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Miscellany

Big Ten Basketball: Investigating "First to Fifty" and the Truth about Offense

The Big Ten has been at the forefront of college basketball all year – we’ve been treated to fantastic matchups and finishes – and conference play has led to a “Game of the Year” seemingly every week. Despite the outstanding basketball (#1 on ranking on KenPom.com and #2 on my own site sevenovertimes.com), the conference is consistently knocked for their lack of offense, low-scoring, boring games. We can attribute much of this to one team (mostly Wisconsin, but Nebraska, Penn St, and Northwestern don’t help), but the stigma is attached to all the teams.

The cliche most commonly tossed around to disparage the Big Ten is that each game is simply “First to Fifty” – implying that the games are so low-scoring, whichever team gets to 50 points first is going to win the game. Using play-by-play data for nearly 12,000 games back to 2008, I found every conference game where at least one team reached 50 points.

 

I was surprised to find the Big Ten right in the middle.  The West Coast Conference leads the way with the “First to Fifty” winning over 90% of the time, and the SEC and Big Sky were at the bottom with the “First to Fifty” winning only 81% of the time. The data for the Great West and SWAC is probably too small of a sample to really draw a conclusion – but they won’t change where the Big Ten fits.

While Big Ten fans might be excited to see this – there is a stat where their low-scoring ways are a bit more apparent. Instead of looking at the average number of points per game, I wanted to see the average number of points needed to win. In this category, The Big Ten had the smallest total (59), which was six points fewer than the biggest major conference (ACC).

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There are several factors that my be skewing these results – including the relative competitiveness of each conference. Top-heavy conferences like the West Coast and Mountain West may have fewer comebacks than more balanced conferences. Also, for the “First to Fifty” stats, I am ignoring games where both teams failed to reach 50. In that regard, Western Illinois is #1 with five such games, Savannah St is #2 with four, and Georgetown, Wisconsin, and Eastern Michigan are tied at #3 with three Sub-50 point games.

I think the real finding from this is that while the “First to 50″ mantra for the Big Ten may not be as true as some would like, we should feel free to start using “First to 60.”

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