Scouting the 2009 NCAA Tournament: Power Conferences

This is the third installment of a four-part series on scouting the 2009 NCAA Tournament.  Check out the intro, Part 1 (small conferences), and Part 2 (mid-majors).

Most of college basketball’s best teams play in one of six “power” conferences, also known as the BCS conferences in football: the ACC, SEC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac-10.

Unlike the rest of the NCAA, all of these conferences will have multiple teams in the tourney.  Some will have as many as 7-8 teams in, while others may have only two or three.

For this exercise, I’ll break each power conference into four groups:

  1. Major Contenders- These teams are NCAA locks and are among the favorites to win their respective conference tournaments.
  2. Bubble Teams – Teams that would solidify their NCAA spot with a strong conference tourney run or jeopardize it with a first-round exit.
  3. Sleepers – Probably out of the NCAA picture for now, these teams could still make a run and win their conference tourney.
  4. Non-factors – These teams are not likely to be factors in their conference tournament.

I’ll be focusing mostly on the last 2-3 groups, since I the final post in this series will be about the top overall teams in the tournament.  Expect the teams in category #1 and possibly category #2 to be in that group.

As has been the case in previous posts, the rankings in parentheses are from Ken Pomeroy, who has no equal in the world of college basketball stats.  Both team and conference rankings are through Thursday’s games.

#1 Atlantic Coast Conference

Despite all the talk about the Big East this year, the ACC is still the best conference in the country according to KenPom’s ratings.

#1 Major Contenders (5): North Carolina (2) is still probably the scariest team in the country when they’re playing well.  Duke (5) always looks vulnerable, but they’re a legitimately good team despite some close calls and surprising losses.  Wake Forest (18) can beat anyone but seem somewhat inconsistent.  Clemson (19) has lost a handful of conference games, but only the road loss to UNC wasn’t close.  Florida State (41) is weaker than all of these teams, but their record and RPI rank makes them a virtual lock.

#2 Bubble Teams (4): Miami (31) has lost three OT games and 3 others by five or fewer points.  They have good wins over Wake and Kentucky, but losses to Maryland, NC State, and Georgia Tech, which are all out of KenPom’s top 50.  Their RPI rank is #52, but they’re a better team than that, even though they can’t finish ACC play at .500.  Jack McClinton can score against the best of them, so they’re a definite ACC tourney contender, even if they’re on the NCAA bubble.  Boston College (65) is not as good, but they’ve beaten both UNC and Duke and have the tremendous good fortune of only playing those teams once each in the regular season.  Maryland (60) has looked bad on a couple of occasions (lost to Morgan State at home), but they did beat UNC and Michigan State.  Virginia Tech (69) has a couple of good conference wins but will probably need one more against FSU to get any kind of at-large consideration.

#3 Sleepers (1): The ACC has no awful teams, but with so many good teams there’s also not a lot of room for a sleeper.  NC State (74) has beaten Wake and Miami and stayed mostly competitive against the conference’s best.  They like to slow things down, which could work to their advantage, but I don’t really see them winning the ACC tourney.

#4 Non-factors (2): Virginia (100) and Georgia Tech (99) have both beaten one tourney lock, but neither has much of a chance to knock off more than one other team in the conference tournament.  At least they’re both young teams.

#2 Pac-10 Conference

The Big East isn’t #2, either.

#1 Major Contenders (4): Washington (14) leads the conference standings and the RPI rankings (#15) among Pac-10 teams, even though KenPom likes UCLA (6) better.  I’m not sure UCLA isn’t the better team, but the Bruins have struggled against top-tier teams in a way that the Huskies haven’t.  Regardless, both are NCAA Tourney locks.  Arizona State (17) and Cal (26) are slightly lower in the RPI, but I’d be shocked if either team was left out.  Saturday’s game between the two will be a big one as they fight for third place in the conference.

#2 Bubble Teams (1): Arizona (37) is a pretty good test case for the selection committee, since they have 12 losses, none of which were against teams ranked lower than #57 by KenPom.  They also have three wins against teams in KenPom’s top 10 (Kansas, UCLA, Gonzaga), but the Wildcats have lost four in a row after last night’s loss to Cal.

#3 Sleepers (4): Southern California (35) and Washington State (34) are probably on the outside looking in right now for the NCAAs, but both are solid teams.  They’re headed in different directions, though: USC has lost 6 of 8, while Washington St. has 3 straight wins against UCLA, Arizona, and ASU.  Both play at a slow pace and could at least compete with the top Pac-10 teams in the tournament.  Stanford (46) is a bit more of a long shot; they have been mostly competitive all year, with a handful of good wins, but they have no interior defense at all and have mostly been exposed in Pac-10 play.  Last night’s win at ASU was an exception.  Oregon State (117) has rebounded from a horrific start to post a respectable 7-10 record so far in conference play.

#4 Non-factors (1): Oregon (144) started out 0-14 in-conference, but they have played the toughest schedule in the country and have won their last two games.  That’s better than what you can say about most bottom-dwelling teams, but there are too many good teams in this conference for the Ducks to emerge as tournament champs.

#3 Big East Conference

#1 Major Contenders (7): Four of KenPom’s top nine teams overall play in the Big East, and you could probably guess three just by looking at their records: UConn (3), Pitt (4), and Louisville (7).  West Virginia (9) is the other, but they’ve made a living beating up on teams in the 50-100 range of the rankings.  Still, they were competitive in all four games against the aforementioned three teams (all losses), and their #22 RPI will probably be considered good enough to make it regardless of what they do in the Big East tourney.  Marquette (22), Villanova (20), and Syracuse (21) make up the next tier of solid teams.  Marquette has a prolific offense; Villanova is balanced; Syracuse has two high-profile non-conference wins (Memphis and Kansas).

#2 Bubble Teams (4): We’re really stretching the “bubble” definition with this group, but the Big East is deep enough that these teams deserve consideration, whether they actually get it or not.  Where does Providence (72) fit in with four non-conference losses to teams in the 50-100 range?  The Friars are 2-6 against KenPom’s top 25 (all Big East games).  Cincinnati (77) could finish Big East play at .500, but they’ve been even worse against the good teams.  Notre Dame (39) and Georgetown (24) also belong in this discussion, although the latter has probably lost too many games against lower-tier Big East teams.  Both are good teams and would ordinarily belong in the tourney.

#3 Sleepers (3): Seton Hall (81) and St. John’s (106) have both beaten Georgetown (and split with one another), but to me they’re a notch below everyone else, and their styles aren’t particularly conducive to pulling off multiple upsets in the Big East Tourney.  Perhaps they belong in the non-factor group, but I’m putting them here anyway.  Seton Hall plays good perimeter defense, so they at least have that going for them.  South Florida (128) is worth looking at because they slow the game down so much, but they’re one of the worst shooting teams in all of D-I, fourth from the bottom in free-throw percentage, so that can’t help in those close contests.

#4 Non-factors (2): Rutgers‘ (146) only conference win was against DePaul (218).  Barring a miracle, neither will win a game in the Big East tourney.

#4 Big 12 Conference

#1 Major Contenders (3): The Big 12 has plenty of quality teams, but only Missouri (10) ranks in KenPom’s top ten.  Bill Self’s Kansas (11) squad is incredibly young, but also incredibly talented.  Perhaps they’re prone to be upset, but there are few teams with more quality players.  Oklahoma (15) has a quality player you may have heard about, but will he be healthy?  The Sooners were overrated before Blake Griffin got hurt, anyway.

#2 Bubble Teams (4): I’m putting Texas (27) and Oklahoma State (33) in this category only because they both play superior teams to finish the regular season, which will probably leave one or both with ten losses heading into the Big 12 tournament.  They’ll probably survive anyway, but perhaps not.  Texas A&M (49) is in a similar spot, although they’re probably not quite as good as the Longhorns or Cowboys.  They host Mizzou in their final regular season game, so that’s probably one more loss.  Kansas State (38) has to be in this group as well.

#3 Sleepers (2): Nebraska (67) is actually a good team, and they would likely dominate a smaller conference.  The Huskers play solid man defense, but they’re a terribly small team, actually the smallest in D-I in terms of effective height (weighted average height based on playing time).  I’d say they have a good chance in the Big 12 tourney just because of their style of play, though.  Baylor (62) is not playing as well right now, although they have beaten a few good teams this year, most notably Arizona State.

#4 Non-factors (3): I was tempted to put Texas Tech (94) in the sleeper category after their big win against Kansas, but I’m not a believer.  Iowa State (115) can just barely hang with the big boys in the conference, and Colorado (184) couldn’t if they didn’t slow things down so much.

#5 Big Ten Conference

#1 Major Contenders (3): Michigan State (13), Illinois (25), and Purdue (16) are the only locks to me.

#2 Bubble Teams (4): I would consider Wisconsin (29) to be the best of the other teams, even though they haven’t gotten over the hump against their best opponents.  Like most of the Big Ten, they grind out their games and will be a dangerous underdog if they do reach the NCAAs.  Minnesota (44) has fared similarly but with an easier schedule, which has made their RPI strong enough that they may get in anyway.  Penn State (78) had only beaten cupcakes until they reached their conference schedule.  Somehow, they pulled off wins against both Michigan State and Illinois (the latter twice), but I don’t think they’re a strong enough team to make it in without some kind of Big Ten tournament run.  Ohio State (48) has some solid non-conference wins but has struggled through January and February.

#3 Sleepers (3): Northwestern (58) could make some noise if their offense is functioning the way it can…they have some solid offensive forwards, and Craig Moore helps them light it up from long range.  They slow down the pace a lot compared to the rest of the country, but that effect will be somewhat mitigated in the conference tourney because life is just slower in the Big Ten.  Michigan (59) has beaten both Duke and UCLA this year, so I suppose they’re still dangerous.  Iowa (86) isn’t particularly impressive, but when you’re playing games with only 50-55 possessions, anyone’s got a shot.

#4 Non-factors (1): Indiana (204) is such a joke that they deserve their own category.  Iowa is their only top-100 win to date.

#6 Southeastern Conference

#1 Major Contenders (2): The SEC has no one in KenPom’s top 30, so this is all relative.  Tennessee (32) has won enough games against good teams (and lost a few close ones) that the Vols are actually Ken’s top-rated SEC team.  The success of LSU (40) is telling because of their weak non-conference schedule that is most notable for losses to Texas A&M and Utah.  It’s likely that they don’t deserve to be in the NCAAs if they don’t win the SEC tourney, but there’s no way they will get left out.

#2 Bubble Teams (4): This could be a long list.  Kentucky (45) and Florida (47) were kind enough to provide lowly Georgia with a win.  The Wildcats are 3-7 in their last 10 but have an impressive win over West Virginia, and Jodie Meeks is obviously a game-breaker.  The Gators are only a game better over their last 10, and they have an equally impressive win over Washington, as well as a better RPI.  They will face off on Saturday in a very important regular-season finale.  South Carolina (63) played a cupcake schedule, but they were 3-1 against their closest competition in UK and UF.  Auburn (57) did mostly the same, and they’re probably not going to make it in the NCAAs without some help.

#3 Sleepers (4): Nothing outside SEC play suggests that Vanderbilt (76) would be competitive in another power conference, but the SEC is pretty weak this year, and the ‘Dores are 6-3 in their last 9 with wins over Kentucky, Auburn, and LSU.  The same could be said of Mississippi State (83), Ole Miss (87), and Alabama (91).  The SEC hardly has any impressive non-conference wins.

#4 Non-factors (2): Arkansas (121) would be an exception to that statement, with wins over Oklahoma and Texas, but then the Razorbacks imploded in the SEC.  Georgia (188) looked pretty much the same until the late-season wins I mentioned before.

Final Thoughts

So that’s my impression with one more game on the schedule for virtually everyone this weekend.  I count 24 “major contenders,” which leaves 12 or so other spots, if you figure that there are a few locks in the other conferences as well.  I put 21 teams in the “bubble” category, and it’s possible that at least one or two teams from the “sleepers” will sneak in.

Any thoughts from the crowd?


4 thoughts on “Scouting the 2009 NCAA Tournament: Power Conferences

  1. I think the SEC is better than most people are saying, and has suffered all season long from ESPN analysts saying over and over again how down it is.

    While the SEC certainly doesn’t have any legitimate title contenders, I think there are about 6 teams that are pretty solid who you’d hate to face in the first round of the NCAAT.

    I know that the RPI disagrees with me, but consider LSU as an example for my theory:

    Their RPI is not very good because they blew some games early in the season and because they’ve beaten up on the weak SEC, and their SOS is terrible.

    But when you consider that they were a bad team last year that brought in a new coach this year, it makes sense that they would have scheduled weak, and it also makes sense that they would struggle in the early going.

    However, they finished the season 12-2, with those losses coming to a good Xavier team, and then to a (not terrible) Vandy team after the Tigers had already sewn up the SEC regular season title and had little to play for.

    All that to say this:
    You can look at RPI and SoS and think that LSU’s a decent team that has played weaker teams all year, and that might be true. But those same numbers could just mean that LSU’s a team that, while playing weaker teams, has gotten better throughout the season and down the stretch, has made the most of their schedule and has developed into a very dangerous team.

    I think they’re a specific example of how the SEC as a whole has been (somewhat) downplayed and overlooked this year.

    That being said, I’ll be shocked if they make it past the Sweet 16.

  2. I think you’ve been too kind to the Gators on two counts: by counting us as a bubble team and by counting us as a member of a power conference (at least this year). We have only two wins over likely tournament teams, Washington and South Carolina, and that may turn into only one if South Carolina continues their late-season slide.

  3. I’d say you’re right about LSU intentionally scheduling weak teams early in the season, and it’s difficult for rating systems like KenPom and the (inferior) RPI to account for in-season improvement the way we could just by watching the games.

    The SEC’s overall non-conference body of work doesn’t really suggest to me that they’re better than the #6 ranking KenPom gives them, but if everyone’s facing a stronger LSU than people suspect, perhaps he and the other rating systems are missing something.

  4. I guess Doug and I were posting simultaneously…that was meant as a reply to Luke.

    I think the Gators get some credit for wins over decent mid-major teams like Bradley and UCF, plus another decent win against NC State. Their losses aren’t terrible, except for the one to Georgia…a lot of close ones against decent teams (if fellow bubble teams like FSU, UK, and South Carolina). Not impressive like other recent Florida teams, but perhaps enough to squeak into the tourney.

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