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February 26, 2013
Return of the Eliminator
On MSU, Arizona, and Syracuse

by John Gasaway


Welcome to the latest installment of the Eliminator, my recurring series where I assess the relative merits of this season's national championship contenders. When last you saw the Eliminator, I was offering my list of seven legitimate threats to win it all: Florida, Michigan, Indiana, Miami, Louisville, Duke, and Gonzaga.

I'll be updating that short list soon, but first I want to look at the highest ranked teams that would not be included in that select company as of today. To refresh your memory, I'm basing my eliminations in part on seven seasons of per-possession data that I've tracked and archived. Based on this past history, for example, we know that the "average" major-conference team that reaches the Final Four does so after outscoring league opponents by 0.13 points per possession.

But (and this is an important qualifier) we also know that a true outlier like Connecticut in 2010-11 can crash this evaluative dance and cut down the nets after a thoroughly mediocre (+0.01) regular season. I refer to this back door to a title as the Connecticut Exception, and I dare say part of the reason we love college basketball is because stuff like this happens. As long as the Connecticut Exception is alive and well, I can't truly "eliminate" teams from title contention. (It's true.) However, what I can do is flag teams that are getting the pollster love but that don't fit our profile.

As of today, then, here are three teams yet to justify inclusion on your short list of title contenders. Anything can happen in March, of course, but to this point in the season these teams are not hitting the mean performance standard set by past Final Four entrants. I've listed them here in the order of their AP rankings.

Michigan State (+0.08, AP No. 9)
In 2009-10, the Spartans outscored the Big Ten by 0.08 points per possession. That team, you may remember, went on to beat four tournament opponents by a combined total of 13 points to reach the Final Four. So take the Eliminator's skepticism of this season's +0.08 MSU team for what it's worth. Tom Izzo has enjoyed some measure of success in the month of March, to put it mildly, and it would be foolhardy to write off his team entirely. Then again it's probably no mistake that Izzo had an easier time reaching a national semifinal with his 2008-09 team, the one that outscored the league by 0.13 points per trip.

This season Michigan State is 11-4 in the best conference in the nation, and, while Izzo's team won a few close games early in Big Ten play, this is not a case where a team posts a deceptively good record by winning a series of nail-biters. Actually 11-4 is more or less on the nose for a team with MSU's scoring margin. But even a team coming from a conference as strong as this season's Big Ten will usually excel at some facet of the game relative to their league if said team possesses serious Final Four potential. And in Michigan State's case I'm not yet clear what that facet is. True, Gary Harris has been outstanding. Plus the Spartans are, as usual, good at getting defensive rebounds, and they've also been hitting their (rare) threes. Then again this group is unusually normal on the offensive glass for an Izzo team, rebounding 32 percent of their misses in a league where that's more or less the conference average.

In short, it's difficult to find a particular aspect where this team stands out as a contender. (That is besides the obvious and best one: Tom Izzo.) But there's a caveat. Michigan State will finish the season with back-to-back home games (against Wisconsin and Northwestern, after first playing at Michigan), so the final chapter on the Spartans' performance is yet to be written. That chapter may boost MSU's standing in the eyes of the Eliminator. I'll keep you posted.

Arizona (+0.09, AP No. 11)
The Wildcats may well continue to be highly ranked right up to Selection Sunday, and rightly so. I don't have a long list of teams, beyond the usual suspects, all of which are better than Arizona, I just think there's a drop-off in performance once you get past those usual suspects.

That drop-off is perhaps visible in UA's relatively slim scoring margin against Pac-12 opponents. For instance the ACC this season is stronger statistically than the Pac-12, though not by much, and teams like Miami (+0.16) and Duke (+0.14) are recording much healthier scoring margins than what we've seen thus far from the Wildcats.

Thus far Arizona has been a perimeter-oriented team that's not reaping the full benefits of a perimeter orientation. For example, though the Wildcats attempt a high number of shots from beyond the arc (37 percent of their attempts in Pac-12 play), they've connected from out there at just a 34 percent rate -- fair, but not especially harmful to opposing defenses. Similarly, a perimeter-oriented team customarily sports a very low turnover rate. UA, however, has given the ball away on 18 percent of possessions in conference play. That's good, but it's also a number that's more or less equivalent to the league average.

All of which may seem like a rather tough grade to hand what is, after all, the Pac-12's best offense. But that's sort of my point. The best offense the Pac-12 can show us this season is one that's scoring just 1.06 points per possession in conference play. Meanwhile the Arizona defense has performed at a similar level: solid, but not exceptional. That's fine, but those aren't the words that best describe the vast majority of teams that have reached the Final Four in recent years.

Syracuse (+0.09, AP No. 12)
Jim Boeheim's team represents a close call for our Eliminator criteria. Certainly outscoring a league as strong as this season's Big East (which I still think is being underrated) by 0.09 points per possession is nothing to sneeze at. But while Syracuse is obviously a very good team, the performance recorded by the Orange to date falls just short of "standard" for a major-conference Final Four team.

The problem is actually on defense, which sounds odd because on the season as a whole, including non-conference games, this has been one of the best units in the country on that side of the ball. To be sure, it's difficult to stand out on defense where the standard is being set by the formidable likes of Louisville and Georgetown. That being said, the Syracuse D has also lagged behind Pitt and Villanova in conference play, as the Orange have played defense at about the same level as St. John's or Cincinnati. That's good defense, but is it good enough, when paired with this (well above-average) offense, to rank as a legitimate national championship threat? Not by historical performance standards.

Compared to past Syracuse defenses, this season's team is more reliant on takeaways. Conversely on each possession where the opposing Big East offense has not committed a turnover (what I call an effective possession), the Orange have on average allowed 1.26 points. That's the highest such number posted by any of the seven Big East teams currently projected as at-large bid recipients by my colleague Joe Lunardi.

There's still basketball to be played, naturally, and maybe a rotation energized by James Southerland's return will yet perform to the level set by past Final Four teams. Certainly Boeheim's men will have every opportunity to prove their mettle against quality opponents. In addition to hosting DePaul, Syracuse will close the regular season with a home game against the Cardinals and a rematch with the Hoyas in Washington D.C. I'll be watching closely.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

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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