Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Pulse, Part 1

I don’t care about “rankings”. I haven’t looked at the polls yet this year. But I do care about the pulse of each team. So I’m going to rank that for most BCS teams. (Sorry Pac-10 fans. When you are 8th in the RPI, 6th in the Pomeroy Rankings, and I never stay up to watch your games, you don’t make the cut.) Thus this is the 63 non-Pac-10 BCS edition of the Pulse. Finally, this is Part 1 of 2, focusing on the 32 teams with the worst records. Part 2 has yet to be written, so you might have to wait awhile to see the best teams.

The numerical ranking is the Pomeroy ranking through Friday, January 29th. The conference record is listed in parentheses.

Jerry Wainwright Division – Team fails, coach praised

When Jerry Wainwright was fired, I read about twelve columns about how good a coach he was. And I agree that terminating him mid-season was wrong. But sometimes hopeless situations happen to good people.

144. Iowa (2-6) – When your best players transfer every year, you can’t compete on a consistent basis. I was listening to a game recently and I heard the announcer say, “Todd Lickliter is pleased that he has his type of players now.” That’s not a compliment sir. For Lickliter’s sake, please tell me you made it up.

122. Arkansas (2-3) – John Pelphrey’s previous residences have not been kind to him this season. Not only did his team lose by 31 at Kentucky where he was a player, his team lost by 13 to South Alabama, where he was recently head coach. South Alabama is below 200 in the Pomeroy Rankings meaning that double-digit loss was one of the worst losses by a BCS team this season. Luckily Pelphrey only lost by 5 to Florida where he was a former assistant.

92. Nebraska (0-5) – An amusing storyline in an otherwise lost season: How long until Christian Standhardinger causes Doc Sadler to lose his remaining hair? The Munich Germany product became eligible at mid-season and had two decent games, followed by a horrendous 1-7 performance that got him benched. But he bounced back with 14 against Colorado. And on a team devoid of consistent post players, he seems like a decent option if he can stay efficient. Sadler has already been forced to bench the 6’8” Quincy Hankins-Cole for taking too many bad shots, so shot selection is key for Standhardinger.

81. Iowa St. (0-4) – Shot selection is never an issue at Iowa St. where Greg McDermott had adopted the, “I’ll let you shoot as much as you want” policy. If that helps with recruiting, that might be good. And against weaker competition, it seems to work. Iowa St. got a number of double digit wins against teams ranked below 100. But I don’t see that strategy working in Big 12 play. I see a team whose Pomeroy ranking is inflated by the aforementioned double-digit wins, and whose best win on the season is at Nebraska. The Pomeroy rating is wrong – this is a dreadful team.

Why are most of the worst teams in the nation concentrated in the Midwest and Sun Belt? Could it be Northern Iowa and Memphis taking all the key reserves? While Iowa, Iowa St., and Nebraska are struggling, Northern Iowa is 18-2. And while Arkansas is struggling, Memphis is a consistent NCAA contender.

Billy Gillispie Division – Team fails, coach heckled

On the flip side of the likeable Wainwright division is the Billy Gillispie division. These are the teams that under-achieve and the coach gets thrown under the bus.

179. Rutgers (0-8) – JR Inman recently went online and shredded his former coach for mismanaging the team. Of course, Inman would have had more of a case for playing time as a senior if his offensive rating wasn’t 85.8. I’ve heard some people throw out excuses about how Rutgers is undermanned this year. But Rutgers has some elite recruits, and they probably had more elite recruits on the team last year than any team in the last decade. They still couldn’t win. I also hear Rutgers doesn’t have the depth of other Big East schools. But who was deep coming into the Big East this year? The Big East had the lowest returning minutes of any BCS conference in the nation. For Rutgers to not be competing at the 5 to 7 conference win level is not strictly about talent. This is an underachieving team and now that Gregory Echenique has left, the future isn’t bright.

120. Auburn (1-5) – That stats are admittedly more uncertain about individual defensive performance. But is it fair to say that without Korvotney Barber, Auburn has given up on playing defense? At 6’7”, Barber led the team in blocks last year and he gave the team a defensive identity. Now that he has graduated, Auburn has fallen from a defensive efficiency of 91.9 to 100.8. Combined with a slightly worse offense and Auburn is a legitimately horrible team. And since this is Jeff Lebo’s sixth year with the team, if the fans aren’t calling for his head now, they just don’t care about basketball at Auburn.

83. Texas Tech (2-4) – Get ready for the negative stories to start to surface at Texas Tech. Based on the absurd early season AP ranking, the way Pat Knight got this job, and the number of Junior College transfers to touch this program, it won’t be long until people start screaming for Pat Knight’s head. And based on the Red Raider’s fast tempo and limited defensive resistance, there might not be a more fun team to see on your team’s schedule right now.

76. NC State (2-5) – How did NC State beat Duke by 14? It was by far Duke’s worst defensive performance of the year. And it was NC State’s best offensive performance other than Holy Cross. In other words, it was a statistical fluke.

Skip Prosser Division – Hope is on the Way

As a head coach you have to sell your fans on something. Either you sell them wins or you sell them hope. I thought of naming this division after former Indiana coach Mike Davis. That’s because all I remember from those Indiana ACC challenge games is Indiana getting blown out and Dick Vitale clamoring how Indiana had a really good recruiting class. “Hope is on the way!” But then I decided not to use any active coaches when naming these divisions. And what coach gets fired while effectively selling hope? This led me to Skip Prosser who died suddenly while leaving Wake Forest with an incredible recruiting class.

191. DePaul (1-7) – DePaul fans can at least hope for a new coach, but this is not an attractive job for many good coaches. Chicago is an easy city to travel to, making it hard for a local program to retain players. And I concur that the stadium is terrible. Yes, Illinois beat Arizona there in a memorable Elite Eight game, but the impossible parking, impossible driving to the stadium, impossible movement between sections, and cold dark feel to the building left me with no warm feelings towards the place.

182. LSU (0-6) – This year is off the charts horrible. But LSU has a good recruiting class for next year and Trent Johnson was successful at Stanford, so there’s still hope. But what would really bother me as an LSU fan is watching this year’s Top 100 recruit, Aaron Dotson fail this dramatically. Dotson is an incredible 6 for 38 or 15.8% on threes this year and that’s brought his personal efficiency down to 73.9.

135. Indiana (3-4) – To show how bitter I am about Minnesota losing at Indiana I link to Minnesota’s game-by-game performance on The Indiana loss was Minnesota’s worst defensive performance of the year, and Indiana’s best offensive performance other than Bryant and NC Central. In other words, just like NC State’s win over Duke, this was a statistical fluke. Were the Indiana fans wrong to rush the court in that game? Yes, and I mocked some Indiana fans about the incident. But I do understand it to some degree. Indiana has relied on hard work to stay in games, but in crunch time, every team works hard. In crunch time, talent takes over. And in crunch time, Indiana has folded like a rented accordion. Finally in overtime, Indiana didn’t just out-work Minnesota, they out-executed the Gophers too. Verdell Jones became a crunch-time playmaker and that was a significant sign of progress. That was worth celebrating. But not by rushing the court.

87. South Florida (3-5) – I know he was off to a hot start this year, and I know South Florida doesn’t have a lot of depth, but I wonder if the Bulls aren’t better off without Gus Gilchrist in the lineup. Last year Gilchrist took a lot of shots, but had an efficiency rating of only 87.6. This year South Florida is still not a good team, but they are finding a way to hang with some mid-level teams, and by not wasting possessions, they’ve managed to pull out overtime victories over Providence and Seton Hall. As with UConn when Jerome Dyson was injured a few years ago, that doesn’t mean you don’t want Gilchrist back. South Florida can use another big body. But if they told Gilchrist to take a few less shots and let the game come to him while he recuperates, that wouldn’t be a bad thing.

73. Alabama (3-3) – Give Anthony Grant credit for installing some defense. Alabama’s adjusted defensive rating of 92.6 rating is Alabama’s best defense in the seven years for which we have tempo free data.

72. Northwestern (3-5) – Hope in this case is Kevin Coble. But as I noted in the coach columns, Northwestern consistently has terrible eFG% defense under Bill Carmody. The difference was never more apparent then in Northwestern’s four point loss at Minnesota. Every team has a first line option on offense, and in Minnesota that’s three point gunner Blake Hoffarber. Everyone knows you can’t leave Hoffarber open from three point range or he’s almost automatic. And the good teams like Purdue and Michigan St. ensure that he never gets clean looks. But against Northwestern, Hoffarber was wide open on numerous occasions, including the first play of the game. (That first play of the game was particularly mind-boggling. Minnesota didn’t run a screen or anything. For whatever reason, Northwestern simply didn’t bother to walk out and cover Minnesota’s best offensive player.) When you leave your opponent’s primary option wide open, how can you ever make the NCAA tournament?

Tim Welsh Division – Where are these teams going?

Tim Welsh has done color for some Big East games and you can tell he has a fantastic knowledge of X’s and O’s. He practically calls out the plays the offenses are running as they happen. But it takes more to win in college basketball than X’s and O’s. And Tim Welsh earned a reputation as Mr. NIT. At some point, the fans want more. When teams and coaches get stuck in that limbo, where they no longer have hope, but the teams aren’t legitimately terrible, that’s the Tim Welsh division.

95. Colorado (2-4) – I understand Jeff Bzdelik’s goal was to build an efficient, perimeter oriented-team. And Colorado now has the 27th ranked offense in the nation. But the lack of post players is really too much to overcome. Colorado has horrible 2PT FG% defense, fouls way too much, and is the second worst BCS team at getting defensive rebounds. (The only team that is worse at rebounding, South Carolina, at least gets some advantage by sneaking out for fast-break lay-ups.) If this small team was really what Jeff Bzdelik wanted to build, he should have stayed at Air Force.

84. St. John’s (2-6) – Believe it or not, St. John’s has better adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency numbers than last year. And DJ Kennedy has become a real star. But while I thought Anthony Mason’s return would provide a spark, it hasn’t worked yet. The promise this team showed in beating Siena, Temple, and a hard-working Georgia team has disappeared in the grind of Big East play.

71. South Carolina (3-3) – John Gasaway mentioned how South Carolina slowed the game down to beat Kentucky. And overall, the Gamecocks are playing at a much slower pace this season. Their adjusted tempo is down to 71.0 from 73.5 last season. Speed like every factor is selective. Plodding Georgetown will still run when they can get a wide-open lay-up. Meanwhile speedy Syracuse will slow it down when they have a big lead. Thus if South Carolina can learn to use tempo more effectively, they can still be a dangerous team.

57. Miami (1-5) – The Hurricanes sit at 99th in the RPI. What are the odds they still count as a quality win in February? I spent about 10 minutes trying to decide if Miami was in the Jerry Wainwright or Billy Gillispie division, but I couldn’t find any strong opinions on him either way. Miami fans have given up and moved on to football. And then I realized that was wrong. Miami’s team isn’t hopeless. The Pomeroy rating is still 56th. They are still picked to win 5 games. But they are going nowhere fast.

68. Boston College (3-4) – I’ve heard Al Skinner on the John Thompson show here in DC. And by all accounts he is a tremendous coach and leader. Last year Skinner was asked about the wide variation in his team’s play. He responded, “Sometimes it is hard to get kids to play hard all the time.“ That’s the kind of answer that makes me nervous as a fan. A coach needs to know what motivates his players, particularly on the defensive end. And you might think based on my recent coaching posts that Al Skinner is an average defensive coach, but not recently. He hasn’t had a good defensive team since BC left the Big East. In the ACC, Skinner’s defenses have been consistently poor, even adjusting for quality of the opponent. Don’t let the three ACC wins fool you, this Boston College team has beaten Miami twice. And if it wasn’t for those pair of wins, BC would be in the Jerry Wainwright division.

55. Seton Hall (3-5) – Everyone wants to talk about Jeremy Hazell and whether Seton Hall would be better off without his crazy 15 missed-shot games. Of course greater shot selection would be nice, but I don’t think Hazell is changing his ways anytime soon. I think the key story with this team is a little more under the radar. Last year John Garcia was playing through injury, but he was still a key piece on a short Seton Hall team. Last year the 6’9“ Garcia recorded 8 pts, 7 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks per game while recording an offensive efficiency rating of 109.8. This year injuries have again hampered the big man cutting his minutes and production in half. And in the loss to South Florida Garcia picked up the near million dollar line. (I.e. the box score reads like the millions because he had minutes but no contributions.) Luckily for Garcia, he recorded one block. Herb Pope has been a phenomenal addition in the paint, but he’s at his best as a garbage man, collecting offensive boards. Seton Hall needs more out of Garcia or another post player if they are going to get back to .500 in the Big East.

25. Florida St. (3-3) – Rarely has a team been so predictable based on its defensive excellence. Florida St. is 15-1 when holding opponents below 1 point per possession and 0-4 when they do not.

24. Clemson (3-4) – This doesn’t feel like a traditional Clemson swoon to me. The problem seems to be point guard Demontez Stitt. He was playing injured against Georgia Tech and made some bad decisions late in that game, trying to do more than he was capable of. When I heard he was being asked to sit out and recuperate against Boston College, I thought it was a good decision. But the team played horribly in his absence. If Clemson wins either of those games, this team has a different feel. But Clemson fans get nervous this time of year.

John Chaney Division – Overlooked Excellence

John Chaney’s Temple teams challenged themselves with the toughest non-conference scheduling in the country. And that gave them the mental and physical toughness to take on anyone late in the season. Yes, they’d have a middling .500 record, but if you weren’t legitimately good, you’d get beat every time. And while none of these teams really live up to the John Chaney name, they are all surprisingly good in some facet of their game.

89. Providence (4-4) – The Friars returned just 3 players and brought in 10 new scholarship players. (Mostly freshman but a few players that red-shirted last season.) None of these players was a consensus top 100 recruit, so a 4-4 start indeed qualifies this team as over-achievers. But in the Basketball Prospectus Book, I argued most player improvements are minimal over time. For Providence to compete in the future, some of the newcomers needed to step on the court and be stars right away. Just like Purdue who welcomed Robbie Hummel and E’Twaun Moore three years ago and has stayed at the same high level since then, Providence needed its freshman to be efficient and effective from the beginning. And to some degree, they’ve been just that. Vincent Council and Bilal Dixon have been solid, while red-shirt Jamine Peterson has become one of the best rebounders and scorers in the conference. But Providence’s horrible defense remains a real problem. Despite the chaos and high tempo, they continue to force no turnovers, and with limited size, they aren’t defending the paint very well either. This team remains a group of over-achievers, but if the defense doesn’t come around, it won’t last.

88. Georgia (1-4) – “I do not want to play them.” That’s pretty much what many SEC fans are thinking right now. Georgia is the worst of all worlds. They have terrible numbers, so they can’t help you. But they are playing well, so they can hurt you. Mark Fox inherited a team that didn’t know how to win and they showed it early. They lost to Wofford and barely beat teams like Jacksonville St. But a funny thing happened along the way. This team has learned how to compete. They were tied at Kentucky late in the game, lost to Ole Miss by 4, Mississippi St. by 3, and they crushed a hard-working Tennessee team by 15. A 15 point loss to Florida early this week ruins the trend, but this is still clearly a team that no one wants to face right now.

21. Baylor (2-3) – The national media has picked up on the story, so I’m loathe to mention it again. But there’s no doubt that Ekpe Udoh has made Baylor a better team. Udoh’s block rate (5th best nationally) and rebounding have made all the difference for this team. Baylor’s adjusted defense of 92.0 is the best under Scott Drew by a long shot. In seven years, the previous best was 97.8. Now Udoh’s interior presence wasn’t helpful in a loss to perimeter-oriented Colorado, so there are still some issues with this team. But with Kansas and Kansas State out of the way, according to this team should be favored in every game the rest of the season, except Texas.

Dave Odom Division – Poor close game performance or just unlucky?

Everyone in this division is at the bottom of Pomeroy’s luck ranking. It was hard to find an example of an unlucky coach to name this division after. Every coach has some lucky and some unlucky seasons. In 30 years, Dave Odom was probably lucky several times. But Odom’s 2008 South Carolina team was severely unlucky (losing to NC State by 2, George Mason by 1, NC Asheville by 3, Florida by 2, Vanderbilt by 1, Florida by 3, and Tennessee by 2 in the SEC tournament). And that season confirmed that it was indeed time for Odom to step away from the game. When your get whisked into retirement by a string of close losses, that’s good enough to get the division moniker.

109. Penn St. (0-8) – Everyone knows Talor Battle is going to have the ball in his hands in a close game, and every team has at least one good defensive guard that seems able to shut him down. What Penn St. needs is a second fiddle, a second dominant option, to win some of these tight games. Yes David Jackson has been solid, but he needs Talor Battle to get him the ball to do well. Penn St. needs a second playmaker, and freshman Tim Frazier isn’t ready yet.

26. Minnesota (4-4) – As Seth Davis echoes, the Gophers have been unlucky off-the-court, not just on-the-court. But at a certain point you have to accept the off-the-court stuff and move on with the player you have. Minnesota had more depth than anyone in the Big Ten and even without three significant contributors, they still have a solid ten man rotation.

But the on-the-court stuff losses still haunt me. In particular, I still have visions of Michigan St.’s Kalin Lucas hitting a pull-up three to finish off last Saturday’s comeback win. In college basketball, there are basically four types of three pointers.

1. Kick-out from the paint.
2. Catch and shoot coming out of a screen.
3. Duck behind another offensive player. (As when a defender goes under a screen.)
4. Pull-up jumper off the dribble.

The first option is by far the easiest, since that’s how most players practice with one coach standing under the basket, and sending the ball out. College players frequently practice the second and third options, so these are comfortable shots. But the fourth option is only prevalent in the NBA. I can think of the rare college player who will execute a three off the dribble. And Kalin Lucas did it in crunch time to beat Minnesota.

Two factors made Lucas’ decision a good one, (and I’m not just talking about the fact that it went in). First, the defender was sagging off Lucas, expecting a drive. Second, Lucas was standing at the top of the circle, which is the easiest three to make. (If you ever see a team’s Center make a three, it is almost always from this spot.) So Lucas made a smart, if surprising decision. And what else would you expect from the defending Big Ten Player of the year.

62. Michigan (3-5) – Michigan St. had a hand in putting both Michigan and Minnesota on this list. I completely agree with Luke Winn who said that Kalin Lucas picked the wrong week to be a hero. Lucas drove to the basket to beat Michigan. Why the difference in shot selection between the Minnesota and Michigan games? I think it had to do with game-time intelligence. Lucas was willing to take the three in a tie game against Minnesota. But trailing by one, he knew he needed to force the action against Michigan.

19. Marquette (3-5) – Trailing Villanova by 22, they cut the lead and eventually lost by 2. Trailing Syracuse by 16, they cut the lead and eventually lost by 5. Has there ever been a team with a higher three-point percentage when desperate and trailing by double digits? You can say the team doesn’t handle pressure situations well, and that’s why they lost to West Virginia, Villanova the first time, and DePaul. But then why do they shoot so well when they are desperate? This team needs to play with that desperate feeling from the start of the game.

Bob Knight Division – Living off past glory

91. Oklahoma (3-3) – If you can figure this team out, please let me know. They beat Oklahoma St. in a game where the efficiency ratings were 79.9 and 73.4. But they also lost to Houston in a game where the efficiency ratings were 132.5 and 123.2. My gut tells me they aren’t as bad as people make them out to be, but there’s no doubt you don’t know which team is going to show up on a given night.

44. North Carolina (2-3) – When I listen to ESPN, I’m convinced that Larry Drew is having a terrible season. But there he sits behind Evan Turner with the 2nd best assist rate among BCS players. But I get it. In 2009, North Carolina did not score under 1 point per possession a single time. This year, the offense has scored below 1 point per possession 4 times, including most of the big televised losses. That’s the key. Larry Drew at his best is not significantly worse than Ty Lawson, but right now Drew and North Carolina are much less consistent. But if those amazing passes in the lane tell me anything, they tell me Larry Drew is still on his way to being a great player.

39. Connecticut (3-4) – I thought UConn might challenge for the Big East title this year, but the lack of a bench has been particularly stunning. Players like Jamal Coombs-McDaniel and Ater Majok have been huge disappointments. Only Northwestern, Notre Dame, and Georgetown are in the same league in terms of minimal bench minutes as Connecticut. But there’s a key difference with those teams. Those teams rely on execution of a precision attack. They don’t rely as much on athleticism. UConn is known for amazing fast-court baskets, above-the-rim dunks, and insane blocks that require a lot of energy. And when UConn doesn’t have depth, it really hurts.