tekele Cotton for Wichita State). Both teams are experienced and calm, play slowly, depend on balance and lack glaring weaknesses. And, obviously, both teams are yet to lose in 2014, and did not lose in conference play.
There's no denying that Wichita State has played an easier schedule than the one Florida saw. The Indiana State team that the Shockers just beat in Arch Madness for their first Missouri Valley Conference Tournament title since 1987 has a KenPom Pythagorean rating that would have been good for 10th place in the SEC, just behind Vanderbilt and only a bit ahead of Auburn. But Florida's non-conference schedule was comparable in KenPom Pythagorean strength to Wichita State's, if not in RPI — and the Gators nearly lost to both Vanderbilt and Auburn this year!
No one should call Florida's season fraudulent if Florida fails to win a national championship or make the Final Four — people will, if that happens, especially given the Gators' failures in the Elite Eight over the last four years, but no one should, not with the 18-0 record and the school records that have fallen and the memories this team has made for its fans, myself include. No one should dub Wichita State a fraud or a failure if it doesn't manage to make a second straight Final Four, either, not with all that it's done, but that seems inexorable should the Shockers slip, with fans of every team on a beaten path or in a power conference waiting to smirk and say "I told you so" or "I knew they couldn't hang."
Count me among those hoping Wichita State makes those skeptics eat crow.
No. 3: Michigan (23-7, 15-3 Big Ten)
Last Week: Popped Illinois in Champaign, 84-53; outraced Indiana, 84-80.
Best Wins: at Wisconsin, vs. Iowa, vs./at Michigan State, at Ohio State
Losses: at Iowa State, vs. Charlotte (neutral site), at Duke, vs. Arizona, at Indiana, at Iowa, vs. Wisconsin
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.21 PPP, 1.04 PPP allowed.
Michigan's offense has put up at least 1.12 PPP in each of its last five games, which is neat even before I tell you that it's also put up at least 1.27 PPP in three of those games, including one against totally-gonna-be-a-juggernaut-in-March Michigan State2. Indiana was hot, very hot, in its meeting with Michigan on Saturday in Ann Arbor, with Yogi Ferrell hitting four of his eight threes after making six of his previous 23 coming in and the Hoosiers hitting 59.2 percent of their shots and committing just three turnovers in the first half.
But Indiana never led by more than 10 points, didn't lead by more than six points in the second half and didn't lead, period, after the 15:53 mark of the second half. Michigan just caught and passed a team that would go on to score 1.23 PPP by putting up 1.29 PPP of its own.
Michigan's in the same class as Duke and Creighton, and all three teams have the combination of great offense and leaky defense that scares you when filling out a bracket and scares you a lot less when the shots don't fall and everything is difficult; without Mitch McGary to at least hint at a post-up game, Michigan's basically a team oriented around 6'6 tweeners, with Nik Stauskas, Caris LeVert and Glenn Robinson III making things go. Michigan's defense was significantly worse.
But you try to find a team to put at No. 3 this week that doesn't have a loss in the last fortnight and isn't Villanova, which I think would get shredded by Michigan. In the words of Kevin Cossom, I have NO REGRETS, NO REGRETS AT ALL — this is a link to a Pusha T song; there are bad words — about this ranking. I also haven't seen the comments yet.
No. 4: Villanova (28-3, 16-2 Big East)
Last Week: Dried Xavier's powder, 77-70; rocked Georgetown, 77-59.
Best Wins: vs. Kansas, Iowa (neutral site), vs./at St. John's
Losses: at Syracuse, vs./at Creighton
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.15 PPP, 0.91 PPP allowed
Villanova's 16-2 record is just the third 16-win campaign in "Big East" history, though 2011-12 Syracuse's 17-1 mark and 2008-09 Louisville's 16-2 record — both rewarded with No. 1 seeds, I should note — came against slightly more top-heavy conferences. The Wildcats have just one loss outside of conference, to a Syracuse team that was, at that point, a true national championship contender, and it came on the road. With the flood of losses by potential No. 1 seeds over the past few weeks, Villanova has a very strong argument for one if it merely reaches a Big East Tournament final against Creighton, as it would have 30 wins and losses to no more than two discrete teams.
But though it is 10th in offensive efficiency and 13th in defensive efficiency, and so just steps behind Florida and Wichita State in that race to be both balanced and elite, I remain pessimistic about Villanova's chances of winning a national title because of the Wildcats' poor perimeter defense — so much so that I had a really good back-and-forth with the folks at VU Hoops about it. (Read the comments, too!)
Villanova, which has allowed opponents to shoot 35.2 percent from three, is now one of two teams in the KenPom top 20 with a three-point defense outside the top 200, along with Kansas, and that defense has allowed Creighton to make 30 threes on 50 tries (read that again if necessary) over two fusillades. If you want to see how much playing the nation's best sniper squad skews things, take away Creighton's shots, as a VU Hoops commenter suggested — without them, 'Nova is allowing a far more respectable 32.7 percent from three, which would be good enough to be within the top 100 in three-point defense.
Considering how good Villanova's three-point defense has been in non-Creighton games is sort of like considering how sunburned you got while in the shade, to me, but it's an interesting data point: Is Villanova's presumptive Achilles heel really just a weakness to an awesome team that could turn even a really good perimeter defense into Swiss cheese, or is it an issue that will come back to haunt the 'Cats?
No. 5: Arizona (28-3, 15-3 Pac-12)
Last Week: Dammed Oregon State, 74-69; got quacked by Oregon, 64-57.
Best Wins: vs. Duke (neutral site), at Michigan, at UCLA, at San Diego State
Losses: at California, at Arizona State, at Oregon
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.10 PPP, 0.96 PPP allowed
Speaking of 'Cats and issues that will come back to haunt them: My strongest hunch going into this NCAA Tournament is that Arizona is going to lose a close game after a dry spell in the second half.
Sean Miller's crew did that on Saturday at Oregon, going without a field goal for 7:32 in the final 10 minutes of play, giving up a slow-motion 17-4 run that didn't get the Ducks the lead until a 9-0 spurt over four possessions. Oregon inked its name on the NCAA Tournament's dance card3 with the 64-57 win, and all the progress I thought Arizona had made while managing 1.00 PPP or better in every game of a 5-0 stretch was nowhere to be found.
A lot will be made about Arizona's pitiful shooting from the free throw line next week, and the points made about that flaw are all valid — Arizona's 304th in free throw percentage, at 65.9 percent, just two available Wildcats (Nick Johnson and Kaleb Tarczewski) are above 70 percent for the year from the charity stripe and Aaron Gordon is so bad, at 44.7 percent from the line, that there is zero reason to not hack him. The Oregon loss was by seven points, and Arizona missed eight freebies; against Arizona State, Arizona missed 14 free throws, any one of which might have helped in a game that went to double overtime.
But I would honestly be more worried about Arizona not being able to shoot from the field. The Wildcats lack obvious three-point threats beyond Gabe York, who has made 40.2 percent of his threes and 33.9 of his twos, and thus merely needs to be chased off the line; Johnson (34.8 percent) and T.J. McConnell (32.5 percent) can hit threes, but their long-distance dials are not better options than Arizona feeding Tarczewski. But no one on Arizona's roster shoots better than 47 percent on two-point jumpers, per Hoop-Math, so there's really no reason for opposing defenses not to sag off everyone but York and make Arizona beat teams with jumpers, or dare the 'Cats to figure out alternatives to feeding Tarczewski by sending doubles his way.
During that 5-0 stretch of 1.00+ PPP performances, Arizona shot better than 36 percent from three in all five games, and shot no worse than 43.2 percent on its twos. Against Oregon, the 'Cats made two of 11 threes (just 18.2 percent), shot under 50 percent on their twos and made 11 of 19 free throws. Oregon didn't crack 1.00 PPP itself, managing just 0.97 against Arizona's phenomenal defense — but it didn't need to, not with Arizona mustering just 0.86.
And with that performance, Oregon moved all the way up to 72nd nationally in defensive efficiency.
No. 6: Louisville (26-5, 15-3 American)
Last Week: Dispelled the illusion at SMU, 84-71; crushed Connecticut, 81-48.
Best Wins: vs./at Connecticut, vs./at SMU, at Cincinnati vs. Southern Miss
Losses: vs. North Carolina (neutral site), at Kentucky, vs./at Memphis, vs. Cincinnati,
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.13 PPP, 0.91 PPP allowed
That ouroboros in the American that I hinted at last week? It became reality with Louisville's win over SMU on Wednesday. (Twitter liked it.) But while the "Everyone is 2-0 against everyone else!" bit is fun, Louisville is 0-2 against Memphis, 1-1 against Cincinnati, 2-0 against SMU and 2-0 against Connecticut. Cincinnati, too, is 5-3 against the other four top dogs in the conference, but we'll get to the Bearcats later, because Louisville is hotter and has more potential.
That Florida team I have No. 1? Louisville surged ahead of it to No. 2 in the overall KenPom rankings with its Senior Day destruction of UConn. The Cardinals have been ahead of Wichita State for most of the year. And they are within striking distance of being in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, much like they were last season, before blazing a trail to the national championship and moving from No. 3 at the end of their regular season to No. 1 when hoisting the trophy.
I don't think this Louisville team is quite as good as last year's. Gorgui Dieng was a massive roadblock for opposing offenses, and Mangok Mathiang and Montrezl Harrell do not have quite the same intimidation factor. Chane Behanan's rebounding will be missed. Terry Rozier has been alarmingly good, almost as good as Peyton Siva was, but Siva was an old, steady hand, and Rozier is still a freshman. Luke Hancock is still Luke Hancock, but less accurate from deep. Russ Smith's been a phenomenal point guard and improved his shooting percentages a year after being a phenomenal combo guard, but he is just one man.
But I don't think this year's field is as good as last year's, either, and I don't know what team would want to see Louisville, two-time Card-swatter Memphis included, in the NCAA Tournament.
No. 7: Wisconsin (25-6, 12-6 Big Ten)
Last Week: Rolled by Purdue, 76-70; got Nebrasketballed, 77-68.
Best Wins: vs. Florida, at Virginia, vs. Saint Louis (un sitio neutral), vs. Michigan State, at Michigan, vs./at Iowa
Losses: at Indiana, vs. Michigan, at Minnesota, vs. Northwestern, vs. Ohio State, at Nebraska
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.13 PPP, 1.08 PPP allowed
Wisconsin is the last team to beat Michigan, the only team to beat Florida by more than a point, the only team Virginia held under 50 points and still lost to, and the only team other than Wichita State that had beaten Saint Louis as of Valentine's Day.
Wisconsin is also the only team with 10 Big Ten wins and a loss to Northwestern, the only likely NCAA Tournament team in the Big Ten with a 1-5 stretch in conference play, and the only Big Ten team that lost to Nebraska on Sunday while allowing just five Huskers to score.
If you were waiting on that loss that makes you really think hard about advancing a Bo Ryan-coached Wisconsin team to the Sweet 16, that was probably it.
No. 8: Virginia (25-6, 16-2 ACC)
Last Week: Done dirty by Terps, 75-69 (OT).
Best Wins: vs. Syracuse, vs. SMU (neutral site), vs. North Carolina, at Pittsburgh
Losses: vs. VCU, vs. Wisconsin, at Green Bay, at Tennessee, at Duke, at Maryland
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.17 PPP, 0.96 PPP allowed
Virginia's Sunday trip to Maryland was for a quintessential trap game: It was an edition of a "rivalry" that meant more to the underdog, a road game, the last game in a long-standing series, Senior Day for the other team, a game after eight days off and a game with no reward available for Virginia. The Cavaliers got hosed on an iffy call at the end of regulation, and sent it to overtime with a sweet play design, but just couldn't do anything against Seth Allen, who started the extra session with a personal 5-0 run, and never led in overtime.
So be it. College basketball teams lose4. Virginia hadn't lost in almost two months, and didn't lose much seeding standing or any rungs in the ACC hierarchy by losing, so this loss doesn't matter much.
But watching Virginia play a team with penetrators (Allen and Dez Wells) and shooters (Jake Layman and Evan Smotrycz) reminded me of watching Florida carve up the 'Hoos in the 2012 NCAA Tournament. It's a memory I can't get out of my head while processing this Virginia team: Erving Walker and Bradley Beal fired away and Casey Prather, just a sophomore back then, sliced through the lane time and again, and Florida just dump-trucked the 'Hoos. Teams that can shoot even a little bit can really stress Tony Bennett's pack-line defense, and Virginia might run into them in the NCAA Tournament.
Now that the manna from heaven that was its light and back-loaded ACC schedule is no more, things will get harder.
No. 9: Duke (24-7, 13-5 ACC)
Last Week: Sleepwalked at Wake in 82-72 loss; Bari'd North Carolina, 93-81.
Best Wins: vs. Syracuse, vs. Virginia, vs. Michigan, vs. UCLA (neutral site), vs. North Carolina
Losses: vs. Arizona, Kansas (neutral sites), at Notre Dame, at Clemson, at Syracuse, at North Carolina, at Wake Forest
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.17 PPP, 1.07 PPP allowed
I watched much of the second half of Duke-Carolina with the TV on mute while playing Settlers of Catan; after that early third foul on James Michael McAdoo, Duke pulling away was a matter of time. And so I missed most of what I'm sure was a primo session of adulation for Jabari Parker by Dick Vitale, but did manage to catch a graphic listing Parker as either Jay Bilas' best available player for the 2014 NBA Draft, or the player on top of his big board.
But we all know what Parker can do at this point, magisterial 30-point night against North Carolina or not. He's a fantastic offensive player and a major mismatch for virtually anyone who could check him at this level — Andrew Wiggins, Cleanthony Early and Aaron Gordon are the three guys who come to mind as possible matches, and Parker had 27 against Kansas and 19 (on 21 shots) against Arizona — who is at his best when driving to the hoop or shooting corner threes.
What matters most when evaluating Duke is figuring out what you're going to get from every other player on any given night. Rasheed Sulaimon and Tyler Thornton had 16 points on eight shots against Syracuse in Cameron; they combined for 14 points on 16 shots against Wake Forest on Wednesday, and Sulaimon had all 14 points. Quinn Cook scored in double figures in 11 of Duke's 13 non-conference games, and scored in double figures in six of Duke's 18 ACC games. Marshall Plumlee is essentially a matchup reserve at this point.
Parker is probably going to get his no matter what defense you throw at him. Taking away Duke's other options makes it a little easier to stop one of the nation's best offenses.
No. 10: San Diego State (27-3, 16-2 Mountain West)
Last Week: Arrested UNLV, 73-64; made New Mexico howl, 51-48.
Best Wins: vs. Creighton (neutral site), at Kansas, vs. New Mexico
Losses: vs. Arizona, at Wyoming, at New Mexico.
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.12 PPP, 0.92 PPP allowed
No. 11: Kansas (23-8, 14-4 Big 12)
Last Week: Shot by Texas Tech, 82-57; shot down by West Virginia, 92-86.
Best Wins: vs. Duke (neutral site), vs./at Iowa State, vs. Texas, vs. Oklahoma State, at Oklahoma
Losses: vs. Villanova (neutral site), at Colorado, at Florida, vs. San Diego State, at Texas, at Kansas State, at Oklahoma State, at West Virginia
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.13 PPP, 1.06 PPP allowed
No. 12: Creighton (24-6, 14-4 Big East)
Last Week: Stoned by Georgetown, 75-63; fried Providence, 88-73.
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, at Xavier, at Georgetown
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.12 PPP, 1.14 PPP allowed
A victory for logical consistency: San Diego State beat Kansas in Lawrence, and beat Creighton at a neutral site, so it should be ahead of both teams, right?
A defeat for logical consistency: Kansas lost to Villanova, while Creighton has erupted on Villanova twice. Shouldn't the Jayhawks be behind the Bluejays, you may be thinking, in that duo of schools with awkwardly compounded team names?
Creighton has been consistently Creighton all year long. It is a great perimeter team with one excellent post player — guess5 — who can shoot any team into a 20-point thrashing on a good night, and crash to earth on a bad night. Kansas has changed, seemingly on a week-to-week basis: It was Andrew Wiggins leading an ultra-talented roster early on, then Wiggins fading and Kansas struggling to find itself over the back half of its non-conference slate, then Joel Embiid becoming a monster early in conference play, then Embiid getting hurt and forcing Wiggins back into the spotlight of late.
Now, though Wiggins just had the finest game he is likely to have as a Jayhawk on Saturday, Kansas is smarting from a loss at West Virginia — not an NCAA Tournament team — and Embiid, apparently off to see a back specialist in California on Monday, is entering that zone Kyrie Irving once called home, where his team cannot win a title without him, but his NBA Draft stock might be damaged by going all out in an attempt to win it.
I think Creighton and Kansas can both win the NCAA Tournament if enough things break right, and San Diego State owns wins over both, so I'm going to apply the transitive property to the Aztecs, too, even if I have serious reservations about their offense. We're nearing the point of no return for credible contenders, anyway, and while San Diego State can't score all that way, I'd still absolutely take the Aztecs before I took ...
No. 13: Syracuse (27-4, 14-4 ACC)
Last Week: Stung by Georgia Tech, 67-62; took down Florida State, 74-58.
Best Wins: vs. Duke, vs./at Pittsburgh, vs. Villanova
Losses: vs. Boston College, at Duke, at Virginia, at Georgia Tech
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.01 PPP, 1.04 PPP allowed
... Syracuse, which I think ought to be the last team above that line. I would guess that many disagree with the thought that Syracuse can win a national title, though, and I'm not sure my argument's all that compelling.
Look at Syracuse's entire schedule, not just the disastrous 2-4 stretch over the last three weeks, and there's a lot to like. Syracuse won its non-conference tournament out in Maui, and played decent competition over those three days. It handled St. John's in Madison Square Garden, something Creighton couldn't do. The Orange beat Villanova going away despite DaJuan Coleman suffering what would become a season-ending injury just prior to that game; without Coleman, they beat North Carolina, and Duke, and old Big East blood feud partner Pittsburgh twice, and compiled a 14-4 ACC record. The Orange still usually play very good defense — they're 15th nationally in defensive efficiency, even now! — and don't get beaten except by shooters, and their offense is and has been underrated.
There's still potential for a rebound. If Trevor Cooney — who has made 17 of 66 threes since cooking Notre Dame for nine — ever heats back up, Syracuse has a third scorer to go with Tyler Ennis and C.J. Fair, who have at least been productive during this slide. If Jerami Grant can get healthy, Syracuse has two superb tweener forwards between him and Fair. If Rakeem Christmas can reliably get 10 points a game, that takes a load off of Ennis and Fair, and might open things up for Cooney.
But that's a lot of ifs. And it's going to take more than a comfortable road win at Florida State — barely a bubble team at this point — to convince even me, hopeless optimist, that any of those propositions are more than pipe dreams.
No. 14: Cincinnati (26-5, 15-3 American)
Last Week: Outran (!?) Memphis, 97-84; snuck by Rutgers, 70-66.
Best Wins: at Louisville, vs./at Memphis, vs. Pittsburgh (neutral site)
Losses: at New Mexico, vs. Xavier (neutral site), at SMU, vs. Louisville, at UConn
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.05 PPP, 1.00 PPP allowed
Cincinnati is a basketball team, I guess. Probably a pretty good one. Sean Kilpatrick seems really good at basketball, especially the scoring part. Justin Jackson — a Brevard County kid like myself, and a Cocoa Beach baby like myself to boot — is plenty scary in the post.
Until Thursday, I'll admit that my prevailing thought about Cincinnati was This is the best boring team in America. Mick Cronin's got a bunch of halfcourt hounds and an alpha dog for his offense in Kilpatrick — who has been waiting a long time for this, as Ricky O'Donnell noted last week — and there's really nothing else the no-frills Bearcats need. They plod, and they defend well, and they rely so heavily on Kilpatrick that I would bet on the NCAA Tournament game Cincinnati loses — spoiler alert: Cincinnati's not winning the national title — being one in which Kilpatrick a) scores fewer than 20 point and/or b) scores under a point per shot.
But they ran with Memphis on Thursday, and ran the Tigers out of Fifth Third Arena as a result, scoring 1.33 PPP over 73 possessions, a season high against Memphis, in the 97-84 win. That was Cincy's first 70-possession game of 2014; its last 70-possession game produced a 102-62 win over Chicago State, and all four 70-possession games the Bearcats have played this season have produced wins by at least 13 points. Maybe — and I realize it's kind of late to suggest this — do that more often?
No. 15: New Mexico (24-6, 15-3 Mountain West)
Last Week: Flew by Air Force, 80-52; slowed down by San Diego State, 51-48.
Best Wins: vs. Cincinnati, vs. San Diego State
Losses: vs. Massachusetts (neutral site), vs. Kansas ("neutral" site), vs. New Mexico State, vs. UNLV, at Boise State, at San Diego State
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.05 PPP, 0.86 PPP allowed
When last the casual basketball fan paid attention to New Mexico, the Lobos were getting unceremoniously booted from the 2013 NCAA Tournament by Harvard in the Crimson's second NCAA Tournament appearance ever. In 2014, minus coach Steve Alford and Chicago Bull Tony Snell, New Mexico is almost as good as it was — an achievement in itself.
The Lobos are run through point guard Kendall Williams — who you can semi-seriously joke is former North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall and former UConn point guard Marcus Williams rolled into one player, if you are a dork writing a college basketball power rankings column — and power forward Cameron Bairstow, an Aussie beast who has scored in double figures in all but one game this season. Seven-footer Alex Kirk teams with Bairstow to lock down the paint, while coach Craig Neal's son Cullen is the team's streaky shooter, and Hugh Greenwood has the best locks in the college game and a sense of humor about them.
They lost to San Diego State in San Diego on Saturday, in a 51-48 game that was a 41-25 game in their favor before the Aztecs flexed and put together their closing 26-7 run, limiting the Lobos to two field goals in the final 12:06 of play. The Aztecs didn't lead after 4-2 in New Mexico in February, when the Lobos handed them a 58-44 defeat, and have led for about 15 of the 80 minutes the two teams have played against each other this year. New Mexico lacks the great wins that its Mountain West rival has — the Aztecs beat Kansas, while the Lobos lost to the Jayhawks, SDSU's win over Creighton trumps the Lobos' win over Cincinnati, and Steve Fisher's team's best loss is to Arizona, while New Mexico's is to Kansas — but it has better balance, and has been better for most of their two meetings.
And with teams in major conferences slipping all over the place of late, it's fair to reward that team with this spot for this week.
No. 16: Tennessee (20-11, 11-7 SEC)
Last Week: Tigered Auburn, 82-54; tigered Missouri, 72-45.
Best Wins: vs. Virginia, vs. Xavier (neutral site), at LSU
Losses: at Xavier, vs. UTEP (neutral site), at Wichita State, vs. N.C. State, vs./at Texas A&M, at Kentucky, vs./at Florida, at Vanderbilt, at Missouri
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.22 PPP, 0.82 PPP allowed
Tennessee, lol.— Ken Pomeroy (@kenpomeroy) March 8, 2014
That is the most appropriate reaction to Tennessee suddenly being possessed by the spirit of something and scorching the earth it treads on when that earth is actually highly polished wood and shared by inferior SEC teams.
Tennessee has won its last three games by 38, 28 and 27 points. Add in a seven-point win over Mississippi State and you get a four-game window for that EfficiencHeat Check that includes wins by an average of 25 points. Florida's best four-game stretch in SEC play this season — the first 18-0 regular season in SEC history, mind — featured the Gators winning games by an average of 20 points per game.
This Vols stretch is more like the ones 2012-13 Florida — an 8-0 start to SEC play which featured wins by an average of 26.5 points per game — and 2011-12 Kentucky — a four-game stretch in which it won every game by at least 20 points and won them by an average of 25.75 points per contest — put together in conference play at the heights of their abilities.
Those two teams won the SEC by two and six games, respectively. Tennessee is the No. 4 seed in the 2014 SEC Tournament, and began this four-game winning streak after losing to Texas A&M on a three by Antwan Space — who has 11 made threes in 2013-14 to date — for the second time this year.
I realize ranking Tennessee No. 16 in a power rankings is an indication that I think Tennessee is the 16th-best team in America, or an accomplished team. I assure you that I merely think Tennessee is the 16th-best team in America right this second, which is marginally less heretical, and that I really mostly wanted to write about the Vols. It would be incredible for a team to outscore three consecutive foes by at least 0.45 points per possession, let alone three in a row while fighting for a bubble spot, and yet that's what Tennessee has done over its last three outings, enough to vault from No. 26 in KenPom's national rankings heading into March to No. 13 as of Monday morning.
The Vols still aren't assured of an NCAA Tournament berth, and would need to beat Florida — which beat the Vols home and away, and outscored them by 0.45 PPP in Gainesville — in an SEC Tournament semifinal to get fully off the bubble, with their 11 losses. They're in Dayton for the First Four in Chris Dobbertean's latest freshly pressed bracketology.
But no one in America is hotter. No one. It deserves mention.
To Fill A Top 25
North Carolina narrowly escaped Notre Dame, then had many anvils, in the form of 1.31 PPP, fall on its head in Cameron. ... VCU could be on a season-high seven-game winning streak entering the NCAA Tournament if it sweeps the Atlantic 10 Tournament ... Nebraska now plays very, very well in big games, huh? ... Stephen F. Austin: A top-20 team!? ... The only wins Iowa State has away from home since February began came against mid-swoon Oklahoma State and TCU. ... Oregon may well go the farthest of any Pac-12 team that isn't Arizona in the Tournament. ... Oklahoma is the quietest second-place team from any power conference. ... Either Southern Miss or Louisiana Tech is likely to be in my final pre-Tournament top 25, because I trust none of you power conference stragglers.
Saint Louis finally stopped its skid — but had to lose three straight before doing so. ... Yes, Ohio State scored some points for once! ... Iowa feels like this year's Great Numbers Everywhere But Win-Loss team. ... Kentucky did eventually get rolled by Florida, but the 'Cats bullied the Gators during a 15-0 run, and that was the most positive Kentucky development in March. ... Memphis, UConn and SMU all took ugly losses to American foes this week, but each is scary in its own way.
The EfficiencHeat Check — named by Chip Patterson — is a team's points per possession in games since Feb. 24, based on KenPom's possessions totals for all teams listed. For most of these teams, this is four games; Duke, Virginia, Creighton and Cincinnati all played three.
Every claim about how Michigan State — and/or Kentucky — will play far better in the NCAA Tournament than it is currently playing should be met with this GIF.
That is how you use a dance card reference, friends.
Well, not every team.
It's Doug McDermott. You guessed right! (Not you, Grant Gibbs. Don't guess yourself.)
McDermott scored a career-high 45 points on Saturday in a final bravura Senior Day performance, and now has 3,011 points in his career. He needs "just" 238 points to pass Freeman Williams for second on the all-time scoring list, something he would need to average 34 points per game over a hypothetical run to the Big East Tournament final and the Elite Eight to do. That's possible.
And if Creighton played the maximum nine games left in McDermott's career by making the NCAA Tournament final, passing Pete Maravich would still require McDermott to score 72.9 points per game. That's beyond impossible.