Tuesday Truths: Mock selection edition

The NCAA’s annual mock selection exercise was held last week, and as usual this meant my Twitter stream was filled with (literally) minute-to-minute updates on which No. 9 seed was going 130 miles more distant to which arena in a wholly fictitious bracket. In my most idealized self-conception I most certainly didn’t send out such tweets in February of 2012. In reality I probably did.

(By the way, moving the actual selection to NYC  is an excellent move. Salute.)

When mock selection occurs, the continuing presence of the three-letter antique is made painfully clear. In fact if I were a conspiratorial sort (I rejoice I am not), I would speculate that the NCAA goes through this exercise just so my brethren and sistren in the media will tweet out team sheets to show that once again the three-letter antique is the very bone and sinew of this entire selection process. Speak now or forever hold our peace.

I’ve spoken, and it’s still here. So be it. It will still be here next year, and I’ll still believe that obsessing over “top-50” wins with a metric that’s off by 50 or more spots seven percent of the time is a tad counterproductive, inertial and needlessly blinkered by an arbitrary fascination with round numbers. But it will still be here next year.

I will be too.

Welcome to Tuesday Truths, where I look at how well 55 mid-majors are doing against their league opponents on a per-possession basis.

Major-conference Truths are at ESPN Insider.

A-10: Dave Paulsen really does not like takeaways
Through games of February 15, conference games only
Pace: possessions per 40 minutes
PPP: points per possession
EM: efficiency margin (PPP – Opp. PPP)

                          W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Dayton               11-1   67.4    1.11    0.91    +0.20
2.  VCU                  10-2   70.5    1.14    0.94    +0.20
3.  Saint Joseph's       10-2   69.7    1.12    0.95    +0.17
4.  Rhode Island          6-6   64.4    1.07    0.98    +0.09
5.  St. Bonaventure       9-3   68.9    1.13    1.05    +0.08
6.  Richmond              6-6   67.2    1.11    1.07    +0.04
7.  George Washington     7-5   65.8    1.08    1.06    +0.02
8.  Davidson              6-6   70.7    1.10    1.09    +0.01
9.  Duquesne              5-7   75.5    1.03    1.05    -0.02
10. UMass                 4-8   71.5    0.98    1.07    -0.09
11. Fordham               3-9   66.7    0.96    1.10    -0.14
12. George Mason          3-9   69.2    0.98    1.14    -0.16
13. Saint Louis           3-9   70.2    0.93    1.09    -0.16
14. La Salle             1-11   65.0    0.93    1.16    -0.23

AVG.                            68.8    1.05
KenPom rank: 8
% of games played: 67

What George Mason is doing — or, perhaps, what is happening to GMU — in the area of opponent turnovers may be the most extreme season-long basketball behavior I have ever tracked, and I tracked Pat Knight.

Lowest opponent TO%s
Conference games only
Tuesday Truths leagues, 2008-16
                                       Opp TO%
1. George Mason       A-10       2016     8.7
2. Utah State         MWC        2014    11.9
3. Washington State   Pac-12     2016    12.6
4. South Florida      American   2016    12.6
5. Washington State   Pac-12     2015    12.7
6. Notre Dame         Big East   2009    12.9

Ordinarily I do my level best to explicate, but confronted with this I’m not sure I can do much more than gawk. Yes, first-year head coach Dave Paulsen consistently ranked near the bottom of Division I for opponent turnover rate during his time at Bucknell. But what is taking place collectively with the Patriots’ conference opponents on offense this season has never, to my knowledge, been achieved by any single offense. The thing about what Utah State did in 2014, conversely, is that, though extreme, it was still within the bounds of observable behavior by real-world extreme offenses. In 2011 and again last season, Wisconsin did record turnover rates on offense about as low as the Aggies’ defensive percentage.

When opponents are ending more than 91 percent of their possessions with a shot from the field or the line, it goes without saying that you could have the field goal defense of Kentucky in 2015 and your D would still be oddly normal overall. Thus the Patriots have the A-10’s No. 13-rated D, despite the fact that in a hypothetical turnover-free version of the conference GMU would actually have the league’s fifth-best defense. Whether it’s the hoops gods that are doing the deciding, the coaches, or some combination of all of the above, fetishizing one discrete subsidiary activity (for example getting or avoiding opponent turnovers or offensive rebounds) and sacrificing everything else to rank first or last in D-I in this single idée fixe is unlikely to go well.

CAA: Must-read for fans of Michigan State, Oregon, Miami and West Virginia

                          W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  UNC Wilmington       12-2   69.8    1.11    1.02    +0.09
2.  Hofstra              10-4   69.4    1.10    1.01    +0.09
3.  James Madison         9-5   67.9    1.06    0.98    +0.08
4.  William & Mary        9-5   68.6    1.14    1.09    +0.05
5.  Coll. of Charleston   8-6   61.5    0.98    0.94    +0.04
6.  Towson                9-5   66.2    1.05    1.04    +0.01
7.  Northeastern          6-8   65.2    1.05    1.06    -0.01
8.  Elon                  5-9   71.2    1.04    1.07    -0.03
9.  Drexel               1-13   65.3    0.92    1.08    -0.16
10. Delaware             1-13   68.0    1.00    1.17    -0.17

AVG.                            67.3    1.05
KenPom rank: 9
% of games played: 78

If you’re a fan of a Colonial team, you’re being treated to a highly competitive regular season in advance of what promises to be the nation’s highest-quality one-bid tournament (and on a true neutral floor, to boot).

Alternately, if you’re a fan of a team that might see one of these teams in the round of 64, you should know that all reputable mocks are showing the CAA’s entrant on the 14 line. Moreover since William & Mary, UNC Wilmington, Hofstra and James Madison all look quite similar in terms of the three-letter antique, the CAA’s position in the bracket could prove to be relatively immune to wacky conference tournament happenstance (barring a drop-dead shock-the-world run by a Drexel or a Delaware).

Over the past three dances, the mean pre-tournament KenPom ranking of No. 14 seeds has been right at 100. (BONUS methodological PSA. When trying to guess what will happen in an impending tournament based on lessons from past seasons, I heartily endorse pre-tournament-brand KenPom rankings.) So, yes, you could throw a stick at the top of the CAA right now and find an unusually feisty No. 14 seed, whether it’s Hofstra (No. 83 KenPom), James Madison (73), or, gulp, UNCW (65).

Feisty but not unprecedented. Valparaiso and Davidson carried high-to-mid-60 KenPoms into the tournament in 2013 and were promptly sent home by Michigan State and Marquette, respectively. (Though, to be sure, the latter contest was a bit of a close shave for the Golden Eagles.) Conversely Mercer in 2014 was your Platonic ideal of an average 14-seed (No. 99, pre-tournament), and look what happened there. Personally if I’m a No. 3 seed I’m fine with seeing someone other than UNC Wilmington in my bracket, but that’s a judgment call and March has been known to overturn judgments.

Valley: UNI should have started this finish a month sooner

                          W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Wichita State        12-2   65.8    1.12    0.86    +0.26
2.  Northern Iowa         8-6   61.6    1.07    0.98    +0.09
3.  Evansville            9-5   68.7    1.02    0.94    +0.08
4.  Illinois State       10-4   66.2    1.03    0.97    +0.06
5.  Indiana State         7-7   70.1    1.02    1.00    +0.02
6.  Southern Illinois     9-5   68.0    1.04    1.03    +0.01
7.  Loyola                5-9   64.1    0.98    1.00    -0.02
8.  Missouri State        7-7   68.0    0.97    1.04    -0.07
9.  Drake                1-13   65.8    0.94    1.13    -0.19
10. Bradley              2-12   65.7    0.80    1.05    -0.25

AVG.                            66.4    1.00
KenPom rank: 11
% of games played: 78

After notching its sixth consecutive win by beating Wichita State 53-50 in Wichita, Northern Iowa most certainly merits the label of hottest team in the Valley. That the Panthers would put on a run a year after earning a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament and a few months after toppling North Carolina in Cedar Falls isn’t terribly surprising. That they would do so on the heels of a 2-6 start in conference play, however, has to rank as an unforeseen event.

In the past I’ve been somewhat skeptical of coaches choosing to avoid offensive rebounds, but let the record show that this win streak has coincided with Ben Jacobson’s guys treating every potential UNI miss like it has smallpox. The Panthers have pulled in just 17 percent of their misses during this win streak, but plenty of made threes and the new zero-tolerance policy on turnovers at the McLeod Center has given this offense a big lift.

Virginia fans of a certain age will remember Paul Jesperson, and the erstwhile Hoo has shot 44 percent on his threes over these last six wins. Northern Iowa’s still just 16-11 overall, and an at-large is out of the question. Still, any team that can beat the Shockers at Charles Koch Arena has a fair shot at cutting down the nets at Arch Madness.

Mountain West: This table shall not be run

                          W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  San Diego State      12-1   64.7    1.03    0.91    +0.12
2.  New Mexico            8-4   71.6    1.09    0.98    +0.11
3.  Boise State           8-5   69.7    1.10    1.02    +0.08
4.  UNLV                  6-7   73.6    1.02    0.97    +0.05
5.  Nevada                7-5   71.5    0.99    0.98    +0.01
6.  Fresno State          7-5   68.8    0.99    0.99     0.00
7.  Colorado State        6-6   69.1    1.10    1.10     0.00
8.  Wyoming               5-8   66.0    1.01    1.06    -0.05
9.  Utah State            4-8   67.6    1.06    1.12    -0.06
10. San Jose State       3-10   68.0    0.97    1.05    -0.08
11. Air Force            3-10   66.7    0.91    1.09    -0.18

AVG.                            68.8    1.02
KenPom rank: 10
% of games played: 70

Last week Fresno State edged San Diego State 58-57 in Fresno, ending the Aztecs’ hopes of a perfect Mountain West season. The question now is whether Steve Fisher’s team can get an at-large should SDSU not prevail at the conference tournament in Vegas next month.

It will be close. San Diego State is projected as a No. 12 seed, which is an excellent numerical euphemism for you better win that conference tournament. The Mountain West has reached this one-bid scenario not because the league is down, per se. In terms of overall ranking it’s about where it’s been in each of the last two seasons, and you may recall that last year the Aztecs, Boise State and indeed Wyoming all went merrily to the NCAA tournament.

No, the “problem” is nothing more complex than the fact that the best teams in the league this year aren’t as strong as the best teams in this league usually are. SDSU, for example, rates out as about as mighty as the best teams in the CAA (see above). That’s not where the Mountain wants to be, but it’s not an existential crisis either. It’s just the way things fell out in 2016.

BONUS etymological note. I see many uses of the term “existential crisis” for things that are very clearly not existential crises. If this keeps up the term is on track to become the next “humbled.”

WCC: The Zags miss an opportunity

                          W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Gonzaga              12-2   67.6    1.22    0.99    +0.23
2.  Saint Mary's         11-3   62.4    1.16    0.98    +0.18
3.  BYU                  10-4   73.7    1.15    1.00    +0.15
4.  Pepperdine            9-6   67.2    1.07    1.06    +0.01
5.  San Francisco         7-7   72.8    1.09    1.13    -0.04
6.  Portland              5-9   71.6    1.10    1.15    -0.05
7.  Pacific               5-9   66.3    1.00    1.06    -0.06
8.  Santa Clara           5-9   67.6    1.02    1.14    -0.12
9.  San Diego            3-11   66.0    0.93    1.07    -0.14
10. Loyola Marymount     4-11   67.1    1.00    1.15    -0.15

AVG.                            68.2    1.07
KenPom rank: 12
% of games played: 79

Just 48 hours after winning a game at Portland, Gonzaga showed up in Dallas and played against SMU. The Bulldogs played pretty well after such a demanding turnaround, but the Mustangs won 69-60. That would have counted as a “good win” for the Zags, and with that chance gone there are no more such opportunities for Mark Few’s team.

This is a matter of discussion because Gonzaga is being projected anywhere from a No. 9 to a No. 11 seed in mid-February, while Saint Mary’s is showing up in some brackets on the 12-line. If the Bulldogs drop one of their last four WCC games, or, of course, if a bid thief or two arises in another conference, Few’s men will be watching the brackets show with even more than the usual amount of interest along with Randy Bennett’s guys. The Zags have played in 17 consecutive NCAA tournaments, and, as I noted last week, other things being equal it’d be entertaining to see Domantas Sabonis or Kyle Wiltjer or Emmett Naar or indeed all of the above in the field of 68. It could well happen, but it will likely be a long 26 days from now until Selection Sunday for those guys and their teammates.