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March 16, 2009
It's the Efficiency
Memphis is My Favorite

by John Gasaway

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The NCAA selection committee likes to say they look at a team's "body of work." I do, too, it's just that for me the body of work is usually the conference season, the time of year when "home" and "road" are balanced and the schedule is not crafted by coaches but instead is dictated to them.

That's why Memphis poses a special challenge to any evaluation that leans on a team's in-conference results. The Tigers are an elite team in a middling conference. They dominate their league to an extent that no other team in the nation can match. What can be done in terms of measuring this team against the likes of Louisville, Pitt, North Carolina and Connecticut?

Let's start at the beginning. For any team, every possession in conference play is a test: score, then keep the other team from scoring. If we took all of the major-conference teams that received NCAA bids last night and tracked how well they did on each such "test" during league play, what would we find?

This:

Apples and Oranges--But Still Good to Know

Regular season conference games only: ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, C-USA, Missouri Valley, Mountain West , Pac-10, and SEC
Pace: possessions per 40 minutes
PPP: points per possession
Opp. PPP: opponent points per possession
EM: efficiency margin (PPP - Opp. PPP)

[seed]

                                          Opp.
                          Pace    PPP     PPP      EM   
1.  Memphis [2]           65.3    1.13    0.86   +0.27
2.  Pitt [1]              66.9    1.17    1.01   +0.16
3.  Kansas [3]            69.5    1.09    0.94   +0.15
4.  Connecticut [1]       66.6    1.10    0.95   +0.15
5.  North Carolina [1]    74.7    1.16    1.01   +0.15
6.  BYU [8]               68.3    1.08    0.94   +0.14
7.  Louisville [1]        68.0    1.06    0.92   +0.14
8.  UCLA [6]              64.5    1.17    1.04   +0.13
9.  Michigan St. [2]      63.6    1.06    0.93   +0.13
10. Missouri [3]          72.9    1.08    0.96   +0.12
11. N. Iowa [12]          61.2    1.09    0.97   +0.12
12. Oklahoma [2]          68.8    1.13    1.02   +0.11
13. Utah [5]              64.6    1.10    0.99   +0.11
14. LSU [8]               69.5    1.08    0.97   +0.11
15. Washington [4]        70.6    1.10    1.00   +0.10
16. Duke [2]              69.2    1.08    0.98   +0.10    
17. Villanova [3]         71.8    1.10    1.01   +0.09
18. West Virginia [6]     65.9    1.06    0.98   +0.08
19. Wisconsin [12]        57.8    1.08    1.00   +0.08
20. Syracuse [3]          71.1    1.10    1.02   +0.08
21. Arizona St. [6]       59.0    1.09    1.01   +0.08
22. Marquette [6]         69.0    1.12    1.04   +0.08 
23. Clemson [7]           70.5    1.09    1.01   +0.08
24. Purdue [5]            63.6    1.02    0.95   +0.07
25. Wake Forest [4]       74.3    1.07    1.01   +0.06 
26. Illinois [5]          61.1    0.98    0.93   +0.05
27. Tennessee [9]         68.9    1.09    1.04   +0.05
28. Texas [7]             67.5    1.07    1.03   +0.04
29. Texas A&M [9]         66.2    1.08    1.05   +0.03
30. Florida St. [5]       69.1    1.00    0.98   +0.02
31. Cal [7]               65.7    1.09    1.07   +0.02
32. Oklahoma St. [8]      71.5    1.09    1.07   +0.02
33. Ohio St. [8]          60.8    1.07    1.05   +0.02
34. USC [10]              62.0    1.04    1.03   +0.01
35. Arizona [12]          64.6    1.10    1.09   +0.01
36. Minnesota [10]        62.2    0.98    0.98    0.00
37. Mississippi St. [13]  69.8    1.03    1.03    0.00
38. Michigan [10]         61.0    1.01    1.03   -0.02
39. Boston College [7]    66.9    1.08    1.11   -0.03
40. Maryland [10]         69.3    0.99    1.06   -0.07

If you're seeing a list like this for the first time, let me repeat what I said last year:

Adjust for reality. Memphis plays in Conference USA, not the Big 12, much less the ACC or Big East. Purdue played much of the year with an ailing Robbie Hummel, but he looked healthy enough in the Big Ten tournament. UCLA looks great here, but they've been asked to fly 2700 miles across three time zones to play a tough VCU team and then, if they survive, Villanova in their hometown.

Also note that efficiency margins can't be much help for your bracket when the committee puts five of this list's top 11 teams in one region, as they have this season with the West (Memphis, Connecticut, BYU, Missouri and Northern Iowa).

That being said, the past few years have taught me that this list can be a valued collaborator alongside your eyes, instincts and mascot preferences as you pencil in your brackets. If you're thinking you know a team that can go all the way but you had to go a long way down this list to find them, you might want to think again. Over the past four seasons, no major-conference team with an efficiency margin under 0.10 has made it to the Final Four.

With all that in mind, here are some bullets early in the week for your brackets:

  • Memphis is my overall tournament favorite, even as a two-seed. They obviously dominated their league to an absurd extent, but how can we possibly know what to make of this kind of off-the-charts number? Well, how about this: Last year the Tigers came within a free throw of winning the national championship after outscoring Conference USA by 0.29 points per trip. I'll take my chances with a team that outscored the same league this year by a mere 0.27. You'll be hearing more from me about Memphis this week. Maybe they're not what you'd call prohibitive when it comes to being a favorite. Still, the rules of this game are that you get to pick one team to come out on top. I'll take the Tigers.
  • Savvy readers might think Maryland is at the bottom of this list in part or even wholly because of their cover-your-eyes 41-point loss at Duke in January. Not so. Even if you throw that game out (which of course would be pointless--do the other 39 teams then get to throw out their single worst game?), Maryland would vault all the way up to…number 40, albeit drawing a good deal closer to Boston College at 39.
  • I know you might be thinking, "Hey, look at Northern Iowa way up there," and who knows, maybe the Panthers will indeed make some noise. Truth in advertising, however, compels me to tell you that on last year's list another Missouri Valley team was in virtually the exact same spot. That team was Drake, and they lost in a first-round thriller to Western Kentucky. FYI.
  • Needless to say, teams that are actually outscored by their conference opponents are pretty much doomed come tournament time. No such team, regardless of seed (and, incredibly, they've been seeded as high as five), has survived the first weekend since West Virginia did it in 2005. That year the Mountaineers memorably came within a free throw of the Final Four. Wait a minute, hold the phone… In 2005 West Virginia was coached by John Beilein. Maybe he can work that negative-EM magic again this year with Michigan!

    The Final Four host city would be OK with that.

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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