Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons entered the field in Patrick Stevens’s latest bracket projections for The Post thanks to recent wins over Louisville and at Virginia Tech. Wake is one of the most topsy-turvy teams in Division I this season, notching wins against Louisville and Miami but also getting swept by Clemson.
But Danny Manning’s team has John Collins, and the sophomore has been all the difference in ACC play. Collins has posted the fifth-highest offensive efficiency rate in conference games (1.25 points per possession) and, per Synergy Sports, he is scoring a whopping 1.03 points per post-up. Only Gonzaga’s Przemek Karnowski is a more capable high-major conference scorer on the block than the 6-foot-10 Collins.
But Wake is more than just Collins’s interior touch. The Deacons have been consistently competitive in the nation’s best league — of its nine conference losses, six have been by single digits — because of their aggressiveness and ball movement. Their team’s free throw rate, per Ken Pomeroy, leads the ACC, and nearly a third of their jump shots are unguarded, per Synergy Sports. The Deacons efficiently convert those uncontested shots thanks to probing guards Bryant Crawford and Brandon Childress, who demand attention in pick-and-roll possessions. When one of the pair comes off a screen and finds an open teammate on the perimeter, it results in 1.27 points per spot-up.
Wake’s defense has been nowhere near the same level as its offensive output — yielding 1.12 points per possession — but with an offense that has been surging in February, scoring 1.16 points per possession even with losses to Duke, Clemson, and Notre Dame, the Deacons are clearly the conference’s dark horse in Brooklyn this week.
Michigan: As well as Collins has played this season, no one has come close to matching Derrick Walton Jr. the past month or so. Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan deserved to be honored as Big Ten player of the year, but the Wolverines’ senior guard has spent much of the season overlooked. Which is a shame considering the 6-foot-1 Walton leads the Big Ten in offensive rating (or the amount of points the team scores per 100 possessions when he is on the court), registering a staggering 1.27 points per possession. He is also assisting on nearly 30 percent of Michigan’s buckets.
The Wolverines aren’t just Walton, but it is worth noting that their most utilized lineup, which has played 40 percent of the team’s most recent Big Ten possessions (and is led by Walton), has an efficiency margin of plus-0.22, posting an effective field goal percentage of nearly 60 percent (for 414 possessions). If Walton’s teammates stumble in the Big Ten tournament, the load might be too much even for him, but facing a weaker-than-normal conference field, the Wolverines are trending upward.
Marquette: When he was hired in the spring of 2014, Coach Steve Wojciechowski promised that Marquette would improve its shooting. It took some time — the team connected on less than 34 percent of its three-pointers during his first two seasons — but the Golden Eagles’ perimeter turnaround this season is a major reason they are poised to make their inaugural NCAA tournament appearance under Wojciechowski.
The team’s offensive efficiency rating of 1.20 points per possession, eighth in Division I, is fueled by newcomers: transfers Andrew Rowsey and Katin Reinhardt, plus Sam Hauser and especially fellow freshman Markus Howard. The quartet is connecting on 46 percent of its three-point field goals, and when at least three of the guards are on the court at the same time, which has happened in 115 possessions during Big East play (per Hooplens.com), the lineup scores at least 1.35 points per possession. It’s no wonder 41 percent of Marquette’s field goals are from beyond the three-point arc, which is a significant uptick from 2015 and ’16. It is a difficult team to contain, and especially when Marquette’s most impactful players are playing their best basketball of the season.