Buying High, Selling Low on College Basketball’s Conundrum Teams

    Duke and Virginia are unanimously top-four teams in the country, according to college basketball's primary advanced analytics. The Blue Devils and

    January 28, 2019

    Duke and Virginia are unanimously top-four teams in the country, according to college basketball’s primary advanced analytics. The Blue Devils and Cavaliers are ranked No. 2 and No. 3, respectively, in the latest AP Top 25 Poll and they’re No. 1 and No. 2, in reverse order, according to the predictive metrics of the popular site kenpom.com.

    But not all of college basketball’s top teams are so widely beloved. Kansas and Gonzaga, for example, earned No. 2 seeds in Stadium’s latest NCAA Tournament projections, but they’re ranked closer to No. 20 in some metrics.

    Using the NCAA’s latest NET team sheets, which are updated through Sunday’s games, we examined the six advanced metrics listed on various schools’ team sheets – the NET, KPI rankings, Sorensen rankings, ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI), kenpom.com and Sagarin ratings – plus their rankings in the latest AP Top 25 Poll.

    We then identified 15 schools that have a difference of at least 15 spots between their highest and lowest rankings in the seven advanced metrics listed above, which indicates there are significant differing opinions on the quality of these teams and their resumes.

    The following chart shows the highest and lowest rankings for the 15 schools selected.

    For each school, we’re going to choose either its highest ranking or lowest ranking as the one that more accurately describes where it stands entering the first week of February.

    Kansas | High: 1 Low: 16

    Our pick: Low

    Kansas is just 7-4 without center Udoka Azubuike, who’s out for the season after suffering a torn ligament in his right hand. In their 71-63 loss at Kentucky last weekend, the Jayhawks were dominated on the boards – 49 to 36 as they allowed the Wildcats to rebound 38.6 percent of their missed shots. Forward Dedric Lawson had 20 points and 15 rebounds, but his teammates combined for just 43 points and 21 rebounds.

    The Jayhawks have lost four of their last five road games, which could signal problems in March when they don’t have the benefits of Allen Fieldhouse’s homecourt advantage.

    Gonzaga | High: 2 Low: 17

    Our pick: High

    Gonzaga has the No. 1 adjusted offensive efficiency in the country at 126.3 points per 100 possessions. That’s a mark that’s only bested by 2018 Villanova (127.8) and 2015 Wisconsin (129.0) since kenpom.com was founded in 2002. The Zags have won 10 straight games, and they’ll likely be favored to win the rest of their regular season games by at least two possessions.

    The Bulldogs were the first team to beat Duke this season and their only losses were by three points against now-No. 1 Tennessee on a neutral court and on the road against North Carolina.

    Gonzaga’s strength of schedule may not afford it the opportunity to earn a No. 1 seed, but it’s deserving of a place among the best teams in the country.

    [RELATED: Gonzaga among five-team class of elite title contenders]

    Virginia Tech | High: 6 Low: 28

    Our pick: Push

    This is a lose-lose situation, so we’ll take the easy way out. The Hokies have experienced firsthand what a top-10 team looks like, but it’s also crazy to suggest they’re not one of the 25 best teams in the country.

    Virginia Tech lost by 22 points at Virginia and by 21 points at North Carolina – two schools that are ranked in the top 10 of the latest AP Top 25. If Virginia Tech was the sixth-best team in the country, it would’ve put up more of a fight, even on the road against high-level competition.

    The Hokies’ record, their sixth-ranked offense featuring half a dozen players who shoot better than 40 percent from three, and their double-digit margins of victory in all four of their ACC home games indicate they’re a legitimate top 25 team. But they also lost at Penn State, which is winless in its first nine Big Ten games, and they were ran off the floor by the Cavaliers and Tar Heels.

    Houston | High: 7 Low: 22

    Our pick: High

    The Cougars are a four-point loss at Temple from being undefeated. The biggest knock on Houston’s 20-1 record is the level of competition, but we’ll buy high on the Cougars until proven otherwise.

    Six of their 13 non-conference games fall under Quadrant 4 and their toughest road game was at Oklahoma State, which is in ninth place in the Big 12. They haven’t played Cincinnati (18-3) or UCF (15-4) in AAC play so a lot could change between now and Selection Sunday, but with an adjusted defensive efficiency ranking that’s 12th in the country, they appear to have a defensive backbone that should allow for success on the road.

    Opponents are shooting just 26.1 percent from three against Houston and 44 percent from two.

    LSU | High: 9 Low: 30

    Our pick: Low

    LSU has been one of the surprises of conference play as it’s tied with Tennessee for first in the SEC with a 6-0 record in the conference. But the Tigers have needed overtime twice to pull out wins against Arkansas and Missouri – two of the bottom six teams in the SEC. LSU trailed Missouri by 14 points with 2:14 left in the game on Saturday, but made a furious comeback.

    There’s no question the Tigers have elite talent in sophomore point guard Tremont Waters and former five-star recruits Naz Reid and Emmitt Williams, but their 2-3 record away from home during non-conference play isn’t fitting of a top-10 team. Plus, the fact that they haven’t played Tennessee, Kentucky, Auburn, Mississippi State or Florida suggests there could be a course correction for LSU after it climbed six spots in the latest AP poll.

    Marquette | High: 10 Low: 33

    Our pick: High

    Marquette’s rankings are across the board, ranging from “Really Good” (No. 10 in the AP poll, No. 11 in Sorensen) to “Pretty Good” (No. 15 in KPI, No. 19 in the NET) to outside the top 25 (No. 31 BPI, No. 33 on kenpom.com). We’ll go with the former because the Golden Eagles are led by Markus Howard, who’s conservatively a First Team All-American and optimistically a challenger to Zion Williamson for National Player of the Year.

    He’s averaging 24.6 points per game, shooting 43 percent from three and 91 percent from the free throw line and holds the Big East single-game record with 53 points. He scored 40 points in a half against Buffalo in December. Throw in the Hauser brothers, Sam and Joey, and you’ve got a pair of lethal shooters at 6-8 and 6-9 who make Marquette extremely dangerous from three and able to close out games at the free throw line.

    Oklahoma | High: 10 Low: 30

    Our pick: Low

    Oklahoma is another push candidate. In their last game, the Sooners won by 31 points at Vanderbilt, where No. 1 Tennessee needed overtime to win. But they’re just 3-4 in the Big 12.

    But two of those losses came at Kansas and Texas Tech, when the two schools were ranked in the top eight of the AP Top 25 at the time of the matchup, so it’s tough to punish OU for those losses.

    But they also lost at home to Kansas State and at Texas, which is barely above .500 this season.

    See how we can keep adding another “but” and caveat to argue either way?

    Ultimately, a top-10 team shouldn’t have a losing record in conference play and 11 of Oklahoma’s 15 wins have come against Quadrant 2 or Quadrant 3 opponents, while the Sooners are just 4-4 against Quadrant 1 teams. That’s more fitting of the 30th-best team than the 10th.

    Wisconsin | High: 11 Low: 26

    Our pick: Low

    Wisconsin is a bit of a computer darling with three different advanced metrics that place the Badgers between No. 11 and No. 13. They have:

    1. Two (really?) good losses, if such a thing exists, against Virginia on a neutral court by seven and at Marquette in overtime
    2. Two confounding losses at Western Kentucky and at home to Minnesota
    3. One really good win: Michigan
    4. Three others that’ll move the needle: Oklahoma, NC State, Iowa

    Wisconsin is ranked No. 24 in the latest AP Top 25 Poll after taking care of business last week against Illinois and Northwestern, and that feels about right.

    Iowa State | High: 12 Low: 27

    Our pick: High

    We just watched the Cyclones shoot nearly 70 percent on the road against a ranked Ole Miss team and score 87 points in the win despite committing 19 turnovers. They also nearly completed the season sweep of Kansas, but saw their eight-point lead in the second half get erased last Monday.

    If sophomore guard Lindell Wigginton is going to play the way he did at Ole Miss, where he scored 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting in 21 minutes, this is a team that fits just outside the top 10.

    Auburn | High: 14 Low: 43

    Our pick: Push

    Auburn’s riding a three-game losing streak and it’s 2-4 in the SEC with its only victories coming against Georgia and Texas A&M, which are two of the four worst teams in the conference. That doesn’t suggest the presence of a top-15 team.

    But the Tigers nearly completed a come-from-behind win against Kentucky after trailing by 17 and they lost a two-possession game to Duke on a neutral floor, so they can compete with some of the best teams in the country. Competitive losses to good teams is what’s keeping Auburn in the top-20 in ESPN’s BPI and on kenpom.com.

    The Tigers lead the country with a 26.1 turnover rate and 18.8 block rate, while their three-point shooting and top-10 offensive rebounding rate fuel an efficient offense.

    However, that needs to translate to wins at some point. Auburn has lost to four of its five toughest opponents, according to kenpom.com.

    Buffalo | High: 15 Low: 37

    Our pick: High

    The Bulls had a legitimate chance to run the table in the MAC before losing 77-75 at Northern Illinois last Tuesday on a layup in the final seconds. Besides that, their only loss was on the road against a Marquette team that’s now ranked in the top 10. Buffalo was the victim of the aforementioned 40-point second half from Markus Howard.

    Buffalo won’t have the same marquee games that its power conference peers do, but it does have one of the nation’s most experienced rosters thanks to a senior core of CJ Massinburg, Nick Perkins, Jeremy Harris and Dontay Caruthers. The Bulls rank in the top-30 of both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency, which is fitting of a top-15 team.

    Nebraska | High: 18 Low: 51

    Our pick: Push (for now), Low (later)

    Unfortunately for Nebraska, there’s a chance it’ll quickly trend towards the “Low” ranking after the season-ending injury of forward Isaac Copeland before a four-game stretch that includes games against Wisconsin, Maryland and Purdue.

    The Huskers are ranked in the teens, 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s in various advanced metrics, so clearly no one and no computer has come to any consensus on them. They had a fairly productive non-conference schedule – at least compared to their 2017-18 standards – with wins over Seton Hall, Clemson, Creighton and Oklahoma State, but Big Ten play has been rough. Nebraska is 3-6 and now must continue without its second-leading scorer.

    Their final four regular season games are against Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State and Iowa, so the season could get away from them in a hurry and their final rankings across the board will likely look much more like their current No. 51 ranking in the KPI.

    Iowa | High: 18 Low: 36

    Our pick: Low

    Six of the seven metrics analyzed for this story have Iowa ranked in the 30s. The Hawkeyes’ No. 18 ranking in the Sorensen rankings is the lone exception.

    After losing by 15 points at home to Michigan State, then losing 92-87 at Minnesota on Sunday, Iowa’s status outside of the top 25 feels fairly certain. The Hawkeyes are 0-4 against Michigan State, Purdue and Wisconsin with two of those games coming at home, so they’re on track to be a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team. They’re 5-5 in conference play and projected to go 10-10, according to kenpom.com.

    NC State | High: 21 Low: 61

    Our pick: High

    NC State’s No. 61 ranking in the KPI is by far the lowest ranking of any of the 15 teams examined. The rest of the metrics suggest the Wolfpack are somewhere between the 20th and 30th-best team in the country and we’re buying high on them.

    They’ve alternated wins and losses in their first seven ACC games, which gives them a 4-3 conference record. An upcoming three-game stretch against Virginia, Virginia Tech and North Carolina is about as tough as it gets in the conference, but if the Wolfpack can win one of those games, that should be enough to affirm their place as a team ranked in the 20s.

    TCU | High: 23 Low: 39

    Our pick: High

    In the bigger picture of college basketball, there’s not as big of a gap as you might think between the 23rd-best team and the 39th-best team. For example, Maryland is No. 23 on kenpom.com and Syracuse is No. 39, as of Monday afternoon. That game would likely be pretty competitive.

    Lipscomb is No. 39 on the NET and the Bisons beat TCU by nine in Fort Worth in November.

    See what we mean?

    So after TCU’s 2-0 week with wins over Texas and Florida, we’ll buy high. The Horned Frogs play at Texas Tech and Baylor this week, so an 0-2 week could put them closer to No. 39.

    The injury to guard Jaylen Fisher and his recent decision to transfer hurts, but TCU has a top-40 offense and top-20 defense, which seems worthy of a team just inside the top 25.

    MORE: Here’s Why Patience Is Important After A Recent Coaching Hire

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