In late November, the NCAA endured an afternoon of scorn, ridicule derision.
Now, the governing body for college athletics is accustom to enduring public lashings — many of them deserved — for holding fast to an outdated notion of amateurism. But even the most calloused hides in the Indianapolis’ HQ had to feel a sting in the immediate aftermath of unveiling the NCAA Evaluation Tool — dubbed NET — which replaced the long-derided Ratings Percentage Index.
Maybe you remember guffaws upon seeing Ohio State perched atop the ratings. Or that Loyola Marymount checked in at No. 10. Radford — yes, Radford — was slotted in 12th spot. Scrolling through the rows was surreal and made the designers’ a source of easy mockery. The reasoning: If anyone is capable of designing a statistical model, shouldn’t it be institutions of higher learning, which are swarmed by faculty trained in such quantitative matters?
The criticism, which came from all quarters, was unsparing. To wit:
These are the worst rankings I've ever seen in any sport, ever. NCAA needs to go completely back to the drawing board. https://t.co/UXKbrGyuP8— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) November 26, 2018
Now, there’s validity in the gripes put forward by folks who did not earn a B-minus in intermediate stats, which is what this writer scraped and clawed to achieve. Yet even this layman knew what went awry: the data sample was skewed. How so? Unlike KenPom, the NET system doesn’t rely solely on a single season’s worth of data. Mr. Pomeroy bakes in data from the season prior and slowly flushes it as new samples filter in.
The NCAA released its first set of rankings based on data that was little more than two weeks old. So yeah, the sample looked funky.
Six weeks later, though, the NCAA’s model doesn’t leave you cringing in horror, and it’s reasonable to use the rankings for its intended purpose: parsing which teams are worthy of an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament. Seriously, look at how the SEC shapes up when you compare NET ratings to KenPom and the basic nitty-gritty report it produces.
|Team||NET||KenPom||Quad 1||Quad 2||Quad 3||Quad 4|
|Team||NET||KenPom||Quad 1||Quad 2||Quad 3||Quad 4|
While Selection Sunday is roughly two months off, several SEC teams could ultimately be test cases for NET’s utility in balancing who a team played against how well it fared in those games.
Chief among them is Florida.
While there’s a divergence between NET and KenPom, Mike White’s squad is solidly in the mix for an at-large bid. Yet the Gators are winless in five tries against teams that would burnish their resume. So what gives? Well, when you look at the Gators’ KenPom profile, their defensive efficiency, which ranks No. 7 nationally, is the easiest explanation. Analytics tell you Florida’s stingy style keeps them competitive against elite teams, but the Gators haven’t been able to capitalize on those chances.
So, it’s easy to envision a debate unfolding in a stale boardroom among members of the selection committee as to whether the Gators’ merit inclusion in the field of 68. At what point will the substance of a resume trump analytics and the eye test? Even if the Gators look like a high-major program that could compete, their schedule wouldn’t be devoid of shots at securing quality wins.
And that brings us to the Alabama Crimson Tide, whose resume poses another polarizing hypothetical.
Sitting here in January, the Tide own a pair of Quadrant 1 wins against Kentucky and Liberty, while two of their three Quadrant 3 losses were at the hands Georgia State and Northeastern, each of whom is projected to win their mid-major conference. Zooming out and looking at the terrain from 30,000-feet, the Tide are 2-4 against potential NCAA tournament teams, and three of those defeats came on a road or neutral floor.
By almost every measure, Avery Johnson’s schedule reflects what the selection committee wants to see in a slate, and his team has better wins than Florida. However, Bama’s only 60th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 82nd on the other end of the floor. If they find a way to finish .500 in SEC play, picking off another favorite or two, would the committee slide the Tide down the S-Curve based on its style of play?
The fate of LSU is also worth monitoring. For now, the Tigers, who are 25th in the NET rankings, would likely be in the field if it were seeded today. That’s on the strength of a 5-1 mark against Quadrant 2 opponents, but as other at-large contenders build a similar profile, Will Wade’s program may need a couple Quadrant 1 wins to help bolster its case. (They get a shot this week at Ole Miss.)
While every system has its imperfections, the NET’s inauspicious debut shouldn’t blind us to the fact that its outcomes are better than what we had with the RPI.
The final NET rankings won’t be an edict etched upon a stone tablet. Instead, the will be a reference point, an organizational device as the committee tries to build a bracket. The potential debates surrounding Florida, Alabama and (maybe) LSU are the ones the sport’s arbitrators of merit should be having. Rather than gaming an outdated model, potential tournament teams now get a more rationale hearing, one that balances scheduling, style of play and the subsequent results.
We know you have competing demand for your time and attention span. No, you won’t have ESPN+ called up watching mid-week Atlantic Sun games. But if you want college hoops in your life, make sure to have your eyes on this game.
No. 4 Virginia at No. 1 Duke | 5 p.m. CT Saturday, ESPN
Setting aside the implications for the ACC title race, the stylistic contrast between the Cavaliers and Blue Devils worth tuning in.
By now, you can find plenty of primers on UVA’s Pack Line defense, which the Cavs pair with a modified version of the blocker-mover offense. What’s always fascinated me about the approach is how coach Tony Bennett has found success with systems that are preserved in schematic amber. For example, Chris Mack puts his spin of the Bennett family’s system, and NBA teams have found ways to adapt the offense to their needs.
Meanwhile, Duke embraces a process of annual renewal and change. Over the past five years, the Blue Devils have churned out a line of combo forwards — Jabari Parker, Justise Winslow, Brandon Ingram, Jayson Tatum and Marvin Bagley III — that paved the way for a move toward a 5-out motion system. (Again, you can easily find handy guides to get the basics down.) What makes the system work, though, is having shooters reliable enough to keep defenses from simply clogging the middle of the floor to neutralize cutting actions or middle drives.
Or, you know, precisely what the Pack Line was devised to do: close the talent gap and slow the game to a crawl.
Duke’s glittering freshmen trio of Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish all pose multipositional threats, but as a group they don’t necessarily stretch defenses, shooting a combined 33.9 percent from the 3-point arc. The structure of Duke’s system is an antidote to how UVA wants to defend — but not if the Blue Devils can’t exact a toll for cramming bodies inside the arc like sardines.
Now, coach Mike Krzyzewski’s squad can counter by outletting the ball quickly and getting its secondary break cranked up. Per Synergy Sports, Duke ranks 43rd nationally in transition offense and is among the top 20 for possessions on the run. However, the grinding pace hasn’t exactly thwarted the Blue Devils before. In the past five years, only one game featured more than 61 possessions, and that was a 65-possession victory for UVA last season.
If recent history serves as a guide, Coach K will engineer a workaround, one that might hand the ‘Hoos their first loss of the season.
THE CONFERENCE CALL
We want to spotlight one matchup, and not always the one that first comes to mind, that’s interesting, could influence national perception or have implications for the league race.
No. 12 Kentucky at No. 14 Auburn | 3 p.m. CT Saturday, ESPN
At times, the stakes out of a game outweigh its timing on the calendar.
That’s not the case when the Wildcats arrive in the Plains.
Barely two weeks into conference play, Tennessee already looks to be the class of the SEC, staying on schedule with road wins over Missouri and Florida. Over the same stretch, the ’Cats and Tigers each dropped games that, at least in the preseason, were projected as wins. Their task this week is to keep their stride steady and at a pace to hang within spitting distance of the Volunteers.
Auburn’s also in need of a bonafide quality victory to help it come seeding time in March.
While Kentucky’s youth is an ever-present motif, Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro’s play belies their inexperience. The freshmen make up the third most-efficient guard duo in the SEC (1.030 PPP, per Synergy) — slightly ahead of the veteran pair of Jared Harper and Bryce Brown. And that doesn’t account for the recent breakout of point guard Ashton Hagans, who is averaging 14 points, 4.5 assists and 3.5 steals over the past four games.
A final point, too, about UK’s guards: On balance, they’re not a gross liability defensively, allowing 37.7 percent shooting, including 39 of 108 from 3-point range. If John Calipari’s guards play up to their recent standard, Kentucky and Auburn might find themselves counting on their frontcourts to tip the scales.
That’s where matters get murky for Auburn.
Chuma Okeke’s made a jump as a sophomore, but the rest of the rotation — Austin Wiley, Anfernee McLemore and Horace Spencer — battled fits of inconsistency. During the preseason, that’s a sentence that seemed farfetched.
Before Wiley sat last season after getting ensnared on an FBI wiretap, he was riding momentum from a breakout performance on USA Basketball’s under-19 roster. Yet he’s only posted a 101.3 offensive rating against KenPom top-50 opponents and been foul-prone in the Tigers’ first two SEC games. As for Anfernee McLemore, who ably filled Wiley’s role last season, he’s struggled against top-100 teams, posting just 4.5 points and 4.0 rebounds. Finally, Horace Spencer’s rebounding, shot-blocking and turnover creation have slipped as his minutes were trimmed.
So far, Kentucky’s frontcourt trio of PJ Washington, EJ Montgomery and Reid Travis are off to a slow start in SEC play, but Travis was a bulwark in non-conference action. If Washington and Travis are clicking, at least on the offensive end, the Wildcats’ rotation has an orderly progression and anchored by duos on the perimeter and the interior.
When you strip out Auburn’s turnover creation, Bruce Pearl’s team has been relatively pedestrian defensively and, despite its size, been outworked on the backboards. If Kentucky’s backcourt can consistently run Auburn off the 3-point line, the Wildcats have enough size to protect the rim and limit second possessions. Ultimately, that’s another way of saying the Wildcats’ focus could determine whether they nab a quality road win.
THE DEEP CUT
At Rock M Nation, we believe in equality. There are quality hoops played in mid-major and low-major conferences, wells of rising coaching talent and potential Cinderella teams. As a true hoops connoisseur, you should see the players, coaches, and teams long before the spotlight finds them in March. Let’s get off the grid, shall we?
Dayton at VCU | 7 p.m. CT Wednesday, CBS Sports Network
When you look at VCU’s past three hires, a common principle guides the process: a dedication to literally promoting Havoc.
When Anthony Grant decamped for Alabama, Shaka Smart, then all of 32 years old, succeeded him. Six years and one Final Four run later, Will Wade, who started his ascent as a student manager at Clemson to become a VCU assistant, returned after a brief stint at East Tennessee State. Finally, once Wade dashed off to LSU, the program again tapped a former VCU assistant in Mike Rhoades, who had been at Rice.
Compared to Smart and Wade, however, Rhoades is a grizzled veteran. When he was hired by Smart in 2009, he’d already been in the business for 13 years, including a decade at the helm of Randolph-Macon — a Division III program just 20 minutes north of Richmond.
On Wednesday, time becomes a flat circle, to borrow a phrase: Grant brings Dayton back to his old stomping grounds. He’ll find the Rams with the ears ringing and stumbling. On Saturday, VCU coughed up a 12-point lead to Davidson in a 64-57 loss.
Ultimately, Bob McKillop’s squad slapped a vice on long enough for its Flex offense to overwhelm VCU’s high-pressure scheme, which has among the top 10 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. The issue, though, is Rhoades’ group is still trying to find some measure of offensive consistency.
The loss sets the Rams back in the four-team race atop the Atlantic 10 Conference, but considering they were picked seventh in the preseason poll, Rhoades has his team ahead of schedule. Now, the goal is to simply avoid taking another loss in a race that might involve tiebreakers to resolve seeding in what’s shaping up as a one-bid league.
While Rhoades rolls bodies through, the junior trio of Marcus Evans, Issac Vann and De’Riante Jenkins see north of 25 minutes per game, and when they’re out, they plunk themselves down on a stool between the scorer’s table and bench in a basketball version of the bullpen. Each has their own niche offensively, too. Evans slashes to the rim out of high ball screens. Jenkins can hit spot-up jumpers and drive on closeouts. Vann’s with the ball in his hands helming the break.
Dayton, though, is on the cusp of the top 50 nationally for defensive efficiency, and they have balanced scoring. Five Flyers score in double figures, led by senior forward Josh Cunningham (15.9 ppg) and guard Jalen Crutcher (13.3 ppg). While Grant’s teams have never been known for their proficiency at scoring, the Flyers look downright seamless compared to the Rams.
Other games that should have your attention or eyeballs this week. They’re top-25 match-ups, solid high-major meetings, interesting SEC games and other games that have implications for low- and mid-major conferences. All tip-times are CST.
Jan. 14 to Jan. 20
|Jan. 17||No.6 Michigan State at Nebraska||7 p.m.||Fox Sports 1||83.8|
|Jan. 19||No. 4 Virginia at No. 1 Duke||5 p.m.||ESPN||83.1|
|Jan. 19||No. 2 Michigan at Wisconsin||12 p.m.||ESPN/2||79.3|
|Jan. 14||Nebraska at No. 25 Indiana||5:30 p.m.||Fox Sports 1||75.3|
|Jan. 14||Wisconsin at No. 19 Maryland||7:30 p.m.||Fox Sports 1||73.9|
|Jan. 19||No. 12 Kentucky at No. 14 Auburn||3 p.m.||ESPN||73.9|
|Jan. 18||No. 19 Maryland at No. 16 Ohio State||5:30 p.m.||Fox Sports 1||71.5|
|Jan. 19||No. 23 Oklahoma at Texas||7 p.m.||Longhorn Network||71|
|Jan. 15||Florida at No. 24 Mississippi State||6 p.m.||SEC Network||68.8|
|Jan. 19||No. 25 Indiana at Purdue||1 p.m.||Fox||68.8|
|Jan. 16||Creighton at St. John's||5:30 p.m.||Fox Sports 1||68.6|
|Jan. 19||TCU at Kansas State||3 p.m.||ESPN2||68.1|
|Jan. 16||Iowa State at No. 8 Texas Tech||8 p.m.||ESPNU||66.9|
|Jan. 19||No. 8 Texas Tech at Baylor||5 p.m.||ESPN2||66.3|
|Jan. 16||No. 23 Iowa at Penn State||6 p.m.||Big Ten Network||66|
|Jan. 15||No. 9 Virginia at No. 4 Virginia Tech||8 p.m.||ACC Network||65.3|
|Jan. 15||LSU at No. 18 Ole Miss||8 p.m.||SEC Network||65.1|
|Jan. 15||Seton Hall at Providence||5:30 p.m.||Fox Sports 1||60.5|
|Jan. 19||St. John's at Butler||3:30 p.m.||Fox||60.4|
|Jan. 14||Texas at No. 7 Kansas||8 p.m.||ESPN||58.7|
|Jan. 17||Oregon at Arizona||8 p.m.||ESPN2||57.5|
|Jan. 19||Arkansas at No. 18 Ole Miss||12 p.m.||SEC Network||53.5|
|Jan. 16||Dayton at VCU||7 p.m.||CBS Sports Network||52.4|
|Jan. 16||Kansas State at No. 20 Oklahoma||6 p.m.||ESPN2||51.3|
|Jan. 17||Belmont at Jacksonville State||7:15 p.m.||ESPN+||49.9|
|Jan. 19||Yale at Brown||2:30 p.m.||ESPN+||49.6|
|Jan. 19||Furman at Wofford||6 p.m.||Stadium||41.2|
|Jan. 15||Southern Illinois at Illinois State||6 p.m.||CBS Sports Network||39.9|
|Jan. 15||Valparaiso at Loyola Chicago||7 p.m.||ESPN+||29.7|