Tuesday Truths: Final Reality

Welcome to the season’s final installment of Tuesday Truths, where I look at how well 127 teams in the nation’s top 11 conferences did 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: How the upper half played
Through games of March 9, 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       15-3   68.7    1.16    0.91    +0.25
2.  Cincinnati       15-3   63.2    1.05    0.94    +0.11
3.  Connecticut      12-6   65.8    1.07    0.96    +0.11
4.  SMU              12-6   66.5    1.04    0.95    +0.09
5.  Memphis          12-6   69.3    1.08    1.02    +0.06
6.  Houston          8-10   67.1    1.04    1.13    -0.09
7.  Rutgers          5-13   68.7    1.00    1.11    -0.11
8.  Temple           4-14   67.5    1.02    1.14    -0.12
9.  UCF              4-14   66.6    1.00    1.14    -0.14
10. S. Florida       3-15   65.3    0.95    1.12    -0.17

AVG.                        66.9    1.04

Louisville will be in the ACC next season, and new American members East Carolina, Tulane, and Tulsa will arrive in time for 2014-15. But in its one-season incarnation with these 10 members it can fairly be said that the American had five good teams and five bad ones. So a question naturally arises:

How good is Louisville, really? And, with all due respect to UCF and Rutgers, how did the five good teams fare purely against each other? 

                      W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Louisville        5-3   68.8    1.03    0.94    +0.09
2.  Cincinnati        5-3   65.2    1.00    0.96    +0.04
3.  SMU               4-4   67.5    1.01    0.98    +0.03
4.  Memphis           3-5   69.8    1.01    1.08    -0.07
5.  Connecticut       3-5   65.1    0.96    1.05    -0.09

AVG.                        67.3    1.00

Louisville gets a boost here, and Connecticut is correspondingly penalized, thanks to the Cards’ 81-48 annihilation of the Huskies at the KFC Yum! Center this past weekend. Unless you think the 17 or so possessions Rick Pitino’s team played after it already led UConn 58-36 somehow hold special analytic value, I wouldn’t put too much stock into the “+0.09″ here.

Still, I can buy that the Cardinals are the best team in this league. What I’m not ready to sign off on — yet — is Louisville and its beautiful +0.25 scoring margin being put up there on the same bleachers as your Floridas, Arizonas, and Wichita States.

ACC: Can we trust Duke?

                      W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Virginia         16-2   59.5    1.13    0.91    +0.22
2.  Duke             13-5   63.3    1.19    1.03    +0.16
3.  Syracuse         14-4   57.6    1.08    1.00    +0.08
4.  North Carolina   13-5   67.6    1.08    1.01    +0.07
5.  Pitt             11-7   61.2    1.10    1.03    +0.07
6.  Maryland          9-9   66.6    1.02    1.01    +0.01
7.  Florida St.       9-9   63.0    1.07    1.06    +0.01
8.  Miami            7-11   56.6    1.03    1.04    -0.01
9.  Clemson          10-8   57.8    0.99    1.02    -0.03
10. NC State          9-9   64.6    1.04    1.10    -0.06
11. Notre Dame       6-12   60.9    1.06    1.12    -0.06
12. Boston College   4-14   60.7    1.09    1.17    -0.08
13. Georgia Tech     6-12   62.6    0.99    1.08    -0.09
14. Wake Forest      6-12   65.3    1.00    1.12    -0.12
15. Virginia Tech    2-16   59.6    0.91    1.08    -0.17

AVG.                        61.8    1.05

Virginia has been and I trust will continue to be a great story, but at the outset of the postseason I want to hit “pause” on the East Coast Media’s relentless and long-standing obsession with the Hoos and instead take a look at that hitherto obscure but plucky band of overachievers at Duke.

The Blue Devils actually did play everyone that everyone complained about the Cavaliers not having played often enough (though, granted, the men from Durham were spared having to play a game at Charlottesville). And as it happens Mike Krzyzewski’s team emerged from that competitive ordeal having outscored the conference by 0.16 points per trip — exactly twice the margin achieved by a Syracuse team that will likely be given a No. 3 or even 2 seed.

Still one hears it said that we can’t trust these Duke guys, because of that whole “live by the three, die by the three” thing. Is this so?

Sometimes, sure, but it’s not an iron law for Duke or any team. The Blue Devils have “died” (i.e., lost games) while hitting over 40 percent of their threes (at Notre Dame and Syracuse) and “lived” while hitting under 30 percent (at home against Maryland). Also keep in mind that Villanova devoted a higher share of its shot attempts to tries from beyond the arc in Big East play than Duke did against ACC opponents, and I don’t see anyone running around fretting about the Wildcats’ vulnerability to cold spells on the perimeter.

Basically any team that has a possession-guzzling, foul-drawing, two-point-making man-freak like Jabari Parker is in a better position than 99 percent of Division I in terms of “Plan B” when the threes aren’t falling. A better epigram of fret for the Blue Devils might be: Live by average defense, die by bad defense.

No, sorry, make that “die by Edvard Munch-horrific defense.” In five ACC losses, Duke allowed 1.20 points per possession.

Big 12: Think of Iowa State, Texas, and Kansas State as basically the same team

                      W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Kansas           14-4   68.4    1.17    1.03    +0.14
2.  Oklahoma         12-6   70.1    1.12    1.05    +0.07
3.  Oklahoma St.     8-10   68.4    1.08    1.03    +0.05
4.  Baylor            9-9   64.1    1.11    1.08    +0.03
5.  Iowa St.         11-7   71.5    1.07    1.06    +0.01
6.  Texas            11-7   67.5    1.06    1.05    +0.01
7.  Kansas St.       10-8   66.0    1.05    1.04    +0.01
8.  West Virginia     9-9   68.5    1.10    1.12    -0.02
9.  Texas Tech       6-12   61.5    1.04    1.10    -0.06
10. TCU              0-18   65.7    0.90    1.17    -0.27

AVG.                        67.2    1.07

I’m seeing Iowa State projected as a No. 3 seed, Texas as a 6, and Kansas State as a 9, and that’s fine. The committee is out to reward good wins, punish bad losses, and create incentives for programs to create challenging non-conference schedules for themselves. As a fan, I too appreciate challenging non-conference schedules. Committee, I salute you!

And now a word for my fellow aficionados soon to fill out brackets. Regardless of seed and mindful of the lessons learned from a combined 3,750 Big 12 possessions recorded by these three programs, you may want to think of Iowa State, Texas, and Kansas State as basically the same team.

Welcome to our Hall of Utter Futility!…Uh, that’s funny, the door seems to be jammed. No, TCU is not the worst per-possession team I’ve ever tracked in major-conference play. Here’s a flashback to 2008:

                      W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
10. Oregon St.       0-18   66.2    0.87    1.17    -0.30

When speaking of the Horned Frogs, be accurate. They may not be the worst major-conference team ever. They are, however, “Wake Forest-in-2011-bad,” not to mention one of the worst defensive rebounding teams I’ve ever seen. The Frogs secured just 56.4 percent of their Big 12 opponents’ misses.

Just imagine if Ryan Watkins had ever been given a shot at these guys.

The mind reels.

Big East: The mess below the top two

                      W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Villanova        16-2   65.3    1.15    1.00    +0.15
2.  Creighton        14-4   65.1    1.20    1.06    +0.14
3.  St. John's       10-8   66.6    1.04    1.00    +0.04
4.  Xavier           10-8   65.4    1.09    1.08    +0.01
5.  Providence       10-8   64.1    1.09    1.09     0.00
6.  Georgetown       8-10   63.5    1.05    1.07    -0.02
7.  Marquette         9-9   65.5    1.04    1.07    -0.03
8.  Seton Hall       6-12   64.5    1.04    1.07    -0.03
9.  Butler           4-14   62.6    1.01    1.08    -0.07
10. DePaul           3-15   66.8    0.98    1.16    -0.18

AVG.                        64.9    1.07

In the commendably small “Catholics plus the place where they filmed ‘Hoosiers‘” new-look Big East, everyone plays everyone home and away. As a result, we can have a little additional faith in the numbers above: Villanova and Creighton may well be way better than every other team in the conference, and there really may not be a great deal of difference between any of the other at-large candidates: Xavier, Providence, Georgetown or St. John’s.

The casual fan’s “I only paid attention to Villanova and Creighton” guide to Big East at-large hopefuls

  • Xavier: Highest non-DePaul turnover rate in Big East play; defensive rebounding will be in question if Matt Stainbrook can’t go.
  • Providence: Bryce Cotton has played every minute of every game since 1958; zero opponent turnovers.
  • Georgetown: Nice late-season push (Villanova game notwithstanding) from a statistically questionable offense; buy your D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera stock now.
  • St. John’s: Pack in your D because the Johnnies really, really do not want to shoot 3s; if JaKarr Sampson ever successfully negotiates a “don’t foul me” pact with the rest of the league he can dominate all he surveys.

Last Big East thought: Marquette, for the first time in the Williams era, didn’t shoot well. It looked odd.

Big Ten: No great teams?

                      W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Michigan         15-3   61.9    1.17    1.06    +0.11
2.  Michigan St.     12-6   63.6    1.11    1.02    +0.09
3.  Wisconsin        12-6   63.7    1.13    1.05    +0.08
4.  Iowa              9-9   68.9    1.13    1.06    +0.07
5.  Ohio St.         10-8   64.1    1.02    0.97    +0.05
6.  Nebraska         11-7   63.9    0.99    0.99     0.00
7.  Minnesota        8-10   62.7    1.06    1.08    -0.02
8.  Indiana          7-11   65.4    1.00    1.04    -0.04
9.  Penn St.         6-12   64.9    1.00    1.07    -0.07
10. Illinois         7-11   62.4    0.95    1.02    -0.07
11. Purdue           5-13   65.6    1.00    1.07    -0.07
12. Northwestern     6-12   60.7    0.88    1.03    -0.15

AVG.                        64.0    1.04

The Big Ten this season was very strange. Jim Delany’s conference has ended the regular season ranked No. 1 in the nation at KenPom, and I’ll buy that. Nos. 1 through 10 above are all top-80 material nationally.

But the league is missing a swaggering beast of a team that will sow terror in the hearts of even the highest-seeded opponents. For instance, if you had to choose the single best team from each of the seven major conferences and then rank-order those squads against each other, I think the resulting sequence could plausibly go something like this:

One back-of-the-envelope subjective ranking — best teams from each major conference
1. Florida
2. Arizona
3. Virginia
4. Kansas (“Embiid exists” version)
5. Villanova
6. Louisville
7. Michigan

And we can quibble about what to do with Virginia or where Louisville should really rank, but my main point is that it’s tough to see putting any Big Ten team ahead of any of these other six.

Michigan will get a really nice seed, and it should. The Wolverines went 15-3 in the best conference in the nation. And now a word for my fellow aficionados soon to fill out brackets….

Mindful of the lessons learned from 1,122 Big Ten possessions, you may want to think of John Beilein’s group as roughly equivalent to the four teams listed below. These four teams all played in leagues about as tough statistically as the Big Ten was this season, and they all outscored their conference opponents by a margin close to what the Wolverines just posted:

Pitt 2013
Georgetown 2013
Missouri 2012
West Virginia 2010

If you’re keeping score at home, that’s one ho-hum round of 64 loss, one spectacular and opposing-coach-elevating round of 64 flameout, one spectacular and closely contested round of 64 flameout, and one thrilling Final Four run. Plan accordingly.

Pac-12: Arizona’s competitive even when its offense is awful

                      W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Arizona          15-3   64.7    1.08    0.91    +0.17
2.  UCLA             12-6   70.1    1.12    1.02    +0.10
3.  Utah              9-9   65.2    1.06    1.00    +0.06
4.  Oregon           10-8   68.5    1.09    1.04    +0.05
5.  Stanford         10-8   66.4    1.06    1.03    +0.03
6.  Arizona St.      10-8   69.3    1.02    1.00    +0.02
7.  Cal              10-8   67.0    1.05    1.05     0.00
8.  Washington        9-9   67.5    1.05    1.06    -0.01
9.  Colorado         10-8   66.8    1.01    1.03    -0.02
10. Oregon St.       8-10   67.0    1.06    1.10    -0.04
11. USC              2-16   70.5    0.95    1.11    -0.16
12. Washington St.   3-15   61.3    0.91    1.11    -0.20

AVG.                        67.0    1.04

The Wildcats had two drop-dead terrible games on offense in Pac-12 play this season. At Arizona State on Valentine’s Day, Sean Miller’s men recorded 0.86 points per possession. And then this past Saturday the Cats managed just 0.87 points per trip at Oregon.

Zona lost to the Sun Devils in double-overtime, and fell to the Ducks by seven. Naturally the wisest course is to not be drop-dead terrible on offense in any games. But these guys aren’t exactly Kentucky 2012 on that side of the ball, so that’s not a realistic option. If Nick Johnson, Aaron Gordon and company do end up making it to a spacious NFL venue in Texas it will likely be with a combination of dominant defense and serviceable offense.

Arizona’s worst game on defense came at UCLA on January 9, when the Wildcats gave up 1.07 points per possession (and won anyway, 79-75). That number is teachably close to what occurs in an average Pac-12 game.  The team that beats Zona in the field of 68 — if such a defeat indeed transpires — may well find itself winning a very close game.

SEC: Conference tournaments stocked with multiple bubble teams are fun 

                      W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Florida          18-0   62.3    1.14    0.93    +0.21
2.  Tennessee        11-7   62.3    1.11    0.97    +0.14
3.  Kentucky         12-6   65.8    1.09    1.01    +0.08
4.  Georgia          12-6   64.1    1.04    0.99    +0.05
5.  Arkansas         10-8   71.0    1.04    1.02    +0.02
6.  LSU               9-9   69.5    1.05    1.05     0.00
7.  Missouri          9-9   64.9    1.08    1.10    -0.02
8.  Ole Miss          9-9   68.4    1.04    1.07    -0.03
9.  Texas A&M        8-10   62.4    0.96    1.00    -0.04
10. Auburn           6-12   66.8    1.03    1.08    -0.05
11. Vanderbilt       7-11   61.5    0.97    1.03    -0.06
12. Alabama          7-11   63.8    1.02    1.08    -0.06
13. South Carolina   5-13   66.9    1.00    1.08    -0.08
14. Mississippi St.  3-15   68.0    0.94    1.10    -0.16

AVG.                        65.6    1.04

I’m seeing Arkansas projected as a No. 11 seed, Tennessee as a 12, and Missouri as needing a ton of “they flamed out spectacularly in their conference tournaments” help from the likes of Nebraska, Cal, Minnesota, et al.

This state of affairs could set up a sweet showdown at the Georgia Dome late on Friday afternoon. With the Razorbacks and Volunteers on the same side of the bracket, it’s conceivable the two could meet in the quarterfinals. Or, alternately, maybe the Hogs will lose to Auburn in the “second round” (assuming the Tigers get past South Carolina in the “first round”). Such a loss would inevitably be viewed as a “stunning” blow for Mike Anderson’s team, but, as seen above, it’s certainly well within the realm of possibility. Auburn is no Florida, goodness knows, but it’s no Mississippi State either.

As for the Vols, they richly deserve their precarious position on the bubble even with the impressive scoring margin shown above. In fact any team that loses to Texas A&M twice should be required to bring a note from the AD’s mother explaining why on earth they should be let into the field of 68.

If on the other hand UT does somehow beg, cajole or wheedle its way into a bid, here is a word for my fellow aficionados soon to fill out brackets….

Mindful of the lessons learned from 1,128 SEC possessions, you may want to think of Cuonzo Martin’s group as better at basketball than Kentucky. Because that’s what the Volunteers have been, against a slate of conference opponents similar to what the Wildcats faced. Draft buzz and our collective and perpetual obsession with freshmen notwithstanding, Jordan McRae had arguably the best individual season of any SEC player. And Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon simply compete with each other for every single rebound at both ends of the floor. I’m not sure they realize an opposing team is even there.

A-10: Force majeure

                      W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  VCU              12-4   71.1    1.04    0.92    +0.12
2.  GW               11-5   67.9    1.06    0.99    +0.07
3.  Saint Louis      13-3   67.7    1.00    0.93    +0.07
4.  Saint Joseph's   11-5   65.7    1.06    1.02    +0.04
5.  UMass            10-6   70.3    1.04    1.01    +0.03
6.  Dayton           10-6   64.6    1.07    1.05    +0.02
7.  St. Bonaventure  6-10   68.1    1.06    1.06     0.00
8.  Rhode Island     5-11   65.9    1.02    1.04    -0.02
9.  Richmond          8-8   63.8    1.00    1.03    -0.03
10. La Salle          7-9   65.4    0.98    1.02    -0.04
11. Duquesne         5-11   67.9    1.03    1.08    -0.05
12. George Mason     4-12   67.5    1.05    1.11    -0.06
13. Fordham          2-14   67.9    0.98    1.15    -0.17

AVG.                        67.2    1.03

The A-10 is a 13-team league that plays just 16 games, and one of those teams is Fordham. Depending on how your schedule broke, you can look much more or less impressive here.

I have a hunch that maybe VCU really is the best team in this league, and that maybe people are overestimating just how good Saint Louis really is. That being said, the A-10’s unique quantitative and qualitative configurations should occasion a modicum of analytic deference.

If my hunch on Shaka Smart’s team does indeed turn out to be correct, however, the round of 32 should be fun. A collision between the Rams and Kansas, Virginia or a top-shelf Big Ten opponent would be epic.

Missouri Valley: Nothing to add 

                      W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Wichita St.      18-0   63.5    1.16    0.91    +0.25
2.  N. Iowa          10-8   63.6    1.16    1.08    +0.08
3.  Indiana St.      12-6   64.9    1.02    1.01    +0.01
4.  Illinois St.      9-9   65.3    1.01    1.01     0.00
5.  S. Illinois       9-9   60.6    1.08    1.08     0.00
6.  Missouri St.      9-9   62.4    1.05    1.08    -0.03
7.  Bradley          7-11   62.1    0.99    1.04    -0.05
8.  Loyola           4-14   63.0    1.00    1.07    -0.07
9.  Drake            6-12   63.0    1.02    1.11    -0.09
10. Evansville       6-12   65.3    1.01    1.11    -0.10

AVG.                        63.4    1.05

Since these numbers first appeared last week, Wichita State cruised to an easy Missouri Valley tournament title, beating Evansville, Missouri State, and Indiana State by an average margin of 20 points. Having played at a level commensurate with the best national-title-threatening mid-major juggernauts of the recent past, the Shockers badly need some competition. Seeing Gregg Marshall’s team be challenged at long last promises to be one of the best story lines of the NCAA tournament.

Mountain West: No mess below the top two — yet

                      W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  New Mexico       15-3   63.6    1.12    0.98    +0.14
2.  San Diego St.    16-2   63.3    1.07    0.94    +0.13
3.  UNLV             10-8   63.9    1.07    1.03    +0.04
4.  Boise St.         9-9   62.7    1.11    1.09    +0.02
5.  Fresno St.        9-9   64.2    1.09    1.08    +0.01
6.  Wyoming           9-9   58.4    1.05    1.04    +0.01
7.  Nevada           10-8   62.6    1.07    1.06    +0.01
8.  Colorado St.     7-11   64.2    1.07    1.08    -0.01
9.  Utah St.         7-11   62.5    1.05    1.07    -0.02
10. Air Force        6-12   63.4    0.96    1.07    -0.11
11. San Jose St.     1-17   64.1    0.88    1.10    -0.22

AVG.                        63.0    1.05

Now that I think about it 2014 is shaping up as a potentially challenging NCAA tournament for No. 2 seeds. I’m seeing New Mexico projected on the No. 7 line, and by my lights facing the Lobos would be the functional equivalent of drawing San Diego State in the round of 32.

One thing to note with reference to what is quite plainly an outstanding SDSU defense is the following:

                  Opp. PPeP
1.  New Mexico       1.15
2.  San Diego St.    1.18

Say hello once again to our old friend, points per effective (turnover-less) possession. The Aztecs are excellent at forcing turnovers — and they kind of need to be, because New Mexico, UNLV, and Nevada (!) all had better field goal defenses than did San Diego State in Mountain West play.

Meanwhile on each effective possession, it’s actually the Lobos that have the superior defense. You may want to keep this in mind if you see SDSU paired up in the brackets against an opponent that takes unusually good care of the ball. That may not be the ideal matchup for Steve Fisher’s group.

West Coast: One thing to add

                      W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Gonzaga          15-3   65.8    1.11    0.94    +0.17
2.  BYU              13-5   69.4    1.16    1.06    +0.10
3.  San Francisco    13-5   64.2    1.09    1.05    +0.04
4.  Saint Mary's     11-7   62.8    1.09    1.06    +0.03
5.  Portland         7-11   65.0    1.08    1.09    -0.01
6.  Pepperdine       8-10   66.6    1.04    1.09    -0.05
7.  San Diego        7-11   62.0    1.04    1.09    -0.05
8.  Santa Clara      6-12   65.4    1.03    1.09    -0.06
9.  Pacific          6-12   66.6    1.06    1.13    -0.07
10. Loyola Marymount 4-14   68.3    1.01    1.12    -0.11

AVG.                        65.6    1.07

Since these numbers first appeared last week, Gonzaga and BYU have played their respective ways into the WCC tournament title game. The Bulldogs are showing up in mock brackets on the 8 line, so Mark Few’s men are in regardless of what transpires in Vegas. As for the Cougars they are on the far more precarious 11 line, but they do have four or five at-larges below them in even more precarious positions. We could see both teams in the field of 68.