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KenPom Update: “Rutgers Basketball Remains Awesome” Edition

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

I’m late in posting this article, partly due to circumstances (vacation) and partly intentionally (because I wanted to let a couple more games play out before I wrote this piece). I promise to go deep into the KenPom and advanced analytical stuff later, but for now, I want to update you as to where Rutgers men’s basketball stands from an analytical perspective as of today (that is, incorporating the two most recent losses):

  • KenPom: #28 in the nation
  • NET Ranking: #29
  • Bart Torvik: #15 (!!)

Remember, it’s rare if not unprecedented for a top 35 team in either KenPom or NET to not make the NCAA tournament, so Rutgers remains in good shape here.

The bracketologists haven’t updated their brackets since before the Maryland game, but what the heck, let’s summarize these as well because a close loss on the road to the #9 team in the nation doesn’t change much:

  • Joe Lunardi’s ESPN Bracket: 7 Seed
  • Jerry Palm’s CBS Bracket: 7 Seed
  • Andy Katz’s BTN Bracket: 7 Seed

Not bad! I like consensus, especially when consensus has Rutgers as a top-half of the bracket team. In my opinion, as long as Rutgers stays comfortably projected as at least a 10 seed in the above brackets, fans have nothing to sweat about with respect to Selection Sunday.

A General Note on Having Fun

Aaron may cringe a bit at this paragraph, but I’ll write it anyway. As an adult sports fan, the most fun I’ve ever had watching any of my teams play was the 2017 New York Yankees. This is a Rutgers sports blog, so I’ll limit this to one sentence, but what made the ’17 Yankees fun to watch was (a) they were young, (b) they were fun, and (c) they were operating without expectations and at least one year ahead of schedule.

Now take a second and review the OTB Staff Article from last November, with all of the staff predictions for the 2019-20 Rutgers men’s basketball season. Out of the entire staff, David Kostus and the aforementioned Aaron were the most optimistic – at 19 total wins. Both of their predictions had Rutgers at 9-11 in conference. Rutgers, at the time of this writing, is 16-7 (7-5 in conference). You know the math from here on out, and it’s unlikely this team doesn’t top 20 regular-season wins – more on this later.

Anyway, my takeaways from the above are first, if you want some Wall Street bets, you should reach out to David or Aaron, because they were closest to seeing this coming. Second, I get why some fans are understandably worried or concerned about this Rutgers team after the last two close losses, but my goodness – like the baseball team I mentioned earlier, this Rutgers basketball team is operating at least one, maybe even two, years ahead of schedule! It often takes good coaches five, even six seasons to turn around other programs (programs starting in a much better place than Rutgers) into NCAA tournament teams. Steve Pikiell might have Rutgers there in Year 4, when Year 1 started at #279 in KenPom. Steve Pikiell is a really good coach. If worked for Hank Scorpio at the Globex Corporation, he’d have a new level put on his house.

In my opinion, criticisms of a coach or coaching staff are fair, as long as they are grounded in reality. You don’t like some momentary decisions, such as when timeouts are called, or who is on the court in crunch time? Fine, but the overarching reality is such that Rutgers basketball is over-performing relative to any reasonable pre-season metric. As fans, let’s enjoy this over-performance. Rejoice, for Rutgers basketball is nationally relevant for the first time since the hi-top fade was in fashion.

A Note on 3-Point Shooting

As of this writing, Rutgers is the 322rd ranked team in the country in three-point shooting percentage (at 29.6%, as a team). With 352 Division I teams, this is not good.

I went deeper into the numbers here because I was curious to better understand, are there any other “good” teams (which I’ll define as top-50 in KenPom efficiency / top-100 in offensive efficiency) as bad as Rutgers at this very important skill?

Depending on how you define it, yes and no. The closest power conference comps to Rutgers from a 3-point shooting perspective are UNC and Boston College (UNC is currently #97 in KenPom, BC ranks in the 150s). You don’t want to look at the rest of the list, because it’s pretty ugly from an overall team talent perspective.

Interestingly, though, West Virginia – a team just about everyone agrees is a solid NCAA team this season – ranks only a bit above Rutgers at 312th from three. Despite this glaring deficiency at shooting from distance, WVU is extraordinarily efficient in general (#7 in the nation overall), and if you were to look at their team from an advanced analytical perspective, WVU is like Rutgers to the extreme.

West Virginia is #2 in the nation in overall defense efficiency; they swarm their opponents and force ugly shots at a top-five rate, as well as force turnovers at the 32nd-highest rate in the nation. On offense, they make up for their awful three point shooting by leading the nation in offensive rebounding rate and being 4th in the nation in getting to the free-throw line. This is not surprising, as Bob Huggins is a good coach who can adapt to available talent, but it’s worth noting because it’s relevant to how Rutgers has also evolved into a top-30-ish team from an efficiency perspective.

If you were to ask: how does Rutgers move from where they are now (mid-to-upper-20s) to a top-ten ranked team? My answer would be, while of course it’d be better for Rutgers to recruit one or two sharp shooters who are consistently lights out from three, these sorts of players don’t grow on trees (and often don’t prefer to play at schools like Rutgers). The easiest way for Rutgers to improve would be to follow the West Virginia model and simply go from good to elite at what they’re already good at (e.g., offensive rebounds, forcing bad shots on defense, etc.). This may not be possible with the existing roster, but with several impact players being freshmen or sophomores, I’d argue it is possible.

It’s Yeboah!

Using the eye test, redshirt senior Akwasi Yeboah has been the most productive Rutgers player on offense in the last several games. Analytics backs this up – looking at the game-by-game view on KenPom, Yeboah hasn’t had an inefficient game (defined as an offensive efficiency rating less than 100) since Minnesota, and he’s been a net positive on offense in six of the last seven games. Here’s the game by game breakdown for the last five games in particular:

  • February 4 at Maryland: 111 rating*, 13 points
  • February 1 at Michigan: 119 rating, 10 points
  • January 28 vs. Purdue: 105 rating, 10 points
  • January 25 vs. Nebraska: 160 rating (!!!), 20 points
  • January 22 vs. Iowa: 150 rating (!), 17 points

(*NOTE: Think of the rating like an IQ score, where 100 is average, 115 is pretty good, and 130+ is awesome.)

With the exception of Myles Johnson (who typically shoots close to the basket so efficiency is a given), Yeboah is Rutgers’ most efficient player. He’s also the only Rutgers player in the top 500 nationally at three point shooting percentage (327th as of this writing).

To my point above, I wouldn’t be surprised if Pikiell and his staff continue to draw up plays designed to make a Yeboah three-point attempt option one, at least some of the time. I am pretty sure this was the case in the Maryland game, though I cannot be absolutely sure whether it was play design or increased confidence which led to Yeboah’s first half flurry of points. Either way, from where I’m sitting, Yeboah should continue to shoot more and play an integral role in Rutgers’ offense.

How to Make the NCAA Tournament (My Prediction for the Rest of the Regular Season)

Rutgers presently sits at 16-7 (7-5) in conference. KenPom’s most recent projection puts Rutgers at 20-11 (11-9) at the end of the season, with the most likely wins being:

  • vs. Northwestern (86% chance of victory)
  • vs. Michigan (62%)
  • vs. Illinois (61%)
  • vs. Maryland (51%)

As anyone who’s been following this program knows, the RAC has been a monster of a home court advantage this season, so just holding serve with the above four home games – where Rutgers should be favored in at least three, heavily in the case of Northwestern – brings the team to 20 regular season victories. This is a scenario which requires zero additional road victories, by the way.

There are no tried and true rules to what makes a team qualify for the NCAA tournament. HOWEVER, I would argue a power conference team with an above .500 conference record, 20+ regular season wins, and a signature non-conference Quadrant I victory should easily make the Big Dance. So there you have it – Rutgers is a heavy favorite to make the tournament, unless something weird happens.

One more point. Looking at the remaining schedule, Rutgers would have to pull some kind of minor-to-moderate upset to win a road game:

  • at Wisconsin (41% chance of victory)
  • at Purdue (33%)
  • at Penn State (31%)
  • at Ohio State (28%)

But none of the above games are outside the realm of possibility. Earlier in the season, when Rutgers was ranked in the 60s or 70s in the KenPom analysis, these games were assigned a 5-10 percent chance of winning. Given the above, I’m going to go out on a limb and say Rutgers wins at least one road game (in addition to closing the regular season undefeated at home).

This would put Rutgers at 21 regular season wins. While not at all set in stone, this would be a far cry from sweating Selection Sunday (or dreaming about the NIT, which all of us were doing back in November). What a great season this has been.