Tuesday Truths: Presidential edition

Welcome to Tuesday Truths, where I look at how well 120 teams in the nation’s top 10 conferences are doing against their league opponents on a per-possession basis.

Josh Pastner is doing a very good Tony Bennett impersonation

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Ask Syracuse: Ben Lammers is good at what he does. (USA Today)

Through games of February 20, conference games only
Pace: possessions per 40 minutes
PPP: points per possession   Opp. PPP: opponent PPP
EM: efficiency margin (PPP – Opp. PPP)

ACC                       W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Louisville           10-4   67.3    1.14    1.00    +0.14
2.  North Carolina       11-3   71.4    1.17    1.03    +0.14
3.  Florida State        10-5   72.3    1.12    1.02    +0.10
4.  Duke                 10-4   69.3    1.16    1.08    +0.08
5.  Virginia              8-7   61.0    1.04    0.98    +0.06
6.  Notre Dame           10-5   68.0    1.11    1.07    +0.04
7.  Miami                 9-6   64.1    1.07    1.05    +0.02
8.  Wake Forest           6-9   72.0    1.14    1.13    +0.01
9.  Syracuse              8-7   66.7    1.11    1.11     0.00
10. Georgia Tech          7-7   69.1    0.95    0.99    -0.04
11. Virginia Tech         7-7   68.4    1.08    1.14    -0.06
12. Clemson              4-10   67.4    1.06    1.14    -0.08
13. Pitt                 4-10   64.8    1.07    1.16    -0.09
14. Boston College       2-13   72.1    1.00    1.14    -0.14
15. NC State             3-12   71.8    1.03    1.20    -0.17

AVG.                            68.4    1.08
Acceleration since 2015:        8.2%
KenPom rank: 2
% of games played: 81

Enough of this vaporous and imprecise “Josh Pastner has done a great job” stuff. Actually if we were judging this ACC coach of the year contest on offense alone, Pastner would stand a fair chance of coming in No. 15 in the balloting. (See numbers above.) Let us instead pay the head coach the compliment of attentive praise: Pastner, incredibly, may have the ACC’s best defense. (See numbers above.)

I know, I know, Virginia and Louisville play in this league too. I underscore the word “may.” Still, the fact that we’re even having this discussion in late February is ridiculous. Last season a Tech rotation led by four seniors allowed the ACC to score 1.08 points per trip. This season a raft of new starters and token graybeard Quinton Stephens have bettered that mark with plenty of room to spare.

In the spirit of the word “ridiculous,” the Yellow Jackets are in this 2017 “best ACC defense” conversation even though they had the single worst game any defense in the league has had this season. Back on January 4, Pastner’s team allowed Duke to record a truly historic 1.54 points per trip at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

From the Yellow Jackets’ perspective, the whole problem with that game against the Blue Devils was that it wasn’t at home. Georgia Tech’s allowing just 0.86 points per trip in conference games played at McCamish Pavilion. Unfortunately for NC State and Pitt, both teams have games that are yet to be played in Atlanta. Let’s just say the precedents are not encouraging for the Wolfpack and Panther offenses.

The real question is whether Pastner’s guys can take their defense with them to the neutral floor at the Barclays Center for the ACC tournament. If so, and if Ben Lammers can continue to be the league’s best rim protector not named Anas Mahmoud, Georgia Tech could navigate its way from precariously situated on the bubble (where no one thought this team would ever be) to a spot in the field of 68 (where no one thought this team would ever be).

Bonus ACC coverage: Virginia’s offense is broken.

Why Frank Mason III will be talking about disrespect in 22 days

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Close games are fun when you know you’ll win. (USA Today)

Big 12                    W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  West Virginia        10-5   70.1    1.10    0.99    +0.11
2.  Kansas               12-2   70.8    1.12    1.06    +0.06
3.  Baylor                9-5   64.8    1.05    1.00    +0.05
4.  Iowa State           10-5   69.0    1.10    1.05    +0.05
5.  Oklahoma State        7-7   68.8    1.15    1.14    +0.01
6.  Kansas State          6-8   68.7    1.05    1.07    -0.02
7.  TCU                   6-8   66.5    1.04    1.08    -0.04
8.  Texas Tech           5-10   64.9    1.05    1.10    -0.05
9.  Texas                4-11   69.5    0.97    1.05    -0.08
10. Oklahoma             3-11   69.7    0.99    1.08    -0.09

AVG.                            68.3    1.06
Acceleration since 2015:        5.4%
KenPom rank: 1
% of games played: 79

Kansas has won 12 of its 14 Big 12 games while outscoring opponents by 0.06 points per possession, a significantly smaller margin than what’s been posted by the unprepossessing likes of Utah (+0.09 at 8-7), Rhode Island (+0.10 at 9-5), or Houston (+0.09 at 9-5) in their respective conference seasons so far.

No, the Pac-12, A-10 or American most certainly are not the equals of the Big 12, but the Big 12’s the equal of the Big 12 and West Virginia’s posting a +0.11 in the league. So just how unusual is the Jayhawks’ run of close-game success?

Bill Self’s team still can’t touch Maryland in 2015, of course. It will be a long, long time before we see any team repeat what the Terrapins did two years ago in Big Ten play.

Clutchy McClutchface Terps in 2015
B1G games only
                      W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
Maryland             14-4   64.3    1.01    0.99    +0.02

Even in that remarkable season, however, the hoops gods still visited a modicum of sanity on the proceedings in the form of the historically mighty Wisconsin Badger team of that same year. Bo Ryan’s group won both the conference (16-2) and a Tuesday Truths commemorative oven mitt (+0.21) with ease.

KU, on the other hand, is going to win the Big 12. Have we ever seen a major-conference champion post a scoring margin this small?

Well, let’s just say there’s something about the Pac-12….

Smallest margins recorded by outright champions, 2008-16
Major-conference games only
                        W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
UCLA            2013   13-5   69.3    1.01    0.97    +0.04
Arizona         2011   14-4   67.9    1.09    1.03    +0.06
Washington      2012   14-4   68.8    1.03    0.96    +0.07

That UCLA team is famous for winning a major-conference title and then promptly firing its coach. The Bruins that year were a No. 6 seed, and Ben Howland’s team lost to Minnesota by 20 in the round of 64.

So, no, KU’s not especially unusual just because it’s going to win an outright title with a razor-thin scoring margin. In fact such an occurrence is something of an occupational hazard in any league that’s more evenly matched top to bottom than what’s customary. The Jayhawks are strikingly aberrant, however, because they’re about to get a No. 1 seed with a razor-thin scoring margin. Or perhaps it would be better to say Self’s team would be strikingly aberrant on that score if not for the fact that Baylor stands a fair chance of doing the exact same thing.

If all of the above does indeed come to pass, at 7 pm Eastern time on Selection Sunday the laptops will drop on both Kansas and Baylor like jaguars out of a tree. Probability-driven brackets will show both teams as relatively “weak” top seeds, and the trendy Final Four picks will instead be lower seeds from those regions. At the media availabilities leading into the round of 64, the Jayhawks and Bears will be asked about this and they’ll respond with talk of being disrespected. To borrow a phrase from “Lawrence of Arabia,” it is written.

Is Villanova really the best two-point shooting team ever?

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A two-point make likely occurred within a couple seconds of this photo. (AP)

Big East                  W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Villanova            13-2   65.7    1.16    0.98    +0.18
2.  Creighton             9-5   71.3    1.12    1.03    +0.09
3.  Butler               10-5   67.0    1.12    1.05    +0.07
4.  Marquette             7-7   68.2    1.14    1.12    +0.02
5.  Xavier                8-6   68.9    1.07    1.08    -0.01
6.  Georgetown            5-9   69.8    1.02    1.03    -0.01
7.  Seton Hall            6-8   68.3    1.02    1.05    -0.03
8.  Providence            6-8   66.4    1.03    1.07    -0.04
9.  St. John's            6-8   74.1    1.03    1.11    -0.08
10. DePaul               1-13   68.2    0.96    1.15    -0.19

AVG.                            68.8    1.07
Acceleration since 2015:        6.3%
KenPom rank: 3
% of games played: 79

I realize “Wow, Villanova shoots well” has been an evergreen headline for four years now, so how about this tweak: Villanova is shooting twos better than ever before. Better, in fact, than any team has in years.

The dead hand of the past means the Wildcats are still looking up at usual suspects Belmont and UCLA in terms of whole-season numbers. (Side note. If you want your team to shoot insanely well, name them the Bruins.) Don’t be fooled. In the here and now, this is the best two-point shooting team in major-conference basketball by a very wide margin. Actually, Villanova’s is the best such offense I’ve ever tracked in major-conference play.

Josh Hart’s shooting 56 percent on his twos against Big East opponents, and he’s actually bringing his team’s average down.

Best 2FG%s, 2008-17
Major-conference games only
                       2FG%
Villanova      2017    60.7
Creighton      2017    58.0
UCLA           2017    57.9
UCLA           2010    57.2
Utah           2017    56.8
Creighton      2014    56.8
Kansas         2011    56.3

I think I see a trend. Four of the best two-point shooting teams of the past decade are playing right now (and one, probably, won’t even make the tournament). Why are the Wildcats and their ilk suddenly so unstoppable inside the arc?

Part of the secret sauce here, surely, is staying away from two-point jumpers. Per Jeff Haley, both Villanova and UCLA have reduced the share of attempts that they devote to jumpers inside the arc since last year. (Creighton’s really low number there has stayed the same year to year. Utah’s has actually gone up, but only from “microscopically” to “really” small.)

In addition, Nova’s recording a great percentage on twos in much the same way Division I as a whole posted a ridiculous three-point accuracy number in 1987, by hardly ever trying the shot in question. If you’re worried about perimeter-oriented teams being vulnerable when they go cold in the tournament, this is not your year to back the (likely) overall No. 1 seed.

But let’s not overcomplicate this. Villanova shows well statistically here in part because Jay Wright has a moderate- to high-volume player who’s hitting 66 percent of his twos in Big East play, one who excels at getting to and, especially, finishing at the rim.

One of the strangest aspects of the way we talk about college basketball is our manic insistence on celebrating NBA-track point guards — who may help pro teams someday but are on really bad teams right now — at the expense of other point guards who are demonstrably making their teams much better in the present tense. Specifically, it might be time to start talking up Jalen Brunson for various lofty national accolades. Just saying.

Charting a path for post-Harris Michigan State

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Tum Tum Nairn and his teammates will have to adapt to life without Eron Harris. (USA Today)

Big Ten                   W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Purdue               11-3   70.1    1.11    0.97    +0.14
2.  Wisconsin            11-3   63.2    1.07    0.95    +0.12
3.  Maryland             10-4   68.1    1.08    1.01    +0.07
4.  Michigan              7-7   63.8    1.14    1.09    +0.05
5.  Northwestern          9-5   66.1    1.05    1.01    +0.04
6.  Minnesota             8-6   68.6    1.02    1.00    +0.02
7.  Michigan State        8-6   67.5    1.03    1.02    +0.01
8.  Nebraska              6-8   68.2    1.03    1.05    -0.02
9.  Indiana               5-9   67.6    1.07    1.10    -0.03
10. Penn State            6-8   69.8    0.97    1.02    -0.05
12. Iowa                  6-8   70.8    1.02    1.07    -0.05
13. Ohio State           5-10   68.2    1.03    1.08    -0.05
13. Illinois              5-9   66.9    1.00    1.08    -0.08
14. Rutgers              2-13   67.9    0.87    1.04    -0.17

AVG.                            67.6    1.04
Acceleration since 2015:        8.5% 
KenPom rank: 4
% of games played: 79

Eron Harris suffered a season- and therefore college career-ending knee injury in Michigan State’s loss at Purdue on Saturday. The senior leaves Division I as a career 40 percent three-point shooter who started alongside everyone from Deniz Kilicli and Juwan Staten to Denzel Valentine and Miles Bridges. He’ll earn a very nice living playing basketball for someone somewhere. Best wishes.

Now, if I’d told you before the season started that Tom Izzo’s young team would enter the NCAA tournament without Harris, Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter, you might have been surprised only by the “NCAA tournament” portion of that sentence. The Spartans are showing up in the mocks as a No. 9 seed and will likely finish Big Ten play at .500 or possibly a game better.

Izzo’s chosen to go extreme-Izzo with the playing time this season, meaning, at the risk of oversimplifying, no one is getting any playing time. Even a proven fifth-year senior like Harris (who is older than Nerlens Noel), was logging just 21 minutes a game in Big Ten play. His absence therefore means the rest of the team will have to cover and offset a newfound absence in about 10 percent of MSU’s total on-floor player-minutes.

The task facing a post-Harris team that’s a hair better than the (very good) league average on defense and that’s excellent at putting the ball in the basket is easily stated. Michigan State needs shots. To this point in the season the Spartans have simply been starved of opportunities to score.

Worst numbers for shot volume index (SVI)

Turnover, offensive rebound %s; SVI
Major-conference games only
                      TO%    OR%     SVI
Michigan State        21.8   26.7    89.9
Oregon State          21.5   27.0    90.4
Washington State      17.9   18.9    90.9
Texas                 21.2   28.2    91.3  
Boston College        19.3   23.8    91.5   

As heretical as it is to say about an Izzo team, offensive rebounding from anyone other than Nick Ward probably isn’t walking through that door in East Lansing in 2017. The way forward for MSU will be to lower its worse-than-Indiana turnover rate in conference play. Lower it dramatically.

Game of the Year of the week, Saturday in Tucson

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Parker Jackson-Cartwright answered the call last week when he was put into the starting lineup. (Arizona Daily Star)

Pac-12                    W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Oregon               13-2   68.3    1.19    0.96    +0.23
2.  UCLA                 11-3   73.6    1.21    1.05    +0.16
3.  Arizona              14-1   66.5    1.14    0.99    +0.15
4.  Utah                  8-7   69.0    1.10    1.01    +0.09
5.  Cal                   9-5   65.1    1.03    0.99    +0.04
6.  Colorado              6-9   68.8    1.09    1.10    -0.01
7.  USC                   8-6   71.0    1.05    1.07    -0.02
8.  Stanford              5-9   70.7    0.98    1.04    -0.06
9.  Arizona State         6-9   71.4    1.07    1.14    -0.07
10. Washington           2-13   70.6    1.00    1.14    -0.14
11. Washington State     5-10   67.7    1.01    1.16    -0.15
12. Oregon State         1-14   65.5    0.94    1.16    -0.22

AVG.                            69.0    1.07
Acceleration since 2015:        5.4%
KenPom rank: 6 
% of games played: 81

When any two of the Pac-12’s Big Three play each other it’s appointment television, and such a meeting will occur for the last regularly scheduled time this Saturday when UCLA visits Arizona. Assuming the Bruins and Wildcats take care of business in the preliminaries on Thursday evening (Steve Alford’s guys will play at Arizona State while Sean Miller and company host USC), Saturday’s game may constitute the final fork in the Pac-12 regular-season race’s road.

Last week Lauri Markkanen appeared to bounce back nicely from what had previously been a weird four-game funk, one where over the course of 105 minutes he scored a mere 22 points on 5-of-25 shooting from the floor. (He looked Finnished! Sorry.) Or maybe the bounce-back was an optical illusion fostered by the welcoming and forgiving defenses of Washington State and Washington. It’s an important matter to settle one way or the other, because the November-through-January version of Markkanen (“Buddy Hield at a lower volume but also seven feet tall”) raises Arizona’s ceiling on offense significantly.

On paper the Wildcats are an explosive perimeter team trapped within the procedural inertia of their last three interior-oriented years. Arizona clocks in at well below the (insanely high) Pac-12 average in terms of two-point success, but Markkanen and company have connected on fully 41 percent of their threes in conference play.

UCLA’s been known to give a green light to opponents from out there now and then — maybe the Bruins will afford Miller an opportunity to return to a more 2013 (or even “USC game last month”) style of offense. On the other hand Lonzo Ball and his mates may score a point or two in their own right. That “1.21” in the table up there is about as high as these Tuesday Truths numbers have ever gone in the major conferences.

Miller will say his team’s thin, Kadeem Allen and Dusan Ristic are banged up, he’s had to put Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Chance Comanche in the starting lineup, blah, blah, blah. Hey, tell it to SMU. These are two of the league’s three best teams in, easily, the conference’s strongest season in years. Let’s tip this off.

Did someone say final fork in the Pac-12 road? Not so fast….Oregon makes its NorCal swing this week, and while neither Cal nor, especially, Stanford has placed an undue burden on the hoops nation’s attention bandwidth, a two-game sweep by the Ducks here would be more of a feat than commonly recognized. Cuonzo Martin’s guys may yet turn out to be the Pac-12’s best defense, while the men from nearby Palo Alto are doing things in the area of forced turnovers that, relative to the respective averages in major-conference play, have been exceeded only by South Carolina itself. (“Cardinal Errors.” I’m just spit-balling.) Indeed in the previous meeting between Oregon and Stanford, Dana Altman’s bunch gave the ball away on a whopping 28 percent of its trips. If Jerod Haase would just work up a really good permanent scowl, maybe we’d hear more about his defense. Go strong to the Bay Area, Ducks.

South Carolina has suddenly lost its omnipotence on defense

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Sindarius Thornwell (left) and Chris Silva (right) need to buckle down on D. No, really. (AP)

SEC                       W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Florida              12-2   71.5    1.10    0.92    +0.18
2.  Kentucky             12-2   74.5    1.15    0.99    +0.16
3.  South Carolina       10-4   70.7    1.01    0.94    +0.07
4.  Arkansas              9-5   70.9    1.12    1.09    +0.03
5.  Alabama               9-5   68.4    1.01    0.98    +0.03
6.  Vanderbilt            7-7   66.7    1.07    1.06    +0.01
7.  Tennessee             7-7   72.2    1.04    1.03    +0.01
8.  Georgia               6-8   70.4    1.02    1.02     0.00
9.  Ole Miss              7-7   74.3    1.02    1.04    -0.02
10. Texas A&M             6-8   68.6    1.01    1.04    -0.03
11. Mississippi State     5-9   72.2    1.01    1.05    -0.04
12. Auburn                5-9   75.7    1.05    1.14    -0.09
13. Missouri             2-12   70.4    0.96    1.08    -0.12
14. LSU                  1-13   74.8    1.01    1.20    -0.19

AVG.                            71.5    1.04
Acceleration since 2015:       11.5% 
KenPom rank: 5
% of games played: 78

Keen watchers of KenPom have already noticed that South Carolina’s been toppled from its perch atop D-I in terms of adjusted defensive efficiency. That’s what happens when you allow a visiting conference opponent not named “Kentucky” or “Florida” to ring up 83 points in 69 possessions. (Give full credit to Arkansas: Mike Anderson’s group is posing a surprisingly respectable threat to UK for “best offense in the SEC” honors.)

Then again the decline of the Gamecock defense has been more than just a one-game thing.

Quantifiable collapse in Columbia

South Carolina defense
SEC games only
                  Opp. PPP  Opp. TO%  Opp. 2FG%  Opp. 3FG%
First nine games    0.87      26.6      46.2       25.2
Last five           1.04      22.9      53.5       39.2      

Allowing 1.04 points per trip is not the end of the world, but over that same span of five games South Carolina’s scored just 1.01 — which, truth be told, is what Frank Martin’s team is posting on the SEC season as a whole. In other words a February-variety version of the Gamecocks that plays average defense is not built to last long in March.

At the risk of waxing tautological, the defensive problem here is that opponents have started making their shots. That was likely going to happen at some point in terms of three-pointers, but those same opponents have also been connecting nearly 54 percent of the time inside the arc. Martin’s team has continued to force turnovers, though, which has been the only thing keeping this defense afloat. And I do mean “only.” On each “effective” (turnover-less) possession, South Carolina’s last five opponents have averaged 1.35 points.

If there’s one saving grace in the Gamecocks’ defensive downturn, it is to be found in its timing. For a program that’s been to just four NCAA tournaments since the Nixon administration, a slight February regression after a 19-4 start is not the worst thing imaginable by any means. South Carolina will likely be a No. 7 seed or so, and if this group can recover its January swagger on D it can still make life miserable for some very highly-seeded opponent in the round of 32.

UConn will get the American’s best delivered to its door(s)

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Jalen Adams hit the game-winner against Temple. (courant.com)

American                  W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  SMU                  14-1   63.0    1.17    0.92    +0.25
2.  Cincinnati           13-1   64.6    1.09    0.89    +0.20
3.  Houston               9-5   64.3    1.08    0.99    +0.09
4.  Connecticut           9-5   63.6    1.05    0.98    +0.07
5.  UCF                   8-7   66.8    0.99    0.95    +0.04
6.  Memphis               8-6   67.6    0.98    0.95    +0.03
7.  Temple               5-10   66.8    1.00    1.06    -0.06
8.  Tulsa                 6-8   66.9    0.97    1.03    -0.06
9.  East Carolina        4-10   65.5    0.89    1.00    -0.11
10. Tulane               2-12   71.3    0.96    1.11    -0.15
11. South Florida        1-14   68.2    0.90    1.16    -0.26

AVG.                            66.2    1.01
KenPom rank: 7
% of games played: 80

Connecticut’s now won four straight, and Kevin Ollie’s group is Kansas-ing this thing something fierce. The Huskies have won their last three games by a combined total of seven points.

Now the fun part. The American schedule was crafted for late-season drama back when UConn was thought to be a top-25 team. As a result what in fact have turned out to be the league’s two marquee teams — SMU and Cincinnati — will both be paying visits to the Huskies (the Mustangs to Hartford, and the Bearcats to Storrs) in the next 12 days. Throw in Wednesday night’s road game at Houston, and Ollie’s team has the best late-season schedule the American in 2017 can possibly give to any team trying to make the “No, wait! We’ve changed!” point to a skeptical hoops nation.

At 14-12 overall and sporting a triple-digit number in the three-letter antique, Connecticut is self-evidently invisible to every mock bracket. So what would happen if the Huskies won out? That is a really slim “if,” but the Cougars, Southern Methodist and UC would all be well advised to be vigilant on the perimeter. During this four-game win streak UConn’s connected on 53 percent of its threes.

Bubbly ACC teams may watch the A-10 tournament final very closely

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Charles Cooke and Dayton are in, and so too is VCU. Any additional A-10 bids should make the ACC’s midsection apprehensive. (Dayton Daily News)

A-10                      W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Dayton               12-2   68.7    1.08    0.93    +0.15
2.  VCU                  12-2   69.1    1.11    0.96    +0.15
3.  Rhode Island          9-5   69.2    1.07    0.97    +0.10
4.  St. Bonaventure       8-6   68.5    1.05    1.01    +0.04
5.  Davidson              7-7   69.4    1.04    1.01    +0.03
6.  George Mason          8-6   69.6    1.07    1.05    +0.02
7.  Richmond              9-5   72.6    1.05    1.03    +0.02
8.  La Salle              8-6   68.9    1.07    1.07     0.00
9.  UMass                3-11   73.7    0.98    1.04    -0.06
10. George Washington     6-8   65.6    1.04    1.09    -0.05
11. Fordham               6-8   65.2    0.96    1.02    -0.06
12. Saint Joseph's       3-11   69.4    0.97    1.06    -0.09
13. Duquesne             3-11   70.8    1.03    1.13    -0.10
14. Saint Louis          4-10   62.8    0.95    1.12    -0.17

AVG.                            68.8    1.03
KenPom rank: 8
% of games played: 78

If you’re having a hard time picturing an ACC team that’s being outscored by a healthy margin on each possession as NCAA tournament material, well, don’t blame the ACC team. Blame the A-10. The committee has to get to 68 teams somehow, and you have to go back to 2007 to find the last time the A-10 sent just two teams to the tournament. That may happen again, however, this season.

Dayton and VCU are very safe bets for at-larges, and no other team looks particularly promising. Rhode Island was hovering around the bubble for a while, but last week’s 10-point loss at home to Fordham will do Dan Hurley’s team no favors in the committee’s discussions. Basically the A-10’s the rare league where laptops and “they haven’t beaten anybody” essentialists agree wholeheartedly.

That being said, this two-bid thing is hardly set in stone. Dayton and VCU are indeed the league’s best teams, but they’re not swaggering behemoths by any means. As teams that will almost certainly be in the field of 68 either way, the Flyers and the Rams will have little to play for at the conference tournament. Besides, UD and Virginia Commonwealth have combined to win just one A-10 tournament title since the Rams joined the league in 2012-13. It’s not like these two programs have a lock on this event (though, to be sure, betting against VCU to reach the final game is ahistorical).

In other words, the preconditions for unleashing a true bid thief — safe at-large bids in the absence of any truly dominant team or teams — are unusually good here. The committee may have its work held up, again, by the result of the A-10 tournament final that tips at 12:30 Eastern on Selection Sunday.

The Valley’s at the mercy of shifting selection paradigms

loyola

Milton Doyle and Loyola have been way better than anyone expected this season while not beating “anybody.” That’s life in the Valley. (Loyola Phoenix)

Missouri Valley           W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Wichita State        15-1   68.9    1.18    0.90    +0.28
2.  Illinois State       15-1   64.9    1.04    0.91    +0.13
3.  Loyola                7-9   65.6    1.06    1.04    +0.02
4.  Missouri State        7-9   65.5    1.03    1.04    -0.01
5.  Southern Illinois     8-8   66.0    1.01    1.03    -0.02
6.  Northern Iowa         9-7   64.1    0.94    0.97    -0.04
7.  Evansville           5-11   66.6    0.99    1.04    -0.05
8.  Indiana State        4-12   69.3    0.96    1.05    -0.09
9.  Bradley              5-11   68.0    0.93    1.04    -0.11
10. Drake                5-11   70.6    1.00    1.11    -0.11

AVG.                            66.9    1.01
KenPom rank: 10
% of games played: 89

Statistically speaking the Missouri Valley is right at the cut line — as it almost always is — between D-I’s multi-bid and single-bid conferences. That being the case, the league’s been in a state of perpetual suspense all season long on the question of whether any of its teams will earn an at-large bid or whether the conference will instead have to content itself with one automatic qualifier.

Conversely there is the “they haven’t beaten anybody” selection tradition, which certainly has the weight of age behind it. Judged in terms of pelts on the wall, the MVC looks terrible. Illinois State has played just one major-conference opponent all season: TCU beat the Redbirds by nine points in Fort Worth back in November. The league’s “best” win is undoubtedly Indiana State’s one-point victory over Butler in Terre Haute, but, alas, the Sycamores are 10-18. Next in line would likely be Wichita State’s three-point win over Oklahoma in Oklahoma City.

Will all of the above be sufficient for an at-large for either the Redbirds or the Shockers should the need arise? Probably, in the case of Gregg Marshall’s team; possibly, in the case of Dan Muller’s. The men’s basketball committee is officially small-c catholic with regard to rating systems for one more selection at least, but it’s also true that No. 35 at KenPom’s been a pretty trusty benchmark the past few years. WSU’s currently on the safe side of that cut-off by 20-plus spots. Maybe that makes the Shockers a no-brainer, or maybe the laptop love frames them perfectly as the committee’s now-annual “We don’t care about your mocks and your fancy metrics” selection grenade.

As for ISU, MiKyle McIntosh has returned but he’s being brought along slowly by Muller after missing five games with a knee injury. The Redbirds pulled out a squeaker at home on Sunday over Loyola, which, had the result gone the other way, would inevitably have been seen as a bad or even fatal loss. Actually, Porter Moser’s Ramblers are but a few possessions away from having been a fairly amazing 2016-17 story in their own right, but, no, they haven’t beaten anybody. (Sorry, Washington State.)

Set your dials for 34-0, then sit back and enjoy

zagfans

They have to keep updating this sign. Well, except for the zero. (CJ Michael)

West Coast                W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Gonzaga              16-0   70.5    1.22    0.85    +0.37
2.  Saint Mary's         14-2   59.8    1.16    0.93    +0.23
3.  BYU                  10-6   73.1    1.06    0.98    +0.08
4.  Santa Clara           9-7   62.7    1.03    1.00    +0.03
5.  San Francisco         9-7   67.9    0.98    0.97    +0.01
6.  Loyola Marymount     6-10   68.9    0.98    1.05    -0.07
7.  San Diego            5-11   62.4    0.95    1.06    -0.11
8.  Pacific              4-12   66.6    0.94    1.09    -0.15
9.  Pepperdine           5-11   69.0    0.97    1.16    -0.19
10. Portland             2-14   64.6    0.88    1.09    -0.21

AVG.                            66.5    1.02
KenPom rank: 11 
% of games played: 89

If Saint Mary’s couldn’t beat Gonzaga in Moraga and BYU couldn’t get that job done in Provo, it’s reasonable to expect that the Gaels and the Cougars will be found similarly wanting against the Bulldogs in two weeks in Las Vegas. Throw in a win in the round of 64, and say the Zags arrive in the round of 32 with a 34-0 record.

Then, finally, things may get interesting. Oklahoma State could pose a severe challenge for any No. 1-seeded defense. Alternately, a potential No. 8 seed like Dayton would at a minimum give the Zag offense more resistance than what it’s become accustomed to encountering in calendar 2017.

Now assume Gonzaga proceeds to the Sweet 16. UCLA? West Virginia?…

I really love the tournament, and anticipating and speculating about the test that it furnishes for a great team in the Bulldogs’ position is one of the things I love most about it. The Zags play in a mid-major conference, so conventional wisdom says there are only two possibilities in play. Either they’ll make the Final Four and are therefore for real, or they won’t and they’re not. Yeah, two things about that.

First, Gonzaga is for real. I’ve never seen a team shoot 20 percentage points better than its conference opponents on twos.

Second, being for real doesn’t get you to the Final Four. (Ask Kansas last year, Arizona in 2015, etc., etc.) I cannot wait to see this for-real team finally exposed to competitors who’ll be able to capitalize on the Bulldogs’ shortcomings — the same kind of weak spots that every other No. 1 seed will have.

The WCC’s blanket no-thank-you approach to offensive boards means we don’t really know how good these guys are on the defensive glass. Przemek Karnowski’s a career 52 percent shooter at the line. This is a good but not great three-point shooting team. But did I mention I’ve never seen a team shoot 20 percentage points better than its conference opponents on twos? Hurry up, March.