Men’s college basketball rankings: UConn the team to beat, no matter the number – The Athletic

By CJ Moore2h ago

It’s the final Top 25 of the season, and I want to thank everyone who has followed along this season.

I tried to do something different with this space, and I’ve received some great feedback from folks online and offline. Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed the deeper dives into some of these teams. Though I didn’t write about every team each week, I tried to provide in-depth analysis of those that were covered. I care way more about what goes in these blurbs than who is ranked where. You may not always agree with whom I rank and where I rank them, but hopefully you’ve learned something along the way.

Happy March to all of those who celebrate. Cannot wait to watch the finish of what’s been a fun, points-filled season.

CJ Moore’s Top 25 for Monday, March 4

Rank Team Last week
1 Connecticut 2
2 Purdue 1
3 Houston 3
4 Tennessee 4
5 Marquette 5
6 Iowa State 6
7 Arizona 8
8 North Carolina 9
9 Alabama 10
10 Illinois 11
11 Creighton 12
12 Duke 14
13 Baylor 15
14 Auburn 13
15 Kansas 7
16 Kentucky 17
17 Utah State 18
18 Washington State 19
19 South Carolina 21
20 San Diego State 22
21 Gonzaga NR
22 BYU NR
23 Saint Mary’s 16
24 Florida 20
25 Boise State NR

Connecticut

The Huskies have been the most dominant team in the country since Donovan Clingan rejoined the starting lineup on Jan. 28. Since that time, UConn ranks No. 1 with the third-best offense and ninth-best defense, per Bart Torvik’s sorting tool. Purdue, the team it has battled for this top spot, is just 12th during that time. The Boilermakers still have the best resume, but since this is my final Top 25 for the season, I’m gonna go out with the team that I would give the best odds to win the title.

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UConn just has too many different ways it can beat you. Last Saturday against Villanova, it got 25 points from Cam Spencer. On Sunday against Seton Hall, the Pirates made it a point to try to stick to Spencer, and he attempted just three shots. But UConn just uses that against the defense. On the final two plays of the first half, the Huskies ran some screening action for Spencer and scored both times on slips by the screeners. Here’s one from freshman Stephon Castle:

Castle led the Huskies with 21 points. All five starters have had multiple games with 20-plus points this season. The defense is dominant too. Purdue is great, but it leans heavily on Zach Edey and Braden Smith. The Huskies are more slump-proof because they have so many weapons.

Purdue

If there has been one weakness in Zach Edey’s post-up game through the years, it has been trying to score over his right shoulder. Edey prefers operating from either the middle of the lane or on the left block, and his least favorite spot is the right block going to his right shoulder. (To Matt Painter’s credit, he gets Edey way more touches in the lane or the left block, by design.) This season Edey is shooting just 46.5 percent on post-ups when he tries to score over his right shoulder, and his turnover rate when he spins that way (14.5) is nearly twice as high as when he goes over his left shoulder.

Michigan State really tried to stay on Edey’s left shoulder and forced him to spin off his right shoulder a season-high six times on Saturday. Here’s the good news for Purdue: Edey was 4 of 5 from the field on those shots, and he got fouled once. Three of those shots he made with his left hand, including two on his least favorite right-block, right-shoulder combo.

Edey also passed nicely out of post doubles, finishing with four assists and just one turnover for the game. In March, opposing coaches are going to try to crunch the numbers and figure out any kind of way to make him less efficient. So if he can gain confidence in those right-shoulder finishes and make the right read on post doubles, the most dominant scorer in college basketball gets even more difficult to game plan against.

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Houston

Over the last two seasons, Houston has had six chances to win games on buzzer-beaters. Every time, Kelvin Sampson has wanted the ball in Jamal Shead’s hands. Last season against Temple, Sampson set up a play for Shead to drive to the basket. He got there, but what would have been the game-winning layup was pinned on the glass by Temple’s Kur Jongkuch. Shead got another chance in the season finale at Memphis and buried a jumper at the buzzer.

This season Houston was put in that spot for the first time at TCU on Jan. 13. When Emanuel Miller gave TCU the lead with 6.7 seconds left, watch Sampson on the sideline as Houston comes back down the court:

He wanted that ball in Shead’s hands. Next time Houston had the ball on the game’s final possession — two weeks later at Texas, game tied — Sampson called timeout and made sure the ball was in Shead’s hands, but Shead settled for a 3. Watch Sampson again, and it’s clear he wanted him to drive. (Houston ended up winning in overtime.)

Last weekend, Shead got the ball in the final seconds at Baylor and buried what would have been the game-winning 3, but it came a tick too late. (Again, Houston won in overtime.) And that brings us to Saturday. Oklahoma’s Javian McCollum scored with 11.8 seconds left, and Sampson called timeout. He designed a play for Shead to get to his right hand, smartly putting LJ Cryer in the right corner because he knew Cryer’s defender wouldn’t help. Shead’s initial try missed, but this time he got the game-winner off in time:

Tennessee

Tennessee is up to 18th in offense at KenPom and has the third-best defense in college basketball. The Volunteers are a legit national title contender, especially with the way Dalton Knecht has played when healthy this season. Knecht hurt his ankle at North Carolina and didn’t miss time but wasn’t right for several weeks after and had his only real slump of the season. Then he started to heat up in a loss at Mississippi State. He’s averaged 25.7 points per game over the last 15 games, starting with that MSU loss. And if you take out the seven games when he was dealing with his ankle and slumping, he’s averaging 24 points per game this season.

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Knecht’s ability to go on a heater was on display last week against Auburn. With just over 12 minutes left, the Tigers led by eight. Knecht carried his team to a win, outscoring Auburn by himself 25-21 the rest of the way. Auburn was so scared to give him space off screens that it was switching, and here’s what it looks like when Knecht knows he has a mismatch:

The Vols ran it back next possession. Knecht knew Johni Broome didn’t want to give up another 3, and…

Also worth noting: Zakai Zeigler, who was slowed early in the year as he returned from a torn ACL, has a 119.4 offensive rating in SEC play and league-best 33.3 assist rate. Knecht/Zeigler is one of the scariest two-man combos in the sport.

Marquette

I didn’t move Marquette down this week because it gets a pass for losing at Creighton. The Golden Eagles were missing Tyler Kolek (oblique injury) and Oso Ighodaro (illness). This season Marquette is plus-19.1 points per 100 possessions with that combo on the floor together and gets outscored by 20 points per 100 possessions with them both out of the game, per CBB Analytics. Obviously it’ll be concerning for Marquette if Kolek is out for a considerable amount of time, but Marquette can still be pretty good by simply putting the ball in the hands of Kam Jones, who has gone for 30-plus in three of the last eight games. Marquette has only played 84 minutes with Kolek on the bench and both Jones and Ighodaro on the floor together, per CBB Analytics, but the results are promising: plus-28.4 points per 100 possessions.

Iowa State

Efficiency is at record levels this season, and Houston and Iowa State are the only two defenses with an adjusted defensive efficiency under 90. In the 26 seasons of data at KenPom, only two times have there been fewer than three teams finish under the 90 mark — 2016 and 2018.

Can we learn anything from those seasons about how Houston and Iowa State might fare in the NCAA Tournament?

In 2016, those two teams were Louisville, which had a postseason ban, and Wichita State, which made the Sweet 16. In 2018, it was Virginia, the first No. 1 seed  to lose to a No. 16, and Cincinnati, which lost as a No. 2 seed to Nevada in the Round of 32. Cincy is one of the most comparable teams to this version of the Cyclones, considering where it ranked offensively (49th; ISU is 64th). But here’s some good news for the Cyclones: That was one of the flukier tournament results. The Bearcats blew a 22-point lead in the final 11 minutes. Offense is the concern with the ‘Clones, but as noted earlier this season, this is the best offense T.J. Otzelberger has had in his three years in Ames.

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Arizona

Arizona is in play for the final No. 1 seed, and if it secures it, Tommy Lloyd would be the first coach to have a No. 1 seed in two of his first three seasons since the tournament field expanded in 1985. Since then, only 20 coaches have ever been a No. 1 seed twice in three years. That’s not something even Bob Knight pulled off. Mike Krzyzewski didn’t achieve it until his 19th season at Duke. Also likely joining that list this year will be Kelvin Sampson and Matt Painter. On that list, 13 of the 20 have won national titles. This would put Lloyd in elite company.

Illinois

Illinois is the Kentucky of the Big Ten with an elite offense and suspect defense. It has been three seasons for Illinois: pre-Terrence Shannon Jr. suspension, the Shannon suspension and post-Shannon suspension. The Illini have gone from pretty good on offense and good on defense to really good on offense and mediocre defensively to elite offensively and bad defensively. Here are the ranks over the three stages, using Torvik’s sorting tool:

Adj. Off. Eff. Rank Adj. Def. Eff. Rank
Pre-suspension 114.4 33 92.9 18
Suspension 125.3 3 101 103
Post-suspension 130.7 1 107 201

During the suspension,  Brad Underwood figured out his best initiator was Marcus Domask, who went for 31 points in Saturday’s win at Wisconsin. The Illini can play fast or slow because of Domask, whom Underwood trusts in isolation and booty ball, when Domask backs his man down. The Illini should be better defensively with their positional size and with Coleman Hawkins, one of the best switchable centers in the game. This will be a team tough to pick in March, because it’s hard to say if it’ll ever flip that defensive switch. Their pre-suspension play shows the Illini are capable.

Creighton

Trey Alexander had the first double-digit assist game of his career last week when he had 10 assists against Seton Hall and then he followed that up with another 11 in Saturday’s win over Marquette. Both Alexander and Baylor Scheierman are excellent feeders to Ryan Kalkbrenner because of their size. Kalkbrenner has great hands and makes 71.4 percent of his 2s, so anything thrown to him around the rim is good offense. Alexander had a good mix of how he got his assists, getting paint touches and finding shooters or cutters, reading the tag and delivering dimes in the pick-and-roll, or feeding Kalkbrenner in the post.

Those last two are where his size comes in handy. Ball pressure doesn’t bother him in the pick-and-roll:

And it doesn’t matter on post feeds either:

Alexander is a great scorer, but Creighton is at its best when he’s looking to pass. In his seven games with seven or more assists this season, the Bluejays are 7-0 and have averaged 91.3 points and 1.25 points per possession.

Duke

Duke is scoring 116.1 points per 100 possessions in ACC play, per KenPom, which is the best ACC offense since 2015 Duke. That team won the national title. If the season finished today, this Duke offense would rank eighth in the last 26 seasons of ACC play. The teams in front of the current Blue Devils, in order: 2005 Wake Forest (Chris Paul effect), 1999 Duke, 2014 Duke, 2000 Duke, 2001 Duke, 2002 Maryland and 2015 Duke. Three of those teams won the national title.

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Baylor

Baylor has a deadly pick-and-roll combination with RayJ Dennis and Yves Missi. Missi is so feared as a roller and lob threat that centers hesitate to fully commit to stopping the ball when Dennis is coming at them. So they try to play cat and mouse, allowing Dennis space to shoot his floater:

Dennis made all four of his floaters against Kansas and has made nine of his last 10. That is one of the toughest shots in basketball, but Dennis is shooting 54.7 percent on his runner/floaters, per Synergy’s tracking. Missi shoots 76.1 percent as a roller, so the only way to stop the two of them is to commit extra help. Problem there is Baylor is shooting 41.5 percent from 3 when the defense commits or tries to trap the handler.

Kansas

Kansas lost on Saturday, but it got some hope in the return of Kevin McCullar Jr., who missed five out of eight games while dealing with a bone bruise on his knee. Before McCullar’s injury, Kansas was the 22nd-best offensive team in college basketball, per Torvik. That’s below average for a Bill Self team but still solid. The KU offense has been sputtering since, mostly missing McCullar as at least a threat from deep and then his ability to slash, pass, cut and get to the free-throw line. Here are the Jayhawks’ offensive numbers before the injury and since:

2-point% 3-point% 3-point Rate FT Rate Adj. Off. Eff.
Pre-injury 55.9 36.6 30.5 33.2 116.4
Post-injury 55.7 29.7 27.2 30.7 113.8

Kansas has ranked 59th in offense since McCullar got hurt. It relies on its passing to set up good shots — the Jayhawks are No. 1 nationally in assist rate — and without McCullar, there have been times when it looked really hard to run offense. The latest example: the second half against BYU, a rare home loss for KU. The Jayhawks looked more like themselves at Baylor offensively, but they struggled to get stops. But some more hope: Since McCullar’s injury, they have the third-best defense in college hoops.

It’s been a weird season for Kansas, which on a couple nights has played up to its preseason No. 1 ranking (see wins against UConn and Houston) but has lacked the consistency of most Self teams. If McCullar can get back to his pre-injury self, Self can still sell to his guys that they can beat anyone once the NCAA Tournament begins. But health and 3-point shooting will be of utmost importance.

Kentucky

Kentucky trailed Arkansas 88-81 with 6:56 left on Saturday, and Rob Dillingham took over. On 11 of the next 13 possessions, Dillingham either had the pass to set up the shot, took the shot or got fouled. Kentucky scored on nine of those trips, the only misses a Dillingham pull-up around a ball screen and a wide-open 3 by Tre Mitchell. The final damage: 20 points scored, 11 by him, nine by others (with four assists from Dilly) and a 21-6 run to put the Cats ahead by eight.

This Kentucky team is fun to watch when he’s cooking. Dillingham’s speed/handle combination is one of the best weapons in college hoops. The ability to make a move like this when the defense forces you that way and to not break stride is special:

Also worth noting: Zvonimir Ivisic was on the floor for this run, and Ivisic and Dillingham are deadly in a pick-and-roll. The big fella has a great feel for the angle of his screens, when to re-screen and when to roll. Kentucky is now scoring a ridiculous 140.9 points per 100 possessions and outscoring opponents by 37.6 points per 100 possessions with those two on the floor together, per CBB Analytics.

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Utah State

Something weird is happening in Utah State games this season. No one on either side can make an open jump shot! On unguarded catch-and-shoot jumpers, Utah State opponents are shooting 26.9 percent, the lowest in college basketball, per Synergy. But the Aggies aren’t much better when they get them, shooting just 29.3 percent, which ranks 358th. Is Utah State lucky or is this strategic? The Aggies short close on non-shooters, but there could definitely be some luck in play. To their credit, it’s not like they give up a ton of these open looks. They rank 68th in the number of open catch-and-shoots (6.7) they allow per game.

Washington State

Washington State was one of the worst teams in college basketball in baseline out-of-bounds situations last season and is one of the best this year. What’s changed? The Cougars are excellent at generating 3s in these BLOB situations and making them. They shoot a 3 on 40 percent of their BLOB opportunities, are shooting a ridiculous 48.2 percent on those 3s and average the fourth-most 3s in the country off BLOBs. The key is misdirection and getting great looks for your best shooters:

Credit Kyle Smith and his team for taking a weakness and turning it into a strength.

South Carolina

Meechie Johnson scored 10 of his 25 points in Saturday’s comeback win over Florida against switches. The Gamecocks are one of the most patient teams in the country, and once they get a switch, they’ll get the spacing right to ensure they can take advantage of it. Johnson ended up hitting the go-ahead shot on one of those switches:

Similar to Wisconsin and Virginia teams of the past, South Carolina will be a tough out in the NCAA Tournament because of its ability to get a good shot in half-court offense — and take them away from you.

Gonzaga

Gonzaga inserted Ben Gregg into the starting lineup on Jan. 18 to play small forward, replacing freshman Dusty Stromer. Since then Gonzaga is 13-1 and ranks as the 10th-best team with the eighth-best offense, per Torvik. The Zags have one of the biggest frontlines in the country with Graham Ike (6-9), Anton Watson (6-8) and Gregg (6-10) starting, then Braden Huff (6-10) as the sixth man/backup big. The effectiveness between Gregg playing the four or five and playing the three is obvious by the lineup combos, per CBB Analytics:

Ike/Watson/Gregg 33.4
Huff/Watson/Gregg 32.7
Ike/Gregg (no Watson or Huff) 13.2
Huff/Gregg (no Watson or Ike) 10.6
Gregg/Watson (no Ike or Huff) 9

The big difference since the move is Gonzaga went from the 59th-best shooting team in the country to having the best effective field-goal percentage (60.7) during that span. The Zags’ 3-point rate is almost identical, but they went from a 31.7 percent 3-point shooting team to making 39.1 percent over this 14-game stretch.

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BYU

BYU recognized that Kansas was switching five more often than usual last week and kept picking on those switches when Hunter Dickinson was involved. The eventual dagger 3 from Dalin Hall was on a Dickinson switch, but the bigger issue for KU was others trying to overcompensate once Dickinson switched. That included Dickinson:

Kansas was trying to switch to take away 3s, but it still led to BYU 3-pointers. The Cougars made five 3s, one 2 and drew four fouls on plays when Dickinson switched. They also had success on ball-screen plays when he hedged or was in drop coverage, making two 3s and three 2s in those scenarios. With the way the Cougars hunt 3s, they could be a scary team to play in the NCAA Tournament.

Boise State

Leon Rice has restocked his roster the last couple years with transfers; four of his top six players came from the portal. Boise has been a good spot for high-major guys to find their confidence and shots. A few years ago it was former Arizona wing Emmanuel Akot. The last two years it has been former Texas Tech wing Chibuzo Agbo. Agbo made just 12 3s in two seasons at Texas Tech; he’s made 135 in two years at Boise State at a 41.5 percent clip. The Broncos, tied for first in the Mountain West with Utah State, have a chance to win their third Mountain West title under Rice and make their third straight NCAA Tournament. It would be Rice’s fifth NCAA tourney appearance. The program had only five total before he arrived in 2010.

Dropped out: Wisconsin, Texas Tech, TCU

A few others teams I’d consider dangerous in March: Indiana State, South Florida, Samford, Nebraska, Loyola Chicago, Richmond, whoever wins the Ivy League auto-bid (Princeton, Yale or Cornell), McNeese State

(Photo of Stephon Castle: Jessica Hill / AP)

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C.J. Moore, a staff writer for The Athletic, has been on the college basketball beat since 2011. He has worked at Bleacher Report as the site’s national college basketball writer and also covered the sport for CBSSports.com and Basketball Prospectus. He is the coauthor of “Beyond the Streak,” a behind-the-scenes look at Kansas basketball’s record-setting Big 12 title run. Follow CJ on Twitter @cjmoorehoops

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