I love the time right after New Year’s. Every year these days signal that the college football season is at long last about to expire and that it’s now time to give the balance of our attention to a sport where coaches never wear visors. In other words, it’s time to focus on hoops, more specifically on conference play. The best information we have on teams in March comes from what they do in January and February, when they play an equal number of road and home games against teams of similar resources, if not ability. Today I’ll look ahead at what conference play might hold for the favorites in the ACC, Big East and Big Ten. Tomorrow I’ll get to the top teams in the Big 12, Pac-10 and SEC. (Memphis? Hold that thought until next week.)
Top-ranked North Carolina is 14-0 and boasts one of the best per-possession scoring margins in the nation. Then again, with the schedule the Tar Heels have played, their numbers should look that good. Not that Carolina intentionally scheduled soft; it was widely expected that Louisville would be ranked in the top five for most of the year and that they’d collide with the Heels in Vegas. It was also expected that Kentucky would be respectable. Neither of the above proved to be correct.
Yet, even with the gaudy numbers, my colleague Ken Pomeroy has pointed out that the Heels really miss Brandan Wright. Roy Williams isn’t getting the efficiency on offense from the power-forward position that he did last year. What’s really weird about Carolina this year, though, is that as a team it's actually taking care of the ball, committing a turnover on less than 19 percent of possessions. This represents something of a departure for a team that has most often won by going fast and hitting its twos. Of course, this may not represent a new philosophy as much as the fact that there’s simply no time for turnovers: the Heels still go fast and many of their possessions result in Tyler Hansbrough being fouled early in the clock. Indeed, Hansbrough has achieved a ridiculous level of offensive efficiency by acting as a human hack-magnet and hitting 80 percent of his free throws.
Not far from Chapel Hill there’s another team you may have heard of, one that would also be unbeaten if not for a Levance Fields three-pointer. Duke has been propelled to its 10-1 start by laudable balance on both sides of the ball. These numbers almost always dip once conference play begins, of course, but the guess here is that the defense will stay near the same level that we’ve seen thus far. Marquette is the only team that has scored more than a point per possession against the Blue Devils. That Duke plays tough D may sound surprising, but it shouldn’t be. Last year in ACC play, an outstanding Blue Devils defense covered a multitude of sins for a below-average offense. True, there’s nothing “below-average” this year about the way Greg Paulus and Jon Scheyer have been hitting their threes. That being said, this team has the quickness and the ability to contest threes and to make opposing teams turn the ball over. Watch for both to continue. (One question: why is Gerald Henderson taking on a Michael Beasley-level role in this offense? Spread the shots around, Coach K!)
The ACC’s only other ranked team at the moment is Clemson. I know you’re overloaded with freshman names right now, but here’s one more: Terrence Oglesby. The rookie from Cleveland, Tenn. doesn’t start, but he makes up for lost time by shooting frequently when he gets in the game, and his shots go in. Fresh off of a 26-point win at Alabama, the Tigers are hitting their threes, crashing the offensive glass and, as per usual, recording a very high number of steals. James Mays is back from his sprained hip, which helps the Clemson defense. That defense will have to stay strong, given that the Tigers don’t shoot two-pointers particularly well.
Lastly, there’s Miami, which surely qualified as the surprise of calendar year 2007 in the ACC. The Hurricanes won their first 12 games (including a victory at Mississippi State) and rose to number 19 in the polls before losing this past Saturday to Winthrop by six points, a game played on a nominally neutral floor outside Fort Lauderdale. It’s been a great start for Frank Haith’s team, one fueled by excellent defense and even better three-point shooting (particularly from Jack McClinton and James Dews). Whether this level of D or this kind of outside shooting can continue, however, is open to question, given that last year in ACC play the ‘Canes were an average three-point shooting team that played atrocious defense. We shall see.
Surely by now we all know Georgetown’s profile. The Hoyas are a slow-paced team that nevertheless scores points with tremendous efficiency. In addition to high-performance veterans like Roy Hibbert and Jonathan Wallace, DaJuan Summers has been as good as, if not better than, anyone could have expected, hitting his shots and hauling in defensive boards. He is John Thompson III’s best defensive rebounder by a wide margin. That said, the Hoyas’ defense, and more specifically their defensive rebounding, was shredded with a vengeance by Memphis. Georgetown doesn’t go for turnovers, so it has to force misses and get the rebounds. On the whole it's been excellent at forcing misses, but the Memphis tape will be of interest to another team that happens to be outstanding on the offensive glass….
...such as Marquette. The Golden Eagles have grabbed more than 42 percent of their own misses thus far this season, not that those misses have been plentiful. On the contrary, Tom Crean’s men are alternately driving and pounding the ball down into the paint, and that strategy is working. Lazar Hayward in particular has had a great start on offense this season. Granted, this team is notably weak on the defensive glass, and Dominic James, while dishing assists and recording steals, still misses a fair number of shots. Still, Marquette as a team is shooting a lot of twos and making them. That’s a good way to win games.
Pitt is minus starters Levance Fields and Mike Cook for the foreseeable future due to injuries. How big are those losses? Huge. Point guard Fields was no great threat from the perimeter, but he made his twos, dished assists at a very high rate, and generally ran the offense. Small forward Cook was the team’s best free-throw shooter. The Panthers can still be good, mind you, and DeJuan Blair is one special freshman. It’s just that, barring a David Padgett-style surprise return for one or both starters, we’ll never know how far Pitt and Blair could have gone had the team been completely healthy.
Villanova also has injury worries, having lost Casiem Drummond to a stress fracture. Drummond averaged just 19 minutes a game when he was available, but he did at least give Jay Wright the option of throwing some rebounding into the mix. (That’s putting it lightly: Drummond’s numbers on both the offensive and defensive glass this season are phenomenal.) Without that option, the Wildcats will lean even more heavily on Scottie Reynolds and freshman Corey Fisher. Talk about combo guards: Reynolds and Fisher lead their team in both frequency of shots and frequency of assists. Villanova can score, no doubt, but can they score enough? This defense was questionable even with occasional cameos from Drummond. Games involving the Wildcats promise to be high-scoring affairs.
In closing, a word on Louisville and West Virginia. We’ve been talking in the conditional about the Cardinals now for the better part of two seasons: if X, then Y. The latest version of such banter: if David Padgett really is healthy and ready to not only return but produce, then Louisville could pose as one of those recurring odd seeding challenges for the selection committee. It could be a team possessing both an unusually high number of losses and the potential to play with anyone. As for the Mountaineers, they’ve been notably successful in navigating what figured to be a difficult transition from a coach with a conventional personality and a distinct playing style to a coach with a distinct personality and a conventional playing style. Bully for them.
Michigan State no longer ends one in every four possessions with a turnover, as it did in conference play last year, and that should make ten other Big Ten teams very afraid. Last year, turnovers were virtually the only thing standing in the way of a team that did a multitude of things well on both sides of the ball. This year the Spartans appear to have plugged that leak, giving the ball away on a much more customary one in every five possessions. Drew Neitzel has always been trustworthy with the rock; the difference is that this year Raymar Morgan and Goran Suton are doing a much better job at holding on to the ball. (Note also that freshman Kalin Lucas uses a lot of possessions when he’s in the game without giving the other team the ball.) No team in the nation rebounds a higher percentage of its own misses than does Michigan State. That distinction won’t survive Big Ten play, of course, but it’s a good omen for a team that, Tom Izzo’s stylistic preferences notwithstanding, most likely will win games simply by outscoring its opponents. Speaking of which….
Never mind the final score in Indiana’s three-point win at Iowa last night. That score was in part the result of one of the most improbable made threes I’ve ever seen: a contested 40-footer off the glass, courtesy of the Hawkeyes’ Justin Johnson with five seconds remaining in regulation. Still, Hoosier fans may want to get used to this kind of outing--numerically close but not really in too much doubt. IU probably won’t blow Big Ten opponents away on the road this season, but it has the look of a team that will uncannily post a fair number of single-digit margins in road victories. Quality opponents may not have had too much trouble scoring against the Hoosiers thus far, but they definitely haven’t had much luck stopping Eric Gordon. He drives, he’s fouled, he goes to the line, he scores two more points. It’s always there for Kelvin Sampson, anytime the margin has shrunk too much for comfort. Meantime, D.J. White is off to an outstanding start, hitting 67 percent of his twos and owning the defensive glass. Gordon and White can carry this team to a goodly number of wins, point differentials be damned.
Unlike the Hoosiers, Wisconsin didn’t post a misleading final score in its road win last night, notching a solid 16-point victory at Michigan. That can’t compete, surely, with Michael Flowers’ incredible game-winning three in the final seconds at Texas last Friday. The win in Austin nudged the Badgers up into the polls where they belong. Wisconsin may prove to be the competitive equal of Michigan State and Indiana, but the Badgers are without question the qualitative opposite of the Spartans and the Hoosiers, for Bo Ryan’s team is comprised of an outstanding defense and an iffy offense. This edition of the Badgers doesn’t shoot particularly well, and they’ve coughed the ball up on 21 percent of their possessions. Those are two big liabilities, but then again, Wisconsin is outstanding in every other category. Besides, if freshman Jon Leuer keeps producing like he did last night in Ann Arbor (25 points on 8-of-9 shooting from the field), maybe even the Badgers’ liabilities can become assets.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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