Posted on: January 24, 2012 1:09 pm
Edited on: January 24, 2012 7:12 pm

The tightest league races right now

Drexel and George Mason are two of five teams chasing down the CAA crown. Many conference races remain four-team-or-more chases nearly halfway through league play. (US PRESSWIRE)

By Matt Norlander

We’re now more than halfway through the college basketball season (blink long enough and conference tournaments will be there before your eyes as you open them), and what intrigues me is the number of conferences with good races/clogs at the top. I wanted to see which leagues had the best tussles for supremacy right now, so I’ve laid them out on the table, so to speak. In three weeks, separation will become natural and many of the conferences featured below will either see the top of its respective mountains less crowded — or perhaps find a late bloomer making a spirited run.

For now, these are among the tightest, densest races and chases going in college hoops right now. Yes, there had to be some ground rules. First of all, you couldn’t be from the Pac-12. Secondly, you couldn’t be from any of the major conferences, because we’re all very aware of those marathons. Plus, those leagues are covered in a column I wrote today. To be fair to sample size, I set a bar: each team had to have played a minimum of seven conference games, eliminating C-USA for now, which could become really enrapturing, and the Atlantic 10 which, as of this post, had teams 1 through 12 with one to three losses. No one knows what’s going to happen in that league. As Tony Horton would say, “I hate it, but I love it.” Both of those conferences will get standalone posts on their prospects near the end of the month.

Lastly, conferences that qualified for this post needed at least four teams within two games of each other in the loss column in the top of the standings. You’ll notice I use points per possession and points per possession allowed in addition to league/overall marks. The format is similar to John Gasaway’s super Tuesday Truths, only I’m not using efficiency margins as means of ranking, and the PPP metrics are for all games, not in-conference, which John uses.

Here they are, college basketball’s six closest non-Big Six conference chases.


Team                     League   Overall      PPP     PPPA

George Mason          8-1       16-5         1.04    0.92
VCU                            7-2       16-5         1.04    0.90
Drexel                         7-2       15-5         1.03    0.89
Old Dominion            7-2       12-9         0.96    0.92
Georgia State            6-3       14-6         1.02    0.86

Prior to the start of the weekend, the Colonial was the only conference with a viable six-team quest. Since then, Northeastern fell out of favor. How about Mason, eh? That’s my preseason CAA pick. And it doesn’t play any of the top six teams again until Feb. 4, when it gets ODU. Speaking of the Monarchs, Old Dominion challenged itself greatly in the non-con, so the overall record doesn’t do justice to the ceiling that team has. Drexel, by the way, was the coaches’ pick for conference winner back in October. But it ain’t October no mo’.

Few leagues have been as defensively stout as the CAA. Its collective .97 points-per-possession-allowed is the best of any conference listed here. Georgia State still leads the league in efficiency margin — something to keep an eye on.

Upcoming games between top teams:

Georgia State at Drexel, Wednesday
VCU at Georgia State, Saturday


Team                   League    Overall     PPP     PPPA

Long Island             8-0       14-6         1.06    1.01
Wagner                     6-2       15-4         1.08    0.94
Central Conn.          6-2        9-9          1.02    1.00
Robert Morris           5-2       15-6         1.05    0.96
St. Francis (NY)       6-2       9-10         0.98    0.98

The Northeast Conference’s chase has been a long time coming. Four of the five teams fared well in the non-con, even CCSU, which is treading water overall. But Central Connecticut also could have the league’s best player, Ken Horton, and the best freshman, Kyle Vinales. Plenty’s already been written about Wagner (which could easily be 14-5, not 15-4), but now that LIU is still undefeated, the defending NEC champs should see an uptick in pub, including on this here blog.

It must be noted, again, that Robert Morris is playing so well despite suspending its best player, Karon Abraham, for the season. How many teams could duplicate that?

Upcoming games between top teams:

Long Island at Robert Morris, Thursday
St. Francis (NY) at Robert Morris, Saturday

Big South

Team                   League    Overall     PPP     PPPA

UNC-Asheville           9-1       14-7         1.15    1.02
Campbell                    8-2       14-8         1.08    1.03
Coastal Carolina       7-2       14-5         1.09    0.94
Charleston Southern 7-3       13-7         1.1     1.01

The Big South is the best league you don’t’ know anything about. Yeah, defense isn’t the motto — but the teams can score! And they can win out of conference, too; Charleston Southern is graded out to a top-20 non-con strength of schedule, according to KenPom.com.

Upcoming games between top teams:

Campbell at Asheville, Saturday

Rob Jones and the Gaels are off to the best start in league play since 1959. (AP)


Team                   League    Overall     PPP     PPPA

Saint Mary’s              8-0       19-2         1.17    0.91
Gonzaga                    6-1       16-3         1.1     0.94
Brigham Young         6-2       17-5         1.11    0.90
Loyola Marymount    5-2       12-8         1.01    0.96

Who knew Saint Mary’s would be THIS good? Tough games are upcoming, but still, the Gaels haven’t ever started West Coast Conference play 8-0 before. They started 8-0 in ’58-’59, back when they were a part of the West Coast Athletic Conference, which became the WCC. Kudos to them. What I love about this race is how each team can score — and isn’t allowing more than a point per possession. Some good old fashioned domination going on. I like Gonzaga to ultimately win the league in the regular season. Marymount’s going to remain to be a problem for everyone, though.

Upcoming games between top teams:

Saint Mary’s at Marymount, Thursday
Saint Mary’s at BYU, Saturday


Team                   League    Overall     PPP     PPPA

Cleveland State       7-2       17-4         1.04    0.92
Valparaiso                7-2       14-7         1.08    1.01
UW-Milwaukee        6-3       13-8         0.98    0.93
Butler                         6-3       12-9         0.97    0.95
Youngstown State    6-3       11-8         1.03    1.00

Look at cute little Butler, just hiding in the weeds at 12-9 and tied for second. It’s no secret this Bulldogs team has had trouble scoring, but at least they’re still, just barely, better on O than D. Cleveland State has done very well for itself, but I think the Horizon, which ends league play Feb. 25, before most other leagues, will see four teams own the top spot before the season ends. I don’t think Youngstown State is worth taking seriously, but they met the qualifications and are playing better than Milwaukee. Then again, the Penguins have had a much easier schedule than the Panthers.  

Upcoming games between top teams:

Butler at Milwaukee, Thursday
Cleveland State at Youngstown State, Saturday
Valpo at Milwaukee, Saturday


Team                   League    Overall     PPP     PPPA

Iona                        7-2       15-5         1.14    1.00
Manhattan             7-2       14-7         1.01    0.93
Loyola                    7-2       14-5         1.01    0.96
Fairfield                 5-3       10-9         1.00    0.96

In the preseason I expected Fairfield to narrow past Iona for the league title. Then it became clear the Gaels were far superior to the Stags, who are enduring one of the most disappointing seasons of any team in the country. They’re barely keeping chase to make this feature. Now Iona’s staggered after blowing an 18-point lead to Siena Monday night. Siena, as you can see, is not even in position to win the MAAC right now. The Gaels are still the best team this league has by a wide margin, but now they’re not to be trusted, despite having three all league-level players in Scott Machado, Mike Glover and MoMo Jones.

Manhattan has transformed itself in the first year under Steve Masiello. What a job. And talking to some in the league in the preseason, they expected Loyola to be a top-three team. That’s true so far.

Upcoming games between top teams:

Iona at Fairfield, Friday
Posted on: January 23, 2012 12:00 pm
Edited on: January 23, 2012 12:05 pm

Proof that hot starts guarantee wins

Starting a game making 10 or more consecutive field goals -- five out of five dentists recommend it. (AP)

By Matt Norlander

You may have seen the news -- it was also linked in today's Wakeup Call -- that Cal Poly tied an NCAA record over the weekend. The Mustangs buried 11 3-pointers in their 100-54 smacking of Cal State Northridge. Cal Poly is seemingly a program on the rise, one who could be a Big West contender next season. Good for them. Perhaps we'll be talking more about them a year from now, if not sooner.

But there was another consecutive-field-goal achievement set over the weekend: Arkansas opened its game against Michigan by sinking 11 straight buckets, a benchmark that's only been bested once in the past three seasons -- Creighton hit 13 against Campbell earlier this season, back in November.

To hit 11 straight to start a game, to come out of the locker room that hot, is plain fantastic and pretty much the best thing a coach could ask for, all the while never expecting such a thing. I wanted to know how often this sort of sizzle from the get-go happens. I reached out to the inexhaustible Ken Pomeroy, who has some sort of Wonka machine that allows him to sift through data that us mere mortals aren't able to access. I'm assuming a bbbboingoinoing or kadoodle sound is involved when he turns it on.

So he did the data crunching from the past three seasons. Originally, I wanted to know how many times a team started with eight or nine straight baskets to start a game; Pomeroy said there's a bunch in that, so to narrow it down to the elite, and to use a round number, he sent over only double-digit-baskets-made starts. Here they are, since 2009-10, the team hitting all the shots being the first one mentioned on each line:

13 11/25/11 Creighton vs. Campbell
11 01/21/12 Arkansas vs. Michigan
10 02/24/11 Montana vs. Portland St.
10 11/26/10 Cal St. Northridge vs. DePaul
10 11/10/10 Illinois vs. Toledo
10 02/20/10 Gonzaga vs. Pepperdine
10 02/10/10 Virginia Tech vs. N.C. State
10 11/24/09 Iowa St. vs. Tennessee St.

I did some more digging on each of these games. The collective record of the team that started hot? An 8-0 record with an average margin of victory of 19.5. Notice not all the games feature teams that are separated by a lot of talent or prestige. (Poor DePaul, a victim yet again.) Out of the approximately 10,700 games played each year, about three of them feature a team that starts off hotter than July, and that team's guaranteed a win, regardless of venue or opponent.

It's quite simple, once you figure out how to get the ball in the hoop.

Category: NCAAB
Posted on: January 6, 2012 10:57 am
Edited on: January 6, 2012 11:00 am

A different kind of rating for the best players

The value, ability and worth of Mike Scott is about ready to become a discussion worth having. (AP)

By Matt Norlander

If I told you I had a best-players-in-college-hoops list with Jared Sullinger atop it, you wouldn't be surprised. You'd actually probably get bored pretty quickly. But if that same list had Russ Smith second, Mike Scott fifth and two players sixth and seventh -- neither of them Kris Joseph -- you'd probably bellow me out of the room.

And you'd have that right. Few casual fans know who Russ Smith or Mike Scott play for. But I wanted to bring to light the rankings Nathan Walker put together this week over at The Basketball Distribution. (Goodman, you can stop readi -- oh, it seems you've already left. Very well. We need an update on Robbie Hummel, anyway.)

Walker's one of the younger upcoming stat salesmen out there. He's written for Basketball Prospectus (required time served for all accredited salesmen of stats) and pretty much only tweets in tempo-free language. He created a top-100 player list in accordance to a stat I have many reservations about: plus-minus. I'll save my mistrust of plus-minus for another time, but in per that stat and the strength of schedule for each team, he's arranged which players are doing the most damage. It doesn't read like our Player of the Year feature, which is updated each Thursday.

The caveat: the player must be on the floor enough and be involved enough to warrant consideration, which I appreciate. Lots of guys can compile good tempo-free numbers in limited minutes. Fair enough -- but those players shouldn't be taken as seriously as everyone else if they're not getting involved more often. For the sake of this list, the floor requirement: playing in at least 25 percent of the team's minutes. Here's the top of the list. Read it and scoff.

rankplayerteamEfficiency Impact/100
1 Jared Sullinger Ohio State 19.4
2 Russ Smith Louisville 16.8
3 Thomas Robinson Kansas 15.8
4 Damian Lillard Weber State 15.8
5 Mike Scott Virginia 14.9
6 Dion Waiters Syracuse 14.7
7 James Southerland Syracuse 14.0
8 JaMychal Green Alabama 13.9
9 Cody Zeller Indiana 13.7
10 C.J. McCollum Lehigh 13.6
11 Marcus Denmon Missouri 13.4
12 Anthony Davis Kentucky 13.2
13 Jae Crowder Marquette 13.2
14 Jared Berggren Wisconsin 13.1
15 Isaiah Canaan Murray State 12.9
16 Jarrod Jones Ball State 12.8
17 Brian Conklin Saint Louis 12.5
18 Jamaal Franklin San Diego State 12.4
19 Ryan Pearson George Mason 12.1
20 Herb Pope Seton Hall 11.7

There are some really worthy names in that list. Guys who deserve more recognition, like Jae Crowder, Jamaal Franklin and Ryan Pearson. But the plus-minus flaws the data -- somewhat. There's simply no way on earth James Southerland is the seventh-most valuable college basketball player. Numbers can fail us; they can work us past the focus of the lens they so often provide. I think we have a case of that here.

I do find it interesting how these players, from a broad perspective, help their teams while on the floor. For instance, having Cody Zeller as a top-10 MVP candidate is completely reasonable, in my opinion. C.J. McCollum at 10? Not so much, even if he is all Lehigh's got.

If you're wondering: Doug McDermott is 21st; Harrison Barnes is 57th -- tied with John Henson; and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is 58th. Mike Scott intrigues me, though. He's been the subject of two pieces by respected basketball minds. He's been very good. I just don't know how truly good he is -- and the same goes for his team. In his case, I think the numbers have shown to be great, but he's not shown to match them, tangibly, yet. If the ACC's this down, Scott has no excuses. He can prove he's a top-10 player nationally by preying on the weak league over the next eight weeks.

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Category: NCAAB
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