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January 26, 2009
Conference Check
Still-Early Edition

by John Gasaway

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Time for another dip into the illuminating world of conference-only tempo-free stats. Yes, these are the numbers that measure how teams do on a possession-by-possession basis, giving us a much more detailed look at a team's true on-court performance.

Bear in mind the piece's subtitle. It's still early, particularly for the ACC, Big 12 and SEC. I know, you'd think we'd be further along in late January. After all, the Obama Administration is already gathering dust, and yet teams as varied as Wake Forest, Kansas, Oklahoma State, Texas, Tennessee, and LSU have still played only just conference games apiece. (These conferences need to steal a page from the briskly efficient Missouri Valley, which already has put half its conference season in the books.) So please, take the numbers from the ACC, Big 12, and SEC in particular with a grain of salt.

ACC: Duke Needs to Pick on Someone their Own Size, Already

Through games of January 25, 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.  Duke             66.2    1.10    0.78   +0.32    
2.  North Carolina   76.8    1.11    0.97   +0.14
3.  Wake Forest      76.7    1.06    0.97   +0.09
4.  Florida St.      68.9    1.00    0.97   +0.03
5.  Clemson          72.8    1.00    0.97   +0.03
6.  Virginia Tech    67.7    1.06    1.06    0.00
7.  BC               69.1    1.06    1.09   -0.03
8.  Miami            67.0    1.06    1.12   -0.06
9.  Maryland         70.8    0.91    1.00   -0.09
10. Virginia         71.6    0.99    1.10   -0.11
11. Georgia Tech     72.4    0.88    0.99   -0.11
12. NC State         65.3    0.94    1.09   -0.15

No, that's not a typo. Spearheaded by what's been a freakishly outstanding defense, Duke is outscoring their ACC opponents by the equivalent of a third of a point on each possession, making the Blue Devils even more hegemonic in-conference than recent Kansas teams. Now, the caveats: We all believe at this point that there are two bona fide heavyweights in this conference outside of Durham, and Duke hasn't played either of those teams yet. That changes Wednesday night when the Blue Devils visit Wake Forest.

In other ACC news, North Carolina looks pretty spry for a team that's rumored to be 3-2. The Tar Heels would yet again appear to be admirably well balanced, showing excellent performance on both sides of the ball.

Lastly, Virginia Tech may not turn out to be as powerful as their 4-1 start would suggest, but they're almost certain to turn out better than anyone expected before the season started.

Big East: How Many Bids Do You See Here?

                                     Opp.
                     Pace    PPP     PPP      EM
1.  Marquette        69.3    1.18    0.97   +0.21
2.  Pitt             65.7    1.16    0.98   +0.18
3.  Louisville       68.9    1.03    0.87   +0.16
4.  Connecticut      66.6    1.13    0.99   +0.14
5.  Syracuse         70.2    1.09    1.02   +0.07
6.  Providence       71.0    1.09    1.02   +0.07
7.  Villanova        70.6    1.04    1.00   +0.04
8.  West Virginia    64.7    1.04    1.03   +0.01
9.  Georgetown       65.5    1.05    1.08   -0.03
10. S. Florida       62.9    1.01    1.04   -0.03
11. Notre Dame       70.2    1.05    1.10   -0.05
12. Cincinnati       65.9    1.01    1.08   -0.07
13. St. John's       67.8    0.95    1.09   -0.14
14. Seton Hall       69.6    1.04    1.19   -0.15
15. DePaul           66.9    0.96    1.13   -0.17
16. Rutgers          66.8    0.94    1.15   -0.21

Let's start at the top: Marquette still looks awesome here, but did you see that game against DePaul in Milwaukee on Saturday? Hey, it's a win, but the Golden Eagles will have to do much better than that against the likes of Pitt, Louisville, and Connecticut. (Heck, they'll have to do better than that tonight at Notre Dame.) Note as well that Buzz Williams' team is yet to play an opponent above sixth on this list.

Speaking of the Cardinals, their win at Syracuse yesterday was nice, but if you've been reading along here hopefully you weren't stunned. The Orangemen will continue to be held in high esteem because they won at Memphis on December 20. Indeed they did. Then again, the 'Cuse's best conference win so far was either their five-point win at South Florida or their 19-point romp at home over the Fighting Irish. As seen here, neither opponent looks terribly impressive in late January.

By the way, is it just me or has the talk of nine tournament bids cooled off a little? The Big East suddenly looks a lot more like the ACC: some of the best teams in the nation are at the very top of the conference, yes. Below number four above, though, the drop in quality may turn out to be as pronounced as it looks to be right now. Not to say some of these teams won't deserve bids, of course. Just that you can get ready for even more talk of Big East members "beating each other up," etc., as teams in the league's middle class seek to justify their records.

Big Ten: No, Illinois Really Isn't this Good. Still….

                                     Opp.
                     Pace    PPP     PPP      EM
1.  Illinois         62.6    1.04    0.91   +0.13
2.  Michigan St.     63.0    1.12    1.02   +0.10
3.  Purdue           64.6    1.02    0.92   +0.10
4.  Wisconsin        60.1    1.06    1.03   +0.03
5.  Minnesota        63.8    1.02    1.00   +0.02
6.  Penn St.         62.0    1.05    1.04   +0.01
7.  Michigan         60.7    1.03    1.04   -0.01
8.  Ohio St.         62.0    1.02    1.05   -0.03
9.  Northwestern     63.1    0.98    1.07   -0.09
10. Iowa             58.7    0.99    1.08   -0.09
11. Indiana          63.0    0.89    1.09   -0.20

The news about Illinois isn't their league-best efficiency margin seen here, which in truth owes much of its glitter to a quaint and rather well-attended reenactment of Little Big Horn in Champaign on January 10, wherein Indiana obligingly portrayed General Custer and his men. No, the news is merely that the Illini are so much better than expected, sitting atop of this list even though they're already done playing road games against both number-two Michigan State and number-three Purdue. Who'da thunk, right?

A week ago the conventional wisdom on the Big Ten was that it was a surprisingly strong and balanced league, yes, but with only one true threat to make the Final Four: the Spartans. The first half of the CW seems safe. The remaining question concerns whether any team is truly a threat to reach Detroit. Tom Izzo's group appears to be a mortal lock to have the conference's best offense. If State's D can just force a few more misses on the interior or a few more turnovers by opponents (or both), well, stay tuned.

Big 12: If Mike Anderson's Brother-in-Law were President, You'd be Hearing about Missouri

                                     Opp.
                     Pace    PPP     PPP      EM
1.  Kansas           68.2    1.16    0.91   +0.25
2.  Missouri         75.7    1.13    0.91   +0.22
3.  Oklahoma         67.9    1.10    0.93   +0.17
4.  Texas            66.4    1.04    0.95   +0.09
5.  Oklahoma St.     72.9    1.08    1.06   +0.02
6.  Baylor           69.4    1.13    1.12   +0.01
7.  Nebraska         63.4    0.98    0.97   +0.01
8.  Texas A&M        65.9    0.97    1.07   -0.10
9.  Texas Tech       70.9    0.91    1.04   -0.13
10. Iowa St.         69.0    0.89    1.04   -0.15
11. Kansas St.       65.3    0.95    1.13   -0.18
12. Colorado         67.5    0.89    1.15   -0.26

It's tough to hype a team that lost at Nebraska, even an improved Nebraska. Still, here goes. My eyes are telling me that Mike Anderson at last has his Missouri team playing the way his UAB teams used to play: with reckless yet very effective abandon. In the space of just one season, the Tigers have gone from having the worst defense in the Big 12 to having, so far, the best...and they're doing it at warp speed. If you love fast-paced hoops, tune in when Baylor visits Columbia this Saturday. That should be a fun one to watch.

Speaking of the Bears, zounds! Their defense has been porous. Pity, as this is an outstanding offensive team. If they could just get a few stops. Back to back, even.

Kansas has looked excellent, bullying the non-Missouri Big 12 North and Texas A&M, one of two apparently weak teams in the South.

No, I haven't forgotten prohibitive favorite Oklahoma. They have a big game tonight at Oklahoma State, where first-year coach Travis Ford has his Cowboys playing at a near-Missouri pace. OSU can definitely score points in Gallagher-Iba. Whether they can get enough stops against Blake Griffin, Willie Warren and company is another question.

Pac-10: The Best Defense Isn't Where You'd Think

                                     Opp.
                     Pace    PPP     PPP      EM
1.  Arizona St.      58.8    1.12    0.96   +0.16
2.  Washington       68.3    1.13    0.98   +0.15
3.  UCLA             59.6    1.16    1.05   +0.11
4.  Cal              63.2    1.08    1.02   +0.06
5.  USC              60.9    1.03    0.97   +0.06
6.  Stanford         66.6    1.05    1.05    0.00
7.  Washington St.   56.3    0.97    1.01   -0.04
8.  Arizona          61.7    0.97    1.03   -0.06
9.  Oregon St.       57.7    0.96    1.12   -0.16
10. Oregon           67.0    0.93    1.16   -0.23

First things first. Congratulations, truly, to Craig Robinson and his Oregon State Beavers, no longer the worst team in the Pac-10. That may not sound like a big deal to you, but those of us who follow this stuff saw the numbers from OSU's season last year and without exception we were, what's the term, uh, melted by mephitic horror. (Yeah, that's it!) The Beavers have come a long, long way.

As long as the kudos are being passed around, big props go out to Seattle, where Washington completed a weekend sweep of USC and UCLA with Saturday's 86-75 win over the Bruins. Glad I bought my Huskie stock early. As for Ben Howland's team, what happened? The multi-season run of outstanding defense in Westwood is apparently in real jeopardy. Good thing UCLA is so excellent on offense this year. They'll need to be.

Strangely, the UCLA-level defense out west is now being played by…Arizona State? The slow-paced yet highly-efficient Sun Devils, who are riding James Harden as far as he can take them? What's that all about? We'll get a chance to find out: a huge game is coming this Saturday afternoon in Tempe when Washington pays a visit.

SEC: Everyone Dings this League, but Who Really Wants to Play Kentucky Right Now?

                                     Opp.
                     Pace    PPP     PPP      EM
1.  LSU              69.6    1.11    0.87   +0.24
2.  Kentucky         68.7    1.04    0.84   +0.20
3.  Florida          71.5    1.09    0.94   +0.15
4.  Auburn           72.5    0.95    0.91   +0.04
5.  Mississippi St.  68.6    1.02    0.99   +0.03
6.  Tennessee        72.2    1.09    1.07   +0.02
7.  South Carolina   74.9    0.98    0.97   +0.01
8.  Alabama          68.5    0.98    1.05   -0.07
9.  Ole Miss         68.4    0.99    1.12   -0.13
10. Vanderbilt       66.8    0.92    1.06   -0.14
11. Georgia          70.3    0.79    0.96   -0.17
12. Arkansas         68.3    0.87    1.09   -0.22

As with the Big East and the Big Ten, we clearly have a surprise team at the top here. Don't be alarmed. LSU hosted Xavier Saturday and lost by ten. That feels about right: Trent Johnson is doing a tremendous job with this team and has them much further along than I expected. They look great here because they've whomped on Mississippi State and South Carolina in Baton Rouge and Ole Miss in Oxford.

Just below the Tigers we find traditional powers Kentucky and Florida. The Wildcats looked strangely beatable for much of the game on Saturday against Alabama in Tuscaloosa, yet emerged with a ten-point win, while the Gators put that dramatic last-second loss loss at South Carolina behind them with a laugher at Vanderbilt. Both teams appear here to have vastly improved defenses, but did I mention it's still early?

One more thing: Arkansas should stick to playing ranked non-conference opponents.

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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Around the Rim (01/25)
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The Other Seven Guys (01/26)

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