CBB Contender Series 6.0

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 (21-2) Off (8) Def (6) – IMPENETRABLE
    • Remaining at the top spot once again the Cougars survived 2 scares this week as they had to come from behind in the final 10 minutes of each win over Cincy and Wichita St. It seems this group has a switch they can flip as they dig in, get stops and are able to put teams away at the end. It’s a bit of a worrying trend as I’m sure Kelvin Sampson is imploring his guys to give that effort for the full 40 minutes, but when you continue to beat up on weaker competition over and over you can see how they have put it on cruise control. Right now, they need every win in their path as the fight for a 1 seed is tight and the weakness of the American Conference is making it tough to build a resume. At the end of the day, I still think Houston at its best is the best team in the Country, but it’s also true that we haven’t had this weak of a field at the top in a long while.  
  2. Tennessee (18-4) Off (42) Def (1) – FLYER
    • The Vols had a huge home win over Texas this week in which they put up 82 points and started to look like their well-documented offensive issues were in the past. But, as the data would have suggested, they flopped at Florida being held to 54 points and losing by 13. The offense cannot be ignored at this point, and if they happen to run into a good defensive team in March that can make it difficult for them to score they are going to be in trouble. So, they remain in the “Flyer” category and are on the brink of dipping into Vulnerable. They just don’t have a go-to guy, whether it be a guard or a big man inside, when things get bogged down they get lost. This is really nothing new for the Vols, as they have dipped out the first weekend with the 85th ranked offense and 35th ranked offense the last 2 seasons. Rinse and repeat it appears.
  3. Purdue (22-1) Off (2) Def (18) – FLYER
    • Two dominant wins at home over Michigan St and Penn St helped to cement Purdue as the clear #1 overall seed in the tournament as it stands today. Zach Edey is the unquestioned POY in the Country and the ancillary players are starting to knock down perimeter shots as well. It will have to be a team like Houston who has big physical guys up and down the roster to slow down the Boilers, similar to Rutgers who are the only group to knock them off. You have to double Edey and be disciplined enough to rotate to the shooters consistently. Furthermore, you have to be able to rebound and keep them off the glass as they rank 3rd in OReb %. There’s your case for the difficulty of slowing them down, but there’s also the slight weakness on defense keeping them from being in the Impenetrable category. Either way, Purdue looks like the favorite right there with Houston.  
  4. Alabama (18-2) Off (18) Def (5) – *FLYER*
    • I’m not sure any team in the Country has had more of a roller coaster week than this Alabama team just had. They were absolutely blasted by Oklahoma by 24 points, only to come out and beat Vandy by 57. Clearly Nate Oates was able to get his young team’s attention, as they locked in defensively only giving up 44 points in game 2 after giving up 93 to Oklahoma. That will be the difference for the Tide, as so much of their ability on offense relies on getting out in transition off of turnovers and rebounds. They have to get stops and there’s no excuse for why they can’t given their height and athleticism. Offensively it’s all about turnovers and shot selection, as these guards need to take care of the ball better…they rank 247th in TO%, which is undoubtedly a focus for Oates. Either way, they’re a 1 seed right now and the favorite in the SEC.
  5. UCLA (18-4) Off (26) Def (3) – FLYER
    • Only 1 game this week for the Bruins but they won comfortably, but the questions on the offensive end are starting to intensify. They have gone from 15th two weeks ago to now 26th. They’re starting to look more like the patented Mick Cronin teams we are used to though, cringy on offense but lockdown on D. I had previously written off the offensive struggles to missing Amari Bailey, but he has been back the last 2 games and it hasn’t looked much improved. Against Washington they shot 6-21 from 3 and had 18 turnovers, which doesn’t align with who they were early in the season. There really aren’t too many tests in the Pac-12 that lie in wait, so the rematch with Arizona in March is probably the next time they won’t be clear favorites.
  6. Uconn (17-6) Off (9) Def (19) – *FLYER*
    • I have been waiting for weeks now to get that Impenetrable tag off this Uconn group and we finally have it as the defensive number has fallen from top-5 to 19. It has been obvious for a while now that the Huskies just aren’t playing like they were early in the season, especially on defense. Giving up 76 to DePaul, in a win, was enough to tip them into the Flyer category. 10 games ago I said this… They’re experienced and can be dominant on both ends of the floor as their 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 point, 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? I laughed out loud reading that…4-6 since that paragraph, which is the beauty of this series, completely reactionary but as you compare over time you perfectly encapsulate some of the roller coaster rides these teams go through. 10 games from now we could be anywhere with this group.
  7. Saint Mary’s (19-4) Off (45) Def (4) – *FLYER*
    • The Gaels survived a big scare at BYU and then took care of business against San Francisco to set up the massive home matchup against Gonzaga. This is an opportunity for St. Mary’s to legitimize themselves as they rank high on many ranking systems, including Kenpom as you see but they don’t have many good wins. They are essentially Tennessee, as they struggle mightily at times on the offensive end but are dominant defensively. Essentially they are the antithesis of Gonzaga who wants to play fast and score 90, so it will be an interesting matchup. Gonzaga is not good defensively either so it could be a chance for these guys to get some clean looks and get cooking offensively, but you know the Zags are going to bring it. For me this is a huge prove it game for St. Mary’s, you have to beat Gonzaga at home for me to believe in you.
  8. Marquette (18-5) Off (1) Def (63) – VULNERABLE
    • Same story for Marquette as they continue to be the best offensive team in the Country and are weak on the other end. A huge matchup this week awaits as they travel to the aforementioned Uconn. Marquette is truly one of the most unheralded teams in the Country, as they are quietly the best team in the Big East. Xavier, Uconn and Creighton get a lot of love but Marquette is one of the few elite offensive teams. There is quite a bit of separation between them and 2nd place Purdue, so to say they are the most elite offense in the Country should not be controversial. However, as I’ve discussed many times before, unbalanced teams struggle in March, and right now Marquette is a team I would be picking to be upset in the first weekend.
  9. Kansas (18-4) Off (19) Def (16) – FLYER
    • Huge bounce back for Kansas after dropping 3 in a row as they went on the road to beat Kentucky and then got their revenge on Kansas St. Back on the right track but a murderer’s row of 6 straight Q1 games await, so we are going to find out just what these Jayhawks have in them. The lack of size was a huge concern, which I have written about extensively, but the last 2 wins they only gave up 4 and 9 offensive rebounds respectively. Holding Oscar Tshiebwe and UK to only 4 offensive rebounds is extremely impressive. That has to continue for Kansas, and it has to be a by committee thing, it has to become their identity. If they can do that then their ability to play 5 out and switch defensively actually puts them at a huge advantage. Will be interesting to watch this upcoming stretch.  
  10. Texas (18-4) Off (11) Def (30) – FLYER
    • The Longhorns bounced back after a tough road loss to Tennessee with a big win over a good Baylor team. It’s clear that this team has shifted identities a little bit since Chris Beard left the program as the defensive intensity is not what it was but offensively they do look improved. Marcus Carr and Timmy Allen are playing really free and making plays on offense, they just need to get back to their solid defensive ways if they really want to go on a run in March. I don’t have too much confidence in them after giving up 82 points to a mediocre Tennessee offense but they have a ton of talent and Sir’Jabari Rice is coming on strong of late. Back-to-back road games in Kansas could send them out of this top-10 though next week…but in the Big 12 ya just never know.

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