Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Real Opponent - Cupcake Splits: Why Missouri is Finally Catching up to their Preseason Rank

Some people like to say we have not learned anything about Cincinnati yet. That’s because the Bearcats have played only two top 100 Pomeroy teams, and neither of those games was a true road game. But even if they have played a lot of cupcakes, there is obviously something to be learned from their margin-of-victory (MOV) in various games. We can compare the final margin in Cincinnati’s drubbing of Toledo to the margin when other teams drubbed Toledo. And that is how a MOV stat like the Pomeroy rankings determines that Cincinnati has been the 40th best team, despite the fact that they have not played anyone.

But as many experts believe, you need to see how a team performs against real competition to get a true evaluation. Because not all coaches use non-conference games the same way, MOV is sometimes misleading. In particular, how a coach uses his bench in cupcake games varies substantially. Some coaches like to keep a tight rotation even in blowouts. I remember a few years ago Georgetown had virtually no bench, so they simply played the starters all the time, even when non-conference games were blowouts. On the other hand, many coaches use the non-conference games to give the freshman meaningful playing time. This may result in only a 10 point win against a bad team, but the coach is evaluating players, not trying to perform at a peak level.

One such team may be the Missouri Tigers. Despite, playing a deep roster in many games this season, against quality competition Mike Anderson has used his bench much more strategically. For example, in an overtime loss to Georgetown, Missouri essentially used a 7 player rotation. But in the close season opening win against Western Illinois, Missouri played 10 players over 10 minutes.

Cupcake blowouts also often measure the quality of the second and third unit. But whether the bench is deep may become less important as rotations are shortened.

To the extent these differences in bench utilization or bench quality impact the final MOV, one thing we can do is look at various splits. We can compare how teams have performed against quality competition to how they have performed against cupcakes. The next table shows that comparison. It compares team's adjusted offense and defense in games against the Pomeroy top 100 to the adjusted offense and defense in games against teams ranked 100+. Notice that this is not always correlated to win-loss record. (I.e. a close loss at Duke was still a solid performance for Michigan St.)

Efficiency Margin is the different between Adjusted Offense and Adjusted Defense. Efficiency Margin Difference is the Difference in Efficiency Margin in games against the top 100 relative to 100+. Efficiency Margin Difference essentially measures whether teams have played better or worse against quality competition.

(Note: If the splits do not seem to add up, recognize that Ken Pomeroy puts a higher weight on recent games in his official rankings.)

Ohio St. looks even more scary now that I see this table. Not only is Ohio St. winning by an impressive margin, it is not based on wins over cupcakes. Ohio St.’s best performances have come against good teams.

On the flip side, Duke is a classic case of a team that is going to be over-rated by a margin-of-victory stat. Mike Krzyzewski’s philosophy is to play his best players. He believes bench players can learn through practice. He does not believe they need game experience to develop. And thus his margin of victory against small schools is almost always large.

As noted above, Missouri has been much better against quality competition. That is one of the reasons the Tigers have been steadily rising from 40th in the Pomeroy rankings a few weeks ago to 16th today.

On the other hand, Kansas has been much worse against quality teams. The sample size is much smaller, and Kansas is still an elite team no matter how you slice it, but the two point win against USC is reason to make us question whether Kansas will dominate a deep Big 12 this year.

Alabama has been frankly horrible against good teams. Their defense has seemingly disappeared whenever they’ve faced a quality opponent this year.

Meanwhile Missouri St.'s offense has disappeared whenever they have played good teams.

The big problem with a table like this is sample size. Cincinnati’s defense was phenomenal against Dayton, but that was only one game. I think it is fair to say we have no idea how good Cincinnati is yet. But conference play is here in the Big East and will be everywhere else soon. The left-hand side of this table will have a lot more information soon.