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January 3, 2011, 11:19 AM ET
Bigger, better, truthier Tuesday Truths in 2011!

by John Gasaway

I’m pleased to announce that this year at Basketball Prospectus we’ll be expanding our venerable Tuesday Truths feature and tracking per-possession performance in league play for no fewer than 157 teams in 14 conferences. Fans of the Colonial, Horizon, and WAC, welcome aboard!

All of which raises the question, why track per-possession performance in league play? Well, here’s what I said last year:

Over the next eight to nine weeks these 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.

Enough talk, let’s look at some actual results. Your 18-game conferences have already started playing games that count. We know for instance that Connecticut has looked shaky coming out of the gate and that Wisconsin is taking fairly good care of the ball, where “fairly” is synonymous with “they have the rock on a string.” Still, of those 18-games leagues the ones that really front-load their schedules are the ones like the Missouri Valley and the Horizon who have to make room for a non-conference BracketBusters pairing in late February.

So let’s take a look at the Horizon. Some of these teams have already finished a whopping 22 percent of their conference slate.  

Very early realities glimpsed on the Horizon (har!) 
Conference games only, through January 2
Pace: possessions per 40 minutes
PPP: points per possession    Opp. PPP: opponent points per possession
EM: efficiency margin (PPP - Opp. PPP)

                     W-L     Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP   EM
1.  Cleveland St.    4-0     65.6    1.22    0.95   +0.27
2.  Butler           2-0     59.8    1.18    1.02   +0.16
3.  Detroit          2-1     68.4    1.11    0.98   +0.13
4.  Wright St.       2-1     64.2    1.06    0.97   +0.09
5.  Loyola           1-3     63.5    1.01    1.01    0.00
6.  Valparaiso       2-1     64.7    0.96    0.98   -0.02
7.  Green Bay        1-3     66.8    1.01    1.08   -0.07
8.  Milwaukee        2-2     68.1    0.97    1.10   -0.13
9.  UIC              0-3     66.2    0.94    1.07   -0.13
10. Youngstown St.   1-3     67.5    0.93    1.12   -0.19

Apparently Illinois‘ loss to UIC on December 18 did not presage the rise of a surprising Flames program, merely the arrival of an abysmally bad loss for the Illini. Also: Cleveland State is good. Will they continue to make 48 percent of their threes and outscore the league by a wider margin than did 18-0 Butler in 2010? Of course not! But these games are already in the books, the Vikings have played this way already for four games. Verily I say, remember Gary Waters‘ team. 

Lastly, as part of my ongoing “Detroit thinks it’s still 1983” coverage, please note that in Horizon play the Titans have devoted just 19 percent of their attempts to threes. Coach Ray McCallum Sr.’s team has nevertheless recorded a robust 1.11 points per trip in-conference thanks to excellent shooting from the field and a stratospheric free throw rate that would make even Frank Martin green with envy. I am on the record as thinking that over the long haul, North Carolina 2008 and Connecticut 2009 notwithstanding, telling opponents in advance that you’re not going to shoot threes is detrimental to your offense. McCallum is apparently going to give this hypothesis a fair test. 

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