College Basketball Nation: Arizona Wildcats
ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI) measures how well each team performs based on game result, margin, pace of game, location, opponent strength and the absence of any key players.
Using BPI, we are able to project the chances for each team to win its major conference tournament. The probabilities take into account the matchups in each bracket based on each team’s BPI. The team with the best BPI isn’t necessarily always the favorite if that team has much tougher matchups than other teams in the tournament.
According to BPI, the Arizona Wildcats have the best chance of any team in one of the seven major conferences (American, ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC) to win its tournament. They have a 63 percent chance of winning the Pac-12 tournament.
Arizona has more than a six times better chance of winning the Pac-12 tournament than any other team. The UCLA Bruins have the second-best chance at 10 percent.
Pac-12 best chances: Arizona 63 percent, UCLA 10 percent, Oregon 10 percent, Arizona State 5 percent, Stanford 4 percent
The Florida Gators are the prohibitive favorites in the SEC tournament with a 57 percent chance to win it. The Kentucky Wildcats (25 percent) are the only other SEC team with better than a 7 percent chance. The No. 9 seed Missouri Tigers have a slightly better chance to win the SEC tournament than the No. 3 seed Georgia Bulldogs.
SEC best chances: Florida 57 percent, Kentucky 25 percent, Tennessee 7 percent, Arkansas 3 percent, Missouri 2 percent
American & Big East
The Louisville Cardinals (American) and Villanova Wildcats (Big East) are both close to 50 percent in terms of their chances of winning their respective conference tournaments.
The Memphis Tigers have an edge playing on their home court in the American Tournament, but they still have a significantly worse chance than Louisville and Cincinnati. Memphis does, however, have a greater probability of winning the tournament than higher-seeded teams Southern Methodist and Connecticut. With its home-court advantage, Memphis would be a favorite against any team in the tournament other than Louisville.
American best chances: Louisville 49 percent, Cincinnati 18 percent, Memphis 14 percent, SMU 12 percent, Connecticut 8 percent
No team other than Villanova or Creighton has better than a 6 percent chance to win the Big East tournament. There’s a 44 percent chance that Villanova and Creighton meet in the Big East championship game.
Big East best chances: Villanova 48 percent, Creighton 31 percent, Xavier 6 percent, St. John’s 6 percent, Providence 4 percent
Perhaps the most interesting conference tournament is the ACC, where the No. 3 seed Duke Blue Devils are the favorites at 27 percent. The No. 1 seed Virginia Cavaliers (25 percent) and No. 2 Syracuse Orange (23 percent) are close behind.
ACC best chances: Duke 27 percent, Virginia 25 percent, Syracuse 23 percent, Pittsburgh 12 percent, North Carolina 7 percent
Another interesting conference tournament is the Big Ten, where four teams have between a 17 percent and a 26 percent chance of winning the tournament. The No. 2 seed Wisconsin Badgers are the favorites at 26 percent, while the No. 1 seed Michigan Wolverines are only the third favorites.
Big Ten best chances: Wisconsin 26 percent, Ohio State 19 percent, Michigan 19 percent, Michigan State 17 percent, Iowa 11 percent
The Kansas Jayhawks have a 37 percent chance to win the Big 12 tournament, but their path isn’t easy. They could face the teams with the fourth- and second-best chances of winning the tournament in the quarterfinals and semifinals.
The No. 8 seed Oklahoma State Cowboys, with a 10 percent chance of winning it, could face Kansas in the quarterfinals. The No. 4 seed Iowa State Cyclones, with an 18 percent chance, could face Kansas in the semifinals. Both teams have a 35 percent chance of beating Kansas, according to BPI.
Big 12 best chances: Kansas 37 percent, Iowa State 18 percent, Oklahoma 16 percent, Oklahoma State 10 percent, Baylor 6 percent
BPI No. 1 Arizona fell 64-57 at Oregon on Saturday and lost 0.7 in its BPI rating. But the Wildcats had enough of a cushion over No. 2 Florida that they maintained the hold on the top spot. Similarly, No. 9 Wisconsin, which lost at Nebraska on Sunday, maintained its ranking despite a 1.0 drop in BPI.
Kansas falls after Shockers’ victory
A 92-86 loss at West Virginia brought Kansas’ BPI rating down 0.7, and the Jayhawks kept their No. 3 BPI ranking after Saturday’s games.
After Wichita State won the Missouri Valley Conference tournament championship game Sunday, the Shockers got a bump of 0.2 in their BPI – a small bump, but large enough for Wichita State to move from No. 4 to No. 3 in the rankings, leapfrogging Kansas. The Jayhawks, who have the toughest schedule among BPI Top 15 teams, are No. 3 in the NCAA’s RPI rankings but fell from eighth to 10th in the weekly Associated Press poll.
Of the BPI Top 10 teams that lost, only Virginia (a 75-69 overtime loser at Maryland on Sunday) dropped in the rankings immediately after the defeat, from No. 7 to No. 8.
Pac-12 climber and faller
Oregon, in its BPI rating, gained less than Arizona lost after their game Saturday but climbed four spots in the rankings Sunday to No. 16. The Ducks have won seven games in a row (earning a BPI Game Score of at least 90 in five of them) and exceeded a 90 Game Score in its loss at Arizona on Feb. 6. The NCAA’s RPI has Oregon at No. 25, and the Ducks have the third-most votes among teams finishing out of the top 25 in the AP poll.
The biggest faller in BPI rankings among the Top 50 was UCLA. The Bruins lost 73-55 at No. 175 Washington State on Saturday and fell from 11th to 21st. UCLA earned a Game Score of 10.6 against Washington State, 10 points lower than any other game score for a team currently ranked in the BPI Top 25.
In the eye of the beholder
BPI and other team ranking systems weigh different factors, which explains why teams such as Michigan and Louisville can be regarded so differently.
Michigan is eighth in the AP poll, ninth in RPI and a No. 2 seed in Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology. In BPI, however, Michigan is 22nd. Of the Wolverines’ seven losses, four have been by at least 10 points; of their wins, seven have been by five points or fewer. Also, Michigan is 8-1 with an 88.7 BPI against opponents missing at least one of their top five players (in terms of minutes per game), and BPI de-weights those games.
Louisville rose from 11th to fifth in the AP poll, but the Cardinals are a projected No. 4 seed in Bracketology and are 22nd in RPI. BPI ranks the Cardinals fifth. All five of Louisville’s losses have been to BPI Top 50 teams and have been by an average of six points, whereas its five wins against Top-50 opponents have come by an average of 13.4 points.
Syracuse is No. 1 in the AP Poll, but that is based on the subjective votes of media members.
Arizona is No. 1 in BPI and Kansas is No. 1 in RPI. But those metrics are based on formulas that factor in a team’s performance through the entire season.
The more insightful question is: Which team is the best with the roster we think each team will have in the NCAA Tournament?
For most teams, that's their current roster, but there are a few exceptions.
To evaluate that, we'll use each team's BPI with all of its key players. Those key players are defined as the five players who average the most minutes per game among players who have played at least half of the team's games. Games in which a key player played less than 10 minutes due to injury or foul trouble or any other reason are not included.
Florida reigns supreme
Based on this metric, the Florida Gators are the best team in college basketball.
With their current roster -- with Scott Wilbekin, Casey Prather, Michael Frazier II, Patric Young and Dorian Finney-Smith in the lineup together -- they are 17-1, with their only loss coming by one point to UConn on a buzzer-beater by Shabazz Napier.
Undefeated Syracuse comes in at No. 2, followed by Kansas at No. 3.
A healthy Michigan State is dangerous
Michigan State is expected to have Branden Dawson back for the NCAA Tournament. Based on Dawson’s returning, the Spartans would rank fourth with their full squad.
That's a significant jump from their overall No. 15 BPI rank. They've lost four of seven games since Dawson went out.
In their two games with all of their key players except Dawson, the Spartans have a 61.1 BPI (win against New Orleans, loss to Nebraska), which would rank well below any team expected to get an at-large bid. That’s how important a healthy Dawson could be to their chances of going deep in the NCAA Tournament.
Is Iowa a top-5 team?
Based on this metric, the Iowa Hawkeyes are No. 5. They're 18-4 with their full squad.
Jarrod Uthoff has played at least 10 minutes in all but two games (at Michigan and against Ohio State). Iowa lost both.
Arizona isn't top 10 without Brandon Ashley
The Arizona Wildcats have been a much different team without Brandon Ashley, who is expected to miss the rest of the season.
Based on this metric, the Wildcats are No. 13. They're 2-2 without Ashley. That includes losses at California and at Arizona State and a two-point home win against Oregon.
Arizona has the No. 1 BPI with Ashley in the lineup, but it's a different story without him. Ashley could be the difference between Arizona being the National Championship favorite and not even contending for a Final Four berth.
What about Oklahoma State and North Carolina?
Although Michael Cobbins isn't among the top-five Oklahoma State players in minutes per game, the Cowboys are a much different team without him. Their BPI without Cobbins but with Marcus Smart ranks 33rd in this metric among teams currently in the BPI top 40.
Oklahoma State is 4-6 without Cobbins and with Smart, with two wins against West Virginia and home wins against Texas and TCU.
North Carolina's current roster includes Leslie McDonald, who was ruled eligible Dec. 18 after he missed the first nine games of the season. Since then, the Tar Heels' current roster has the worst BPI of any team currently in the BPI top 40.
The Tar Heels are ranked No. 32 overall in BPI, but their three best wins of the season -- against Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky -- came without McDonald.
Since McDonald returned, they have losses to Wake Forest and Miami (FL) and didn't have a BPI top-50 win before Saturday's victory against Pittsburgh.
After Arizona’s narrow win over Oregon on Thursday night, Sean Miller stepped to his customary place in front of the postgame television cameras to answer questions posed by ESPN reporter Jeff Goodman. The second question was the universal one, the same thing everyone has been asking since Arizona lost its first game of the season and its starting power forward Brandon Ashley on the same night Saturday: How would the Wildcats -- and new starter Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, more specifically -- respond? Was Miller ever worried?
“Not at all,” he said. “He’s a stud.”
As postgame analyses go, that was an easy one. But no less accurate for it.
Indeed, Hollis-Jefferson’s impressive starting debut in the Wildcats’ 67-65 win over the Ducks hardly qualifies as a surprise. The less-touted of Arizona’s two insanely athletic freshmen forwards (Aaron Gordon being the other, perhaps you’ve heard of him), Hollis-Jefferson had nonetheless already put together an excellent year as Miller’s sixth man before he was elevated to the focal point in Ashley’s wake. But he was great Thursday -- all attacking, angular energy -- and his four buckets late in the second half were crucial to Arizona’s mini-comeback effort.
So, hey, there’s one item crossed off the list. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is indeed good at basketball. Check and check.
The rest of the picture is slightly less clear.
The Wildcats’ conundrum in replacing Ashley was never a simple matter of plug-and-play. Miller’s team, for all its immense strengths, hasn’t gone much deeper than seventh man Gabe York all season. So the task for Miller was to get the stuff out of Hollis-Jefferson (the rim-runs, the transition baskets, the motor) that makes him special over a longer stretch, while maintaining that significant size advantage that Arizona so ruthlessly wields.
The Wildcats’ unique size is written all over their per-possession numbers: They’ve shot it really well inside the arc, and OK outside it. They don't shoot 3s often, though -- just 25.9 percent of their field goal attempts are 3s, which ranks 323rd in the country -- and they play at a slow-ish pace, which has helped accentuate the strengths of Ashley, Gordon, Hollis-Jefferson and Kaleb Tarczewski around the rim. It also helped minimize that lack of depth in the backcourt. The Wildcats rarely had their shots blocked. And when they missed, they got their own rebound 39 percent of the time.
Ashley was key in all of this, and he did something no other Arizona big man could: He made jumpers, and thus spaced the floor, without losing any of the interior productivity in the exchange.
On Thursday night, Miller unveiled a decidedly smaller team. York, a good standstill shooter who has attempted 81 3s and just 41 2-pointers all season, took on the sixth-man responsibilities and played 24 minutes. Guard Elliott Pitts, who had played in just nine games all season (and averaged about a point in less than five minutes) was called up for 12 minutes of spot duty. He attempted three 3s, made one and grabbed three rebounds. He acquitted himself well. But Pitts’ presence is the long tail of Ashley’s injury, and the clearest sign that Arizona will end up smaller in the future out of sheer necessity.
And then there is Gordon. If you squint, Gordon’s night -- five shots, six points, eight rebounds -- was fine. If you even casually glance, you should notice the 2-for-11 performance from the free throw line. This is another weakness Ashley’s loss exacerbates: Gordon is a 42 percent shooter from the free throw line, and he has the second-highest free throw rate on the team.
Translation: He’s leaving a ton of points on the board. Ashley was a 76 percent free throw shooter. Hollis-Jefferson shoots 62.8 percent. The Wildcats’ ability to absorb fouls from desperate, overmatched defenses took a major hit with Ashley’s loss, one without a clear fix at the ready.
In the end, Thursday night’s 67-65 win doesn’t tell us a whole lot about what Arizona Version 2.0 will really look like. The Ducks don’t have much of an interior themselves -- their closest thing to a reliable “center” is probably 6-foot-8 tweener wingman Mike Moser -- and, oh yeah, they arrived in Tucson on Thursday losers of six of their past eight. A litmus test this was not. Miller will need more time to tinker, to tweak, to find new ways of maximizing the still-considerable talent on the floor. All precincts have not reported.
“Clearly, [Hollis-Jefferson’s] role changes a little bit,” Miller said. “But he’ll grow, he’ll get better. And we’ll just stay with it.”
At the very least, though, Thursday served notice that Hollis-Jefferson will take on his new role with gusto. Where Arizona goes from here is still an open question.
One of the main stories in college basketball this season has been the performance of the freshman phenoms. All six of the freshmen who have been included in ESPN's Freshman Focus will be in action Saturday. It's one of three remaining days in the regular season that they will all play on the same day.
Tyler Ennis, Syracuse Orange
Although not the most-hyped freshman entering the season, no Division I freshman has more win shares, according to College Basketball Reference. At 3.8, Ennis trails only Pittsburgh’s Lamar Patterson for the top spot among all ACC players.
Ennis has shined with his clutch play. Syracuse has been tied or behind at the five-minute mark in the second half in five games this season, including in each of its last two. The Orange outscored their opponents by 37 points the rest of the way in those eventual wins.
Jabari Parker, Duke Blue Devils
Parker and Duke will go head-to-head with Ennis and Syracuse this Saturday. Parker has shined for Duke this season, with 12 20-point games, already tied for sixth-most all-time among ACC freshmen.
Entering Friday, Parker is one of just seven players in all of Division I this season to average at least 18 points and eight rebounds per game. He’s also improving as the season’s going on, averaging 18.8 points and 11.8 rebounds per game in his last four ACC games (10.5 PPG, 5.0 RPG in first four ACC games).
Julius Randle, Kentucky Wildcats
No school has had more highly-regarded freshmen recently than Kentucky, but as the chart on the right shows, Randle's offense is exceeding what Nerlens Noel and Anthony Davis did to start their freshman years.
Randle leads all Division I freshman with 11 double-doubles this season, three more than Noah Vonleh of Indiana.
Aaron Gordon, Arizona Wildcats
Gordon has played a key role in Arizona's start, which also happens to be the longest win streak in school history.
Although he’s struggled shooting the last few games, he remains one of the best rebounders in the freshman class, leading all Pac-12 freshmen in offensive and defensive rebounds per game.
Andrew Wiggins, Kansas Jayhawks
Wiggins is coming off a big night in Kansas’ win Wednesday over the 16th-ranked Iowa State Cyclones. He scored a career-high 29 points, the second straight game he set a career high in scoring.
Wiggins' ability to get easier shots up close to the hoop is his strong point. He leads the Big 12 (and is third in the nation) in transition points per play, and has shot nearly 73 percent from the paint in his last two games, well above his average over the first 18 games (55.8%).
Joel Embiid, Kansas Jayhawks
Unlike his teammate Wiggins, Embiid started the season under the radar among the freshman class, but has put his name among the best in the class with his improvement during the season.
In November and December, Embiid averaged 10.8 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. In January, those numbers are up to 12.3 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.3 blocks per game.
When discussing the "big 4" freshmen -- Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle and Aaron Gordon -- it's easy to talk about the offensive abilities of Wiggins, Parker and Randle.
But what about defense?
Gordon leads all Division I freshmen this season in defensive win shares -- a statistic that estimates the number of wins a player contributes to their team due to their defense.
Wiggins, Parker and Randle all rank outside the top 10 among freshmen in defensive win shares.
The next Blake Griffin?
Coming into college, Gordon was often compared to another athletic big man -- Blake Griffin, who was a freshman at Oklahoma six years ago. Griffin played two college seasons before becoming the No. 1 pick in the 2009 NBA Draft.
The comparison might not be far off. Remember that Griffin did not dominate as a freshman the way he did as a sophomore. In his first season at Oklahoma, he averaged about 15 points and nine rebounds per game while shooting 57 percent. Gordon's numbers are very similar to Griffin's numbers as a freshman.
Both players are efficient in transition. Gordon is shooting 67 percent in transition compared to Griffin's 64 percent as a freshman. Transition is where Griffin racks up the highlights with the "Lob City" Clippers.
Griffin attacks the rim relentlessly and finishes with authority. Gordon is shooting 55 percent at the rim compared to Griffin's 56 percent as a freshman.
And Gordon is the better jump shooter, shooting 28 percent on jumpers compared to Griffin at just 20 percent as a freshman. Gordon is 7-of-19 on 3-pointers, while Griffin didn't make a single 3-pointer as a freshman.
But again -- what about defense?
Defense wins championships
Gordon is holding opponents to 34 percent shooting as an on-ball defender. Griffin's opponents shot 42 percent as a freshman. Gordon is much better than Griffin was defending the post. Gordon is holding opponents to 40 percent shooting on post-up plays compared to 55 percent for Griffin.
Gordon's defense is a large reason why Arizona has the third-best defensive efficiency in the country. It's also why the Wildcats are 15-0, their best start since 1931-32.
So when you compare Gordon to Griffin or Wiggins, Parker and Randle, don't forget that defense is just as important as offense -- and on defense, Gordon has the edge.
Duke's BPI game score in its six-point loss against Arizona (ranked No. 4 in BPI) was higher than two of its wins (vs East Carolina, vs Vermont). Other than its wins over No. 40 Michigan and No. 63 Alabama, Duke doesn't have any other wins over teams ranked in the top 180.
Duke has the best adjusted offensive efficiency according to KenPom.com, but its adjusted defensive efficiency ranks 101st.
Is Wisconsin the best team in college basketball?
The Wisconsin Badgers rank No. 1 in BPI after starting 12-0 with five wins over top-50 BPI teams -- St. John's, Florida, Saint Louis, West Virginia and Virginia. Their five wins against top-50 teams are the most by any team. Kansas and Davidson are the only other teams that have even faced five top-50 teams.
Wisconsin has the 11th-most difficult schedule according to BPI. Seven of their 12 wins are against top-100 opponents and none of them are against teams outside the top 175.
The Badgers have been successful playing a slow pace (17th-fewest possessions per game). Two of their three worst BPI game scores this season have come in the two games in which they played at the fastest pace (at Green Bay, vs North Dakota).
Michigan State barely cracks the top 25
The Michigan State Spartans, previously ranked No. 1 in the AP Poll, come in at No. 24 in BPI. The Spartans only have one loss, but it was by far their worst BPI game score and it came against their second-best opponent (No. 23 North Carolina).
Why else is Michigan State's BPI lacking? The Spartans have five wins against teams ranked outside the BPI top 100. Three of those wins are by 15 points or fewer, including two by single digits, and one of the five wins is against No. 338 McNeese State. Also, they haven't played a single true road game yet.
Welcome to the top 10, Saint Mary's
The undefeated Saint Mary's Gaels are ranked No. 8 in BPI, and it's not due to any wins over top-notch opponents. The Gaels haven't faced a single top-50 team yet, but five of their eight wins came against top-100 opponents and six of their eight wins are by double digits.
Saint Mary's has performed well against top-100 teams, posting a BPI game score higher than 95 in four of those five wins.
Why isn't Pittsburgh ranked yet?
The Pittsburgh Panthers are ranked No. 9 in BPI but aren't in the top 25 in the AP Poll. The Panthers are 10-0 with each of those 10 wins coming by at least nine points and nine of the wins coming by at least 17 points.
Pitt doesn't have any top-50 wins, but the Panthers do have two wins against teams just outside the top 50 (No. 51 Penn State, No. 55 Stanford). Their three best BPI game scores came against their three best opponents -- Penn State, Stanford and Texas Tech (No. 110).
Pitt is one of seven teams ranked in the top 20 in both adjusted offensive efficiency and adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom.com, along with Louisville, Oklahoma State, Arizona, Wisconsin, Kansas and North Carolina.
That might be pushing it, I admit. But New Mexico State -- held to just 48 points in 62 possessions in Tucson, Ariz., Wednesday -- is a good team, a good program, the WAC's best of the past five seasons and a three-time tournament team since 2009-10. Arizona treated the Aggies like something out of Division III.
Sean Miller's team was good offensively, of course; you can't really blow out a capable team like that if you're not scoring with ease. (That was never more true than when Rondae Hollis-Jefferson did … well, just watch.) But even as the Wildcats took their time figuring out NMSU's well-conceived, off-kilter defense in the first half, they maintained a mostly comfortable lead by doing what they've done best in 2013-14: playing defense.
This is an easy point to lose amid all of the Aaron Gordon (and Hollis-Jefferson) highlights: The Wildcats are a much better defensive team than they were a year ago. Last season, they hovered around the top 50 in adjusted defensive efficiency. In 2013-14, they’re No. 5 overall. Thus far, Arizona is holding opponents to just 40.3 percent shooting from inside the arc and 27.2 percent outside of it, the product of a defensive reorientation that Stan Van Gundy could love.
Van Gundy's Orlando Magic teams were probably the first NBA teams to understand one of the core truths behind offense: midrange scoring is less efficient. The ease of layups and dunks is wiped away; the reward of three points is not a factor. So Van Gundy's best defenses, anchored by Dwight Howard in the middle, obsessively pressured the perimeter, happy to close out a little too hard if it meant giving up an 18-foot jumper instead of a 3.
Kentucky's 2011-12 national championship group was wired similarly. With Anthony Davis blocking everything in sight, UK's perimeter defenders could rush 3-point shooters and force them to put the ball on the floor. According to Hoop-Math.com, that team forced 39.2 percent of opponents' shots to come from midrange. It blocked 20.3 percent of them, which is completely insane, and opponents shot just 26.7.
In a much smaller sample size, the 2013-14 Wildcats have been even better at forcing opponents into inefficient choices. To date, 52.1 percent of shots by Arizona's foes have come in the midrange, and just 32.1 percent of those shots have connected. Arizona allows just 18.9 percent of field goal attempts at or around the rim. Thanks to the arrival of Gordon, as well as improved interior defense from just about everybody, it blocks a high rate of both kinds of attempts.
The development of Nick Johnson has been huge, and the arrival of T.J. McConnell has given the Wildcats a cohesion-minded distributor to help keep everything aligned. If Arizona goes to Ann Arbor, Mich., this weekend and comes away with one of the most impressive nonconference victories of the season, those will be among the storylines. Gordon will be sure to provide highlights since NBA scouts will be in the building.
But the biggest difference between the merely good team of 2012-13 and the national title contender you see now goes beyond the immediately obvious. The real reason Miller's team has been the premier outfit of November and December is defense. The Wildcats are dictating terms.
The third week of Wooden Watch (or as I like to call it, "Wooden Watch 3: The Watchening") brings with it more tumult than its preceding editions.
From sheer math alone, this makes sense. The Thanksgiving schedule pushed last week's Watch up to Tuesday, which has given us a nine-day stretch of uninterrupted basketball on which to base our way-too-early national player of the year prospectus. But pound-for-pound, those nine days were, I'd argue, every bit as good and every bit as tumultuous as any stretch that came before. Word to North Carolina.
The losses suffered by top teams -- and players on the POY contention short list -- do shake things up a bit, but it's important not to go too far. One loss does not a Wooden campaign ruin. (You're thinking of the Heisman.) We've been couching these early rankings with all sorts of disclaimers about just how early in the season it is, and that remains true -- even as we barrel headfirst into December. Let's see where we are, shall we?
Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State: After a brilliant start, Smart's first regression of the season came in Kissimmee, Fla., at the Old Spice Classic last weekend. Smart had 17 points and eight rebounds in a shaky 69-67 semifinal win over Butler, but the five turnovers he committed on Friday foreshadowed the five he would commit Sunday. That game, against Memphis, saw Smart stifled by a suddenly coherent Tigers perimeter scheme, and while Smart finished with 12 points and eight rebounds, he missed all five of his 3-point attempts. And yet, he retains his spot atop this list. Why? For one, Smart was clearly sick. I'm not offering excuses (nor taking credit away from Memphis, because the Tigers were great), but I am acknowledging realities. Second, well, it's one game. It's fine. Dude's really good. Moving on.
Russ Smith, Louisville: The North Carolina loss might have thrown people off Louisville's scent, but now that Michigan State is the latest to get a front-row seat to the Tar Heels' ongoing Jekyll and Hyde performance piece, let's go ahead and remind everyone that Louisville is playing top-10 offense and top-three defense, and that Smith, while maintaining his high usage and shot rates, has thus far pumped his assist rate to 37.5 percent (from 21.1 a year ago), shot 58.2 percent from 2-point range and kept his steals rate (4.1 percent) totally steady.
Doug McDermott, Creighton: I'm not willing to get too worked up about McDermott's one loss, either. Yes, I know Creighton fell to San Diego State and George Washington this week, but only one of those losses should be an indictment. Against San Diego State, Creighton was, well, Creighton: McDermott scored 30 points and shot 6-of-10 from 2 and 5-of-8 from 3, and the Bluejays' porous defense cost them the game anyway. Three years on, that's what you sign up for with the Bluejays -- same as it ever was. George Washington was a different story: McDermott was stifled by the Colonials in wholly unexpected fashion (seven points, 2-of-12 from the field, a tidy 54.0 offensive rating -- yikes). But, well, it's one game. It's fine. Dude's really good. Moving on.
Jabari Parker, Duke: I downgraded Parker's status last week because of Duke's putrid defense, but now that the Blue Devils have submitted two slightly better defensive performances -- one in a 72-66 loss to Arizona on Friday, the other in a 79-69 win (in 67 possessions) against Michigan on Tuesday -- it's time to elevate Parker once more. The ironic part? These last two games have been his worst offensively, the first two in which he failed to score at least 20 points (and less efficiently, too). But Parker is gobbling up defensive rebounds for a team that desperately needs him to be a stud on both ends of the floor, and he'll get his points, rest assured.
Julius Randle, Kentucky: Randle hasn't been quite as efficient as he was at the start of the season, but he is still plugging along, dominating
Shabazz Napier, Connecticut: The nice thing about Napier's player of the year candidacy is that it need not rest on a fuzzy term like "clutch" alone. Napier has been ruthless late in games, to be sure: His late winner against Florida on Monday required plenty of luck, but you knew he was going to ice that second chance as soon as the ball bounced to him. But you can also build Napier's case on the breadth of his point guard play, which has been as comprehensive as any guard's to date.
Casey Prather, Florida: In March, Billy Donovan may look back at the Gators' injury-riddled November and thank his lucky stars, for that was the month that Prather turned into a star. Prather makes his first appearance here this week, but it probably should have come sooner. In eight games to date, he's registered a 121.5 offensive rating while using 30.1 percent of his team's possessions; he's shot nearly 64 percent from the field; and he's rebounded 10.6 percent of Florida's available misses. Watching Prather, a three-year glue guy, slice defenses with Euro-steps and quick-twitch offensive rebounds has been an alternately confusing and thrilling process. Either way, he doesn't look like he's slowing down.
Nick Johnson, Arizona: Aaron Gordon gets all the attention, and he'll surely be on this list more than any Wildcat this season. But Arizona feels as much like an ensemble cast as any elite team in the country, and Nick Johnson is perhaps their most indispensable player -- the lone true shoot, drive or pull-up, all-court-style threat who makes Arizona more than a collection of impressive bigs.
Keith Appling, Michigan State: Appling can stay, despite Wednesday night's home loss to UNC, because, well, again: It's one game. Before Wednesday, Appling had been peerless, and he wasn't that bad Wednesday night, either. The current line is 57.1 percent from 2, 48.3 percent from 3, a 28.4 assist rate to just 13.0 turnover percentage, and more generally, an engaged, comfortable and balanced player on both ends of the floor.
Jahii Carson, Arizona State: Carson had his first comedown of the season at Miami on Sunday, when he somehow went 0-for-10 from inside the arc. That, plus Arizona State's sub-Duke defense, is reason for slight downgrade this week. (If this were a list of the most entertaining players, Carson would probably be No. 1 every week. He's fun to watch miss.)
Honorable mentions: Marcus Paige (UNC), Tyler Ennis (Syracuse), C.J. Fair (Syracuse), Gary Harris (Michigan State), Joseph Young (Oregon), Anthony Drmic (Boise State), Chaz Williams (UMass), Melvin Ejim (Iowa State), Tim Frazier (Penn State), Jordan Adams (UCLA), Roberto Nelson (Oregon State), Kendall Williams (New Mexico), Caris LeVert (Michigan), Cleanthony Early (Wichita State), LaQuinton Ross (Ohio State), T.J. Warren (NC State)
Or is UC Santa Barbara that good?
Because that is the best chance you have, if you're a UNLV fan, of explaining away the Rebels' ugly 3-3 start -- one made uglier by the fact that all six games were played in the Thomas & Mack Center. You can excuse the loss to Jahii Carson and Arizona State on a night, Nov. 19, when Carson scorched Vegas for 40 points. You might even be feeling generous, or at least benevolent, in your willingness to overlook a 61-59 loss to Illinois that was still a 50-50 proposition until the closing moments.
But most UNLV fans would find it much harder to see the UCSB game on their record -- an 86-65 Nov. 12 loss at home -- and find a convincing explanation for it. The Gauchos' three losses, to Utah State, Colorado and UCLA, are all eminently respectable. Bob Williams' team is not bad by any means.
UNLV may very well be.
At the very least, it is not a good offensive basketball team; that much is obvious to date. Whatever strength UNLV has derived from the interior defense of Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith -- the Rebels allow just 40.8 percent shooting from 2-point range, have held opponents one of the lowest effective field goal rates (42.2 percent in the country) and rarely commit fouls -- they have almost immediately squandered on offense. Even with blowouts of Portland State and Tennessee-Martin on their résumé, the Rebels' offense is averaging .99 points per possession thus far -- good for 265th nationally. They aren't really good at anything, save for getting up and down the floor and (occasionally) grabbing their own misses. They don't shoot it particularly well, they turn it over too often, and they don't get to the free throw line. That's three of four factors, in case you were counting, where the Rebels are significantly below average. What's the point in Runnin'?
All of which makes this weekend's trip to Arizona on Saturday afternoon (ESPN2, 5:15 p.m. ET) so potentially fascinating. Note the hedge: It is just as likely, if UNLV submits a characteristically ugly offensive performance, that the Wildcats will grind Dave Rice's team to dust in the first five minutes of the game. Sean Miller's team is too good and too balanced and far better than UNLV even defensively, to say nothing of the gulf between offenses.
But there are not very many teams capable, from a sheer size perspective, of matching up with Arizona's dominant Aaron Gordon-Kaleb Tarczewski-Brandon Ashley trio up front, of keeping the Wildcats from getting easy points in the paint. UNLV may be one of those teams. In fact, "potentially interesting" seems like a fine place to leave this little mini-preview. I'm not sure Vegas can keep it close in Tucson. But if Rice is hoping for a turning point, what better time than Saturday?
Happy holidays, and happy early Wooden Watch. This Tuesday edition of what will for the rest of the season be a Thursday update is brought to you by pumpkin pie, stuffing and the rest of our quirky turkey traditions. You'll be eating and watching football Thursday. So will I, if the weather cooperates. So let's check in on the running Wooden list a couple of days early.
What's changed in five days? Honestly ... not a whole lot. That goes for last week's disclaimer, too: Since we're just now rounding the corner into December, the order of the list below is not really of primary concern. This is a window to the landscape, not a definitive hierarchy, for at least the next few weeks. And with that said:
Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State: If the season ended today, Marcus Smart would be my 2013-14 national player of the year. You likely saw what he did to Memphis last week; you've no doubt heard the ever-more-impressive stories about his leadership and work ethic. But my favorite Smart moment may have come Monday night at South Florida, when he and the Cowboys utterly eviscerated the Bulls with a gusto typically reserved for games against Kansas. Smart scored 25 points with four assists and four steals. He finished inverse post alley-oops, set up Cowboys wings for thundering finishes and even splashed down a 65-foot-or-so buzzer-beater at halftime. It looked like someone in the South Florida crowd had said something to Smart along the way: He was unusually talkative, and even threw up a "shush" sign. And, well, a word to wise fans on the Cowboys' road schedule: Don't do that.
Doug McDermott, Creighton: Another week, another chapter in my book, "Doug McDermott is hilariously efficient," available at all reputable bookstores (note: not really). McDermott has posted a 124.1 offensive rating on 31.9 percent usage and a 37.9 shot rate, the second highest in the country. He's hitting 50 percent from 3, drawing fouls at the usual rate and rebounding the defensive glass as steadily as ever. (Oh, and last week's catch-shoot winner at St. Joe's, which I criminally failed to mention Thursday, is worth watching over and over and over.)
Julius Randle, Kentucky: Randle had his first "off" night against Cleveland State on Monday night, but he still finished with 15 points and 15 rebounds, and his passing out of the block was key to the last-ditch 3-point flurry that helped the Wildcats escape with a win. Good teams will double and triple Randle until UK proves it can knock down 3s consistently, but even if that never happens, he is as dominant a force as any in the game.
Jahii Carson, Arizona State: Save Marcus Smart, no guard has had a better start to the season than Carson, who followed up last week's 40-point effort in a win at UNLV with Monday's 23-point, five-assist performance in ASU's thrilling win against Marquette. There might be two or three defenders in the country capable of keeping Carson out of the lane. If that.
Jabari Parker, Duke: The order of this list isn't a big deal right now, remember, but I went ahead and downgraded Parker a bit this week anyway. But why? Isn't he still pouring in points? Yes. And thrillingly so. But Parker and Rodney Hood's issues on the defensive end for Duke have contributed to the Blue Devils' No. 176-ranked efficiency defense, and Duke gave up 90 points in 65 possessions to Vermont at home Sunday. Russ Smith, Louisville: Louisville took a tough and totally surprising loss to North Carolina on Sunday afternoon; the Tar Heels, especially guard Marcus Paige, looked better than anyone could have expected. But it's hardly time to panic on Smith. He was great individually Sunday, and he'll be great in the weeks to come, too.
Keith Appling, Michigan State: Gary Harris' spot last week is now occupied by Appling, and that says far more about Appling's performance than it does Harris'. The Michigan State point guard has done everything right as a senior thus far: He's shooting far less, and more accurately (57.1 percent from 3, 55.3 percent from 2); he's assisting teammates on nearly 30 percent of his possessions; and he isn't turning it over -- or suffering the long, disengaged stretches of a season ago. What a start.
Aaron Gordon, Arizona: Arizona's team is so balanced, and playing so much more unselfishly on the perimeter with the addition of T.J. McConnell, that it's tempting to give some love to one of the other Wildcats -- McConnell himself, perhaps, or peerless senior shooting guard Nick Johnson. But Gordon remains the focal point on offense, and his athleticism is just flabbergasting.
Shabazz Napier, Connecticut: Early in his fourth season at UConn, Napier officially has every tool in the tool box. Tom Crean talked about this at length after Indiana's close loss to UConn in New York last weekend, and it's totally true: Napier is lights-out on the perimeter whether catching and shooting or off the dribble; he puts defenders in blenders with his ball-handling and versatility; and he keeps the ball moving and his teammates involved. Oh, and he's a blast to watch. A+++ -- would DVR again.
Early honorable mentions: C.J. Fair (Syracuse), Gary Harris (Michigan State), Joseph Young (Oregon), Adreian Payne (Michigan State), Anthony Drmic (Boise State), Chaz Williams (UMass), Yogi Ferrell, (Indiana), Melvin Ejim (Iowa State), Tim Frazier (Penn State), Jordan Adams (UCLA), Roberto Nelson (Oregon State), Kendall Williams (New Mexico), Caris LeVert (Michigan), Cleanthony Early (Wichita State), Marcus Paige (North Carolina) and Casey Prather (Florida)
As the Wildcats began to unravel in the final minutes -- most of the team’s starters had encountered foul trouble by then -- Sean Miller turned to the freshman. With 82 seconds remaining in the game and the Wildcats up by just four after squandering a double-digit lead, point guard T.J. McConnell threw a lob pass to Gordon on the inbounds.
Perhaps his critics, too.
Before he arrived in Tucson, Ariz., Gordon dismissed assumptions.
At 6-9, 225 pounds, he looks like a power forward. But he doesn’t play like one.
Gordon has been likened to NBA All-Star Blake Griffin for his ferocious dunks -- and probably based on his complexion, too. But Gordon rejected those comparisons prior to the beginning of his first and only season at the Division I level.
"He’s an incredible player; he’s the No. 1 pick," Gordon told Sporting News in July when asked about the Griffin comparisons. "I can’t be too mad if people are comparing me to a No. 1 pick, but I can play point guard."
Point guard? That sounded like the type of crazy talk that this generation of LeBron James wannabes often spews, failing to recognize the difference between doing a bunch of things and doing a bunch of things well.
But Gordon, like his game, was serious.
Against the Aztecs, Gordon auditioned his outside-the-box skill set.
He began the game by dribbling into a trap.
He made few mistakes after that.
Gordon, ranked fourth in the 2013 recruiting class by RecruitingNation, dribbled up the floor solo, pushed toward the rim, stopped and scored early. He hit a couple of 3-pointers, too. There was also a jump shot in the lane.
In the first half of the first half, Gordon had scored 12 points and made all five of his field goal attempts. Just 10 minutes into the game, it was clear that Gordon was on a different level than everyone else on the floor.
On Tuesday night, Gordon’s elite peers in the freshman class anchored one of the biggest events in the history of college basketball’s nonconference slate. During the Champions Classic at the United Center in Chicago, Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins and Julius Randle justified the hype with impressive efforts.
If this was Gordon’s coming-out party, it definitely occurred under different circumstances. The Wildcats were playing in a brutal environment for visitors.
The game began at 10 p.m. Eastern, bedtime for many outside the West Coast.
That, however, didn’t make his effort less dazzling. Gordon put on a performance that rivaled those orchestrated by the other future millionaires who were featured on Tuesday night at the United Center.
He’s not a power forward and he’s not a point guard. But he is a combo forward who can be trusted to handle the ball and roam on the perimeter in Arizona’s offense. He’s an excellent passer. He’s also a versatile defender.
Gordon’s athleticism helps him guard multiple positions and smaller players. His movements are fluid.
With less than six minutes to go, SDSU forward JJ O’Brien drove to the rim as Gordon harassed him. Gordon had played cautiously after picking up his third foul, but he tracked O’Brien, and then, he swatted a shot that would have extended a brief SDSU rally.
He finished with 16 points, 8 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 blocks, 2 assists and zero questions about his potential.
He didn’t win the game alone. Nick Johnson (game-high 23 points) was a catalyst on both ends for the Wildcats. McConnell (six assists, two turnovers) was a leader. Freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (seven points, five rebounds) might be a star soon, too.
But Gordon is the game-changer, the talent who could lead Arizona to a Pac-12 championship and so much more.
It’s not easy to leave Viejas Arena with a victory, especially when your team is counting on a freshman to make big plays down the stretch.
Yet Gordon was calm in that moment, his moment. And that was the difference.
Gordon will play multiple games this season that will commence after a chunk of the country has already fallen asleep. And perhaps that will affect his street cred when folks assess the 2013 class.
It’s clear, however, that Gordon belongs in the same conversation as the other three freshman stars who excelled earlier this week in Chicago.
2. The NIT Season Tip-Off needed two non-Division I schools to fill out its 16-team bracket, released Tuesday. Filling these tournaments with non-Division I schools shouldn't come as a shock. There are so many tournaments and not enough teams to fill them. Part of the problem is the rule preventing teams from the same conference participating in an event. There have been some unavoidable situations due to realignment, with two teams in an event from the same conference, who weren't in the same conference when they signed up for the tournament. The answer might be to waive that rule and allow tournaments to schedule at least one other conference team in an event. The mega conferences will make it even harder to schedule events without taking two teams from the same conference.
3. I do like the seeding, though, for the NIT. Arizona was the No. 1 seed, while Duke was No. 2, Alabama No. 3 and Rutgers No. 4. While the NIT is the last early-season tournament where you have to play your way to the neutral site, I would like to see more matchups in the early rounds of these tournaments based on seeding instead of random draws.
2. Ole Miss got two injured players back but lost another. Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said sophomore Terry Brutus is done for the season with a torn ACL, suffered last week in practice. But the Rebels do have forward Aaron Jones back from his ACL injury, which occurred against Kentucky on Jan. 29. Forward Demarco Cox is also back after missing all but seven games last season with a stress fracture in his foot. The depth can still be there for the Rebels up front, despite the loss of Brutus. But the Rebels will go as far as Marshall Henderson can carry them. He is currently suspended but the SEC's top scorer is expected to be back in the good graces by the heart of the season, giving Ole Miss a potent offensive option.
3. The NIT Season Tip-Off is supposed to release its long-awaited bracket Tuesday. This is what we know for sure: the four hosts are Arizona, Duke, Rutgers and Alabama. And you can lock in Arizona and Duke will be on opposite sides of the bracket so they can meet in a potential final at Madison Square Garden the day after Thanksgiving on Nov. 29. If that occurs then you'll get a treat of seeing two of the top freshmen in the country in Arizona's Aaron Gordon and Duke's Jabari Parker. Both of these teams should be considered Final Four contenders. The NIT bracket has been "the best secret in college sports,'' according to Arizona coach Sean Miller. That's called sarcasm and he's right. The bracket has taken way too long to be revealed.