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Sunday Stats: The Quintessential Big Ten Team

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When this team is good, the whole league is good

NCAA Basketball: Indiana at Penn State Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, we took a look at the correlation between Big Ten performance and the performance of other conferences. This week, we look at correlations between the Big Ten and its own teams.

And just like last week where we found that the Big Ten was actually an elite coastal conference, this week we also find out something that the conference Powers That Be already knew. But I’m not going to spoil it just yet. Put on your foil hats and read on.

-Background

Growing up in Indiana, I occasionally heard basketball fans opine on the state of the conference: “The Big Ten needs the Hoosiers to be good.” As someone who went to Purdue, that sounds like typical Bloomington chauvinism to me, but there’s no doubt that in terms of national titles, IU has been the conference’s workhorse. Unfortunately for the Hoosiers, KenPom doesn’t have data going back to 1953.

What KenPom does have is data from 2002 to 2019 on the average efficiency margin of a Big Ten team (plotted below on the X-axis) and the efficiency of each team in the conference for those same years (plotted on the Y-axis). We can then draw a best-fit line to see how each team’s performance compares to the league as a whole.

In other words, I’m trying to test the truth of the statement “When [Team X] is good, the Big Ten is good” for all 14 teams. A steeper positive slope in the regression line means that a team is more “quintessential” to the Big Ten.

(I went ahead and ran Maryland, Nebraska, and Rutgers for all years, not just those where they were in the league. This might be because I’m lazy, it might be because the results aren’t credible with only a few years of data points, or it might be because the Powers That Be decided to add those teams precisely because they ran an analysis like this. You decide.)

-The Anti-Quintessentials

No surprise that Maryland is negatively-correlated with the Big Ten since they spent most of these years in the ACC, and from last week we know that the ACC being up means the Big Ten is down, and vice versa.

Illinois also being negatively correlated is hilarious. The Curse of Chief Illiniwek is real, and the Jim Delany likes it that way. When the Illini are bad, the rest of the league is good.

Surprisingly, Michigan State and Indiana are barely correlated with the conference at all. They might get the highest ratings on ESPN, but they don’t elevate the performance of the rest of the league.

-The Bleh

Weak positive correlations here. Purdue has the most Big Ten titles, but again this analysis only goes back to 2002, and Purdue only has two since then. You could also argue that you’d expect a team who is negatively correlated to win more league titles, since other teams will be worse during the seasons that they’re good. If that’s the case, the negatively-correlated Terrapins might finally win something under Mark Turgeon.

Wisconsin not being more strongly correlated is something of a surprise. The Badgers were a bodybag game for a long time until Bo got to town, and the improvement in Madison certainly elevated the league as a whole. But the Bo era was already up and running by 2002, so the time frame probably skews this result, too.

-The Outer Core

Now here we’ve got correlations that are a little more positive. My Wisconsin argument from above applies to Northwestern here; the Wildcats turning from a joke of a program into one that’s somewhat nationally respectable was definitely a boon to the Big Ten. Hopefully Rutgers can do the same.

Penn State and Minnesota make sense because conferences are always going to have good teams and bad teams. It’s the teams in the middle that really determine the strength of the league. And Penn State and Minnesota have been mid-pack teams that occasionally rise up and occasionally fall back pretty much throughout the time period we’re looking at.

-The Quintessential Big Ten Teams

Jesus Christ, it’s Ohio State and Michigan. We all know that those two programs call the shots in football, but who knew that their influence extended to the basketball court, too?

And hell, Penn State was #3. So to fill out the phrase I brought up above, the final answer is—”When the football schools are good, the Big Ten is good.”

As a fan of a traditional basketball school, I didn’t get a good feeling writing that. Hopefully Jeff Brohm can get Purdue turned into a football school before too long. The good news is that IU is totally screwed. The candystripers will never be a “football school” in any shape or form. And as we all learned two minutes ago, we need the football schools to be good for the league to be good.

Really, all fourteen programs should work hard to improve themselves and make the league better. The Big Ten hasn’t won a national title since 2000. But our best chance this year rests with the top team from this analysis—the Michigan Wolverines.

Go Blue.