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

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. Michigan: Trey Burke's best skill is his ability to maneuver through traffic, maintaining his dribble until a defender helps off his man and creates a hole through which Burke can thread a pass. (His second-best skill is his step-back jumper, which is why God invented the DVR.) To take advantage of this on offense, John Beilein made a smart strategic change on defense: His Wolverines would no longer rely on the 1-3-1 zone but rather a man defense that capitalizes on Michigan's extreme athleticism. As soon as an opponent releases a shot, both Jordan Morgan and Mitch McGary crash the glass with the hurried purpose of two guys trying to catch the last train out of Dogpatch. Morgan may be the strongest player in the Big Ten, and McGary's a leaper with intimidating upper-body strength—he once shattered a backboard in a high school game. Together their defensive rebounding has become the foundation of Michigan's transition offense, led by Burke and his yo-yoing dribble.
Next game: Tuesday vs. Ohio State

2. Belmont: Belmont is now running the Ohio Valley Conference's most efficient offense, and a lot of that has to do with the play of Ian Clark: Through 10 OVC games, the senior guard is converting 66 percent of his twos and an insane 59 percent of his threes. He has a quick first step, and he can shoot from anywhere with that low fling of his. Those talents combine to make him especially fun in a pick-and-roll, where he has come to dominate that small moment after the screen the way a big man might dominate the low block.
Next game: Thursday vs. Murray State

3. North Carolina State: Richard Howell isn't built like a bruiser, but the forward's core strength allows him to clear out a significant chunk of interior space. He has superior footwork, and he can outjump would-be defensive rebounders, all of which make him a box-out nightmare for opposing bigs (not to mention a vital part of the Wolfpack's 1987-never-happened offense). Only four other high-major programs attempt fewer threes than the Wolfpack. When he isn't converting those rebounds—Howell's 1.28 points per put-back is fourth among D1 bigs—his team benefits from the additional possessions.
Next game: Thursday at Duke

4. Kansas: Ben McLemore's jump shot isn't labored, and he doesn't require much time getting into his motion, which is really no more than a quick knee bend and a flick of the wrist. The whole thing is pretty as hell. McLemore attempts roughly a fourth of KU's shots, but he's not an initiator: He has to rely on Elijah Johnson's and Naadir Tharpe's ability to drive the lane and soak up defenders to find his shots. McLemore does his part by moving expertly off the ball: nearly 60 percent of his spot-up attempts are the result of defenders helping off their man, and McLemore scores 1.6 points per possession, one of the nation's top rates. Kansas' ball-reversal is designed to create mismatches and missed assignments, and McLemore thrives in Bill Self's system. It's a wonder to watch him move around the halfcourt.
Next game: Wednesday at TCU

5. St. John's: Steve Lavin's team sits in third in the Big East, an impressive showing for a bunch of guys who couldn't find the bucket in the offensive halfcourt if you spotted them Bernard King and a fleet of homing pigeons. Credit goes to the Red Storm's amorphous match-up zone that gives Chris Obekpa the freedom to roam from baseline to the perimeter. Obekpa's block rate—17 percent—is tops in Division I, and he's rarely caught out of position. Not prone to pump fakes, Obekpa has committed only 2.6 fouls per 40 minutes during Big East play, and he avoids body contact by using both hands to block a shot, volleyballishly.
Next game: Wednesday vs. UConn

6. Kentucky: Nerlens Noel is likewise a gifted defender, using his wingspan both to harass ballhandlers and reject every shot save an Eephus-type floater. Opponents rarely get by him, and even when they do—as Texas A&M frosh Alex Caruso in Kentucky's big 72-68 win on Saturday—Noel covers ground quickly enough to bother the shot. Against the Wildcats, teams are hitting an anemic 41 percent of their shots in the paint.
Next game: Tuesday vs. South Carolina

7. Wichita State: The difference between a bully and a "physical" player is that the latter knows how to avoid a ref's whistle. That's Wichita State in a nutshell, a compelling bunch of graceful enough brutes. The Shockers—a team of junior college transfers, and one of the oldest in the country—bump cutters across the lane, use their lower bodies to undermine post positions, and generally make it uncomfortable for opponents to run a halfcourt offense. And they manage to do all of this without the refs making their games sound like bird sanctuaries. "They are a physical team, and they played their game," Grant Gibbs said following his Creighton team's loss to Wichita State, the first time in 2013 that the Bluejays were held under a point per possession.
Next game: Tuesday at Southern Illinois

8. Indiana: The selectors behind the annual Wooden Award nominees owe Victor Oladipo an apology. The junior guard is in the midst of a standout season for one of the best teams in the country, and yet when the midseason nominations were released in January, his fellow Hoosier (and fellow star) Cody Zeller got the nod. Oladipo went supernova in Big Ten play; his offense has improved thanks to extensive offseason work on his jump shot, but Oladipo continues to dazzle as an on-ball defender. In Indiana's loss to Butler, Oladipo was assigned to guard Rotnei Clarke, and he proceeded to handcuff the sharpshooter with his footspeed and timing. He's thrilling to watch on defense, all swipes and dancing feet, and you can usually find him in the passing lane before the ball's even left the point guard's hands.
Next game: Thursday vs. Illinois

9. Oregon: Arsalan Kazemi, a transfer from Rice, is the guy to watch. He ranks among the top rebounders in Division I despite standing just 6-foot-7, and his work on the glass allows Oregon's defense to gamble and press for steals.
Next game: Thursday vs. Colorado

10. Towson: After losing 31 games a season ago, Towson is now 12-12 overall, with seven of those wins coming in Colonial Athletic Association play. What the hell is going on in suburban Maryland (besides post-urban commercial renewal at the expense of a geographically straitjacketed, hollowed-out metropolitan core, of course)? The Tigers struggle mightily to score in their halfcourt sets. They're better than they were a year ago, but there isn't a single Towson player who can connect consistently from beyond the arc. Coach Pat Skerry realized what he had on his hands, and the result is a team of lesser Dennis Rodmans, with an offense built around grabbing offensive boards, converting putbacks, and winning 50/50 balls. Jerrelle Benimon and Bilal Dixon in particular are relishing their roles, and they've been grabbing a ridiculous amount of offensive boards: More than 40 percent of all Towson's CAA misses have found their way into either Dixon's or Benimon's hands.
Next game: Wednesday vs. Delaware

11. Montana: Wayne Tinkle's squad has won 24 straight Big Sky games, largely on the strength of an offense that is unstoppable in conference play. Kareem Jamar and Mathias Ward both convert more than 50 percent of their twos and more than 40 percent of their threes. And Will Cherry's athleticism is a handful for Big Sky guards, especially given all the screens Tinkle likes to place in their path. Because opposing bigs have to hard-hedge to keep Cherry on the perimeter, Montana's bigs have a bit more freedom to slip the screen for an easy dump-down pass or drift beyond the arc for a three.
Next game: Thursday vs. Northern Colorado

12. Florida International: After serving as an assistant under his father for just one season, Richard Pitino didn't have much time to absorb every nuance of Rick's pressure defense, but he learned enough to bring havoc to the Sun Belt. Like Louisville's, FIU's defense wants to badger ballhandlers into submission, and its conference foes are giving the ball away on 27 percent of their possessions. The catalyst for Pitino's scheme is, remarkably, a walk-on sub-6-foot guard who plays only 18 minutes per game. Deric Hill has the speed to stay with opposing guards, and he's strong enough to ride an opponent's hip to wear him down and force a steal—and he does, on six percent of his defensive possessions.
Next game: Thursday vs. Florida Atlantic

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. Follow him on Twitter, @hudsongiles.

Tempo-free statistics courtesy kenpom.com.