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.

Overrated

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.

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Three Schools Looking to End Tourney Droughts

Posted by Shane McNichol on January 30th, 2017

So much of this season’s focus has zeroed in on college basketball’s blue-blooded programs, both those holding true to their stature and those that are floundering. But although their names are not as sexy, this season’s early group of bubble teams features a handful of programs that have little to no recent experience in the NCAA Tournament. For coaches at these schools, climbing the mountain to March Madness can be a veritable game-changer. As we slowly turn the corner into February and the last six weeks before Selection Sunday, fans, coaches, alumni and general observers should all keep a close eye on Northwestern, Virginia Tech and TCU to see if they can end their long droughts by closing the deal.

Is Another Chicago Curse About to End? (USA Today Images)

  • Northwestern. With a 7-2 Big Ten record and its first AP Top 25 ranking in seven years, Northwestern is finally in position to end the other less-publicized Chicago area losing streak. Though there have been a few close calls over the course of the last decade, head coach Chris Collins seems to have the group of Wildcats that will break through. His team currently ranks 29th in the RPI, having gone 18-4 against a schedule that KenPom rates as the 67th toughest in college basketball. The selection committee values road wins and Northwestern has answered this season by winning four of its first five Big Ten away games. Hopes are high in Evanston, and with nine games left in the Big Ten season, it would take a fairly monumental collapse for Collins’ team to play its way out of the Big Dance.

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Handicapping the Midseason Battle for the #1 Seeds

Posted by Shane McNichol on January 20th, 2017

The College Football Playoff has caught a lot of flak for a system that rewards four teams in an environment where five power conference champions all feel that they are deserving. The NCAA Tournament with its 68 teams is obviously a lot more inclusive, but the pursuit of the four top seeds shares some of the flaws of the football system. College basketball features a less defined definition of its power conferences, but depending on your opinion of the Big East and American, our landscape features a minimum of six power conference champions which presumably would have a shot at the top line. On top of that, there are always a handful of mid-majors capable of having a stake in selection of the #1 seeds. With the American sitting at eighth in the RPI this season, Cincinnati would likely need to run the table for a chance at a top seed, an unlikely outcome. That leaves seven entrants, loosely defined to include conferences, for only four spots. Let’s examine each in turn.

Are Wisconsin fans gearing up for a possible #1 seed? (Photo by David Stluka)

  • Big Ten. Thanks to a pair of unexpected swoons by Indiana and Michigan State, Purdue and Wisconsin seem to be the only Big Ten teams with a semi-realistic chance of making a run at a #1 seed. However, the margin of error is already thin for both. The Boilermakers have four reasonable losses with wins over Notre Dame and Wisconsin, while the Badgers’ likely best win came at Assembly Hall against a struggling group of Hoosiers. It would be difficult to imagine that these resumes could turn into top-seed material by March. The Big Ten’s best teams appear to have suffered too many hiccups before conference play and are now slowly cannibalizing themselves into the lower seed lines.

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UCLA, Kentucky and Florida State Pace This Year’s Trend of Elite Offenses

Posted by Will Ezekowitz on January 20th, 2017

Between Malik Monk’s dunks, Lonzo Ball’s passes, West Virginia’s presses and barrages of Creighton’s threes, college basketball feels like it has gotten more exciting this year. Play has definitely gotten faster, as this tweet from Synergy Sports about the rise of transition offense in 2016-17 suggests.

This season isn’t necessarily all that much faster — possessions across the sport have only dropped 0.2 seconds per trip (from an average of 17.3 seconds to 17.1 seconds), and transition attempts are only up 0.7% — but that doesn’t mean at the tail end certain teams aren’t playing faster. Let’s take a deeper dive into several of the brand names on their list, with an eye on whether they can keep up their prolific transition offenses through the rest of this season.

Kentucky: 25.7 Transition PPG (all data from hoop-math.com)

Malik Monk is a Holy Terror in Transition (USA Today Images)

  • Who They Are: Ranked second nationally in offensive efficiency, these Wildcats might be the most efficient team John Calipari has ever coached. Ranked ninth nationally in tempo, they are definitely the fastest. Kentucky has attempted 38.2 percent of its initial field goals in transition, a mark that ranks fourth in the country and is well higher than its 26.7 percent mark a season ago.
  • How They Do It: Kentucky attempts 21.5 percent of its initial field goals in transition after an opponent’s miss, which ranks first nationally. The Wildcats also live at the rim, attempting 54 percent of their transition shots from close range (no rankings exist for this, but it’s very high) and making 75 percent of those attempts. The one questionable area is that they are not very good at shooting in transition, though, with a 29 percent conversion rate on transition threes the lone weakness in a sterling transition game.

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Which is Easier to Maintain: Offense or Defense?

Posted by William Ezekowitz on December 27th, 2016

There are certain teams you can count on to have specific strengths seemingly every college basketball season. The high-flying athletes of North Carolina, Duke and Kentucky will score in bunches, while the rigid defensive systems of Virginia and Louisville will keep their opponents offensively flummoxed. The coaches in nearly every instance are who get credit for this year-to-year consistency, but which skill is more reliable? Is it easier to be a really good offensive team every year or a really good defensive one? In order to find out, we turned to KenPom’s offensive and defensive efficiency ratings to actually determine if the same teams — or, more accurately, the same coaches — always finish at the top of their respective area of strength. We defined this as being among the top 25 offensive or defensive efficiency teams for five years in a row. Here are the results.

Every year, it seems like Roy Williams has a fleet of athletes ready to score points at a breakneck pace. (Photo: USA Today Sports)

Every year, it seems like Roy Williams has a fleet of athletes ready to score points at a breakneck pace. (Photo: USA Today Sports)

Offensive Efficiency (Top 25)

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Defensive Efficiency (Top 25)

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Florida’s Mike White and Wisconsin’s Greg Gard are only second-year coaches at their programs, but both have already shown such an aptitude for defensively-effective basketball that it seems appropriate to include them. With or without those two, though, it seems that it is much easier to produce a great defense year in and year out than it is for offense.

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Does Great Continuity Really Equate to Early Season Success?

Posted by William Ezekowitz on November 28th, 2016

Every season pundits and commentators often gush about the importance of team continuity and experience. The teams who return the most players, the thinking goes, are those that will transition most seamlessly into the new season. The teams that are integrating a bunch of new freshmen and transfers, by contrast, aren’t as likely to play up to their full potential before the new year. But is this maxim, repeated by so many inside the game, actually true? Is there data to support it?

The Champs Return 67.3 percent of Their Minutes This Season (USA Today Images)

The Champs Return 67.3% of Their Minutes This Season, 27th Nationally (USA Today Images)

KenPom recently developed a new statistic called minutes continuity, which measures “what percentage of a team’s minutes are played by the same player from last season to this season.” This allows us to analyze whether teams with greater continuity overachieve at the beginning of the season and teams with lesser continuity underachieve. While it is possible that most any preseason ranking mechanism (including KenPom) would already account for player continuity, any positive effect would most likely be exhibited in the first half of the season. The teams with more continuity would benefit earlier while the teams with less continuity would catch up as the season wears on. To determine if this is true, we examined team performance versus preseason expectation in two groups (based on Pomeroy’s list (paywall)): the 40 teams with the most continuity, and the 40 teams with the least continuity.

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Projecting Five Breakout Players

Posted by Will Ezekowitz on November 17th, 2016

Grayson Allen, Dillon Brooks, Josh Hart, Josh Jackson. Everyone already knows the studs of the game, the Preseason All-Americans, the incoming superstars. But by the end of the season, there are going to be several more names for you to know as a number of players will force themselves into national relevance. Using Sports Illustrated writer Luke Winn’s annual breakout players column as a starting point, here is an incomplete list of who five of those players might be.

  • Kelan Martin, SF, Junior, Butler — With Roosevelt Jones and Kellen Dunham no longer enrolled at Butler, this is now Martin’s team. Last year the 6’7″, 220-lb wing displayed an improved outside shot and enough quickness to get to the rim, registering eye-popping totals like a 35-point outburst against Georgetown. Martin also rebounds well for his position, registering five double-doubles in Big East play last year. He is now the undisputed first option for head coach Chris Holtmann, and stands to see his usage and scoring increase accordingly. Winn, as a matter of fact, projects Martin to lead the Big East in points per game this year. Butler hasn’t had a player with Martin’s all-around dynamism since Gordon Hayward from 2008-10, and he is reason alone to tune into the Bulldogs’ games this year.
It is now Kelan Martin's show at Butler. (USA TODAY Sports)

It is now Kelan Martin’s show at Butler. (USA TODAY Sports)

  • Jawun Evans, PG, Sophomore, Oklahoma State — Evans missed the final 10 games of Big 12 play last year with a shoulder injury, but before he was hurt the freshman showed why he was underrated as the 33rd-ranked prospect in his class. His season high of 42 points against Oklahoma was the pinnacle, but Evans consistently scored throughout his 22-game season, hitting for double figures 15 times. He was far from one-dimensional, though, as his 41.9 percent assist rate was good for fourth nationally and he managed 4.4 rebounds per game despite his diminutive stature. All of this makes the sophomore a prime candidate to explode in his sophomore campaign (spoiler alert: it’s already started) and perhaps prove to be the most complete player in the Big 12 by the end of the year.

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On the Predictive Power of Top 10 Rankings…

Posted by Will Ezekowitz on November 8th, 2016

The college basketball season is right around the corner, but all we have to amuse ourselves until tip-off this Friday night are the myriad published projections and preseason polls. I am a big fan of preseason polls, and have written extensively in the past about both their predictive power and their biases. This year I decided to focus on the preseason and postseason top 10s (note that only the USA Today/Coaches Poll publishes its final poll after the NCAA Tournament has completed). I was curious if there was any continuity between the two and the corresponding likelihood of a team finishing in the postseason top 10 given their inclusion in the preseason top 10.

Duke is Back in the Top 10, But the Blue Devils Didn't Finish There Last Season. Does it Matter? (USA Today Images)

Duke is Back in the Top 10, But the Blue Devils Didn’t Finish There Last Season. Does it Matter? (USA Today Images)

First, a quick note about each poll. A natural first instinct is to dismiss the preseason Top 25 as little more than idle speculation, but it has proven over time to be a useful predictive tool. In a sport with relatively little year-to-year continuity, the projections of the preseason polls are useful proxies for the objective talent of a team, which is notoriously difficult to quantify. The postseason poll (i.e., the poll taken after the conclusion of NCAA Tournament) is functionally irrelevant in college basketball, but it is a good metric of holistic season success. The Tournament exerts its weighty influence on the judgment of those teams, but it seems harsh to factor the entire perception of teams on a few games in March. The postseason Top 25 represents a season-long assessment. For example, Michigan State, a strong #2 seed that many pundits and fans alike projected into the Final Four, shockingly lost to #15 seed Middle Tennessee State in the First Round. The Spartans were therefore ranked seventh in the postseason poll, which ultimately felt about right.

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It’s Election Day: Why So Quiet in College Basketball?

Posted by Kenny Ocker on November 8th, 2016

Kenny Ocker is a longtime correspondent for Rush The Court based in the Pacific Northwest. This is his first (and hopefully last) foray into political journalism for the Independent Voice of College Basketball. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyOcker.

For many of the 5,000-plus college basketball players, today is the first presidential election in which they get to vote. Sure, there are some people with redshirt years or missions, the occasional foreign player and the odd senior who is just old enough to have voted while in high school. But for everybody else, congratulations! Your first vote is like picking between Duke and North Carolina in a National Championship game. Sure, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have some fervent fans, but many people are slogging through this election wondering why anyone else – anyone! – couldn’t have won.

Bob Knight Has Been a Vocal Supporter of Donald Trump Throughout This Election Season

Bob Knight Has Been a Vocal Supporter of Donald Trump Throughout This Election Season

Even if none of the candidates makes you want to Rush the Court (synergy!), college basketball has been in the election news more than any other election since Princeton legend Bill Bradley‘s ill-fated quest for the 2000 Democratic nomination. All three legendary coaches from Indiana schools – Indiana’s Bob Knight, Notre Dame’s Digger Phelps and Purdue’s Gene Keady – lent their support to Trump on the stump, with the perpetually outspoken Knight taking on a significant role in the Midwest. Knight made headlines a few times, including his spectacular trolling of Michigan fans last week when he reminded the Wolverines’ faithful that he was 4-0 against them as a player in the early 1960s at Ohio StateIn the department of “people who have actually been on a sideline after the Bush administration,” a couple of coaches have made this year’s election a team activity. Towson head coach Pat Skerry made all of his players register to vote and file absentee ballots for their home states. North Carolina Central head coach LeVelle Moton bragged two weeks ago on Twitter that his whole team voted early.

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On Improving the NCAA Tourney: Part I

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on October 27th, 2016

In June the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) empaneled an ad hoc committee whose stated purpose was to provide the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Selection Committee the perspective of men’s basketball coaches and their teams regarding selection, seeding and bracketing for the NCAA Tournament. With that in mind, we decided to give some specific recommendations of our own that would enhance an already great event. Let’s first focus on some improvements for the selection and seeding process.

John Calipari is one of the members of the recently created NABC ad hoc committee formed to make recommendations to the NCAA Selection Committee. (Kevin Jairaj / USA TODAY Sports)

John Calipari is one of the members of the recently created NABC ad hoc committee formed to make recommendations to the NCAA Selection Committee. (Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports)

Bye Bye, RPI

Whenever the subject arises of improving the ratings system that the Selection Committee uses, there is one recurring response: either dump the RPI, or, at a minimum, dramatically limit its influence. The good news is that we may finally be headed in that direction. About a month after the NABC formed its committee and began communicating with the NCAA, the following statement was made as part of an update regarding the current NCAA Selection Committee: Read the rest of this entry »

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