CBB Contender Series – II

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 for these can 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. To see my initial breakdown of these teams refer to v-1, the following will be an update on the week each team had if they were also in the top-10 last week. *—–* indicates change in archetype.

  1. Houston (13-1) Off (13) Def (2) – *IMPENETRABLE*
    • An absolute drubbing of Tulsa on the road 89-50 was the only action for Houston since we last met, and it was good enough to tip them into the Impenetrable category. The offense was the concern as we discussed last week, and they broke out in a big way. Sasser and Walker, their 2 leading scorers, only combined for 18 points which is a great sign as the rest of the team made major contributions. The American Conference is not going to be much of a test for Houston, so we’ll be keying in on the few matchups against quality teams that they do have, namely Memphis and UCF. For now, Houston looks like one of the best teams in the Country and their toughness and defensive ability have them looking like a sure thing to reach the 2nd weekend come March.
  2. Uconn (14-0) Off (7) Def (4) – IMPENETRABLE
    • Uconn is the best team in the country right now and handled a much-improved Villanova team with Cam Whitmore back and healthy. Despite Sanogo being in foul trouble the Huskies still took care of business thanks to their ability to control the game on both ends of the floor. They can get stops and have enough weapons offensively to make it extremely difficult to stop them. Top-7 in both categories puts them in rare air and the absolute #1 candidate by my metrics to win the whole damn thing in March. Now, by the next edition of this the Huskies will have played both Xavier and Providence on the road. Those games could really tell who these Huskies are. Going 2-0 in those games could put them atop this list, but a loss or 2 could show us a weakness we haven’t seen yet. The beauty of this series is tracking these ebbs and flows, should be fun.
  3. Tennessee (11-2) Off (55) Def (1) – *VULNERABLE*
    • The offense is now very concerning for the Vols, and while they won their only game since we last met, their trip to Ole Miss again showed why they can’t be trusted in March. They were in a dog fight with a team that is nowhere near the bubble conversation, much less a tourney quality team, and it was solely because they can’t score. A win is a win, but 63-59 while shooting 3-15 from 3 is alarming. Obviously, this team is exceptional on the defensive end, but I’ll reiterate teams who are this unbalanced do not fare well in March. This isn’t anything new for the Vols as they’ve fit this archetype the previous 2 tourneys and lost in the 1st round and 2nd round. The trend will continue, will you listen?
  4. UCLA (11-2) Off (6) Def (10) – IMPENETRABLE
    • Not much to say about the Bruins this week as they haven’t played since we last met. Check out here what I had to say about them last week.
  5. Kansas (11-1) Off (16) Def (6) – *FLYER*
    • Kansas has fallen into the Flyer category this week after struggling offensively against Harvard in a 68-54 win. Obviously, the Jayhawks are one of the best defensive teams in the Country and can rely on that end if they go cold. However, this shines a little light on what could be a weakness for this group against good competition. For example, in their loss to Tennessee they only mustered 50 points. Also, in wins against Wisconsin and Duke they had less than 1.0 point per possession. As we spoke about last week, this Kansas team is playing without a true big man, opting to go small ball, so when facing teams with good interior defenses it seems they have to rely on perimeter shots a lot which can cause them to go through cold stretches. Something to monitor with this group going forward.
  6. Texas (11-1) Off (11) Def (12) – *IMPENETRABLE*
    • The identity of this Texas team is about as murky as the future of their HC Chris Beard, and likely those two things are going hand in hand. What is striking is that the Longhorns are flipping in terms of their strength since Beard has left the program, going from a staunch defensive group to more dangerous offensively. Granted the competition hasn’t been as great, but they’re all the way up to 12th defensively after being top-10 all season. They technically fall into the Impenetrable category this week, but I am confident that is going to change as the season goes forward. I’m not sure who they will be at the end of the season, and frankly it seems they aren’t either. Big 12 play will tell us all we need to know.
  7. Purdue (13-0) Off (5) Def (27) – FLYER
    • The Boilermakers had a post-Christmas tune up as their only dub since we last met and they charge into Big Ten play undefeated and in the driver’s seat for the Conference. There are a couple worrisome trends we are watching as we talked about last week, as the defense has kept them in the Flyer category. What isn’t showing in the 5th ranked offense is that it’s down from #1 a few weeks ago. The Boilers have gone cold from 3, shooting only 21/98 (21.4%) the last 4 games. With a weaker defense and a cold stretch shooting a loss could be incoming as some of the shine starts to wear off this team. Or maybe they snap the cold shooting spell? We shall see.
  8. Arizona (12-1) Off (1) Def (67) – VULNERABLE
    • I don’t see Arizona moving out of the Vulnerable category all season, as they rely on playing with pace and high tempo and simply outscoring teams. A blowout of Morgan St doesn’t do much in terms of adding to the discussion, but they are now the #1 offense, #1 in 2 pt FG% and top-10 in both tempo and assists/FGM. Clearly they have an extreme strength, but as we’ve discussed unbalanced teams are extremely Vulnerable in March. The last time a team of this archetype made a deep run was 2013 Michigan behind Trey Burke. Can it be done? Sure. But many others have failed since 2013, I’d bet on Arizona to do the same if nothing changes.
  9. Alabama (11-2) Off (17) Def (14) – FLYER
    • Our first new entry into the top-10 is Alabama, so let’s dive in. The Tide are led of course by coaching maverick Nate Oats, who’s high tempo, frenetic pace style combined with the 3 or layup only offensive philosophy has made Alabama the most interesting program in the Country in my mind. The Tide can run anybody out of the gym, and get after you on defense. They are the 3rd highest tempo team in the nation, but what is interesting about them is they have won a couple of games against teams who slow it down and muck things up. Both the Houston and Mississippi St wins were very intriguing to watch a young Bama team play a physical brand of basketball and defend in the half court. With outstanding Freshman Brandon Miller leading the charge, this Alabama team is insanely talented. They can win in multiple ways, with a 103 point showing against UNC and 71 point showing against Houston as shining examples. The potential concern is offensively, as for a team who relies on the 3 ball they only shoot 34% and rely on transition and offensive rebounds to create offense when things go cold. The loss to Uconn was the perfect example as they only scored 67 points on 74 possessions. It’s a young team though with a lot of transfers as well, so things could continue to trend positive with this group as we get into January and February. Look out for Bama.
  10. Arkansas (11-2) Off (36) Def (7) – FLYER
    • The Hogs lost their only game since we last met, dropping them down to the 10 spot and really displaying the concern that we have with them offensively. The 60-57 loss to LSU on the road isn’t detrimental to their tourney hopes by any means, but it highlights their inability to score consistently. If that continues, we may just see them drop out of this top-10 especially if Nick Smith is unable to return. If Smith does return though they get a lot more dangerous, but until that occurs Arkansas should remain a flyer that you stay away from. SEC play should expose this, but you just never really know for sure.

Dropped Out: Kentucky (10—>13)

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