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February 6, 2009
Conference Check
Emerging Reality Edition

by John Gasaway

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Now that it's February, we can have a little more confidence in what the conference-only tempo-free stats are telling us. You'll remember that these 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.

While it's true that big changes are almost certainly still in store--a year ago today Kansas State looked like a legitimate Final Four threat; eventually they limped into the tournament as an 11-seed--it's also true that with each passing game our read on any team is becoming more complete. Here's how things look right now.

ACC: Wake Forest is a Throw-Back, and That's the Problem

Through games of February 5, 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             67.3    1.03    0.85   +0.18    
2.  North Carolina   76.8    1.15    1.00   +0.15
3.  Clemson          70.7    1.06    0.98   +0.08
4.  Florida St.      70.3    0.98    0.96   +0.02
5.  BC               68.2    1.08    1.07   +0.01
6.  Wake Forest      75.1    0.99    0.99    0.00
7.  Miami            66.5    1.08    1.09   -0.01
8.  Virginia Tech    66.8    1.08    1.10   -0.02
9.  Georgia Tech     72.5    0.89    0.97   -0.08
10. Maryland         71.4    0.97    1.06   -0.09
11. NC State         65.6    1.00    1.13   -0.13
12. Virginia         71.1    0.96    1.11   -0.15

A few weeks ago who would have believed that Wake Forest would be failing to score a point per trip in ACC play? Well, they are, and it's killing them. Miami's shockingly easy 79-52 win over the Demon Deacons on Wednesday only put an exclamation point at the end of a sentence that had already been started by opponents like Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech. Wake is simply getting too few bites at the apple on offense: the Deacons don't "do" offensive rebounds, which is fine--as long as you take excellent care of the ball and shoot, and make, a lot of threes. None of the above, particularly the part about threes, describes Dino Gaudio's team. Forget the obvious differences in tempo and athleticism, the team that the Deacons are really starting to remind me of is Bob Knight-era Texas Tech. There will be only one shot per possession, and you know that shot will be a two.

Big East: How Many Bids Do You See Here? (Continued)

                                     Opp.
                     Pace    PPP     PPP      EM
1.  Connecticut      66.4    1.14    0.94   +0.20
2.  Marquette        68.6    1.18    0.99   +0.19
3.  Pitt             66.2    1.15    1.00   +0.15
4.  Louisville       69.2    1.00    0.88   +0.12
5.  Villanova        70.8    1.06    0.98   +0.08
6.  Syracuse         71.3    1.09    1.03   +0.06
7.  West Virginia    66.9    1.00    0.98   +0.02
8.  Providence       73.1    1.08    1.08    0.00
9.  Georgetown       65.1    1.04    1.08   -0.04
10. Cincinnati       65.9    1.02    1.08   -0.06
11. Notre Dame       70.0    1.06    1.14   -0.08
12. S. Florida       63.1    0.96    1.06   -0.10
13. Seton Hall       69.5    1.07    1.17   -0.10
14. St. John's       67.6    0.96    1.08   -0.12
15. Rutgers          66.1    0.95    1.09   -0.14
16. DePaul           66.0    0.93    1.13   -0.20

I'll admit to being a bit taken with the question of whether or not the Big East is going to receive a record nine NCAA tournament bids this season. After all, it would be historic, and history's always interesting, right? (Ask me about the presidential election of 1840 sometime.) Alas, if the bids went out today, nine of them going to Big East teams would clearly be a stretch. The nine-team scenario, at least in my mind, was going to involve nine teams separating themselves, however subtly, from the bottom seven. That hasn't been what's happened, to say the least. If anything four teams--Connecticut, Marquette, Pitt, and Louisville--have separated themselves from the bottom 12. Not that four bids is the correct number, of course. Merely that Georgetown and particularly Notre Dame have been way less formidable than a lot of us thought they would be.

Big Ten: Indiana is the Best 6-15 Team in the Country

                                     Opp.
                     Pace    PPP     PPP      EM
1.  Michigan St.     63.2    1.13    0.99   +0.14
2.  Purdue           63.8    1.03    0.95   +0.08
3.  Illinois         61.1    0.99    0.94   +0.05
4.  Wisconsin        59.1    1.08    1.04   +0.04
5.  Ohio St.         63.7    1.07    1.03   +0.04
6.  Minnesota        63.1    0.99    0.99    0.00
7.  Penn St.         62.1    1.04    1.05   -0.01
8.  Michigan         61.8    0.99    1.03   -0.04
8.  Northwestern     62.6    1.02    1.08   -0.06
10. Iowa             58.8    0.98    1.09   -0.11
11. Indiana          64.1    0.97    1.11   -0.14

I understand if you haven't been paying attention, but Indiana is suddenly within honest-to-goodness striking distance of not being the worst team in the Big Ten. Remember this: Tom Crean can coach. This season has been like some brutal twisted just-for-coaches version of Cast Away, where Crean had to paint a face on a volleyball in his own blood just to get a team on the floor. He could have just "coached" in pantomime this year, focused his energies on recruiting and, really, who would have been able to tell the difference? Instead Crean has channeled his inner Norman Dale and worked a mini-wonder. Over their past three games these allegedly scrappy and overmatched Hoosiers have actually morphed into a pretty reasonable facsimile of Michigan State, scoring 1.13 points per trip. (Yes, the defense is still woeful. Work with me.) Just think what Crean might do when he adds some fresh talent. You've been warned, Big Ten.

Big 12: At 22-1, the Sooners Don't Care about this So-Called "Efficiency Margin"

                                     Opp.
                     Pace    PPP     PPP      EM
1.  Kansas           66.5    1.13    0.93   +0.20
2.  Oklahoma         68.4    1.13    0.98   +0.15
3.  Missouri         74.7    1.10    0.95   +0.15
4.  Texas            69.1    1.02    0.97   +0.05
5.  Nebraska         63.8    1.00    0.97   +0.03
6.  Oklahoma St.     73.4    1.05    1.08   -0.03
7.  Texas A&M        66.4    1.03    1.06   -0.03
8.  Kansas St.       67.6    1.00    1.04   -0.04
9.  Baylor           71.4    1.05    1.10   -0.05
10. Texas Tech       71.2    0.96    1.08   -0.12
10. Iowa St.         66.0    0.89    1.05   -0.16
12. Colorado         63.6    0.92    1.08   -0.16

Oklahoma may not exactly jump out at you here, but as a Big 12 team with a 22-1 record on February 6 the Sooners are in fact ideally positioned for a one-seed next month. Jeff Capel's team simply has a less scary schedule the rest of the way than do the likes of Connecticut, North Carolina, Duke, Pitt, et al. Sure, OU will likely drop a game or two along the way, but their record will almost certainly still be gaudy on Selection Sunday.

The other thing to note here is that if Baylor somehow slips into the field of 65 at or near their current level of performance, it will raise at least one eyebrow. Mine.

Pac-10: UCLA? Ringing a Bell? Anyone?

                                     Opp.
                     Pace    PPP     PPP      EM
1.  UCLA             63.4    1.16    0.99   +0.17
2.  Washington       69.9    1.13    1.04   +0.09
3.  Arizona St.      59.4    1.10    1.01   +0.09
4.  USC              63.0    1.02    0.99   +0.03
5.  Cal              65.2    1.06    1.03   +0.03
6.  Arizona          63.3    1.02    1.03   -0.01
7.  Stanford         65.6    1.04    1.08   -0.04
8.  Washington St.   57.2    0.98    1.02   -0.04
9.  Oregon St.       57.6    0.96    1.09   -0.13
10. Oregon           64.9    0.94    1.15   -0.21

Someone needs to explain to me why UCLA is being overlooked this year. By "overlooked" I mean right now I'm seeing them projected as a five-seed (!) in the NCAA tournament. (Imagine being the lucky four-seed that has to face the "underdog" Bruins in the second round. Good luck.) Why is this happening? Yes, Ben Howland's team lost by three at home to Arizona State but, hey, last year they lost by nine at home to USC and no one freaked out. Mark me down as utterly baffled: this team is outscoring Pac-10 opponents by 0.17 points per trip. Last year's team? The one that received a one-seed? You'll probably find they outscored conference foes by, yes, 0.17 points per possession. UCLA 2009 has a PR problem.

SEC: Yes, Every Team Plays the No-Respect Card, but LSU Actually Has a Point

                                     Opp.
                     Pace    PPP     PPP      EM
1.  LSU              69.6    1.12    0.91   +0.21
2.  Florida          72.5    1.09    0.98   +0.11
3.  Kentucky         70.2    1.03    0.93   +0.10
4.  Tennessee        70.9    1.09    1.05   +0.04
5.  Mississippi St.  68.1    1.00    0.97   +0.03
6.  South Carolina   76.1    1.02    1.01   +0.01
7.  Ole Miss         68.4    1.04    1.07   -0.03
8.  Auburn           70.2    0.97    1.00   -0.04
9.  Alabama          69.9    1.01    1.07   -0.06
10. Vanderbilt       68.6    0.99    1.07   -0.08
11. Arkansas         70.2    0.95    1.08   -0.13
12. Georgia          70.0    0.84    1.04   -0.20

I'm not predicting that LSU will make the Final Four, however there is surely a happy medium between Detroit-or-bust euphoria and intimations that the Tigers are somehow on the proverbial bubble. To this point in the SEC season LSU has had both the conference's best offense and its best defense. They won at Tennessee. Sure, their conference is down and I, for one, think that losing at home by ten to Xavier pegs the Tigers about where they really are. Nevertheless, they are playing the games that are on their schedule and doing far better than anyone could have expected in Trent Johnson's first season. They could implode tomorrow, but today LSU is quite simply the SEC's best team.

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 (02/06)
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UCLA Is Good (02/09)

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