Spectacular Game, Damaging Loss
Baylor won at Texas A&M last night, 116-110, in five overtimes. Five. By the time it was over, the two teams had actually played more than a game-and-a-half. Feast your eyes on the superlatives: two 30-point scorers (Curtis Jerrells for the Bears and Bryan Davis for the Aggies) three double-doubles (Davis, teammate Josh Carter and Baylor's Kevin Rogers), almost 200 shots from the field, more than 100 free throws (24 by Jerrells alone), eight players fouling out. Best of all, consider that A&M was able to score 110 points without managing a point per possession--incredible. Lost in the wonderment, however, will be a more mundane yet durable consequence: this was a huge loss for the Aggies, who now stand at 1-3 in the Big 12. Mark Turgeon's team entered conference play as a solid second fiddle to Kansas. Now, who knows? Big 12 opponents have made 52 percent of their twos against what figured to be a very good A&M interior defense. As a result, the Aggies have allowed conference opponents to score 1.09 points per trip. That won't get it done.
Villanova is Overrated
Never mind the loss at Rutgers last night. After all, the Scarlet Knights had already shown sudden signs of offensive life in their two-point loss at DePaul on Saturday. No, let's just talk about Villanova as they were up until the opening tip of that game. Here's what the Big East looked like in terms of per-possession scoring margin going in to last night's games:
Through games of January 22, conference games only
Pace: possessions per 40 minutes
PPP: points per possession
Opp. PPP: opponent points per possession
EM: efficiency margin (PPP - Opp. PPP)
Big East Opp.
Pace PPP PPP EM
1. Georgetown 63.0 1.07 0.96 +0.11
2. Pitt 62.9 1.13 1.02 +0.11
3. Louisville 66.5 1.01 0.91 +0.10
4. West Virginia 65.1 1.06 0.96 +0.10
5. Providence 68.0 1.09 1.03 +0.06
6. Connecticut 71.8 1.09 1.04 +0.05
7. Marquette 69.1 1.05 1.03 +0.02
8. Villanova 69.2 1.05 1.03 +0.02
Jay Wright's Wildcats were already a middle-of-the-pack Big East team even before they gave Rutgers their first Big East win of the season. Now Villanova's conference opponents have actually outscored Scottie Reynolds and company. Wright has an uncanny ability to get the best from a given set of players, even if it means switching styles. This year, for example, 'Nova is forcing opponents into turnovers; Villanova hasn't yet done anything else particularly well in conference play, on either side of the ball.
Keno Davis is Underrated
By now you've heard of the Drake Bulldogs: off to a 17-1 start, 8-0 in the Missouri Valley Conference, and ranked, at last, in the top 25. Still, I think the sheer magnitude of the surprise presented by this team is yet to be recognized. This is more than just the lovable mid-major du jour. This is a resurrection. Drake finished 6-12 in the Valley last year because their defense was riddled mercilessly by opponents' made shots. (Think of Sonny Corleone's car at the toll booth.) Coming into this season, the Bulldogs lost both their main offensive threat (Alay Calvin) and their point guard (Al Stewart). Because freshmen like Eric Gordon, Michael Beasley, and Kevin Love somehow resisted the allure of January in Des Moines, first-year coach Keno Davis didn't exactly have a recipe for instant success at hand. So how, exactly, has Davis achieved what can only be termed instant success? Defense:
Drake Defense, Then and Now
Conference games only, opp. PPP: opponent points per possession
Opp. 2FG pct. 54.0 46.4
Opp. 3FG pct. 43.1 31.8
Opp. effective FG pct. 58.6 46.9
Opp. PPP 1.15 0.94
The Bulldogs have slowed the pace this year, shaving about three possessions per 40 minutes off their games. It's worked. Opponents are getting far fewer open looks, both from in close and outside the arc. Meanwhile, the offense is performing at a level unequalled in the MVC, thanks to efficient and prolific scoring from senior Leonard Houston and sophomore Josh Young, who's now returned from an ankle injury. If the season ended today, Davis would deserve national Coach of the Year honors in a walk.
Jarvis Varnado Has Been the Best Defender in the Nation
On any given team you'll often find a tall but ungainly freshman who can block shots but seemingly do little else. That freshman will usually get a few minutes, swat some shots away, get some "oohs" and "aahs" from the crowd, and then be seen riding the bench at the start of the next game. The example of Mississippi State's Jarvis Varnado this year, however, suggests coaches may want to take another look at those freshmen. Last year, Varnado fit the stereotype perfectly: he blocked an incredible proportion of opponents' twos but he was only on the floor 13 minutes a game. This year, he's still blocking an incredible number of shots, only now Varnado starts for a team that has completely shut down SEC opponents. The sophomore from Brownsville, Tennessee, has swatted away 19 percent of opponents' twos during his minutes this year. Here it is late January and Varnado has already recorded 10 blocks against an SEC opponent not once but twice. With the lane closed for business entirely, opposing offenses have scored just 0.79 points per trip in-conference. That number will migrate toward reality as the season progresses, granted. What's more, the Bulldogs' D will get its biggest test to date this Saturday when MSU hosts Ole Miss. (The Rebels' offense is second only to Florida's on the young conference season.) Still, Mississippi State has put the rest of the SEC on notice: no twos allowed.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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