The Models vs. the People: Who Is Right So Far?

Posted by William Ezekowitz on November 21st, 2017

With the rise of KenPom’s preseason rankings and the ratings of other models like it (SI and T-Rank, for example), projection models have become increasingly important in college basketball. But there is still a long way to go before these metrics-based systems replace the good old-fashioned eye test as represented in the national polls. The two varieties of projection mechanisms, both valid in their own right, disagreed about a few teams coming into this year. In this article, we will evaluate the differences on a few relevant teams to determine if we can settle on which method has been accurate so far. We’ll start by analyzing a couple of squads from the Big Ten before considering a couple others.

Minnesota. AP Rank: #15; KenPom Rank: #36

Jordan Murphy has helped Minnesota live up to expectations in the early season (Getty)

  • What the people thought: Minnesota spent the offseason as one of the most hyped teams in college basketball, as Nate Mason received plenty of all-Big Ten buzz and Amir Coffey appeared ready to make a huge leap. Richard Pitino’s Gophers were also expected to play their particular brand of stifling defense, bolstered by possibly the best shot blocker in college basketball, Reggie Lynch. There was a lot to like.
  • What the models saw: Neither Mason nor Coffey were especially efficient for the nation’s 77th-best offense, which meant this year’s outfit was set to improve on that end. The defense, while stifling, was below average in both turnovers forced and defensive rebounding, limiting its potential to become a top-10 unit.
  • Who has been right so far: The people. Jordan Murphy has been unexpectedly dominant through four games, putting up 23 points and 14 rebounds, for example, in a very impressive 12-point victory at Providence. The Gophers are humming along at 18th nationally in offensive efficiency, and if they can stay in that range they will certainly live up to their poll projection as the 15th-best team in the country.

Michigan State. AP Rank #2. KenPom Rank: #10

  • What the people thought: Michigan State seemed like a complete basketball team. Miles Bridges was everyone’s preseason National Player of the Year; the frontcourt was crowded with talent; and Cassius Winston seemed capable of orchestrating it all. Tom Izzo on the sideline helped, too.
  • What the models saw: KenPom was relatively pessimistic about the Spartans because of their penchant for turnovers. Last year’s team ranked among the bottom 50 nationally in both turnovers forced and turnovers surrendered, forming one of the worst turnover differential marks in the sport. That hurdle loomed larger in Pomeroy’s rating system than it did in the others.
  • Who has been right so far: The models. With the national turnover average at 18.5 percent of possessions last season, Michigan State turning the ball over on 25.6 percent of its possessions against North Florida is bad. Furthermore, Winston and Bridges combined for a whopping 10 turnovers in the Spartans’ Champions Classic loss to Duke. This team needs to improve dramatically on last year’s turnover differential if it wants to win the National Championship. To this point in the season, that type of growth has not yet occurred.

Texas A&M. AP Rank: #25. KenPom Rank: #15

Texas A&M Appears Underrated in the National Polls (USA Today Images)

  • What the people thought: The Aggies definitely had talent, but not necessarily moreso than last year’s disappointing group. The return of Robert Williams to College Station meant there was definitive potential with this group, but there wasn’t enough evidence to consider Texas A&M as one of college basketball’s elite.
  • What the models thought: Billy Kennedy’s best teams have defended at an elite level, and KenPom projected an elite defense for this year’s Aggies. The continued development of all that athleticism and length, combined with an exchange of JC Hampton for Duane Wilson, meant there was a top 10 defense (as well as a decent offense) brewing in College Station.
  • Who has been right so far: The models. The Aggies’ drubbing of West Virginia ranks as one of the major shocks of the early season and they have yet to be tested through three games. A&M currently ranks second in adjusted defensive efficiency, while DJ Hogg and Admon Gilder are shooting the ball incredibly well. Oh, and Williams isn’t even back in the lineup yet. Watch out, Kentucky and Florida.

Rhode Island. AP Rank: #28. KenPom Rank: #63

  • What the people thought: Things finally fell into place for Dan Hurley’s squad last year as the Rams finished their season a mere possession away from the Sweet Sixteen. Much of that frontcourt is now gone, but their replacements seemed capable, and a backcourt led by E.C. Matthews appeared to be one of the best in the country.
  • What the models thought: Though Rhode Island caught fire in the Atlantic 10 and NCAA Tournaments last March, the Rams’ offense finished only 57th nationally last season. The defense was heavily reliant on the interior presence of senior Hassan Martin — a big reason Rhode Island logged the nation’s third-best block rate. A regression on defense, combined with a similar offensive output, seemed to project the Rams as a bubble team.
  • Who has been right so far: The models. Big men Nicola Akele and Cyril Langevine fouled out as Nevada ran all over Hurley’s team in a seven-point win. Last year’s top-30 defense doesn’t look like it’s returning, which means Matthews will have his hands full in attempting to carry his team to the Tournament this March.
William Ezekowitz (25 Posts)


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