Earlier this week, KenPom dropped their initial projection of all 358 Division I college basketball teams for the 2021-22 season. You can read more about how KenPom works here, but in short, it uses a combination of how efficient each team is at scoring and defending on a tempo-adjusted basis, throws all of this data into a statistical soup (a model, really), and the result is a pretty reasonable indicator of how well or poorly a particular team is expected to perform moving forward.
A reminder that, in the 2020-21 season, Rutgers finished ranked 38th nationally in KenPom (82nd in offensive efficiency, 16th in defensive efficiency). This ranking was the highest end of the season for Rutgers hoops in the overall KenPom era*, dating back to 2001-02. (*NOTE: Rutgers technically finished 28th to end 2019-20, but I’m still upset about how that season ended early due to the pandemic, so I’m going to forget that ever happened.)
For the upcoming 2021-22 season, Rutgers is projected at the beginning to be 67th nationally in overall efficiency (88th in offensive efficiency, 43rd in defensive efficiency), a notable drop-off from last year. The model thinks Rutgers will finish the season 16-15 (7-13 in conference play). Just what does all this mean? Here are a few thoughts:
- Initial projections are just that: initial projections. I wouldn’t read too much into the drop in Rutgers’ projections early on. (And I maybe wouldn’t even call it a “drop” — it’s more of a “resettling”. KenPom can be very wobbly about a team as a season proceeds. For instance, in the 2019-20 season, Rutgers started at 63, and at one point dropped as low as 85 prior to finishing the year at 28.) I feel like the team is 4-5 solid game performances away from being where fans expect them to be, for the most part. With good results, by the end of November, Rutgers could potentially be ranked in the 40s again, and once Big Ten games start, wins become incredibly helpful in upping a team’s ranking. One more point here: I said this for football analytics this season as well, the margin of error in KenPom’s preseason projections just simply has to be wider than usual this year, given how weird last season was (shortened non-conference for most teams, Covid-related cancellations for some teams, and a lack of a season for some others). So take these early numbers with an extra grain of salt.
- That said, Ken Pomeroy usually has a point. Looking at the numbers, the two big reasons for Rutgers’ being at 67th are (1) last year’s elite defensive team projects to be quite a bit worse on that end of the floor, and (2) Rutgers is predicted to play at a snail’s pace with respect to tempo (231st nationally). Both of these issues stem from the players Rutgers lost in the transfer portal, as well as their replacements. Myles Johnson was incredibly efficient (top 20 block rate, top 50 defensive rebounding rate, etc.), and Jacob Young, while never really efficient, was the big reason Rutgers played up-tempo when they did play that way last season. Combined, they did a lot for Rutgers last year, and all that production is gone. (Aside: the great folks at Three Man Weave posted some numbers earlier today showing that returning production is at a recent high this year; the average D-I team is returning over 62% of their player minutes this season — JY, Myles, and Montez Mathis alone combined for about 40% of Rutgers’ minutes last season, so there you go.) Aundre Hyatt, who transferred in from LSU, is offensively efficient, but KenPom rates on a team level for defense and neither he nor Rutgers’ other main transfer, Ralph Agee from San Jose St., come from teams that KenPom likes on defense. San Jose St., in particular, was one of the worst teams in college basketball last season according to KenPom. While Coach Pikiell can coach up players with the best of them, KenPom’s model doesn’t “know” that going into a season. All it “knows” is Rutgers lost more than the average team, and their replacements didn’t come from teams that address the specific needs Rutgers has.
- The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Those who read my articles know I tend to skew hopelessly optimistic. Here, I’m somewhere in between points (1) and (2) above. I was surprised to see Rutgers ranked so low as 67th to start the season, but I wouldn’t have expected them to crack the top-50, either. They simply lost too much last year, specifically in players whom KenPom values in particular, and the players who remain have to prove it before the model takes Rutgers more seriously. There’s just limited data at the moment, and we’ll have to wait and see.
Does KenPom’s initial projection make me feel any less confident that RU could be a middle-tier Big Ten team and earn an at-large NCAA tournament selection? It doesn’t, but it is an important note of caution and suggests there are more unknowns than usual with this particular team. All this being said, there’s nothing to change, in my opinion, with respect to well-deserved optimism leading into this season.