Villanova, Virginia, and Purdue have separated themselves from the pack so far this season.
There isn’t one clearly dominant team in college basketball this year. There is no team like 2014-15 Kentucky that is beating the stuffing out of everyone and running undefeated all the way to the Final Four. Every team has flaws. However, to paraphrase George Orwell, all of this season’s college basketball teams are equal, but some teams are more equal than others.
As Duke, Michigan State, and the rest of the field continue to show their warts, Villanova, Virginia, and Purdue continue to separate themselves from the pack and establish themselves as the clear title favorites. These three teams show the most dominance, the most balance, and the most stability among the 351 Division I teams.
That’s not to say these teams are invulnerable. On the contrary, just like Duke, Villanova lost to St. John’s (at home, no less) and Purdue fell to a respectable Ohio State team. On the whole, though, the Wildcats, Hoos, and Boilermakers have shown throughout the season that they deserve to be considered better than the rest.
How exactly have these squads surged ahead of everyone else? Each of these three favorites has similarities, but they also have plenty of glaring differences.
Virginia has been one of the best defensive teams in the country ever since Tony Bennett took over as head coach in 2009. But this year they are taking the pack-line to another level.
For the first time in Bennett’s tenure, the Cavaliers lead the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency. Firstly, it’s shocking that a Bennett-led UVA team has never led the nation in AdjD. But secondly, and more importantly, it’s not as if this is just a down year for defense and Virginia is playing as well defensively as it normally does: it is eviscerating records with its defensive play.
Coming into the year, the best mark in AdjD in the history of the statistic on KenPom.com was 84.2, set by 2008-09 Memphis. As of Friday morning, Virginia sits at 82.0, more than two points better than that Tigers team. Additionally, no team had finished more than 20.0 points better in AdjD than the average in a season, nor had any team finished more than 2.0 points better than the second-best team. The Hoos, on the other hand, are more than 23.0 points better than the average and are 3.6 points better than second-best Cincinnati. To put this in even better context, Cincinnati’s current 85.6 AdjD mark ranks sixth all-time.
Virginia’s defense has taken its absurdity to new heights, and its offense, though far from prolific, is more than competent. The Hoos lack the dominant scorer of years past – Malcolm Brogdon, Joe Harris, etc. – however they arguably have more balance in their lineup than any other year.
Kyle Guy, Devon Hall, and Ty Jerome can all score inside the arc, but they have also shown the ability to knock down triples consistently and in clutch situations. They also have a deep rotation of capable scorers to work the interior and the wing, allowing Virginia to be multi-faceted offensively, something it has not been in past seasons.
The Hoos are still the defense-and-patience oriented team they’ve always been, but this year the defense is not just strong, but historic. The offense has shown it can score consistently and in different ways, such that an opposing team can’t focus on strangling one player and shutting down the entire Virginia offense. If ever there were a year for the Cavaliers to bring home their first national title, this would be the year.
Villanova, like Virginia, is also extremely dominant on one side of the ball. Unlike Virginia, though, the Wildcats control games with their offense.
Jay Wright’s squad ranks first in adjusted offensive efficiency by a full three points, third in scoring offense, ninth in field goal percentage, and 12th in three-point field goal percentage. Villanova has six different players averaging double digits in scoring (although, to be fair, one is Phil Booth, who is out until the start of the tournament with a broken hand, and another is Eric Paschall, who is out indefinitely with a concussion), one whom is Jalen Brunson, a national player of the year candidate.
The Wildcats can score any way they want. Four Cats shoot better than 40.0% from deep, and a fifth shoots just less than that at 39.7%. One of those players is redshirt freshman big-man Omari Spellman. The 6-foot-9, 245-pound forward is the team’s leading rebounder, has the ability to play in the post with his back to the basket, and can stretch the floor to the perimeter (he shoots threes at a 44.4% clip).
His ability to shoot forces opposing defenses to move a larger defender out of the paint, opening up more space for Brunson and fellow do-it-all star Mikal Bridges to penetrate and drive to the rim. Both Brunson and Bridges are adept at finishing at the basket, but if the defense overcommits to the help, they can kick it to a waiting shooter on the outside. This is what makes Villanova’s offense so dangerous.
Its defense is a bit helter-skelter – Villanova ranks 54th in adjusted defensive efficiency and 125th in scoring defense – but its offense has proven itself more than capable to overcome this in all but two occasions. Those rarities are just that: rarities. They have shown they can beat top-level competition with wins against Tennessee, Gonzaga, and a dismantling of Xavier.
Don’t count on this offense failing to bring the Wildcats a victory many more times.
This season’s Battle 4 Atlantis seemed strange as it was happening. Looking back, it seems absolutely bizarre.
The 2017 Battle 4 Atlantis featured eight teams, all but one of which may very well make the NCAA tournament. And, somehow, the last-place game featured now No. 3 Purdue and No. 13 Arizona, two of the most talented teams in the country. The Boilermakers slaughtered the Wildcats, 89-64, and thus began a 19-game winning streak that ended this past Wednesday against Ohio State.
Purdue has (quietly) been one of the most superb teams in the country since leaving the Bahamas. The Boilermakers rank third in AdjEM, fourth in AdjO, 13th in AdjD, 26th in scoring offense, 19th in scoring defense, 15th in field goal percentage, and 18th in field goal percentage against. Purdue isn’t going to blow the doors off many teams, but it is the most balanced of these three elite squads.
Matt Painter’s Boilermakers have two prolific scorers in Carsen and Vincent Edwards, two seven-footers inside in Isaac Haas and Matt Haarms, and a senior guard in Dakota Mathias who can shoot it from outside (46.6% from beyond the arc) and create offense for his teammates (team-high 4.4 assists per game).
Purdue is one of the best programs in the country to have never won the NCAA tournament. Like Virginia and Villanova, this team is laden with veterans, but unlike both teams is well above average on offense and defense. They may not be as strong on either side as Virginia is on defense and Villanova is on offense, but they have the requisite balance to keep themselves in and win games against top competition (which is kind of important come the tourney).
The national champion very well could come from outside this trio. Despite their shortcomings, Duke, Arizona, and Michigan State are all supremely talented teams, Xavier and Cincinnati have shown themselves capable of a run, and every year there is at least one surprise team that makes a run.
But for now, Virginia, Villanova, and Purdue have separated themselves from the pack. If you’re wagering on a national champion heading into March, pick from this trio of teams.
Edited by Jeremy Losak.
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