This week’s Power Rankings feature a new No. 1 (Gonzaga!), a celebration of Villanova’s shot-fakery, and an appreciation of efforts by Oregon and Purdue to create open threes: 1 1Gonzaga Bulldogs last week: 2 record: 24–0
Nigel Williams-Goss is a different point guard in big games than he is against hapless opponents. When the Zags have faced top-100* competition, he’s been a super-efficient, go-to-guy who makes half of this threes and barely sees the bench . . . and against all other teams, he profiles as a respectably efficient, secondary scorer:
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Assuming Williams-Goss is recovered from the sore ankle that kept him out against Santa Clara last Saturday, these stats bode well for the Zags’ last truly difficult test of the regular season, on Saturday night at St. Mary’s, which ranks 14th in efficiency.
(* Top 100 = kenpom.com top 100, adjusted for game location.)
Next up: 2/9 at Loyola Marymount, 2/11 at Saint Mary’s 2 2Villanova Wildcats last week: 3 record: 23–2
Long delay between discovery and implementation here, but . . . FS1’s Jan. 21 broadcast of Providence-Villanova included a brief clip of Friars coach Ed Cooley giving his pregame speech in front of the team’s scouting-report whiteboard. It was notable—and totally justified—that the first reminder under three different players was “stay down on shot fakes” (which I’ve circled in yellow).
Villanova is Team Shotfake—it’s something they practice every day—and as Providence says above, Jalen Brunson, Kris Jenkins and Donte DiVincenzo are the chief practitioners. Defending a Wildcats possession can often feel like you’re in this loop. . . .
Anyway: I was reminded of Cooley’s whiteboard while watching Georgetown-Villanova on Tuesday. The Wildcats were shot-faking all over the place, and the Hoyas were hardly doing it at all, and I was inspired to do a single-game charting experiment. How many times did each team shot-fake, what did that translate to on a per-possession basis, and what was their efficiency on those possessions?
Villanova shot-faked seven times as frequently as Georgetown did, but the Wildcats’ efficiency was lower on their shot-fake possessions than it was on their non-fake possessions. I’m not sure if that’s an anomaly or a logical outcome, given that there’s no need for a shot-fake if you have an easy, open look to score.
Next up: 2/11 at Xavier, 2/13 at DePaul 3 3Kansas Jayhawks last week: 1 record: 21–3
I repeated the Nigel Williams-Goss splits experiment on fellow Naismith/Wooden Award candidate Frank Mason III, with different results. Mason, like Williams-Goss, becomes a higher-usage guy who barely leaves the floor in bigger games . . . but unlike Nigel, Frank’s efficiency drops off noticeably against better competition.
That wasn’t what I expected, given that Mason has multiple, signature (or #BIFM) moments in big games this season. But comparing him and Williams-Goss is hardly an apples-to-apples thing; Mason is in a situation where nearly every one of his Big 12 games qualifies as a top-100 opponent, so he gets no breaks between “quality” games.
Next up: 2/11 at Texas Tech, 2/13 vs. West Virginia 4 4Baylor Bears last week: 4 record: 21–3
Last month, spurred on by a tip from friend-o’-the-Rankings John Ezekowitz, I looked at Baylor’s proclivity for post pins with diagonal, lobbed entries to a cleared-out weakside. If you want to translate that basketball-speak into visual terms, watch this video and see how it works:
In the final minute of their loss to Kansas State on Saturday, the Bears used a different method of setting up their Johnathan Motley post pin: a sideline out-of-bounds play with senior guard Ish Wainwright (as usual) as the passer, but with Motley starting at the strongside elbow, and then setting two screens before sealing off his man. Although it didn’t result in points, the diagonal feed was flawless, and there was a promising section option for junior guard Manu Lecomte on the wing. Watch:
Next up: 2/11 vs. TCU, vs. 2/13 at Texas Tech 5 5Oregon Ducks last week: 11 record: 21–3
Following the Ducks’ 85–58 annihilation of Arizona on Saturday, junior wing Dillon Brooks told The Oregonian that “Tyler [Dorsey] is the X-factor on our team. When he gets it going, we’re blowing up teams by 20.”
Dorsey had 23 points—on 6-of-6 long-range shooting—against the Wildcats, and it was the fourth time he’d broken the 20-point mark this season. That got me wondering: Does Dorsey having a big scoring night make Oregon better overall? I ran competition-adjusted splits on two scenarios—when he scores less than 20, or 20 or more; and when he scores less than 18, or 18 or more—and in each case the Ducks did have a notably higher adjusted efficiency margin.
Next up: 2/9 at UCLA, 2/11 at USC 6 6Wisconsin Badgers last week: 9 record: 20–3
The Ethan Happ For National Defensive Player of the Year campaign is gaining momentum. This was what I wrote on Jan. 17 in SI’s midseason predictions column . . .
. . . and on Feb. 6, Jay Bilas—whose Tweets have considerably more influence (and audience) than mine do—issued this take:
It might also be time to start ramping up a Happ for All-America campaign, too, as his high-usage scoring and assisting, combined with his defense, is putting him in contention with Purdue sophomore forward Caleb Swanigan for Big Ten POY. Happ, Swanigan and Baylor junior Johnathan Motley have been the nation’s three most high-impact frontcourt players, and an All-America first team of those three plus Villanova’s Josh Hart and either Kansas’s Frank Mason or Gonzaga’s Nigel Williams-Goss would make a lot of sense.
Next up: 2/9 at Nebraska, 2/12 vs. Northwestern 7 7North Carolina Tar Heels last week: 7 record: 21–4
Tar Heels freshman backup Tony Bradley is offensive rebounding at a historically high level, grabbing 21.3% of UNC’s misses. In this decade, just seven players have finished a season with a higher OReb percentage than Bradley’s—and two of the three freshman to do so are currently in the NBA:
Bradley, of course, is working with the advantage that he doesn’t play a ton of minutes (averaging 14.9 per game) and has a clear role as a garbage collector on a team with veteran, offensive stars. He can focus most of his efforts on offensive rebounding, but still: It requires serious effort to do it this well in the ACC.
(Chart data source: DraftExpress.com)
Next up: 2/9 at Duke, 2/15 at NC State 8 8Virginia Cavaliers last week: 10 record: 18–5
Among the notable, post-New Year’s Day developments in Virginia’s rotation is that small forward Marial Shayok replaced complementary point guard Darius Thompson in the starting lineup, and freshman point guard Ty Jerome has started earning meaningful minutes as a reserve. And when Thompson and Jerome come off the bench together, either as part of two- or three-guard lineups, the results have been excellent. According to hooplens.com since Dec. 28, the Hoos only use this look 16% of the time, but their efficiency margin with Thompson-Jerome is plus-34 points per 100 possessions, compared to just plus-nine in all other situations.
Next up: 2/12 at Virginia Tech, 2/15 vs. Duke 9 9Arizona Wildcats last week: 5 record: 21–3
While it’s been proven that luck plays a role in three-point defense, Sean Miller’s Pack Line defenses have a long enough track record of stingy three-point percentages that I don’t think it’s a fluke. His Wildcats consistently excel at contesting three-point attempts . . . which is why Arizona allowing Oregon to shoot 16-of-25 from deep in Saturday’s blowout was particularly shocking.
I re-watched all of the Ducks’ threes to see if there was any secret to getting good looks, and what stood out, on a few occasions, was the way they manipulated Arizona’s ballscreen defense. When Oregon used forward Jordan Bell—a non-shooter—as the ballscreener, the Wildcats would double the ballhandler; and the Ducks would counter by short-slipping or short-rolling Bell, passing to him out of the double-team, and then having him draw help and kick to an open shooter. Watch this bit of hoops chess play out twice in the following film edit:
Next up: 2/11 vs. California, 2/16 at Washington State 10 10Louisville Cardinals last week: 12 record: 19-5
The Cardinals have now played six ACC games without their former starting point guard, Quentin Snider, who’s out with a strained hip flexor. As valuable as Snider was in their win over Kentucky in December, they’ve been a better team without him in ACC play—both on offense and on D.
Here are the competition-adjusted splits for Louisville with and without Snider—one set for a pure 5/6 game split, and one set that removes this week’s Virginia game, which isn’t all that worthwhile for analysis given that the Cardinals were also missing Deng Adel and Mangok Mathiang:
Leaving out the last Virginia game, Louisville has been 25.7 points per 100 possessions better without Snider in ACC play than it was with him. That’s a significant margin.
Next up: 2/11 vs. Miami (Fla.), 2/13 at Syracuse 11 11UCLA Bruins last week: 13 record: 21–3
The Rankings have gone too long without a Lonzo Ball Assist Wheel update, so here goes:
Ball’s favorite targets remain freshman forward T.J. Leaf and senior guard Isaac Hamilton, but the freshman point guard is still spreading the ball to a seven-player mix. Ball is also generating—according to my charting—19.1 assist points per game, which combined with his scoring, brings his total average points produced to 34.2 ppg. (And that’s not even counting what he produces on passes that lead to shooting fouls, which don’t show up in box scores.)
Next up: 2/9 vs. Oregon, 2/12 Oregon State 12 12West Virginia Mountaineers last week: 6 record: 19–5
When the NCAA tournament selection committee does its first-ever, midseason seed reveal on Saturday—in a nationally televised show on CBS—the Mountaineers might be the team I’m most curious about. Michael Beller’s Feb. 6 bracket for SI.com had them as a No. 3 seed, but they range anywhere from a (highly questionable) 1 to a 6 in the Bracket Matrix. Will a five-loss team get sufficient credit from the committee for a résumé that includes marquee wins over Kansas and Baylor at home, and at Virginia and Iowa State? Next up: 2/11 vs. Kansas State, 2/13 at Kansas
13 13Cincinnati Bearcats last week: 15 record: 22–2
Another bracketing hypothetical: How high can Cincinnati climb if it runs the table in the AAC? The Bearcats’ toughest, remaining game—and the only one they’re projected to lose by kenpom.com—is Sunday at SMU. Get past that, and they could be 29–2 heading into the AAC tournament, with four wins over likely NCAA tournament teams (Iowa State, Xavier, SMU twice) and zero bad losses. In that case, would the committee be willing to elevate the Bearcats over an ACC or Big 12 team—a Florida State, Virginia or West Virginia, say—for a No. 2 seed? I suspect that could become one of the biggest debates of Selection Sunday.
Next up: 2/12 at SMU, 2/15 at South Florida 14 14Kentucky Wildcats last week: 19–5 record: 8
Last week’s uniform edition of the Power Rankings included multiple Kentucky mentions—both praise for the home checkerboard look the Wildcats are wearing this season and a wish that they’d revive one of the gaudiest looks of all-time, the 1994–95 APEX icicle shorts (below, at right). What I did not mention—and heard about from UK fans—were the Converse “denim” jerseys from the 1996 national title run, which were not actually denim, but from a distance gave off the appearance of lightly stonewashed blue jeans (below, at left). For the record, I’d be overjoyed if these made a return, too, and given that Nike owns Converse, and Converse once bought APEX, they should theoretically still own the designs.
(Kentucky’s backcourt could certainly use Tony Delk’s 44.3% long-range shooting from ’95-96, too; perhaps the jerseys could stimulate accuracy by association.)
Next up: 2/11 at Alabama, 2/14 vs. Tennessee 15 15Purdue Boilermakers last week: 16 record: 19–5
We’re three-quarters of the way through the regular season and 6' 9" rebounding machine Biggie Swanigan is Purdue’s most accurate long-range shooting option, at 50.0%. His three-point volume has been trending upward over the Boilermakers’ past four games, and what’s intriguing to me is that he’s not just getting his looks out of standard pick-and-pops. Although this doesn’t happen a lot, Purdue has actually run plays—such as this BLOB—where its point guard and two-guard set staggered screens for Biggie to run off of and get a catch-and-shoot three. This is creative stuff:
Next up: 2/9 at Indiana, 2/14 vs. Rutgers 16 16Florida State Seminoles last week: 14 record: 21–4
Hype around the Seminoles seemed to peak when they were 16–1, and cool off during their mild descent to 21–4, but it’s worth mentioning that they're still projected to tie North Carolina and Virginia for first place in the ACC. That—given how loaded the ACC is this season, and the fact that FSU was 28th in the preseason AP poll±would go down as one of the biggest coaching accomplishments of 2016–17. Leonard Hamilton earned a mention in my Coach of the Year handicapping column from Tuesday, but he probably deserves even more buzz.
Next up: 2/11 at Notre Dame, 2/18 at Pittsburgh
The Next 16
17. Duke 18. Florida 19. Notre Dame 20. South Carolina 21. Butler 22. St. Mary's 23. SMU 24. USC 25. Xavier 26. Creighton 27. Wichita State 28. Maryland 29. Kansas State 30. VCU 31. Michigan 32. Miami