Overrated/Underrated: Six Teams to Watch Down the Stretch

Posted by Will Ezekowitz on February 3rd, 2017

Now halfway through the conference season, things are beginning to take shape around the college basketball landscape. As we advance into February, there are a number of overrated and underrated teams in the national polls. This week let’s dive into who some of those teams are and what makes them that way.


Baylor Played Kansas Tough But Found an All Too Familiar Result (USA Today Images)

  • Baylor, 20-2 (7-2), #2. The Bears earned some #1 votes in the most recent AP Top 25 for a reason — this is a very good team. But can Baylor keep it up for the next five weeks in the rugged Big 12? Wednesday night’s loss to Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse was perhaps expected, but what about upcoming road tests at Iowa State, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech and a home date with West Virginia? Lastly, there’s that pesky issue that Baylor wasn’t ranked in the preseason, which matters more than you’d think. Since 2006, only one team that was unranked in the preseason and ranked in the pre-tournament poll has made the Final Four. That was Shabazz Napier’s 2014 National Championship Connecticut team. These Bears feel more like last year’s Iowa club or the 2014 Syracuse team, though.
  • USC, 19-4 (6-4), NR. After a home upset of UCLA, the Trojans climbed up to a #8 seed in Joe Lunardi’s bracketology and sat just outside the Top 25 in this week’s poll (28th). But KenPom only rates the Trojans as the 59th-best team in college basketball and that’s probably closer to reality. USC is an athletically gifted team that maximizes offensive possessions by grabbing rebounds and avoiding turnovers, but its offense isn’t very efficient (52nd nationally) and its defense generally doesn’t pick up the slack (73rd nationally). Moreover, the bottom quarter of the Pac-12 is exceptionally weak this year, inflating win totals and otherwise artificially boosting all the numbers. The Trojans played well in the non-conference with good wins over SMU and Texas A&M, but if they can’t meaningfully separate themselves from the rest of the league over the last five weeks, they may be staring a bubble disaster right in the face on Selection Sunday.

  • Maryland, 20-2 (8-1), #17. Maryland’s 12-1 non-conference start masked an underwhelming run of play with three big wins coming by the slimmest of margins — one point — and the fourth coming in overtime. Fast-forward a month later and the Terrapins are tied at the top of the Big Ten with Wisconsin with a sterling 8-1 conference record. But let’s be clear — this isn’t the 17th-best team in the country. Melo Trimble leads a good-not-great offense that frequently loses possessions, and while Mark Turgeon‘s 44th-ranked defense is otherwise solid, the overall efficiency numbers don’t inspire much confidence for a deep March run. The Terps’ gaudy record is likely more a result of a number of close wins and Big Ten schedule that so far ranks only 12th out of 14 teams.


Oklahoma State’s Recent Win Over Oklahoma Was Its Fourth in a Row(USA Today Images)

  • Oklahoma State, 14-8 (3-6), NR. Pop Quiz: Which team ranks second in adjusted offensive efficiency in college basketball? If you said Oklahoma State, give yourself a gold star. An 0-6 start to Big 12 play was mostly because of a murderer’s row schedule that included some tough close losses (the Cowboys held late leads at Baylor and Kansas before succumbing), but they’ve turned it around recently in a four-game winning streak marked by much better offensive prowess. Point guard Juwan Evans, owner of the best assist rate in the conference, is also one of two Big 12 players to use at least 30 percent of his team’s possessions and still maintain an offensive rating above 100.0 (the other is Baylor’s Jonathan Motley). Jeffrey Carroll and Phil Forte are also both capable of carrying the offensive load at times. The two issues for this team are its porous defense (which ranks 124th nationally) and how the wheels tend to fall off when Evans is not on the floor (Oklahoma State is -0.21 points per possession without him, per HoopLens). But as long as that offense keeps humming at an elite rate, the Cowboys should continue to climb the Big 12 standings and work themselves into the NCAA Tournament. How far they can go will depend on what kinds of teams they face.
  • Virginia, 17-4 (7-2), #9. It is hard to get excited about this year’s iteration of the Cavaliers — London Perrantes is plenty capable, but he’s not the same level of player as Joe Harris, Justin Anderson or Malcolm Brogdon. There are no five-star recruits on this team — there are hardly even any four-stars — but what Virginia does have is the fourth-best turnover differential and the third-best eFG differential in the game, which means they get more possessions and convert them at a very high rate. That’s a great way to reliably win a bunch of basketball games. They were extremely close to a signature win at Villanova on Sunday, but the #2 team in the KenPom ratings will continue to miss out on the love it deserves.
  • Saint Mary’s, 19-2 (9-1), #18. The Gaels come in as a #6 seed, according to Lunardi, and have risen in the Top 25 mostly by virtue of not losing in recent weeks. But the Gaels are largely flying under the radar, in large part because of Gonzaga’s massive WCC and national shadow. Saint Mary’s last year was a fun, efficient, sharp-shooting, bad-defense-playing bunch that just missed out on the NCAA Tournament. This year’s ceiling has been raised by junior center Jock Landale, who is one of the best players in college basketball. Aside from his averages of 17.0 PPG and 9.5 RPG and dizzying efficiency rates, the Gaels morph from a top 100 to a borderline top 25 defense with Landale on the floor. Randy Bennett‘s offense is still humming as it always does, but a defense that has moved into the top 50 range is why the Gaels deserve to be taken much more seriously this season.
William Ezekowitz (27 Posts)

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One response to “Overrated/Underrated: Six Teams to Watch Down the Stretch”

  1. Jeremy says:

    This is the kind of lazy drivel that gives advanced stats a bad name. As someone who subscribes to a combined approach (stats plus “scouting”/watching games) for evaluating teams, I get the feeling that the author doesn’t actually watch many games.

    Maryland, for example, is the only team besides Gonzaga that hasn’t lost a road/neutral game. Their last two wins were on the road against Minnesota and Ohio State, when this “good-not-great offense that frequently loses possessions” posted offensive efficiency ratings of 123 and 122 with a 12 percent TO rate. In the case of Minnesota, this was against one of the most efficient defenses in the country on their court.

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