CBB Contender Series 7.0

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 (23-2) Off (7) Def (7) – IMPENETRABLE
    • The Cougars are ridiculously good, a machine you could say. If you’ve been following along you will remember that I’ve spoken about how Houston has a tendency to flip a switch in games, well they put together two really dominant wire-to-wire performances this week to kind of quiet that noise. They got their revenge with a road win against Temple by 16 and then a 38 point drubbing of Tulsa capped off a fantastic week. Coach Sampson has to happy to finally see his guys come out firing on all cylinders in the 1st half and not wait until late to turn it on. They remain top-10 in both categories of efficiency and are the runaway #1 team in these efficiency rankings. At this point the only major concern would be are they battle tested enough? Similar question people had for Gonzaga for years, and while it’s a valid question, I just think the way they play lends itself to translating to any opponent. It’s all about energy and effort on defense and the glass. Offensively is certainly a place to watch, as things get stagnant sometimes, but man they have some great playmakers in Sasser and Shead to make tough shots. Not to mention Jarace Walker. They have to be the odds on favorite right now.
  2. Alabama (18-2) Off (15) Def (6) – *IMPENETRABLE*
    • Listen I have fawned over Nate Oates and Bama many times over in this series and it continues to shine through. Yes, they had a bad loss at Oklahoma a few weeks back, but since then they are 3-0 and have done so in dominating fashion. Now, this next week we really get to learn something about this team, as they head to in-state rival Auburn and then head to Knoxville Tennessee. The two toughest games on the SEC schedule and they get them back-to-back. If you’re Oates you have to be happy with going 1-1, obviously 2-0 and you may be looking at the #1 overall seed in bracketology and maybe these rankings. Realistically, 0-2 doesn’t kill you, but it’s all about how this young team competes. When they’re playing hard and connected, they are the best team in the Country, see the road win over Houston. The defense lapses at times though, and on the road in these environments you can’t afford that. They also can go on cold spells on offense and are headed to 2 of the better defenses in the Country, so it will be an illuminating week to say the least for the Tide. For now, welcome to the impenetrable club.
  3. UCLA (20-4) Off (29) Def (3) – FLYER
    • Well the Bruins held serve this week, but the resume could really use a big win as the walls are closing in on their bid for a 1 or 2 seed. Lucky for them they have an opportunity for a Q1 win this week with a trip to Eugene to face a surging Oregon team. The one budding worry for this team is the offensive efficiency, as it continues to plummet, down to 29th. They aren’t that close to the vulnerable cut line at 50, but it becomes more concerning by the week as it has gone from 15th 3 weeks ago to now 29th. That’s with Amari Bailey back and actually producing well as he scored 24 in their last game. Jaquez and Tiger Campbell have been in a shooting slump, so I’m not too worried but nonetheless it gives you pause on what is an otherwise very impressive team. Like we’ve discussed they are perfectly in the mold of a Mick Cronin team, stingy defense ultra-slow-paced offense. It did work in 2021, so maybe a repeat? We may learn a little about them this week.
  4. Tennessee (19-5) Off (64) Def (1) – VULNERABLE
    • Listen, I have written extensively about how I think the Vols are overvalued and not to be trusted due to their offensive inefficiencies. Now look where we are. 2 out of 3 losses now for Tennessee, to Florida and Vandy who aren’t really even bubble teams. We thought maybe the introduction of Zakai Ziegler and Jordan-James into prominent roles would propel this team, but the issues seem to be worsening. It’s fair to mention the 1 win they scored 46 points. Unbalanced teams get upset in March. Repeat it to yourself, bury it deep inside of you, burn it into your memory. Do not trust Tennessee. Do not trust Tennessee. Now, of course I don’t expect them to lose to Missouri at home this weekend, but that matchup with Alabama could really expose the Vols. And actually, they end the season with trips to A&M, Kentucky, and Auburn as well, so there’s a lot of time for people to start catching on to what I’ve been saying. Or they prove me wrong, time will tell.
  5. Purdue (23-2) Off (3) Def (21) – FLYER
    • The Boilers suffered a tough loss on the road to rival Indiana, where that defensive number we’ve been talking about reared its ugly head as they gave up 50 points in the 1st half. They bounced back later in the week in a 14-point win over Iowa however, and it seems pretty obvious what the Boilers need to cut down nets in March. They have to be able to defend, just at a good enough level to get them through some shooting slumps. The offense is there, Zach Edey is an absolute nightmare, and either you let him put up 36 points and dominate 1-on-1 or you double him and give the ancillary players open jumpers. IU let him play, Iowa doubled, it doesn’t matter the Boilers are going to score. The difference was Purdue was locked in defensively from the tip against Iowa, and that’s what it will take for them to get to Houston. No nights off. Edey is dominant enough, it just comes down to defense. This week will test them as well with 2 road games against tourney teams Northwestern and Maryland. The grind continues.
  6. Uconn (19-6) Off (8) Def (20) – FLYER
    • The Huskies have been all over the place this season but this past win over Marquette was as good as we’ve seen them since December. They’re still only 5-6 in their last 11 games after starting 14-0 and looking like the best team in the Country, but a dominating win over a really good Marquette team has to breathe a whole lot of confidence into this group. They have 1 game until we meet again, at Creighton who is white hot. They beat them at home already, but that was before they really go rolling, so this is going to be a tough matchup. Even just playing this one close to the wire will give me confidence the Huskies may be back to their old ways. The real concerning trend is the defensive number that had plummeted from top-5 to 20, but it has stabilized there. Maybe this is more reflective of who they really are? If so, I’m not sure they can be trusted in March, but they have plenty of time to sway me. It starts on Saturday.
  7. Saint Mary’s (20-5) Off (45) Def (5) – FLYER
    • The Gaels just suffered a tough loss for the resume as they went down to Loyola Marymount, who consequently has now beaten both Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s. Still it’s a bad loss for Saint Mary’s who was trying to win the WCC outright for the first time. They still have a 1 game lead but also have to go to Gonzaga to end the season. Looking like a shared championship unless the Zags slip up or they can sweep them. As far as March goes the Gaels are essentially Tennessee but a little less athletic with some better shooters. The comparison is they struggle to score but can lock you down defensively. They are one of those teams that looks like they could make a run but also may end up out the first weekend because they can’t score more than 65 points against a good team (in regulation). The only way I see myself as being confident in this group is if they go to Gonzaga and win, which I don’t expect. I don’t think either WCC team gets out of the 1st weekend, but what do I know. Also it’s February, time for takes that get exposed in a month.
  8. Arizona (22-3) Off (11) Def (35) – *FLYER*
    • Arizona has been in and out of this top-10 but is in the midst of a 7 game winning streak that is taken them from 18th to 8th. The improvement has been defensively, as over the those 7 they’ve allowed less than a point per possession in 5, with the other 2 being games they score over 90. So, both ends have been good to them at times, and while the schedule of late hasn’t been a murderers row by any means, the streak did start with wins over UCLA and USC. They finish the season with 6 Q1/2 games, so it will be interesting to see how well they fare, but if they continue to play well defensively I see no reason they can’t win their next 4. It’s the last 2 games that will test them with USC and UCLA on the road. The Wildcats are not the offensive team they were last year, and I think that self reflection has happened and that’s why you see the improvement on defense in the back half of the season. Still, they dominate inside with Tubelis and Ballo, and have just enough shooting with Ramey and Kerr at the guard spots to be dangerous. We’ve talked about their wide open Gonzaga-esque style of play that Tommy Lloyd brought over with him and the key for them is to continue to improve defensively. Last year’s team got knocked out by a tough Houston team that locked them down, and it may take another effort like that this year to take out Arizona.
  9. Creighton (16-8) Off (26) Def (13) – *FLYER*
    • Creighton being in this spot at this point in the season now with 8 losses shows just how weak the field is after the first 5 or 6 teams. In fact, last season their overall efficiency would have been good for 15th. That speaks to the parity this season, but they are here nonetheless so lets talk about em. Creighton was one of the favorites heading into the season, starting in the top-10 of basically every ranking system but fell to 6-6 in mid-December after a 6-game losing streak, in part without starting center Ryan Kalkbrenner. In the 21 games he’s played they’re 16-5, so a little different, but still their best win is a home win over Xavier so I’m pumping the brakes a little. Their starting 5 is as talented as any, and they have playmakers and guys who can score at all 5 positions. They rebound, defend well with Kalkbrenner holding down the middle as well and can really shoot it as well. The weakness is the bench, but as long as guys stay out of foul trouble they can beat anybody. The win at Seton hall this past week is what vaulted them up in the standings, as they’ve now climbed from a low of 29 to 9th. Quite a run, but a 7 game winning streak can do that for you. Two huge prove it matchups await the Blue Jays as they welcome Uconn on Saturday and then head to Providence. 2 Q1 chances for a team with a paltry 2-5 record in that category. Creighton is dangerous, and are a dark horse team to make a run as their numbers and resume are scarred by Kalkbrenner’s injury so they are worth watching, especially this week.  
  10. Texas (19-5) Off (14) Def (32) – FLYER
    • Texas continues to linger around this range after dropping a tough road game to Kansas. However, they did go into Kansas St and get a massive road win to split their trip through Kansas and hold on to their top-10 spot. Ever since Chris Beard left the program things have changed up a little bit, as the defensive efficiency has ballooned to 32 but offensively, they have actually improved. I can’t see a Beard led team getting beat 88-80 like they did in Kansas, but scoring 80 was also a rarely seen feat. I’m not sure what to think about the Longhorns at this point, as I’m not sure I trust them enough defensively but there’s no doubt they have a ton of talent and have won some huge games, with and without Beard. A rookie fill-in coach makes the case weaker, but at this point I wouldn’t be surprised by a 1st weekend exit or a Final Four run from this team. It’s all about defense for them. This week they get WVU at home and then head to Texas Tech, in what should be a 2-0 week, but the Red Raiders will be desperate so you never know.

Dropped: Kansas (9)

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