The past two seasons (2014 and 2015), I’ve taken a look at teams in the country on the rise in January and February and teams on decline. Often times the teams appearing on these lists have a key transfer or injury, but not always. The most notable example was 2014 Virginia, which went on to get a one-seed after a pretty mediocre first two months.
Today I am using the same basic methodology as in the past. I take offensive and defensive points per possession and adjust them for both opponent and home-court advantage. The final result is a number that should be interpreted as “points per 100 possessions above an average team”. The numbers are broken up by offense and defense. Remember, negative numbers are better when it comes to defense.
First, let’s take a look at the “hottest” (most improved) teams over the last 40 or so days:
1. Stephen F. Austin
The Lumberjacks are off to a 9-0 start in the Southland Conference and have dominated the league for several years now. The nine game win streak comes after going just 3-5 against D1 opponents in non-conference play. The turnaround comes despite no extremely major injury or addition. However, Brad Underwood did finally find his lineup of choice in January. After using six different starting lineups in non-conference play, SFA has used the same starting lineup every game in January and February.
Stephen F. Austin is extremely small, ranking 337th in the country in average height. It’s possible this size problem becomes a bigger issue in non-conference play against high major opponents as opposed to conference play.
2. Alcorn State
Alcorn State went 0-9 in non-conference play against D1 opponents and sat as low as 349th in kenpom for multiple weeks in December. Of course the SWAC schedule is significantly easier, but the Braves have still impressed going 8-3 and are tied for second in the league.
Senior Octavius Brown missed the first seven games of the season and has made a huge impact since returning. Brown leads the team in offensive rating, but it’s the defense that has been much improved with Brown. Alcorn State has allowed .99 points per possession with Brown in the game versus 1.16 points per possession with Brown on the bench.
Liberty is another team that went winless against D1 opponents in non-conference before adding a key contributor to the lineup. Marquette transfer John Dawson played his first game for Liberty in mid December. He currently ranks 7th in the conference in usage rate, 5th in assist rate, and 2nd in defensive rebounding percentage.
The Flames have also benefited from lineup continuity. After using six different starting lineups in non-conference play, Ritchie McKay has been able to stick with the same starting lineup since January. Liberty currently sits at 268 in kenpom after being as low a 346 at one point in the season.
Next, let’s take a look at the “coldest” teams over the 40 or so days:
Starting lineup continuity is a consistent theme that appear on these lists. However, determining causation is a little bit tricky. Poor play could cause lineup shifting by coaches just as much as lineup shifting causes poor play. Regardless, Fordham used the same starting lineup in all but one game during their non-conference schedule (going 9-2).
Joseph Chartouny missed the first five game of conference play with an ankle injury. And despite no injury, once highly touted recruit Jon Severe has lost his starting spot. Fordham wasn’t exactly expected to make noise in the Atlantic 10 coming into the season and conference play is likely a result of some regression to the mean.
With the loss of Siyani Chambers prior to the season, Ivy League expectations were lowered for Harvard. Even so, Tommy Amaker’s team managed a pretty decent non-conference showing despite a tough schedule with netural site wins against BYU and Auburn.
Now Harvard sits tied for last in the Ivy at 1-5 and star big man Zena Edosomwan has missed the last two games with a quadriceps injury.
Vandy is the best team on either of these lists. They returned almost everyone back from a team that finished 19th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency last season. Yet in conference play this year, Vandy’s offense ranks just 9th in the SEC on a per possession basis.
The once top 25 team is now squarely on the bubble at 13-10 and has really struggled away from Nashville.