The Big East is a conference in transition, but most of the movement will happen after this season. The only change to the conference membership from last year is the departure of West Virginia. It’s no small deal to lose a team that has made five straight and seven of eight NCAA Tournaments. The other 15 teams that remain comprise what most believe is the second best conference in America (behind the Big Ten). The number of NCAA Tournament bids the league should expect come March will primarily be determined in non-conference action, though something like seven or eight looks right.
The subject of this blog, Providence, of course has not made the NCAA Tournament since George W. Bush’s first term, and that is unlikely to change until at least next spring. Still, it’s good to know the competition and where it appears the Friars fit among their conference mates. In this post, we’ll look at three models to project the Big East — from myself, Ken Pomeroy and Dan Hanner — and compare them to the league coaches and beat writers who voted in October polls.
Breakdown of projections, preseason polls for Big East
(Allow me a few seconds to explain the above chart. The plus and minuses are projected efficiency margins for each team, or how many points each is projected to score vs. allowed per 100 possessions. You have rankings and efficiency margins from my projection as well as Ken Pomeroy’s and Dan Hanner’s — both linked above — as well as an average of the three projections and the poll rankings from the coaches and media.)
All three analytical projections use some combination of a measures — how good the team was last year, what that team has returning this year and what that team adds. How each projections determines and weights each factor differs, but the three projections are trying in their own way to do what the coaches and writers also try to do — establish a baseline from last year, consider who’s gone, who returns and who’s added.
Shed a tier or two: The teams above are ordered based on the average ranking of the three projections, plus the coaches and writers. Providence is 14th of 15. If you’re looking for seven likely NCAA Tournament teams from the Big East, take those top seven, starting with the first tier of Louisville, Syracuse and Notre Dame. There’s a fairly substantial gap between the second tier of Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Marquette, Georgetown and the third tier of Connecticut, Rutgers, Villanova, South Florida tier. Connecticut cannot play in the NCAA Tournament due to the program’s poor academic record; the Huskies are the only major-conference team to face such a sanction this season. Therefore, if a team is going to join that top group of seven and make a run at an NCAA Tournament big, it will probably come from among Rutgers, Villanova, USF or perhaps St. John’s, should its incoming class mature quickly.
Providence sits in the bottom tier sandwiched between Seton Hall and DePaul. Pomeroy projects the Friars to be good enough to join the Villanova/USF tier, but none of the other projections or polls concur.
Points of contention: I’ve put all the teams in an ordered table above, but we know that disorder reins once the balls start bouncing. Certain teams seem safer bets than others, as reflected by the diversity of the projections.
Standard deviation of rankings based on projections, polls
The chart shows Connecticut, South Florida and Seton Hall as the most controversial teams — they have the greatest standard deviation for their five rankings in the first chart — whereas Louisville and Syracuse are the safest. No projection or poll has Louisville worse than second or Syracuse worse than third, so there appears to be some consensus at the top of the league. The consensus breaks up after the top seven mentioned above.
UConn ranks as high as seventh in my projection but as low as 14th in Hanner’s. USF is picked eighth by the coaches and writers, but all the projections have the Bulls at least three spots lower. Finally, Seton Hall is, bizarrely, picked either 10th or 14th by each measure but nowhere in between.
Humans vs. computers: You’ll notice that the two human polls are nearly identical. Indeed only two teams — Providence and DePaul — are even as much as two spots apart. It’s possible that the writers’ poll, released a week before the coaches’, informed the latter poll, but either way, there is consensus — or groupthink — among the humans. The statistically based projections are more independent and not surprisingly, they show less agreement.
The six teams about which the humans and “computers” disagree with each other on the most, they are USF, Seton Hall, Villanova, St. John’s, Cincinnati and Marquette. Those six teams will give us a good idea about whether the non-statistical intelligence that the writers and coaches have makes up for any other biases they might have.
For instance, perception seems to consistently underrate Marquette. The Golden Eagles have the third best point differential among Big East teams over the last four years, behind only Syracuse and Pittsburgh. MU reloads year after year and continues to finish in the top quarter of the conference – yet they are picked seventh. Perhaps this is the year it comes apart with Jae Crowder gone and Todd Mayo ineligible, but I’d bet on MU being in the top third of the league yet again.
USF offers the biggest point of contention with the humans pegging USF eighth while the projectors have the Bulls between 11th and 13th. USF lost four of its top eight players from a balanced team that won two games in the NCAA Tournament last season. The combination of those losses and no incoming recruits of note have the projectors sour. The humans see a bevy of transfers — four by my count — having enough of an impact to keep USF in the mix for an NCAA Tournament bid.
I’ll spend less time on the others contentious teams. The coaches and writers like Cincinnati to build off its finish to last season, but the projectors think a regression toward the middle of the league is in order with Yancy Gates and Dion Dixon gone. St. John’s is a team whose collection of incoming talent has the humans thinking a 10th-place finish is in order whereas the projectors have the Red Storm a couple spots lower. Seton Hall lost its two most important players — Jordan Theodore and Herb Pope — so the projectors see the Pirates taking a step back, but the humans disagree. Finally, the humans don’t anticipate much improvement from Jay Wright’s Wildcats, but the projectors like the Wildcats’ track record and see a rebound.
Finish with the Friars: Pomeroy’s and Hanner’s projections can be broken out by offense and defense, and both agree that the Friars should be middle-of-the-pack in offense and near the bottom on defense — much like last season.
Offense, defense breakdown for Pomeroy, Hanner projections
(Brief explanation: The above shows offense and defense efficiency margin projections for this season compared to the expected Big Eastaverage. Pluses are better than league average; minuses worse. Again, we’re using the Pomeroy and Hanner projections, which break out by offense and defense.)
I wanted to note the teams projected to have the biggest gaps between the quality of their offenses and defenses. DePaul, Pittsburgh and Providence are projected to have offenses much better than their defenses; Louisville, Seton Hall and South Florida are projected to have defenses much better than their offenses. Providence and DePaul were 1-2 in the good offense/bad defense rankings last year; USF and Louisville were 1-2 on the opposite side. Perhaps it’s a coincidence, perhaps it’s not — PC and DePaul were two of the conference’s worst teams last year, whereas Louisville and USF played deep into March.
Wrapping up: Now that I’ve spent thousands of words discussing the upcoming PC season, let’s set some goals. Here are my PC measurable goals for 2012-13:
1) Finish in the top 12 in defensive efficiency: A modest goal perhaps, but a PC team that is competent enough to simply get out of the bottom fifth of the league in defense will probably be quite good, barring an offensive collapse. This improvement would have to come from better interior defense or a substantial uptick in turnovers forced.
2) Play above-average offense: PC was indeed above average last year and could be better this year, but the league itself was down offensively last year, and one would expect the league average to bounce up to previous efficiency levels. If PC can finish in the top-12 defensively and be at least average offensively, they should earn a berth to some postseason tournament.
3) Win at least six Big East games: After four straight four-win seasons, a two-win upgrade in a “bridge” year of sorts would be a good sign for the future. Another 4-14 season and bottom-three finish would be hard to stomach. If the first two happen, this third one won’t be a problem, barring extremely bad luck.
4) Win a Big East Tournament game: The Friars are 1-8 in the last nine Big East Tournaments and have lost by a combined 53 points in their last two appearances. These are important last impressions for fans and recruits, and those last impressions have been bad the last two seasons in particular. Selfishly, as a resident of New York City, I’d like to see them hang around a bit longer than has been the case, well, since I’ve lived here.
Brendon Desrochers is a contributor to FriarBlog.com and ScoutFriars.com. If you have any questions, thoughts or column ideas for him, please follow him and contact him via Twitter @UltimateCrans.