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KenPom Rankings Could Be Undervaluing Big Ten in 2015-16

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The Big Ten is not the best conference in college basketball, or at least so says KenPom.

On Sunday evening, KenPom released its first set of team ratings heading into the 2015-16 college basketball season. For those unfamiliar, KenPom is the unofficial king of college basketball advanced stats. The site has been around for well over a decade and relies on a computer algorithm to rank every team in college basketball.

It’s really a great idea. Use an unbiased method to rate teams based on their performances over the course of the season. Instead of relying on the opinions of voters, who likely don’t even watch half of the games, why not rely on a computer model that can account for every, single game?

It not only seems like a good idea, but a better approach.

However, when this year’s preseason ratings came out, many Big Ten fans found themselves a bit taken aback. After an entire offseason spent talking up the Big Ten and its likely frontrunner in Maryland, the conference came in at No. 3 nationally and the Terps were rated as just the No. 24 team overall.

Not exactly numbers that would invoke the “nation’s best conference” label.

KenPom’s numbers had some key differences from where the traditional rankings slot in the Big Ten. Obviously, the traditional preseason rankings only look at the top 25 teams, but it’s still a least a decent gauge into where the conferences sit. In the Today’s U preseason top 25, the Big Ten landed six teams receive votes for the top 25 and Maryland was ranked No. 2 nationally.

The Big Ten certainly received a solid amount of recognition in the rankings. Not only did Wisconsin come in at No. 9 overall, but Indiana landed at No. 13, Michigan at No. 17, and the Michigan State Spartans came in at No. 18 in the ratings. KenPom still likes the Big Ten, but at this point, the numbers don’t seem to love the conference.

So, are the numbers right? Has the Big Ten and particularly, Maryland been overrated this offseason?

Factually answering whether a conference is overrated or underrated is pretty much impossible at this point, considering that no games have yet to be played. However, with that aside, there are actually some pretty strong reasons to think that KenPom’s current evaluation of the Big Ten is a bit skewed.

Perhaps the strongest argument deals in the fact that Maryland is almost assuredly underrated by KenPom’s current numbers. This is because the Terps are undervalued by KenPom’s algorithm based on the team’s struggles over the last few seasons.

Here is what KenPom posted regarded the site’s preseason ratings in 2013:

Base level of the program. This takes into account the last five seasons of data for the same unit (offense for predicting offense) and the last season for the opposite unit (defense for predicting offense). It also includes data for how much money the program has spent on men’s basketball for the last three seasons. The bulk of this component is determined by the most recent season’s performance of the unit.

You can make a decent predictive system just by knowing what is normal for a program. If we were predicting the Big 12 standings in 2025 (assuming the conference exists), it would be reasonably safe to say that Kansas will have a winning record and TCU will have a losing record. We can say that with some confidence even though some of the players on those rosters haven’t picked up a basketball yet.

For all intents and purposes, the Terps have had just one good season in the last five years, so Maryland is hit massively by this calculation. This doesn’t mean KenPom’s numbers or the site’s decision to based their predictions off the last five seasons is wrong. Instead, it just means that the ratings probably aren’t a perfect model for Maryland, which has recently started its re-emergence.

Another program that is likely getting a similar hit to its rating is Rutgers. Most are projecting the Scarlet Knights to be an underwhelming team this season, but KenPom actually has the team rated lower than it was last year. Remember, Rutgers went 10-22 overall last year and lost its final 15 games of the season, including 10 games by 10 points or more.

It’s probably unreasonable to suddenly think Rutgers becomes a contender this season, but with the addition of some serious talent and what should be a deeper lineup, KenPom’s rating is probably a tad lower than this year’s roster would indicate. Rutgers has been dreadful over the last few seasons, which is probably one of the things holding its rating back the most this season.

Admittedly, this is an optimistic outlook for the Big Ten. After all,  teams like Ohio State and Wisconsin might very well be benefiting from the same calculation that seems to hurt Maryland and Rutgers. However, considering that Maryland and Rutgers are likely the Big Ten’s best and worst teams respectively, moving the numbers on these two could be pretty huge.

Nobody can be sure on how exactly KenPom’s ratings will play out this year, but with where some teams are rated like Maryland and Rutgers, the Big Ten could very well be underrated this year. Still, even if KenPom’s ratings prove accurate, it should be an exciting year for the Big Ten with multiple teams in serious contention for deep postseason runs.

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