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January 20, 2013
Smarter After Saturday
Florida's the Real No. 1

by John Gasaway

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Florida has opened SEC play with wins against Georgia, LSU, Texas A&M, and Missouri. You might be thinking those four teams don't exactly represent the creme de la creme of Division I, and you'd be right. But for better or worse they do sum statistically to a pretty fair representation of the league's 13 non-UF programs.

And why, exactly, am I so interested in the relative strength of Georgia, LSU, Texas A&M, and Missouri? Because what the Gators did to those teams is simply remarkable. Billy Donovan's men are currently outscoring their conference opponents by an unheard of 0.42 points per possession. Quick comparison: Kentucky, on its way to a national title, outscored the SEC by 0.26 points per trip in 2011-12.

Now the disclaimers. Yes, it's early. Yes, the Tigers faced Florida without Laurence Bowers (and I'm on the record as saying that's a big hit to Frank Haith's team). Yes, the ability to beat Georgia to a pulp on your home floor will doubtless prove to be of minimal utility when the NCAA tournament rolls around. Understood.

But we've seen teams look impressive early in the conference season before, and we've even seen teams benefit from the ill health of their opponents. What we've never seen before is a number as silly as 0.42 after 254 possessions of conference play.

Will that number come down? Of course. But to "predict" the inevitable regression in the direction of normalcy is to miss the point. The abnormal performance already happened, it's in the books, it's baked into everything Florida will do from this point forward. The SEC season is already 22 percent complete.

With the Gators we confront the possibility (also reminiscent of UK last season) that the team with the best offense in the nation may also turn out to have the best defense to be found anywhere. Just look at what Donovan's men have done. In four SEC games they've scored 1.19 points per possession, while allowing just 0.77. Both numbers are No. 1 in the league by a mile.

On offense, UF has been showing the traits of a perimeter-oriented team, namely, lots of attempted threes and very few turnovers. In conference play the Gators have hit 40 percent of their shots from beyond the arc, but this offense's impressive performance isn't due simply to Kenny Boynton, Mike Rosario, and Erik Murphy getting hot from the outside. Actually, Florida's two-point shooting has been even better, relative to the respective conference averages, than their accuracy from outside. Patric Young and Will Yeguete, take a bow.

And on defense Florida has simply suffocated their conference opponents. In particular the D that Scottie Wilbekin played against Missouri was perhaps best summed up by Haith after his Tigers were dismantled by the score of 83-52 in Gainesville. Missouri's head coach had just watched Wilbekin force SEC preseason Player of the Year Phil Pressey into a two-point (on 1-of-7 shooting), 10-turnover effort, and he had this to say: "I'm sure Phil will want to just get to the next one."

There's a case to be made that, even with losses to Arizona in Tucson and to Kansas State in Kansas City, this is the No. 1 team in the country at the moment. Anyway, that's how I'm voting in our Power Rankings at ESPN.com. Just don't expect to see that ranking universally adopted anytime soon: Florida's about to embark on a classic "Who've they played?" stretch in their schedule. Road games against Georgia and Mississippi State, followed by a visit to Gainesville from South Carolina, are unlikely to sway any voters.

So be it. All the Gators can do is play the games on their schedule, and so far they've done so quite well. Well enough, in fact, to garner my vote for No. 1 in the nation.

Has Jim Boeheim stolen a page from Bo Ryan?
Despite losing Dion Waiters, Fab Melo, Kris Joseph, and Scoop Jardine from last season's 34-3 team, Syracuse has started Big East play 5-0, a mark that includes a huge 70-68 win at No. 1-ranked Louisville. The victory was all the more impressive in light of the fact that Jim Boeheim didn't have James Southerland available for the game. (Southerland has been suspended indefinitely for unspecified reasons.)

Once again, the Orange are excelling at making opponents miss their shots. Strong field goal defense is a Boeheim trademark, and this season Syracuse has limited its Big East opponents to 41 percent shooting inside the arc. Statistically the Orange defense is "only" the league's second-best (behind the team the 'Cuse just beat, Louisville), but with last season's defensive rebounding woes a thing of the past it's fair to say that this is a defense capable of getting Boeheim to the Final Four.

To my eyes, however, the really interesting story is happening on offense, where Syracuse has been merely average in terms of shooting from the field thus far in Big East play. That's a dramatic change from last season, when Waiters, Joseph, and company put on something of a clinic when it came to two-point accuracy. Nevertheless, even with the mediocre shooting the Orange can lay claim to the Big East's No. 2 offense (second only to Notre Dame's), one that has scored 1.10 points per trip against conference opponents.

Boeheim has worked this trick -- so-so shooting, excellent offense -- by simply taking care of the ball. Syracuse has given the ball away on just 17 percent of their Big East possessions, a mark that's significantly lower than the conference average (20 percent). For a second consecutive season the Orange are reaping the considerable benefits of hanging on to the rock.

A low turnover rate hasn't always been standard operating procedure at Syracuse, and indeed as recently as 2009-10 we saw an otherwise outstanding Orange team led by Wes Johnson and Andy Rautins give the ball away 21 percent of the time in-conference. Those days are gone. A little like the infamously low-turnover Wisconsin Badgers, Syracuse is now benefiting from maximizing the number of chances it gets to score. It may not be as glamorous as an amazing display of shooting, but it works.

You should be watching the (top of the) balanced and exciting Big 12
The Big 12 is statistically "down" this season, a phenomenon that draws much of its strength from the absolute struggles being endured this season by teams like TCU and Texas Tech, as well as the relative drop-off displayed by conference newcomer West Virginia. (Throw a dart at the past seven or eight years, and in literally any season the Big 12 would have welcomed a much stronger bunch of Mountaineers to the league. Go figure.)

But don't let the bottom of the conference mislead you. The Big 12 could be primed for a very good and very interesting conference race. Kansas is, of course, the odds-on favorite here, but for the first time in a long while it's conceivable that the Jayhawks won't have either the league's best offense or its best defense (much less both).

If offense is your thing, you should familiarize yourself with Iowa State. When head coach Fred Hoiberg was hired in 2010, the knock on him was that he'd "never been a head coach." Maybe that was a good thing. The Cyclones hung with eventual national champion Kentucky for 25 minutes in the NCAA tournament round of 32 last March, and this season ISU's lighting up Big 12 defenses to the tune of 1.12 points per possession. Indeed, if not for a miraculous banked-in three by Ben McLemore, this team would have notched a win over Kansas in Lawrence. Give a lot of the credit here to Georges Niang, who's draining 67 percent of his 2s in conference play.

Or if you're more of a "defense wins championships" type of fan, consider jumping on the Oklahoma State bandwagon. Travis Ford's team has held Big 12 opponents to just 0.87 points per trip. True, part of that is simply the evaluative benefit of having already played TCU and Texas Tech, but keep in mind the Cowboys have been strong on D all season long. Basically if you're playing Oklahoma State you can forget about offensive rebounds. To this point in conference play OSU has hauled down 79 percent of their opponents' misses.

And don't get me started on Kansas State (4-0 and killing opponents with accuracy from outside), Baylor (struggling on offense but excellent on D), or surprising and sneaky-good Oklahoma (3-1 and crashing the offensive glass). A computer programmed to print out "Kansas" once a year would have correctly picked the Big 12 regular-season champion (or co-champion) in each of the past eight seasons, but recording No. 9 will be no cake walk for Bill Self and the Jayhawks.

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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