Overrated/Underrated Teams: February Edition

Posted by Will Ezekowitz on February 3rd, 2016

As we enter February and March looms large, the identities of teams begin to crystallize both on the floor and in our minds. Sure, things can always change, but with over 20 games for most teams already in the books, it’s safe to say we know who these teams are. But those assumptions aren’t always right. Due to scheduling oddities, injuries or just plain poor judgment, the conventional wisdom on certain teams isn’t necessarily correct. So here is a rundown of several teams that are likely to be exposed as either underrated or overrated as we enter the stretch run of the regular season.

Overrated

Dunn's Rise Has Been Meteoric (USA TODAY Sports)

Kris Dunn’s rise has been meteoric, but has his team followed? (USA TODAY Sports)

  • Providence (18-5), ranked #11 — The AP Poll will tell you that the Friars are #11 in the country. Joe Lunardi will tell you they’re a #4 seed. But we’re here to tell you they aren’t that great (ed. note: this was written before last night’s loss at DePaul). For a team led by the great Kris Dunn, Providence is a shockingly bad offensive team, with an offensive efficiency that ranks just 118th nationally. Moreover, of its six Big East wins, five have been by four points or fewer or came in overtime. That probably means that Dunn is clutch and the Friars know how to win close games, but it also means that they’re keeping games closer than a borderline top 10 team should. This is reflected in the Friars’ low KenPom ranking of #47 (it was #39 prior to the DePaul game). Besides, as talented as this team is, Ed Cooley has never lacked for talent. What he has lacked is success. Don’t be surprised if that trend continues down the stretch.
  • Pittsburgh (17-4), unranked — Three weeks ago, the Panthers were 14-1, ranked #20 in the national polls and had the nation’s fourth most efficient offense. Six games later, that offense has fallen to 19th in efficiency and the Panthers are simultaneously falling off the map. Aside from an 18-point loss at Louisville, Pitt has yet to play any of the ACC elites, and should count itself extremely lucky to be 6-3 including close wins against Georgia Tech and Florida State. However, the good teams are coming. The Panthers will play Virginia, North Carolina, Miami, Duke and Louisville in February. Their current best win is one of games at home to Syracuse or at Notre Dame, but more wins are going to be hard to find down the stretch. The Panthers could see themselves on the bubble very soon.

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Six Takeaways From the Big 12/SEC Challenge

Posted by Andrew Gripshover on February 1st, 2016

The Big 12 backed up its best league in college basketball label on Saturday with a 7-3 victory over the SEC to clinch a third straight Big 12/SEC Challenge victory. While there were a number of close games, all of the Big 12 home teams held serve and, of the three road losses, one was in overtime and the other was a back-and-forth affair until the final few minutes. The interesting takeaway from the event is its timing during the last weekend in January — stuck in the midst of conference play, it represents more than an early season measuring stick but it’s not quite the postseason either. Here’s a look at some of the fallout for several of the participating teams.

Kentucky and Kansas Played a Classic in Lawrence Saturday Night (USA Today Images)

Kentucky and Kansas Played a Classic in Lawrence Saturday Night (USA Today Images)

  • Kansas and Kentucky’s Seeding Implications. First of all, let’s do this on campus every second and third year. It was a refreshing break for this overtime matchup to take place outside of the sanitized Champions Classic in mid-November and it completely delivered. Everyone already knows the Wayne Selden (33 points on 12-of-20 shooting) and Tyler Ulis (26 points, eight assists, but two key turnovers down the stretch) angles, so let’s look at this from a bracketing perspective. Kansas will stay in the #1 seed hunt (its resume is shockingly identical to that of Iowa) but with Oklahoma currently profiling as the top overall seed, the Jayhawks will likely need to beat out the Sooners for one or both of the Big 12 titles. Kentucky remains somewhere between its dominant #1 seed and middling bubble team years, but they’ve been trending more in the direction of the former than the latter over the last couple of weeks. John Calipari won’t care about that after leading for most of the second half of Saturday night’s game, but his team couldn’t hold on down the stretch of regulation nor withstand foul trouble in the extra session.

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Examining Elite Eight Profiles: Who Looks Poised to Go Deep Into March?

Posted by Will Ezekowitz on January 8th, 2016

As conference play heats up, the identities of teams become increasingly apparent. As we invariably figure those teams out, we also start thinking about which teams are poised to make a run in March. To take a deeper view of postseason success, we looked at the KenPom statistical profile of five years of Elite Eight teams (perhaps a little arbitrary, but it’s hard to sneak into the national quarterfinals without being actually good) and compared it with this year’s teams that currently fit that profile. In the past five years, Elite Eight teams have ranked an average of 18th in offensive efficiency and 31st in defensive efficiency. Offense is clearly more important, as only two teams in the last three seasons have managed to crack the quarterfinals from outside of the offensive top 40 (both of which, coincidentally, were Louisville). The table belows shows the 10 teams this season that fit the Elite Eight profile as of January 8.

Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 11.56.33 AM

If your favorite team is not on the above list, it appears that it still needs work. Let’s examine some of those missing teams, many of which are highly-ranked.

Teams that Must Improve Defensively

Purdue. The Boilermakers’ dream season has taken a couple of recent hits in losses to Butler and Iowa. What should worry Matt Painter, though, is that during the four-game stretch that included wins over Vanderbilt and Wisconsin in addition to those two losses, Purdue never posted an offensive efficiency that was above the Division I average. The team ranks first in defensive efficiency but is only 41st on the other end of the floor. Rick Pitino’s recent Louisville teams have shown that it is possible to advance in the NCAA Tournament on the strength of defense alone, but it’s generally easier to get there by finding greater balance with the offense.

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Evalutating the Midseason National Player of the Year Candidates

Posted by Andy Gripshover on January 1st, 2016

In the spirit of the New Year and the start of conference play, this post will count down the top candidates for National Player of the Year to this point in the season. It’s a diverse list that features a couple players who are putting up strong traditional numbers for low-major teams, a couple of teammates who are putting up fantastic efficiency numbers on one of the top teams in the country, and a few of the standouts that you’ve already heard so much about this season.

10. Jameel Warney, F, Stony Brook — Warney gets the Keenan Reynolds career achievement spot on this list. He’s a four-year starter for the Seawolves who has led the team in scoring each year, going from the America East Rookie of the Year in 2013 to an honorable mention All-American last year while leading the nation in double-doubles with 24 of them. He’s back at it again this season, averaging 20.0 points and 10.8 rebounds per game and contributing a third-best nationally 3.5 blocks per game.

Fighting among the "Big Boys" - Kahlil Felder has been spectacular this season. (Oakland Athletics)

Fighting among the “Big Boys” – Kahlil Felder has been spectacular this season. (Oakland Athletics)

9. Kahlil Felder, G, Oakland — The kid known as “Kay” is the nation’s second leading scorer (26.6 PPG) and its leading assist man (9.3 APG). He’s a classic little man (5’9″) doing big things for the Golden Grizzlies. He exploded for 37 points and nine assists in last Tuesday’s overtime loss to No. 1 Michigan State and put up 30 on Wednesday night against Virginia’s vaunted defense. Greg Kampe’s breakneck offense (12th in adjusted tempo) allows Felder to get what he wants when he wants, and he can both score and set up teammates from anywhere on the floor. Read the rest of this entry »

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Traveling Show: Tracking Elite Programs in True Road Games

Posted by William Ezekowitz on December 23rd, 2015

Last night Kansas traveled to southern California to take on San Diego State at Viejas Arena, providing college basketball fans with a rare sight: an elite, top-10 program playing a true non-conference road game. Teams in college basketball’s upper echelon generally like to stay close to home, and if they decide to venture away from their friendly environs, it is often for an exempted holiday tournament or Champions Classic type of event on a neutral court. This is all well and good and makes for appointment television before conference play begins, but what about a good old-fashioned road game? Those jewels are pretty hard to find these days, and, based on North Carolina’s 0-2 performance in their two true road games this season, it’s not hard to imagine why. Elite programs live off of perception, and perception does not always equal reality. So let’s take a look at the numbers and examine which teams from college basketball’s ruling class actually gets out and plays some road games?

Kansas is one of the few elite programs to consistently play true non-conference road games. (USA Today Images)

Kansas is one of the few elite programs to consistently play true non-conference road games. (USA Today Images)

For the purposes of this inquiry, the elite programs examined are Kansas, Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Louisville, Michigan State, Syracuse and Connecticut. We can quibble about who else should be on this list, but basically we wanted to choose programs that have had just one coach for the last 10 years (we’re cheating a bit in viewing Kevin Ollie as a continuation of Jim Calhoun, and using only Kentucky’s last seven seasons under John Calipari), and have the national cachet and draw to develop their schedules in any way that they desire.

So here are the numbers for true road games from those eight programs.

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In a Season of Parity, the High Mids are Struggling…

Posted by Andy Gripshover on December 11th, 2015

A common thread as we move into the second month of college basketball has been that many of the top non-power conference schools not playing up to the gold standard they’ve set for themselves in recent years. While there are key differences among the following five teams, there are also some striking similarities as to why they have not been nearly as good as we’ve come to expect for these programs. Let’s first dig into the their status.

Wichita State and the Other Gold Standard Non-Power Conference Programs Are Struggling (USA Today Images)

Wichita State and the Other Gold Standard Non-Power Conference Programs Are Struggling (USA Today Images)

  • Gonzaga – The four year starting backcourt of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell is gone and big man Przemek Karnowski is hurt. The Zags are 6-2 but fell in the semifinals of the Battle 4 Atlantis – an event they were favored to win – to Texas A&M and before blowing a 10-point halftime lead last Saturday to Arizona to lose for just the 13th time in the history of the (new) Kennel. They almost lost for the 14th time on Tuesday to Montana in what would have been arguably the biggest upset in the history of the building, but scored the final five points to survive.
  • Wichita State – The Shockers have been the best program outside of a power conference over the past three seasons; winning 30 games in each season and including a Final Four appearance and a 35-0 start. They are just 4-4 this season, however, and went winless in Orlando over Thanksgiving weekend.
  • San Diego State – The Aztecs are back-to-back Mountain West regular season champs, having won at least one game in four of the six straight NCAA Tournaments they’ve made, but have already taken losses to Arkansas-Pine Bluff and low-major city rival San Diego and sit at 7-4.
  • VCU – The Rams differ from the rest of this group in one key way: they have a new coach in Will Wade. VCU is 5-3 to start his tenure in Richmond.
  • Harvard – Five consecutive Ivy League championships, four straight NCAA Tournament appearances… and now just 3-6? Northeastern, UMass, Boston College and Holy Cross have relegated the Crimson to the fifth-best team in their own state.

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No More Wisconsins: Is a Shortened Shot Clock Creating More Parity?

Posted by Will Ezekowitz on December 9th, 2015

As anyone watching a college basketball game this season will have realized by now, the shot clock has been shortened from 35 seconds to 30. The NCAA made this change to inject some pace into what many decried as a slow and plodding game. And, as the NCAA itself has been very quick to point out in various news releases, this measure has worked. The number of both possessions and points per game are higher, and they have managed to do it without compromising quality of play, as the D-I average for efficiency has stayed at 102.1 points per 100 possessions (nearly identical to its 102.0 mark last year).

Do the New Rules Preclude Future Wisconsins From Great Success? (Hans Gutknecht/Los Angeles Daily News)

Do the New Rules Preclude Future Wisconsins From Great Success? (Hans Gutknecht/Los Angeles Daily News)

But is the outcome really so rosy? A closer look reveals that the NCAA’s change may have had the unintended negative consequence of creating more parity by reducing teams’ capacity to stylistically differentiate themselves from each other. How do we know this? Well, the standard deviations in team adjusted offensive and efficiency are already down, as you can see below.

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Ten Takeaways From the Big Ten/ACC Challenge

Posted by Andy Gripshover on December 3rd, 2015

Another year down, another tally in the win column for the Big Ten in what is the top challenge series that college basketball has to offer. Per the norm, the teams that have traditionally dominated this series continued to do so, but there were some surprises along the way. Here are 10 key takeaways from this season’s event.

1. The Big Ten won again. Iowa’s thrilling 78-75 overtime victory over Florida State in Iowa City clinched back-to-back Challenge victories for the conference, with five of the last seven events going to the Big Ten. With the other two ties (2012 and 2013), it remains true that the ACC hasn’t won the challenge since George W. Bush was still President back in December 2008. That’s a really long time. It’s even longer when you consider that the ACC won every challenge during his presidency as well as the final two years of Bill Clinton.

Iowa guard Peter Jok, left, celebrates with teammates after an NCAA college basketball game against Florida State, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2015, in Iowa City, Iowa. Jok scored 24 points as Iowa won 78-75 in overtime. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Peter Jok (left), who notched 24 points in Iowa’s 78-75 victory in overtime over Florida State, was one of the shining stars of the challenge. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

2. Duke won again. The Blue Devils are a staggering 15-2 lifetime in the challenge and are undefeated at Cameron Indoor Stadium (7-0) during that time. This is even more impressive when you consider that Duke almost always draws one of the Big Ten’s best teams. You have to go back to 2011 Michigan State (19-15) to find a Duke opponent that didn’t win at least 28 games that season, and before that, 2006 Indiana (19-12) is the other one that didn’t win at least 20. Granted, this year’s Indiana squad is looking like it will slot in nicely with those couple of outliers. Read the rest of this entry »

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Ben Simmons’ Debut Season Is Becoming Special

Posted by William Ezekowitz on November 30th, 2015

The Ben Simmons bandwagon is filling up quickly. The LSU freshman came into the season hyped as the next big prospect to go one-and-done and first overall in the NBA Draft, joining an illustrious group of NBA stars (and Anthony Bennett) in the process. But his double-take-inducing statistics and the raw athleticism exhibited in the first five games have led many to ask if he can be even more than that.

Ben Simmons May Be Working On One Of The All-Time Great Freshman Seasons (Photo: Getty)

Ben Simmons May Already Be Working on an All-Time Great Freshman Season. (Getty)

Simmons’ season has been so incredible through two weeks that we feel the need to examine where he fits amongst the best freshmen in the modern era of college basketball. If we were to be measured and retrospective, we would take a deep breath and say that he’s only played five games, three of which were against the likes of McNeese State, Kennesaw State and South Alabama. But that reasoned perspective is somewhat antithetical to sports media and the blogosphere in general, so let’s overreact and see how the superstar rookie fares against some of his historical comparisons. We will start with the one-and-done era, which began in 2006.

Keep in mind that Simmons, at the time of this writing, is averaging 16.2 points, 14.4 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game.

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Overvaluing Previous Year’s Success in Preseason Rankings

Posted by William Ezekowitz on November 20th, 2015

Part of what makes college basketball both exciting and maddening is that each year we have to throw out the previous year’s assumptions and start from scratch. If that wasn’t apparent before this season started, it became painfully obvious when mighty Wisconsin, last year’s national runner-up, lost to Western Illinois, the worst team in last year’s Summit Conference. But perhaps it is the case that we don’t erase the previous year from our memory at the beginning of each season as much as we should. The Badgers, despite retaining just three of the eight players who earned meaningful minutes and bringing in zero top 100 recruits, were still ranked 17th in the preseason polls. In fact, 13 of last year’s Sweet Sixteen teams started the season in the USA Today Preseason Top 25. Can the success of all of these programs be so stable? Or are we perhaps suffering from recency bias, where we tend to overvalue teams that have recently succeeded, even if the personnel structures of those teams have drastically changed?

Wisconsin made the Final Four last year, and look to return.

Wisconsin is a Possible Example of Recency Bias in Polls. 

In order to answer this question, I checked the preseason and postseason USA Today Coaches’ Polls (with postseason being taken after the conclusion of the NCAA Tournament), and checked how many Sweet Sixteen teams from the previous season were in each poll. If we are overvaluing Sweet Sixteen teams, then there would consistently be more teams from the previous year’s Sweet Sixteen in the preseason poll than in the postseason poll, which would indicate that Sweet Sixteen teams have dropped out due to poor performance.

This is exactly what has happened. Going back seven years, the number of previous year’s Sweet Sixteen teams has always been greater in the preseason poll than in the postseason poll. Of 112 possible Sweet Sixteen teams to choose from in those seven years, 77 have appeared in the preseason poll and just 61 have appeared in the postseason poll. A difference of proportions test reveals that these two numbers are significantly different from each other at the 95 percent confidence level, which, in layman’s terms, means that this trend is too strong to write off as pure coincidence.

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