Yesterday I took a quick look at what conference play may hold for the top teams in the ACC, Big East, and Big Ten. Today I'm looking at the elite tiers in the Big 12, Pac-10, and SEC. (Trust me, we'll get to Memphis next week.)
Heading into a road game tomorrow at Boston College, Kansas is 13-0 and ranked behind North Carolina and Memphis nationally. On paper, the Jayhawks have actually performed better than either of those teams, thanks in large part to their superb defense. Only Wisconsin has played this level of D to date. KU has that defense to thank for its undefeated status. The only two games this year where Kansas failed to score at least a point per possession were the OT game at home against Arizona and the four-point game at USC. The Jayhawks won both contests only because their defense was even better than the opponents' D.
Some teams go for steals, some go for position. This year, KU has been the rare team that can work both sides of that coin. In Mario Chalmers and Russell Robinson, Bill Self has the luxury of being able to call upon two of the most disruptive backcourt defenders in the entire nation. As a result, this defense has forced opponents into turnovers on an unheard-of 29 percent of their trips. The Jayhawks have also been playing phenomenal interior defense (opponents have made less than 40 percent of their twos) and clearing the defensive glass. Darrell Arthur has improved his defensive rebounding, Darnell Jackson has continued his strong work in that department, and Sasha Kaun just keeps blocking shots. This team will again wreak havoc in an improved, but still not terribly formidable, Big 12 North. The only thing to keep an eye on is KU's three-point FG defense. I don't want to wave the bloody shirt and invoke Marcellus Sommerville here, but it is true that opponents have fared surprisingly well from outside the arc against the Jayhawks thus far.
As good as the Kansas interior defense is, it's been just the third-best among Big 12 teams thus far this season. In second place we find Texas A&M, which has held opponents to just 36 percent shooting on their twos this year. Seven-foot phenom DeAndre Jordan has had something to do with that, of course. Jordan blocks shots (granted, sophomore Bryan Davis blocks even more) and is far and away the best defensive rebounder in the regular rotation for A&M. Plus he makes 78 percent of his twos, so he's a handy guy to have on your team for a year or two. Speaking of twos, Joseph Jones has continued to translate possessions into points with admirable efficiency. Still, the real story on offense in College Station this season is arguably Josh Carter. More than any other Aggie, Carter has inherited the shots that used to be given to Acie Law. It would appear that first-year coach Mark Turgeon found a 50 percent three-point shooter on hand, put his arm around the young man and said: "Son, we're going to get you a few more looks." As I've said, rocket science it ain't.
Nor does it take a rocket scientist to note that Texas was almost picture perfect for their first ten games, but they've been downright homely over their last four. Part of that is the competition, of course: Michigan State and Wisconsin aren't cupcakes. Nevertheless, the disturbing omen for Longhorn fans has to be how their team played against Oral Roberts and, especially, TCU (even without A.J. Abrams). There's no need to panic, of course. Texas takes absurdly good care of the ball, Abrams and D.J. Augustin are who they are, and highly-touted freshman Gary Johnson has at last been cleared to play. It's just that the return to earth took place a little sooner and a little more emphatically than expected. The shots have simply stopped falling.
Oh, and that first-place team in terms of interior defense among Big 12 members? That would be Nebraska, which has held opposing teams to just 34 percent shooting on their twos. Then again, Oregon notwithstanding, the Huskers haven't played a terribly demanding schedule. Still, any team with Aleks Maric that also forces turnovers bears provisional monitoring.
Allow me to introduce you to the Dick Bennett Theory of teams that used to be coached by Dick Bennett. I learned of this theory while doing a guest spot on Milwaukee's ESPN Radio with Steve "The Homer" True. Homer informed me that Bennett thinks his teams actually improve on offense after he stops coaching them. Bennett was speaking of Wisconsin and Washington State, of course; I don't suppose the Theory rises or falls on whether or not Wisconsin-Stevens Point posted better numbers for points per possession in the post-Bennett era.
Be that as it may, the Theory certainly holds true in Pullman, where Bennett's son Tony has the 12-0 Cougars scoring with commendable regularity while, of course, playing lock-down D. Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver have been getting what little publicity a team from eastern Washington can elicit. Sure, they've been excellent. Now, where's the love for big man Aron Baynes? The Aussie takes almost as many shots in this offense as Low does and he's hitting 66 percent of his twos while dominating the defensive glass. The rest of the country still doesn't get it, but it won't take long: this team can win the Pac-10.
Washington State and their main rival, UCLA, are surprisingly similar. Both teams stay in position, never foul and do without steals. Both force a lot of misses and own the defensive glass. Heck, they're even both under-hyped. Don't ask me how the most successful program in the history of college basketball--one that's located in one of the largest media markets on the planet--can possibly be under-hyped. Somehow, it's happened. I mean to redress that imbalance: meet Kevin Love. I don't know why you haven't heard as much about him of late but all he's been doing is proving that he's one of the best defensive rebounders in the nation while simultaneously functioning as his team's most efficient scorer. Like Tyler Hansbrough and Eric Gordon, he makes his living being fouled and making the freebies. That is why Ben Howland has become such a big fan of Gerry and the Pacemakers: the coach doesn't care what they say, he won't live in a world without Love.
I know you've heard a lot about the sassy new-look Arizona that actually plays defense. They've improved in that department, no doubt, but their best quality is still their offense. The Wildcats don't shoot many threes but, a little like Texas A&M last year, when they do they go in, courtesy of Chase Budinger and Jerryd Bayless. Right now Arizona, at 9-3, is still something of a mystery. No one's going to begrudge you losing at Kansas and at Memphis, of course. Their other loss was at home to Virginia, meaning, unlike a lot of the teams discussed here, we're going to need the known competition of the Pac-10 to tell us more about this edition of the Wildcats. Jordan Hill has been notably efficient, but as a whole his team's turning the ball over on 21 percent of their possessions. Stay tuned.
One more thing: Stanford lost by a respectable nine at home against UCLA last night, having already snuck into the top 25 with a one-point win over Texas Tech on a neutral floor in Dallas. The Cardinal got this far thanks largely to spectacular defensive rebounding by Lawrence Hill and the Lopez brothers: Robin and the now active Brook. Also the efficient play on offense of Anthony Goods has occasioned more bad puns than any other event this side of ones involving Bill Self.
Tennessee's offense is better than its defense, but their most distinctive characteristic is that they're better than any team in the nation at making you turn the ball over. If you saw the game the Volunteers played in Seattle against Gonzaga you had to come away impressed. Bruce Pearl's team gets you to end your possession without a shot. They do it with steals and they do it by drawing charges, anything to prevent the shot. Still, the really impressive thing about the Vols' season thus far is that they've done what they've done with Chris Lofton struggling to hit his threes. Tennessee has managed to score points anyway because: 1) JaJuan Smith's been sensational, and 2) the team as a whole has cut down on their turnovers dramatically. Less than 17 percent of their trips this season have ended with a turnover. One worry: Ramar Smith, at just 54 percent from the free-throw line, is verging on being irresistibly hackable. Opponents know it, sending him to the line with notable frequency. (Yes, Wayne Chism is even worse. Duly noted.)
It would be easy to forecast a comeuppance for Tennessee's in-state neighbor to the west. Though undefeated in early January, Vanderbilt certainly has all the trappings of an overrated team. The Commodores have parlayed the nation's best three-point shooting (45 percent) into a cardiac-kids kind of 13-0, one that's included two games that have gone to overtime (against South Alabama and DePaul) and no fewer than eight wins by single digits. Only problem: the SEC this year ain't exactly the Big East in 1985. Vanderbilt won't run the table, they're not going to plummet like January wunderkind Clemson did last year, either. For one thing, Kevin Stallings has A.J. Ogilvy. The Aussie freshman is no Kevin Love on the defensive glass but he does hit his twos, get to the line, and sink his free throws. Ogilvy plus Shan Foster's outstanding outside shooting (even if it does dip from its current stratospheric level) equals an offense to reckon with.
The 'Dores aren't the only undefeated team in the SEC, though you'd be forgiven for thinking that's the case. Seems there's a 13-0 team at Ole Miss that's not getting much notice. To be sure, the Rebels have had some breaks, just like Vanderbilt has. See seven single-digit wins, including a three-point win over the aforementioned South Alabama. Still, Andy Kennedy's team has exceeded expectations. Freshman Chris Warren has brought veteran numbers to the point guard position, while fellow freshman Trevor Gaskins has hit 46 percent of his threes. Token seniors Dwayne Curtis and Kenny Williams have been pretty good too, hitting shots and getting boards, respectively. This team isn't big and their defense suffers accordingly, but the Rebels play fast and they should be fun to watch this year, even with a loss or two.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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