CBB Contender Series V-1

Welcome to the place where we go beyond traditional ranking systems. Sure you can look at the AP top-25 or the NCAA’s NET rankings or simply Kenpom’s top-10. We’re diving deeper, acknowledging that the human eye can be misleading and that data is the best way to approach predicting the madness come March. Don’t just take my word here for it, take a look here where I break down exactly what the data is telling me. I will be defining teams as “vulnerable” or “impenetrable” or simply “flyers”, exactly what backs up my logic is also found in the first article. For now, a synopsis: Vulnerable teams are the statistical archetype of a team that is likely to be upset the first weekend. Impenetrable teams are the antithesis of that, fitting the archetype of teams who almost never miss the Sweet 16. Finally the flyers, teams that don’t fit those narrow barometers but find themselves in or around the top-10. So, every week we’ll take a look at Kenpom’s 10 most efficient teams and define them, look at their week (or season if they’re new) and assess where they truly stand in the Contender vs Pretender debate.

  1. Houston (12-1) Off (18) Def (2) – FLYER
    • For Kelvin Sampson and this Houston team it’s all about defense, as they rank #2 as of today on that end of the floor. This is also a team that made an elite 8 run last year without its star playmaker Marcus Sasser, who is back now leading them in scoring. What is keeping Houston out of the Impenetrable category is on the offensive end of the floor, where they can struggle. In their lone loss thus far to Alabama they could only muster 65 points on 72 possessions against a team that has given up 90+ points 3 times already. While the Cougars can be menacing on the offensive glass, you’d like to see them start knocking down shots with more consistency. At this point they are shooting 34% from 3, good for 125th in the Country. The good news is that’s on par with last year’s group, but it was that weakness that prevented them from making it to the Final Four as they only mustered 44 points in their Elite 8 loss. This is a nasty team, one I would feel pretty confident in, and if the offense can make some strides they may find themselves in the impenetrable category. Thus far wins over Virginia (13) and St. Mary’s (19) have them as a 1 seed, but with the weaker American Conference a couple of losses could boot them lower.
  2. UConn (13-0) Off (6) Def (4) – IMPENETRABLE
    • The start of the season for the Huskies has been one of the most dominant displays we’ve seen in some time, and nobody is talking about it. They have beaten every team they’ve played by double digits, which includes 4 Quad 1 wins, most notably Alabama on a neutral floor. Led by Adama Sanogo in the paint, they’ve surrounded him with lethal shooters with length and athleticism which give teams fits on the other end as well. They’re shooting 37% from 3 while holding teams to 27%, that’s a winning formula. If I were to pick one team to feel the most confident in at this point in the season, it has to be UConn. They’re experienced, and can be dominant on both ends of the floor as they’re rankings suggest. Being top-6 in both categories is extremely rare and may not hold up, but they look like a sure fire bet to make a run at this stage. Easily a 1 seed at this stage, everything is in front of the Huskies as the Big East looks to run through them and they are the betting favorite to win the whole thing. What could go wrong?
  3. Tennessee (10-2) Off (49) Def (1) – FLYER
    • As good as Houston is defensively the Vols are a hair better, which is extremely hard to pull off. The major difference for Tennessee is they can go really cold on the offensive end, which has them barely avoiding the dreaded Vulnerable status. As flyer’s go, you have to lean heavily toward Houston over Tennessee. The thing about March is you’re trying to not just win 6 games in a row but beat 6 really good teams in a row. The last time we saw a team this unbalanced toward Def make a run to the Final Four was 2017 S. Carolina, who leaned heavily on Sindarious Thornwell to carry the offensive load. The Vols don’t have a guy like that, and frankly their best offensive weapon is Zakai Ziegler who was ripped out of the starting lineup after the Colorado loss. It’s hard to imagine the 3rd best team statistically in the Country to be a team to avoid come March, but until we see consistent improvement on the offensive end, it just is not worth the risk. They sit as a 2 seed right now, and would be a prime candidate for an early exit. That was illustrated perfectly with the loss to Colorado, who is nowhere near a tournament quality team. Yes they have beaten the brakes off of Kansas, but that loss shines a light on how thin the margins are for unbalanced teams like this. Buyer be ware.
  4. UCLA (11-2) Off (4) Def (11) – IMPENETRABLE
    • The Bruins got off to a rocky start losing 2 games to Illinois and Baylor early, but have rallied off 8 in a row since and are starting to gel. While they welcome back a few key vets like Jaime Jaquez and Tyger Campbell they are also relying on a couple Freshman to help out and they have progressed nicely over the last month. With the parts starting to come together UCLA has looked more and more like the class of the West Coast, and behind Mick Cronin’s tough and scrappy style they can defend at an elite level and have the half-court shot makers to make them one of the toughest teams to stop. Several of these guys were part of the 2021 run to the Final Four, and while Johnny Juzang is gone the ancillary parts have now become the stars, with experience to boot. I have UCLA right behind UConn in terms of confidence in a run coming at this stage. Experience is incredibly important, and to have stars who have made the run before as well as a HC that just adds to the fact they fit the Impenetrable archetype. Right now they’re a 2 seed, but with a solid run through the Pac-12 they could find themselves on the 1 line.
  5. Kansas (10-1) Off (13) Def (7) – IMPENETRABLE
    • The beauty of College hoops is the wild variability in style of play across the landscape and Kansas certainly finds themselves on one end of the extremes this season. Traditionally Kansas has been lead by star big men, but not this year’s Jayhawks, as they are starting 4 wings between 6’6-6’8 with PG Dajuan Harris. What that has lead to is a team that is incredibly versatile defensively as they can switch everything and pressure the ball at every position. Despite having no shot blocking presence they are 7th defensively, catalyzed by their perimeter pressure leading to being 11th in steal %. The weakness of course can be rebounding, which in their lone loss reared its ugly head as they were out-rebounded 45-27. All in all though this 5-out game plan has proven to be far more dangerous than vulnerable, and if it weren’t for a pathetic display of shooting they are likely undefeated at this stage. Even against Duke who plays two 7-footers and another 6’10 big they got a W (despite 21 offensive rebounds). The rebounding could be their undoing, but so far sitting on the 1 line with 5 Quad 1 wins it doesn’t look like it’s enough of a problem to make them an upset threat.
  6. Texas (10-1) Off (16) Def (6) – FLYER
    • The Longhorns were one of the favorites entering the season, but with HC Chris Beard not likely to re-join the team I would consider things a little up in the air at this point. The game after Beard’s arrest and suspension they went to OT with Rice…not great. Since then they’ve beat Stanford and Louisiana, a bit of a mystery still how much this will affect them. Beard is a great coach, scumbag or not, so his loss certainly will have an impact, but so far we can’t make out what it will be. Texas may be the most intriguing watch of the series, just to see how they trend from here on out. As it stands, they’re just outside the impenetrable archetype, making them a solid flyer. To be totally fair the schedule has been pretty weak, as they’ve really only had 2 difficult tests, going 1-1 in those games. They really rely on toughness and playing solid defense, but can struggle to stay engaged, which we saw in the loss to Illinois as the Illini scored 39 points the final 15 minutes. They are worth monitoring for now, and the brutal Big 12 schedule will tell us all we need to know about these Longhorns.
  7. Purdue (12-0) Off (5) Def (25) – FLYER
    • Probably the biggest surprise of the season would be the AP #1 Purdue Boilermakers who lost a lottery pick in Jaden Ivey and second best offensive producer Trevion Williams. Don’t tell that to Matt Painter, who continues to develop talent and has crafted what I would describe as the most poetic offensive system in the Country. These Boilers are lead by 7’4 unicorn Zach Edey who is the clear NPOY at this point, averaging a preposterous 22.5 ppg and 14 rpg. There has been a recent negative trend though, as the offense has gone cold from 3, shooting 21% over the last 3 games. However, it’s a good sign that they were 3-0 in those games. However, shooting woes could be the undoing for the Boilers as they aren’t dominant defensively. Part of that is the lack of versatility with Edey on the floor and especially his troubles defending the ball screen. So far, his offensive dominance has been enough to propel the Boilers, but as teams look to take him away they will need to knock down shots. A 1 seed as it stands the Boilers are interesting, but the defense keeps them in the Flyer category.
  8. Arizona (11-1) – Off (1) Def (66) – VULNERABLE
    • At this point under Tommy Lloyd we know what to expect from Arizona, lightning fast pace of play and an incredibly efficient offense. The problem this season for the Wildcats has been on the other end of the floor. A defense ranked 66th has been good enough for an 11-1 record, but that lone loss shined a light on what will be an achilles heel for Arizona. They struggled to shoot the ball and couldn’t get stops, which gave them a nice 15 point loss to a middling Utah team. At their best they can outscore you and run you out of the gym, essentially making their defensive effort and effectiveness a non-factor. But when you muck the game up and make it difficult for them to score, that weakness rears its ugly head. It’s easier said than done, but we’ve seen it time and time again that a team who can’t defend and relies on simply outscoring you gets sent home that first weekend. Hence the Vulnerable status, so buyer beware on these Wildcats.
  9. Arkansas (11-1) Off (31) Def (9) – FLYER
    • As much of a mystery as Texas is I don’t think even Eric Mussleman and this Arkansas team really know who they are at this point in the season. Star FR Nick Smith has only played 5 games and continues to be sidelined, and the rest of these new pieces seem to be still trying to find an identity. Between the transfer portal and FR the Hogs are essentially a brand new roster, and the schedule really hasn’t been difficult enough to tell us much about this team. They’ve won low scoring slugfests against middling teams and played in some shootouts against the better teams they’ve played. Giving up 90 to Creighton was not a good sign, but beating Oklahoma and San Diego St close were decent wins. If Smith can get healthy they could be dangerous, but at this stage it’s hard to have confidence in such a hodge podge of a team. Time can help that though. Big big mystery are these Hogs.
  10. Kentucky (8-3) Off (24) Def (13) – FLYER
    • Kentucky may be benefiting from being #1 to start the season, because to this point I don’t see much to indicate they are a top-10 team. Now, just like UCLA they have some FR who they need to get up to speed, because the return of Oscar Tshiebwe and Sahvir Wheeler is what gave everyone such confidence in these Wildcats to begin with. So to be trending down from 1 to 10 is not a good sign, but as we know with Calipari teams they always continue to get better and better. I would expect Kentucky to improve, but as of now they are a Flyer with an 0-3 record against quality opponents. The SEC grind over the next 2 months will tell us what we need to know, but for now you cannot trust this version of Kentucky. Especially considering they are sitting on the 5-6 line seed wise, we may see them fall out of this top-10 soon.

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