Reminder: Sites referenced in this article may have updated between the time this article was written and the time this article is read.
It’s mid-November, and very few of the Thanksgiving week exempt tournaments have been played yet. While some Big Ten schools have played meaningful games (shoutout to Tom Izzo and the Spartans), others haven’t really had their mettle tested yet (particularly you, Ohio State).
As such, it’s difficult to know how much stock to put in the computer numbers. Oh, sure, we can probably trust the numbers that say Purdue’s offense is efficient or the ones that say Wisconsin’s tempo is slow. But if you had to go onto KenPom to learn that, you need to watch more Big Ten games.
Still, over time, the computer rankings will drift towards where they’re supposed to be. As I mentioned in our last Advanced Statistics Check-In, there’s not one particular moment in time where the numbers go from 100 percent unreliable to 100 percent reliable. Each game played is another data point. But there still aren’t enough data points for us to know definitively where each team should be.
There’s a way we can get a pretty good idea, though.
Whether your team is in the right place right now depends on if they were overrated or underrated in the preseason rankings. A team who was underrated has seen its ranking increase over the course of the past two weeks; a team who was overrated has seen its ranking fall. If you were underrated, there’s a chance (but not a guarantee) that you could move up more. If you were overrated, there’s a chance you could keep falling. And if you haven’t moved much, you’re probably in about the right spot.
It should go without saying that a team can always improve throughout the year, or lose a star player to injury and get worse. Just because you sit at #40 at the start of December is no guarantee that you’ll stay there through the end of March. But to change from December to March, you’ll need to improve your performance on the court, not just the perception of your team.
For now, though, it’s perceptions that we care about. Let’s take a look at who has risen and who has fallen since opening night.
-Big Ten Risers
The biggest riser has been the Ohio State Buckeyes, who have moved up 11 spots from 78 to 67. Chris Holtmann’s team has feasted on a steady diet of home court cupcakes so far, but they have looked impressive while doing so, winning all four games by double digits. The Buckeyes look to be a fairly good rebounding team at both ends of the floor, and they’ve done an excellent job of keeping opponents off the foul line.
The bad news is that when their opponents get to the line, they’re making 83 percent of their free throws. On the other hand, free throw defense is the aspect of the game least in a team’s control; that should regress to the mean as the season wears on. The only other major knock on the Buckeyes is poor three point shooting. Unfortunately, that is a trend that is likely to continue throughout the year, and it will mean that although the Buckeyes may rise still higher, it won’t be to the top of the league.
A team that may indeed rise to the top of the league is the Minnesota Golden Gophers, who started the year at No. 36 and now sit at No. 29. We all knew Reggie Lynch was a beast on the defensive end, but thus far, he has also been brilliant at the other end of the court, too, posting an offensive rating of 134. He’s also been able to stay out of foul trouble, drawing more calls against the opposition than he himself commits. The opposite was true last year.
But the real story is Jordan Murphy, who KenPom currently shows as the best player in the Big Ten. With Nate Mason also stuffing the stat sheet, the Gophers look like they might be conference title contenders. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this team in the top 20 before long.
The last riser, improving their position six spots and now sitting as the highest-ranked team in the conference at No. 11, is Purdue. The Boilermaker offense has run like clockwork, and while their biggest flaw is still giving up offensive rebounds (#164 in the country in that category, after being No. 12 last year), that metric has improved significantly over the past three games.
Purdue boasts three of the 20 most efficient offensive players in the country thus far in PJ Thompson, Dakota Mathias, and (believe it or not) Grady Eifert. Mathias is shooting over 80 percent from three-point range, and Eifert, who has played in nearly half of all available minutes, has yet to commit a turnover.
-Big Ten Fallers
It doesn’t speak well of the Big Ten that its rising teams have only seen modest increases in their ranking, whereas its falling teams have seen big drops. The worst of all is Northwestern, who most prognosticators had pegged between second and fourth in the conference. KenPom had them as preseason No. 18. This was a tourney team last year who brought most of their minutes back.
But they were also a bubble team last year who only finished a game over .500 in the league, and they added no one of note. So maybe it shouldn’t be too surprising that the Wildcats have fallen into bubblicious territory at No. 52, mainly driven by an absolute throttling at the hands of Texas Tech. The outlier statistic here is bench minutes, where Northwestern ranks No. 307 in the country. Their starters play heavy minutes, which means that fatigue, foul trouble, or a bad shooting performance could doom the Cats on any given night.
It should come as no surprise that the next biggest faller is Indiana. The Hoosiers lost at home to Indiana State by 21, and Indiana State is not a good team. Based mainly on that abysmal showing, Archie Miller’s squad has fallen 25 spots to No. 90.
That said, I still believe in the Hoosiers more than most people. They are No. 337 in three-point defense and No. 301 in free throw percentage. The poor three-point defense is chiefly the result of a once-in-a-lifetime offensive performance from the Sycamores, and I’d be shocked if their free throw percentage didn’t improve as the team settles down and gets comfortable with the system.
Still, this team turns the ball over a lot—a relic of the Crean days, though the Hoosiers’ turnover percentage is better this year at No. 271 than last year’s No. 322. That’s going to have to improve even more if Archie wants to have a strong showing in his first year.
Our last big faller is Iowa. Nobody really knew what to make of the Hawkeyes this year, and I thought they were better than their preseason KenPom ranking of No. 54. They now sit at No. 62 after three wins against awful teams and a neutral-court loss to Louisiana Lafayette.
It’s hard to see exactly what the problem is. Except for Dom Uhl, who saw no time in the Hawkeyes’ loss, all their players are posting pretty good offensive ratings, and while Iowa is turning the ball over too much and giving up too many offensive rebounds, those things were both true last year. Perhaps the return of Nicholas Baer from his pinkie injury will be the spark that Fran McCaffery’s team needs. Until then, this looks very much like last year’s Iowa: an NIT squad.