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January 14, 2009
Conference Check
Comically Premature Edition

by John Gasaway

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Welcome back to the wonderful world of conference-only tempo-free stats! As opposed to those ubiquitous yet doomed (I swear!) relics known as per-game stats, tempo-free numbers 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.

Much of what my redoubtable colleague Ken Pomeroy so sagaciously achieves through mathematical intervention in his team rating system is accomplished by our boring friend reality when conference play commences. Teams play an equal number of home and away games. Our interest settles in on precisely the conference games that comprise the most recent, and therefore telling, information available come Selection Sunday. Lastly, strengths of schedule are either very closely matched or, in the case of the Pac-10, identical.

I know it's early January but I decided to take the wraps off the numbers for the leagues that play 18-game schedules. The teams in the Big East, Big Ten and Pac-10 have, for the most part, played four or even five holes on this 18-hole course we call conference play--a first look at the leaderboard is therefore in order.

Big East: Wow! What a Great Start for…Marquette?

Through games of January 13, 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.  Marquette        67.4    1.18    0.93   +0.25
2.  Pitt             66.8    1.19    0.96   +0.23
3.  Syracuse         71.2    1.15    0.93   +0.22
4.  Connecticut      63.7    1.12    0.98   +0.14
5.  Louisville       69.5    1.01    0.87   +0.14
6.  Providence       69.9    1.07    0.96   +0.11
7.  S. Florida       65.0    0.98    0.96   +0.02
8.  Notre Dame       67.8    1.12    1.11   +0.01
9.  West Virginia    65.7    1.01    1.02   -0.01
10. Villanova        71.0    1.00    1.01   -0.01
11. Georgetown       64.5    1.07    1.09   -0.02
12. St. John's       70.9    0.90    1.08   -0.18
13. DePaul           69.3    0.95    1.15   -0.20
14. Seton Hall       71.8    1.03    1.25   -0.22
15. Rutgers          66.9    0.98    1.20   -0.22
16. Cincinnati       65.5    1.02    1.28   -0.26

  • Pitt, you've heard about, but Marquette is off to a start as strong as it has been quiet. In defeating Villanova, Cincinnati, Rutgers and West Virginia, the Golden Eagles have blitzed their opponents with lethally accurate shooting, especially from outside the arc. Jerel McNeal has led the way here, hitting 47 percent of his threes.
  • Syracuse is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. They look beautiful here but, for all the talk of Big East play being a "death march" for its member teams, the 'Cuse has in fact enjoyed a schedule that's been feathery soft so far: Seton Hall, South Florida, DePaul and Rutgers. That changes tonight, as Jim Boeheim's men travel to our nation's capital to take on Georgetown. Let's hold off on the hosannas for the Orangemen, then, until we get some more information.
  • Providence and South Florida look surprisingly feisty here, but then again they both played DePaul. (Har!) No, seriously, Jerry Wainwright's team is really struggling on both sides of the ball. Right now the Blue Demons make everyone they play--remember Northwestern?--a little more beautiful statistically.
  • Don't hold Rutgers' lowly position here against them. Even though three of their first four games have been at home, the Scarlet Knights have in fact played far and away the toughest schedule of any team in the league to this point, facing Pitt, Connecticut, Marquette and Syracuse. Fred Hill's team isn't what you'd call a threat to reach Detroit, but they're better than they look here.
  • Cincinnati is serving notice they might give Penn State 2007 a run for the title of worst major-conference defense of the decade. The Bearcats have allowed Big East opponents to shoot 56 percent on their twos and 55 percent on their threes (not a typo). If the Bearcats weren't a very good defensive rebounding team, they would have allowed well over 1.30 points per trip over their first three games.

Big Ten: Hoping to Reach Ford Field in April, Michigan State Has Forgotten Ford Field in December

                                     Opp.
                     Pace    PPP     PPP      EM
1.  Michigan St.     61.6    1.16    0.98   +0.18
2.  Wisconsin        59.1    1.12    0.98   +0.14
3.  Illinois         62.7    1.08    0.95   +0.13
4.  Minnesota        60.5    1.06    0.98   +0.08
5.  Michigan         61.8    1.06    0.99   +0.07
6.  Ohio St.         62.2    1.05    1.02   +0.03
7.  Purdue           62.3    1.01    0.98   +0.03
8.  Penn St.         61.9    1.00    1.07   -0.07
9.  Iowa             58.0    0.98    1.05   -0.07
10. Northwestern     62.5    0.90    1.13   -0.23
11. Indiana          62.1    0.87    1.13   -0.26

  • It's hard to believe it's been just 40 days since Michigan State plodded off the floor at Detroit's Ford Field, having been blasted into a million dispirited pieces by North Carolina in a 98-63 romp. Now look: The Spartans have won nine straight. Note that their excellent offense has been keyed by the fact that they're perfect monsters of offensive rebounding, getting to more than half their own misses thus far in league play. The monsters-in-chief here have been promising freshman Delvon Roe and grizzled veteran Goran Suton.
  • Wisconsin continues to be unbeatable for everyone but Purdue, which continues to be unbeatable for Wisconsin.
  • Illinois clearly got a statistical boost from playing Indiana at home. Nevertheless, the Illini appear to be better than most observers expected, particularly on offense. One big change from the recent past: a league-best 11.7 turnover percentage.
  • Penn State has been garnering much praise of late, despite looking fairly unimpressive here due to having looked very unimpressive on Sunday at Minnesota. The Nittany Lions will have a chance to re-earn the praise tonight as they host Michigan State.
  • No Big Ten team has shot better from the field in-conference than Iowa, yet the Hawkeyes' offense is far below average largely because they can't hold on to the ball, giving it away on a league-worst 25 percent of their possessions.

Pac-10: A Very Mean Season for the State of Oregon

                                     Opp.
                     Pace    PPP     PPP      EM
1.  Arizona St.      60.7    1.26    0.98   +0.28
2.  UCLA             61.4    1.17    0.98   +0.19
3.  Cal              62.0    1.09    0.96   +0.13
4.  Washington       64.7    1.08    1.00   +0.08
5.  USC              61.4    1.05    0.98   +0.02
6.  Arizona          63.0    0.98    0.97   +0.01
7.  Stanford         67.0    1.02    1.08   -0.06
8.  Washington St.   58.2    0.88    1.02   -0.14
9.  Oregon           66.3    0.93    1.17   -0.24
10. Oregon St.       55.7    0.84    1.13   -0.29

  • Look at those Arizona State Sun Devils, doing things on offense that beggar description. Part of that is what we hoops analysts in lab coats refer to as the "They Played Oregon State" effect, but part of it is genuinely impressive offense. ASU is on track to have perhaps the third-slowest-paced team in the Pac-10, so don't be fooled by their low point totals. Herb Sendek's team is in fact scoring points in bunches.
  • UCLA continues to be UCLA.
  • Much like Bob Huggins at West Virginia last year, Mike Montgomery at Cal this year has improved a team by preserving their preexisting good offense while vastly improving their defense.
  • Washington State has been utterly and completely unable to replace Kyle Weaver and Derrick Low on offense.
  • It is beyond amazing that Oregon State won a game against USC.

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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