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Just The Sports: Non-Conference vs. Conference

Just The Sports

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Non-Conference vs. Conference

The NCAA basketball season does not really begin until teams begin their conference schedules. Non-conference games, or rather the preamble to college basketball teams' seasons, are used by teams as a way to iron out the wrinkles and also to pile up enough wins to keep indiscriminate alumni boosters lending their financial aid to the coffers of the universities' athletic programs. Usually, because conference opponents are of a higher quality than those of the non-conference variety, teams experience a decline in their play during the transition from non-conference play to the conference portion of their schedules.

For the purpose of this post, I looked at the top ten teams as ranked by the ESPN/USA Today Poll at the beginning of the week and compared their non-conference statistics to their conference ones. The only difference between the top ten teams of the poll I used and the AP Top 25's top ten is the inclusion of the University of Nevada at the expense of Washington State.

Of the top ten teams in the country, six of them-Ohio State, Wisconsin, UCLA, UNC, Kansas, and Memphis-have managed to sustain their level of play, offensively and defensively, no matter what the affiliation of their opponent happens to be, be it an opponent in the same conference as they or not. Due to this achievement, these are the teams one should put most of his lot behind when it comes to the NCAA Tournament since their best will show up no matter which opponent they play.

With six teams already labeled as college basketball's elite by this post, four teams are left, of which three have something in common. This thing is the fact that Florida, Texas A&M, and Nevada have found it impossible to maintain the level of defensive efficiency they display against non-conference foes when they are competing against their conference mates. Interestingly enough, these teams have not faltered on the offensive side of the ball, putting up comparable offensive numbers against whichever team they face. It seems that the conference opponents on the schedule are simply better at scoring than the non-conference ones.

Pittsburgh is the one team in the top ten to have put up statistically signficantly worse offensive efficiency numbers in conference play than in non-conference play, but they do play defense just as well against the Big (L)East teams as other teams. Obviously, the defense the Panthers face in their conference is too much to handle.

It should be noted that no teams perform significantly better against conference opponents so at least the teams do not find themselves in cupcake conferences that would keep them from potentially going deep in the NCAA tournament.

One other common thread that links five of these universities (Ohio State, Wisconsin, Florida, UCLA, and Memphis) is that they are averaging significantly fewer possessions per game against teams from their respective conferences. Instead of simply being able to bludgeon teams with superior athleticism as they are able to do against non-conference teams, they are either forced or choose to slow down considerably and instead use basketball intellect and decision-making skills to win games.

Of course, what really matters to most college basketball fans is how these teams perform against the non-conference opponents they will find awaiting them during March Madness.



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