The 15 Or So Most Watchable Teams In College Basketball: An Occasional Ranking

An occasional ranking of college basketball teams on the basis of watchability and with very little regard to how good they might be.

1. Louisville. Even with one loss (against Duke, in the Battle 4 Atlantis title game), Rick Pitino's squad takes the top spot in our inaugural rankings due to the play of guard Russ Smith, who has knack for turning an ordinary skill (dribbling a basketball) into a holy-shit moment (dribbling a basketball while nearly somersaulting). Last year, he was nicknamed "Russdiculous"—fairly, if clangingly—for his erratic shooting (38 percent within the arc) and his rather baroque decision-making in the open court. This year finds him in the midst of a largely unheralded All-America season, connecting on 49 percent of his twos, 36 percent of his threes, and swiping steals in 6.2 percent of his defensive possessions. He's a classic New York City guard—he's unafraid to shoot; he loves the heavy traffic in the paint; and he infuriates his coaches when he's not blowing their minds.
Next game: Wednesday vs. Florida International, the intra-Pitino game

2. Duke. The first Mike Krzyzewski-coached team in years to share the ball well. Sixty percent of Duke's made field goals have been the result of an assist. Tyler Thornton will never see major minutes because of his turnover woes, but Quinn Cook, who barely received any burn in 2012, is now averaging 32 minutes per game and posting an assist rate of 32 percent (the conference's second-best percentage). The Blue Devils space themselves out on offense, and Cook knows where to find them, and the result is a team that's a lot more interesting to watch than recent Coach K teams.
Next game: Wednesday vs. Cornell

3. Indiana. No other team in Division I can move in the open court like Tom Crean's Hoosiers. Just watch them get out on the break: Yogi Ferrell skittering through a backpedaling defense; Cody Zeller beating his man to the block; Will Sheehey and Victor Oladipo filling the wings; Jordan Hulls lurking around the perimeter with that shot-put jumper of his. It's a textbook transition offense. Per Synergy Sports Technology, Indiana scores 1.2 points per transition possession—Cincinnati is the only Division I squad to run the break more efficiently than Indiana does.
Next game: Wednesday vs. Mount St. Mary's

4. Butler. Rotnei Clarke and Kellen Dunham can shoot from anywhere, but the real fun of the Bulldogs lies on the other end of the floor. Their defensive work is done mostly below the waist. Whether an opponent is posting up or driving to the hoop, Butler's players move their feet fast enough to stay with an opponent and steer him into a difficult shot. Indiana, despite scoring 76 points in regulation, scored just 1.09 points per possession against Butler, a steep dropoff for the Hoosiers (who typically score 1.21 PPP).
Next game: Saturday vs. in-state foe Evansville

5. Syracuse. Michael Carter-Williams is a 6-foot-6 point guard, and everyone loves a 6-foot-6 point guard. (He's averaging 12.3 points, 10.7 assists, and 5.0 rebounds per game.) The real surprise at Syracuse, however, has been senior James Southerland, who's hitting 46 percent of his threes (up from 36.8 percent his sophomore year). He has a high-arcing shot that seems to go spinning off toward the outer moons of Jupiter before dropping back into the Carrier Dome and through the net.
Next game: Saturday vs. Temple

6. VCU. As with all of Shaka Smart's teams, the goal for VCU is to make opponents play at a frenetic pace and then to take the ball away from them. The Rams force a turnover on more than a quarter of their opposing team's possessions. The catalyst for their HAVOC defense is Briante Weber, a 6-foot-2 guard whose pterodactyl wingspan allows him to casually disrupt ballhandlers. No other Division I player forces as many steals as Weber.
Next game: Today vs. Western Kentucky

7. Michigan. Trey Burke hung 27 points and eight assists on West Virginia, and afterward even Bob Huggins was swooning. "Trey," he said, "gets the ball to the right guy seemingly every time." Burke, who could have ditched Ann Arbor for the pros after his breakout freshman season, doesn't need the aid of a pick to get to the bucket. He has a quick first step that locks up the knees of his defenders as they guess whether the guard will pop a three (38 percent), knife through the interior, or throw a pass (40 percent assist rate). The ease with which Burke accomplishes all three of these tasks makes one wonder why the guard isn't doing them in the NBA right now.
Next game: Thursday vs. Eastern Michigan

8. Gonzaga
Next game: Wednesday vs. Campbell

9. Arizona. The Wildcats are one of the nation's tallest teams—average height: 6-foot-5—but they're best when coach Sean Miller goes small, sliding Solomon Hill over to power forward. In his fourth year, Hill has turned himself into pseudo stretch 4, too quick for most power forwards, too strong for small forwards, and a good enough perimeter shooter to keep defenses awake.
Next game: Today vs. Oral Roberts

10. Florida. The Gators looked up this year and remembered they had Patric Young in the post. In 2010-11, according to Synergy Sports, nearly 13 percent of UF's offensive possessions were post-ups. In 2011-12, that rate fell to 8.6 percent. This season, thus far, that number is back to 12 percent, and Young has been effective, shooting 54 percent from the floor on the strength of some clever footwork and a decent hook shot, and thanks in part to the space created for him by Erik Murphy on the perimeter.
Next game: Wednesday vs. Southeastern Louisiana

11. Miami
Next game: Today vs. UCF

12. Creighton. Have you looked at Doug McDermott's numbers? You really should. He's hitting 57 percent of his twos and 53 percent of his threes, and he's drawing more than seven fouls per 40 minutes, picking up where he left off last year. (A lot of his explosion has to do with the presence of 6-foot-5 Grant Gibbs; Creighton often puts the pair on the same side of the court.) McDermott is big enough, at 225 pounds, to bully defenders under the rim and mobile enough, once they're sealed away, to pop out to the perimeter for a three.
Next game: Wednesday vs. Tulsa

13. Illinois-Chicago. When Jimmy Collins roamed the sidelines, the Flames were known for their ability to score points. Under Howard Moore, UIC's calling card has shifted to the other side of the ball. The offense is not pretty, but the Flames are worth watching for their man defense, which is stifling. Only four of UIC's 10 opponents thus far have scored more than 50 points, and the Flames force a lot of turnovers.
Next game: Today vs. Western Illinois

14. Kentucky
Next game: Saturday vs. Marshall

15. Illinois. Guard Brandon Paul is quite possibly the most improved player in the country. He's shooting better both inside and outside the arc, and for the first time in his up-and-down college career, he is an efficient offensive player (his offensive rating is 118.0). Until this year, Paul was one of those smooth, gliding players who so looked the part of an elite scorer—good handle, nice form on the jumper, long limbs, springy athleticism—that you were shocked when you saw his mediocre numbers. What changed? This is just speculation, but maybe his new coach, John Groce—a mathematics major at Taylor University who at Ohio was one of the first high-major coaches to pay attention to Ken Pomeroy and tempo-based statistics—did some smart tinkering with the senior's game. Paul's use of the pick-and-roll has become more diverse; too often last year the guard favored picks set on the right side of the court. Now he is increasingly driving left, even going away from picks at times, and the constant movement is giving him more options and better looks in a system that is to Bruce Weber's offense what the Apollo space program was to the Wright Brothers.
Next game: Saturday vs. Missouri, the Braggin' Rights game

16. Dayton
Next game: Wednesday vs. Illinois State

Matt Giles is a reporter for New York Magazine and has contributed to College Baskeball Prospectus 2012-13, as well as ESPN the Magazine, ESPN Insider, BuzzFeed, and Salon.

Tempo-free statistics courtesy kenpom.com.