Conference USA Tournament: Preview & Odds

    
March 11th, 2009

This is one in a series of conference tournament previews, in which I run down all the teams involved, give a brief statistical review and present the log5 projections, using in-conference offensive and defensive efficiency. The basic log5 methodology comes from Bill James, and this is an area Ken Pomeroy has looked at in the past as well. I claim nothing new in the application, but obviously with slightly different methodologies, these numbers may differ from others you find.  I don’t claim to be an expert on any particular conference, and I’m sure there are some mis-characterizations on some players I’ve seen sparingly at best, so please add your thoughts in the comments. Anyway, with no further ado, the preview follows below:

 

Conference USA Tournament

The C-USA tournament will be held in Memphis, TN, and give the top four teams a first-round bye.

 

#

Team

QF

SF

F

W

1

Memphis

100.00%

98.60%

94.04%

86.69%

2

Tulsa

100.00%

89.61%

49.28%

5.70%

3

UAB

100.00%

79.65%

43.55%

5.13%

4

Texas El Paso

100.00%

46.00%

2.25%

0.75%

5

Houston

91.19%

52.96%

3.37%

1.38%

6

Central Florida

81.82%

19.19%

5.56%

0.27%

7

Marshall

60.25%

7.15%

1.13%

0.03%

8

Tulane

60.00%

0.97%

0.25%

0.04%

9

East Carolina

40.00%

0.43%

0.08%

0.01%

10

Rice

39.75%

3.24%

0.36%

0.01%

11

Southern Mississippi

18.18%

1.16%

0.11%

0.00%

12

Southern Methodist

8.81%

1.04%

0.01%

0.00%

 

As if Memphis needed more help, the tourney being in its hometown boosts its odds of winning its tournament to the best in the country. Tulsa and UAB seem to be the only teams that have a chance, but let’s face it, anyone but Memphis lifting the trophy will be the biggest shock in March.

 

#1 – Memphis Tigers (28-3, 16-0) ; Efficiency Margin: +0.252

Last NCAA Tournament bid: 2008 (Runner-Up)

 

Memphis ran through yet another undefeated Conference USA season, and should do the same in the tournament. The Tigers have had the nation’s best defense, holding opponents under 40% on two-point shots, and forcing a lot of turnovers. They rank in the top 10 in the country in both block and steal rates, and it’s been very difficult for teams to get much offense against them. Memphis’ offense has also been the conference’s best, but its advantage hasn’t been quite as wide. It’s a good rebounding team that holds onto the ball well, and its shooting is decent, though its best from the inside. Another important note: Memphis has lost just three times on its home floor in the last four seasons, each time to a strong power-conference opponent, and no current C-USA team has won at Memphis in more than seven years.

 

Player to watch:

6-6 FR Tyreke Evans, 16.9 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 3.7 APG, 2.1 SPG, 48.9 eFG% - There was a lot of talk early in the season about a lack of ‘impact’ freshmen of the class we’ve seen over the last few years, but now that  it’s March, Evans has clearly reached that role, the dominant player on one of the country’s best teams. He’s not a great shooter, especially from behind the arc, but he’s good enough overall, and has distributed the ball well while putting up one of the conference’s best steal rates.

 

 

#2 – Tulsa Golden Hurricane (22-9, 12-4) ; Efficiency Margin: +0.104

Last NCAA Tournament bid: 2003 (2nd Round)

 

Tulsa was the closest team to beating Memphis, losing by only a single point on its home floor. Like Memphis, Tulsa is strong defensively, though it obviously isn’t nearly as good as the Tigers. It dominates behind the arc, holding opponents to just 28% on threes, and does well inside and on the glass, but forces very few turnovers. The Hurricane are average offensively, taking most of their shots from two, and doing pretty well, along with getting to the free throw line often.

 

Player to watch:

7-0 JR Jerome Jordan, 14.7 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 2.5 BPG, 59.8 eFG% - Jordan is the best big man in Conference USA, an excellent rebounder and shot-blocker who has a good offensive touch, nearly 60% from the field and an impressive 76% from the free-throw line. He’s critical to Tulsa’s defensive success inside.

 

 

#3 – UAB Blazers (21-10, 11-5) ; Efficiency Margin: +0.106

Last NCAA Tournament bid: 2006 (1st Round)

 

UAB finished third in  the conference, but was second in efficiency margin, and like the two teams above them, is a defense-first team that manages to score just enough to win. The Blazers aren’t great at defending shots, but force a lot of turnovers, are good on the glass, and rarely commit fouls. They also have a couple of major offensive strengths, great inside scorers who hold onto the ball well, but have stumbled because of poor shooting behind the arc and weak offensive rebounding.

 

Player to watch:

6-2 SR Paul Delaney, 15.9 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 2.0 SPG, 60.5 eFG% - Robert Vaden may get most of the attention, but Paul Delaney has the man who makes the Blazers efficient, with one of the conference’s best field goal percentages, 62% from two-point range.

 

 

#4 – Texas El Paso Miners (19-11, 10-6) ; Efficiency Margin: +0.036

Last NCAA Tournament bid: 2005 (1st Round)

 

There’s a big drop-off after the top three teams, and UTEP doesn’t seem to have a great chance of winning the conference tournament. It’s becoming a broken record, but the Miners have a solid defense, but just a conference average offense, with their high point total mostly due to the conference’s fastest pace. The pace doesn’t help them make shots, as they are the conference’s worst in FG%. Defensively, they are good on the glass and against perimeter shots, but commit a lot of fouls.

 

Player to watch:

6-5 SR Stefon Jackson, 23.8 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 43.6 eFG% - In most conferences, Jackson would be the leading scorer, but in C-USA, his 6th place in the national scoring rankings is only good enough for 2nd. Jackson is the kind of player who thrives at the free throw line; his shooting from the field isn’t great, but he gets to the stripe a lot, and shoots 84% once there. He also avoids turnovers very well, considering how often he touches the ball.

 

 

#5 – Houston Cougars (19-10, 10-6) ; Efficiency Margin: +0.067

Last NCAA Tournament bid: 1992 (1st Round)

 

Houston has struggled to find much consistency, alternating wins and losses in its past six games. Unlike the above teams, the Cougars’ strength is scoring, as they are behind only Memphis in the conference offensive rankings. They don’t make a high percentage, but have a very low turnover rate, and are good at the free throw line. They are good perimeter defenders, forcing turnovers and stopping threes, but have been weak on the inside.

 

Player to watch:

6-4 JR Aubrey Coleman, 19.8 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 2.5 SPG, 44.3 eFG% - Coleman scores a lot of points, but this is more due to his large role than his efficiency, as his percentages have not been a particularly strong. He does do a good job of generating a possession advantage, getting a lot of steals while rarely turning it over.

 

 

#6 – Central Florida Golden Knights (17-13, 7-9) ; Efficiency Margin: +0.004

Last NCAA Tournament bid: 2005  (1st Round)

 

The Knights are the last team in the league above zero in efficiency margin, if only barely, though a 2-7 finish to the season is hardly encouraging from their standpoint. They’ve been solid shooters who’ve done well on the offensive glass, but struggled with turnovers, and their mediocre defensive play has given them a lot of problems. They don’t have a serious weakness when defending, but don’t do anything well enough to cause opponents problems.

 

Player to watch:

6-4 SR Jermaine Taylor, 26.6 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 56.2 eFG% - Taylor is the country’s 3rd ranked scorer, and takes a higher percentage of his team’s shots than anyone in the country, even Stephen Curry. He’s an excellent shooter, at 55% from two and 38% from three, and rarely turns the ball over. In his last seven games, he’s averaged a simply incredible 35 points.

 

 

#7 – Marshall Thundering Herd (15-16, 7-9) ; Efficiency Margin: -0.072

Last NCAA Tournament bid: 1987 (1st Round)

 

Marshall is a bit fortunate to get to the #7 seed, as it’s ranked 9th in league in both offense and defense. Its offensive woes have been due to poor outside shooting; it tends to take a lot of threes, but has shot a conference-low 29% on those attempts. Decent inside play can’t really make up for that level of ineptitude. Marshall’s opponents haven’t had the same problems, and the Herd have been the conference’s worst at defending shots, especially behind the arc, where opponents shoot 42%. The good news is that they get their hands on the ball a lot, whether from turnovers or rebounds, but opponents don’t need a lot of chances to put up points.

 

Player to watch:

6-6 SR Markel Humphrey, 12.7 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 58.6 eFG% - Humphrey leads the Herd in scoring, despite not taking a lot of shots, thanks to a really high inside percentage, 62% on two-point attempts. He also does well at the free-throw line, and doesn’t turn it over much.

 

 

#8 – Tulane Green Wave (18-12, 9-7) ; Efficiency Margin: -0.042

Last NCAA Tournament bid: 1995 (2nd Round)

 

The 8-9 game is a tough one, with the ‘winner’ earning a date to get steamrolled by Memphis, but Tulane look to be the favorites to earn that chance. No team, not even Memphis, has turned opponents over as well as the Wave, and when combined with an average ability to defend inside, Tulane has a solid defense. The offense, though, has consigned them to the bottom half; they make shots decently, but just can’t get enough chances, having trouble with turnovers and offensive rebounding.

 

Player to watch:

6-0 JR Kevin Sims, 13.0 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 4.0 APG, 51.5 eFG% - Sims leads the team in scoring; a good three-point shooter who also puts up a solid assist rate.

 

 

#9 – East Carolina Pirates (13-16, 5-11) ; Efficiency Margin: -0.086

Last NCAA Tournament bid: 1993  (1st Round)

 

The only bottom half team to average more than a point-per-possession, the Pirates’ great offense couldn’t stop a collapse down the stretch, losing their final five games. They excel on the perimeter, taking a lot of threes, and making a high percentage, and controlling turnovers effectively. Of course, with an offense like that, they’d be higher placed if it weren’t for the conference’s worst defense, which forces very few turnovers and has trouble stopping opponents anywhere on the floor. When you add in the fact that East Carolina grabs very few of its opponents rare misses, you get a unit that is capable of sinking your season.

 

Player to watch:

5-11 SO Brock Young, 10.6 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 7.7 APG, 1.4 SPG, 42.7 eFG% - Young isn’t much of shooter, but there are few players in the country who are as good at helping their teammates as him. Young’s assist rate is third nationally, so the Pirates benefit most when he touches the ball, but doesn’t shoot it.

 

 

#10 – Rice Owls  (9-21, 4-12) ; Efficiency Margin: -0.106

Last NCAA Tournament bid: 1970 (1st Round)

 

Now, we’re well and truly into the conference dregs, as the bottom three teams should be big underdogs to win even a single game. The Owls are the conference’s best three point shooters, at 41%, but actually shoot a similar percentage from two, and are horrible offensive rebounders. If they were a heavy three-shooting team, they could be decent with this profile, but they aren’t, and thus have one of CUSA’s worst attacks. Rice has been solid at stopping shots, but get such a small percentage of misses back that opponents aren’t punished enough when they do miss.

 

Player to watch:

6-1 SR Rodney Foster, 12.1 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 4.6 APG, 53.9 eFG% - Foster is a great perimeter guard, putting up a good assist rate and hitting 45% of threes, but his inside play is not very good, as he’s shot just 36% from two-point range. It he can avoid taking many of those shots inside, he can be an even more efficient player.

 

 

#11 – Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles (14-16, 4-12) ; Efficiency Margin: -0.135

Last NCAA Tournament bid: 1991 (1st Round)

 

Southern Mississippi had a decent start to the season, but won just one of its last 11 games to fall into the conference cellar. It has had an average offense on the season, but a lot of defensive struggles, which have resulted in its poor finish. The Eagles have been good defensive rebounders, but haven’t forced enough misses for it to really matter. Offensively, they’ve managed to avoid turnovers better than any team in the conference, and haven’t shot a lot of threes, an area where they really struggle. Still, they haven’t been strong enough with their numerous inside shots to be above average.

 

Player to watch:

6-2 JR Jeremy Wise, 15.9 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 4.5 APG, 1.3 SPG, 47.0 eFG% - Wise has been a good guard in terms of assists, but his best offense has come inside; he’s just 23% from behind the arc. He’s also strong at the free throw line, getting there often and hitting nearly 85% of those attempts.

 

 

#12 –Southern Methodist Mustangs (9-20, 3-13) ; Efficiency Margin: -0.139

Last NCAA Tournament bid: 1993 (1st Round)

 

The Mustangs have lost at least 10 conference games in every Conference USA season they’ve played, and were heavily outmatched this season. They are good three point shooters, and decent inside, strong on the offensive glass and at defending inside shots, but lose the turnover margin battle badly, and are the conference’s worst free throw shooters.

 

Player to watch:

5-11 FR Paul McCoy, 13.4 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 3.0 APG, 1.7 SPG, 50.6 eFG% - McCoy has led the Mustangs in scoring, having been a pretty good shooter from two and three, and put up a good assist rate, though he has had some trouble with turnovers

 

My statistical all-Conference USA team:

Central Florida SR G Jermaine Taylor, 26.6 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 56.2 eFG%

UAB SR G Paul Delaney, 15.9 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 2.0 SPG, 60.5 eFG%

Memphis FR G Tyreke Evans, 16.9 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 3.7 APG, 2.1 SPG, 48.9 eFG

Memphis SR F Robert Dozier, 12.9 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 1.7 BPG, 55.9 eFG%

Tulsa JR C Jerome Jordan, 14.7 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 2.5 BPG, 59.8 eFG%

 

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