Welcome back for my fourth installment of Risers and Fallers, a bi-weekly check-in that recognizes some teams on the ascent and scrutinizes some teams in trouble. This week, we'll examine some bellwethers in the Big 12 and the Big Ten, a familiar mid-major, and some Final Four hopefuls struggling through the doldrums of conference play.
**these blurbs were written prior to the start of games the week of February 15th**
**here is my Top 25 for this week for reference**
Week 9 ranking: 31; Current ranking: 20
While the Oklahoma Sooners controlled the headlines over the last few weeks, I’m more enamored with their in-state counterparts. Mike Boynton has seemingly turned a corner, as his Cowboys boast a top-20 defense for the first time in his coaching career.
Oklahoma State squashes teams with their length, most notably on the perimeter. Boynton deploys a gang of gritty guards who contest every shot and get their hands on every loose ball.
In particular, sophomore Bryce Williams shines as a defensive star. Per my observations, the Ole Miss transfer hasn’t gotten nearly the amount of love he deserves. He erases opposing lead guards, and he has logged 18 blocks in 18 games--at 6’2”! Below, he packs Texas' 6'9" forward (and probable first-round pick) Greg Brown:
And that’s not even mentioning junior Isaac Likekele and freshman phenom Cade Cunningham--two titans who can guard 1 through 5, giving their coach a couple more chess pieces whether he runs zone, man-to-man, or some sort of hybrid.
Speaking of Cunningham, I have seen some NBA folks on the ol’ Twitter dot com bemoan his supporting cast. Yes, it’s true that Cade lacks the shooters around him that would better showcase his skillset--but let’s be real, how many college teams have optimal spacing? Like five maybe? This Oklahoma State team plays super hard, and every off-the-court story about them seems to indicate they have an ideal locker room.
Week 9 ranking: 16; Current ranking: 4
Speaking of teams with good spacing, the Buckeyes crack that selective list.
Somehow, Ohio State lost their best player (Kaleb Wesson) from a season ago and still increased their efficiency in just about every offensive metric. The key to their production? A coach in Chris Holtmann who doesn’t limit his players to a system--he identifies their strengths then maximizes them.
For example, the coach has cracked the potential of 6’7” wing Justice Sueing. By utilizing him as a ballhandler in pick-and-roll, Holtmann unleashes his best skill: driving downhill and attacking the basket. The Cal transfer has converted a sterling 70% of his shots at the rim so far (per hoop-math.com).
Equally as impressive is Sueing's basketball IQ--he moves so intelligently without the ball. The play below shows this off; Sueing notices the miscommunication between Luka Garza, Joe Wieskamp, and Jordan Bohannon (imagine that), then takes advantage. His quick cut forces Bohannon to leave his man (Meechie Johnson) who then drains a three.
Outside of Sueing, Holtmann draws up perfect sets to get his shooters open. Juniors Duane Washington and Justin Ahrens scorch the nylon curling off of pindowns and out of dribble-handoffs. Below, Ahrens puts a hapless Michigan State team in the torture chamber. The Spartans' Josh Langford probably had an inkling Ahrens would shoot it--but if you allow him to catch the ball without getting a hand up, it's too late.
Since January, Ohio State is knocking down 38.2% of their three-point attempts, good for 47th in the nation (per Bart Torvik)...and from watching the Buckeyes, I don't think that's flukey.
Week 9 ranking: sub-50; Current ranking: 22
Snack on a Tide Pod, belt out your favorite track from A Star is Born, and share a LeBron-JR Smith meme because we’re taking it back to 2018 with some praise for the #JeanTeam.
Big man Cameron Krutwig, an integral piece of that Ramblers’ Final Four squad, now takes center stage as the fulcrum of the offense. The senior whips all over the court--screening and rolling, beating his man for positioning, and snaring offensive rebounds. For a dude who looks like he lives on chili dogs and deep dish, Krutwig plays surprisingly light on his feet. Throughout the season, he has displayed some of the best footwork out of any post player in the country.
Finally, his passing remains a key factor in the Ramblers’ offense. Krutwig is one of 6 players in the country who stands at 6’9” or taller with an assist rate of 25+% (per Bart Torvik).
Week 9 ranking: 9; Current ranking: 21
The Badgers’ offense has dried out into a barren wasteland over the past month. Through their first twelve games, Wisconsin ranked 10th nationally in Bart Torvik’s adjusted offensive efficiency. Their ranking in that same metric over their last ten? 121st. They’ve only averaged 1+ points per possession twice during that stretch.
Too often, Wisconsin falls into ruts where they look as averse to scoring as Nigel Hayes is to positive recruiting. Their hoop-math page reveals the breadth of their ineptitude at getting to the rim--neither Brad Davison or D’Mitrik Trice can consistently beat their man off the dribble, and Nate Reuvers and Micah Potter both play more comfortably facing up. But frigid three-point shooting versus top-flight competition has both exposed and amplified these flaws.
Week 9 ranking: 6; Current ranking: 19
Like the Badgers, putrid offense lands the Vols in the dreaded “Fallers” category. When Jaden Springer isn’t going off for 25+ points, Tennessee lacks an identity on that side of the ball.
Santiago Vescovi’s season has been more up-and-down than the Drop-Line at Dollywood. John Fulkerson’s effective field goal percentage and free throw rate have both dropped significantly from a season ago. As much as I love Yves Pons, he still can only score consistently on open mid-rangers. It’s pretty common for the Vols to play hot potato on the perimeter before forcing up an ill-advised shot (especially on the road--see the monstrosity at Ole Miss on February 2nd).
I still think their combination of defense and NBA-level talent could springboard Tennessee into the Final Four come March, but this is the time of year where the pieces must start meshing.