Metrics help explain Big East standings

Ken Pomeroy is one of college basketball’s most respected statisticians. His metrics can be helpful tools in evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of any Division-I basketball team.

In the cutthroat Big East, with an astonishing eight teams in the top 16 of the RPI (according to RealTimeRPI.com, as of Jan. 15 at 6:30 p.m.), these statistics can help sort the teams that are true title contenders from the overachievers that will fade down the stretch.

Offensive-adjusted efficiency measures, on average, how many points a team scores per 100 offensive possessions. Pomeroy’s formula accounts for the strength of the opponent, whether the game was on a home, away or neutral floor, and how recently the game was played.

Alternatively, defensive-adjusted efficiency measures, on average, how many points a team gives up per 100 defensive possessions. Not surprisingly, there is a very direct correlation between these efficiency numbers and overall win-loss success.

Pittsburgh leads the conference — and the country — in offensive efficiency. The Panthers score an adjusted average of 124.9 points per 100 possessions. No one else in the Big East comes close to matching this level of offensive output.

West Virginia is next with 118.7 points per 100 possessions, good for second in the Big East and ninth in the nation.

Besides excelling at the basics — Pittsburgh does a top-30 job in limiting its turnovers, while shooting the ball at a 52 percent clip on two-point field goals and a 39 percent rate from deep — the Panthers also crash the glass on the offensive end better than anyone else in all of D-1.

On the defensive side of the ball, nobody in the Big East is more efficient than the Syracuse Orange. Coach Jim Boeheim’s suffocating zone yields some interesting numbers.

Syracuse holds its opponents to the ninth-lowest 3-point percentage in the country at 28.1 percent from deep. Of course, the success of a zone defense relies on the ability of its players to rotate quickly when the ball is moved across the floor.

Syracuse’s players’ great length allows them to cover more court and maintain the integrity of the zone when the ball is swung to the other side of the floor. Pomeroy’s numbers back this assertion up: the Orange has the fifth-tallest roster in the country — weighted by minutes-played — and the most blocks per opponent’s attempt of any team in the country.

While Pittsburgh and Cuse sit atop the Big East at 6-0 and 5-1, there are a couple of teams that remain buried in the standings despite some pretty impressive efficiency numbers.

Look for Marquette and Notre Dame to rise from the middle of the pack as the conference season progresses.

Marquette boasts the country’s 13th most efficient attack, due in large part to knocking down over 53 percent of its two-point field goals.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame moves the ball as well as anyone, notching assists on more than 69 percent of its made field goals, good for third in the nation. The Fighting Irish also dominates the defensive boards, allowing the lowest opponents’ offensive rebound average in the Big East.

Notre Dame needs to prove that it can win away from South Bend though, as the squad currently owns a 0-4 mark on the road.

St. John’s is one team that may be playing above its talents at the moment. Its offensive efficiency numbers place the Red Storm 10th in the Big East, and its defense is ranked eighth.

The team’s rebounding per game and assists per game numbers are 15th and tied for 14th, respectively, in the Big East. The Johnnies are winning right now only by getting in the lane and taking care of the ball.

With its next three games against Louisville (away), Cincinnati (home) and Georgetown (away), St. John’s will need to win one of those to stay in the thick of things in the Big East race.

Turning our attention to tempo, we must look a little deeper to glean something of value from Pomeroy’s numbers. Pace is something that does not seem to correlate very closely with success on the court.

Providence, currently in last place, has the 8th quickest tempo in the nation. Yet, Louisville, sitting in fourth place at 3-1, also runs a high-tempo floor game, the 47th quickest in the country. Pittsburgh likes to play at a slower pace, as does Syracuse, with both ranking outside the top 200 in tempo.

Tempo, as one might expect, seems to be primarily a function of how a coach utilizes the weapons in his arsenal. For Providence, it makes more sense to run an up-tempo offense since it has one of the smallest teams in the Big East and likes to get out and run.

South Florida, on the other hand, has the 20th tallest team in the country and scores the vast majority of its points inside and at the line. It makes sense to see them run one of the slowest offenses in the nation (330th) and play more of a half-court game.

Unfortunately for them, both teams find themselves at the bottom of the standings, so perhaps maintaining a balance of big men who can thrive in a half-court set and quick guards who can run and slash, allows the most successful teams to play at a more evenhanded tempo.

Pomeroy’s numbers provide a nice scientific explanation for understanding a lot of things we have seen on the court thus far this season, and deliver a basis for some good educated predictions.

But in a year with so many quality teams in the Big East, it appears that many games will come down to one final possession. And the beauty of basketball is that in the final moments of a close game, with thousands of people on their feet watching, a game often swings on the angle of one snapping wrist, an action that can’t be measured by anyone’s formulas, not even Ken Pomeroy’s.

Ian Halpern is the Basketball Editor for The Juice Online.

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