CBB Contender Series 4.0

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 (17-1) Off (10) Def (2) – IMPENETRABLE 
    • Another week another dominant stretch for this Houston program. 2 wins @ Cincy and at home over USF continue to hold Houston at the top of these Kenpom rankings and they now sit top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Things got a little squirrely in the win over USF as they were actually down in the 2nd half, but like most great teams they locked in when it mattered and got it done. As long as Houston brings the fight they can take down anyone, you just worry if they’ll throw a sleeper like this in the tourney. It’s unlikely, but one popping up makes us pay attention. Nonetheless, they’re still in the impenetrable category, and at top-10 in both look primed to make a run to the Final Four and cement Kelvin Sampson as one of the best coaches in college hoops history. Seeding is going to become a part of this discussion soon however, and right now Houston is barely hanging on to a 1 seed. The lack of competition in the American may hurt Houston come Selection Sunday.
  2. Tennessee (14-2) Off (31) Def (1) – FLYER
    • A 2-0 week in the SEC is always an accomplishment, but really it was a ho-hum week for the Vols as they beat 2 of the worst teams in the Conference. The continuing theme with Tennessee for us is the offensive struggles, but it is necessary to point out now that since Josiah-Jordan James has come back to the lineup they are averaging 83 ppg. Now, the competition hasn’t exactly been very great but nonetheless that is an encouraging sign for a team that has had its struggles on that end. The defense will always be there, but the scoring issues that have frankly plagued this program for a couple of years now are the hump this team has to get over. They also face a similar budding issue as Houston as their resume starts to get stagnant, they will need some big time wins in SEC play to solidify a top seed. Right now they sit on the 3 line in our latest bracket. 
  3. UCLA (15-2) Off (15) Def (4) – IMPENETRABLE
    • A dismantling of Utah slides UCLA up into the 3 slot this week as they continue to smother people defensively, just as Mick Cronin dreams about. It’s amazing to see Cronin come into a program known historically for that splashy fast paced West coast brand of basketball and immediately turn them into that mucky, grindy midwestern program he is known for. Pair that leadership ability and an early run to the Final 4 in his 2nd year and we’re talking about a guy in Mick Cronin that is seriously underrated. The slide to 15 offensively is in my opinion due to the Amari Bailey injury, as he has been an important scoring option for them, but once he’s back UCLA becomes easily one of the favorites this year to make a deep run. One last easy home game against Colorado sets them up for a trio of road games that will really tell us what we need to know about these Bruins. Arizona St, Arizona, USC all on the road. That’s when we learn. 
  4. UConn (15-3) Off (11) Def (9) – IMPENETRABLE 
    • Listen to the data, listen to the data. It is admittedly really difficult right now to believe in UConn as one of the best teams in the Country now that they’ve lost 3 out of 4 games. However, the 3 losses were on the road to really good Big East foes but that isn’t doing much for my brain and my “eye test”. The data is responding negatively as they’ve dropped from 1st to 4th overall, but it’s much more level headed than I. Again we must remember, we’re here so that the data will win, so that our dumb monkey brains don’t get in the way of what the data is telling us. And at this point it is still telling us we should believe in the Huskies. What we need from them is a little win streak, as they have a softer schedule coming up where the toughest opponents will be in their building. My brain needs a 7-game winning streak, and frankly I imagine the data does too if they want to hang on to that impenetrable tag. 
  5. Purdue (16-1) Off (1) Def (29) – FLYER
    • A 2-0 week in the Big Ten including a road win over Penn St who is scratching and clawing on the bubble is a fantastic week for these Boilers. Zach Edey continues to be the frontrunner NPOY and the defensive side of the ball is slowly but surely improving. It is of course that end of the floor that keeps Purdue in the Flyer category, but they increasingly become a Flyer that you start to feel more confident in. I’ve said it a million times throughout this series, unbalanced teams face trouble, but the movement to the better is what you want to see. And having a 7’4” unicorn inside for teams to gameplan against makes them a bit of a unique specimen when March rolls around. We’ve also documented the shooting struggles; those have subsided as that #1 offensive ranking indicates. So long as these perimeter players are knocking down shots around Edey, Purdue will remain one of the most dangerous teams in the Country. 
  6. Alabama (14-2) Off (16) Def (10) – FLYER
    • Alabama continues its meteoric rise through these rankings as they’ve now climbed from outside the top-10 to a nice and cozy 6th. They sit as close to the Impenetrable category as you can get, with the Offense just outside the top-15, but climbing. I’m starting to fall in love with this Alabama team, the length, the athleticism, the shot making ability, the defensive intensity…basketball porn these last few weeks. And let’s not forget one of the best Freshmen in the Country in Brandon Miller. The man is incredible and one of the more fascinating watches in college hoops right now as teams try and face guard him and take him away, ask Arkansas how that went. Speaking of which, Alabama went on the road and dismantled the Hogs and knocked them out of the top-10 (spoiler) and cemented themselves as a 1 seed and SEC frontrunner. A clash with Tennessee doesn’t come until mid-February but boy I cannot wait for that one. 
  7. Kansas (15-1) Off (13) Def (13) – *IMPENETRABLE*
    • We’ve talked about this years Kansas team and their small ball lineup quite a bit, as it both challenges opponents and gives them opportunity. We almost saw it come to fruition against Oklahoma last week, but the Jayhawks were able to scramble back from 10 points down with 5 minutes left to pull out another win. Kansas is playing with fire a little bit, but I’m sure Bill Self knows it. We actually saw 12 minutes from 6’10 SO Zach Clemence against the Sooners, so maybe Self is starting to feel that pull for a big man. That defensive number continues to trickle upwards though as they’ve gone from 6th – 10th – 13th over the last few weeks. Teams know they can drive the ball hard with no real shot blocking presence, pair that with a good shooting team and these Jayhawks get real vulnerable real fast. I think they might start feeling that soon. 
  8. Texas (14-2) Off (14) Def (27) – FLYER
    • Alright so I may have overreacted last week a bit, to be fair it is extremely difficult to gauge who this Texas team is right now. They remain a flyer but who knows what Texas team is going to show up night after night. Sometimes they guard well, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the offense looks good other times it looks atrocious. Either way they went 2-0 last week in a gauntlet of a Big 12, no easy task. But, I did say I wouldn’t be writing about them again this week and here we are, so something is at least moving in a positive way. I suppose one should only assume that a mid-season coaching scandal and subsequent firing would result in a tumultuous team, I just wonder where they will land in the next few weeks. Good new, we’ll be here to document exactly that. 
  9. Saint Mary’s (15-4) Off (52) Def (5) – *VULNERABLE*
    • An addition to the top-10 and I must admit my monkey brain is again questioning the data. However, we don’t let that happen around here, in the data we trust. So, let’s figure out exactly how the Gaels of Saint Mary’s found their way to the number 9 spot. What we know about the Gaels is their led by HC of 20+ years Randy Bennett, who has consistently had this program playing great basketball on the defensive end of the floor. They have an extremely solid starting 5 that is experienced and poised to make life very difficult for Gonzaga out in the West Coast Conference this season. Could they finally dethrone the king? The thing holding them back and putting them in this vulnerable category however, is the offense. They are one of the worst FT shooting teams in the Country, and struggle from inside the arc as well. It is worth noting that this number has trickled better due to the shift into Conference play as they’ve found a groove. They still play BYU and Gonzaga twice, so we are going to find out a whole lot more about this squad in the weeks to come. For now, they remain a vulnerable top-10 team. 
  10. Arizona (15-2) Off (3) Def (63) – VULNERABLE
    • Arizona’s weakness came to haunt them this week as they faced Washington St at home and lost. The shots stopped falling and there was no defense to be found against a pretty poor offensive team. Arizona could be well on their way out of this top-10 and should be entrenched in the vulnerable category moving forward. Remember this if you remember anything about Arizona, if you have the size to limit their bigs, they are dead. The Arizona guards are not nearly as good as last season’s, and Ballo and Tubelis are forced to carry the load inside. If you can control the glass and limit those two, Arizona becomes very weak. Do not trust Arizona in March, I repeat, do not trust Arizona in March. This is why you come here, this is why we play the game. Trust in the data. 

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