The Full 353: The First Place Files [PART II]

Over the course of this season at Palestra Back, the Full 353 will cover every ounce of college basketball with one clear and stated goal:

We’re going to try to mention every single men’s Division I basketball team.

This is a lofty goal that I’m certain I will struggle to meet. If we don’t get there by March, we’ll scratch and claw as far as we can. In the end, no matter the final number, I hope that this effort brings you a deeper, more complete, and more enjoyable experience here at the blog. We’ll count along in (bold) to track our progress through the season.


Last week we checked in with the first place team in the bottom 16 conferences according to KenPom. Let’s keep chugging along and run through the teams at the top of the standings in the top 16 conferences. We’re talking future Cinderellas all the way up to title contenders.

Side note: counting to 353 is a bit tougher than it looks. There may have been some double counting in our last edition. We’re now on track with team number 100!

(all stats and standings current through the games of Wednesday, Feb 18)


Ivy League

Yale (100) and Princeton (101)

Yale is the best team in the conference, with a top 50 adjusted efficiency ranking and wins over Stony Brook, Vermont, and Clemson. If the Bulldogs make the big dance, they’d have a real chance to win a game or two and make some noise. Yale leads the Ivy in effective field goal percentage, 3-point shooting, and assist rate. The Bulldogs’ offense is a well-oiled machine.

Princeton, meanwhile, had a horrid non-conference season, starting the season with five straight losses and dropped seven of its first eight games. Four of those early losses came at the hands of strong competition, but losses to Monmouth, Drexel, and Lafayette made the Tigers look to be off on the wrong track this year. Princeton turned things around, thanks in large part to the return of forward Ryan Schwieger. He was injured in the opening minutes of the season and missed five games, all losses for the Tigers.

With Schwieger in the lineup, Princeton is much stronger, but a clear step behind Yale. In the two teams’ first meeting this season, Yale won by 24 at Princeton. They’ll square off again February 29.

There’s more intrigue in the Ivy in the race for the fourth and final spot in the Ivy League tournament. Yale and Princeton lead the way at 6-2, with a three way tie of Brown (102), Penn, and Harvard all just one game behind. This is most notable for Harvard, who has not made the Big Dance since winning four straight Ivy League titles from 2012 to 2015. After complaints about the location of the tournament, perhaps because Harvard lost to the host team in 2018 and 2019, the conference will rotate the tournament venue through each of the eight member schools. This season, it’s Harvard’s turn.

If the Crimson can steal one of the four spots, they’ll host the conference tournament in Cambridge in front of a raucous pro-Harvard crowd. After falling one win shy each of the last three years, Tommy Amaker and his program would relish that opportunity.

Unbiased viewers should be hoping for a tournament with Yale, Princeton, Harvard, and Penn. Brown is a clear step behind the others, even if they did upset Rhode Island in January.


Southern Conference

East Tennessee State (103) and Furman (104)

We’ve reached our first possible two-bid conference!

If Yale fails to win Ivy Madness, it’s tough to see the Bulldogs being awarded an at-large bid. If ETSU does not win the SoCon Tournament, the Buccaneers will head to to the bubble, where they currently track as one of the last four teams out of the Big Dance on Bracket Matrix.

If Furman also fails to win the SoCon Tournament, the Paladins have an outside case at a bid as well, but currently sit even further back on the bubble.

Neither of those is a far-fetched scenario with UNC Greensboro (105) in the league as well. The Spartans are 21-6 with wins over Vermont and Georgetown, plus a victory at Furman.

Wednesday, Furman travels to ETSU. The following Wednesday, Furman travels to UNCG. Those two games should essentially decide the fates of the three teams involved. The top seed in the conference tournament is a huge advantage, avoiding a dastardly semi-final match-up.


Sun Belt Conference

Little Rock (106)

The Trojans attack the paint about as well as any team in college basketball. Little Rock ranks sixth nationally in free throw rate and is led offensively by three players, Markquis Nowell, Ruot Monyyong, and Kamani Johnson, who average more than 14 combined free throws per game. Over 40 minutes, that kind of relentless rim-hunting can wear a team down and make even the simplest defensive maneuvers feel futile.


Conference USA (C-USA)

North Texas (107)

Of the 2,225 players that have qualified for KenPom.com’s statistical rankings, the current leader in offensive rating (a big algorithm that essentially measures points per 100 possessions on plays which you complete your offense’s play with a shot, assist, or turnover), the top ranked player is a surprise.

DJ Draper plays 18.7 minutes per game for North Texas, off the bench. He scores 5.1 points per game. He has only attempted eight free throws and five 2-point field goals. He also leads the nation in offensive rating.

How?

Well, despite only taking of handful of shots inside the arc, Draper is much more prolific from long distance. The senior guard has taken 76 threes this season, which is about 6 per every 40 minutes he plays. His advanced analytics are off the charts because he’s made better than 55 percent of those attempts this season!

Maybe offensive rating is a flawed statistic. Maybe DJ Draper should play more minutes and shoot the ball more often.

Either way, this is one of our sport’s national leaders and I love it:


Mid-American Conference

Akron (108) and Bowling Green (109)

I thought Akron was the most dangerous team in the MAC based on some digging a few weeks ago, but after another look, that may no longer be the case. Yes, the Zips are safely the highest ranked team in the conference in KenPom (70th, with Kent State the closest at 112th). Akron shoots the lights out, with the best 3-point percentage in the MAC and the 13th best in the nation. Loren Cristian Jackson has made 48 percent from downtown, on more than 150 attempts. The Zips get hot in a hurry and could win a game versus almost anyone thanks to their shooting alone.

But some of their statistical success could be misleading. KenPom rewards on-court performance, based on offensive and defensive play, yet doesn’t really add an extra value for actually winning games. It’s something Pomeroy himself has been dismayed about of late, in arguing for Stephen F. Austin’s tournament hopes.

Akron played very well on the road versus West Virginia and Louisville, but lost both games. The Zips best win, by both KenPom and NET was a home win over Ball State (110). That win qualifies as Quadrant 3 fore NET’s tournament purposes, leaving Akron winless against Quads 1 and 2. That could be a flaw of the rating systems and a quirk in Akron’s schedule. The Zips lost to two highly-touted power conference teams, played one game against a strong mid-major (a neutral court loss to Liberty), and are 9-3 in a mid-major conference. Should they have scheduled more potential quality wins? Does that make them a less likely Cinderella?

Contrast Akron to their MAC foe, Bowling Green. The Falcons have two Quad 2 victories. One was an impressive overtime road win at Cincinnati. The other was a victory over Ball State, which qualifies as Quad 2 for Bowling Green because it came on the road. Akron’s only meeting with Ball State came in Akron, so it’s less impressive on their resume.

The Falcons may have a leg up with quality wins, but nearly every other metric favors Akron. Bowling Green is elite at controlling the ball, recording turnovers at the 2nd lowest rate in the nation. Defense, however, has been a struggle. Bowling Green is, somehow, being outscored by its opponents in conference play. You read that correctly: Bowling Green is 10-3 with a negative net margin. That’ll happen when you win 9 games by a margin of 6 or less (plus all three losses are by double-figures).

Where does that leave the MAC? If you want the conference to win a game in the tournament, keep an eye on Akron. Bowling Green should have some regression between now and March 15.


Missouri Valley Conference

Northern Iowa

After six paragraphs about Akron and the MAC, let’s zip through Northern Iowa (pun semi-intended). We’ve covered UNI in The Full 353 before. The Panthers are 22-4, have a top 15 offense in the nation, and are one of the best shooting teams in college basketball.

This is a team that can reach the Sweet Sixteen, if not further. AJ Green, the UNI point guard, could be a household name by April.


Mountain West Conference

San Diego State

The Aztecs are still undefeated and will likely finish the regular season without a loss. Utah State (111) will be a difficult hurdle if the Aztecs collide with the Aggies in the conference tournament.

If they reach the Big Dance unbeaten, it’s not impossible for San Diego State to make history. San Diego State has the talent to reach the Final Four. This year, that means they have a chance to win it all, with no Goliath teams sure to wipe the Aztecs out of the Madness.

I wouldn’t bet on San Diego State to go all the way without a loss, even at the odds you’ll receive from most betting sites, but it wouldn’t be a miracle outside the realm of possibility.


West Coast Conference

Gonzaga

This is a familiar face, with an unfamiliar situation.

Yes, the Zags are plenty aware of what it’s like to be ranked in the top five, in line for a top seed, and laying waste to the West Coast Conference. For the first time in many years though, Gonzaga is doing so with a team that features no sure-fire first round draft picks and that is largely driven by its frontcourt.

Gonzaga has had tons of quality bigs in the past, yet Mark Few’s teams have always had guards to buoy the offense and lead the team emotionally. They are names you learned each March. Dan Dickau. Blake Stepp. Derek Raivio. Matt Bouldin. Jeremy Pargo. Steven Gray. Gary Bell. Kevin Pangos. Josh Perkins. Nigel Williams-Goss.

All helped Gonzaga reached the heights the Zags’ program finds itself in this decade.

The current Zag backcourt lacks that special synergy. Few relies on a sophomore, Joel Ayayi, and two transfers, Ryan Woolridge and Admon Gilder. With a game on the line, those may not be the players he trusts with the ball. The Zags might defer to the more experienced, but less talented ball-handler Corey Kispert or simply look to run everything through their bigs in the paint. With only two games decided by five or fewer points since Christmas, this isn’t a team with experience in tight games.

I never thought I’d be the person making that point, but here we are.


Atlantic-10 (A-10)

Dayton

The Flyers can win it all and Obi Toppin should be National Player of the Year. For my money, Dayton is a better bet to reach the Final Four than Gonzaga or San Diego State.

Three years after Archie Miller left Dayton for Indiana (112), he hasn’t made an NCAA Tournament with the Hoosiers yet and Anthony Grant has the Flyers contending for a championship. Wild world we live in, folks.


American Athletic Conference (AAC)

Houston (113)

Few coaches have done as good a job this year, or in recent years, as Kelvin Sampson at Houston. He lost four of his five starters from last season’s 30-win Sweet Sixteen team and has barely missed a beat. Houston is led in scoring and usage rate by a freshman who was not a top ranked recruit. The Cougars are led in minutes played by a transfer who left his last program in confusion, following an ugly, disappointing debut season. Houston has just one player taller than 6-foot-8 on its roster.

Despite all of that, Sampson has team 20-6, atop the conference, and in line for an at-large Big Dance ticket. The Cougars play hard and hammer the offensive glass. No one wants to see Houston in March.


Southeastern Conference (SEC)

Kentucky

I like this Kentucky team a lot and think they have a chance to make a Final Four run. I worry about them against a team that plays great perimeter defense. If they face a team that can wall off on the 3-point line and force Kentucky to be patient or settle for jump shots, the Cats will struggle to score.

Few teams have the kind of athleticism and coordination to achieve that, however. SEC contender LSU (114) has the athletes, but not the defensive aptitude or scheme to do so, leading to a Kentucky win in Baton Rouge Tuesday night that solidified Big Blue’s place atop the conference.

Kentucky can make a deep run, but I won’t project them to do so until I see if they have one of college basketball’s best defenses in their region in March.


Atlantic Coast Conference (WAC)

Duke

Such a weird team to diagnose at this point in the season.

The Blue Devils are fully capable of winning the national title or losing in the tournament’s first weekend. Surely if Duke’s shooters struggle, they are liable to be beaten, yet there’s a larger issue at hand.

Coach K’s team lacks a reliable playmaker to trust in crunch time. That role falls upon Tre Jones, who is capable in a pinch. In the comeback victory at North Carolina, Jones not only assumed that role, but did so admirably. He played perhaps the best half of basketball we’ve seen from him in his two years at Duke. He was both penetrating into the defense and making jump shots. The latter hasn’t always been the case, which results in some defenders sagging off Jones to cut off passing or driving lanes.

With Vernon Carey sucking defenders into the lane and shooters on the wings, there is room for Jones to operate. When he does so successfully, Duke’s offense makes a lot of sense. When he’s limited or hesitant, the entire operation can crumble.


Pac-12

It’s a mess!

Yes, there’s no clear separation at the top of the Pac-12, but let’s look at the bright side. The Pac-12 is back in business!

The conference is currently ranked 4th by KenPom, its highest such ranking since 2016 after three years as the clear worst power conference (including an embarrassing season last year ranked behind the American). In 2017, the Pac-12 had just four NCAA Tournament teams. In 2018 and 2019, the Pac-12 had only three teams in the Big Dance.

This year, the Pac-12 has four teams somewhat safely assured of an at-large bid and two more on the bubble as of this post’s publishing. That’s progress!

Stay awake past your bedtime to catch a couple West Coast games, readers. Colorado, Oregon, Arizona (115), and USC (116) are all worthy of your attention and could make runs in March.


Big East

Seton Hall

(Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)

A lot of people will tout Myles Powell as Big East Player of the Year and even National Player of the Year. There’s a ton of buzz about him being one of college basketball’s best players and best scorers.

It is certainly exciting to watch Powell play. He lets shots fly no matter how far away from the rim he is or how close a defender is to him. Any shot he takes could go in.

Here’s the issue right now: not that many of Myles Powell’s shots are going in.

Since November 28, Powell is shooting 26.5 percent from long range. That’s a long stretch of the season. If he were supplementing that part of his game with other positive qualities, it might be easy to explain away. Yet in that same stretch of 17 games, Powell is shooting just 5.5 free throws per game, compared to a ridiculous 9.1 attempts from 3-point land. Nine attempts at 26.5 percent is a problem!

In that time, Powell is also averaging more turnovers than assists and playing below average defense. Somehow Seton Hall has managed a 12-5 record in those games. I question if that is sustainable, or if Powell’s shot will correct and actually make the Pirates dangerous.


Big XII

Baylor

The Bears are the best team in college basketball right now, depending on your definition of that phrase. They may not be the favorite to win the national championship or have the most talent. Baylor does have the best tournament resume and is the most accomplished team in college basketball. That doesn’t always convert to a championship or even Final Four berth.

For now, I’m not going to let what might happen in March cloud what Baylor is doing right now. Saturday’s game versus Kansas in Waco promises to be the most anticipated match-up of the season so far. Before you fire up your TV Saturday afternoon, check back in with our piece last week about how Baylor built this team that has a chance to advance so far in the Dance.


Big Ten

Maryland

I don’t know if I trust Mark Turgeon. This is his 13th season at the helm of a power conference program and he has just one Sweet Sixteen appearance to show for it. His teams have never earned better than a four seed.

This is probably his most talented team ever, or at least his team with the most talent that seems to make sense both on paper and on the court (lookin’ at you, 2016 Terps).

Maryland has won nine straight games in the deepest conference in the sport. How else can they earn our trust?

Do it in March.


Final Tally: 15

Season to Date: 116

We’re two teams away from the one-third mark of this project. Now let me take a large sip of water and look at a calendar…

******

Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.

2 thoughts on “The Full 353: The First Place Files [PART II]

  1. Shane I met you on retreat with your dad a couple years ago. He mentioned your blog so I checked it out and was pleasantly impressed with your writing. I grew up in Upper Darby and played grade school hoops for your uncle Bill Gibson. Like you I come from a basketball family as my paternal grandfather Russell Fossett played professionally way back in the day. If you search his name you’ll see his stats on an old timer site.
    Anyway I met your dad through business back in the 90s and we quickly figured out that we both knew a lot of the same people. He invited me and on the retreat and I’ve been going ever since.
    Although I’m a casual hoops fan these days I am really impressed with your insight and your writing. Everyone I have shared your blog with agrees with me. Keep up the great work.
    John Fossett

    Like

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