If you're reading this article today, or anytime the week it's published, you share an affliction with the two of us. After all, it's October. There's plenty to divert your sports attention right now. The baseball playoffs--which reportedly, in a shocking development, included the Red Sox and the Yankees--are getting ready to make the jump from four LDS's to two LCS's. The Patriots, per their custom, look invincible. USC could probably beat the Dolphins this year, but they can't beat a 40-point underdog at home. The NHL is already underway. NBA teams are limbering up and the opening of their regular season is just weeks away.
Yet here you are, already thinking about college basketball. Wise choice. We've been doing that too, only the affliction is even worse with us. We've been looking ahead all summer. Over the next five weeks we're going to share some of what we think we've learned.
What We Do
Before we dive into the details of the upcoming season, we should give you an understanding of how we talk. The NCAA publishes various statistics on a weekly basis. While most media outlets and analysts religiously use these figures, we choose to ignore them entirely. Not because the NCAA is lying to us, but because all of their stats are averages per game.
The problem with metrics that use games as the time constraint is that the 339 Division I teams don't have the same number of opportunities per game. Oh, sure, they each get the same 40 minutes, but opportunities aren't measured by time, they're measured by possessions. Or at least they will be by us. Unfortunately, most statistics cited by hoops analysts are given in terms of those 40 minutes.
Fortunately, we have people like Joe Scott to help us illustrate our point. Like no other coach, Scott, the head man for the Air Force Academy, insists that his offense use as much of the shot clock as possible. For the past four seasons, a Joe Scott-coached team, either at Air Force or at Princeton, has been the slowest-paced team in the nation. This has enormous implications for how we should analyze the abilities of a Joe Scott team as a whole, and the players on his teams. Last season's Princeton team led the nation in fewest points allowed per game at 53.3. In fact, over the past five seasons, a Scott-led team has finished first in this category three times, and second in the other two years.
So is Joe Scott some sort of defensive genius? Not really. Nobody is seeking Scott out for his defensive philosophies. How is that possible when Scott's teams have consistently dominated a category that the NCAA itself deems "scoring defense"? It's simple. By virtue of spending so much time with the ball, Scott's teams give opponents fewer opportunities to score. Last season, Princeton averaged about 53 possessions per game, essentially 53 opportunities to score. A team's possession lasts until the opponent gains control of the ball. By this definition, turnovers end possessions. Made shots end possessions. Some made free throws end possessions. Missed shots not rebounded by the offense end possessions. Note that this means that missed shots rebounded by the offense do not end a possession. Therefore, a team can have multiple shots on a possession.
These constraints force each team's number of possessions to be essentially the same in each game. This is important because it means that it really doesn't matter how many opportunities a team gets, its opponents will get the same number. So while Princeton was able to keep their opponents off the scoreboard, with only about 53 opportunities to score each game, the Tigers also kept themselves from putting up a lot of points. They ranked dead last in the nation in points scored per game. So you don't learn much about Princeton after having examined the NCAA's scoring offense and scoring defense statistics, other than that the Tigers were involved in a lot of low-scoring contests. The games weren't low scoring because of Princeton's ability; they were low scoring because of Princeton's style.
That's where Basketball Prospectus comes in. Per-game stats are often as much about style as substance. A team's style is certainly important and will be discussed, but a team's effectiveness--its strengths and weaknesses--need to be evaluated independent of its style. That's what we're going to do here. Additional explanation of the methods you'll see in this preview, and in content on this site throughout the season, can be found here.
Here's a fearless prediction based on the most rigorous analysis: no three-peat.
When the Florida Gators cut down the nets at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta last April, Billy Donovan and his team were celebrating an accomplishment that no other team had achieved for 15 years: repeating as national champions. Having now graciously donated the heart of the roster to the NBA, however, the Gators are going to lose their last game this season, just like 64 other teams are fated to every spring. As revolutionary and innovative as it may seem in Gainesville, teams from other D-I schools must occasionally be allowed to win national championships in basketball or football.
Moreover, there's no single clear favorite this year to the extent that Florida was one year ago today. Sure, you'll be hearing a lot about teams like Memphis, UCLA, North Carolina, Kansas and Louisville in the next few weeks. None of those teams, as talented and imposing as they all undoubtedly are, loom quite as large as did, say, Connecticut in October of 2005. You can ask Jim Larranaga and George Mason University what happened to the Huskies that season.
Why dwell on just a few favorites, though? To come up with our preview we've lingered over every single team in the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and SEC. Not just Duke, Georgetown, Michigan State, Texas, Oregon and Tennessee, mind you, but also Miami, Cincinnati, Northwestern, Colorado, Oregon State and South Carolina. If you're a fan of a team in a so-called power conference, you'll find at least a thousand words on them here, promise. We've looked at a number of other major and mid-major conferences as well. We'll be posting our thoughts on all of the above here in the days to come, starting with our overview of the ACC.
Of course, all this analysis and earnest study will soon be pushed aside and even, in some respects, flatly contradicted by the games themselves. So be it. We just couldn't resist the temptation of peeking ahead, however imperfectly. If we can momentarily divert your attention from a busy October while you wait along with us, all the better.
So let's tip it off.
Just one more thing, though. If there really is a tip-off, you'll definitely want Baylor's Mamadou Diene on your side. The seven-footer from Senegal went an unfathomable 15-0 in the center circle against Big 12 opponents last season, making him the Don Larsen of tip-offs. As we said, we've been looking at this stuff pretty closely.
Ken Pomeroy is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Ken by clicking here or click here to see Ken's other articles.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.