CBB Contender Series – III

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 (15-1) Off (12) Def (2) – IMPENETRABLE 
    • Since we last met this Cougars group has done what they are supposed to, with a peak and a valley. UCF actually came into Houston and put up a fight, but ultimately Houston got away with a close W thanks in large part to their 19 offensive rebounds. Houston is unbelievable in that respect and in their 2nd W since we last met over SMU they even surpassed that number with 21 offensive rebounds (more than SMU had defensively…) It’s never going to be pretty for Houston, but damn are they relentlessly tough. You can’t keep em off the glass, you simply can’t. That isn’t just a snapshot either, on the season they rank 1st in the country in offensive rebounding. When most people think of difficult offenses to stop, they picture elite shooters or maybe a dominant post man, Houston has none of that. They just get multiple shots at it on an insane number of possessions. Much is made about the game of basketball getting soft, let me tell you if you walk into a game against Houston and are soft, you’ll be pissing down your leg come halftime, just ask SMU. An interesting test at Cincy awaits this team, but it’s looking like Houston might not lose another game, they are that good (and the American Conf is that bad).
  2. Tennessee (12-2) ) Off (38) Def (1) – *FLYER*
    • The Vols had a rare offensive explosion to move them from the “vulnerable” category into the “flyer” category as they dropped 87 on what had been an elite defensive team in Mississippi St. Josiah-Jordan James is back after a month out and he hit 2 threes, another shooter helps this group a lot. However, as we’ve discussed here many times unbalanced teams can struggle so we’ll be watching to see if this was just a flash in the pan or if they can continue to knock down shots with more consistency. Obviously, as the top ranked team defensively this group can hang their hat on that end, but in their 2 losses it was the offensive end let them down and that has also led to some close games that shouldn’t have been so close. A couple rare SEC cupcakes await, but we will be finding out more about this Vols group as we get deeper into January. 
  3. UConn (14-2) Off (9) Def (5) – IMPENETRABLE 
    • Admittedly it’s tough to hang on to that “Impenetrable” tag after watching the Huskies go 0-2 in the last week, but we must trust the data. 2 tough losses on the road against 2 really good Big East teams is certainly nothing to panic about. The worry appears to be on the defensive end, as they got gashed by both Xavier and Providence, allowing 83 and 73 respectively which was the most and 2nd most they had given up all season. Now, this could be a wakeup call, get the engines humming again after the holidays, or it’s a warning sign that maybe the hype wasn’t all that justified. Good news is we have 2 months to watch it shake out. For now, the data still points to UConn being one of the favorites to make a run come March. And here we trust the data. But falling from 1-3 in the rankings is a negative trend that must be acknowledged. Consider it acknowledged. 
  4. UCLA (14-2) Off (10) Def (7) – IMPENETRABLE
    • A 3-0 week in the Pac-12 for the Bruins since we last met, not bad considering they are without star Freshman Amari Bailey. That included 2 road wins over the Washington teams as well as a home win last night over USC. Very impressive week for the Bruins as they continue to embody Mick Cronin’s tough minded/scrappy style. The Pac-12 has some imbalance as the teams at the bottom are pretty bad, but there will be some real tests coming for UCLA, with the ultimate being a Jan 21 visit to Arizona. In terms of consistency and building momentum I would put UCLA right with Houston right now at the top of the true contender list. UConn right there but the negative trend is worrisome in this snapshot of time. Look forward to seeing UCLA face the bigger challenges that await them. 
  5. Kansas (13-1) Off (13) Def (10) – *IMPENETRABLE*
    • A road win over Texas Tech in which they dropped 75 points on 67 possessions was good enough to tilt them into the “Impenetrable” category. They have been back and forth from Flyer to Impenetrable so it’s tough to get a gauge on where they sit, but one thing is for sure is they are an elite team. Now, the defense is starting to get exposed which I would directly attribute to their lack of a big man, as I’ve written about before. The small ball lineup is fascinating, but as teams adjust we may see Kansas get exposed a bit defensively and see that ranking drift upwards. A trip tomorrow to W. Virginia presents another tough road game against a tourney quality opponent. What W. Virginia has that Texas Tech doesn’t is a combo of bigs Tre Mitchell and Jimmy Bell at 6’9” and 6’10” respectively that are going to challenge Kansas in the paint. Rebounding will be huge, and we’ll see just how effective this small ball lineup can be against some quality bigs. 
  6. Purdue (14-1) Off (4) Def (32) – FLYER
    • A roller-coaster week for the AP #1 Boilers as they lost in rare fashion at home to Rutgers in the dying moments only to head to Columbus and beat Ohio St in almost identical fashion. We have spoken at great length about this top-5 ranked offense and it’s poor shooting stretch over the last few weeks, but the trip to Ohio St saw them jolt right out of that slump as they hit 13 threes and scored 71 points on 60 possessions. Zach Edey is still a unicorn and matchup nightmare, but what makes Purdue dangerous is when the surrounding cast can knockdown shots. The defense shows some weaknesses as well, keeping them deep into the flyer category. What they can’t rely on is to get consistent stops when the offense goes cold, see the Rutgers loss. That is what makes it tough to win 3-4-5-6 games in a row against great competition in March.
  7. Arizona (14-1) Off (1) Def (55) – VULNERABLE
    • Arizona’s defensive numbers are crawling in the right direction as they beat up on lesser competition, but they remain in the vulnerable category this week. A win over Washington isn’t going to do much for anybody and they welcome Washington St next, who again doesn’t represent much of a challenge to opponents’ defenses. Again, unbalanced teams such as this statistically struggle to make it out of the first weekend, so as the Pac-12 season continues on we will be tracking this defense to see if any improvements are made. Last week they were 67th, so certainly a move in the right direction, can they sustain it? That’s why we’re here every week. 
  8. Alabama (12-2) Off (19) Def (12) – FLYER
    • A home blowout of Ole Miss really doesn’t change what we believe about Alabama here, but the improvement offensively was nice to see as they inch closer to the Impenetrable category. If you read my breakdown last week, you know I love Nate Oats, but the fear with Alabama is how out of control they can get on both ends of the floor. His style is fast paced, aggressive and essentially an all-out siege for 40 minutes. What has happened when this Alabama team has gotten in trouble this year is they get undisciplined defensively and turn the ball over offensively. Bama has gone from not in our top-10 to 9th last week to now 8th. Great progress, but the next step is to see them take on an elite opponent and stay poised and under control. Next time we meet they will have played Kentucky and Arkansas, we may just get what we ask for. 
  9. Arkansas (12-2) Off (39) Def (4) – FLYER
    • The Hogs are grinding out wins right now without one of their best scorers Nick Smith, who has been out a while but has left a hole for Arkansas on offense. On the flip side the defense continues to strengthen as they just held a red hot Missouri team to 68 points. This is just another team that has to rely on stops and cross their fingers they can knock down enough shots. The stat the embodies that is their 3 pt shooting, as they rank 317th in the country from deep. It is really tough to imagine if that continues they will be able to make a run, but hey they still fall into the Flyer category and have hope of a Nick Smith return. Stranger things have happened. 
  10. Texas (12-2) Off (7) Def (41) – FLYER
    • Please refer to last week’s edition if the following doesn’t make sense. What did I tell you? Chris Beard has now been officially fired and this may be the last edition I get to write about the Texas Longhorns. With Beard at the helm Texas was a top-10 defensive team, they now rank 41st and are free-falling game by game. They fell from 6th to 10th overall and the program might be taking a turn as we speak for complete destruction. Hopefully, for the good of college basketball they get their shit together, but for now this team is in free fall after giving up 116 points in a HOME LOSS to Kansas St. In what world could you imagine a Chris Beard (potential bad guy) coached team giving up 116 points?? I don’t have proof but I guarantee that never happened. A trip to Oklahoma St could be a pivotal moment for this group, because if they get ran through again I can’t imagine that train could get back on the tracks.  

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