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The Watch: Checking the SEC’s depth perception

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The Big 12-SEC Challenge offers the conference a mid-season check-up.

Texas A&M v West Virginia Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

A little more than a week ago, Seth Davis, the editor of The Fieldhouse and creator of the lame Sharpie gag, pushed send on a bemusing tweet when a fan asked about the value of Auburn rallying at Mississippi State.

Now, before we move ahead, I have a caveat: the beauty of college basketball is the sheer volume of objective data—KenPom, Synergy Sports, Hoop-Math, Warren Nolan, RPI Forecast, Haslam Metrics and so on—by which to measure the validity of these statements. If we ventured back to 1999, the days where the RPI and stapled game notes handed out to print scribes were our best sources, Davis’ statement would make a certain amount of sense.

Two decades ago, we placed more weight on the eye test out of necessity. Think about it for a second. Today, we can watch almost any game live. We can read coverage—assuming newspapers hang on for a little longer—about any almost team we want. And you can analyze almost any matchup in granular detail. If anything, we’ve grown more nuanced in how we assess teams and conferences.

Now, I’m not accusing Davis of being a Luddite. If anything, he suffers from an affliction that grips us all—yours included—on Twitter of making pronouncements without pausing for reflection about the logic of what we’re about to espouse. Too, his response that Auburn beating Mississippi State isn’t an ideal litmus test isn’t off base. Auburn clearly has better wins than the one it claimed in Starkvegas.

Still: “I think the SEC is overrated.”

Let’s parse that statement, starting by counting how many teams each high-major conference, as of Sunday evening, has sitting the KenPom top-50:sitting the KenPom top-50:

  • ACC: 9
  • Big 12: 8
  • SEC: 7
  • Big Ten: 4
  • Big East: 6
  • Pac 12: 3

Next, take a gander at the average KenPom ratings of those teams:

  • B10: 18.0
  • ACC: 21.7
  • Big 12: 24.1
  • Big East: 26.2
  • SEC: 27.4
  • Pac 12: 31

I’m not going to argue that the SEC is packed with elite teams. Almost half of the KenPom top-15 is occupied by Big 12 and ACC programs, while the Big Ten touts Michigan State and Purdue. Oh, and Villanova rules the Big East.

However, the SEC has three teams—Tennessee, Auburn, and Florida—checking in between spots No. 10 to No. 20, and six of its members are rated better than 35th in KenPom’s model. Meanwhile, Alabama sits just outside the top-50, slotted at 53rd. Neither the Big East nor the Pac-12 can point to similar numbers, either.

We can also gauge how well the SEC has performed in high-profile games by using the NCAA selection committees recently adopted Quadrant system to gauge how teams play at home, on a neutral court or in a true road environment. In this case, we’ll use Quadrant 1 games. (Quadrant 1: Home 1-30 RPI; Neutral 1-50 RPI; Away 1-75 RPI)

  • Big East: 19-42 (46.3%)
  • Big 12: 31-36 (46.2%)
  • Pac-12: 17-29 (36.9%)
  • SEC: 30-56 (34.8%)
  • ACC: 29-57 (33.7%)
  • Big Ten: 14-55 (20.3%)

Once again, concluding the SEC is among the four best leagues in the country isn’t outlandish. The conference’s performance actually compares pretty well to the ACC, whose reputation as one of the country’s toughest conferences is largely cemented.

At this juncture, let’s take a step back and consider what this cursory assessment tells us: almost half of the SEC’s teams are among the top-35 nationally, and the conference as a whole has performed reasonably well in marquee games.

Those who follow the league know how its used money from the SEC Network to hire quality coaches, build great facilities and used those resources to improve recruiting. At the same time, non-conference scheduling criteria have improved SOS ratings across the conference. The gains from those investments and policies have taken to bud, but it’s lazy analysis to fall back on old tropes like #SECBasketballFever.

Scoffing at Ole Miss losing to South Dakota State is easy. Until you consider SDSU is led by Mike Daum (more on him is below) and is the favorite in The Summit League. LSU did lose to Stephen F. Austin, one of the more reliable low-majors in the country and again the chief contender in the Sun Belt. Are the losses great? No. But it’s not unheard of for top mid-majors to pick off high-majors in non-conference play, and, in many cases, SEC members are losing to likely tournament teams.

So how do you ditch the perception?

Win high-profile games.

Which brings us to this Saturday and the Big 12-SEC Challenge, an opportunity for the SEC to not only score quality wins but credibility points. Eyeballs will gravitate to Alabama-Oklahoma, Texas A&M-Kansas, and Kentucky-West Virginia, but games like Baylor-Florida, Oklahoma State-Arkansas, and Ole Miss-Texas are worth tracking. Putting together a good performance would do wonders to dispel the notion that the SEC is a conference still filled with middling and mediocre programs.


THE CAN'T-MISS

We get it: You may not have the time (or inclination) to load up your schedule with games to watch. That’s why we single out the game you should carve out to time to see each week.

NCAA Basketball: Duke at Miami Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

No. 2 Virginia at No. 4 Duke | 1 p.m. CT Saturday, CBS

In just eight days, Virginia could seize firm hold of the ACC race.

The Cavaliers pocketed a win over North Carolina earlier this month, and their next three dates pit them against Clemson, Duke and Louisville. The Tigers are reeling with the loss of forward Donte Graham. Meanwhile, the Cardinals are average at best offensively.

The true hurdle is their trip to Cameron Indoor Arena. Walk out with a win, and owning tiebreakers over the Tar Heels and Blue Devils would be healthy insurance coverage over the final month of the regular season.

The Hoos last three visits have all ended with losses, but Tony Bennett’s team only lost those games by eight points combined. UVA also managed to control the tempo in a hostile environment, keeping it at a controlled 60 possessions a game against Duke teams that finished in the top-five nationally for offensive efficiency.

The Pack Line will need to travels well for this meeting, too.

Considering Duke is second nationally in offensive efficiency, parsing out the distinction in their attack seems silly. Still, Duke ranks fifth among high-majors in the transition possessions (18.3) per game and seventh for points per possession (1.187) when they’re able to get running. Naturally, UVA would rather get this game in the half court, where it only allows 0.714 PPP.

Just take a look at the difference, especially players like Marvin Bagley III and Gary Trent Jr., who are two of the Blue Devils top three scorers.

Finally, the zone chart tells the story of what Bennett’s defensive system does to opponents who have to operate at a set five.

As I detailed earlier in the year, the Pack Line can make games into jump-shooting contests, and that plays to Virginia’s favor with Kyle Guy (43.1 percent), Ty Jerome (41.3) and Devon Hall (47.1) on the perimeter. Did I also mention that Duke is letting ACC opponents shoot 39.1 percent from the 3-point line?

The Blue Devils’ struggles in man-to-man are well-known this season, forcing coach Mike Krzyzewski to use his young team's size and length. Deploying a zone, though, requires living with the fact an opponent might bomb away from long range. The Cavaliers are also a top-50 team against a zone defense, averaging 1.132 PPP against teams that roll it out.

A dream scenario for UVA is to control Duke’s transition opportunities, make Bagley into driver off isolation plays and force Allen and Trent to shoot over the top. On the other end, Guy can work without the ball or pull-up in transition. His backcourt mates are can also free themselves up, while big men like Mamadi Diakite are sneaky good cutters and adept at finding voids to fill.

Over the last 10 meetings, Bennett’s teams have largely dictated the terms of engagement. Given Duke’s struggles on the defensive end, there’s a fair chance UVA might exit this stretch of games as the leader in the ACC clubhouse.


THE CONFERENCE CALL

The SEC is trying to be better at basketball. Schools are assembling tougher schedules, hiring better coaches and recruiting at a higher level. We want to spotlight one matchup, and not always the one that first comes to mind, that’s interesting, could influence national perception or have major implications for the league race.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Texas A&M C. Morgan Engel-USA TODAY Sports

No. 19 Auburn at Missouri | 8 p.m. CT Wednesday, SEC Network

Analyzing Missouri’s loss in College Station hasn’t been hard for us to do: Sometimes, shots don’t fall.

That being said, slow starts have been an issue over the past four games for Mizzou, and at some point— for all of the Tigers’ stingy defense -- you can’t dig out of the early grave you dug. On Wednesday, though, Cuonzo Martin’s group hosts an Auburn that also plods out of the gate. We’ll discuss that in more detail on Tuesday.

Unlike last week’s game against Tennessee, Auburn’s personnel owns more raw talent, with five top-100 recruits on the roster. And they also play with a chip on their shoulder, at last living up to their potential.

This season, holding serve is critical in a tightly-packed SEC race, and Mizzou may just face its biggest chore in conference play.

When you look at MU’s KenPom profile, its projected to finish anywhere between 10-8 and 12-6, depending on whether you look at the aggregate prediction or go game-by-game. In either scenario, a win over Auburn is the expected outcome, even if the game itself falls squarely into the toss-up category.

In a week where the SEC’s biggest matchups are of the non-conference variety, this tilt carries the largest implications for the race near the top of the standings, a win setting up a potential push by MU for a double-bye in the conference tournament. A couple weeks ago on Dive Cuts, Sam Snelling and talked about the importance of emerging with a 2-2 record against Arkansas, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Auburn. Not only would Mizzou have some quality wins, but it would enter an easier where the Tigers would be favored in five of six games and on firmer ground for an at-large bid.

So far, Cuonzo Martin’s group has managed to stay on schedule, and we’ll see if that’s still the case after Wednesday.


THE DEEP CUT

We at Rock M Nation believe in equality. There are quality hoops played in mid-major and low-major conferences, and those are the wells of rising coaching talent and potential Cinderella teams. As a true hoops connoisseur, you should see the players, coaches, and teams long before the spotlight finds them in March. So, we will bring you one game that might otherwise be considered off the grid.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Gonzaga vs South Dakota State Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

South Dakota State at South Dakota | 7 p.m. Wednesday CT, ESPN3

Full disclosure: I haven’t checked in all that much on The Summit this season.

This is really just a plea for you to tune in and watch Jackrabbits big man Mike Daum, a 6-foot-9 mismatch with an under-the-rim postgame and the ability to step out and stretch defenses. And before Trae Young stole our hearts, Daum was the nation’s leading returning scorer, clearing the 30-point barrier 12 times last season.

For reference, here’s what the junior has done this year.

And his backstory has all the gritty, up-by-his-bootstraps features you’d expect.

This season, he’s 10th in possessions used, while is 1.103 PPP is better than what Young has done for the Sooners this season. Unfortunately, seven of SDSU’s final nine games are against sub-150 teams in KenPom, meaning you’d be watching Daum destroy largely helpless competition.

This week, though, they face their in-state rival and chief threat for a conference title. The Coyotes currently rank 76th in KenPom and are really the only Summit squad with an offense capable of exploiting an SDSU squad that’s 202nd in adjusted defensive efficiency.

Arriving on campus a chunky kid with no footspeed, Daum’s transformation, aided by a redshirt season, is a marvel.

“I pray to God that the NBA coaches and scouts -- people -- see beyond this tall, white, dorky kid, but how great he is as a human being, as a basketball player, everything about him,” said Michele Daum, his mother and a former collegiate basketball All-American at Wyoming. “And he’ll do anything you ask him to do.”

Come March, the Jackrabbits, who are currently projected to make the 68-team field as a No. 13 seed, could be a trendy sleeper pick in your bracket pool. Yet we all know the slim margin for error in leagues like The Summit, an early exit from the conference tournament dooming South Dakota State’s chances to earn a dance card and robbing the public of the chance to see Daum take the floor.

What a shame it would be, too.


THE DOCKET

Other games that should have your attention or eyeballs this week. They’re top-25 matchups, solid high-major meetings, interesting SEC games and other matchups that have implications for low- and mid-major conferences. All tip-times are CST.

Monday

  • No. 10 North Carolina at Virginia Tech, 6 p.m., ESPN
  • No. 7 West Virginia at TCU, 8 p.m., ESPN
  • Kansas State at Baylor, 8 p.m., ESPNU

Tuesday

  • Arkansas at Georgia, 5:30 p.m., SEC Network
  • No. 5 Kansas at No. 12 Oklahoma, 6 p.m., ESPN
  • No. 18 Clemson at No. 4 Virginia, 6 p.m., ESPN3
  • Texas A&M at LSU, 8 p.m., ESPNU

Wednesday

  • Marquette at No. 8 Xavier, 5:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1
  • Furman at UNC-Greensboro, 6 p.m., ESPN3
  • Louisville at Miami, 7 p.m., ESPN2
  • Loyola Chicago at Drake, 7 p.m., ESPN3

Thursday

  • No. 25 Michigan at No. 3 Purdue, 6 p.m., ESPN
  • BYU at No. 16 Saint Mary’s, 10 p.m., ESPN2

Friday

  • Wagner at St. Francis (Pa.), 4 p.m., ESPNU

Saturday

  • No. 14 Texas Tech at South Carolina, 11 a.m., ESPN2
  • Baylor at No. 20 Florida, 11 a.m., ESPN
  • No. 12 Oklahoma at Alabama, 1:15 p.m., ESPN
  • Miami (Fla.) at Florida State, 3 p.m., ESPN3
  • Texas A&M at No. 5 Kansas, 3:30 p.m., ESPN
  • Grand Canyon at Utah Valley State, 4 p.m., ESPN3
  • Kentucky at No. 7 West Virginia, 6 p.m., ESPN
  • Oklahoma State at Arkansas, 6 p.m., ESPN2
  • Virginia Tech at Notre Dame, 7 p.m., ESPN2

Sunday

  • Bucknell at Boston University, 11 a.m., CBS Sports Network
  • No. 6 Michigan State at Maryland, Noon, CBS
  • No. 1 Villanova at Marquette, Noon, Fox


THE REVIEW

Catch up on prior editions of The Watch and look back three months from now to see how foolish all of these ideas actually are!