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January 29, 2008
Conference Check
The Time Has Come

by John Gasaway

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Looking solely at a team's conference games holds several evaluative benefits. First, unlike games in November or December, there are an equal number of home and road games to consider. Even more important, the opponents in conference games are blessed, by definition, with similar resources. In fact, in the case of the Pac-10, where every team plays every other team twice, I have to see something very dramatic in terms of injury or suspension to dissent from what the 18-game results are telling me about each team.

Lastly, if you're interested in how a team is going to perform in March (and that pretty much takes in all of us), conference play constitutes the most recent and therefore relevant information. For me, conference play constitutes the regular season in college basketball.

So what do we find so far in 2008?

Key:

Through games of January 28, conference games only
Pace: possessions per 40 minutes
PPP: points per possession
Opp. PPP: opponent points per possession
EM: efficiency margin (PPP - Opp. PPP)

ACC: Can a team named "Duke" ever be overlooked?

                                     Opp.
                     Pace    PPP     PPP      EM   
1.  Duke             75.1    1.13    0.93   +0.20    
2.  North Carolina   75.3    1.15    1.03   +0.12
3.  BC               71.3    1.12    1.05   +0.07
4.  Clemson          69.2    1.08    1.05   +0.03
5.  Georgia Tech     72.2    1.05    1.02   +0.03
6.  Maryland         74.6    1.02    1.03   -0.01
7.  Miami            71.0    1.04    1.08   -0.04
8.  Virginia Tech    74.9    0.93    0.97   -0.04
9.  Virginia         70.2    1.00    1.04   -0.04
10. Wake Forest      72.8    0.97    1.06   -0.09
11. Florida St.      66.2    0.96    1.07   -0.11
12. NC State         68.2    0.96    1.13   -0.17

To date, Duke's performance in ACC games has been head and shoulders above that of North Carolina. (In short: the Blue Devils have, easily, the best defense in the conference. The Heels, conversely, have a defense that has performed a hair below the ACC average.) That doesn't mean this will absolutely, positively continue to be the case. It does mean that, contrary to preseason expectations and what you'll hear this week, I would rate the Blue Devils as the favorite at Chapel Hill on Sunday.

While we're at the top of the list, I'm a big fan of Boston College head coach Al Skinner and his flex offense, but my Basketball Prospectus code of ethics compels me to relate the following: subtract the blowout against Wake Forest and BC is scoring just 1.02 points per trip in-conference.

Big 12: Pointing toward a showdown tomorrow night

                                     Opp.
                     Pace    PPP     PPP      EM
1.  Kansas           70.8    1.15    0.82   +0.33
2.  Kansas St.       67.3    1.16    0.93   +0.23
3.  Texas            64.1    1.13    1.06   +0.07
4.  Baylor           73.3    1.00    0.96   +0.04
5.  Oklahoma St.     64.8    1.00    1.01   -0.01
6.  Missouri         73.2    1.05    1.06   -0.01
7.  Oklahoma         67.5    1.01    1.07   -0.06
8.  Texas A&M        63.4    1.01    1.08   -0.07
9.  Texas Tech       69.3    0.93    1.00   -0.07
10. Colorado         60.8    1.02    1.13   -0.11
11. Iowa St.         71.7    0.91    1.04   -0.13
12. Nebraska         67.6    0.84    1.07   -0.23

Kansas State has had a wonderful four-game run to open Big 12 play. Tomorrow night they'll collide, albeit at home, with a Kansas team that matches up with them beautifully. The Wildcats have been scoring points by grabbing offensive boards and by taking excellent care of the ball. The former simply won't happen against the Jayhawks--and if the latter doesn't either, KSU has little hope of pulling off the upset. Then again, losing to Kansas is nothing to be ashamed of, and K-State is much better than I thought they'd be just three weeks ago.

Big East: Beware Seton Hall...or at least their schedule

                                     Opp.
                     Pace    PPP     PPP      EM
1.  Louisville       66.0    1.04    0.92   +0.12
2.  Georgetown       61.9    1.07    0.97   +0.10
3.  Pitt             64.5    1.10    1.01   +0.09
4.  West Virginia    63.6    1.05    0.97   +0.08
5.  Connecticut      70.6    1.10    1.05   +0.05
6.  Marquette        70.0    1.05    1.02   +0.03
7.  Syracuse         70.4    1.01    1.00   +0.01
8.  Seton Hall       70.5    1.07    1.06   +0.01
9.  Notre Dame       74.2    1.02    1.02    0.00
10. Providence       68.6    1.06    1.06    0.00
11. DePaul           68.2    1.02    1.05   -0.03
12. Villanova        71.2    1.03    1.06   -0.03
13. Cincinnati       66.3    1.02    1.05   -0.03
14. St. John's       68.0    0.92    1.04   -0.12
15. Rutgers          66.4    0.90    1.04   -0.14
16. S. Florida       64.6    1.01    1.15   -0.14

Despite what you see here, Notre Dame has somehow insinuated themselves near the top of the Big East standings. That means either their performance or their place in the conference pecking order is about to change. As it stands now, a team that's making just 43 percent of its twos in-conference doesn't have the trajectory to scare anyone come March.

Elsewhere in the conference, note that resurgent Seton Hall is not only scoring points in abundance, they also have a sweet schedule laid out for them. They've already gone to Pitt and lost. They don't go to Louisville this year. Their toughest remaining games are at Georgetown and at West Virginia. As incredible as it sounds, a 13-5 conference record after an 0-3 start is within the realm of possibility for the Pirates.

Big Ten: Remember the team in last year's national championship game?

                                     Opp.
                     Pace    PPP     PPP      EM
1.  Wisconsin        61.0    1.09    0.92   +0.17
2.  Indiana          67.4    1.06    0.90   +0.16
3.  Ohio St.         67.2    1.03    0.88   +0.15
4.  Purdue           65.4    1.05    0.94   +0.11
5.  Michigan St.     64.8    1.05    0.96   +0.09
6.  Illinois         62.3    1.02    1.02    0.00
7.  Minnesota        69.7    0.98    1.00   -0.02
8.  Iowa             62.6    0.91    1.00   -0.09
9.  Michigan         64.2    0.96    1.10   -0.14
10. Penn St.         62.8    0.98    1.13   -0.15
11. Northwestern     63.5    0.90    1.15   -0.25

In this week's AP poll, Ohio State didn't receive a single vote. Not one. I'm not saying the Buckeyes are a lock for the Final Four or anything, but they'll be 8-2 in the Big Ten when they host Indiana in a potentially paradigm-shifting game a week from Sunday. All OSU does is make opposing teams miss shots. The perimeter D has been consistently solid since Thad Matta's arrival. Now, with Kosta Koufos and Othello Hunter, the Buckeyes have two respectable shot-blockers.

Pac-10: Who said UCLA and Washington State play D?

                                     Opp.
                     Pace    PPP     PPP      EM
1.  UCLA             65.2    1.15    1.01   +0.14
2.  Stanford         63.6    1.03    0.94   +0.09
3.  Washington St.   58.7    1.12    1.04   +0.08
4.  USC              65.7    1.04    0.98   +0.06
5.  Arizona          62.9    1.11    1.06   +0.05
6.  Arizona St.      61.9    1.02    0.99   +0.03
7.  Oregon           65.2    1.09    1.12   -0.03
8.  Cal              67.8    1.08    1.12   -0.04
9.  Washington       66.9    0.98    1.02   -0.04
10. Oregon St.       64.7    0.86    1.14   -0.28

Stanford has to be the least talked about top-15 team in the country. Never mind what you hear about alleged defensive stalwarts UCLA and Washington State. To this point the Cardinal has had far and away the best defense in the Pac-10. No, they can't score. I'm just saying, given the right opponent(s), they can make some noise in March.

SEC: Remember the team in last year's national championship game?

                                     Opp.
                     Pace    PPP     PPP      EM
1.  Mississippi St.  66.1    1.04    0.83   +0.21
2.  Tennessee        70.9    1.12    0.96   +0.16
3.  Florida          68.5    1.16    1.03   +0.13
4.  Arkansas         66.9    1.02    1.00   +0.02
5.  Kentucky         63.4    1.07    1.05   +0.02
6.  Alabama          67.1    1.04    1.06   -0.02
7.  Georgia          71.1    0.92    0.94   -0.02
8.  Ole Miss         70.4    1.11    1.17   -0.06
9.  Vanderbilt       71.1    0.99    1.05   -0.06
10. Auburn           67.4    1.06    1.15   -0.09
11. South Carolina   65.9    1.03    1.14   -0.11
12. LSU              66.4    0.92    1.11   -0.19

Yesterday my colleague Ken Pomeroy waggled an admonitory finger toward Gainesville, Florida, and told Billy Donovan's Gators to stop getting so many offensive rebounds. Ken's point was that sending bodies to the offensive glass opens up opportunities for easy transition baskets for your opponent. Well, I have good news for Florida fans: looking at just conference play suggests that Donovan has indeed downshifted when it comes to offensive boards. The Gators' defense is actually a smidge better than the SEC average. The real story with this team, though, is on offense. With an entirely new starting five, Florida is actually scoring more efficiently against conference opponents than they did last year as a defending national champion. This could be a mere one-year pause in Gator appearances at the Final Four.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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