Projecting the 2018 NCAA Tournament Field With 2017 Data

Posted by Will Ezekowitz on January 2nd, 2018

The year 2017 is in the books and we are just beginning the conference season. With so much of a team’s “NCAA Tournament resume” still to be built, it seems like a fool’s errand to compare their relative achievements so far. All we know right now is a somewhat decent idea of which teams are actually good, but can we use resumes to date to project the future? I endeavored to figure just this out, by examining KenPom rankings at New Year’s Day with them to eventual NCAA Tournament seeding for the past five years. My conclusion indicates that, while surprises can certainly happen in the Tournament itself, teams are unlikely to significantly alter their regular season fortunes after the turn of the new year.

KenPom Rankings on New Year’s Day

 

For reference, here are the archived KenPom rankings as we head into 2018. They have been grouped into 20-team cohorts for convenience, and the group was limited to 60 teams because most teams ranked outsidethat range are mid-majors which will need to win their conference tournaments. The focus here will be on teams capable of building solid at-large resumes. Let’s start at the top.

Teams Ranked #1-#20 — 97% make the NCAA Tournament

This year: Villanova, Michigan State, Purdue, Duke, Virginia, Kansas, Texas Tech, Cincinnati, Gonzaga, West Virginia, Texas A&M, North Carolina, Wichita State, Arizona, Oklahoma, Xavier, Kentucky, Miami, Arizona State, Tennessee.

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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

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Projecting This Season’s Breakout Players

Posted by Will Ezekowitz on November 14th, 2017

After spending the preseason hyping certain guys, some players we don’t expect to steal the spotlight does just that. If history tells us anything, there are a number of players who are flying under the radar right now that will be commanding headlines in February. It is my humble task to give those players some of the love they will eventually deserve right now, before the rest of the nation catches on. I’ll give myself credit for projecting the rises of Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan and Oklahoma State’s Jawun Evans last year, but I’ve been honing my craft this offseason and hope to do even better this time around. So let’s get started. Here are five breakout players in college basketball this season.

  • Nick Ward, Sophomore, Michigan State — Nick Ward averaged 8.8 fouls drawn per game last season, becoming the first major conference player to average more than 8.0 since Kentucky’s DeMarcus Cousins in 2010. He also owned the second highest offensive rebounding rate in the country at 17.5 percent. Sure, he fouls a bit too much and turns the ball over more than head coach Tom Izzo would like, but post players this dominant are very hard to come by. If Ward can play closer to 30 minutes per game this season — which would itself be a feat considering the talent of the Spartans frontcourt — watch out. His tools suggest he could become a First Team All-American. Sophomore forward Miles Bridges gets all the hype, but if the Spartans reach their potential this year, Ward will be a big reason why they did so.

Nick Ward is on his way to possible stardom. (Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports)

  • Markus Howard, Sophomore, Marquette — America, are you ready to fall in love with a small point guard who puts up ridiculous numbers? Well, the 5’11” Howard is your man. He shot 54.7 percent — FIFTY-FOUR POINT SEVEN PER CENT!!! — from three-point range last year, on almost five shots per game in the Big East! That’s a mind-numbingly good shooting season. More importantly, with Marquette having graduated some ball-dominant seniors, Howard and fellow diminutive scorer Andrew Rowsey will get the keys to Steve Wojciechowski’s uptempo offense. Marquette started the senior Rowsey in the season opener, but I’m betting on Howard and his ridiculous shooting and efficiency forcing his way into the starting lineup in due time. A season scoring average of 20 points per game is not out of the question for the sophomore.

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Settle In With 68 NCAA Tournament Facts

Posted by Will Ezekowitz on March 16th, 2017

March is complicated. What follows is an attempt to make some sense of the madness and to give you solid statistical grounding in order to justify your decisions. That way, when your bracket is ruined, it will be because of bad luck rather than bad process. Here are 68 important statistical facts about the NCAA Tournament, mostly based around potential match-ups. Data has been gathered from kenpom.com, hooplens, hoop-math and ESPN.com.

The First Four Whetted Our Appetite — Now It’s Time to Get Serious (USA Today Images)

  1. Even though Maryland is the #6 seed against Xavier, the Musketeers have a better KenPom ranking and are favored to win the game.
  2. However, since point guard Edmond Sumner was injured 10 games ago, Xavier has been giving up more threes at a higher percentage. With a 3PA/FGA of 40.8, compared to the Division I average of 36.4, Maryland is heavily reliant on the three-ball.
  3. Baylor’s opponents have an assist rate of 58.2 percent, second highest in the field. SMU’s assist rate of 62.5 percent ranks sixth in the field and 10th nationally.
  4. Creighton attempts a larger proportion (34.2%) of its initial field goals in transition than any other team in the field. The Bluejays’ opponent, Rhode Island, allows opponents to shoot just 20.1 percent of their attempts in transition, the fourth lowest mark in the field.
  5. Rhode Island also allows opponents to earn just 21.3 percent of their points from three-pointers. The Bluejays tend to rely on the three, getting 32.0 percent of their points from beyond the arc.
  6. Saint Mary’s is ranked 14th on KenPom and VCU is ranked 50th, resulting in the site giving the Gaels a 71 percent chance of winning their game.
  7. West Virginia relies on forcing turnovers, but possible Second Round opponent Notre Dame has the lowest turnover rate in the country and Princeton has the 11th-lowest.
  8. Kansas and Iowa State played each other twice this season. Each team won once on the other’s home floor, and the combined score of the two games was 165-164 in favor of the Jayhawks.
  9. But Nevada could be a good match-up with Iowa State, as the Wolfpack are an above average rebounding team, while the Cyclones — with only one regular standing above 6’5” — are below average in both categories.
  10. Seton Hall’s Angel Delgado averages 4.9 offensive rebounds per game, leading the nation. Arkansas ranks 326th nationally in defensive rebounding rate.
  11. Led by Reggie Lynch, Minnesota has a block rate of 16.2 percent, third-best nationally. Middle Tennessee, though, ranks fifth in the country in avoiding blocks, at 5.8 percent. Read the rest of this entry »
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Beware the Polls: Overperforming Teams Regress in NCAA Tournament

Posted by Will Ezekowitz on March 14th, 2017

Preseason rankings may seem irrelevant when it comes to college basketball, but history has shown that their predictive value are surprisingly important. For example, as we have shown in this space before, the preseason poll is in fact just as predictive of a run to the Final Four as the current AP Poll. The reasoning behind this phenomenon is that the preseason polls take into account all of the changes that the mathematical models have more difficulty accounting for (i.e. coaching changes, big recruiting classes, injuries, etc.). The conventional wisdom entering the season is actually fairly sophisticated and smart.

Are You Sure You Want to Choose Michigan? (AP)

Given this intuition, let’s examine the teams that defied that wisdom throughout the season and went from unranked in the preseason to ranked in the final AP poll before the NCAA Tournament. Had the preseason polls gotten something wrong? Or did these over-performing teams regress back to their expectations in the postseason? Using the last 10 years of data that includes seed win expectation data from fivethirtyeight.com, I investigated. Of the 97 teams who qualified for analysis, 32 (33%) of those teams outperformed their win expectations in the NCAA Tournament while 65 (67%) underperformed. As a whole, a group that was expected to win 138.8 games over the 10-year sample won just 107. A statistical T-test found this difference statistically significant. In fact, only one team — Kemba Walker’s 2011 National Championship team, Connecticut — even made the Final Four.

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Overrated/Underrated: Six Teams to Watch Down the Stretch

Posted by Will Ezekowitz on February 3rd, 2017

Now halfway through the conference season, things are beginning to take shape around the college basketball landscape. As we advance into February, there are a number of overrated and underrated teams in the national polls. This week let’s dive into who some of those teams are and what makes them that way.

Overrated

Baylor Played Kansas Tough But Found an All Too Familiar Result (USA Today Images)

  • Baylor, 20-2 (7-2), #2. The Bears earned some #1 votes in the most recent AP Top 25 for a reason — this is a very good team. But can Baylor keep it up for the next five weeks in the rugged Big 12? Wednesday night’s loss to Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse was perhaps expected, but what about upcoming road tests at Iowa State, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech and a home date with West Virginia? Lastly, there’s that pesky issue that Baylor wasn’t ranked in the preseason, which matters more than you’d think. Since 2006, only one team that was unranked in the preseason and ranked in the pre-tournament poll has made the Final Four. That was Shabazz Napier’s 2014 National Championship Connecticut team. These Bears feel more like last year’s Iowa club or the 2014 Syracuse team, though.
  • USC, 19-4 (6-4), NR. After a home upset of UCLA, the Trojans climbed up to a #8 seed in Joe Lunardi’s bracketology and sat just outside the Top 25 in this week’s poll (28th). But KenPom only rates the Trojans as the 59th-best team in college basketball and that’s probably closer to reality. USC is an athletically gifted team that maximizes offensive possessions by grabbing rebounds and avoiding turnovers, but its offense isn’t very efficient (52nd nationally) and its defense generally doesn’t pick up the slack (73rd nationally). Moreover, the bottom quarter of the Pac-12 is exceptionally weak this year, inflating win totals and otherwise artificially boosting all the numbers. The Trojans played well in the non-conference with good wins over SMU and Texas A&M, but if they can’t meaningfully separate themselves from the rest of the league over the last five weeks, they may be staring a bubble disaster right in the face on Selection Sunday.

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UCLA, Kentucky and Florida State Pace This Year’s Trend of Elite Offenses

Posted by Will Ezekowitz on January 20th, 2017

Between Malik Monk’s dunks, Lonzo Ball’s passes, West Virginia’s presses and barrages of Creighton’s threes, college basketball feels like it has gotten more exciting this year. Play has definitely gotten faster, as this tweet from Synergy Sports about the rise of transition offense in 2016-17 suggests.

This season isn’t necessarily all that much faster — possessions across the sport have only dropped 0.2 seconds per trip (from an average of 17.3 seconds to 17.1 seconds), and transition attempts are only up 0.7% — but that doesn’t mean at the tail end certain teams aren’t playing faster. Let’s take a deeper dive into several of the brand names on their list, with an eye on whether they can keep up their prolific transition offenses through the rest of this season.

Kentucky: 25.7 Transition PPG (all data from hoop-math.com)

Malik Monk is a Holy Terror in Transition (USA Today Images)

  • Who They Are: Ranked second nationally in offensive efficiency, these Wildcats might be the most efficient team John Calipari has ever coached. Ranked ninth nationally in tempo, they are definitely the fastest. Kentucky has attempted 38.2 percent of its initial field goals in transition, a mark that ranks fourth in the country and is well higher than its 26.7 percent mark a season ago.
  • How They Do It: Kentucky attempts 21.5 percent of its initial field goals in transition after an opponent’s miss, which ranks first nationally. The Wildcats also live at the rim, attempting 54 percent of their transition shots from close range (no rankings exist for this, but it’s very high) and making 75 percent of those attempts. The one questionable area is that they are not very good at shooting in transition, though, with a 29 percent conversion rate on transition threes the lone weakness in a sterling transition game.

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Does Non-Conference Scheduling Matter?

Posted by Will Ezekowitz on January 5th, 2017

As we transition into the first full week of the conference season, commentators and pundits alike will be heard discussing how the toughness of a team’s non-conference schedule prepared them for the rigors of conference play. There is a long held prevailing belief in college basketball circles that a difficult non-conference schedule forces teams to improve on the fly. The premise is that those teams, having faced several opponents of equal or better acumen, are better prepared — “battle-tested,” if you will — for the early weeks of conference play. We can call this the Long Beach State Theory, as Don Monson’s team has ranked among the nation’s top five in non-conference strength of schedule (per KenPom), since 2010. Clearly he believes that a tough schedule in November and December readies the 49ers for Big West play. But is it really true?

Dan Monson Clearly Believes in a Tough Non-Conference Schedule (USA Today Images)

Dan Monson Clearly Believes in a Tough Non-Conference Schedule (USA Today Images)

In order to test this assumption, KenPom helpfully ranks the difficulty of every team’s non-conference slate. If the teams with the most difficult non-conference schedules consistently see their overall ratings rise during conference play, then we will know that those teams have improved over time relative to the rest of college basketball. We limited our sample to mid-majors exclusively, for the simple reason that it’s easier to gauge actual improvement over time from the middle of the national pack (e.g., Montana playing the 14th-toughest non-conference schedule last season and raising its KenPom rating by 35 spots during conference play). In reviewing the last six years of teams finishing among the top 40 non-conference schedules, 150 mid-majors qualified for our analysis.

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Which is Easier to Maintain: Offense or Defense?

Posted by William Ezekowitz on December 27th, 2016

There are certain teams you can count on to have specific strengths seemingly every college basketball season. The high-flying athletes of North Carolina, Duke and Kentucky will score in bunches, while the rigid defensive systems of Virginia and Louisville will keep their opponents offensively flummoxed. The coaches in nearly every instance are who get credit for this year-to-year consistency, but which skill is more reliable? Is it easier to be a really good offensive team every year or a really good defensive one? In order to find out, we turned to KenPom’s offensive and defensive efficiency ratings to actually determine if the same teams — or, more accurately, the same coaches — always finish at the top of their respective area of strength. We defined this as being among the top 25 offensive or defensive efficiency teams for five years in a row. Here are the results.

Every year, it seems like Roy Williams has a fleet of athletes ready to score points at a breakneck pace. (Photo: USA Today Sports)

Every year, it seems like Roy Williams has a fleet of athletes ready to score points at a breakneck pace. (Photo: USA Today Sports)

Offensive Efficiency (Top 25)

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Defensive Efficiency (Top 25)

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Florida’s Mike White and Wisconsin’s Greg Gard are only second-year coaches at their programs, but both have already shown such an aptitude for defensively-effective basketball that it seems appropriate to include them. With or without those two, though, it seems that it is much easier to produce a great defense year in and year out than it is for offense.

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Does Great Continuity Really Equate to Early Season Success?

Posted by William Ezekowitz on November 28th, 2016

Every season pundits and commentators often gush about the importance of team continuity and experience. The teams who return the most players, the thinking goes, are those that will transition most seamlessly into the new season. The teams that are integrating a bunch of new freshmen and transfers, by contrast, aren’t as likely to play up to their full potential before the new year. But is this maxim, repeated by so many inside the game, actually true? Is there data to support it?

The Champs Return 67.3 percent of Their Minutes This Season (USA Today Images)

The Champs Return 67.3% of Their Minutes This Season, 27th Nationally (USA Today Images)

KenPom recently developed a new statistic called minutes continuity, which measures “what percentage of a team’s minutes are played by the same player from last season to this season.” This allows us to analyze whether teams with greater continuity overachieve at the beginning of the season and teams with lesser continuity underachieve. While it is possible that most any preseason ranking mechanism (including KenPom) would already account for player continuity, any positive effect would most likely be exhibited in the first half of the season. The teams with more continuity would benefit earlier while the teams with less continuity would catch up as the season wears on. To determine if this is true, we examined team performance versus preseason expectation in two groups (based on Pomeroy’s list (paywall)): the 40 teams with the most continuity, and the 40 teams with the least continuity.

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