A weekly (or so) ranking of college basketball teams on the basis of watchability and with very little regard to how good they might be.
1. Kansas. No one stands out like a 7-footer on the bench. Two years ago, Jeff Withey was known, if he was known at all, for being a former McDonald's All-America who could never get any time on the court, despite his manifest physical gifts. He played 6.2 minutes a game and otherwise sat around blocking sightlines for paying customers. This season? Withey is the anchor of a top 10 team and has an outside shot at Player of the Year honors. His strength is not his offense. He scores mostly on dunks, alley-oops, and putbacks. When Kansas does look for Withey on the block, the primary purpose is to reverse the ball and create space. (The Jayhawks are a case study in how to create open shots through simple ball reversal.) It's on defense where he makes his mark. He was a volleyballer as a youth, and it shows in his superb timing and quick second jump. At his current rate he is blocking a shot on 19 percent of opponents' two-point attempts, which is nuts, and that doesn't even account for all the shots he affects. In Kansas's recent win over Ohio State, Withey had only one block, but he made the Buckeyes look like a bunch of kids playing driveway ball under a low-hanging eaves.
Next game: Saturday at Texas Tech
2. Kentucky. During his second season in Lexington, coach John Calipari instructed his squad to take the air out of the ball on offense. Part of his rationale was to cut down on turnovers, but he also slowed the pace to force his team into a halfcourt offense. This season, though, UK is one of the nation's youngest teams—newcomers have accounted for 80 percent of the Wildcats' total minutes played—and the squad has had trouble picking up Cal's offensive schemes. Drives stop awkwardly; shots get rushed; iso's go slack and result in aimless passes instead of buckets—all of which explain why Calipari is trying to quicken the pace. UK manages nearly 70 possessions per game, the fourth most in the conference. The Wildcats are not a bad offensive team; they just need to run to get out of their own heads. In a recent loss to Louisville, Kentucky spent the first half kicking the ball around its half of the court. Out of sync, UK managed just 32 possessions and 28 points. In the second half, though, Calipari opened things up: 39 possessions, 49 points. It was the difference between having your guys run plays and letting your guys make them.
Next game: Saturday vs. Texas A&M
3. Ole Miss. If you happen to catch an Ole Miss game on television, make sure to watch for #22, a lanky 6-foot-2 guard with a shaved head. Marshall Henderson transferred from Utah to Ole Miss because then-coach Jim Boylan reportedly didn't understand Henderson's "individuality," a funny word that means, in this context, Henderson's desire to jack nearly 11 threes per game. During the Diamond Head Classic, Henderson took 28 threes, making 46 percent of those tries. He typically camps on the perimeter and either waits for a teammate's pass or runs off screens set on his right shoulder. Henderson is also on a quest to surpass 380 three-point attempts in a season, a feat that would put his individuality in the NCAA record books. For Henderson to reach that figure, he'll need to take at least one more three per game for the remainder of the season, which we don't think will be too hard for the guard—during a win at Tennessee, Henderson attempted 12 threes.
Next game: Saturday vs. Missouri
4. Colorado State. Larry Eustachy's teams have always been big on crashing the offensive glass. These Rams are no different, pulling in 45 percent of their misses—an astonishing rate that isn't so surprising when you see the mid-size sedans that make up Colorado State's frontcourt. There's hulking Minnesota transfer Colton Iverson, who in his Big Ten days seemed to begin every game with three fouls; and there's Greg Smith, who is adept at clearing out interior space; and there is Pierce Hornung, who is the most effective Ram of all. He's a tweener at 6-foot-5, built more along the lines of a tight end, but a not insignificant portion of Colorado State's scoring comes from his ability to create separation and outmuscle his defender, snag the board, and then convert the put-back.
Next game: Saturday vs. San Diego State
5. Temple. Khalif Wyatt does not look like anyone's idea of an elite athlete. He hides his 6-foot-4 frame in a T-shirt worn under his Temple uniform, like the biggest kid at the swimming pool. But watch him next time he's on TV. He has the wheels to get past just about any perimeter defender, and he has the hangtime, the contortionist's limbs, and the pool-hall-massé touch to convert seemingly impossible shots. He's crafty as hell, too. He kicks his left leg whenever he shoots, and he uses his off-arm to keep defenders from pressuring the ball, a trick that is rarely (in Wyatt's case) whistled a foul and that gives him enough separation to maneuver. Bill Self said he had an "old man's game," which is perfect. He's scoring 16 per for one of the most patient teams around.
Next game: Saturday vs. Saint Louis
6. Arizona State. Under coach Herb Sendek, the ASU offense historically had been a dull exercise in arranging five pieces of statuary around the halfcourt—and then guard Jahii Carson showed up. Carson, ruled ineligible by the NCAA last year, has been as good as advertised. Streaky from the perimeter, he has quite possibly the quickest first step in D1, and he has readily assumed the role of orchestrating the break. Through the non-conference slate, ASU used 72 possessions per game—a brisk pace for any team, let alone a Sendek bunch. A quarter of Carson's assists were handed out in transition, and his teammates, like Carrick Felix, have benefited. Before this season, Felix was known primarily for being the first junior college player ever to get a Duke scholarship offer, but after 13 games, Felix is now making a name for himself as a slasher filling the right wing (and scoring 1.4 points per fast break). Now that ASU is two games into Pac-12 play, the question becomes whether Sendek continues to let his team run. Early evidence does not prove promising—against Colorado, Utah, and Oregon State (all wins), ASU used 196 possessions, or 65 per game, and scored only .97 points per possession (as compared with 1.05 PPP in OOC play).
Next game: Sunday at Oregon
7. Hartford. Hartford was one of the America East's most promising teams in 2012, a strange thing to say about a team that won only nine games. However, one of those victories came against Boston University during the conference tournament, and the Hawks' youth—Hartford was the league's second-youngest team—tended to undermine their talent. Flash-forward to this current season, and John Gallagher's team is tied for first in the AE. What changed? Mark Nwakamma, a consistent interior scorer who even at 6-foot-6 can still bully his way to the basket, learned how to pass. At this point last season, Nwakamma was handing out 1.9 assists per 40 minutes, a rate that has risen to 3.3 assists in 2013, and opponents can no longer double team and fluster the forward. More critical, though, is that Nwakamma's teammates are converting his passes into points. Hartford loves the three-ball. No other AE team attempts as many threes, and for now, those shots are dropping.
Next game: Saturday vs. Stony Brook
8. Northern Arizona. Little Dewayne Russell has proved to be a surprise for first year coach Jack Murphy; though he is mired in a mini-slump, Russell has a quick first step that allows him to beat his defender toward the baseline and create for himself. Despite his size (5-foot-11), Russell can unload from beyond the arc—40 percent of his attempts have come from deep—and he has been efficient moving without the ball and waiting for the catch. Russell's most impressive trait is his rebounding. Russell has already grabbed 37 defensive rebounds, and while it may seem odd for a sub-6-foot guard to crash the glass, he has to. NAU is one of the nation's shortest teams, and the only way the Lumberjacks can generate transition buckets is to have their guards rush the interior. Michael Dunn and Stallon Sandivar account for 39 percent of NAU's defensive boards.
Next game: Saturday vs. Portland State
9. Gonzaga. Watch any Gonzaga game and your eyes go straight to Kelly Olynyk. That's partly because of his Rush-cover-band hair, but it's also because he is such a presence in the paint that he can pull the rest of the game into his orbit. Both he and frontcourtmate Elias Harris know how to create position before the catch, setting up for easy scores off drop-steps and hooks. That's a big reason they're drawing almost 13 fouls per 40 minutes this season. Olynyk's play this year is the product of some fine-tuning. Rather than burn a year of eligibility by sitting on the bench in 2012, he took a redshirt at the recommendation of his Gonzaga coaches, spending the season as a pseudo-coach and laboring over his offensive repertoire. Opponents used to count on the big to throw up a rushed jumper; now Olynyk is a patient surveyor of the court, backing his man down for a easy two or driving the lane with a vastly improved handle.
Next game: Thursday at Portland
10. Minnesota. The Golden Gophers' victory at Illinois on Wednesday was a masterpiece of counterpunching.
Next game: Saturday at Indiana
11. Michigan. Every Michigan game has at least one moment where you turn to your friend on the couch or to the dog or to no one in particular and say, "Whoa." The Wolverines' ball movement is so crisp and gorgeous to watch, and it's hard not to marvel at the idea of five kids, essentially, operating with a total understanding of the halfcourt. Everyone talks about Trey Burke, but keep an eye on Nik Stauskas, a lithe wing hitting 54 percent of his threes. (Whoa.)
Next game: Sunday vs. Ohio State
12. Indiana State. At 6-foot-4, point guard Jake Odum is taller than most opposing guards, and his long arms gives him an extra passing advantage, but where Odum truly excels is putting pressure on opponents. He draws over seven fouls per 40 minutes, thanks in part to a host of hesitation moves he can rely on in the paint, and he can change direction on a dime, wrapping the ball behind his back with those long arms and gaining an angle on a defender.
Next game: Saturday at Southern Illinois
13. Notre Dame
Next game: Saturday vs. UConn
14. Rhode Island. Coach Danny Hurley's teams at Wagner may have been known for their frenetic pace, but that offense was built on a foundation of pesky man defense. Hurley's certainly brought the latter to Rhode Island. Discounting the loss to Saint Mary's, in which the Rams allowed SMC to score 1.22 PPP, URI has held opponents to just .91 PPP in the previous seven games (a stretch when the squad went 4-2). Brown managed only 47 points in 66 possessions, a rate of .71 PPP, and though URI lost its first A-10 game (to Richmond), Hurley's squad still held the Spiders under a point per possession. The Rams don't do any one thing particularly well; they don't force turnovers or rebound. They just keep their opponents off-balance and prevent easy shots.
Next game: Saturday vs. Charlotte
Next game: Sunday vs. Arizona 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.