1. Oakland (+.19)
Oakland has been the most dominant team in the league all season long. While South Dakota State's offense has at times ranked ahead of Oakland's, the Jacks' defense has never been up to snuff with that of the Golden Grizzlies. As the blue trendline shows us, OU's tempo-free defensive efficiency has been trending toward 1.000 over the last few games, perhaps a sign that the team was never going to blow out teams all season long; the conference is just too strong this year. But its offense, despite a dip as of late, has remained in the upper-echelon of this measure. That's a deadly combination and the principle reason why OU remains the favorite. (For more on Oakland's efficiency trends, see the weekly recap post from yesterday).
2. South Dakota State (+.12)
South Dakota State has been the hottest offensive team in the league. The team's points per possession mark has barely fluctuated since the second or third week of conference play. That low offensive mark in SDSU's first game of the season against NDSU was the ultimate outlier. While recent history would suggest that the Bison will yet again beat the Jacks in next weekend's rematch, the red trendline shows that the Jacks have every reason to believe they can finally breakthrough against the foes from Fargo. On the defensive side, we can see that SDSU has had its ups and downs, literally, but that the team has gotten it together in recent weeks. The points allowed per possession is still rather high at 1.07, but at least they've been consistent. When they find that consistency, a little bit of defense is all the Jacks need to let their offense win games for them.
3. Oral Roberts (+.07)
No surprises here. Oral Roberts is peaking at the right time thanks to improved offense and defense. During the early part of the season, it seemed as if the team couldn't put together a string of solid games, yet here we are at the end of February talking about the Golden Eagles as a legitimate contender for the conference tournament. ORU still has two more games this weekend to increase that growing efficiency gap, and if the team is able to win both of those games, it will head to Sioux Falls on an eight game winning streak.
4. IUPUI (+.06)
Interestingly, IUPUI has never dropped into the negative area of efficiency margin, though the trendlines show us that the team was playing some of its best ball in the middle of the season. The blue line representing defensive efficiency has been creeping up over the past three weeks, but the team's offensive efficiency has more or less remained constant. When the Jaguars put it together, they're a dangerous team. But at this point their track record shows they're just as capable of stunning wins (Oakland) as head-scratching losses (SUU at home).
5. North Dakota State (+.025)
North Dakota State jumps ahead of IPFW by virtue of a one-thousandth point lead. The greatest asset for NDSU all season long has been its defense, which is currently allowing 1.03 points per possession (good for second in the league). However, the team's offense has been far from elite; consequently, the Bison men have dropped more games than they've won. And at present, the offense isn't improving much.
6. IPFW (+.024)
For much of the first half of conference play, IPFW was a legitimate contender thanks to an elite defense and a fairly stellar offense. As the team approached the halfway point, its defense quickly deteriorated. And soon after, its offense came back down to earth as well. Those early performances make you think that this could still be a scary team come March, but reason does not. The Dons haven't been in early season form for many weeks now, and their recent performances do not suggest it is getting any better. Granted, tempo-free statistics don't take into account the will to win of a great senior class, so the Dons could still make a run, but the data suggests it would be a big surprise at this point.
7. UMKC (-.030)
Somehow, despite winning more games than its lost, UMKC is still on the negative side of the efficiency margin. When looking at its chart, don't be fooled: the team's giving up more points than it scores on a possession basis. But as these trendlines thankfully show us, the Roos have had to do a lot of work to correct some early blowouts. In fact, up until this last weekend, Matt Brown's team had successfully inched closer and closer to the positives before falling back just a bit after a bad loss to IUPUI. However, one thing remains certain: put the Roos up against a team like NDSU or IPFW and they have a shot to move on in Sioux Falls despite the negative margin.
8. Southern Utah (-0.032)
Like the Kangaroos, the Thunderbirds sit on the negative side of this measure, but they've been getting better as of late. They've done it by shoring up the defense as the offense has been rather strong all year long (and consistent). But as the blue line shows us, SUU has been prone to major defensive lapses. Yet in recent weeks, that line has evened out a bit. This is good news for T-Bird fans as it means the team has improved its standing in the conference and secured a bid to the conference tournament. However, one has to wonder how much better the defense can get. At its best, SUU is still giving up 1.09 points per possession. That might be acceptable against some of the lower seeds, but it won't be enough to topple one of the higher seeds SUU is likely to face.