CJ Moore's Top 25: A true Big 2
Purdue and Connecticut have separated themselves from the field this season, and the separator is the bigs.
Zach Edey has been dominant all season, and Connecticut’s Donovan Clingan is starting to play his best basketball. Let’s kick off the post-Super Bowl Top 25 with a look at the two bigs who could decide this year’s national championship.
Your weekly friendly reminder: The setup of this season’s Top 25 is that I’ll give nuggets on an unspecified number of teams each week. So if a team appears in the table but not the text below, that’s why.
CJ Moore’s Top 25 for Monday, Feb. 12
Usually, extreme offensive numbers drop some in conference play, but Purdue’s free-throw rate has actually gone up in Big Ten play. The Boilermakers free-throw rate (free throw-attempts/field-goal attempts) is at 44.1 in Big Ten play, which is the highest rate in league play since Iowa’s 45.7 in 2014. That season the average Division I free-throw rate was 40.5; this season’s average is 32.9.
It’s all about Edey, who is attempting 10.6 free throws per game. If Purdue were to make the Big Ten and NCAA Tournament finals, playing the maximum 40 games, Edey would be on pace to finish fifth all-time in single-season free-throw attempts. Pete Maravich, second on the list, is the only player who didn’t play in the 1950s in the top seven. Maravich’s highest attempt season was in 1969-70. In the modern era, Edey should have no problem topping Tyler Hansbrough’s 377 attempts in 2007-08. Hansbrough ranks 10th on the list.
Edey, who shoots 71 percent at the line, has also been working on extending his range by shooting 3s in practice. And on Saturday, he made his first career 3. He’s a pick-and-pop threat now too!
You’ve waited for it…
… so here you go. – @zach_edey
🎯 BULLSEYE!!! pic.twitter.com/EKzTKSstxp
— Purdue Men’s Basketball (@BoilerBall) February 11, 2024
Connecticut’s starting lineup has played in only 12 games together this season. That’s what is so scary about the Huskies: They’re already this good while not having their five best players for half their games. The good news for UConn is they all appear healthy now, especially Clingan. He’s moving really well, evidenced by moves like this one:
Dan Hurley has so many weapons that it’s hard to lock in on just one guy, and Clingan is the perfect example of someone who can make an impact whether he’s scoring or not. He had one of his best games against Butler last week — 18 points, 14 rebounds, three assists and three blocks — and he followed that up with just four points against Georgetown. Instead of scoring, he was a facilitator, finishing with a career-high six assists and tying his career high for blocks (four).
Kelvin Sampson’s philosophy is always to shoot more shots than his opponent by limiting turnovers and crashing the offensive glass. This year’s team is one of his best on the offensive glass and is the best he’s had at winning the turnover war. The Cougars are forcing 16.1 turnovers per game and give it away only 8.7 times per game. The last two Saturdays they’ve been exceptional taking care of the ball, giving it away only three times at Kansas in a loss and only five times at Cincinnati in a win. Point guard Jamal Shead has 17 assists and just one turnover in his last three games. This is why the computer rankings love these Cougars. Math is on their side.
Marquette overcame a nine-point halftime deficit on Saturday against St. John’s with Tyler Kolek cooking in the second half; he scored 22 of his 27 points and dished out seven of his 13 assists after halftime. St. John’s was switching all five on ball screens, and Kolek went to work in the second half picking on Red Storm centers. He scored seven points and had four assists when he got bigs switched onto him. Kolek is as good as it gets in the college game in his ability to know exactly how to attack those switches and where all of his teammates are. Here’s a great example, which came one possession after Kolek beat Joel Soriano on a baseline drive:
St. John’s overcorrected, and Kolek somehow put that wraparound pass on the money. When defenses have to worry about his shooting — he made five 3s in this game — it’s a nightmare trying to guard Marquette.
UNC freshman point guard Elliot Cadeau scored a career-high 19 points and had eight assists in Saturday’s win at Miami, because he decided he was going to be more aggressive against a defense that basically left him alone on the perimeter. For much of the game, the Hurricanes were dorking Cadeau, sagging off of him and daring him to shoot. (Credit to Tim Miles for teaching me one of my favorite basketball terms. The goal is to make the dork shoot.) Cadeau, who came in 4-of-25 from 3, fired off a career-high six attempts and made two 3s.
In last week’s rankings, I showed how UNC took advantage of Duke using his man to trap the post. It doesn’t appear that Hubert Davis wants Cadeau to always settle for the open ones, because on one of his misses when Miami went way under a ball screen, Davis was demonstrably upset on the sideline that he took the shot. Cadeau had his most success against the disrespecting defense by looking to set up teammates or attacking that space. Three of his assists came when he had easy sight lines — like this one below — because his man wasn’t applying any ball pressure.
How teams decide to guard him — or not guard him — and UNC’s plan is something worth watching going forward.
Kansas had two of its worst offensive performances of the season last week, and one reason for the inefficiency was Hunter Dickinson struggling to make shots he usually makes at a high rate. Dickinson finished just 8-of-17 shots at the rim in the two games; before that he was shooting 74.8 percent at the rim, per Synergy. Dickinson has also struggled shooting jumpers lately. Before last week, he was knocking down jumpers at a 44.5 percent clip, per Synergy; he made just 1-of-8 of his jumpers against Kansas State and Baylor. With Kevin McCullar Jr. missing the Baylor game and possibly out again on Monday at Texas Tech, the Jayhawks need an efficient Dickinson to get them back on track.
Arizona had one of the most impressive weeks in college hoops this past week. The Wildcats struggled during the first half of the Pac-12 season on the road, but they made up for it last week by going 2-0 on the toughest Pac-12 road swing, playing in altitude at Utah and Colorado. The Cats won in triple overtime on Thursday night at Utah, which you would have thought lowered the odds of going to Colorado 48 hours later and coming away with a win. But Arizona was dominant in a 99-79 victory, becoming the first road team to win in Boulder this year.
It was the first time Arizona has gone 2-0 on that Utah-Colorado road trip since 2015. Arizona was 2-8 in its last five times going on that trip, losing all five times at CU.
The Cyclones have one of the best sixth men in the Big 12 in Buffalo transfer Curtis Jones. Jones is a microwave bench scorer who has been at his best at Hilton Coliseum. Iowa State’s offense thrives when he makes shots. Jones, who buried three 3s in Saturday’s win over TCU, has had six games with at least three 3s made. In those six games, Iowa State is 6-0 and scoring 1.21 points per possession. Good news for the Cyclones: Jones has scored in double figures in six straight, and three of those games with at least three 3s have come during that six-game stretch.
Auburn front court mates Johni Broome and Jaylin Williams do a good job of looking out for one another and exploiting mismatches. Broome has 47 assists this season, and 20 have gone to Williams. (Broome technically has 48 assists in the stat book, but he was credited with one at Florida that was not actually his.) Watch Broome and Williams work, and they’re often pointing to their guards where the ball should go. Last week against Alabama, both noticed an advantageous cross-match for Williams as soon as they crossed halfcourt.
Broome made sure he got the ball in the high post area, Williams went straight inside and both knew exactly what to do once Broome got the ball.
It was a different story on Saturday at Florida. The Gators did a good job of packing the paint and taking away Auburn’s easy buckets set up by the pass. Florida won 81-65, limiting the Tigers to a season-low nine assists.
There have been five games this year when a high-major team made at least 18 3s. Three of those performances have been by Alabama. The Crimson Tide made 18-of-44 3s on their way to 109 points at LSU on Saturday, surpassing Purdue as the nation’s top offense. This is how you hunt 3s:
This was Alabama’s fifth game with its new starting lineup: Mark Sears, Rylan Griffen, Aaron Estrada, Latrell Wrightsell Jr. and Grant Nelson. The Crimson Tide are averaging 96.6 points and 1.26 points per possession over that stretch.
South Carolina’s offense is trending up, and one reason why is freshman Collin Murray-Boyles coming on. Murray-Boyles scored a career-high 31 points in Saturday’s win over Vanderbilt, following up two straight 16-point performances. The Gamecocks are 8-1 since Murray-Boyles got inserted into the starting lineup.
Indiana State generates the fifth most points per game (12.0) off cuts and has the highest efficiency in college hoops on possessions that end in a cut (1.536). Slick passing center Robbie Avila and timely cuts from Jayson Kent are a big reason why. Avila is a threat to score from anywhere, so defenses are often sending help his way.
Notice how Avila controls the defense with his eyes. The court is his chessboard, and he usually makes the right moves.
The Sycamores haven’t shot the ball from deep as well lately, but their spacing and the pressure they put on the rim have helped them stay efficient from 2. They’ve had only one game all season where they shot under 50 percent inside the arc.
Wisconsin is traditionally good at keeping its opponents off the free-throw line, but this group has been foul-prone during its four-game losing streak. (The Rutgers game was the exception; the Scarlet Knights won by getting hot from 3.) Over the first three losses, Wisconsin was outscored 56-33 at the line. The offense is having its own struggles, but in the past the Badgers have been able to win sloppy games with defense. That hasn’t been the case this year, and sending opponents to the line has been an issue in every loss except the Rutgers one.
Virginia is on an eight-game winning streak and is back to doing Virginia things on the defensive end. Since the winning streak started on Jan. 17 stretch, the Cavaliers have had the fourth-best defense in college basketball and been the fifth-best team in the country, per Bart Torvik’s sorting tool. They held Miami to 38 points last week, which led to one of the shortest press conferences of all time.
Tony absolutely broke Jim 😂😂😂 pic.twitter.com/Jc1CvowOFy
— Jake Malasek (@jakemalasek) February 6, 2024
Dropped out: Utah State, Florida Atlantic
Keeping an eye on: Washington State, Wake Forest, Florida, Clemson, New Mexico
(Top photo of Zach Edey celebrating his first career made 3: Justen Casterline / Getty Images)