College basketball Power Rankings, Jan. 26: New No. 1 after upsets galore

Kansas lost by 16 to West Virginia … But did they fall in this week’s rankings? (Getty)
Kansas lost by 16 to West Virginia … But did they fall in this week’s rankings? (Getty)

The calls come from far and wide, every year around this time and over the next month-and-a-half, and they’re relentlessly annoying.

“The bubble is soft!”

Or there’s this variant:

“Nobody wants to make the tournament!”

They come from rational and irrational folks alike, and they’re one of the most tiresome aspects of the fierce yearly debates over who will and won’t, should and shouldn’t, can and can’t make the NCAA tournament.

They’re especially ridiculous around this time of year, when so many résumés are incomplete, and the striking lack of quality wins on the bubble is natural. A month-and-a-half remains, and it’s a month-and-a-half of repeated opportunity — opportunity that many squads didn’t have much of in non-conference play.

Let’s look at Marquette and Northwestern to illustrate. Around this time last week, the Golden Eagles would have been the exemplar of the “Weak bubble!” chatter. They were 12-6 with no quality wins. But you know what they did have? Opportunity!

Just like every single other team remotely close to the bubble has; whether that opportunity is for one or two highlights or for volume, it’s there. Just like for Northwestern, whose résumé lacks that single win of real quality, but who plays Indiana, Purdue and Wisconsin in three of its next five. I’m all for bracketology, and have obsessed over it in the past. What I’m not for is drawing broad conclusions about the selection process and its state of affairs halfway through that process.

I’m also not in favor of levying that same criticism every year when that criticism is fundamentally based on relativity. When you say the bubble is soft, what you’re really saying is that the bubble is softer than it has been in past years. And if you make the claim every year, it’s a ridiculous one that loses merit every time you make it. Maybe this is just what the bubble is, and what it has been since the move to 68 teams. Somehow, our expectations haven’t yet adjusted.

There is one thing, however, that could impair the strength of the bubble this year, even relative to past bubbles, and that’s the notable absence of non-power conference at-large candidates. The Atlantic-10 is looking like a one-bid league. The Mountain West almost surely is. The AAC could only get two. The Missouri Valley will fight for two, but might have to settle for one. That absence bumps every middling major conference team up a few spots.

And, as we transition into this week’s rankings, it’s why you’ll see a slight tweak at the bottom of the page. Those five mid-majors that we list every week used to exclude the A-10 for fear of the A-10 dominating the list. It would have in past years. It won’t this year, and doesn’t this week, so from this point forward, every team outside the nation’s top seven conferences is eligible.

And now for what you’ve really come here for:

1. Kansas | 18-2 | KenPom: 9 | Last week: 2

That glorious night of upsets has left us with a new No. 1 … but, it’s … one of the teams that was victimized by those upsets? Yep! And the rationale is surprisingly simple. Aside from all the basketball reasons Kansas belongs here, the Jayhawks were viewed as one of the best teams in the nation last week. Some had them No. 1. Others had them No. 2. Others slightly lower. So why should that opinion change after Kansas lost a game it was supposed to lose?

Vegas had the Jayhawks as 3.5-point underdogs, and the number opened at 6. Sure, Kansas has flaws, and some of them doomed it in Morgantown, but there is absolutely no shame in losing that game. We are programmed to automatically assume that winning games you’re supposed to win is significantly more impressive than losing games you’re supposed to lose. That’s why Gonzaga will be No. 1 in the AP Poll on Monday. But not here.

2. Villanova | 19-2 | KenPom: 5 | Last week: 1

As I more or less wrote yesterday, you could give Kris Jenkins, Jalen Brunson and Donte DiVincenzo a combined 17 shots from midcourt and they’d be unlikely to miss all of them. They’re even more unlikely to go 0 for 17 from three in a game. That’s what they did Tuesday against Marquette. If they go 1 for 17, Villanova wins the game. That poor shooting comes down to randomness, and isn’t a major cause for concern.

3. North Carolina | 18-3 | KenPom: 8 | Last week: 5

The Tar Heels are the best rebounding team in the country. They pull down 42.7 percent of their missed shots. Roy Williams, however, thinks they can get a lot better on the boards, which should be disconcerting, if not frightening, for the rest of the ACC.

4. Gonzaga | 20-0 | KenPom: 1 | Last week: 6

The Bulldogs are your new KenPom No. 1, which highlights an interesting divergence in our use of statistics to analyze teams that play weak schedules vs. those that play strong ones. Here’s the thing about the Zags: You have your opinion on them, and that opinion probably isn’t changing between now and mid-March. It’s not going to be swayed by a 31-point trouncing of Santa Clara or a 21-point victory over Portland. No matter how impressive or unimpressive those results are, it just won’t be. The numbers, even the ones that adjust for opponent, care whether Gonzaga beats San Diego Thursday night by 10 or by 30. We don’t. We’ll instead choose to count down the days to the second clash with St. Mary’s. We’re 16 days out as of Thursday.

5. Kentucky | 17-3 | KenPom: 2 | Last week: 3

It’s been fascinating over the past few weeks to watch the SEC try to slow down John Calipari’s crew and force the Wildcats to play halfcourt offense. Kentucky averaged 19.7 fast break points over its first three SEC games, but just 8.2 in five games since. Some coaches, like Bryce Drew, take drastic measures; others adopt less noticeable, but not less emphasized, tactics. The effect these tactics have on Kentucky’s efficiency is likewise interesting:

(Henry Bushnell)
(Henry Bushnell)

That table isn’t meant to show anything definitive — obviously fewer fast break points will induce fewer points overall — and the correlation between transition points and efficiency is far from strong. The sample size is also small. But there’s a slight hint in the numbers that keeping De’Aaron Fox and Co. out of the open floor might limit Kentucky’s effectiveness.

6. Arizona | 18-2 | KenPom: 12 | Last week: 17

Arizona is the toughest team to gage because, in a way, our sample size is only one game. That one game was wildly impressive, but it’s the only one the full-strength Wildcats have under their belt. This ranking, however, factors in those 19 games Arizona played without Allonzo Trier, in that those games have been vital in the maturity of players like Kobi Simmons and Rawle Alkins. Both were thrust into unexpected roles and forced to learn on the fly. Every success and every failure in Trier’s absence contributed to that learning, and both freshmen are better players because of it.

7. Florida State | 18-3 | KenPom: 20 | Last week: 7

Yuck. Erase that game from your memory. Shoot it into the sun. Bury it. Do whatever you need to do. That wasn’t the real Florida State. But the mere stench of Wednesday night’s performance in a 78-56 loss at Georgia Tech prevents the Seminoles from rising in this week’s ranks. They might have been a top-five team without it.

8. Virginia | 16-3 | KenPom: 4 | Last week: 10

I’m all in. I made the ACC title prediction last week, and the Cavaliers showed why I pegged them as ACC favorites in a 71-54 triumph over Notre Dame on the road Tuesday night. They held the usually efficient Irish to 0.84 points per possession, and London Perrantes connected on five of his eight three-point attempts. Virginia isn’t anywhere near the top 10 when it comes to talent, but Tony Bennett has proven time and time again that he won’t just win with whatever he has; he’ll win a lot.

9. Baylor | 19-1 | KenPom: 7 | Last week: 9

Baylor has won its four Big 12 games since the West Virginia loss by 10 or fewer points each, and it has done so with defense and Johnathan Motley. Motley got 15 of his 25 points from the free throw line in a 65-61 win over Texas Tech. He’s the only Bears player whose offensive rating has actually risen in Big 12 play, and his exploits have vaulted him to No. 3 in Ken Pomeroy’s stats-based player of the year rankings.

10. West Virginia | 16-4 | KenPom: 3 | Last week: 8

The relationship between West Virginia’s ability to force turnovers and its field goal percentage defense, and specifically how that relationship played out in Tuesday’s win over Kansas, leads to an interesting discussion. West Virginia ranks 96th nationally in opponent effective field goal percentage (eFG%) and first in opponent turnover percentage. Against Kansas, the Mountaineers forced turnovers at a rate well below their season average, but held the Jayhawks well below that opponent eFG% average too.

So how much of that relatively mediocre field goal percentage defense is due to the extended aggressiveness of the press? And how much better would it be if only halfcourt possessions were taken into account? On possessions following a made basket, per, West Virginia opponents shoot 54 percent (eFG%) on attempts within the first 10 seconds of the shot clock — much of them likely after breaking the press to score — but just 43.1 percent (eFG%) in the final 20 seconds of the shot clock. (Note: For other top defensive teams, the former number tends to be slightly higher than the latter, but not to the extent it is for West Virginia.)

This is not at all to say West Virginia should stray from its Press Virginia identity. It’s to point out that the players Bob Huggins recruits for his system are naturally very good halfcourt defenders too, and if a game needs to be won defensively within 30 feet of the basket, as was the case Tuesday night, those players are more than capable of doing just that.

11. UCLA | 19-3 | KenPom: 18 | Last week: 4

UCLA spent the first two months of the season hypnotizing America with its high-powered offense. It sprinted to a top-five ranking, to national title contender status, and to the top of the college hoops entertainment index. It also blinded us to the Bruins’ dirty little secret: They can’t play defense. For three of four halves against Arizona and USC, the weakness was painfully clear.

But, perplexingly, it was UCLA’s offense that ultimately let it down against its crosstown rival. The Bruins scored a point per possession Wednesday night in a loss to USC; their previous low had been 1.06 against Texas A&M. On paper, a team full of dead-eye shooters and competent passers should have been able to rip apart USC’s zone; instead, turnovers (13 in the first half) and a lack of patience ripped apart UCLA’s offense and doomed Steve Alford’s team to a second straight loss, and fourth in a row against the Trojans.

12. Louisville | 17-4 | KenPom: 6 | Last week: 15

Louisville fell in these rankings last week solely because of the Quentin Snider injury. In light of that expected drop-off with Snider sidelined, the Cardinals had one of the most impressive weeks of any team, hanging with Florida State on the road before delivering Pittsburgh the second-largest margin of defeat the Panthers had ever seen. The 106-51 beatdown was the biggest by a road team in the history of the ACC.

13. Oregon | 18-2 | KenPom: 16 | Last week: 11

UCLA swept the Rocky Mountain road trip earlier this month. Not many teams do, though. Oregon gets a crack at it starting tonight at Utah. The Ducks were 2.5-point underdogs as of late Wednesday night, which tells you most of what you need to know about the size of the task.

14. Notre Dame | 17-4 | KenPom: 23 | Last week: 13
15. Butler | 18-3 | KenPom: 14 | Last week: 14

Let’s talk midseason awards. If the NCAA tournament were to start today, who would be your National Coach of the Year? For me, there are five candidates, and Mike Brey and Chris Holtmann are two of them. Sean Miller, Scott Drew and Tony Bennett are the others. Perhaps Bob Huggins is a sixth. Both Brey and Holtmann are outstanding teachers of the game in every sense, and their educational abilities are apparent every time you watch Notre Dame and Butler play.

16. Wisconsin | 17-3 | KenPom: 10 | Last week: 16

Over the past five or 10 years, basketball has evolved away from the one-through-five positional distinctions that frame so much of how we think about lineup combinations. There aren’t many better examples of that evolution in the college game than Wisconsin. Bronson Koenig is the “point guard” in the traditional sense: He often brings the ball up the court, is (tied for) the shortest player in the starting lineup, and usually guards opposing ball-handlers. When Wisconsin has the ball, though, from the 25-second mark of the shot clock to the end of the possession, his role is far from that of a traditional point guard. Here’s a blind statistical comparison of Wisconsin’s big three, Koenig, Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ:

(Henry Bushnell)
(Henry Bushnell)

Can you guess which player is which? Probably only if you’ve studied the Badgers beforehand. Player A is Hayes. Player B is Happ. Player C is Koenig. Hayes and Happ split the playmaking duties while Koenig is essentially Wisconsin’s shooter and perimeter scorer. It’s still fine to call Koenig Wisconsin’s point guard; in a way, he is. Just make sure you’re aware of the limits of what the words “point guard” denote for Greg Gard and the Badgers.

17. Cincinnati | 17-2 | KenPom: 17 | Last week: NR

The Bearcats make their 2016-17 Power Rankings debut because of … their offense? Yes. Mick Cronin has had a top 25 defensive team every year since 2010-11. This year, he has his highest-ranked offense since that 2010-11 team. Sophomore guard Jacob Evans is shooting 41.2 percent from three and is a big reason why. Cincinnati is rolling through the AAC, and is a 4-point favorite over Xavier Thursday night in the Crosstown Classic.

18. Purdue | 17-4 | KenPom: 11 | Last week: NR

ESPN’s Myron Medcalf wrote an outstanding feature on Caleb Swanigan, who was 360 pounds and facing all kinds of instability in his life as an eighth-grader. Tuesday night, Swanigan dropped 25 and 17 on Michigan State, the program he had committed to play for before flipping to Purdue in May of his senior year of high school.

19. South Carolina | 16-4 | KenPom: 28 | Last week: 18

I spent some time last week speaking with former Frank Martin players — both Gamecocks and Kansas State Wildcats — to get a sense of what it’s actually like to play for him, and why his seemingly incessant screaming works. I also learned why he’s mellowed a bit in recent years. Here’s the feature.

20. Duke | 15-5 | KenPom: 15 | Last week: 12

In all honesty, approximately 35.4 percent of the reason Duke is here is to make you angry. I don’t know if you’ll be angry because the Blue Devils are too high or too low, but Duke inevitably makes people angry. Anyway … another 42.1 percent of the reason is to plug Jeff Capel’s piece on The Players’ Tribune on coping with his father’s ALS diagnosis and on the bonds that tie his family together. Roughly 12.6 percent is to tell you that I may or may not have some in-depth Duke analysis coming tomorrow. A further 10.1 percent is because Duke still has top-10 talent. And the final one percent is to see how many readers get angry that those percentages are just totally random and don’t add up to 100.

Five more to keep an eye (or two) on: Florida, Marquette, SMU, Iowa State, Kansas State

Best of the mids: St. Mary’s, Illinois State, Wichita State, UNC-Wilmington, Middle Tennessee State

Previous rankings: Jan. 5 | Jan. 12 | Jan. 19