Weak schedule yielded bad losses in nonconference competition
For diehard basketball aficionados, Ken Pomeroy’s advanced statistical analysis is a Rosetta stone for understanding the nitty-gritty subtext of college basketball.
Yet Pomeroy, who runs the popular KenPom.com, doesn’t need myriad data to offer a blunt assessment of the Southeastern Conference.
“It’s the worst power conference in the country,” he said. “It’s not particularly close.”
And it doesn’t require advanced software or complicated algorithms to understand the crux of the criticism heaped on the league during the nonconference season.
Heck, keeping tabs on scores alone does most of the work.
Mississippi State, transitioning under first-year coach Rick Ray, has been bested by Troy, Loyola-Chicago and, most recently, at home to Alabama A&M.
Under new coach Frank Martin, who left relative success at Kansas State, South Carolina lost at home to Elon, a private college of 5,200 students in rural North Carolina.
Marist, a Metro Atlantic Conference program from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., knocked off Vanderbilt 50-33. It’s a marquee victory for the Red Foxes, who are 4-11.
As for Alabama, an NCAA tournament team last season that pushed Creighton in a 58-57 second-round loss, the Crimson Tide finally ended an ignominious three-game home losing streak Saturday in a 65-45 rout of Oakland.
What juggernauts humbled coach Anthony Grant’s team? Try Dayton, Mercer and Tulane.
Even Ole Miss, an 11-2 squad that could contend with No. 12 Missouri, No. 13 Florida and talent-laden Kentucky, for an NCAA tournament bid, has ignoble blotches on its résumé — home losses to Indiana State and Middle Tennessee.
So it’s easy to understand why Pomeroy, a mild-mannered meteorologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration based in Salt Lake City, can sound harsh in his assessment.
“It’s certainly deserving of whatever criticism it gets at this point,” said Pomeroy, who uses advanced metrics related to offensive and defensive efficiency, tempo and pace to generate rankings of all 347 Division I schools.
ESPN’s expert in predicting the NCAA tournament field isn’t keen on the SEC either. In his latest projection, Joe Lunardi had just four of the league’s 14 programs in the 68-team pool — the fewest of the BCS conferences.
Jeff Sagarin, a statistician well-known for his sports rankings, has the SEC as the worst major conference in the country, barely fending off the mid-majors from the Atlantic 10 and Missouri Valley for the No. 7 spot.
Naturally, LSU coach Johnny Jones takes exception to outside impressions of the SEC, where he spent 13 seasons as an assistant under former LSU coach Dale Brown before arriving in April from North Texas.
“That couldn’t have been coaches that made that statement,” Jones said. “I don’t get caught up with anything being down based on what happens sometimes in some preseason games.”
There’s a logical argument, though, for the SEC’s putrid play so far.
In the past two seasons, coaching changes have taken place at half of the conference’s schools.
Four of those occurred after the 2011 season. Missouri’s Mike Anderson left for Arkansas at the end of the 2011 season, replacing the fired John Pelphrey. MU brought in Frank Haith from Miami. Texas A&M lost Mark Turgeon to Maryland and hired Murray State’s Billy Kennedy. And Tennessee hired Missouri State’s Cuonzo Martin to replace Bruce Pearl, the Volunteers’ successful coach let go after lying to NCAA investigators.
And entering this season, Jones, Frank Martin and Ray are new on the sidelines.
There’s no secret in why those moves were made, Pomeroy said. Or the potential hangover effects leeching strength and leaving mediocrity in the middle of the SEC standings.
“Over history, we’ve found teams tend to under-perform in the first year of a coaching change,” Pomeroy said. “That’s an issue, but there’s a lot of variability there as well.”
Yet the perceived weakness of the SEC might have created an opening for LSU, too.
Picked 11th in the preseason by the media, the Tigers (9-2) have escaped the nonconference schedule relatively unscathed.
“That showed us they don’t respect us,” LSU forward Shavon Coleman said. “We just know we have to come out and do what we have to do. We know we’re a top-five team in the SEC, and we always talk about it.”
Both of their losses are far from mediocre, with Boise State sitting at No. 27 and Marquette at No. 50 in Jerry Palm’s simulation of the Ratings Percentage Index, which is posted on CBSSports.com.
Granted, the Tigers don’t possess what analysts might call high-value victories over notable opponents — Jones’ team sits at No. 52 in Palm’s RPI — or bubble territory for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
Relative to their peers, LSU has emerged as a positive development for the SEC — somewhat, Palm said.
“It’s kind of sad for the conference when you’re looking at LSU, and they’re the surprise but won’t be likely be contending for a tournament bid,” Pomeroy said. “That’s kind of a problem.”
If LSU is to get into the discussion for a berth, however unlikely it may be, the Tigers need a stellar record against the SEC foes similar to them: Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss. Listening to Pomeroy, it may end up being a matter of quantity surpassing quality.
By a wide margin, too.
“Those teams should contend for a berth, but they’ve just been disappointing,” he said. “Every single one of them, except for LSU, has been worse than we thought. That’s just killing the conference.”
With an 18-game SEC slate, the magic number for consideration could hover around 13 victories — and a fifth-place finish — to get hold of a reputable spot on the selection committee’s fabled “nitty-gritty” sheets, Pomeroy said.
Usually, the committee covets teams with a respectable record against teams in the top 50 of the RPI. However, the SEC’s relative weakness and LSU’s schedule means Jones’ group only gets four chances in lone meetings with Florida and Kentucky and a pair of games against Missouri.
So if the Tigers want to contend, they’ll need a strong record in seven meetings with the Volunteers, Crimson Tide, Razorbacks and Rebels.
“That’s going to come into play,” Pomeroy said. “The committee will value a situation where you beat Kentucky but lose to Auburn. They’re going to value quality wins more than they penalize you for bad losses.”
Where Pomeroy and other analysts see weakness, Coleman sees a simple reality for most teams.
“Anyone can be beaten in this game,” Coleman said.
“If you go undefeated and win the national championship, that’s perfect. But this is basketball.”