Power Rankings: North Carolina’s climbing fast

In February’s final Power Rankings, Gonzaga remains No. 1, North Carolina rejoins the top five, and Butler cracks the top 16 after sweeping Villanova:

  • 1
    1Gonzaga Bulldogs
    last week: 1
    record: 28–0

    Last week’s Power Rankings led off with an experiment in calculating Gonzaga’s odds of going undefeated. It used kenpom.com‘s efficiency data as its foundation, and since that metric loves the Zags this season, the running-the-table odds were surprisingly high. But what happens when the same experiment is run using ESPN’s BPI data, or Jeff Sagarin’s ratings?

    With help from Seth Burn (@SethBurn), who did the heavy lifting of translating kenpom, BPI and Sagarin all into one language—Pythagorean winning percentage—I ran three new sets of Gonzaga running-the-table odds. To fill out the remainder of the Zags’ schedule this time, I used the projected West Coast Conference tourney bracket, and then an average of the NCAA tournament teams they might face in each round (16s, 8s, 4s, 2s, 1s and 1s), based on the seeding from SI.com’s latest mock bracket.

    Here are the results:

    The three metrics give Gonzaga an average of 62.3% odds of entering the NCAA tournament undefeated and 9.1% odds of running the table. BPI (4.4% perfection odds) and Sagarin (6.8%) were, not surprisingly, less bullish on Gonzaga going 39–0 than kenpom (16.1%). Those numbers would obviously fluctuate based on the actual difficulty of the Zags’ tourney bracket.

    Additional thanks to John Ezekowitz (@JohnEzekowitz) and Sameer Ohri (@sohri) for helping talk me through this project.

    Next up: 2/23 at San Diego, 2/25 vs. BYU

  • 2
    2Kansas Jayhawks
    last week: 3
    record: 25–3

    The Jayhawks are either great at scouting opponents’ inbounds plays (most likely the case) or avid readers of the Power Rankings, where multiple versions of Baylor’s most interesting post-entry set—what I call the post-pin with diagonal lob entry—have been covered over the past two months. When the Bears were trailing by two in the final minute of their loss in Waco on Saturday, they ran the play in a sideline out-of-bounds situation . . . and Kansas defended it much more effectively than Kansas State did a few weeks earlier.

    This film edit contrasts K-State and Kansas’s strategies against the same Baylor play, showing them back-to-back and then spliced together:

    (Kudos to the Kansas City Star’s Jesse Newell for spotting this in the KU-Baylor game, and for name-checking the PRs in his column.)

    Next up: 2/25 at Texas, 2/27 vs. Oklahoma

  • 3
    3Villanova Wildcats
    last week: 2
    record: 26–3

    Josh Hart’s run at the Wooden and Naismith awards is the biggest individual-player story of the Wildcats’ season. But Villanova’s most improved starter is point guard Jalen Brunson, whose Big East stats from his freshman season versus 2016–17 are strikingly different. While taking on more minutes and a bigger role in the offense, Brunson’s doubled his assist-turnover ratio and increased his offensive rating by 30 points per 100 possessions. That’s the difference between being an adequate sub and an All-America-caliber floor general:

    (The chart’s stats are up to, but not including, Wednesday’s loss to Butler. Photo from Getty Images.)

    Next up: 2/25 vs. Creighton, 3/4 at Georgetown

  • 4
    4Oregon Ducks
    last week: 5
    record: 23–4

    It’s already senior-night season in parts of the Pac-12. For the Ducks’ Chris Boucher, that meant his mother and siblings from Montreal got to see him play live for the first time in his four-season journey from New Mexico Junior College to Northwest (Wyoming) Junior College to Oregon. He posted this photo of it on Instagram:


    A post shared by Chris Boucher (@slimmduck) on

    As a thank you to the fam for making the trip, Boucher scored 18 points in Oregon’s win over Colorado and pointed to them in the crowd after his most vicious dunk (at the 1:25 mark of this highlight reel):

    Next up: 2/25 at Stanford, 3/4 at Oregon State

  • 5
    5North Carolina Tar Heels
    last week: 10
    record: 23–5

    Since junior wing Justin Jackson has played his way into the NPOY conversation, here’s an update of a shot-attempt analysis I did on him in January:

    Jackson has pulled off the rare feat of nearly doubling his long-range volume (from 4.2 3PAs per 40 minutes, pace-adjusted, to 8.2) from his sophomore season to his junior campaign, while also increasing his accuracy by nearly 10 percentage points (from 29.2% to 39.1). :

    Next up: 2/25 at Pittsburgh, 2/27 at Virginia:

  • 6
    6Baylor Bears
    last week: 4
    record: 23–5

    With its recent losses to Texas Tech and Kansas, Baylor has dropped off the No. 1 seed line in the Bracket Matrix, which aggregates 116 of the Internet’s mock NCAA tournament fields. Come March 12, the Bears’ slide could make it easier for the selection committee to have a common-sense foursome on the No. 1 line—undefeated Gonzaga along with the champs of the Big East (Villanova), Big 12 (Kansas) and ACC (North Carolina).

    But with West Virginia and possibly a third meeting with Kansas or the Mountaineers in the Big 12 tournament left on Baylor’s schedule, there’s room for the Bears to accumulate 1–2 more marquee wins and force a Selection Sunday debate. They’d likely lack a share of a regular-season conference title but have a résumé with wins over Oregon at home, Louisville and VCU on neutral courts, Iowa State and Oklahoma State (twice) and whatever they accumulate over the coming weeks. It could end up being the best résumé of wins in the field.

    Next up: 2/25 at Iowa State, 2/27 vs. West Virginia

  • 7
    7Arizona Wildcats
    last week: 7
    record: 25–3

    The offensive resurgence of Finnish 7-footer Lauri Markkanen has been sparked by a focus on the interior. En route to scoring 26 points against Washington on Feb. 18, he attempted 15 twos and just two treys, while during his early-February slump he was more perimeter focused. Despite being an excelling long-range shooter—he’s making 45.8% of his threes—his stats have been more impressive when he attempts more shots from the interior:

    Next up: 2/23 vs. USC, 2/25 vs. UCLA:

  • 8
    8UCLA Bruins
    last week: 8
    record: 24–3

    Is UCLA’s defense, which has an alarmingly bad efficiency ranking of 117, improving for the stretch run? This is what the Bruins’ running, three-game averages for defensive efficiency look like when adjusted for opponent and game location (the lower the line goes, the better the performance):

    UCLA’s D is better than it was in late January and early February, and it’s getting close to the average defensive efficiency of a kenpom top-25 team (indicated by the top of the yellow box).

    Next up: 2/23 at Arizona State, 2/25 at Arizona

  • 9
    9Louisville Cardinals
    last week: 6
    record: 22–6

    Rather than dwell on Wednesday’s loss at North Carolina, I’m going to revisit a game I found more entertaining: the Cardinals’ 94–90 win over Virginia Tech on Feb. 18. To start, it featured the costume change of the season, with Buzz Williams going from fully suited in the first few minutes of the first half . . .

    . . . to sweating through his dress shirt before halftime, to just giving up on formalwear altogether and coming out for the second half in a bright orange, dri-fit t-shirt:

    Louisville coach Rick Pitino, when asked for his reaction by the Courier-Journal, said:

    “I said to my assistant coaches, ‘Is [Buzz] wearing a T-shirt?’ And they said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Why?’ and they said, ‘He’s hot.’ Not only is he a great coach, but he’s a great character and brings a lot of laughter to the game. I just get the greatest kick out of him, you know, in an orange T-shirt. I may try that one time.”

    The game was also the latest episode of Donovan Mitchell, Elite Scorer, as he hit five threes en route to 26 points and set up many of his shots with impressive, off-ball movement.

    One play in particular that I liked was a sideline out-of-bounds in the first half, in which Louisville leveraged the way Virginia Tech was defending center Anas Mahmoud. Because Mahmoud has attempted a grand total of zero three-pointers in his three college seasons, it was understandable that his defender (circled in red) refused to leave the paint when Mahmoud ventured out to receive the inbounds pass:

    But Louisville capitalized on that distance to set up a staggered, downscreen/handoff combo for Mitchell, and the help came too late to stop him from hitting a three. Check out the full play in this GIF:

    Next up: 2/26 vs. Syracuse, 3/1 at Wake Forest

  • 10
    10West Virginia Mountaineers
    last week: 13
    record: 22–6

    In this season’s NCAA tourney bracket, which teams might end up being the most underseeded, in terms of their tourney seed versus their level of efficiency? I compared the Wednesday-morning Bracket Matrix rankings with kenpom’s rankings to find the biggest discrepancies, and West Virginia, a possible four-seed with the efficiency strength of a No. 1, came in behind only Wichita State and Kansas State*:

    (* K-State’s Wednesday loss to Oklahoma State may put the Wildcats on the outside of the bracket, but again, this analysis was done using data prior to that game.)

    Next up: 2/25 at TCU, 2/27 at Baylor

  • 11
    11Duke Blue Devils
    last week: 9
    record: 22–6

    Even though the Blue Devils lost at Syracuse on Wednesday, their offense is trending to its peak level of the season. Here’s the same adjusted efficiency trend analysis I ran on UCLA’s defense, but with the Blue Devils’ running offensive three-game averages:

    Jayson Tatum’s improved offensive decision-making (and hot long-range shooting) has been one of the catalysts, and there’s still room for more improvement if Grayson Allen can emerge from his scoring slump. Next up: 2/25 at Miami, 2/28 vs. Florida State

  • 12
    12Purdue Boilermakers
    last week: 14
    record: 25–3

    The Boilermakers’ offense is more creative than it gets credit for nationally, and the set I’ve GIF-ed below, from their win over Michigan State on Feb. 18, is a good example.

    It starts with a two-guard downscreening for a four-man (Biggie Swanigan), and then a point guard downscreening for a center (Isaac Haas), and then flows into a 5-to-4 handoff (from Haas to Biggie), and a 5-roll into a 1-on-1 situation on the left block. Watch it unfold and produce an easy bucket:

    Next up: 2/25 at Michigan, 2/28 vs. Indiana

  • 13
    13Florida Gators
    last week: 15
    record: 23–5

    No other team in these Power Rankings has a potential defining moment left in its regular season like Florida does on Saturday, when it faces Kentucky in Lexington. The Gators routed the Wildcats in Gainesville and have since climbed to No. 5 in kenpom’s rankings, but there’s still plenty of skepticism that Florida is an Elite Eight/Final Four-level team. A win at Rupp Arena would go a long ways toward altering that image—it would give the Gators outright control of the SEC, set them up to finish the regular season with 12 straight wins, put them in position for a No. 2 seed in the NCAAs and push Mike White into the conversation for national coach of the year. Yes, Florida can still have a nice season without sweeping Kentucky, but doing so would take things to another level.

    Next up: 2/25 at Kentucky, 3/1 vs. Arkansas

  • 14
    14Kentucky Wildcats
    last week: 12
    record: 23–5

    This is a good time for Florida to be traveling to Lexington because Kentucky’s offense is in its worst stretch of the season, having just failed to score 1.00 points per possession against bottom-feeding Missouri on Tuesday. Here’s the same adjusted-efficiency trend report I ran on Duke’s offense, with UK’s season swapped in:

    Next up: 2/25 vs. Florida, 2/28 vs. Vanderbilt

  • 15
    15Butler Bulldogs
    last week: 18
    record: 22–6

    According to kenpom ratings, these are the five most difficult wins of 2016–17:

    1. Butler at Villanova, Feb. 22
    2t. Oklahoma (Jan. 18) and Oklahoma State (Feb. 4) at West Virginia
    4. Vanderbilt at Florida, Jan. 21
    5. Virginia at Louisville, Dec. 28

    According to my own sense of what’s difficult, these are the five most difficult wins of 2016–17:

    1. Iowa State at Kansas, Feb. 4
    2. Butler at Villanova, Feb. 22
    3. Kansas at Kentucky, Jan. 28
    4t. Oklahoma (Jan. 18) and Oklahoma State (Feb. 4) at West Virginia

    By either measure, what Butler pulled off on Wednesday—beating the Wildcats at The Pavilion for the first time in Villanova seniors’ careers—was remarkable, and should help the Holtmanns chase a No. 3 seed in the NCAAs.

    Next up: 2/26 at Xavier, 3/4 vs. Seton Hall

  • 16
    16Wisconsin Badgers
    last week: 11
    record: 22–5

    Here’s an interesting battle for geographic advantage in the NCAAs: One of the tourney’s eight opening-weekend sites is Milwaukee’s Bradley Center, a venue that would be inundated with Wisconsin fans should the Badgers be slotted there for Rounds 1 and 2. To make that happen, though, UW would likely need to push its way up to the No. 4-seed line and have higher standing than Purdue or Butler, who are currently slotted into the Milwaukee spots in most brackets.

    After losing two of its past three games and lacking any marquee wins on its résumé, Wisconsin looks like a 6-ish seed. It would probably need to win out the regular season and then go deep into the Big Ten tournament in order to make a push at opening the NCAAs in its home state.

    Next up: 2/23 at Ohio State, 2/26 at Michigan State

The Next 16

17. Notre Dame
18. Cincinnati
19. Saint Mary’s
20. Florida State
21. SMU
22. Oklahoma State
23. Iowa State
24. Miami
25. Minnesota
26. Virginia
27. Wichita State
28. VCU
29. Michigan
30. Creighton
31. USC
32. Maryland

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