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NET Results: Making sense of where Mizzou sits in the NCAA’s evaluation tool

The Tigers amassed enough quality wins to earn a bid, but stylistic choices — and a couple of significant defeats — have created some drag on its ratings.

Texas A&M v Missouri Photo by Jay Biggerstaff/Getty Images

If you’re curious enough — and a wonk — you can orient your way to the NCAA statistics website each morning and see the previous night’s fallout in the NET rankings.

On Thursday, Missouri stood pat at No. 49.

The Tigers’ 81-76 victory over LSU was within the forecasted margin, so the outcome — and the possessions behind — had little impact on MU’s standing. However, that cold mathematical reality stands at odds with a visceral game flow that could only be described as frenetic as the Tigers mounted a rally from 19 points down at Baton Rouge.

That outcome should lock coach Dennis Gates’ team into an at-large bid.

But beating a team mired at the bottom of the SEC standings won’t enhance the Tigers’ team sheet much. That means another day where the Tigers seem interminably lodged on the No. 8 or 9 seed line in bracket forecasts.

And another chance for folks to gripe about the NET rankings — some of which filter into my social media notifications.

It goes without saying that 256 characters aren’t adequate space to tease out why the Tigers are where they are, which in reality isn’t that bad. Remember when earning an NIT bid would have been considered overachieving? Instead, folks are cranky during a discussion over where the selection committee will place this team a week from now.

Rather than tackle gripes as they trickle on that other platform, I figured I’d just do it here.

Let’s start with the typical argument for MU deserving a higher seed: five Quadrant 1 wins. That tally isn’t unimpressive, but the context around it has changed. In many ways, it’s a byproduct of how the Tigers’ schedule was structured. In late December, the quality of non-con games ramped up. Meanwhile, the Tigers were among several SEC teams that saw their conference slates front-loaded.

That can be a blessing if you’ve quickly forged continuity. Or, if you’re LSU, it sinks you before January is over. Fortunately, it worked out well for the Tigers. They caught Illinois while it was mired in locker room drama and Kentucky as it sorted through its usual late December growing pains.

And while the Tigers hit bumps along the way, they managed to occasionally scoop up quality results. A late rally at home over Arkansas. A decisive 17-point win over Iowa State. And the crown jewel: a road win at Tennessee on DeAndre Gholston’s 35-footer at the horn.

But as MU’s schedule softened in the backstretch, other potential at-large teams with backloaded slates have closed the gap. Entering the week, seven teams in the top 50 of NET had at least five Quad 1 wins. For our exercise, we’ll use data from Monday morning.

NET Results | At-Large Teams with Five Quad 1 Wins

Team NET Avg. Seed Q1A Wins Q1B Wins
Team NET Avg. Seed Q1A Wins Q1B Wins
Connecticut 8 3.86 3 2
Gonzaga 9 3.76 3 2
Marquette 13 3.52 3 2
Indiana 18 4.6 4 1
Xavier 25 3.84 3 2
Texas A&M 27 10.69 3 2
Oklahoma State 46 9.02 1 4
Missouri 49 7.66 2 3
Data is from Feb. 27 Source: Warren Nolan

So, how do we parse that group? The other tentpole of fans’ argument is MU’s strength of record, which computes the difference between a team’s win total and the tally we’d expect from a top-25 team. The Tigers have usually been rated better than No. 25 in SOR. So let’s use that as our second cut-off.

NET Results | Five Quad 1 Wins and Top 25 SOR

Team NET SOR Avg. Seed Q1A Wins Q1B Wins
Team NET SOR Avg. Seed Q1A Wins Q1B Wins
Connecticut 8 12 3.86 3 2
Gonzaga 9 10 3.76 3 2
Marquette 13 8 3.52 3 2
Indiana 18 13 4.6 4 1
Xavier 25 17 3.84 3 2
Missouri 49 18 7.66 2 3
Data from Feb. 27 Sources: Warren Nolan, Bracket Matrix, ESPN

Au revoir, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M.

Six teams remain clustered within ten places in SOR—but we still seed the same wide distribution in NET ratings. Five of those teams were also squarely in the mix for protected seeds. Mizzou was not among them, and the Tigers were 24 spots behind Indiana.

I can already hear the frustration.

And I get it.

An at-large team’s standing in SOR is strongly linked with its seed line. On Monday morning, MU sat 18th in SOR – a rating common for teams slotted anywhere between a No. 6 or No. 7 seed. However, bracketologists consistently forecast this team as a No. 8 or 9 seed.

What gives? We’re told that who you beat matters and that Quad 1 wins are the coin of the realm. But in practice, it seems forecasters — and potentially the selection committee — might not follow their mandate.

By now, you know the stock answer: a poor net ranking. On Monday, the Tigers were 49th – a spot we commonly associate with teams clawing to get off the bubble, even if it means a trip to Dayton for the First Four.

This isn’t a new condition, either. MU hasn’t been rated higher than No. 40 since mid-January. And it only spent one day higher than No. 30.

That only provokes more ire and makes folks distrust the NCAA’s assessment tool, whose algorithm is kept under lock and key.

But with a bit of work, we can reconcile the problem.

Let’s try it.

When the NCAA rolled out NET, it pitched as a blend, merging performance-based metrics like SOR with predictive metrics like KenPom. In reality, the guys in Indianapolis copied KenPom and through in a dash of other variables to say their assessment tool was unique.

Fundamentally, though, NET appears to rely on efficiency margin. It sounds wonky. It’s not. You count how many points your team scored and subtract how many they allowed. Then you divide that by how many possessions they played. Analytic wonks use the resulting number to rank teams from highest to lowest. Often, they try to adjust for various factors: location, opponent quality, scoring margin, and even injuries.

Per its explainer, the NCAA doesn’t monkey around with it. Instead, it uses the raw form of efficiency margin. That’s also good for us.

While we don’t know how the NCAA weights each component of NET, we can reverse engineer four of its five ingredients: efficiency margin, scoring margin, win percentage, and adjusted win percentage. Team sheets list two sources for strength of record — ESPN’s SOR and KPI — but we’ll keep it simple and use SOR alone.

Using Monday’s data, this is where MU ranked in those various categories among teams in the top 50 of NET.

  • Strength of Record: 19th
  • Win Percentage: T26th
  • Adjusted Win Percentage: 33rd
  • Scoring Margin: 43rd
  • Efficiency Margin: 47th

Next, I looked at which factors strongly correlated with a team’s NET ranking. In statistical terms, it measures a relationship on a scale from -1.0 to 1.0. A correlation of 1.0 implies a perfect relationship: as one variable increases, so does another. Conversely, a correlation of -1.0 means a negative association: as one variable goes up, the other goes down.

These are the raw correlations between the NET’s ingredients and rankings:

  • Strength of record: 0.68
  • Win Percentage: -0.51
  • Adjusted Win Percentage: -0.44
  • Scoring Margin: -0.54
  • Efficiency Margin: -0.67

The values for SOR and efficiency margin are moderately good. (In the case of efficiency margin, the value is negative because as the margin gets bigger, the numerals for NET rankings get smaller.) As for win percentage and adjusted win percentage, they’re verging on pretty weak.

What we care about is efficiency margin. Specifically, why MU lags so far behind everyone else. Unlike some models, such as ESPN’s BPI or Haslametrics, the NCAA doesn’t control for scoring margin or garbage time.

Maybe you’re Houston and run up a plus-586 point edge by playing a controlled style and smothering teams defensively. Or you can do what Alabama has done: rely on an uptempo offense that buries people with 3-balls and uses a pack line to grind them down at the other end.

Unsurprisingly, a team’s scoring margin is strongly correlated (0.96) with its efficiency margin. And as you saw, the Tigers rank 47th at plus-155. (Ironically, the NCAA does cap the scoring margin it uses as a variable but doesn’t do it for NET.) Back in January, we wrote about the Tigers’ seepage at the defensive end could be problematic come March.

Well, here it is.

On Monday, the Tigers’ raw defensive efficiency ranked 238th nationally and 70th among high-major programs, ahead of only Vanderbilt, Minnesota, California, Georgetown, and Louisville. Only Iowa, which gives up 105.0 points per 100 possessions, came close to matching MU – and the Hawkeyes are in the same seeding range as the Tigers.

The influence efficiency margin shows up when we look at that same group of teams with five Quad 1 wins and among the top 25 of SOR.

NET Results | NET Factors for teams with Five Quad 1 Wins

Team NET SOR Avg. Seed Win% Adj. Win% Raw EM Scoring Margin
Team NET SOR Avg. Seed Win% Adj. Win% Raw EM Scoring Margin
Gonzaga 8 12 3.31 0.833 0.586 15.2 171
Connecticut 9 10 3.91 0.759 0.434 19.4 164
Marquette 13 8 3.01 0.793 0.483 13.5 162
Indiana 18 13 4.12 0.69 0.338 11.2 76
Xavier 25 17 4.8 0.724 0.366 10.1 130
Missouri 49 18 8.51 0.724 0.324 7.5 80
Data from Feb. 27 Sources: Warren Nolan, Bracket Matrix, ESPN, KenPom

The Tigers’ overall win percentage is competitive. But when we adjusted for game location, MU brought up the rear. Its capped scoring is also at the bottom. As is efficiency margin.

No doubt, MU has a handful of good wins — and the resulting SOR will get them in the field. Yet adjusted win percentage tells us that MU has been average on the road and dropped three home games. And when MU’s offense, particularly jump-shooting, isn’t clicking, its defense gets swamped, resulting in three losses by over 20 points.

The teams in front of MU have achieved similar results – and do it by playing more cleanly. How do we know? Let’s take a look at their efficiency in Quad 1 games.

NET Results | Performance against Quad 1

Team NET SOR Avg. Seed Q1 Wins Q1 Games Q1 Win% Off. Eff Def. Eff. Margin
Team NET SOR Avg. Seed Q1 Wins Q1 Games Q1 Win% Off. Eff Def. Eff. Margin
Connecticut 9 10 3.91 5 10 0.5 106.63 98.77 7.93
Marquette 13 8 3.01 5 10 0.5 106.65 104.66 1.84
Gonzaga 8 12 3.31 5 9 0.556 104.81 105.3 -0.49
Xavier 25 17 4.8 5 10 0.5 108.75 110.83 -2.08
Indiana 18 13 4.12 5 13 0.385 102.2 109.08 -7.6
Missouri 49 18 8.51 5 13 0.385 100.67 109.08 -8.41
Data from Feb. 27 Sources: Warren Nolan, ESPN, Bracket Matrix,

Isolating the best portion of the Tigers’ team sheet doesn’t offer much of a reprieve. They still rank last in efficiency margin, even when stripping away garbage time.

You’ll likely disagree, but NET does reflect an essential element of this team: high variance. At KenPom, it’s called Luck Rating and is the gap between a team’s expected win percentage and actual results. Over at Haslametrics, it’s termed consistency. But in both systems, Mizzou meets the definition of erratic.

Efficiency ratings and predictive metrics are helpful to the extent they prove accurate. But, unfortunately, teams like this iteration of the Tigers routinely defy them. But they don’t damn the whole enterprise.

Let’s use a tired analogy: investing. Are you parking your retirement contributions in a moderately risky fund that delivers steady returns until a targeted date? Or are you hunched over at a Bloomberg terminal, mainlining cans of Monster, and riding the wave of day trading? Mizzou, quite often, is the latter. Sometimes, the Tigers hit big, like they did in Knoxville. And other times, they eat a huge loss, like a blowout loss to KU.

Last night at the PMAC was a prime example.

Did MU hit the predicted margin? It did. But a low-variance team probably does it by building an early lead and steadily maintaining it. Not this group. It’s as if Dennis Gates put Leeroy Jenkins on a basketball court.

NET is attempting to make sense of the Tigers’ balance sheet. What it shows is a good team — but also a flawed one. It also aligns with MU’s stylistic preferences. For example, suppose you cut the margin of defeat in half from four blowout losses. In that case, MU’s efficiency margin improves enough that it resembles Xavier, which started the week on the No. 5 seed line. The Tigers didn’t need to win. They just needed to keep the margin under control.

On Selection Sunday, the committee will reward the Tigers for coming up flush at times in Quad 1. But the people in that room, and their evaluative tool, also account for the hands where MU goes bust. They also compare them with other players — or at-large teams — under consideration.

Simply put, they’ll look at the entire body of work.

Fortunately for MU, there’s still another week or so left to bolster their argument for a better seed line.