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January 31, 2008
Four-Point Play
Sunflower Edition

by John Gasaway

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Threes, Damned Threes, and Kansas

Kansas State put nearly a quarter-century of frustration to rest last night, at last beating Kansas in Manhattan, 84-75. There's a recurring theme in Kansas losses, isn't there? The losses are so infrequent that they're memorable and handily classified. Simply put: Kansas over the past few years has been a phenomenal defensive team that's been victimized by freakish three-point shooting from the opponent on a handful of occasions. Just look at the record. The Jayhawks were bounced out of the first round of the 2006 NCAA Tournament by Bradley on a night when Marcellus Sommerville hit five of nine threes. In 2007, Kansas made it to the Elite Eight, only to be sent home when UCLA, a team that never shot threes, went 8-of-17 from behind the arc.

Same thing last night: Michael Beasley went 4-of-4 from outside the arc, and indeed all non-Bill Walker Wildcats combined for 9-of-16 shooting on their threes. (Walker was just 3-of-10.) That, and some unusually low marks for defensive rebounding on the part of KU, meant that K-State was able to score 84 points in just 71 possessions. Bill Self's men swarmed Beasley whenever he touched the ball in the paint. That part of the game plan worked, as Beasley made just five of 14 twos. It didn't matter: Kansas won the Beasley battle but lost the war. As for Kansas State, this team is aberrant and dangerous. It's extremely rare for a major-conference team to post better numbers in January than it did in November and December. (The opponents are much better in January.) Yet that's exactly what the Wildcats have done, and rather emphatically. They're in first place in the Big 12 and they're much better than I or anyone else thought they'd be.

Northwestern and Oregon State May Each Have a Rendezvous with Destiny

It's been four long years since Texas A&M went 0-16 in the Big 12, marking the last time a "power"-conference team failed to get a win in its league. There have been some near misses since then: Baylor and Penn State each recorded just one conference win in 2005, as did South Florida in 2006. As a general rule, however, it's very difficult to not win at least one conference game. That makes this season all the more remarkable: there's a fair chance that Northwestern and Oregon State will each record 0-18 conference records, in the Big Ten and Pac-10 respectively. Both teams are outscored by about a point for every four possessions they play against a conference opponent. That might not sound real dramatic, but in fact being outscored by 0.25 points per trip puts the Wildcats and the Beavers at the extreme leading edge of futility. South Florida, to take one example, is at the bottom of the Big East looking up at 15 teams, yet the Bulls are being outscored by "just" 0.14 points per possession in-conference.

NU has already swung and missed on a couple of good opportunities to get off the schneid, having lost at home to both Penn State and Michigan. On paper, the Wildcats' best shot at a win is now their home game on March 4 against Iowa. As for OSU, their chances for a win look even bleaker, for the Beavers have the singularly unhappy distinction of playing in a conference with no other really bad teams. Statistically, the best chance of seeing the court stormed in Corvallis will come in a couple weeks, when Washington visits Gill Coliseum. Then again, let's forget about that pushy weenie Pythagoras for a second: archrival Oregon comes to town on March 2 and the Ducks aren't invincible. Maybe Oregon State will get up for that one. If not, it'll be tough for the Beavers to avoid duty as the answer to a future trivia question.

Purdue and Baylor Would Be Even Better if They Made Some Twos

This season I've been tracking the in-conference performance of 83 teams (BCS conferences plus the Missouri Valley) and what's surprising about Purdue and Baylor is not only that they've been so good but that they've been so good while being so awful in what should be a key aspect of the game. And I do mean awful.

Worst Two-Point Shooting
Through games of January 30, conference games only

                   2FG Pct.    
1.  St. John's       38.3
2.  Oregon St.       39.1
3.  Purdue           39.4
4.  Baylor           40.6
5.  Evansville       40.7

Both the Boilermakers and the Bears have compensated for their poor inside shooting with good defense and good ball-handling. On top of that, Purdue has added excellent three-point shooting, That being said, with the possible exception of Baylor's stolid Josh Lomers, neither team has a player that makes two-point shots. Nevertheless, let us give shouts where they're due: both programs have both rebounded splendidly this year and the preternaturally youthful Boilers in particular look to be ideally situated for next year.

The College Hoops Season Goes By Really Fast.

On Tuesday, I opened the cage on the conference-only tempo-free stats and let them walk around the room a bit, prompting alert reader Dan B. to write: "Seems a bit early to be breaking out conference-only stats. The main rationale for them--to equalize the competition and get some home/road balance--doesn't apply yet." Early? Doesn't apply yet? (Repetitious direct quotes?) Au contraire! Did you know that, even though it's still January, every team in the Missouri Valley has already played more than half of their conference games? It's true! Here are their numbers, by the way:

Through games of January 30, conference games only
Pace: possessions per 40 minutes
PPP: points per possession
Opp. PPP: opponent points per possession
EM: efficiency margin (PPP - Opp. PPP)

                                     Opp.
                     Pace    PPP     PPP      EM
1.  Drake            61.3    1.10    0.96   +0.14
2.  Illinois St.     62.7    1.05    0.97   +0.08
3.  S. Illinois      59.8    1.02    0.95   +0.07
4.  N. Iowa          67.1    1.02    0.99   +0.03
5.  Creighton        63.5    0.99    0.99    0.00
6.  Missouri St.     63.2    1.01    1.02   -0.01
7.  Bradley          66.1    1.04    1.09   -0.02
8.  Indiana St.      61.1    0.97    1.00   -0.03
9.  Wichita St.      59.6    0.96    1.07   -0.11
10. Evansville       66.1    0.92    1.07   -0.15

Drake and Illinois State sit atop the Valley in terms of performance. Conclusion? First-year coaches rock! Um, Wichita State notwithstanding.

As for the question of how early it really is right now, even in those weird 16-game conferences--the ACC, Big 12 and SEC--it's not too early to remark on surprises. For instance, we already know that at the end of the regular season we will find Duke to have been surprisingly fast-paced and strong on defense. Texas A&M's overall performance, even with last night's win, will have been surprisingly average. Florida's offense will have been surprisingly efficient. In each of these cases there's already a significant minority of the games on the books. Those numbers are what they are.

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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