"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

Monday, December 05, 2022

Unbiased Data & the Big East

Sanogo is an All-American Batman with an able Robin in Jordan Hawkins

Photo by Ian Bethune | The UConn Blog

Savvy college basketball fans may have noticed that Bart Torvik's T-Rank site allows you to sort teams by using only this season's data. Typically, advanced metrics such as T-Rank, kenpom, Sagarin, and others use historical data at this point of the season because the generally accepted knowledge tells us that the best predictor of future results is looking at past results, both in terms of programs and players. This old data is usually part of the equation until late January, when sites catch up to the current year alone. If kenpom (or T-Rank with old data), you're looking at a small helping of what's happened this year with additional portions of multiple past seasons.

If you really want to know how teams have been without past seasons biasing the results, changing one factor on the T-Rank main page allows you to do that. Simply change the "End" date to anything earlier than the listed "20230501" (May 1, 2023). You can bring it all the way back to today, but even changing it to April 30 will get the desired result. So what does the data tell us? Let's take a look at where the teams come in nationally, within the Big East, and in terms of Adjusted Offensive and Defensive Efficiency rankings.

Not surprisingly, UConn jumps to the top of the league, as they have in all the metrics and rankings, but in a more pronounced way. Marquette has been the second-best team in the league, while Creighton and Xavier are in the top-40 area that is usually safe for high-majors to get at-large bids. If this was Selection Sunday, Butler and Seton Hall are in the bubble range, while the rest of the league wouldn't be close to the at-large discussion. Though while the bottom is bad, it's worth noting that Georgetown is in a class by themselves. They are truly awful.

First, let's talk about a couple league takeaways.

Bids are Limited: No one wants to hear it the first week of December, but the Big East is going to have a hard time getting more than 5 NCAA bids, and 3-4 is probably a more realistic number. Why? Because everyone that isn't UConn or St. John's has taken multiple losses, and St. John's 8-1 looks like a sham. We'll get to that later. Going a combined 7-11 in the Gavitt and Big 12 Challenge series hurt the league compared to their high-major peers, and while Connecticut and St. John's won their MTEs, Creighton was the only other team with a winning MTE record. The other eight teams went a combined 5-16 in MTEs. Overall, the Big East is 15-25 against the other high-major leagues with 8 losses outside those leagues. That's going to make it tough come March because quality wins are hard to come by when few teams proved to be potent in the first month of the season.

Four Tiers: I know the AP has Creighton at #7 until the new poll, but UConn has been in a class of their own. Based on this year's numbers, they are a legitimate Final Four and National Title contender. After that, Marquette and Creighton, despite their non-con slip-ups this weekend, are playing like solid tournament teams. Then there's Xavier, Butler, and Seton Hall as at-large contenders while everyone else looks like NIT at best. There's certainly time for things to change, but at this moment, you don't want to be a St. John's, Providence, or Villanova because none of them are close to sniffing a bid, unless you count the NIT.

Is This Meaningful? Last year at this point, Marquette was 7-2 but their overall efficiency was #118 in T-Rank. There's time for teams to turn this around, especially teams with winning records. But with close to a third of the season done, this also isn't a small sample size. On December 5, 2021, Villanova (#5), Xavier (#20), UConn (#30), and Seton Hall (#31) were in the safe range where at-large teams are typically picked and 3/4 made the NCAA field. Providence (#151), Creighton (#101) and Marquette were outside that range, but managed to put together solid finishes to the season. A month into 2020, the only three Big East 2021 at-large teams were Villanova (#14), UConn (#15), and Creighton (#16) while everyone else was already outside the top-40. If you're outside the safe range with a decent record, there's time to turn things around.

We're also going to look team-by-team and compare what we said in the preseason to what's happened since:


What We Said: "They should finish in the top-half of the Big East and earn a tourney bid, but whether Sanogo is a legit BEPOY contender, whether the returners deliver on their promise, and how well the newcomers fit in will determine the difference between a possible protected seed and a team closer to a double-digit seed."

What We've Seen: The Huskies backed up their buy game beat-downs with four straight wins over high-major opponents by double-digits. Sanogo doesn't just look like a BEPOY contender but the prohibitive favorite and an All-American. Jordan Hawkins has looked like a star, Andre Jackson is rounding into form, and their newcomers are fitting well. Based on this year's numbers, only one team in the country is ranked in the top-15 both on offense and defense in T-Rank, and this is that team. UConn is the clear Big East favorite to date. It's not close.


What We Said: "If this team stays healthy, sustains their defensive form, and is marginally effective on offense, they should be fighting for an NCAA berth. And if one or two players really break out, the way Lewis and Morsell did a year ago, there's no reason they can't be a top-4 Big East team and in the mix for a safe single-digit seed."

What We've Seen: The defense is about on par with last year but the offense has been way ahead of schedule. Kam Jones and O-Max Prosper are having star turns while plenty of other players have shown the ability to step up, which puts this team in the mix for the 2-4 range we thought was possible. We do need to caveat that these numbers are likely heavily impacted by the Baylor romp, but no one has played undefeated Purdue or Mississippi State closer than Marquette, so even the losses right now aren't as bad as the raw percentage looks. Putting aside the sour taste of the Wisconsin loss, this year's results alone indicate Marquette to be the biggest threat to UConn at the top of the Big East at this point.

Prosper is having a Justin Lewis type breakout season

Photo by Jeff Haanisch | USA Today


What We Said: "While the Kansas game left Jays fans on a promising note, last season's results as a whole, the need for so many players to have simultaneous breakout seasons, and the expectation of defensive consistency from a coach that has never shown an aptitude for that would strongly indicate they won't get close to those top-10 projections. There's a reason none of the computer metrics have Creighton in the preseason top-20."

What We've Seen: At their best, Creighton has looked like that top-10 team, putting on a show in Maui. At their worst, they struggled with St. Thomas, were beat down at Texas, and lost at home to a mediocre (#76 adjusted for this year) Nebraska team. Sure, they can be that team they were at the Big East Tournament, but they still have tendencies from the team that T-Rank had #71 last year going into the BET. This is a good team, but this year's data shows the defense regressing, the offense not quite at the level McDermott is known for, and a team more like the fringe top-25 team we expected than the juggernaut their fans thought they were.


What We Said: "But if they can figure out how to get the ball inside and Miller can put out two-big lineups that work on the defensive end, this team is a threat to win the Big East and make the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Don't sleep on Xavier, if it all comes together, they are the team to beat in the Big East."

What We've Seen: Miller has managed Freemantle and Nunge on offense, but defensively this team just isn't there yet. They don't rank in the top-100 on any of the defensive Four Factors (eFG%, Turnover Rate, Rebound Rate, Free Throw Rate). The biggest problem has been the inability to close out games, losing winnable games against Indiana and Gonzaga while getting close but not quite against Duke. This is still pretty clearly a top-half Big East team and NCAA bid contender, but not as good as we thought they could be so far.


What We Said: "If everything comes together and they hit their peak, this could be a tourney team come March. Expect them to land in the middle of the Big East, somewhere in the 6-8 range where they spend the season bouncing around the bubble."

What We've Seen: This one feels prescient. Chuck Harris has been a star, Manny Bates is a monster, and the pieces fit together well. They're not great on either end of the floor, but good enough to fight for a bid with no really bad losses and a couple decent wins. Their position at fifth in the league is a little ahead of expectations, but that's more a product of bad Big East teams than them overachieving what we saw coming.

Manny Bates is driving a resurgent Butler

Photo from Butler Athletics

Seton Hall

What We Said: "The Pirates will have a tough defense that gives them a shot to beat most of the teams they face. But it's hard to see who will be the shot-makers that push them over the edge when a game is tight down the stretch. I've seen some people touting this as a tourney team, but that feels like projection based on last year's improbable St. Peter's run. There just isn't enough offense here to get to the postseason."

What We've Seen: The offense is indeed bad. Al-Amir Dawes has been okay but turns it over too much, Tyrese Samuel is great on the offensive glass but can't create for himself and no one else can create for him either, and KC Ndefo is as bad as expected on offense. The defense has kept them in some games and the combination of the two has them far ahead of our overall expectation (we said only ahead of DePaul and Georgetown). This isn't a NCAA tourney team at this point, but it's not unthinkable and the NIT is certainly within reach. If they can improve their offensive efficiency and Kadary Richmond can become an actual game manager they could fight for a bid.

St. John's

What We Said: "Expect the Johnnies to finish in the bottom half of the league once again. If all breaks right and Curbelo and Jones have transformative seasons, they may find themselves on the right side of the bubble, but more likely this is a team that will be playing in the NIT, hoping to end their season at home in MSG."

What We've Seen: Don't be fooled by the 8-1 record, this has not been a good basketball team. They beat Nebraska at home for their best win, but narrow wins over poor Temple (#86) and Syracuse (#134 in OT) teams aren't what NCAA resumes are made of. They lost their only meaningful game at Iowa State. This looks like another classic Mike Anderson team that goes 9-2 in non-conference play, mostly beating up on weak opposition, then sputters to a 7-13 Big East mark but the 16-15 overall is enough to maintain his non-losing record streak and put them in the NIT mix.


What We Said: "If all goes well, they'll be on the right side of the bubble, if not they'll likely be in the NIT, somewhere in that 6th-9th in the Big East range that looks like a throw of the dice at this point of the season."

What We've Seen: While the 6-3 record matches Marquette, Creighton, Xavier, and Butler, the substance is vastly different. Their 3 losses are to the only top-100 teams they've faced, and all three in ranked lower than 50 for the current season. Not the worst losses, but not good. And their best win was the season opener over now #239 Rider. With two buy games left against sub-300 teams, the non-con resume is trash. Cooley has turned it around in conference play before, but in a down Big East, Providence will likely need to win 13-14 Big East games just to get in the at-large discussion. Last year's Marquette turned it around with a monster January. Providence will likely need the same, but it's a tougher task this year because last year's Big East was a much stronger league so there were more resume boosting opportunities.


What We Said: "Neptune was left a great roster but keeping them healthy and getting the freshmen to blend in will determine how far this team can go. On paper, they should be a league title contender and if not the champs, certainly in the top three. But if they can't overcome their injuries, they could be closer to the bubble."

What We've Seen: We were way off on Villanova. Freshman Mark Armstrong wasn't ready, Chris Arcidiacono has been an every game starter, and there's no consistent point guard play. Despite that, the offense has been passable thanks to Caleb Daniels and Eric Dixon carrying heavy loads efficiently. The defense, on the other hand, good God. In twenty-one seasons at Villanova, Jay Wright only one one sub-100 defense, and that was the 2011-12 team that ranked #132. That was the floor. In his first year, Kyle Neptune has jackhammered through that floor, through the basement, and replaced the foundation with dirty sponges soaked in anchovy juice. They are ranked an absolutely abysmal #301. That is the worst of any high-major team, a full 54 spots behind 0-9 California. 'Nova fans will hope that Cam Whitmore and a possible Justin Moore return can turn things around, but at this point Villanova isn't even in the NIT mix, much less contending for the bubble. The drawback, like it is for Providence and St. John's, is they are out of meaningful non-con opportunities and a down Big East makes it harder to climb up the seed list as the season goes on.

Villanova hopes Cam Whitmore will drive them back into NCAA contention

Photo by Matt Slocum | AP Photo


What We Said: "DePaul was one of the worst teams in the league, so if the new pieces come in and equal them, this is still a bad team. It must be hard to find optimism in Chicago when the best case scenario looks like bottom-3 in the league and there's a good chance 6 starters or rotation players will be gone at the end of the year."

What We've Seen: At a cursory glance, there seems to be reason for optimism. Umoja Gibson, Javan Johnson, and Eral Penn have been high efficiency offensive players while none of the major pieces have been bad. Those numbers may be a bit of fool's gold, however, as DePaul has only faced one defense ranked inside the top-100 and they lost to Oklahoma State. They've lost or gone to overtime with three sub-100 teams already and their defense, while not Villanova-bad, hasn't been good. If these guys can keep up their efficiency in conference play and they win the rest of their non-con matchups (including a trip to Northwestern) they could be an NIT team. More likely, however, it's just DePaul. They'll be in the bottom-3 and every player mentioned by name in this paragraph is ineligible to return beyond this season.


What We Said: "It's hard to fire a legend, but if Ewing couldn't make a tournament with James Akinjo, Mac McClung, Jessie Govan, Josh LeBlanc, and Jamorko Pickett, why would anyone trust him to do it with this cobbled together roster of role-players and losers, at least in terms of record? If they make it to tenth in the Big East, it should be considered a massive accomplishment, but still shouldn't be enough to save the job of the worst coach in the league."

What We've Seen: Their season opener was better than last year, as an overtime win over lowly Coppin State is still better than a loss to Dartmouth. That was probably the high point of the season. They haven't beat a team in the top-200 and have three sub-100 losses. Ewing just threw his entire team under the bus, saying "This isn't the NBA where you can trade and get other players in" despite the facts that thus far, he has seven players that have started a game for him this year, those seven are the only players to average 10 minutes per game, and NONE of them were on the roster last year. Meanwhile, of the nine players that started a game last year, this weekend's transfer by Dante Harris means only one is still left and that's Ryan Mutombo, who started just one game, has played 29 minutes this year with 4 DNPs, and hasn't been deemed important enough to play a single minute in three games against high-majors this year. Ewing did trade his roster and it still sucks. As far ahead of the rest of the league as UConn is, Georgetown is even further behind the next worst teams and until Patrick Ewing is fired there is no end in sight.

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