Assessing Ken Pomeroy’s Pac-12 Ratings

Posted by Andrew Murawa on October 31st, 2014

There once was a time, back in the day, when college basketball fans would eagerly anticipate the initial AP Poll as a harbinger of the coming season. Or maybe you were the kind of fan who took the Street & Smith’s magazine appearing at your local newsstand as the sign from the basketball gods that it was time to dig into the impending season. Nowadays, Street & Smith’s preseason magazines are long gone. The AP Poll may as well be. But with the rise of advanced metrics, college hoops junkies with a love for statistics can bask in the unveiling of Ken Pomeroy’s preseason ratings with the same joy that those old print-era milestones used to impart.

Steve Alford and UCLA check in much higher than expected. (AP)

Steve Alford and UCLA check in much higher than expected. (AP)

The 2015 ratings over at were unveiled earlier this week, and with now only two remaining weeks before action tips off, there is plenty to dig into in Pomeroy’s Pac-12 picks. Below, key takeaways:

UCLA Gets (Too Much?) Respect – The plan all along was to start at the top and work my way down the Pac-12 rankings. But immediately, the #2 Pac-12 team in Pomeroy’s rankings jumps out, as UCLA not only shows up as the clear-cut choice to challenge Arizona for conference supremacy, but also checks in at #13 nationally. This for a team that lost five big-time contributors from last season’s team, including three of those guys to the NBA Draft’s First Round? What gives? Well, first let’s let Pomeroy explain the basis, pulling out some choice relevant quotes from his blog post unveiling his rankings.

“People always want to know why a team is ranked in an unexpected spot. Think of the ratings formula as [team baseline + personnel]. The personnel portion is looking at who is returning from last season’s roster, how much the returnees played, what kind of role each returnee had, and what class they are in.”

“The system does not give any special consideration to new players entering the program. There is some credit given for high-profile recruits, but the poor performances in 2012-13 of UCLA and Kentucky, among others, in recent years have tended to mute the impact of recruits in the model.”

And the money line, with special relevance for these top two teams atop Pomeroy’s Pac-12 rankings:

“Let’s face it, while people like to talk about how much parity there is in the sport, the reality is that if I wanted to predict the Pac-12 race in 2025, I’d do pretty well forecasting Arizona and UCLA at the top and, well, I won’t call out the teams at the bottom, but despite not knowing who will be coaching or playing for these teams that far in the future, we could make a reasonably good forecast of either end of the conference standings. And that’s true of most leagues. The purpose of the team baseline is to handle this bit of knowledge which is more program-dependent than roster-dependent.”

So, let’s not just look at that last paragraph and take it to mean that UCLA is #2 in the conference and #13 in the nation simply because UCLA is UCLA – although that is part of it. But given the performance of UCLA the last two seasons (and particularly in their lone season under Steve Alford); and given three returning players who saw plenty of action and were highly effective in their minutes; and given that UCLA gets a bit of a boost for a solid recruiting class; add in the fact that UCLA is UCLA, per Pomeroy’s explanation, and you get what you get. Still, while he will surely stand behind his rankings, understand that these are rankings that are working with limited bits of information, just as we all are. Pomeroy’s rankings like UCLA better than most rankings, and that’s an entirely defensible position. Still, the surprise is at that number next to UCLA’s name is also entirely defensible as well.

Arizona’s National Outlook – Still, even given the surprising position that we find UCLA, the fact is that Arizona is still the choice in this conference. This should be no surprise given their history, returning talent and impressive recruiting class. But let’s face it: Competing for and winning a Pac-12 title may be the first goal for the Wildcats, but that potential accomplishment will not satisfy those around the program. The potential is much higher. So, what do we see in looking at Arizona on a national scale in KenPom’s rankings? First, it appears that Duke, Kentucky and Louisville are a notch ahead (based on KenPom’s pythagorean winning percentage, which shows a team’s expected winning percentage against an average Division I team) of teams like Kansas, Wisconsin, Florida and, yes, Arizona, which checks in at #5 overall. Digging into what makes the Wildcats so highly regarded, we see the ‘Cats with what is expected to be the third most efficient defensive team in the country. Given that this squad was the top overall team in defensive efficiency and that it returns plenty of experience from last year, that would make sense. But while Arizona certainly deserves to be regarded among the best teams in the nation, it remains to be seen if Sean Miller’s group can lose by far their most disruptive defensive forces in Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson and backslide on a hair. My guess is that while the Wildcats will be fine defensively, an elite defense, such as the #3 overall ranking connotes, is unlikely.

Arizona Loses Two Of Its Best Players, But Can They Still Be An Elite Defensive Team? (Casey Sapio, USA Today)

Arizona Loses Two Of Its Best Players, But Can They Still Be An Elite Defensive Team? (Casey Sapio, USA Today)

One other quick thought on Arizona: KenPom gives the Wildcats a 0.3% chance of going unbeaten between now and the Pac-12 Tournament. “So you’re telling me there’s a chance.” But for what it’s worth, right now Arizona is a favorite in every game, with their most likely chance for a loss coming on January 8 at Oregon.

It’s A Long Way To The Top – So, Arizona checks it at #5. Scan down the list a little more and there’s UCLA not too far down at #13. And then, whoa boy, I actually gotta scroll down that page until I find the next Pac-12 team: Oregon, checking in a #35. To make matters worse, ask just about anybody else in the nation and they’ll tell you that the Ducks at #35 is a reach. From there you find Utah at #42, then Stanford at #54, Washington at #59, and Colorado at #63. Now, there are 68 teams that make the NCAA Tournament these days, but as you know it isn’t comprised of the top 68. You might get the top 40 or so, then some conference tourney winners in the 50s and 60s, and then some conference tourney winners around the #100 mark. And then some conference tourney winners way down the list in the mid-100s who got hot for a week in March. So, last year, the Pac-12 had six teams make the NCAA Tournament with Utah and Cal just on the outside looking in. This year, if we just take those numbers at face value (which honestly needs some more research that I don’t have time to do to see if such a thing is foolish) KenPom is saying the conference is more apt to have four or five teams dancing this year. And teams like Utah and Colorado and Stanford that some other rankings have a little higher? KenPom says sorry, but dial those expectations back a notch. And if you’re just a Pac-12 fan in general, the conference ranks sixth in the nation in Pomeroy’s rankings, far behind the Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC and trailing even mediocre top-to-bottom conferences like the SEC and Big East.

Other quick takeaways

USC, Washington State and Oregon State seem to be the consensus #10-#12 teams in this league this year. Pomeroy says Oregon State has no chance of going winless this season (the Beavers after all play teams like Corban, Mississippi Valley State and Grambling). But there are only five games on their slate all season long where the Beavers are considered favorites to win. Still, Pomeroy projects them as 10-19 overall and 4-14 in conference play. If the Beavers achieve that kind of success this season, Wayne Tinkle needs Coach of the Year consideration.

AMurawa (999 Posts)

Andrew Murawa Likes Basketball.

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