10. South Dakota State (Summit League)
Despite T.J. Otzelberger’s departure for UNLV, the Jackrabbits remain a super fun watch in a quietly very fun league. (South Dakota nearly made this list, while Oral Roberts is also an enjoyable team.) Eric Henderson’s first team has slowed the pace down a bit into a more half-court oriented offense, but this group is just as watchable as the last couple of Otzelberger teams. Ranking fifth in eFG% and sixth in 2PT% nationally, you get to see a group of highly-efficient scorers, led by 6’7″ forward Douglas Wilson.
This wasn’t a factor in their score, but it’s a factor in how much better they can get: South Dakota State ranks 341st of 353 teams in terms of experience. They didn’t bring much back at all from last year’s roster, and only bench player Brandon Key graduates. That means this lineup full of talented shooters and scorers – currently nailing 43.6% of their threes in conference play – comes back next year.
Both the Jackrabbits and the Coyotes are teams I’m hopeful to see in the Big Dance, but the Jackrabbits win out on their shooting alone.
9. Arizona (Pacific 12)
I keep wondering why this spectacularly fun Arizona team is flying under the radar – other than the misfortune of playing most of their games when people like me are asleep – and I think I’ve arrived at their supposed Road Problem. You see, Arizona possesses just a 2-4 record in true road games; they’re 14-3 everywhere else. Does it hurt them that they’re sitting at just two Quadrant 1 wins? Sure it does, I won’t argue that. Does this prevent them from being the most purely enjoyable Wildcat squad since Stanley Johnson and T.J. McConnell were running the show? Of course not.
Arizona does pretty much everything well offensively. They’re 65th in eFG%, 17th in TO%, 55th in 3PT%, 99th in 2PT%, pick up lots of assists, and offer one of the most exciting young players in the game in Nico Mannion. Mannion offers up a diverse, efficient game built around ball screens and pushing the pace in transition. As the leader of the new-look Zona offense, he’s taken the Wildcats to the 97th-percentile in transition offense, per Synergy.
My favorite non-Mannion player is Zeke Nnaji, a 6’11” freshman that’s hyper-efficient in the post and has absolutely demolished opponents with a wide variety of looks in the paint. You can catch him scoring off of flash cuts, pick-and-pop plays, traditional rolls, offensive rebounds, you name it. It looks like Arizona’s headed for something like a 4-6 seed come March; while I can’t say for sure they’ll go super far, I’m dropping the objectivity lens and rooting for them to last as long as possible. Basketball needs fun stuff like this.
8. Saint Mary’s (West Coast)
I get more and more confused by this every coaching cycle, so I’ll offer it up here in the hopes of a smarter person’s answer: why hasn’t Randy Bennett found a home at a Big Six school yet? He’s been at Saint Mary’s for 19 seasons now, is still somehow only 57, and recently hit the mark of 13 straight 20+ win seasons at a school that had three in its history before he got there. For the last several years, every Saint Mary’s offense has basically been the exact same: elite three-point shooting at a snail’s pace, with excellent turnover prevention and near-ideal shot selection.
Guess what: the 2019-20 edition is no different. This group stands out for three reasons: 1. The 40.3% mark from downtown; 2. Jordan Ford; 3. Malik Fitts. Jordan Ford has been one of the most fun four-year college basketball players in the last decade, a small point guard whose motor seems to never turn off. Consider the fact that, in the West Coast Conference, Ford is basically only eclipsed by Filip Petrusev of Gonzaga in terms of players that receive the heaviest scrutiny in game-planning. And yet: Ford hits 41% of his threes, is in the 95th-percentile of offensive efficiency, all while regularly playing 37+ minutes per game.
Fitts, a South Florida transfer, was an important part of last year’s 11-seed West Coast champions and is even more important now. He starts at center, hits 41% of his threes, and is as likely to post up or be the screener in a pick-and-roll set as he is to take his defender one-on-one in isolation from the perimeter to the rim.
Also, Saint Mary’s offers up four players that hit 41% or more of their threes. Couple that with their penchant for slowing the game down to a crawl and you’ve got a squad with serious March potential.
7. LSU (SEC)
Admittedly, I didn’t expect LSU to rank as highly as they do on this list. They don’t have the star power last year’s team had, really, and they rank 14 spots lower in KenPom. Will Wade’s three years at LSU have routinely produced excellent offenses, but this one ranks sixth-best, his highest ranking yet. As usual, they’re great at offensive rebounding, but bad at three-point shooting. Normally, this lends itself to a semi-boring combo of efficient-yet-forgettable offensive basketball.
The key difference here is that LSU’s two-point efficiency is so high and its across-the-board size so versatile that I can’t help myself but relent. I love everything about watching Skylar Mays, a senior guard that hits threes and recklessly works his way to the rim. I’ve greatly enjoyed both Emmitt Williams and Darius Days, two purely old-school bodies that plow their way to the rim through a variety of post-ups, rolls, cuts, and drives. Trendon Watford, the freshman, is also a blast to watch inside the perimeter.
Basically: if you’re looking for a mid-2000s team to get behind, you could do far worse than LSU.
6. Northern Iowa (Missouri Valley)
Yes, if you’re reading this, there are many Iowans that know how to do their job properly and efficiently. Several of those reside at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, where Ben Jacobson has quietly built one of the best offenses in the country. Do you like elite shooting, lots of threes, and a dominant starting lineup? I think you’ll really enjoy these Panthers, then.
UNI currently ranks 5th in 3PT%, 32nd in 2PT%, 4th in eFG%, 13th in offensive Block% (meaning very few of their shots get blocked), and rarely commits unforced errors of their own volition. If they find a way to knock their TO% down a bit based on opponent steals, they’re easily my best bet for a non-elite mid-major to make the Sweet Sixteen. The Panthers’ motion, screen-heavy offense features a variety of looks for their shooters, with an unusual focus on dribble hand-offs. You’ll see AJ Green (40.7% 3PT%) and Trae Berhow (44.4%) get several plays run for them from these looks.
The challenge of defending these guys is greater than most would initially expect, simply because in their 4-out 1-in motion, the 4-out all shoot 39% or better from three and the 1-in (Austin Phyfe, 6’9″ center) makes 66.4% of his twos and ranks 40th of 2,216 players in Offensive Rating nationally. I like these guys a lot; they’re a walking advertisement for slower, more patient basketball not being outright boring.
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