No. 1: Florida (27-2, 16-0 SEC)
Last Week: En-'Dored Vanderbilt, 57-54; tamed LSU, 79-61.
Best Wins: vs. Kansas, at Kentucky, vs. Memphis (neutral site), at Arkansas, at Tennessee
Losses: at Wisconsin, at Connecticut
EfficiencHeat Check1: 1.14 points per possession (PPP), 1.02 PPP allowed
I have very little new to say about Florida that I have not already written at Alligator Army, which makes writing the blurbs here for the Gators each week somewhat difficult, but the tl;dr version of the 3,000-word The Differences about Florida's Saturday win over LSU is, basically, "Florida played about as good a game as it has all season against the Tigers, and yet it was resting its four seniors and trotting out terrifying new lineups, none of which include the Gators' only Player of the Year candidate, Casey Prather." (I am aware that this is still a long sentence.) And if you want more on what Florida, one of the few teams in SEC history to be 16-0 in conference play, could accomplish this week, check out Chris Harry on that at Florida's official site.
Here's my new thing worth noting: Florida outscored the Tigers by 0.26 points per possession just a week after LSU took Kentucky to overtime at Rupp — which was, admittedly, a lot more impressive last week at this time — while making just four of the seven free throws it got, thanks to refs who called LSU for just eight fouls on the day, and two in the second half. Florida, on the other hand, got whistled for 14, leading to ... 10 LSU free throws. Neither team got into the bonus until the 2:47 mark of the second half, and LSU shot the game's only four free throws for fouls on the floor in that span.
This could have slowed Florida's offense, which had gotten at least 15 points at the line in six of its eight games in February, but it barely made a mark, as the Gators shot better than 50 percent from the field and from beyond the arc, making a season-high 13 threes and scoring 1.16 PPP.
Really, though, my point is this: I have watched a lot of SEC basketball this year, and the refs the conference has put on the floor have been a model of inconsistency, but nothing drives home how maddeningly (and, as a fan of the only team that's come out unscathed) inconsistent SEC refs have been better than Florida and LSU being assessed 22 fouls in Gainesville just before South Carolina and Kentucky were charged with 26 and 29 fouls, respectively, in Columbia.
No. 2: Wichita State (31-0, 18-0 Missouri Valley)
Last Week: Struck fear into Bradley, 69-49; bore down on Missouri State, 68-45.
Best Wins: at Saint Louis, vs. Tennessee, vs. BYU (neutral site), at Indiana State
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.22 PPP, 0.88 PPP allowed
Wichita State has now gone undefeated in its regular season (including conference play) and that is certainly commendable. It is a very, very rare achievement: Since Saint Joseph's went undefeated in the regular season in 2003-04, 10 seasons ago, there have been 3,420 individual seasons of Division I basketball, and the Shockers have the only unbeaten season among them. They are the 0.029 percent.
But, while we're rightly praising that achievement, why can't we note that Wichita State is a great team that pulled off that feat with the help of a relatively easy schedule, and that Wichita State wasn't really at fault for that schedule?
No. 3: Arizona (27-2, 14-2 Pac-12)
Last Week: Skinned Cal, 87-59; felled Stanford, 79-66.
Best Wins: vs. Duke (neutral site), at Michigan, at UCLA, at San Diego State
Losses: at California, at Arizona State
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.19 PPP, 0.93 PPP allowed
No. 4: Duke (23-6, 12-4 ACC)
Last Week: Beat Virginia Tech off the blocks, 66-48.
Best Wins: vs. Syracuse, vs. Virginia, vs. Michigan, vs. UCLA (neutral site)
Losses: vs. Arizona, Kansas (neutral sites), at Notre Dame, at Clemson, at Syracuse, at North Carolina
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.07 PPP, 0.94 PPP allowed
Virtual bye weeks did Arizona and Duke a lot of good this week. The difference is that Arizona made its week into one; Duke just played Virginia Tech.
Arizona got the return trips from the Pac-12's Bay Area teams — which scared, in Stanford's case, and beat, in California's case, the Wildcats on their respective home floors about a month ago — and administered beatdowns to both, with an especially painful one to Cal, which 'Zona outscored by a jaw-dropping 0.41 points per trip.
After flat-lining on offense earlier in Pac-12 play, the Wildcats now have scored at least 1.16 points per possession in each of their last three games, and the defense never left. Even if 'Zona loses at Oregon in its regular season finale and in the Pac-12 Tournament, the 'Cats have a No. 1 seed sewn up, and if there were a delta next to them in the Savory Sixteen, it would be green, and pointing upward.
Duke, meanwhile, blitzed Virginia Tech with a 21-4 run to begin its game, took the rest of the game off, and watched its win over Syracuse get further and further devalued, thanks to...
No. 5: Virginia (25-5, 16-1 ACC)
Last Week: Weathered Miami, 65-40; crushed Syracuse, 75-56.
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
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.21 PPP, 0.90 PPP allowed
The Cavaliers haven't won the ACC since Ralph Sampson roamed the paint in Charlottesville, but they have the 2014 "regular season" "title" 2 is the only clinched with just one final farewell to Maryland to go. Virginia had never played Syracuse before Saturday, much less beaten the Orange. They have had just two seasons with single-digit losses — both nine-loss campaigns — since Sampson's departure for the 1983 NBA Draft, and now cannot lose nine games this season even if they don't win again.
So these are heady times for the 'Hoos. I'm not sure that excuses Virginia referring to Syracuse as the "Orangemen" on its official site, but I can sort of understand why: They're new to all of this.
But the frightening thing, for Virginia fans, was Saturday's shocking discovery of a killer offense to go with Tony Bennett's asphyxiation-based defense. Virginia dropped 75 on the Orange, becoming just the third team to do so this year; they joined Duke, which dropped 89 in a game you remember, and Cal, which scored 81 on Syracuse in a game even I don't recall, because it happened in Hawai'i, during the Maui Invitational. But the Cavs actually scored slightly more points per possession on 'Cuse than Duke did — 1.32 for the 'Hoos, 1.31 for the Dukies — despite a bad day from Joe Harris (2-for-10, seven points).
And, sure, Syracuse is redefining what "reeling" means right now, but that Virginia performance is the second-best per-possession performance against Syracuse in the KenPom era, edging out that Duke onslaught — and Virginia hit eight threes to Duke's 15, while holding Syracuse to 0.98 PPP.
Would Virginia have the 16-1 ACC record it has — hilariously, it's the first 16-and-anything record in ACC history since Duke went 16-0 in conference in 1998-99 — if the Cavs had been made to play even one of Duke, Syracuse, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, or Clemson twice? Probably not. Is Virginia better than Duke? Well, I don't think so, obviously, and Duke winning the two teams' only game is decent reason for that belief. But is this really that much different from last year's Miami team, neither as talented nor as exceptional on either side of the ball as Virginia is on defense, rolling up a 15-3 record in conference play?
No, ACC fans, it is not. Save your snooty remarks about the 'Hoos until the point at which they have actually lost to your team, and don't be surprised if they win the "real" ACC title, too.
No. 6: Wisconsin (23-5, 9-5 Big Ten)
Last Week: Left Indiana crimson, 69-58; roared by Penn State, 71-66.
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
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.19 PPP, 1.08 PPP allowed
No. 7: Michigan (21-7, 13-3 Big Ten)
Last Week: Avoided a Purdon't, 77-76 (OT); smothered Minnesota, 66-56
Best Wins: at Wisconsin, vs. Iowa, vs./at Michigan State
Losses: at Iowa State, vs. Charlotte (neutral site), at Duke, vs. Arizona, at Indiana, at Iowa, vs. Wisconsin
Rolling Two-Week Efficiency Averages: 1.17 PPP, 1.06 PPP allowed.
Neither Wisconsin nor Michigan had a particularly impressive week. But it wasn't just the polls that got hammered this week: Two teams ahead of the Badgers and Wolverines lost, and four teams behind them lost, and, well, what do you want me to do?
deterioration — sorry, forgot that it's parity when mediocre or worse teams beat better ones if the teams aren't in the SEC for a second — dog-eat-dog-ness of the Big Ten feels to me like it's hampering both of these teams' chances of getting a No. 1 seed, though the Big Ten's still probably the nation's best conference. Those wins over Michigan State look a lot less impressive than they did even a week ago, Wisconsin's loss to Ohio State makes less and less sense with time, and Iowa keeps kindly excusing itself from the grown-ups' table. It was either Indiana or Illinois — two teams that would not in the NCAA Tournament field today and likely will not be in the real one in two weeks — that had the best week in the conference, and Indiana only went 2-1, while Illinois was beaten to the "landmark win at the Breslin Center" square on the board by the three other teams that have earned one this season.
I do think I have the Big Ten figured out, at least for now: Wisconsin and Michigan are its two best teams, everyone is waiting on Michigan State to return to glory — thankfully, more like Vladimir and Estragon did for Godot than like Heaven's Gate did Hale-Bopp — Iowa aggravated its allergy to consistency by winning three straight games back in January, Ohio State spent the last bit of its good offense on Northwestern and Minnesota for some reason, Nebraska, Minnesota, Illinois, and Indiana are all flawed in various ways, Penn State is exacting a weird kind of revenge for Terrelle Pryor on Ohio State, Purdue is Purdue, and Northwestern has no talent.
No. 8: Kansas (22-7, 13-3 Big 12)
Last Week: Later'd Oklahoma, 83-75; got Smarted, 72-65.
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
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.14 PPP, 1.02 PPP allowed
Oklahoma State made six of its 25 shots in the first half on Saturday, and still beat Kansas.
OHHHHHHH KANSAS— Fake Dan Beebe (@DanBeebe) March 2, 2014
Kansas probably would have won that game, even with Joel Embiid hurting and Andrew Wiggins misfiring, and Marcus Smart making shots for a change, had it managed to commit 20 turnovers, instead of 25.
OHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH KANSAS— Fake Dan Beebe (@DanBeebe) March 2, 2014
Kansas's loss brought Travis Ford's record in March at Oklahoma State to 14-14.
KANSAS HOW THE HELL DO YOU LOSE TO TRAVIS FORD IN MARCH HOW DOES AAAAANYONE LOSE TO TRAVIS FORD IN MARCH— Fake Dan Beebe (@DanBeebe) March 2, 2014
And while Oklahoma State is a good team, in the sense that there are three or four NBA players playing for the Cowboys, Oklahoma State's grip on an NCAA Tournament berth had been held by its teeth until Saturday.
But Kansas clinched its 10th straight — for emphasis, 10th straight — Big 12 title, still has the inside track to the fourth No. 1 seed because of a ridiculous schedule, and still has a better one-two punch than any other team in college basketball as long as Wiggins and Embiid are on. So Kansas coaches and media are totally taking this in stride, right?
Bill Self acted like a jerk Saturday night. Let the KU kids celebrate their Big 12 title. Self has his $5 million a year.— Yael T. Abouhalkah (@YaelTAbouhalkah) March 2, 2014
Kansas really ought to sit Embiid, who was hobbling after reinjuring his back on Saturday night, until he is 100 percent, or very close to it, and Bill Self's smart enough to do that. Kansas will probably not commit 25 turnovers in a game again this year. Kansas having a "down" year or losing a big game elicits the sort of overreaction in Jayhawkverse that is usually reserved for Kentucky, except Kansas wins the Big 12 in the "down" years, too.
And Saturday's loss was more fluke than anything: Kansas lost by seven on the road against a talented, inspired team while handing that team the ball literally three out of every 10 trips and shooting poorly from the field, and everyone who has paid even a tiny bit of attention to Kansas this year already knew that avoiding turnovers and shooting well are sometimes difficulties for this team.
Kansas is a spectacularly talented team with a gear practically no other team can match and gears that leave it vulnerable — and the difference between it and most other teams, even the great ones, is that sixth or seventh gear. Many, many teams would gladly trade places with the Jayhawks, warts and all.
No. 9: Syracuse (26-3, 13-3 ACC)
Last Week: Survived turtle time, 57-55; took cavalier loss, 75-56.
Best Wins: vs. Duke, vs./at Pittsburgh, vs. Villanova
Losses: vs. Boston College, at Duke, at Virginia
EfficiencHeat Check: 0.95 PPP, 1.06 PPP allowed
Here, for example, is a team that would trade places with Kansas in half a heartbeat.
Syracuse is 1-3 over its last four games, and its 3-3 record over its last six games could've been an 0-6 record if not for a Tyler Ennis buzzer-beater, N.C. State revealing itself to be N.C. State at the worst possible second, and Mark Turgeon's mistaken belief that you can cash in timeouts after the game is over. The Virginia loss was a nadir, just an ass-whooping at the hands of a very good team that is playing better, but losing to Boston College was a nadir, too, and if you think Ohio State's been bad on offense of late, Syracuse has been both bad and slow since that shootout with Duke in the Carrier Dome, scoring more than 60 points once since — in a 61-55 win over Notre Dame, saved from being the worst defense in the ACC only by Boston College not knowing what defense is — and staying under the 1.00 PPP threshold in its last five games.
The problem is basically that Syracuse can't shoot right now, not with Trevor Cooney clanging away and no one else on the roster stepping up in his stead. But Ennis was good enough to bail out the Orange for some part of Cooney's frigidity, and C.J. Fair good enough to bail out the Orange at other junctures, and now neither they nor the frontcourt trio of the suddenly-hurt Jerami Grant, the still-hurting Baye Moussa Keita, and the not-actually-hurt-as-far-as-anyone-knows Rakeem Christmas have been good enough to do anything but tread water in the rougher seas of this home stretch of Syracuse's ACC schedule.
There is no quick fix for what ails Syracuse, not with everything looking wrong at the moment — remember, Virginia lit up Syracuse without hitting a lot of shots over that vaunted zone — and Syracuse is basically left to hope that Cooney heats up before it's too late.
Many Syracuse fans would happily trade for Kansas's issues.
No. 10: Villanova (26-3, 14-2 Big East)
Last Week: Dogged Butler, 67-48; clipped Marquette, 73-56.
Best Wins: vs. Kansas, Iowa (neutral site), vs./at St. John's
Losses: at Syracuse, vs./at Creighton
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.07 PPP, 0.88 PPP allowed
I whined about Villanova being ranked ahead of the Creighton team that has smithereened it twice, home and away, last week on Twitter. And it still doesn't make a ton of sense to me to rank 'Nova ahead of Creighton; it definitely doesn't make sense to me to have Villanova in the top five in national polls, but with Syracuse, Kansas, and Louisville all losing last week, that is coming. (And Villanova beat Kansas, as you might recall if you spent your Black Friday watching college basketball, for some reason.)
But Villanova returned to its Big East-destroying self against Butler and Marquette, while Creighton struggled away from home again, and so I am out of arguments against having the Wildcats behind the Bluejays, or outside my top 10. For now.
That has at least something to do with what I feel compelled to do next...
No. 11: North Carolina (22-7, 12-4 ACC)
Last Week: Paiged N.C. State, 85-84 (OT); didn't chokie at Virginia Tech, 60-56.
Best Wins: vs. Duke, vs. Louisville (neutral site), at Michigan State, vs. Kentucky
Losses: vs. Belmont, at UAB, vs. Texas, at Wake Forest, vs. Miami, at Syracuse, at Virginia
Rolling Two-Week Efficiency Averages: 1.18 PPP, 1.01 PPP allowed.
No. 12: Creighton (23-5, 13-3 Big East)
Last Week: Shot through by Xavier, 75-69.
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
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.16 PPP, 1.11 PPP allowed
Here we have a team that can beat anyone when things go its way, with baffling losses and copious flaws, and a team that can beat anyone when things go its way, with baffling losses and copious flaws.
I think North Carolina's a top-10 team when the Heels are at their best, but after about a full month of something approaching that ideal best, Marcus Paige had to put on his cape at N.C. State, and Carolina never quite pulled away from Virginia Tech. And I think Creighton, when its threes are falling, is the most exhilarating team in America, but I increasingly think that some team is going to beat Creighton in March by letting Doug McDermott get his 30 points and holding everyone else in check — Xavier more or less did just that on Sunday, with McDermott scoring 27 points and no other Bluejay reaching double figures, and Creighton's only lead in the entire game was 2-0.
Here is a bold-but-not-really prediction: One of these teams will make the Elite Eight, and the other will fail to make the Sweet Sixteen, and I am not telling you which is which because I haven't a damn clue which is which.
No. 13: San Diego State (25-3, 14-2 Mountain West)
Last Week: No'd Sparty, 90-64; bullied Fresno State, 82-67.
Best Wins: vs. Creighton (neutral site), at Kansas
Losses: vs. Arizona, at Wyoming, at New Mexico.
EfficiencHeat Check: 1.07 PPP, 0.90 PPP allowed
Good news: San Diego State scored 90 and 82 points (1.17 and 1.34 PPP, respectively) in two wins last week. Bad news: The wins came against a terrible San Jose State team that has five wins against D-I competition and the Fresno State team that is almost as bad on defense in Mountain West play as the Spartans are.
If the Aztecs follow that up by sweeping an at UNLV, home vs. New Mexico week in the next five days, though, I promise I will both have San Diego State ranked next week and probably say nothing more than minimally snarky.
Nos. 14-17: ConnectiSMUmphisville
Last Week: Became sentient four-headed team.
Best Wins: Logic, Biology
Losses: Probably a lot, what with the four teams and all
SMU is 2-0 against Connecticut, which is 2-0 against Memphis, which is 2-0 against Louisville, which is 1-0 against SMU and may well be 2-0 against SMU come Wednesday. Cincinnati could not be present for the operation in which the American Conference's best teams became a hideous monster, because Mick Cronin and Teddy Valentine are still yelling at each other, and because it took place on a Saturday, when you never know if Cincy will show up3.
The American confuses me even more than the Big Ten and Big 12 have; it's like a season-long game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, except with a fourth choice (Louisville), a kid who occasionally punches everyone playing the game in the face (Cincy!), and a bunch of kids hiding in the corner (the rest of the American). Rather than explain it beyond glib metaphor, why don't we use this space to point out that an all-American team would feature Russ Smith, Shabazz Napier, Michael Dixon and/or Sean Kilpatrick, Markus Kennedy and/or Justin Jackson, and Montrezl Harrell in its starting five, and that team would eat you.
Did this also get me out of actually writing up profiles and calculating PPP averages for each individual team? Yes. Yes, it did. And thank you for that, ConnectiSMUmphisville.
To Fill A Top 25
Cincinnati can't win a national title without playing on Saturday, on account of the Final Four. ... Iowa, because why not? ... New Mexico deserves to be ranked if San Diego State does. ... Saint Louis has been running out of gas for weeks, and got gassed by VCU on Saturday. ... Stephen F. Austin is my favorite mid-major. ... I think Southern Mississippi might get ranked this week! ... Massachusetts is a top-15 team, according to the RPI, and even a loss to Dayton doesn't change that much.
Of Michigan State, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Iowa State, and Pittsburgh, which one is the team that doubled up a conference foe this week? Answer's in the comments. ... Oklahoma State is back to being a sleeper for real instead of just asleep. Thank Kansas.
The EfficiencHeat Check — named by Chip Patterson — is a team's points per possession in games since February 10, based on KenPom's possessions totals for all teams listed. For most of these teams, this is four games; Duke, Wisconsin, and Creighton played just three games in the last 14 days, while North Carolina played five. 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.
The ACC doesn't recognize its regular season champion, reserving the "conference champion" title for its tournament champion. The ACC has done this since the 1960s, and I presume this tradition endures because 1) the ACC owns college basketball and can do what it wants with its own league without much external guffawing 2) recognizing the regular-season champions as champions would mean recognizing the 1970 South Carolina team that went undefeated in ACC play and lost in the 1970 ACC Tournament final (...in a 42-39 game with N.C. State that went to double overtime) as an ACC champion and 3) it makes it way funnier when teams like Florida State and Miami win the tournament and make the ACC's North Carolina schools look dumb as hell.
Cincinnati is 7-5 on Saturdays this season, with wins over Memphis, Middle Tennessee, and Nebraska, and losses to New Mexico, Xavier, SMU, Louisville, and Connecticut. It is 17-0 on days that are not Saturday.