Behind the Numbers: Our Robot Overlords Think We Give UNC Too Much Credit

Posted by KCarpenter on November 17th, 2011

Kellen Carpenter is an ACC microsite staffer and an RTC columnist. Behind the Numbers will publish weekly throughout the season.

Preseason rankings are a funny thing and once real basketball begins, these guesses about the season grow increasingly meaningless. People forget who was ranked where in the preseason by January, if they haven’t already forgotten by December. This, for what it’s worth, is probably a good thing.  Preseason polls can turn out to be pretty embarrassing, highlighting how little journalists and coaches actually know about how the basketball season is going to turn out. Remember Kansas State and Michigan State last season? They weren’t exactly huge factors in the postseason despite being almost unanimously ranked in the top five at the beginning.

Ron Morris Was Certainly On To Something

Gary Parrish’s “Poll Attacks” column is devoted to critiquing what he feels aren’t well-considered ballots. It’s an interesting idea and is usually very fascinating, but since Parrish can’t see the future, the columns have a tendency to not age all that well. What seems like understandable ridicule in November can seem less well-founded when the championship game is being played in April.  Here is a particularly infamous  passage from last year’s pre-season column:

Same dude voted Connecticut 18th.

This would’ve made sense three years ago, but it makes no sense now given that the Huskies have a coach who can’t seem to stay healthy, and a roster that looks nothing like your typical UConn roster. That’s why Big East coaches picked UConn 10th in the league, and why somebody needs to shoot me Ron Morris’ email address. With little effort, I can get him added to the official Big East email list, at which point he’ll start receiving announcements, and then this sort of stuff can probably be avoided. I don’t mean to be pushy.

Yes you do, Gary, but that’s okay. Connecticut struggled in Big East play and their national championship run was, in fact, pretty surprising. Who could have seen that coming? Well it turns out that poor Ron Morris did, but that doesn’t save him from Parrish’s scorn. That’s the dangerous and somewhat insidious side of the “Poll Attacks”: It’s an instrument used to shame those who deviate too far from the conventional wisdom, conventional wisdom that doesn’t necessarily have a great track record. The Internet is a wonderful thing, but the connectedness of journalists and the power of Twitter makes “groupthink” a very real danger. The echo chamber of  “conventional wisdom” dominates and influences voters, which turns out an often dubious preseason rankings list that has a powerful effect in shaping the narratives that guide the coverage of the season, which in turn strengthens the conventional wisdom even further. Before we start veering too strongly into media theory, let me make my point: Polls, particularly preseason polls, are flawed because they are influenced too strongly by the opinions of others.

So without the wisdom of the coaching or writing crowd to rely on, where do we turn? Why, to our robot overlords, of course. Ken Pomeroy’s preseason rankings, which he dubbed “My Crazy Uncle” in last year’s College Basketball Prospectus is a good place to start. Pomeroy’s regular season ratings are the gold standard for tempo-free statistics, but if you want to look at Jeff Sagarin’s rankings or Team Ranking’s wide variety of different power ratings, that’s all fine too. They roughly tell the same story: While humans have anointed North Carolina the best team in the country, our robot overlords are more skeptical, generally favoring Kentucky and Ohio State.

Why should you trust Ken’s Crazy Uncle? Well, as he notes in this year’s Prospectus, Pomeroy’s system did correctly predict the top seeds for last year’s NCAA Tournament with his preseason rankings where every single AP poll voter failed to get the top four right. This year, in order, the top four in his preseason rankings are projected as Kentucky, Ohio State,  North Carolina, and Duke. This doesn’t seem that unreasonable, but considering the near-unanimous poll selection of North Carolina as the best team in the country, it’s odd to see that Pomeroy’s system (as well as just about any other computer-driven ranking system you can find) thinks that there are other teams that might be better.

Frankly, I think the machines are on to something. Let’s first talk about Ohio State, a team that was much loved by the computers (and me) during last year’s season. Is there some indication that this team has suddenly gotten worse? While David Lighty was certainly an integral part of the team, Jon Diebler and Dallas Lauderdale got very limited (though effective) touches on last year’s team. The Buckeyes bring back the best post player in the country in Jared Sullinger and his talented fellow sophomores Aaron Craft and DeShaun Thomas, not to mention a senior starter in William Buford. Thad Matta also brought in a talented freshmen class. This team was the best team in the country last year, and it’s hard to see them falling off much, if any.

Why Would We Expect OSU To Be Worse?

For Kentucky, it’s much the same story. While Kentucky has had more roster turnover than Ohio State, they make up for it by bringing in a ridiculous surfeit of talent. The Wildcats lost a few key pieces in Brandon Knight, DeAndre Liggins, and Josh Harrellson, but John Calipari had no problem bringing in the best recruiting class in the country, while also convincing Terrence Jones, likely a top three pick in the NBA lottery, to come back for another season.  A great team adds more (and maybe better) great players than it lost. Why should Kentucky be worse this year than last year?

Of course, you could make the same argument for North Carolina, saying that a good team kept its roster intact and added more pieces. The difference is starting position. Last year, Ohio State and Kentucky were both farther along than the Tar Heels. To put UNC ahead of these two teams, you have to project that UNC will improve at a much greater rate than either of these two teams. Why should that happen? What is it about North Carolina that says faster growth?

Oddly, a terrible beginning of the season may be the answer. Roy Williams‘ team looked rough at the beginning of the season, but the replacement of Larry Drew with Kendall Marshall and the simple process of Harrison Barnes‘ maturation led to an amazingly strong finish and a surprising Elite Eight finish. Now, if you were to graph the growth of the 2010-11 team and assume that the team would continue to improve at the rate it did last season, you might have a case for assuming North Carolina improves faster then others. For Ohio State and Kentucky, who were more consistently excellent from the beginning of the season, their apparent “growth rate” seems less dramatic.

Here’s a thought experiment: Imagine that North Carolina started last year’s season as good as they were at the end of the season.  Why would people think that team would be better than an Ohio State or Kentucky team that consistently played better throughout last year? Sure UNC retains more of it’s core, but for the most part, that core didn’t perform as well as the players remaining for the other teams. North Carolina has benefited from a guiding narrative that, in the echo chamber of college basketball, managed to grow unchecked. The narrative was simple and often repeated: “Look how fast North Carolina is improving!” With that thought taken as a given, the inference of continued rapid improvement is easy to make. Suddenly, Roy William’s team was the near-consensus favorite to win the title.

Computer models don’t know about media narratives. They don’t have to listen to pundits talk endlessly about how many NBA-caliber players are returning to Chapel Hill. Pomeroy’s model looks at performance from the past, projects future performance given a new distribution of minutes and the impact of newcomers (specifically Top 50 recruits). This model, without hearing any spin, without the ability to get it’s feelings hurt by Gary Parrish, likes Kentucky and Ohio State better than North Carolina. Considering how clearly nearly every computer model slots North Carolina below the top spot, it’s maybe time that we all consider why we think the Tar Heels are better than Ohio State and Kentucky.

KCarpenter (269 Posts)

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11 responses to “Behind the Numbers: Our Robot Overlords Think We Give UNC Too Much Credit”

  1. Jerry Hollingsworth says:

    It is easy to understand why non-algorithm polls favor UNC to win the NCAA championship.

    First, surely the preseason polls are predicting the eventual champion, not suggesting which team is best on opening day. Else, why bother?

    Looking at rosters, UNC has more proven players that had demonstrated individual and team excellence than any other outfit. Since new recruits do not always pan out either as individual talents (Selby) or as team players (Selby), extrapolating college success for a team relying on an infusion of talent is unwarranted (unless you are remembering Lew Alcindor and his freshman fellow recruits at UCLA, and Lew & company did play freshman ball together).

    Ohio State could be preseason rated over UNC on the basis of the sheer excellence of their returning sophomores, but I consider it wise to value the UNC sophomores at least the equal of the Buckeyes, UNC’s senior post higher than Buford, and Henson’s skills better than TOSU’s counterparts even without the likely serious skills jump for Henson during the year.

    We all should understand that luck plays a major role in determining the eventual NCAA champion. Rarely does the best team win out. Does anyone really think UCONN was last year’s best team? Surely not Kentucky fans.

    I’ll stick with UNC for its combination of skilled and experienced players, Roy Williams’ dedication to scoring a lot of points, and my 1970 diploma.

  2. rtmsf says:

    I picked UNC #4 in my ballot, the only RTCer to not have the Heels #1. Here’s my logic. I won’t pick UConn to have a better regular season, but I like how that team is built for and plays in March in one-and-done situations. Kemba is obviously a massive loss, but I expect big leaps from Lamb and the other sophomores as well as Andre Drummond to figure things out and become a force by March. #2 Kentucky – more talent than God and UNC. They won’t figure out how to play together until February, but when they do, the only thing that can beat them will be a team that plays smarter (see: UConn). #3 Ohio State – I expect the Buckeyes to have another great regular season, something along the lines of 3-4 losses at the most. But I don’t like how they’re built for March – in a one-game scenario, I feel like they are susceptible to exactly the kind of team that beat them last year — an athletic and talented UK team. #4 UNC – Everyone is back, but I guess I remain less than impressed with “everyone.” Outside of Duke, the ACC was not strong at the top again last year. The UNC run was impressive, but everyone forgets the beat-down by Duke in the ACCT finals, and Kentucky, a team starting three freshmen and Josh Harrellson, was able to beat them in the 8s. They were lucky to escape Washington in front of a home crowd, and even Clemson nearly got them in the ACCT. They were not dominant, but everyone thinks that adding a single offseason to that team will make them so. For them to become dominant, Barnes needs to turn into Carmelo Anthony. I don’t see him doing that, so again I see UNC as one of four strong teams to win the title, but consensus? Give me 1991 UNLV, 2002 Duke or even 2007 Florida — those teams were and should have been consensus picks to win the title. Why? Because they’d already done it.

  3. James says:

    Kentucky was not “consistently great” last season. At all.

    They lost to a terrible UNC team in December and were atrocious on the road in the SEC.

    They didn’t put things together until mid-February.

  4. KCarpenter says:

    I think UNC is probably the best team in the country. I don’t think they are overwhelming favorites that the polls seem to think. The gap between Ohio State and UNC is fairly narrow and I think that you have to consider North Carolina the underdog when they play Kentucky at Rupp. North Carolina is a great team, but they aren’t streets ahead.

    You are right, I’m probably giving Kentucky too much credit. Ohio State works with the “consistently great” argument much better.

  5. T Ganski says:

    “The difference is starting position. Last year, Ohio State and Kentucky were both farther along than the Tar Heels. To put UNC ahead of these two teams, you have to project that UNC will improve at a much greater rate than either of these two teams. Why should that happen? What is it about North Carolina that says faster growth?”

    This author lost me right there because he obviously has no idea what he is talking about. While I would say KY obviously was further ahead on UNC by tournament time, to say they were there earlier in the year is complete rubbish. I wonder if the author realized that UNC handily beat KY in Chapel Hill last year in December. Yes, it was at UNC, but lets remember that UNC still had Larry Drew as a starter, and Harrison Barnes was a shell of what he was later to become.

    Oh, by the way, the other statement that renders this article a waste of bits and bytes is the Pomeroy ranking that has Duke in its top 4. All props to “K”, but have you seen Duke play yet? Duke has no handle, none.

  6. KMOB says:

    It’s pretty simple why the humans like UNC better. It’s because their players are better and their coaching is better. As a very young team last season, with a CANCEROUS point guard, they struggled, but once the tumor was excised they grew together into a real team, and a dangerous one. To wit:

    Marshall > Craft – Kendall is projected as a first round pick after this season. Craft isn’t on anyone’s radar and will likely be a second rounder after 4 years.

    Strickland > Smith – Strickland isn’t asked to carry much scoring load but he’s a handful in the open court and a lockdown defender. He projects as a 2nd rounder while Smith is a non-prospect.

    Barnes > Buford – Barnes is a consensus top 5 prospect and getting better quickly while Buford is a 2nd-round prospect who is a known commodity.

    Henson > Thomas – Henson is the best defensive big in the country and a terrific rebounder, as well as having vastly improved his offensive game. A likely Lottery pick. Thomas is an underwhelming defender and solid offensive player but not in Henson’s league overall.

    Sullinger > Zeller – the one position where OSU has the endge, but we are talking about 2 first round NBA prospects here so the gap isn’t huge. In fact, Zeller averaged 26 and 9 in the tourney last season while Sully was at 17 and 11, so the Senior Tar heel may not be as far off as many might think.

    UNC Bench > OSU Bench – High School 5-star recruitsand NBA prospects Bullock, McAdoo, and Hairston highlight a UNC bench that gets an easy edge over the Ravenal/Sibert led OSU reserves

    Roy > Thad – While Thad has come on strong in recent years with some great recruiting classes, Roy’s titles and long track record of big-time success give him a big leg up.

    The computers see the numbers from last year and project – thats their job. But you are severely downplaying the talent disparity and all but ignoring the fact that UNC didn’t lose anyone of importance while the other teams clearly did.

  7. KCarpenter says:

    T Ganski:

    Kentucky looked pretty good to begin the season; before conference play they only lost to Connecticut, the eventual national champs and North Carolina. The loss to North Carolina was a two-point loss in Chapel Hill, hardly a clear display of dominance. Meanwhile, Kentucky beat Washington, Louisville, and Notre Dame.

    North Carolina lost to every quality team they played besides Kentucky during nonconference play: Minnesota, Vanderbilt, Illinois, and Texas. You can make a case that UNC is better because they eked out a two point win against Kentucky in Chapel Hill, but going into conference play, Kentucky looked to be, overall, the better team.


    I agree with you that UNC’s players are projected to have a higher ceiling than Ohio State’s. In terms of proven performance, however, Ohio State’s players played better and more efficiently all last season. Aaron Craft was far better efficiency-wise than Kendall Marshall on the offensive end while also being an elite perimeter defender . And listen, I would take Harrison Barnes over Buford any day, but Buford simply had a more productive year than Barnes last year. Henson vs. Thomas undersells Thomas’s offense, but Henson is such a great defender that I’d call it a wash. No complaints about the rating of Lenzelle Smith below Dexter Strickland or Thad below Roy, but I do find the appraisal of Freshman classes a little dishonest: Ohio State brought in four four star prospects and have the best recruiting class in the Big Ten.

    I think UNC definitely has the potential to blow Ohio State out of the water if every player reaches their full potential, but right now I think that people are forgetting just how incredibly well Ohio State played last year.

    As I mentioned above in the comments, I think UNC is probably the best team in the country. My caveat is simply that I don’t I don’t think they are far and away the clearly most dominant team in the country. As the season rolls on? They could very well become a juggernaut. Right now? I think Ohio State and Kentucky are closer than most people think.

  8. Pramit says:

    After reading everyone’s comments, I have to say that it is very refreshing to read people’s opinions that are well thought out and coherent. It is a good change from the comment boards on ESPN where all anyone does is bash other teams and drop expletives.

    As for my two cents, the reason UNC is media’s preseason #1 is because somebody has to be. If this was a ranking for the NCAAT, then there would be more than one team at the top. The talent level and experience (except UK, of course) is comparable for the top teams. As with most years, the eventual National Champion will come down to the team that can get it together for the last 6 games of the season that truly matter.

    This season is going to exciting and one of the better ones we’ve had in a while. Heres to another title for Roy & co in Chapel Hill.

  9. hawksfan says:

    The argument presented is very illogical. First, the computers rely on last year’s numbers to predict this year – I would definitely say OSU and UK had better years last year than UNC. Secondly – a HUGE factor that leads me to believe OSU will fall out of the top 10 this season is that you could NOT double Sullinger, because of OSU’s ability to hit the perimeter jumper. They lost a lot of that ability to graduation. They will miss that SO much more than people realize. Teams will double and triple team Sullinger this year and they will not be able to hit the jumper as consistently, so I take them out of the argument completely. Why did the author add Kentucky’s freshmen to the mix while basically ignoring the fact that UNC not only kept ALL of their starters but added 2 of the best prospects in the nation!? Kentucky may have broke even from last year with their class, but UNC ADDED talent.

  10. KCarpenter says:


    Thanks for reading! The comment sections here have lots of intelligent, passionate fans. I like it a lot too.


    I’d like to think that it’s only kind of illogical, but maybe I aim too high. Buford was a 44.2% and Craft a 37.7% three point shooter last season. While they will certainly miss Lighty and Diebler, this is a team that can still stroke it. The other thing to consider is that Sullinger routinely faced doubles and the occasional triple throughout last year. He’s quite good at passing back out to the perimeter. It’s possible that Ohio State’s system breaks down, but they have looked good so far in the early going.

    As for why I value Kentucky’s freshman more than North Carolina’s, the reason is simply minutes: While Hairston might end up playing big minutes if Roy decides that they don’t need Strickland as much on defense, McAdoo is unlikely to break 20 minutes a game. For the most part, I’d say that’s a good thing: When McAdoo plays, that means that either Zeller and Henson aren’t. At Kentucky, the number 2,3, and 4 recruits in the nation are starting and playing 30+ minutes a game. It’s just a simple matter of opportunity: Kentucky’s freshmen will have a bigger opportunity to make an immediate impact.

  11. BBJones says:

    The thought experiment – The variable that you are not considering in your experiment is as follows.
    1) North Carolina had a brand new starting PG, starting in JAN, who was a freshman! BTW – he was a freak!! Watch some games bro. He was only scraping the surface at the end of his half year of starting.
    2) Barnes – No one has ever had the hype to carry into a freshman season that Barnes did. He struggled, but by the end of the year, the cream was rising. He is ONLY getting warmed up YO!
    3) Last year was Junior Tyler Zeller’s FIRST full year of being healthy and owning his place in the post. This year he has added about 30 lbs of muscle and has the confidence to dominate. BTW, he’s 7’0″ tall and runs like a FREAKING Gazelle, again, watch the TAPE. :)
    4)It’s funny that Henson is just making to number four. There should be a movie about this alien. They should call it I am number four, scratch that, already made. Seriously, which this guy is not, plays with the spirit of a 13 year old and swats like MUTOMBO. Not in this house. Henson will be a junior this year, yes, however, recognize that he got no minutes as a freshman and played SF. Consider this his SOPH campaign. He is confident, has added 20 lbs of muscle, his offense has improved several-fold.
    5) Oh yeah, they got this guy named Dexter Strickland, he’s also a junior McDonald All-American. He can beat you up the court with the ball and is going to come out this year like a man on a mission.
    6)James M McAdoo, PJ Hairston, Reggie Bullock…
    See you in the BIG EASY Brothers!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Love be with you all!

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