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March 19, 2008
Bracket Breakdown
Efficiency Margins

by John Gasaway

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I have good news for every hoops fan. In major-conference games this season, teams averaged about 68 possessions per 40 minutes. That's a full possession faster than last year--more value for your ticket dollar! The Big 12 was just a hair slower this year, but every other conference accelerated at least a little. (Yes, even the Big Ten. An investigation is pending.)

If we took every major-conference team that received an NCAA bid and tracked how well they scored and defended during each of those in-conference possessions, what would we find?

This:

Regular season conference games only
BCS conferences & Missouri Valley
Pace: possessions per 40 minutes
PPP: points per possession
Opp. PPP: opponent points per possession
EM: efficiency margin (PPP - Opp. PPP)

[Seed]
                                         Opp.
                         Pace    PPP     PPP      EM
1.  Kansas [1]           69.2    1.16    0.92   +0.24
2.  Wisconsin [3]        60.2    1.09    0.91   +0.18
3.  UCLA [1]             64.9    1.13    0.96   +0.17
4.  Tennessee [2]        71.5    1.12    0.97   +0.15  
5.  Louisville [3]       67.0    1.06    0.91   +0.15
6.  North Carolina [1]   74.7    1.13    0.99   +0.14
7.  Duke [2]             75.3    1.11    0.99   +0.12
8.  Georgetown [2]       62.6    1.04    0.92   +0.12
9.  Purdue [6]           64.1    1.06    0.95   +0.11
10. Drake [5]            61.5    1.14    1.03   +0.11
11. Kansas St. [11]      70.2    1.11    1.01   +0.10
12. Mississippi St. [8]  67.7    1.05    0.96   +0.09
13. Michigan St. [5]     63.1    1.06    0.97   +0.09
14. Connecticut [4]      67.7    1.11    1.02   +0.09
15. Texas [2]            65.3    1.09    1.00   +0.09
16. West Virginia [7]    64.5    1.07    0.99   +0.08
17. Marquette [6]        69.1    1.06    0.98   +0.08
18. Stanford [3]         63.2    1.05    0.97   +0.08
19. Washington St. [4]   58.5    1.09    1.01   +0.08
20. Indiana [8]          64.8    1.08    1.01   +0.07
21. Clemson [5]          69.4    1.07    1.00   +0.07
22. Notre Dame [5]       72.2    1.11    1.04   +0.07
23. USC [6]              65.3    1.06    1.01   +0.05
24. Arkansas [9]         68.8    1.04    0.99   +0.05
25. Pitt [4]             64.7    1.09    1.05   +0.04
26. Arizona [10]         63.5    1.08    1.06   +0.02
27. Vanderbilt [4]       68.4    1.05    1.03   +0.02
28. Baylor [11]          72.2    1.08    1.07   +0.01
29. Kentucky [11]        63.4    1.02    1.01   +0.01
30. Oregon [9]           63.8    1.11    1.10   +0.01
31. Texas A&M [9]        63.6    1.01    1.01    0.00
32. Villanova [12]       69.0    1.00    1.00    0.00
33. Miami [7]            69.6    1.06    1.07   -0.01
34. Oklahoma [6]         63.6    1.01    1.03   -0.02
35. Georgia [14]         66.8    0.96    1.03   -0.07

If you're seeing the top of this list for the first time, let me repeat what I said on Friday:

Adjust for reality. Add Memphis. Acknowledge that even BCS conferences vary in strength (though not as much as commonly supposed). Note that Kansas plays in the Big 12 North and gets eight games against Colorado, Iowa State, Missouri and Nebraska. Wisconsin was blessed with eight games against Northwestern, Penn State, Michigan and Iowa, yet had no road game against the Big Ten's third-best team, Michigan State. North Carolina had a key injury. Pitt had key injuries.

In that same vein, let the word go forth that efficiency margin is not a silver bullet for your bracket. Most obviously, you'll need to allow for the fact that Tennessee (number 4 above), Louisville (5), North Carolina (6), Washington State (19), Indiana (20), Notre Dame (22), Arkansas (24) and Butler are all, incredibly, in the same murderous East regional. The team that staggers out of the East alive will truly have accomplished something. The Tar Heels should be very thankful they'll be playing all their games in their home state.

No, EM is not a silver bullet, but it can be a valued voice at the bracket table alongside your gut instincts and mascot preferences. Three observations….

    Kansas is Scary--In Both Senses of the Term

    Even allowing for a relatively soft conference schedule, Kansas has been the best team in the country this year on a possession-by-possession basis. More than any other one-seed, the Jayhawks have the potential to beat a Final Four-caliber opponent with both their offense and their defense. (Put another way, KU's shooting in-conference was excellent and their opponents' shooting was horrible. That description doesn't fit any other major-conference team as well, though Georgetown does come close.)

    Maybe the only thing precluding a general acknowledgement that this is indeed the team to beat is the fact that KU has been unable to reach the Final Four under Bill Self. While this hesitance to jump on the bandwagon is understandable, I happen to think this is the year that streak ends. Then again, it doesn't matter what I think. It matters what the players think. They're aware of streaks just like the rest of us. If that awareness weighs on them, it can make a tough regional final even tougher, whether the opponent is Georgetown, Wisconsin or whomever.

    North Carolina, Conversely, Is Just Plain Scary

    The Tar Heels have shown an ability that might be even more frightening to opponents than the earthling Jayhawks' mere "offense" and "defense." Roy Williams has a team that's proven it can win while taking on different personalities. They've had to. Carolina did without point guard Ty Lawson for the better part of seven games in the heart of their season. The fact that Lawson's absence put more of a dent in UNC's per-possession numbers on offense than it did in their won-loss record speaks volumes. Without Lawson, Carolina's scoring per possession dipped significantly but their efficiency margin experienced only the tiniest decline, thanks to a defense that picked up the slack. True, a negative read of the same facts would be that UNC plays better defense without Lawson. However, I think recent history suggests a different spin.

    Like North Carolina this year, Florida last year was very good but certainly not preeminent in terms of EM. The Gators had kind of a movable dominance: I couldn't have told you before the tournament last year how Billy Donovan's team would excel, exactly, but everyone just assumed they would. (I certainly wouldn't have anticipated that a team blessed with Al Horford, Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer would shoot, and make, a flurry of threes in their six tournament games.) By necessity, Carolina this year has shown that same kind of flexible hegemony: the Heels will simply do what it takes. No, they're not the defending national champions, but sometimes they act like they are. I mean that in a good way--they have the proverbial swagger.

    Texas Is in the Eye of the Beholder

    The polls, the selection committee, and, at times, this Basketball Prospectus writer were all impressed with the Longhorns this season. That skeptical killjoy known as efficiency margin, however, was not. In fact, if Rick Barnes' team gets to San Antonio, they'll have the lowest efficiency margin (0.09) of any major-conference Final Four team since at least 2004. True, this is partly an artifact of a disastrous start to the Big 12 season, wherein the 'Horns suffered double-digit defeats on the road to Missouri (of all teams) and Texas A&M. After that they righted the ship, or so it seemed.

    Nevertheless, the Longhorns are something of an unconventional near-one-seed. Most notably, they don't shoot all that well, a shortcoming that's been ameliorated by good offensive rebounding and the lowest turnover rate of any major-conference tournament team. A potential Sweet 16 game against Stanford would be a great test for both teams. Given that Trent Johnson's team never goes for turnovers, you should be able to count the Texas TOs on the fingers of one hand.

BONUS tournament build-up! Colleague Ken Pomeroy and I have been holding serious deliberations for the past several days to come to agreement on the first-ever Pomaway All-American Team. In fact, the deliberations have been so deliberate we're postponing our announcement. New plan: tune in next week for our selections.

Join John Gasaway Thursday at noon ET as he chats away the first hours of the NCAA Tournament. Busy calling in sick? Send in your question now!

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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Game Reax (03/19)
Next Article >>
Profiling Success (03/20)

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