"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Friday, December 13, 2019

Building a Resume

While Selection Sunday is months away, a tweet from the Marquette Twitter this week really grabbed my attention. I have lauded this schedule in articles on this site, on Twitter, and on MUScoop.com, but this single tweet captured the importance of Marquette's non-conference schedule:


I can't underscore enough how well constructed this schedule is, though I did try to do so in this article from before the season began. There are four critical numbers that have led to Marquette's impressive non-conference schedule ranking.

0: Sub-300 Opponents
In Wojo's first 5 seasons, Marquette played 14 sub-300 opponents, at least two each year. As of this writing, we have no sub-300 teams on the 2019-20 resume. Bottom feeders really hurt in a metric like kenpom or the NET. Previously, our worst average opponent was 340.4 per Pomeroy. This year it's 296. With an average of 2.8 sub-300 opponents per year, that means that one 340 average was never the only team worse than any of the non-con opponents we will see this year. Great job by Mike Broeker and the athletic department to secure quality guarantee games.

6: Top-100 Opponents
Marquette has played (at the moment) 6-Purdue, 9-Maryland, 54-Wisconsin, 59-USC, 74-Davidson, and 78-Kansas State. When I started with the top of the Big East and saw Butler had also played 6 top-100 opponents, I questioned the strength of this statistic. Thankfully, I kept going. Butler, along with Georgetown and West Virginia, are the only 3 other high-major teams in the country to have played as many top-100 non-conference teams. While there are teams that have played more top-100 teams overall (such as Maryland with 7) that is because those teams have already started conference play.

8: Non-con opponents projected top-half of their league
Two-thirds of Marquette's non-conference opponents are expected to finish in the top-half of their league. That means once conference play begins, our opponents will be expected to win games which will continue to improve Marquette's NET and potentially improve their NCAA seed. Further, of the four teams projected to finish in the bottom half (Wisconsin, Robert Morris, Kansas State, Central Arkansas), only one (KSU) is projected to finish more than one game under .500. Even the lesser non-con opponents should be competitive.

9: Non-con opponent wins last weekend
Kudos to The Anonymous Eagle Podcast crew for pointing out that Marquette jumped up from #30 in Pomeroy's rankings on Friday to #24 after the K-State win. In a straight seed debate, that's the difference between the second 8-seed and the last 6-seed, which is a significant two seed-line jump. But half of that jump came before Marquette took the court. Marquette's non-conference opponents went 9-3 over the weekend, and their 8-1 weekend record (at the time) moved Marquette from #30 to #27 before they entered the Octagon of Doom. This might seem minor, but the metric which most closely approximates the NET is kenpom, and in a straight NET seeding, that difference would be enough to make a seed line jump from the 8-line to the 7-line. When we consider that one of those losses was by Kansas State, the weekend went about as well as it could have gone, and having strong non-conference opponents, especially come conference play.

I know that numbers aren't always sexy. The amount of time I spend breaking down the differences between a Loyola-Maryland and IUPUI or Central Arkansas and Chicago State seems insignificant to casual fans and November weeknight plans. That said, these decisions will be the difference between protected and unprotected seeds as well as teams that get to Dayton or see their bubbles burst on Selection Sunday.

For another example of how these shifts can impact kenpom and the NET, consider Butler playing at Baylor. Coming into that game, Baylor was ranked #12 in kenpom, which would be the last 3-seed, while Butler was ranked #13, the first 4-seed. Despite winning the game, Baylor actually dropped to #13 while Butler climbed to #11 because the margin was smaller than the metrics would have expected. So in a loss, Butler moved up a seed line while Baylor dropped a seed line despite winning. This is because Baylor only won by 1 point, so the presumption is that Butler would be better on a neutral court.

The other thing that matters but even less popular is scoring margins. I don't have the full day-by-day NET tracking, but consider that last year, Marquette began the season in November at #29 in Pomeroy and despite starting 18-3, had fallen in the rankings to 35 by the end of January. The reason was because those three losses had come by an average of 17.3 points while few of the winning margins had been overwhelming to expectations (most notably the 7-point win over UTEP that saw Marquette drop 6 spots on Pomeroy). Thanks to the NET, running up the score tangibly helps you when it comes to your ranking and how the Selection Committee views you on Selection Sunday.

The argument against this line of scoring margins would be "the Selection Committee will see through these individual data points, so Baylor in winning would still be seeded higher." I think this argument would be patently false. At the end of the year, the NET is adhered to relatively closely because it is an equation of 30+ data points. So despite Baylor winning, the result reflected more positively on Butler and the way that impacts the equation would help the latter more than the former. The RPI ignored scoring margins, but the NET does not. Honestly, it's the only thing that matters to the NET. Yes, it factors in where you play and who you play, but ultimately it's all about how much you win or lose by. You might need a 35-point margin over a cupcake at home to get the same boost you would receive from beating a high-major like Purdue at home by 10 (which is why Marquette got the same rough rank benefit from beating Loyola-Maryland as they did beating Purdue) but the only thing you can control is the margin, so it's imperative to run up winning scores and minimize losing deficits.

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