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February 24, 2009
Conference Check
Beginning of the End Edition

by John Gasaway

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We're now just 20 days out from Selection Sunday. The conference hierarchies you see here will shift and adjust over that time but they're not going to alter dramatically. Indeed we've reached the point where there are several hundred possessions behind all these numbers. Here's how the nation's major-conference teams have performed over the past two months:

ACC: Duke Reboots

Through games of February 23, 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.  North Carolina   74.7    1.15    1.02   +0.13
2.  Duke             69.1    1.07    0.96   +0.11    
3.  Clemson          69.8    1.10    1.00   +0.10
4.  Wake Forest      74.9    1.06    1.01   +0.05
5.  Florida St.      69.2    1.00    0.97   +0.03
6.  Miami            66.3    1.06    1.08   -0.02
7.  BC               67.5    1.09    1.11   -0.02
8.  Virginia Tech    67.9    1.06    1.09   -0.03
9.  NC State         68.4    1.04    1.09   -0.05
10. Maryland         70.2    0.99    1.07   -0.08
11. Virginia         69.9    0.97    1.07   -0.10
12. Georgia Tech     72.7    0.90    1.01   -0.11

Duke's been devilishly (har!) difficult to read this year. Mike Krzyzewski's team started ACC play looking like the best defense the game has seen since Michigan State in 2000. Then the Blue Devils lost four of six, including a 64-47 thrashing at Clemson and a loss at home to North Carolina in which Duke allowed the Heels to score 101 points. Sounds like your standard-issue February swoon, right? Maybe it was headed in that direction, but the Devils' 101-91 win over Wake Forest on Sunday night was sure timely. Highly-touted freshman Elliott Williams has at last been seeing minutes and the reaction from the Duke faithful has been so positive that Coach K is bristling at suggestions that he should have used Williams sooner. Gerald Henderson, conversely, may not be new to the lineup but against the Demon Deacons he did score 35 points on 11-of-15 shooting. That was helpful, too.

Big East: Behold Louisville, Now with More Offense

                                     Opp.
                     Pace    PPP     PPP      EM
1.  Pitt             65.7    1.18    1.00   +0.18
2.  Connecticut      66.2    1.10    0.92   +0.18
3.  Louisville       68.0    1.06    0.92   +0.14
4.  Marquette        69.3    1.13    1.00   +0.13
5.  West Virginia    67.5    1.05    0.97   +0.08
6.  Villanova        72.5    1.10    1.03   +0.07
7.  Syracuse         72.0    1.08    1.06   +0.02
8.  Notre Dame       69.3    1.10    1.11   -0.01
9.  Georgetown       64.5    1.05    1.07   -0.02
10. Providence       73.1    1.06    1.10   -0.04
11. Cincinnati       63.9    1.04    1.10   -0.06
12. Seton Hall       68.1    1.04    1.10   -0.06
13. St. John's       66.2    0.96    1.08   -0.12
14. S. Florida       62.9    0.92    1.06   -0.14
15. Rutgers          67.2    0.94    1.09   -0.15
16. DePaul           65.8    0.92    1.19   -0.27

Louisville looked really good last night, winning at Georgetown 76-58. (Any team looks good when they make their first seven threes.) In fact the Cards seem to have turned over something of a new leaf since their debacle at Notre Dame 12 days ago. Rick Pitino's team has rebounded from their 33-point loss in South Bend to score 1.28 points per trip over their last four games, an impressive figure even given the uneven competition (DePaul, Providence, Cincinnati and the Hoyas). This miniature success story has had many authors, but it certainly hasn't hurt matters that Preston Knowles has gone 13-of-20 on his threes over that span. Needless to say, if Louisville can match their excellent defense with good offense, they will be a very tough out next month, no matter how highly-seeded the opponent.

Big Ten: Lethal Shooting from a Team No One's Noticing

                                     Opp.
                     Pace    PPP     PPP      EM
1.  Michigan St.     63.3    1.08    0.94   +0.14
2.  Purdue           63.6    1.01    0.92   +0.09
3.  Wisconsin        58.2    1.07    1.00   +0.07
4.  Illinois         60.5    0.99    0.93   +0.06
5.  Ohio St.         62.4    1.07    1.04   +0.03
6.  Minnesota        63.4    0.99    0.97   +0.02
7.  Michigan         61.0    0.99    1.02   -0.03
8.  Penn St.         60.8    0.98    1.02   -0.04
9.  Northwestern     60.9    1.01    1.09   -0.08
10. Iowa             57.4    0.99    1.08   -0.09
11. Indiana          64.4    0.92    1.10   -0.18

Any team's success is a function of how well they perform in a number of areas: defense, taking care of the ball, offensive boards, etc. That being said, if you had to pick just one Big Ten team to take a shot from the field, you'd pick Ohio State. The Buckeyes haven't looked all that great this year: their defense has been below-average, Thad Matta does without offensive boards as a matter of style, and his young team has had real problems holding on to the rock. On those possessions where they don't commit a TO, however, OSU has been absolutely on fire in conference play, making 55 percent of their twos and 41 percent of their threes. B.J. Mullens and Jon Diebler have been particularly accurate from inside and outside the arc, respectively. This is the best shooting the Big Ten has seen in years, better even than what Illinois did in 2005.

Big 12: Griffin Sits, Aldrich Feasts

                                     Opp.
                     Pace    PPP     PPP      EM
1.  Kansas           69.0    1.09    0.92   +0.17
2.  Missouri         72.8    1.08    0.91   +0.17
3.  Oklahoma         68.9    1.13    1.01   +0.12
4.  Texas            66.9    1.07    1.02   +0.05
5.  Texas A&M        65.9    1.05    1.06   -0.01
6.  Oklahoma St.     72.9    1.08    1.09   -0.01
7.  Kansas St.       67.0    1.01    1.03   -0.02
8.  Nebraska         63.0    0.94    0.97   -0.03
9.  Baylor           69.3    1.07    1.13   -0.06
10. Texas Tech       72.5    0.99    1.11   -0.12
11. Iowa St.         65.4    0.92    1.04   -0.12
12. Colorado         62.4    0.92    1.09   -0.17

We have to put an asterisk by the Sooners' number, of course, since the concussion that Blake Griffin suffered against Texas Saturday night kept him on the sidelines for last night's game against Kansas. We shouldn't allow Griffin's absence to detract too much, however, from what the Jayhawks showcased last night: Cole Aldrich. If you're looking for a player who deserves more ink, look no further than the sophomore from the Twin Cities who recorded a 15-20 double-double against Griffin-less Oklahoma. This year Aldrich has been solid virtually across the board, making 62 percent of his twos and taking excellent care of the ball while ranking among the national leaders in both defensive rebounding and shot-blocks. He even shoots 77 percent from the line. Aldrich's performance against Tyler Hansbrough in last year's national semifinal was no blip.

Pac-10: Showdown Looming in Seattle

                                     Opp.
                     Pace    PPP     PPP      EM
1.  UCLA             64.8    1.15    1.04   +0.11
2.  Arizona St.      58.4    1.11    1.01   +0.10
3.  Washington       71.0    1.11    1.00   +0.10
4.  Cal              64.9    1.08    1.03   +0.05
5.  Arizona          63.7    1.08    1.06   +0.02
6.  USC              62.0    1.02    1.02    0.00
7.  Washington St.   57.2    1.02    1.04   -0.02
8.  Stanford         65.5    1.03    1.09   -0.06
9.  Oregon St.       57.7    0.96    1.06   -0.10
10. Oregon           65.5    0.95    1.16   -0.21

This is one case where you should go with those archaic relics of a bygone era known as the "standings" over the stats, even tempo-free ones. Right now Washington is indeed the best team in an unusually balanced Pac-10. The Huskies have a huge weekend coming up, with Arizona State invading Seattle Thursday night and a visit from Arizona scheduled for Saturday morning. As for UCLA, they're a force of nature on offense but their defense was last seen somewhere in the vicinity of Pauley Pavilion on February 4, after the Bruins' 76-60 win over USC. Anyone with knowledge of this defense's whereabouts is encouraged to contact Ben Howland.

SEC: Best Offense against Best Defense

                                     Opp.
                     Pace    PPP     PPP      EM
1.  LSU              70.5    1.09    0.94   +0.15
2.  Florida          71.3    1.11    1.01   +0.10
3.  Kentucky         69.2    1.04    0.94   +0.10
4.  Tennessee        69.0    1.08    1.04   +0.04
5.  South Carolina   75.4    1.02    0.99   +0.03
6.  Auburn           69.8    1.03    1.01   +0.02
7.  Mississippi St.  70.3    1.02    1.01   +0.01
8.  Ole Miss         68.0    1.03    1.03    0.00
9.  Alabama          70.5    1.00    1.06   -0.06
10. Vanderbilt       67.7    1.00    1.06   -0.06
11. Arkansas         70.3    0.96    1.08   -0.12
12. Georgia          69.9    0.86    1.06   -0.20

Tonight's game between LSU and Florida in Baton Rouge will pit the Tigers' SEC-leading defense against the Gators' league-best offense. It gets better: LSU's specialty is a total ban on made threes for opponents. Florida not only attempts threes more frequently than any SEC team outside of Starkville, Mississippi, they're also more accurate on those threes than any SEC team, period. Tips at 8 Eastern: tune in.

Mountain West: The NCAA's Preferred Source of Non-"Major" At-Large Bids

                                     Opp.
                     Pace    PPP     PPP      EM
1.  New Mexico       63.6    1.13    0.96   +0.17
2.  BYU              69.2    1.11    0.97   +0.14
3.  Utah             64.4    1.13    1.00   +0.13
4.  San Diego St.    63.4    1.06    0.98   +0.08
5.  UNLV             66.3    1.06    0.99   +0.07
6.  TCU              63.0    0.99    1.06   -0.07
7.  Wyoming          67.2    1.02    1.12   -0.10
8.  Colorado St.     65.8    1.00    1.16   -0.16
9.  Air Force        57.6    0.89    1.16   -0.27

The Mountain West will be joining us here at Conference Check for the rest of the year. As a conference that figures to virtually monopolize non-"major" conference at-large bids, the league is well worth our attention. (Not to mention the fact that by some measures the MWC is slightly superior to the SEC this year.) Currently Utah, BYU and UNLV appear safely in, while San Diego State could go either way. Meanwhile New Mexico continues to do everything in their power to present the selection committee with a belligerently difficult profile: a very unimpressive non-conference season and zero quality road wins, yes, but also very close losses in tough venues (Utah, UNLV) combined with total domination at home. See, for instance, the Lobos' pitiless 75-49 dismantling of SDSU on Saturday.

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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