SEC, Big 10, Big West Previews

JIM HURLEY'S HANDICAPPING NOTEBOOK

OUR FINAL STAT PREVIEW REPORT AS SEC, BIG 10, BIG WEST TAKE THE FLOOR

Well, it's taken you a long time to read through all of these. And, it took us much longer to write them! But, we hope you're already seeing dividends in early tournament actions as the traditional fundamentals continue to flaunt their importance in playoff style basketball.

We finish off this week's college basketball conference tournament previews with the final events to take place. We'll look at the SEC and Big 10 with out expanded coverage of major conferences. We'll wrap up the mid-majors with a quick look at the Big West.

First stop, the Georgia Dome!

SEC Schedule

THURSDAY (all games in Georgia Dome in Atlanta)
Auburn (W5) vs. Georgia (E4)
South Carolina (E6) vs. Mississippi (W3)
Arkansas (W4) vs. Tennessee (E5)
LSU (W6) vs. Vanderbilt (E3)

FRIDAY
Alabama (W1) vs. Auburn/Georgia winner
Kentucky (E2) vs. S. Carolina/Ole Miss winner
Florida (E1) vs. Arkansas/Tennessee winner
Mississippi State (W2) vs. LSU/Vanderbilt winner

Things continue in standard bracket order through the semifinals and finals Saturday and Sunday.

Kentucky and Florida are expected to eventually meet in the finals. But, you know how meaningless expectations can be in conference tournaments. The SEC in particular is known for having surprise teams scoot through into the finals, and even into the Big Dance when they weren't expected to get a bid at all.

Remember as you look through the numbers in the SEC that the East was MUCH stronger than the West this year. Typically strength of schedule is so even once a conference slate is in the books that you can just trust the numbers. This year in the SEC, the SEC East teams are likely to be a shade better than their data would suggest. With all four first round games involving East-West matchups, that's worth remembering.

SEC MARGIN AVERAGES
Kentucky: +7.8
Florida: +7.7
Alabama: +5.4
Georgia: +3.4
Vanderbilt: +3.1
Tennessee: +2.3
Mississippi: -0.1
Mississippi State: -0.2
Arkansas: -2.9
South Carolina: -6.4
Auburn: -7.4
LSU: -12.6

You can see what we mean about the East. They take five of the first six spots even though they played tougher schedules! The East mostly CRUSHED the West during the regular season. Alabama is probably more like fifth best rather than third best once you adjust for that. Ole Miss and Mississippi State are more negative than those numbers would indicate. That's not to say that surprises can't happen in the tourney. Dominance can lead to arrogance at the worst possible time.

SEC TWO-POINT DEFENSE
Alabama: 41%
Kentucky: 42%
Georgia: 43%
Arkansas: 44%
LSU: 45%
Vanderbilt: 46%
Tennessee: 46%
Mississippi State: 46%
Mississippi: 46%
South Carolina: 46%
Florida: 47%
Auburn: 49%

These are full season numbers, so they're loss likely to be polluted by the East/West split. As always, we get the bulk of stats from Ken Pomeroy's amazing college basketball website (kenpom.com). John Calipari once again taught a bunch of newcomers how to play great defense right off the bat. Florida grades out very poorly in this stat, which looms as a large strike against them in terms of March expectations. You HAVE to shoot great to overcome a soft inside defense like that. It's very difficult to shoot great every game out in March.

Let's also note that Vandy and Tennessee show some vulnerabilities that may matter very soon. The lower the better obviously in terms of percentage. 46% or worse is a good cut-off for relative pretenders in this sport, though there are occasional exceptions.

SEC ADJUSTED PACE FACTORS (slowest to fastest)
Florida: 63.6
Alabama: 65.2
Georgia: 65.3
LSU: 66.2
Auburn: 66.2
Tennessee: 66.8
Kentucky: 67.1
Arkansas: 67.4
Mississippi: 67.4
Vanderbilt: 67.9
Mississippi State: 68.1
South Carolina: 68.5

You know by now that we prefer slower teams in the conference tournaments because of the back-to-back nature of the schedule. Who can run and gun for 120 minutes in a row and not feel the effects on their jumpers or their defense? Alabama's putting together a nice composite thus far, meaning they might be better than expected for a Western squad. Florida is at least use to playing slow, close games. We're not fans of their internal defense. But, they're obviously not afraid of playoff style basketball.

Tennessee and Kentucky should have the athletic depth required to deal with their projected paces. That speed works a bit better in the Dance when there's more recovery time between games.

PERCENTAGE OF POINTS FROM TREYS
Mississippi State: 34.1%
LSU: 32.8%
Vanderbilt: 30.9%
Florida: 30.9%
Mississippi: 30.4%
South Carolina: 30.3%
Kentucky: 29.2%
Arkansas: 27.7%
Georgia: 24.8%
Auburn: 23.9%
Tennessee: 22.8%
Alabama: 18.1%

Live by the three, die by the three. So, we're typically looking for teams who emphasize two-pointers when handicapping the tournaments. That means you have to be careful with the teams at the top of this list (hello Vandy and Florida), and the teams at the bottom may be less likely to slump because their shots are coming from closer in. Can Florida or Vandy string together three wins (Vandy needs four actually) when a third of their offense is coming from bombs?

BEST CHAMPIONSHIP POTENTIAL

  • Kentucky gets our nod because Florida isn't ideally built for three great games in a row, and because Calipari is such a great tournament coach. We do wish the Wildcats had fared better on the road this year though. You can't suggest that Kentucky is head and shoulders above the field when they've struggled so much late in close games away from Lexington.
  • Alabama gets a darkhorse nod simply because they grade out so well in the profile stats. They play slow basketball, emphasize two's on offense, and guard the basket with a passion. They're also right on the bubble as we speak, which should provide additional motivation.
  • Georgia is also a bubble team, also has a great profile, and gets the benefit of playing in their home state. They would have to win four games in four days though to cut down the nets. Should Georgia win today vs. Auburn as heavy favorites, they would get Alabama in the next round. That Georgia/Alabama winner would then draw Kentucky. Our indicator stats suggest that top half of the draw could get very interesting.

Florida, Vandy, and Tennessee are obviously threats to make headlines too. There are a lot of "pretty good" teams in the SEC right now. Maybe the ultimate winner will hint at greatness down the road.

The final "big six" conference to discuss is the Big 10...

Big 10 Schedule

THURSDAY (all games played at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis)
Minnesota (9) vs. Northwestern (8)
Iowa (10) vs. Michigan State (7)
Indiana (11) vs. Penn State (6)

FRIDAY
Ohio State (1) vs. 8-9 winner
Michigan (4) vs. Illinois (5)
Purdue (2) vs. 7-10 winner
Wisconsin (3) vs. 6-11 winner

The format continues in standard fashion through the semifinals and finals Saturday and Sunday.

ESPN'S Bracketology currently has six teams from this conference getting Dance Bids. But, both Michigan and Michigan State are barely on the right side of the bubble. Each may need to win a game to be certain. If we were doing the brackets, we would have punished Michigan State for their sustained poor play much more than Joe Lunardi has!

BIG 10 MARGIN AVERAGES
Ohio State: +10.4
Purdue: +8.2
Wisconsin: +5.6
Illinois: +3.0
Penn State: -1.0
Minnesota: -1.5
Michigan: -1.9
Michigan State: -2.4
Northwestern: -5.9
Indiana: -7.4
Iowa: -7.7

Here's what we're talking about. Michigan State is a 7th seed, is getting the 6th bid in Bracketology, but ranks 8th in an indicator stat that should carry a lot of weight. Our numbers have then behind Minnesota and Penn State, who won't be Dancing.

This was a very tight three-way race until Ohio State obliterated Wisconsin in the season finale. They probably won't shoot lights out from three-point land like that again any time soon. So, you might want to think of this league as being three +8's rather than a 10-8-5 split at the top.

The drop-off after the big three is bigger than it looks. Illinois has been very shaky vs. quality, especially lately. Anybody in the 4-8 range is capable of playing a great game...or of catching somebody napping. None have recently shown the ability to string together big performances.

BIG 10 TWO-POINT DEFENSE
Minnesota: 44%
Purdue: 45%
Wisconsin: 45%
Illinois: 45%
Michigan State: 45%
Indiana: 47%
Ohio State: 48%
Penn State: 48%
Michigan: 49%
Iowa: 50%
Northwestern: 54%

Not a great year defensively for the Big Ten. Nobody relevant jumps out as great. Ohio State is an extreme disappointment at 48%. They will once again be vulnerable to an early upset in the Dance as a result. You just can't put that much pressure on your offense to deliver the goods every time out.

Purdue and Wisconsin will have extra motivation here, given OSU's already pocketed the regular season crown. Those 45% marks on defense basically suggest a two-team race for the title unless Ohio State can maintain peak focus.

BIG 10 ADJUSTED PACE FACTORS (slowest to fastest)
Wisconsin: 58.0
Penn State: 61.3
Michigan: 62.9
Northwestern: 64.9
Ohio State: 65.9
Minnesota: 66.0
Michigan State: 66.1
Indiana: 66.3
Illinois: 66.9
Purdue: 67.1
Iowa 68.0

There's some SLOW basketball in this conference. Wisconsin loves a playoff style pace. Purdue is actually the second fastest Big 10 team,  though they wouldn't be second fastest in any other major conference. We don't think pace is going to be a big deal here because the teams are so used to playing each other. Wisconsin is best suited to avoid fatigue during a three-day stretch given their patience.

PERCENTAGE OF POINTS FROM TREYS
Northwestern: 38.3%
Michigan: 36.5%
Wisconsin: 35.8%
Penn State: 29.5%
Ohio State: 29.3%
Purdue: 29.0%
Illinois: 28.3%
Michigan State: 27.6%
Indiana: 25.8%
Minnesota: 21.3%
Iowa: 21.1%

Some extremes in this group. Can you imagine a team that gets almost 40% of its scoring from treys? That's Northwestern this year, with Michigan and Wisconsin not far behind. To us, this is a strike against Wisconsin in the big picture. They're vulnerable to ANYONE (even an Ivy League team) if the bombs aren't falling. Ohio State's more three-heavy than many realize, coming close to 30% in this stat. Purdue's just a few decimal points behind them. Give Michigan State this. Tom Izzo has never fallen in love with the three the way some of his conference cohorts have. That's served him well in recent Dances.

BEST CHAMPIONSHIP POTENTIAL

  • Wisconsin and Purdue will have a chip on their shoulder after watching Ohio State celebrate last week. We think that's enough to suggest the winner of their half of the bracket bears watching in the finals. We don't like Wisconsin's reliance on treys. Purdue probably deserves the nod over Wisconsin for that reason.
  • Ohio State obviously can't be omitted from the contender's list! They did have the best margin average after all. That internal defense is a red flag that's likely to matter sometime in the next two weeks. Hopefully for Buckeyes fans it won't take them out twice in the next two weekends.
  • The rest of the pack are statistically far enough behind the big three that you can't be optimistic about any of them running the table...though this league's history has proven to be extremely wide open. Throw a dart at the standings and whoever's hit just might be this year's Cinderella.

Is it almost over yet? Only one more conference left!

Big West Schedule (all games played in neutral Anaheim)
Cal Irvine (8) vs. Long Beach State (1)
Cal Santa Barbara (5) vs. Pacific (4)
Cal Riverside (7) vs. Cal Poly (2)
Cal Fullerton (6) vs. Cal Northridge (3)

Semifinals and finals will follow the standard bracket order through the weekend.

BIG WEST MARGIN AVERAGES
Long Beach State: +9.2
Pacific: +3.0
Cal Poly: +2.7
Cal Santa Barbara: +0.8
Cal Northridge: -1.0
Cal Irvine: -1.6
Cal Fullerton: -3.8
Cal Davis: -4.0
Cal Riverside: -5.4

Long Beach is head and shoulders above the field in margin average. This is a very condensed league though, meaning there could be a few seeding surprises elsewhere. And, if Long Beach has an off night, they're not immune against anyone in the brackets.

BIG WEST TWO-POINT DEFENSE
Cal Santa Barbara: 44%
Cal Poly: 46%
Pacific: 48%
Cal Riverside: 48%
Long Beach State: 50%
Cal Northridge: 50%
Cal Irvine: 50%
Cal Fullerton: 50%
Cal Davis: 52%

Ouch, 50% for Long Beach! This makes them even more vulnerable. If they get nervous with their shot making, but continue to allow opponents to hit near 50% on treys, we could have a surprise winner. Tough to like Long Beach in the Dance because that soft inside defense will likely be abused by whoever they face.

That wraps up our week of previews. Back tomorrow with stat notes from Thursday afternoon action as a way of previewing Friday afternoon action. Be sure you're with us EVERY DAY so you know what's REALLY happening in the tournaments!

And, be sure to link up with JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK for BIG JUICY TOURNAMENT WINNERS in the day and night sessions. Our March Madness package is available here online. Sign up for the full season and enjoy big savings. If you have any questions, call the office at 1-800-323-4453.

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