Sun Belt/Pac 10 Analysis

JIM HURLEY'S HANDICAPPING NOTEBOOK

KEY INDICATOR STATS FOR THE SUN BELT AND PAC 10

We continue our updates of mid-major conferences today with a look at the Sun Belt. We hope this week's coverage has helped get you up to speed in many of these often overlooked leagues. Because the Sun Belt is so often linked with the Pac 10 in terms of a Thursday-Saturday schedule each week, we'll also get you up to speed with that conference here in today's report.

More on what's ahead over the next few days at the end of today's NOTEBOOK entry.

You regulars know we're looking at conference margin averages as a virtual Power Rating that shows you the point differentials amongst teams within a confined environment. We're also studying two-point defense because we think it's the single stat that carries the most weight in terms of evaluating teams. That's been particularly clear in conference tournament and Big Dance action over the years. If you're new to the site, get ready to have your eyes opened!

Let's see what's been going on in the Sun Belt this year...

SUN BELT MARGIN AVERAGES
Denver: +5.6
Middle Tennessee: +4.5
Arkansas State: +3.9
Florida Atlantic: +3.2
W. Kentucky: +1.9
Arkansas Little Rock: +1.4
North Texas: +1.3
Troy: +0.3
Louisiana Lafayette: -0.9
Florida International: -3.5
South Alabama: -5.1
Louisiana Monroe: -9.8

It's not a great conference in terms of national stature. There's not a single Sun Belt team in the top 100 of Ken Pomeroy's very respected computer ratings. Or in the top 150. Or, even in the top 180! Frankly, this is one of the worst conferences in the country!

That shows up in pointspread performance this year. Even though it was expected to be a down year in the Sun Belt, the market still guessed too high with some of these teams:

Denver: 9-14 against the spread
Western Kentucky: 9-14 against the spread
South Alabama: 7-12 against the spread

Only Troy at 12-8-1 ATS is more than a couple of games over .500. Since all conference games must show an even split ATS, you can deduce that the Sun Belt wasn't covering spreads against outside competition earlier this year.

But, it is a fun conference to handicap internally because there are several teams who play competitive basketball against each other. You see a lot of teams within the +4 to -1 range above. If the games are fun to watch, or fun to handicap, who cares that everyone would get crushed in a real conference?

Just be careful taking any flyers in the Big Dance on the Sun Belt representative!

SUN BELT TWO-POINT DEFENSE
Florida Atlantic: 46%
Louisiana Lafayette: 47%
Denver: 48%
Middle Tennessee: 48%
Arkansas State: 48%
Western Kentucky: 48%
North Texas: 49%
South Alabama: 50%
Troy: 51%
Arkansas Little Rock: 51%
Florida International: 52%
Louisiana Monroe: 53%

That's five of 12 teams at 50% or worse. And, given the soft schedules everyone plays, this just isn't high quality basketball in terms of what you're used to studying. Florida Atlantic deserves respect for leading the group, and having a fairly significant edge over most of the field. You can see why the league is so competitive internally, most everyone plays soft defense! A coach's nightmare, but a fan's delight.

Thursday's Games:
Arkansas State at Louisiana Lafayette
South Alabama at North Texas
Western Kentucky at Arkansas Little Rock
Middle Tennessee at Troy
Louisiana Monroe at Denver

Florida Atlantic and Florida International have the night off to get ready for their rivalry game on Saturday.

This will be our last Sun Belt report until the conference tournament starts in a few weeks. That event could be a lot of fun with so many neutral court games amongst relatively even teams.

Jumping now to a BCS league for a look at the Pac 10. This is a big week in the conference because top-rated Washington (best in computer ratings this year despite a 9-4 league record) will visit first place Arizona (10-2 in the standings but not as loved by computers) on Saturday. Washington won the first meeting huge at home. This road rematch is basically the game of the year in the Pac 10. Here's why...

PAC 10 MARGIN AVERAGES
Washington: +10.3
Arizona: +6.0
UCLA: +2.8
Washington State: +0.3
USC: even
Stanford: -0.8
Oregon: -1.0
California: -1.8
Oregon State: -6.3
Arizona State: -8.8

Washington and Arizona really jump off the page there. There's a real battle royal of mediocrity from UCLA down to California (mediocrity by national standards, but still miles better than the Sun Belt teams we were just talking about!).

The selection committee will have its hands full differentiating amongst that group when it comes to offering invitations and determining seeds. Here's what ESPN's Bracketology is currently suggesting:

Arizona: projected as a 5th seed
Washington: projected as a 7th seed
UCLA: projected as a 9th seed

That's only three invitations. Washington State is currently listed among the first four out. Before the season started, the Pac 10 was certainly hoping for more than 3-4 invites this season. Tough to disagree given the inconsistency within the league this year. We will say this...Washington would be a VERY dangerous #7 seed!

Arizona has been the ATS success story of the league this year. The Wildcats are 14-8-1 vs. the number. Washington State is the only other positive team of note, with a 13-9-1 ATS record. Most everyone is near 50/50 for this conference with geographic proximity to Vegas oddsmakers. The only disaster is Arizona State at 7-14-1 ATS.

PAC 10 TWO-POINT DEFENSE
Washington State: 43%
UCLA: 44%
Washington: 45%
USC: 45%
Stanford: 46%
California: 48%
Oregon: 48%
Arizona State: 48%
Arizona: 49%
Oregon State: 53%

Here's why we're skeptical about Arizona, and maybe why some computers are too. The defense has been surprisingly soft inside. You can overcome that with hot shooting. How long can a team keep making everything they need to make to cover up for a poor defense? We'll give credit to Arizona for their current record. That 49% mark is a big red flag though that points to postseason problems.

Let's also post our typical reminder that Washington is a lot better on defense than many realize. They play a fast tempo that leads to high scoring games. But, within that context they do guard the basket well and win the battle of possessions. Well, in most games anyway. This is what makes them a dangerous tournament team (as Marquette and third-seeded New Mexico found out last year).

Thursday's Schedule
Washington State at Arizona
Washington at Arizona State
USC at California
UCLA at Stanford

The Oregon schools will play each other this weekend. Washington visits Arizona in that huge Saturday game we mentioned earlier.

That wraps up our Thursday report. Back on Friday with our first look this year at the Ivy League. They've played enough games now for the margin averages to be meaningful (the Ivy's get a late start compared to everyone else). We'll also preview Saturday's early tip between probable #1 seed Pittsburgh and suddenly resurgent St. John's. The Red Storm just beat Marquette in what could easily have been a flat spot. They drilled Duke and Connecticut not too long ago. Who knew Pitt-St. John's would turn out to be such a huge game!

Saturday we'll finish off our mid-major coverage with the margin averages and two-point defense numbers for the four conferences we haven't yet discussed. You'll recall we provided data for the six leagues from the regular board who will be playing in this weekend's Bracket Busters back on Tuesday and Wednesday (check the archives if you missed those reports). Saturday we'll close off mid-major coverage until the postseason tournaments with the Mountain West, Atlantic 10, Conference USA, and West Coast rundowns.

Big basketball winners are available here at the website every day from JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK. Plays always go up a few hours before the first tip. Thursday's card might include Spurs/Bulls and Mavericks/Suns on TNT, or any of a few TV games in the colleges (Minnesota/Penn State, Alabama/LSU, UCLA/Stanford to name a few). Seasonal rates are available. If you have any questions, call us in the office at 1-800-323-4453.

March is just around the corner. Intensity is really starting to heat up. DON'T SIT ON THE SIDELINES, GET IN THE GAME!

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