Sports Illustrated’s Magic 8 and Where the Big 12 StandsPosted by Kory Carpenter on January 15th, 2014
Luke Winn over at SI.com came out with his annual “Magic 8” article on Tuesday, giving us the group of eight schools from which the eventual national champion will hail. This year’s teams? Arizona, Wisconsin, Syracuse, Kentucky, Kansas, Florida, Iowa State, and Michigan State. Winn’s reasoning is rather simple: “Title teams always — not sometimes, always — have high-efficiency profiles on kenpom.com,” he said. Top 25 rankings are virtually meaningless. It’s hard to go wrong when trusting advanced metric profiles, though, and Winn has a pretty solid list of title contenders. Notably, two contenders — Kansas and Iowa State — could rise from the Big 12.
Winn had this to say about the Jayhawks: “Embiid’s rim protection and Wiggins’ rebounding against Iowa State on Monday were incredible, and if they continue on this trajectory, they’ll have a title-caliber defense.” In their last two games, Kansas has held Kansas State and Iowa State to under one point per possession (0.94 and 0.89, respectively), and the Jayhawks by no coincidence have started looking like a Final Four-caliber team. Bill Self’s defense this year still isn’t up to the standards of his other teams or previous national champions, though. As Winn notes, the last 11 national champions have had on average a national defensive efficiency ranking of 8.5, and Kansas currently ranks 19th. If that number holds up, this would be the worst defensive team Self has coached at Kansas since 2004-05, when they finished the season as the 25th best defensive unit in the nation. As Winn said, it will come down to whether the Jayhawks can continue on their recent upward defensive trajectory. They have an elite shot-blocking presence down low in Joel Embiid, and length on the perimeter in Wiggins and Wayne Selden; they can become an elite defensive team, but they still have work to do to get there.
Iowa State finished 133rd in defensive efficiency last season, but the Cyclones are currently 20th, which, as Winn points out, can largely be credited to the work done by assistant coach Doc Sadler. Sadler was known for his strong defenses at Nebraska and UTEP, and his presence on this year’s staff shouldn’t be overlooked. The Cyclones don’t do any one thing great defensively, but they are better than the national average in a number of defensive categories, including effective field goal percentage, two-and three-point field goal percentages, and offensive rebounding percentage. They’ve also held opponents under 80 points in 10 of their first 14 games.
What about the rest of the Big 12?
- Oklahoma State, a team that Winn notes may have found itself in the group of eight earlier this season, was left off the list after the season-ending injury to Michael Cobbins. The Cowboys lost to Kansas State in their first game without Cobbins on January 4 and don’t look to be realistic Big 12 contenders at this point, much less national title contenders. With Cobbins in the lineup, Oklahoma State gave up at least 70 points four times in its first 13 games. They’ve given up over 70 points in each of the three games since.
- Baylor is the only other Big 12 team currently in the top 40 on KenPom. The Bears aren’t a great defensive team this season, though, allowing teams to shoot 35.2 percent from three (220th nationally) while causing turnovers on just 15.4 percent of their defensive possessions.
As far as the rest of the conference goes, the other six teams are just fighting for NCAA Tournament bids. None of those will be cutting down any nets in early April.