Tracking The Four: Conference Play Begins

Posted by EJacoby on January 10th, 2012

Evan Jacoby is an RTC columnist and contributor. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter. TT4 will cover four selected teams of interest – Syracuse, Indiana, Murray State, and UNLV – by tracking their ups, downs, and exciting developments throughout the course of the season.

Welcome to Tracking The Four! This new series reads just like it sounds, as we will be following four buzz-worthy teams across the country. Those lucky teams are Syracuse (current #1 team and a title favorite), Indiana (a feel-good contender), Murray State (undefeated dreams), and UNLV (the best of the West). With TT4, we hope to provide readers with interesting insights about each of the featured teams that helps capture the atmosphere of the programs throughout the rest of the season. Look for a full TT4 piece every Tuesday, as well as a shorter update later in the week. Each post will be loaded with highlights, lowlights, and tidbits about each team, as well as recaps from their recent play and a look ahead at their upcoming games. Conference play is well underway and there’s plenty of news to get to this week:

Kris Joseph & Syracuse are All Smiles Right Now (Getty Images/A. Lyons)

Syracuse Orange

  • Trending UP Because… – They’re looking like national title favorites. The undefeated Orange (17-0, 4-0 Big East) remain number one in every national poll, including the RTC Top 25, with its consistently dominant play. They’ve beaten their four conference opponents by an average of 16.5 points, which includes two road games and two home games against ranked teams (Seton Hall & Marquette). Seton Hall has proven to be a solid and cohesive offensive team, yet the Pirates were blown out of the gym by Syracuse in a 75-49 thrashing. The Orange are the deepest team in the country with 10 meaningful contributors, and their patented 2-3 zone is as strong as ever. Jim Boeheim‘s team is now making bigger headlines on the court than off it (the Bernie Fine sexual harassment allegation was a big story), a refreshing trend for the sake of all its fans.
  • This Week’s Key CogBrandon Triche. The junior guard led the team in scoring last week, going for 16 points at Providence on Wednesday and another 16 at home against Marquette on Saturday. He hit four three-pointers in each game with an impressive line of 16/7/4 assts and two steals in the victory over Marquette.
  • Play of the Week - Point guard Scoop Jardine finds his go-to guy Kris Joseph in transition for a thunderous dunk from several feet away from the basket against Providence.
  • Talking Point - Guard Dion Waiters, who comes off the bench, had this to say after the win over Providence: “I’ve never been on a team with subs like this. It’s crazy. We continue to get better and make each other better in practice every day. We’ve got some of the best guards in the country.’’
  • Stats Central – Syracuse leads the nation with 37.5 points per game from its bench, further proving that they’re the deepest team in America. Also, their zone defense has been truly elite this season, as the Orange lead the country in steals (10.9 per game), are third in blocks (7.4 per game), and fifth in forcing turnovers (18.7 per game).
  • What’s Next? – The Orange play at Villanova on Wednesday at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia (7:00 PM ET, ESPN2) against a struggling Wildcats team, but it’s still a rivalry game in which the Villanova crowd should be fired up and looking for the upset. Then, Cuse gets its second matchup with Providence, this time at home on Saturday (6:00 PM ET) as heavy favorites.
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Night Line: Louisville Finally Gets Exposed, Takes First Loss to Georgetown

Posted by EJacoby on December 29th, 2011

Evan Jacoby is an RTC columnist and contributor. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter. Night Line will run on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s slate of games.

On Wednesday night, a couple of previously undefeated teams took their first losses of the season as conference play began. For Indiana, it was a reminder of how tough conference play is on the road, and a loss was expected by the Hoosiers as an underdog at Michigan State. But for Louisville, at home in the KFC Yum! Center, its loss was a confirmation of this team’s weaknesses that may prevent the Cardinals from becoming an elite team this season. Rick Pitino’s squad ran into their first disciplined opponent that held strong for 40 minutes, and it resulted in a solid Georgetown win. Louisville, who had escaped from several near-losses earlier in the season, was finally exposed on the offensive end by a team that could take advantage of its weaknesses there. The Cards shot just 42% for the game and must improve their shooting if they want to seriously challenge for a Big East title.

Peyton Siva and Louisville Struggled Shooting the Ball Against Georgetown (AP/T. Easley)

Louisville walked away unscathed in its non-conference games, but a closer look at the team’s play through 12 games led many analysts to consider them overrated. Though 12-0 on the season heading into this week and ranked #4 in the AP poll, our RTC voters were not buying into the Cardinals as a true top-5 team, ranking them 10th in the latest RTC Top 25. Wednesday’s home loss confirmed our pollsters’ beliefs, and the Cardinals are next headed to Rupp Arena on Saturday for a meeting with No. 3 Kentucky. By the time next week’s AP poll comes out, Rick Pitino’s team might be lucky to stay in the top 10.

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The AP Preseason Poll: North Carolina #1 On All But Three Ballots

Posted by KCarpenter on October 28th, 2011

The first AP poll repeats the refrain of the offseason: North Carolina is the best team in the country. Amassing 62 out 65 first-place votes, the Tar Heels ran away from the rest of the field. This is no surprise and pretty much matches what the coaches thought last week. Like in the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll, Kentucky came in second with Ohio State and Connecticut not far behind. One first place vote went to the Buckeyes and two more to the Huskies, with the Wildcats getting no votes at the top spot. While that’s a slight difference from the coaches poll where Kentucky got the only non-UNC vote, it pretty much lines up with the conventional wisdom: Going into the season, there are four clear top tier teams, with the debate being over who goes in slots two through four. While guessing which writers submitted the minority reports favoring Connecticut and Ohio State is an entertaining game, the AP is happy to spoil that fun by posting the voters and their ballots online.

As for the rest of the ACC, Duke comes in at sixth, the same as in the coaches poll. Contributing to this mounting sense of déjà vu, Florida State once again finishes just outside the top twenty-five at the the twenty-sixth spot. Virginia, despite receiving a vote or two in the coaches poll, doesn’t get any love from the AP’s panel. Interestingly enough, the only other team to receive votes outside of last year’s top three finishers is Miami, a team that is returning a lot of highly skilled players and deserves a little more love than it’s been getting. In any case, the preseason is winding down and this poll will soon be forgotten as actual basketball games take the place of educated guesswork. I don’t know if that’s any consolation to an overlooked team like UVA, but it’s something.

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Morning Five: 11.17.10 Edition

Posted by rtmsf on November 17th, 2010

  1. Wow.  We know of quite a few writers, bloggers, television personalities, gadflies and ne’er-do-wells who are hurting in a big way this morning.  After a 24 Hours of Hoops Marathon that once again did not fail to disappoint, the hangover is here.  We’re guessing that #cbb on Twitter won’t be this quiet again until sometime in May, as everyone around the country comes off their hoops-gasm and starts calculating the actuarial ratios of all-nighters to lost months of life.  Still, seeing all the different schools and fans and courts and cheerleaders and announcers and studio hosts and analysts around the country all day yesterday was pretty awesome, wouldn’t you agree?  As much as we’ve ripped apart the opening week’s haphazard trickle-out of games, this made-for-television event is brilliant and is quickly becoming one of the best regular season must-sees that the sport has to offer.  God help us all during the random future year when the 24HoH mimics a day of the NCAA Tournament and 75% of the games come down to the last possession — the WWL suits had better already have ESPN Legal working on its tort defenses.  Oh, and our guy John Stevens?  Over 11,000 words and untold hallucinations in 25+ hours of BGTDing, without a single drop of caffeine in his system (perhaps crystal meth, but certainly no coffee/soda).
  2. The biggest non-ESPN 24HoH news from the day came from Turner Sports, as the cable network announced that it will provide some of its wildly popular NBA on-air talent such as play-by-play announcer Marv Albert and the brash-but-hilarious Charles Barkley as part of its joint coverage of the NCAA Tournament with CBS.  The general consensus is that this is going to be a very good thing, and given that we are intimately familiar with the chemistry of Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith and Barkley on Inside the NBA (the best sports show on television by far), we think that they’ll pull it off.  Our only reservation — and admittedly, it’s a small one — is that we’ve watched (and listened) in horror to Fox when NFL announcers with their play-on-Sunday focus call college football games during the BCS bowls and it’s obvious they don’t even know or understand the key rule differences between the two sports.  We found this experience exceptionally painful.  Since none of the Turner channels (TBS, TNT, TruTV) are covering college hoops during the regular season, we’re a little concerned that even knowledgeable folks such as those listed above might have trouble making the transition.
  3. And this article is why NBA fans are different in many ways from college basketball fans.  Mr. Jeff Miller of the Orange County Register: in our sport, it actually IS about the names on the front of the jerseys.  Carolina fans will go crazy for their team whether they have a future lottery pick like Harrison Barnes or a four-year guy like Tyler Hansbrough leading the way; Kentucky fans showed as much passion for one-year man John Wall in the blue and white as they did for Tayshaun Prince; Michigan State fans loved consistently-tough guy Charlie Bell as much or more than Zach Randolph.  Here’s our suggestion.  Get out of the suburban and basketball wasteland known as the OC and high-tail it to a Missouri or K-State game at Phog Allen Fieldhouse.  While you’re in the Midwest, catch a game at Hinkle before heading over to Rupp for a Louisville or Florida game.  Detour down through Tobacco Road and venture into Cameron Indoor Stadium before your soul goes completely cold; then, since you’re on the east coast, head up to the Palestra for an epic Big Five battle.  Report back to us afterward if you gave a damn whether you actually knew the names of the players who you were watching — that is, assuming you actually enjoy the sport of basketball and not some bastardized version of star-watching.
  4. Gary Parrish takes a look at the oft-bizarre world of AP/Coaches poll ballots in his weekly column, The Poll Attacks.  Every time we read a column like this one, we thank our lucky stars that these flawed polls that reflect current perception are for entertainment purposes only.  Teams will get a chance to settle their real rankings on the court.  What some sportswriter in Eugene thinks about Villanova is about as important as what a Floridian believes concerning a local dogcatcher race in Wyoming — it’s irrelevant.  And we love it that way.
  5. Gregg Doyel examines the case of Enes Kanter and his eligibility through the prism of the NCAA rulebook and asks the question of when a pro is (or isn’t) a pro?  As he correctly points out, the NCAA has drawn a bright line with the apples/oranges comparison between sports, as in the cases of Josh Booty, Chris Weinke and current Clemson QB Kyle Parker, all of whom played professional baseball prior to becoming amateur NCAA football players.  But why have they drawn a distinction — what is the fundamental difference here?  It would be interesting to review the NCAA legislative history on this issue to see what the thinking was.
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That’s Debatable: What We’ve Learned…

Posted by rtmsf on December 1st, 2009

debatable

Each week RTC will posit a That’s Debatable question or topic that is relevant to the world of college basketball.  Sometimes whimsical, sometimes serious, we’ll post the thoughts from our core editing crew (in 200 words or less), but we’ll also be expanding to include our contributors and correspondents as appropriate throughout the season.  We also invite you, the readers, to join us as we mull over some of the questions facing the game today.  Feel free to send us your takes and/or leave them in the comments below.

This Week’s Topic: Now that we’re through the majority of the early-season tournaments and the calendar has turned to December, what have you learned from the first several weeks of the season?

zach hayes – editor/contributor, RTC

I’ve learned that the Big Ten may be actually be overrated for once. Purdue picked up a quality win against Tennessee and Michigan State survived Gonzaga at home, but it was a very rough week overall for the conference. Michigan barely beat a Creighton team that ended up losing to Iona and finish in 8th place at the Old Spice Classic, then were crushed by Marquette and fell to Alabama. Illinois saw their freshmen guard duo take some serious lumps in stunning defeats to a down Utah team and Bradley. Minnesota fell to both Texas A&M and Portland in Anaheim. Northwestern’s stock dropped with Kevin Coble’s season-ending injury and their two wins this weekend over two likely-NIT teams in Notre Dame and Iowa State in Chicago aren’t that impressive. Penn State fell to UNC-Wilmington and Tulane in Charleston two weeks ago when Ohio State got demolished by a flawed North Carolina squad. The prevailing thought around college basketball is that the Big Ten can’t play up to the level of other conferences like the ACC, Big East and Big 12. While this year was supposed to change that notion, it has, frankly, only done the opposite for the conference as a whole. Winning the ACC/Big Ten Challenge for the first time would certainly change some people’s minds, including myself.

john stevens – editor/contributor, RTC

I’ve learned that, as of right now, the last ten teams listed in any Top 25 you can find are an absolute crap shoot.  If you examine the few polls we’ve had this season, you’ll see that pretty much everyone agrees on the first 15 teams, and after that… we don’t know.  It’s chaos.  I can’t remember a season where we’ve seen such craziness in the bottom half of the polls.  This week’s AP and ESPN/USA Today Coaches Polls are great examples.  In the AP, six of the bottom 11 teams are different from the previous week, five in the ESPN/USA Today.  California sits at #25 in the ESPN poll, #37 in the AP.  Four of the new teams in the AP poll LOST last week but still got in (two in the Coaches’), while unbeaten Oklahoma State sits at #26 in both.  This is all something to celebrate rather than lament, as it just means that there are more really good teams out there than a Top 25 poll can accommodate.  I’ll gladly buy any stock in Siena, Dayton, and Mississippi State if anybody’s selling, and you can come see me again in March.

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ATB: Stephen Curry “Held” Scoreless

Posted by rtmsf on November 26th, 2008

afterbuzzer1

Indiana & Kelvin Sanctions (cont.). The big news of the day was of course that Indiana managed to avoid postseason sanctions even though they’ll formally be on probation for the next three seasons.  Kelvin Sampson, to his credit, took responsibility for the complete lack of oversight at Indiana ‘while on his watch,’ but at least once Tom Crean gets this program moving in the right direction again, the Hoosiers won’t also be burdened by the crimson scarlet letter of postseason sanctions.  Recruits can still be sold on the basis of playing in the postseason at Indiana (although admittedly, that seems farfetched at this point, even within three years).  Sampson is now working for the Milwaukee Bucks as an assistant, but he’s now effectively barred from coaching in the NCAA for the next five years as part of a ‘show cause’ restriction (a school would have to show cause for the NCAA to allow it to hire him).  Frankly, this seems to us like a penalty that was ‘easy’ for the NCAA to prove, but one that doesn’t necessarily fit when we know of so many other obvious recruiting violations that are simply untidy for prosecution and therefore ignored.

Games of the Night. We had two great games today, for the first time all season.

  • Notre Dame 81, Texas 80. This game was nearly everything we expected, and a little more (featured by Justin Mason, below).  Notre Dame was led by Luke Harangody’s 29/13 and a 40-footer at the shot clock expiration to what seemed like a solid win with a minute to go, up 79-71.  Then the bricks started – Tory Jackson missed two from the line; Zach Hillesland missed two from the line; then Harongody missed both with five seconds left, leaving the door open for Texas to win the game with a two (ND was only up 81-80 at that time).  Luckily for Notre Dame, AJ Abrams’ 60-footer at the buzzer was just a bit short (but right online).  Good performances abound – ND’s Kyle McAlarney had 19/5 including five threes, and Texas’ was led by AJ Abrams’ 23/5 and Damion James 11/12.  Both of these teams are top ten worthy, in our opinion, and we expect Notre Dame to give Carolina all they want tomorrow evening.

  • Syracuse 89, Kansas 81 (OT). This was a phenomenal game with enough eye-popping plays to cause Beetlejuice to take notice.  Kansas appeared as if they were going to blow the game open in the mid-second half until Jim Boeheim changed his trapping defense up and seemingly stole the ball a dozen straight times for dunks and layups.  This 13-2 run led to a tight game down the stretch which was capped by Jonny Flynn’s (25/5 assts) dagger three with 6.4 seconds remaining (see below) to effectively send the game to overtime.  Cuse continued its hot shooting in the OT – Andy Rautins and Eric Devendorf combined for six threes in the game – and KU appeared to lose its confidence in the extra period.  KU’s Cole Aldrich (15/14) and SU’s Arinze Onuaku (19/12) both showed a strong skill set in the post as each tried to one-up the other during the game.  Both of these teams are going to be very good this season.

What’s Wrong with Steph Curry? Davidson 78, Loyola (MD) 48. Nothing, that’s what.  As in Steph Curry put up a donut tonight in the points column (get a good look below because we doubt you’ll ever see it again).  The word is that Loyola head man Jimmy Patsos strategized to take Curry completely out of the game by double-teaming him on every offensive possession, anywhere he went on the court.  Curry, happy to let his teammates play every possession 4-on-3, stood in the corner and watched as they got open look after open look (14 threes went down).  Remember, Jimmy Patsos is the coach who decided to leave the bench last week during a game to sit in the stands.  We’re starting to seriously worry that he could be losing his mind.  We’re not sure if a player averaging over 35ppg has ever had a scoreless game, but jeez, Steph, what happened on the three shots you missed?

curry-zero-pts

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How Accurate are Preseason Polls?

Posted by rtmsf on November 14th, 2008

A question that’s befuddled us for a long time now has been just how accurate are all these preseason polls that every media entity puts out each year are.  Remember last season – all four NCAA #1 seeds made it to the Final Four, but what was equally interesting to us was that those same four teams – Kansas, Memphis, UCLA and UNC – were also the top four ranked teams (in a different order) in both the Preseason AP and ESPN Coaches polls.  With an n=1, we know that the 2007-08 polls were extremely accurate in predicting last year’s F4 teams, but that only tells us part of the story – what we really want to know is how accurate are preseason polls in general?

polling

To try to answer this question, we had to make some concessions.  We believe that, generally speaking, most preseason polls are largely the same, whether AP, ESPN/Coaches, CNNSI, etc.  Take for example, the blogpoll that came out this week.  The top twenty teams that the bloggers chose were mostly consensus picks - no team was left off of more than one ballot, and a total of only thirty-six teams received at least one vote.  That shows a relatively high consistency of thought – groupthink, if you will – about who the best teams in the country will be this season.  So we feel that we can derive some strong basic principles (and save a boatload of time) by examining only one of the major preseason polls – the ESPN/Coaches Poll – because it is the sole major poll that does a postseason version (after the NCAAs) to enable a fair comparison. 

We looked at the last five years where we could find the available pre- and postseason polls (the 2005 postseason poll is incorrect on both the ESPN and USA Today websites), and made some simple comparisons.  Our findings are below the table. 

preseason-coaches-poll-analysis

Findings.

  • In a given year, there are between 50-60 teams receiving votes from the preseason pollsters.  This tightens up to approximately 40 teams receiving votes in the postseason poll. 
  • So how does a team receiving preseason votes equate to the postseason?  Ehhh, not terrible, but not great either.  Over the last six seasons (excl. 2005), if a team received votes in the preseason poll, there was a slightly better than half (54%) chance that it would also get votes in the postseason poll.  That alone doesn’t tell us a whole lot, though.  What if your team was in the preseason Top 25?  Those teams receive votes in the final poll approximately three-quarters (76%) of the time, which at minimum, means that the takeaway is that a preseason team receiving votes will usually make the NCAA Tournament
  • Looking at the distribution of the final postseason polls can tell us a little bit about how accurate preseason pollsters are at predicting how good a team will be.  There appears to be a much stronger tendency to overlook teams that turn out later to be good rather than to overrate teams that turn out to not as good as pollsters thought.  Over half of the teams in a given year (~23) in the final postseason poll will have moved up >5 spots in the rankings from their initial selection; but only a handful of teams (~7) will have moved down by >5 spots from the preseason.  Another ~12 teams won’t move much from its initial standing.  This is strong evidence that pollsters generally have an accurate sense of the abilities of about 30% of teams in a given year, but they’re far more likely to underrate teams (usually by not ranking them at all) than to overrate teams (by a 3:1 ratio). 
  • Some of the more notable examples of the pollsters being right on the money were in 2004, when they rated UConn/Duke as #1/#2, which is exactly where they ended the season.  Florida rated as preseason #1 in 2007 and Kansas as preseason #2 in 2003 were some other clear winners. 
  • The swing-and-a-misses where the pollsters vastly overrated a team were Indiana in 2008 (#9 to #33), Duke in 2007 (#11 to #38), and Michigan St. in both 2006 (#5 to #34) and 2005 (#3 to #41).   
  • The biggest misses where pollsters underrated a team was most obvious in 2003 and 2007, when preseason #31 Syracuse and #39 Florida, respectively, vaulted all the way to #1 by season’s end, and in 2004 when preseason unranked Georgia Tech made it to the F4 and #3 at the end of the year.  The only other preseason unranked team to have made the F4 in the last six years was George Mason in 2006. 

What does this mean for the 2008-09 season?  Well, if your team was ranked in the Top 25, you’re more than likely going to make the NCAA Tournament.  And if you’re already highly ranked, you should feel relatively secure in your position at or near the top – most teams simply don’t have huge drops in rankings from beginning to end of the season.  The good news is that if your team was lower ranked or not ranked at all, but you feel like they’re extremely underrated, history shows that an awful lot of teams move significantly up the rankings as the season goes along.  We’ll leave the guesswork as to who those teams might be to the rest of you guys. 

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Preseason Polls Released

Posted by rtmsf on October 31st, 2008

Prediction:  by the end of the first week of December, UNC will no longer be #1 in the major media polls.

No way, there’s too much pressure and they have too many good teams to handle before we even get our advent calendars.  Oh, and did you hear, a small piece of their offense will be out for a while with a stress reaction?  Even if this substantial piece never misses a game, which is extremely unlikely, he’s going to miss practice and be out of ‘game shape’ for a while.  And no, we’re not talking about Marcus Ginyard, but his loss hurts too.

Here’s Carolina’s early schedule – you tell us how they’re going to come out of this unscathed…

  • v. Penn  (11.15.08) – easy enough at home, right?
  • v. Kentucky (11.18.08) – this home game suddenly becomes extremely interesting if TH is out or still ailing – Patrick Patterson will wipe up the inside.
  • @ UCSB  (11.21.08) – UNC fans will remember the west coast stopover game before Maui in 2004-05 well.  Trap game.
  • @ Chaminade  (11.24.08) – Maui Invitational first round – easy W.
  • v.  Alabama (probably) (11.25.08) – UNC should be careful to not sleep on an athletic Bama team, but will probably win regardless.
  • v. Notre Dame/Texas (probably) (11.26.08) – either of these teams could defeat a less-than-full-strength UNC in Maui.
  • v. UNC-Asheville  (11.30.08) – easy home win.
  • @ Michigan St. (Detroit) (12.03.08) – 40,000 people could watch this game at Ford Field, and UNC will absolutely need to be at full strength to win this game vs. MSU.

There are at least three opportunities for the major upset here, and if Hansbrough and/or Ginyard are out for any of those games, go ahead and mark it down.  UNC will not enter the second week of December #1 and unbeaten.

Now, on to the polls, where UNC was a unanimous #1 in the AP Poll for the first time EVER (nope, not even 1991 UNLV, 1992 Duke or 2007 Florida), and also unanimous in the Coach’s Poll.  No pressure or anything…  FYI – UNC has been preseason #1 six times in its history (incl. this year) – the results of those seasons are: 1982 (Natl. Champs), 1984 (S16), 1987 (E8), 1994 (R32), 2008 (F4) – all that’s missing is a first-round loss or a title game loss.

Here are the polls.

We plan on doing some broader-based analytics of preseason polls in a general sense next week, but for now, here are a few things that we noticed right away.

  • Biggest jumps from AP to Coaches – Georgetown (+4) and Duke (+3)
  • Biggest drops from AP to Coaches – USC (-3) and Wake Forest (-3)
  • Coaches tend to vote by available talent + belief in other coaches’ abilities – what does this say about Tim Floyd and Dino Gaudio in relation to JT3 and Coach K?
  • Overrated – UConn, Duke, Oklahoma, USC
  • Underrated – Wisconsin, Florida, Georgetown, Gonzaga
  • All 25 teams in both polls are duplicates, but it’s interesting that Xavier was #26 in the AP vs. #30 in the Coaches.
  • We’re a little surprised to not see St. Mary’s and Baylor ranked over teams like Villanova and Kansas, but whatever, that’s their poll, not ours.
  • Alabama gets 16 AP votes but a donut in the Coaches – Mark Gottfried, much?  And LSU is getting too much love for simply getting a new coach.
  • Conference Breakdown – Big East (7 + 2 others receiving votes); ACC (4), Big 10 (3), Big 12 (3), Pac-10 (3), SEC (2), CUSA (1), SoCon (1), WCC (1).
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Is the 2008-09 Big East the Best Conference Ever?

Posted by rtmsf on October 27th, 2008

We’re barely over a week into practice and there’s already been some talk that this year’s version of the Big East, with as many as four legitimate F4 contenders (UConn, Pitt, Louisville & Notre Dame) and another five or six legitimate NCAA Tournament teams, could be the deepest, most competitive conference of all-time.  When put in those terms, it’s difficult to disagree… but you know us, we don’t take kindly to sweeping claims of superiority without some measurable statistical basis to back it up.

(photo credit: Bob Eckstein)

The problem is figuring out how to measure such a thing.  Take last year’s Pac-10, for example.  The conference was widely considered by pundits to be the strongest, deepest conference in America.  Computer ratings tended to agree.  At various points during the season, as many as eight of its ten schools were touted as NCAA-caliber teams.  Six ultimately were invited to the NCAA Tournament, but only three of those made it to the Sweet Sixteen, with UCLA the sole conference representative in the Final Four.  Was the Pac-10 stronger than the Big East, who had six teams ranked in the final AP poll last year (vs. three for the Pac-10) and had two more teams invited to the Big Dance but only found itself with a pair standing on the second weekend (and zero in the F4)?  Or was the Pac-10 superior to the Big 12, who had the strongest NCAA showing of the major conferences with a 6-0 first round ultimately resulting in Kansas cutting down the nets?  It’s hard to say, because depending on how you set the parameters, you can make fair and defensible arguments for the strength of multiple conferences in any given year (our friends dealing with the BCS go through this every year). 

Just thinking back to last season, we could break it down this way.  AP poll?  Big East.  NCAA Tournament success?  Big 12.  Computer rankings?  Pac-10.  Pundits?  Take your pick, but leaning Pac-10.    Choosing which source to buy into is based on personal taste, but for the sake of this post, we’ll admit that there is no perfect measurement and focus exclusively on Jeff Sagarin’s computer ratings.  Using his data, we like that we can take stock year over year in relative terms.

(photo credit: sportsbubbler.com) 

So here’s our question: how good does the Big East need to be from top-to-bottom this year to be statistically considered the top conference of the last decade (Sagarin’s archive only goes back to the 1998-99 season – we requested data back to 1984-85, to no avail)?  For the sake of comparison, here are the top ten conferences by Sagarin’s computer ratings of the last ten years.   

As you can see, the 2008 version of the Big East wasn’t bad from top-to-bottom, but it was still a good distance away from the top ten conferences of the last decade.  The problem is that when people talk about how strong conferences are, are they really talking about team #10 or team #12 or team #16 in the cellar?  Of course not – they’re really talking about the NCAA-caliber teams, i.e., the top half of the conference.  So how does this list change if we only consider the top half of the major conferences of the last ten years (also represented graphically)?

It’s interesting to imagine if the Big East were still an eight-team conference like the old days, as last year’s top half alone would have rated the league as the second-best conference of the last decade (2004 ACC at 87.31 would still be #1).  As it stands, though, the Big East’s mammoth size probably ensures that from a statistical standpoint (Law of Large Numbers, much?), it will never be able to have enough great teams to overcome what some of the smaller conferences have been able to do.

Nothing is conclusive here, but we feel safe in saying that the 2008-09 Big East is unlikely to rise to the top of either of these lists, but it wouldn’t shock us if the conference ended up in the top ten (esp. the top-half list).  Notwithstanding where the conference Sagarin ratings finish, there shouldn’t be any question using the eyes and ears test that the Big East will be the most competitive and interesting conference in America this season.

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The Magic Eight Deconstructed

Posted by rtmsf on January 16th, 2008

Today SI’s Grant Wahl published his annual January synopsis of the eight teams that he feels have sufficient chops to win the national title in April. He likes to point out that in the eight previous years of doing this article, he’s been correct in seven of them (the one miss: 2003 with Syracuse). FYI, here is a spreadsheet of his Magic Eight picks for each year since its inception. Looking at the document with the caveat that we generally like Wahl’s work, in the last eight years the only true “gotcha!” champion was that Cuse team, which raises the question of just how difficult it is to pick eight top-tier teams in the hopes that one of the group cuts the nets down.

The short answer is not very. Had Wahl simply chosen the top eight teams in the AP poll for the correlating January week, he would have nailed six of the eight champions during this period. The only other team he would have missed (besides 2003 Syracuse) would have been 2000 Michigan State, and Wahl would be the first to tell you that the reason for MSU’s relatively low ranking at that point in the 2000 season was completely because of Mateen Cleaves’ foot injury that kept him out of the lineup until conference play. After all, MSU was the preseason #1 team in America that year.

Magic 8 Ball

What we think is considerably harder to do is to pick Final Four teams three months ahead of time. The truly elite teams (champions) almost always rise to the top, but with the knowledge that there will inevitably be upsets and great-looking in January will be off the map by March, we figure that if you can consistently pick half of the F4 that far ahead of time, then you’re probably doing something right. Well, it turns out that in the eight years of Wahl’s M8, he’s nailed sixteen of the thirty-two F4 teams for a success rate of exactly 50%. Using our AP ranking measurement mentioned above, he would have gotten fifteen right (47%) by sticking with the poll. So at least he’s beating the chalk.

Which brings us to our analysis of his M8 teams for this season. Here are his eight selections:

  • Georgetown
  • Indiana
  • Kansas
  • Louisville
  • Memphis
  • Tennessee
  • UCLA
  • Xavier

Perhaps getting a bit full of his record (or taking a huge gamble in an attempt to look really smart on April 7), this year’s selections omitted the UNC Tar Heels, who are currently 17-0 and the #1 team in both major media polls (#2 in the blogpoll). We can’t figure this one out.

Grant Wahl

Grant, what are you thinking?

Does Wahl really believe that Xavier (or Dayton, as he claims he almost chose) has a better chance of cutting down the nets than UNC? Is he willfully encouraging hordes of Carolina-blue hatemail upon his inbox? Is he simply trying to up his hit page stats ? We have no idea, but let’s see what his justification is for leaving off one of the four teams that has shown itself to be head & shoulders above the rest of the country this year, and quite possibly a juggernaut.

Carolina just doesn’t defend as well as the other three.

That’s it? While he’s right (they don’t), there is still time for significant improvement on that measure, and it’s not like they’re piss-poor (#31 nationally as of today). But more importantly, the Heels also are one of the very best offensive teams in the country, and that alone should indicate they’re worth a look as one of the eight teams most likely to win the national championship. We just don’t understand his reasoning here. If you don’t think they’ll win it all, that’s fine; but to make a claim that they’re not one of the eight most likely to do so… that’s just criminal. Moving on…

As for his 2008 selections, no Wazzu, no Michigan St., no Duke and no Texas A&M is fine – each of those teams has a major flaw or two. Had we produced a M8, we would have definitely taken UNC over Xavier and probably replaced Tennessee with Michigan St. We may have also left Louisville off because we don’t know where their outside shooting is coming from and who will be injured next, but we’re not sure who we think is a marginally better choice, so we’d probably end up leaving them. But really, no major beefs other than the UNC omission.

FWIW, since it’d be fairly disingenuous to rip Wahl’s picks without providing our own for review, we’re sticking with the F4 selections we made for STF at the beginning of the season – UNC, Indiana, UCLA, Gonzaga. The only one we’re currently nervous about is Gonzaga, simply because they haven’t taken off with the return of Josh Heytvelt like we thought they would. There’s still time, though.

Update:  we sent this link to Wahl, and he responded in an email that he thought we had mischaracterized his article in the sense that he never claimed to be picking the eight teams most likely to win the national championship.  He said that if that were the case, UNC would have been #4 on his list; however, his intent was to eliminate one of the “Big Four,” so as to make things interesting and avoid the appearance of playing it safe.  We thought the intent of the M8 was to create a pool of teams from which he “guarantees” the champ will come – if that’s the case, we still don’t really understand the UNC omission.

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Preaseason AP Poll!

Posted by rtmsf on November 2nd, 2007

Same drill as last week…

AP Poll - Preseason 07-08

Quick thoughts:

  • UNC still #1, with a clearer mandate in this poll, with 5 more #1 votes than UCLA
  • The top 10 teams are in exactly the same order as the Coaches Preseason Poll
  • Georgetown’s #1 vote replaces Kansas’s single #1 vote (from the coaches poll)
  • Variance is minimal – the biggest difference is NC State (#21 AP; #24 Coaches)
  • The only different teams in the Top 25? K-State is #25 in the AP, Villanova #25 in the Coaches (each is #26 in the other poll)
  • Mining the OTR shows a few differences of opinion:
    • Huggins’ WVU squad got 20 media votes but nary a single coaches vote
    • Mizzou (8) and Vandy (6) are a couple of the other notables that received some media love but none from the coaches; on the other side of things, Bradley (7) and Utah (4) were the top vote-getters from the coaches that got nada from the media
  • Nothing else too exciting that we didn’t already mention in the Coaches Poll review, although we still think USC and NC State are incredibly overrated
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