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Offseason Stats: KenPom Program Rankings

Picking apart Pomeroy

Photo by Viktor Drachev\TASS via Getty Images

KenPom has released his Program Ratings. (That link is behind a paywall, but if you’re a fan of college basketball at all, you need to have a KenPom subscription. It’s $20 for the best-organized set of NCAA hoops data on the planet.) The ratings are based on performance since 1997. Why 1997? That’s when the NCAA started tracking/publishing box scores electronically. It’s an arbitrary cutoff in terms of the history of the game—you can argue whether the modern era of college basketball started with the introduction of the shot clock, the 3-point line, or the expansion of the NCAA Tournament field to 64 teams; none of those things happened in 1997—but you can only crunch data that’s available, so unless some of you want to scour old newspaper archives for every NCAA D1 box score from 1996—and Kentucky fans might be willing to do something like that if they thought it would move them up to the top spot—data back to 1997 is as good as we’re going to get.

The Blue-Bloods

It’s a tired argument—is this team or that team a blue-blood or not? Do you value titles more, or recent performance, or consistency across time, success under multiple coaches... it’s the stuff that offseason discussions are made of. But over the course of college basketball history, there are four programs that are on EVERY SINGLE LIST of blue-bloods, and wouldn’t you know it, those four programs are at the top of this list, too: Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, and North Carolina.

Since 1997, Kansas has never finished outside the top 25 in KenPom’s rankings. Duke has never finished outside the top 20. Carolina and Kentucky have had a down year or two, but they’ve all still finished in the KenPom end-of-season top ten more than a dozen times apiece. No other program can say that.

It’s Good to be in a Power Conference

No surprise, the top Big Ten program is the Michigan State Spartans, at No. 6. Also no surprise, the worst Big Ten program is Rutgers, at No. 102. That puts Rutgers in the upper third of all programs. Yep, for as much as we crap on the Scarlet Knights, they’re better than 71% of all other programs. It pays to be in the Big Ten. Every single Big Ten program is ahead of every single program in each of the following conferences:

  • America East
  • Atlantic Sun
  • Big Sky
  • Big South
  • Big West
  • Colonial
  • Horizon
  • Ivy
  • MAAC
  • MAC
  • MEAC
  • NEC
  • OVC
  • Patriot League
  • Sun Belt
  • SoCon
  • Southland
  • Summit
  • SWAC
  • WAC

That includes mid-major darlings like Iona, Winthrop, and Murray State. What’s more, the following conferences only have one program ahead of Rutgers:

  • C-USA (UAB)
  • MVC (Northern Iowa)

That said, among power conferences, Rutgers brings up the rear. The worst programs in the ACC (Boston College, No. 78), Big 12 (TCU, No. 87), Big East (DePaul, No. 101), Pac-12 (Washington State, No. 98), and SEC (Ole Miss, No. 70) all finished ahead of the Scarlet Knights.

The Big Ten

Here’s how the Big Ten schools fell out:

  1. Michigan State, No. 6 overall
  2. Ohio State, No. 11 overall
  3. Maryland, No. 14 overall
  4. Wisconsin, No. 16 overall
  5. Indiana, No. 18 overall
  6. Purdue, No 21 overall
  7. Illinois, No. 23 overall
  8. Michigan, No. 24 overall
  9. Iowa, No. 42 overall
  10. Minnesota, No. 54 overall
  11. Nebraska, No. 77 overall
  12. Penn State, No. 83 overall
  13. Northwestern, No. 85 overall
  14. Rutgers, No. 102 overall

Now, I’ve already seen corners of the internet where Purdue fans are whining about being below Indiana. In every metric except Final Four appearances, Purdue looks better than Indiana. Median finish of No. 30 vs. No. 34; Five top tens vs. three; seventeen top 50s vs. fifteen; eight Sweet Sixteens to four; sixteen tournament appearances to fourteen.

Here’s what Ken Pomeroy has to say about the methodology here, which should shine a little light on some of the results:

If the best basketball players are consistently choosing certain programs that says something about the stature of the program. So I add an adjustment using a recruiting rating based on the final RSCI rankings for each of the past ten seasons, giving more weight to recent seasons. Theoretically, the rating should be an indicator of the success we should expect each program to have over some sort of extended period in the future (like many years). But it may be more useful as trying to capture the perception of a program. Consider it a guide to how coaches and players might consider the currently hierarchy of college basketball when entertaining job or scholarship offers.

In other words, Purdue may have had better on-court performance, but Indiana is a better job because better players keep choosing to go there.

Other Fun Comparisons Worth Arguing About

In addition to Indiana and Purdue being close enough in the rankings to launch a thousand arguments, Iowa and Iowa State are neck-and-neck as well, sitting at No. 42 and No. 39, respectively. Iowa State has had higher highs, but also—well not lower lows, since the Lickliter era was really bad, but we’ll say longer lows. The Hawkeyes haven’t had as much tournament success as the Cyclones, but their median finish of No. 46 is much better than Iowa State’s No. 64.

Leaving the Big Ten, Kansas State and Wichita State are separated by less than five as well, with the Wildcats at No. 52 and the Shockers at No. 56. Any discussion between fans of those two schools is likely to be less vitriolic than Indiana/Purdue or Iowa/Iowa State, if for no other reason than both schools can agree they hate the Jayhawks more than each other.

Indiana State and Evansville share both a conference and a state, and they fell out right beside each other, at No. 138 and No. 139, respectively.

NCAA Tournament Best and Worst

Best program to have not made the NCAA Tournament since 1997? Our very own Rutgers, at No. 102.

Worst program to have made the NCAA Tournament since 1997? Arkansas Pine Bluff, at No. 351. That’s the third-worst overall program, but all it takes is once SWAC Tournament title.

Best program to have not made the Sweet Sixteen since 1997? Creighton, at No. 44. Also a special shout-out to Arkansas at No. 55 since they won a national championship in the 1990s.

Worst program to have made the Sweet Sixteen since 1997? Cornell. Wisconsin fans may remember the Big Red beating them down by 18 points to reach the second weekend in 2010.

Best program to have not made the Final Four since 1997? Our very own Purdue Boilermakers, at No. 21. Xavier, Notre Dame, Florida State, and Cincinnati are also in that unfortunate group.

Worst program to have made the Final Four since 1997? No surprise, Loyola Chicago at No. 152. Sister Jean Magic, baby.

Best program without a title since 1997? Incredibly, it’s Texas at No. 10. Maybe that’s not so surprising when you remember that Rick Barnes had Kevin Durant and couldn’t even make the Sweet Sixteen. Ohio State is right on their heels at No. 11. Oden and Conley at least made the title game.

Worst program with a title since 1997? It’s UCONN, at No. 19, and they have FOUR. Wtf.

Most appearances in the KenPom Top Ten without a title? Wisconsin and Louisville both have eight. Whether Louisville’s title should count or not (KenPom says it does) is more excellent offseason message board fodder.

Conclusion

KenPom is full of fascinating data, like this analysis that shows that, among games tied at half, the team that shot worse from three at halftime is more likely to win the game. That’s a counterintuitive result. If you’re a stats guy, you geek out over an unexpected example of regression to the mean. If you’re a gambling guy, you could probably use that information to make some money. Like I said, a KenPom subscription is the best $20 you can spend as a college basketball fan.

But most of you just want to argue that your team is better than some other team. And these program ratings give you another excuse and more material to do just that. So have at it. It’s still more than two months until actual games start. I both hate and love the offseason.