Tuesday Truths: “We’re Back” Edition

Welcome to the season’s first installment of Tuesday Truths, where I look at how well 127 teams in the nation’s top 11 conferences are doing against their league opponents on a per-possession basis. For a tidy little homily on why this stuff is so very awesome, go here.

American: Cincinnati has a very good defense
Through games of January 20, conference games only
Pace: possessions per 40 minutes
PPP: points per possession   Opp. PPP: opponent PPP
EM: efficiency margin (PPP – Opp. PPP)

                      W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Louisville        5-1   71.1    1.12    0.92    +0.20
2.  Cincinnati        6-0   64.0    1.03    0.87    +0.16
3.  SMU               3-2   65.3    0.99    0.92    +0.07
4.  Connecticut       2-3   65.7    1.12    1.09    +0.03
5.  Memphis           3-2   69.3    1.06    1.04    +0.02
6.  Houston           3-2   67.0    0.99    1.00    -0.01
7.  Rutgers           2-3   70.7    0.96    1.05    -0.09
8.  Temple            0-5   68.9    1.00    1.10    -0.10
9.  S. Florida        1-4   67.8    0.95    1.07    -0.12
10. UCF               1-4   68.8    0.94    1.14    -0.20

AVG.                        67.9    1.01

Over the years Cincinnati has cultivated a reputation for excellent defense, but this season’s Bearcats are giving indications that they might be the best such team we’ve yet seen in Mick Cronin’s tenure. And even if UC doesn’t finish the season looking as good on D as they do here — and with a remaining schedule that includes two games each against Connecticut and Louisville, they likely will not — I still offer all coaches reading this the example of the Bearcats’ first six games for further study. Over that stretch Cincinnati protected the rim, pushed opponents inside the three-point line, forced turnovers, and stayed out of foul trouble. That’ll do.

This week at Insider I’ll debut a recurring feature where I rank the top 25 players in Division I, and here’s a name I didn’t like leaving off that list: Justin Jackson. With national top-10, top-30 and top-60 rankings in rate stats for blocks, offensive rebounds, and steals, respectively, Jackson is a true renaissance man. Multi-dimensional native of salubrious Cocoa Beach, Florida, Justin Jackson, I salute you!

The new ACC: Bigger and full of surprises, starting with the glacial pace 

                      W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Virginia          5-1   64.3    1.12    0.89    +0.23
2.  Syracuse          5-0   54.8    1.12    0.93    +0.19
3.  Pitt              4-1   63.9    1.15    1.00    +0.15
4.  Duke              3-2   64.0    1.18    1.04    +0.14
5.  Florida St.       3-2   61.5    1.04    0.96    +0.08
6.  Clemson           4-1   57.5    1.02    0.96    +0.06
7.  Miami             2-3   57.0    0.95    0.93    +0.02
8.  Notre Dame        2-3   66.7    1.06    1.09    -0.03
9.  Maryland          3-3   67.6    1.02    1.07    -0.05
10. North Carolina    1-4   66.4    0.94    1.02    -0.08
11. Boston College    1-4   62.3    1.07    1.16    -0.09
12. Virginia Tech     1-4   60.0    0.92    1.04    -0.12
13. Wake Forest       2-3   65.0    0.96    1.08    -0.12
14. NC State          2-4   66.9    0.94    1.10    -0.16
15. Georgia Tech      1-4   65.4    0.94    1.11    -0.17

AVG.                        62.9    1.03

Yes, you’re reading that correctly: Syracuse’s first five ACC games in program history really have come in at a hair under 55 possessions per 40 minutes. That ranks dead last in pace out of the 127 teams tracked here, and indeed is slower than the previous Tuesday Truths record for a major-conference team (set by Wisconsin in 2011: 56.3).

A quick check of average in-conference possession lengths at kenpom reveals that part of the dynamic here is, as you’d expect, befuddled ACC opponents taking their sweet time (21.6 seconds) against this daunting zone. Then again Jim Boeheim’s men aren’t exactly setting a torrid pace on offense themselves (21.9). Apportion the blame any way you wish, the resulting visual remains the same: Syracuse really does play exceptionally slow games.

Clemson and Miami favor the deliberate style as well, and as a result the conference as a whole has shaved two full possessions off of its average pace from last season. These are early results, of course, but that’s true of every conference here. And with an early pace that is for the moment indistinguishable from what one sees in the Missouri Valley, the ACC really may turn out to be the slowest major conference in 2014. That would be a surprise — I’ll keep you posted.

In other surprises, North Carolina was ranked No. 12 in the AP preseason poll but has turned out to be not very good at basketball thus far. Cite the absence of P.J. Hairston if you wish, and I’ll agree with you that his exile has limited the ceiling of this offense. However I do believe he also missed the game UNC won in East Lansing by 15 in December. Even when making due allowance for their sans-Hairston plight, the Tar Heels have surprised me in the early going.

Last surprise: Virginia received one vote in this week’s AP poll. Reveal yourself, anonymous AP pollster! You, sir or ma’am, are laudably reality-based. Salute!

Big 12: (Insert Comic Book Guy voice) Worst defense ever, Kansas…and it doesn’t matter

                      W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Kansas            5-0   70.0    1.17    1.03    +0.14
2.  Oklahoma St.      3-2   70.7    1.11    0.99    +0.12
3.  Kansas St.        4-1   64.5    1.08    1.01    +0.07
4.  Texas             3-2   72.5    1.08    1.06    +0.02
5.  Texas Tech        2-3   62.2    1.11    1.10    +0.01
6.  Iowa St.          2-3   74.2    1.05    1.04    +0.01
7.  Oklahoma          3-2   71.2    1.10    1.10     0.00
8.  Baylor            1-4   66.4    1.10    1.13    -0.03
9.  West Virginia     2-3   66.4    1.06    1.13    -0.07
10. TCU               0-5   63.9    0.87    1.15    -0.28

AVG.                        68.2    1.07

Bill Self always has one of the top defenses in the country, to the point where earnest hoops analysts in white lab coats have, rightly, taken to predicting that KU with have a better D than would otherwise be projected simply by virtue of Self’s presence.

That may change this season. There’s a chance that the 2014 KU defense will turn out to be merely “quite good” and not its usual Withey-esque self. This is a live possibility even when adjusting for the fact that the Jayhawks have played the toughest section of the Big 12 in their first five outings (at Oklahoma, versus Kansas State, at Iowa State, versus Oklahoma State, and versus Baylor).

This is where I should say that KU is about to spruce up its numbers with the gift of a road game against TCU. True, that’s exactly what I said last year and we all remember what happened next. I don’t care, that won’t happen again. So: KU is about to spruce up its numbers with the gift of a road game against TCU.

Big East: What Creighton is teaching us about threes and variability

                      W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Creighton         6-1   65.8    1.25    1.03    +0.22
2.  Villanova         5-1   66.6    1.18    1.04    +0.14
3.  Xavier            5-1   68.9    1.18    1.07    +0.11
4.  Providence        3-2   63.8    1.07    1.07     0.00
5.  Marquette         3-3   64.6    0.99    1.03    -0.04
6.  Georgetown        3-4   64.7    0.97    1.02    -0.05
7.  Seton Hall        2-3   63.9    1.03    1.09    -0.06
8.  Butler            1-5   65.1    1.00    1.09    -0.09
9.  St. John's        0-5   66.7    0.98    1.09    -0.11
10. DePaul            2-5   67.5    0.99    1.12    -0.13

AVG.                        65.8    1.06

In its first Big East game in program history, Creighton shot 35 threes versus Marquette and made 13 of them. Greg McDermott’s team won that game 67-49.

Last night Creighton shot 35 threes at No. 4-ranked Villanova and made 21 of them. You may have heard Doug McDermott and his mates won that game by the rather eye-popping score of 96-68. Better shooting on threes isn’t the only difference between the two games. In the latter contest the Bluejays got five additional points at the line, and committing eight turnovers in a 66-possession game (in Philadelphia last night) is preferable to giving the ball away 13 times in a 64-possession contest (in Omaha on New Year’s Eve).

Still, 24 additional points is a big deal. The scouting point for Creighton opponents has now become how to prevent Ethan Wragge from going 9-of-14 from beyond the arc.

Big Ten: Is this still the best conference in the country if Ohio State isn’t very good?

                      W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Michigan St.      6-0   64.1    1.11    0.91    +0.20
2.  Iowa              4-1   72.0    1.14    0.96    +0.18
3.  Michigan          5-0   61.6    1.18    1.03    +0.15
4.  Wisconsin         3-2   66.3    1.17    1.03    +0.14
5.  Ohio St.          2-4   68.2    1.00    0.98    +0.02
6.  Purdue            3-2   67.4    1.04    1.03    +0.01
7.  Minnesota         3-3   65.6    1.05    1.10    -0.05
8.  Indiana           2-3   66.2    0.99    1.06    -0.07
9.  Illinois          2-4   66.1    0.97    1.04    -0.07
10. Nebraska          1-4   66.9    0.93    1.06    -0.13
11. Penn St.          0-6   67.6    0.96    1.10    -0.14
12. Northwestern      2-4   61.3    0.84    1.05    -0.21

AVG.                        66.1    1.03

All Big Ten puffery to date has been premised in part on the once justifiable belief that the Buckeyes would turn out to be your standard-issue OSU team. You know, egregiously dependent on one star player for scoring (Turner, Sullinger, Thomas, Ross — it’s uncanny!), and egregiously painful for opposing offenses to face. Net result, legitimate Final Four threat as always.

Then Thad Matta had to go and upset this perceptual apple cart by losing four straight, including, rather remarkably, last night’s 68-62 defeat at Nebraska. Now where are we? Can a league with but four really good teams still lay claim to best-in-nation status?

Time to dust off the seed points (rating conferences on a sliding scale, from four points for an NCAA tournament No. 1 seed down to one point for a 4 seed). Reputable bracket projections that include this past weekend’s results are currently showing Michigan State as a No. 1 seed, Wisconsin as a 2, Iowa and (still) Ohio State as 4s, and Michigan as a 5. That would net the Big Ten nine seed points, but the Buckeyes fall squarely under the heading of a moving analytic target. Better call that eight seed points, tied with the current projection for the Big 12.

Maybe Ohio State will draw its inspiration from Kansas in 2012-13. That group of Jayhawks dropped three straight, including a road loss to hapless TCU, and KU still ended up with a No. 1 seed. But if the Buckeyes don’t chart a similar turnaround, it may be time to revisit which conference really is the best in the nation.

Memo to 10 Pac-12 teams: I refuse to track how badly you pummel Washington State and USC

                      W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Arizona           5-0   66.2    1.13    0.86    +0.27
2.  Cal               5-0   70.5    1.17    0.96    +0.21
3.  UCLA              3-2   74.1    1.10    0.96    +0.14
4.  Stanford          3-2   66.5    1.13    1.04    +0.09
5.  Utah              3-3   64.8    1.03    0.96    +0.07
6.  Colorado          4-2   67.3    1.04    1.02    +0.02
7.  Oregon St.        2-3   67.9    1.09    1.11    -0.02
8.  Arizona St.       2-3   73.0    0.96    0.99    -0.03
9.  Washington        3-3   66.8    0.98    1.02    -0.04
10. Oregon            1-4   73.7    1.05    1.13    -0.08
11. Washington St.    1-5   59.6    0.81    1.09    -0.28
12. USC               0-5   71.7    0.88    1.19    -0.31

AVG.                        68.5    1.03

It would appear there’s a bright line to be drawn in this season’s Pac-12 after the league’s 10th-best team. The two teams beneath this line, Washington State and USC, may be a good deal worse than whichever program turns out to be No. 10 in the league in terms of per-possession performance.

Mindful of this division, I got to wondering what the conference’s current top three teams — who all present a rather feisty aspect in the numbers above — would look like if we simply ignored what they’ve done against the aberrantly hapless Cougars and Trojans….

                      W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Arizona           3-0   71.3    1.13    0.96    +0.17
2.  Cal               4-0   72.7    1.15    0.98    +0.17
3.  UCLA              2-2   72.3    1.04    0.97    +0.07

I propose to call this stat “Performance Against Normal Teams,” or PANT, and I may have to track it in the Pac-12 all season long. Not that I’ll ignore the Cougars and the Trojans entirely, mind you. Quite the opposite, I can’t wait to see what happens when the No. 12-ranked Washington State offense collides with the No. 12-ranked USC defense in Pullman on March 6. Talk about something having to give.

SEC: South Carolina is a creature of extremes

                      W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Florida           4-0   64.8    1.12    0.94    +0.18
2.  Kentucky          3-1   67.1    1.14    1.01    +0.13
3.  Tennessee         2-2   63.8    1.05    0.97    +0.08
4.  Texas A&M         3-1   64.8    1.02    0.96    +0.06
5.  Missouri          2-2   63.9    1.05    1.00    +0.05
6.  Ole Miss          3-1   71.2    1.02    0.97    +0.05
7.  Georgia           3-1   63.1    0.94    0.95    -0.01
8.  Alabama           2-2   63.0    1.00    1.02    -0.02
9.  LSU               2-2   67.3    0.99    1.02    -0.03
10. Arkansas          1-3   67.8    0.95    1.03    -0.08
11. Auburn            0-4   65.7    0.98    1.07    -0.09
12. Mississippi St.   2-2   70.2    0.97    1.07    -0.10
13. South Carolina    0-4   71.4    0.93    1.03    -0.10
14. Vanderbilt        1-3   63.9    1.02    1.15    -0.13

AVG.                        66.3    1.01

With just four games in the books for each SEC team, it’s still one week too soon to dive in to these results with smug relish. (On January 28, conversely, absolute certainty will have been attained.) I’m just passing these early numbers along for fun, and to point out that Frank Martin’s Gamecocks do everything in a very big way.

At a time of plummeting turnovers across the width and breadth of Division I, South Carolina has given the ball away on 27 percent of its possessions in SEC play. In this respect, Martin’s team is emblematic. A handy thumbnail for our strange new era of low-low-turnover hoops might go like this: In 2014 every major conference has figured out that turnovers are bad (average TO% of American, ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten and Pac-12: 17.5) except the SEC (19.6).

Conference opponents are hitting 60 percent of their twos against South Carolina, and, as always with Martin, there will be free throws. Gamecock opponents have attempted 190 shots from the field in-conference and 137 from the line.

South Carolina ranks No. 2 in the SEC in free throw rate on offense (No. 1 Georgia, I salute you!), yet has shot 19 fewer free throws than its conference opponents. Truly, the Gamecocks deliver free throws, turnovers (for and against), and possessions in abundance.

Fordham is the Northwestern of the A-10: Discuss

                      W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Saint Louis       4-0   68.0    0.96    0.83    +0.13
2.  GW                3-1   68.9    1.07    0.98    +0.09
3.  VCU               2-1   74.2    0.97    0.89    +0.08
4.  La Salle          3-0   65.7    1.03    0.96    +0.07
5.  UMass             3-0   69.4    1.09    1.04    +0.05
6.  Saint Joseph's    2-1   69.4    1.10    1.06    +0.04
7.  Richmond          2-1   66.1    1.07    1.07     0.00
8.  St. Bonaventure   1-3   70.6    1.00    1.02    -0.02
9.  Dayton            1-2   65.5    1.03    1.06    -0.03
10. George Mason      0-4   69.7    1.02    1.09    -0.07
11. Rhode Island      1-3   63.0    0.95    1.04    -0.09
12. Duquesne          1-3   72.7    0.97    1.10    -0.13
13. Fordham           0-4   67.5    0.97    1.13    -0.16

AVG.                        68.5    1.03

With just three or four games in the books for each A-10 team, it’s still one week too soon to dive in to these results with smug relish, even in a 16-game league. (On January 28, conversely, absolute certainty will have been attained.) I’m just passing these early numbers along for fun, and to point out that Fordham shares some eerie similarities with the D-I program in Evanston, Illinois. Each program has struggled for years, each is located in the vicinity of a metropolis where the opponents’ alums flock to the team’s venerable home arena, and each has to suffer the indignity of the press showing up in force only when a good opponent comes to town.

In other A-10 news, Duquense does not go in for that whole “the way to keep opponents from making threes is to not let them shoot threes” meme. The Dukes’ conference opponents have actually shot more threes than twos. The next time you read a piece on Syracuse that trumpets the zone on purely schematic grounds, remember Jim Ferry’s club. Personnel is important too.

Missouri Valley: Circle February 8 on your calendar 

                      W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Wichita St.       6-0   61.9    1.13    0.88    +0.25
2.  N. Iowa           4-2   63.7    1.17    1.02    +0.15
3.  Indiana St.       5-1   63.6    1.07    0.98    +0.09
4.  Illinois St.      4-2   65.1    0.98    0.94    +0.04
5.  Loyola            2-4   62.8    1.01    0.98    +0.03
6.  Drake             1-5   64.9    1.06    1.11    -0.05
7.  S. Illinois       2-4   60.7    1.05    1.16    -0.11
8.  Missouri St.      2-4   63.4    1.05    1.16    -0.11
9.  Bradley           2-4   60.7    0.97    1.10    -0.13
10. Evansville        2-4   64.2    0.98    1.15    -0.17

AVG.                        63.1    1.05

I’ll track the Valley this year so that we can take a stab at figuring out exactly how good Wichita State really is. For instance in 2012 the egregiously underrated Shockers outscored the MVC by 0.21 points per trip, while last year’s FInal Four team was 0.10 points better than the rest of the league on each possession. Them’s the benchmarks, though note that this season’s Valley — which exported Creighton and imported Loyola — is a tad weaker overall than what we’ve seen in the recent past.

It may turn out that the Valley’s second-best team is Northern Iowa. The Shockers visit Cedar Falls two weeks from Saturday.

Mountain West: Pollsters and laptops feud over the Aztecs

                      W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  San Diego St.     5-0   65.3    1.07    0.95    +0.12
2.  New Mexico        4-1   66.7    1.12    1.06    +0.06
3.  Nevada            4-1   62.6    1.03    0.98    +0.05
4.  Boise St.         3-2   66.0    1.07    1.03    +0.04
5.  Utah St.          3-2   61.8    1.11    1.07    +0.04
6.  Wyoming           2-2   59.0    1.01    0.98    +0.03
7.  Air Force         3-3   66.2    1.08    1.07    +0.01
8.  Colorado St.      3-3   63.4    1.05    1.04    +0.01
9.  UNLV              2-3   67.3    1.02    1.03    -0.01
10. Fresno St.        1-5   67.5    1.00    1.13    -0.13
11. San Jose St.      0-6   63.9    0.95    1.11    -0.16

AVG.                        64.5    1.05

San Diego State is the best team in the Mountain West, however the postseason performances of past MWC teams that were 0.12 points or so better than the rest of the league have not been inspiring. (Fine, the postseason performances of past MWC teams period have not been inspiring.)

With wins over Creighton on a neutral floor and at Kansas, the 16-1 Aztecs are No. 7 in this week’s AP poll. On the other hand, Ken has them at No. 21, and TeamRankings.com pegs SDSU at No. 16. Me, I’m open to persuasion.

West Coast: My streak of consecutive posts without a pun on “Few” or “Bell” continues!

                      W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Gonzaga           6-1   66.2    1.14    0.91    +0.23
2.  BYU               5-2   71.2    1.18    1.04    +0.14
3.  Saint Mary's      4-2   62.6    1.15    1.11    +0.04
4.  Pepperdine        5-3   65.9    1.06    1.06     0.00
5.  Portland          3-4   65.6    1.07    1.08    -0.01
6.  San Francisco     5-3   64.2    1.08    1.10    -0.02
7.  Santa Clara       3-5   65.5    1.04    1.10    -0.06
8.  Pacific           1-5   66.9    1.06    1.16    -0.10
9.  San Diego         2-5   62.3    1.03    1.13    -0.10
10. Loyola Marymount  2-6   68.3    1.01    1.11    -0.10

AVG.                        65.9    1.08

I’ll track the WCC this year so that we can take a stab at figuring out exactly how good Gonzaga really is. Maybe BYU can mount a case for attention as well.

The Bulldogs are lurking just outside the top 25 with neutral-floor losses to Dayton and Kansas State and a road loss to Portland. Gary Bell is still sidelined with a broken hand, but in his absence the Zags’ defense is still formidable. West Coast opponents have made just 39 percent of their twos against this D.

As for the Cougars, they closed calendar year 2013 with a trip to SoCal that brings to mind Connecticut’s visit to Texas a while back, as Dave Rose’s team lost road games to Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine. Otherwise that ugly 13-7 record of BYU’s includes a good many respectable losses: versus Iowa State, on neutral floors to Wichita State and UMass, on the road to Beehive rival Utah (throw the records out when those two meet, etc.), and in OT at Oregon. I haven’t closed the book on you yet, Cougs. Show me something.