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January 5, 2010, 01:08 PM ET
What hath tempo-free conference play wrought

by John Gasaway

I’m pleased to announce that this year at Basketball Prospectus we’ll be expanding our coverage and tracking per-possession performance in league play for no fewer than 126 teams in 11 conferences. Which raises the question: Why track per-possession performance in league play?

Over the next eight to nine weeks these 126 teams will play over a thousand possessions each. Half of those possessions will take place at home, and half of them will occur on the road. All of that basketball will be played against opponents that by conference affiliation have been designated as nominal equals in terms of programmatic resources. (Though, granted, a league like the A-10 certainly exhibits some notable diversity in terms of member heft.) And, not least, all of that basketball will take place in increasingly close temporal proximity to the NCAA tournament.

In other words, with all due allowance for injuries and funky scoring distributions, I look at these thousand-odd possessions very closely. And in leagues featuring true round-robin scheduling (Missouri Valley, Mountain West, Pac-10, and WCC, among others), per-possession performance in conference play tells me exactly how surprised I should be in mid-March when the league’s best team in tempo-free terms loses in first round of the NCAA tournament.

I toyed with the idea of pulling a Ken Pomeroy this year and posting these numbers right from day one, but then I took one look at Louisville’s current conf-only profile (dominating the Big East by 0.32 points per trip–um, probably because their conference slate at this point has consisted of one home game against South Florida) and ran the other way. Fortunately there is one conference that’s already played enough basketball for us to take a cautious “It’s only January 5″ peek.

The Missouri Valley after three games apiece 
Conference games only, through January 4
Pace: possessions per 40 minutes
PPP: points per possession    Opp. PPP: opponent points per possession
EM: efficiency margin (PPP - Opp. PPP)

                     Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP   EM
1.  N. Iowa          62.9    1.11    0.92   +0.19
2.  Wichita St.      64.2    1.03    0.93   +0.10
3.  Illinois St.     62.2    1.09    1.00   +0.09
4.  S. Illinois      66.8    1.08    1.00   +0.08
5.  Missouri St.     62.2    1.17    1.11   +0.06
6.  Indiana St.      64.5    0.94    0.93   +0.01
7.  Creighton        66.3    0.94    0.97   -0.03
8.  Bradley          68.1    1.06    1.11   -0.05
9.  Evansville       62.9    0.90    1.12   -0.22
10. Drake            65.3    0.73    0.96   -0.23
 

So far Northern Iowa, regular season MVC co-champ in 2009, has pretty much picked up where they left off. And is this the season where no longer newish coaches like Gregg Marshall at Wichita State and Cuonzo Martin at Missouri State break through, so to speak? Stay tuned! Lastly note that former Purdue great Martin has received or soon will be receiving a curmudgeonly but proud ”nice team, now start guarding people” phone call from Gene Keady, a la Bob to Pat Knight.         

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