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7 observations and initial reactions from the 2020 KenPom preseason rankings

For the next two weeks, it’s Over-Analyze KenPom Rankings SZN.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Farleigh Dickinson vs Gonzaga Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Refresh no more. The 2020 preseason college basketball projections are here.

College basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy — whose metrics partially influence the NCAA’s NET ranking — released his preseason college basketball rankings this past Sunday.

These preseason sabermetrics, which include everything from projected offensive and defensive efficiency, expected pace of play and odds of going undefeated (or winless) in conference play, offer an in-depth look at the sport from an analyst whom has been doing this for quite some time.

With that said, it’s easy to comb through the data for hours and overreact about superlatives, conference rankings and the like. What follows is a handful of initial observations from taking a glance at the 2020 KenPom rankings, which can be found here.

1. Gonzaga has the best chance at going undefeated

It’s not much, but the Bulldogs have a nation-leading 0.6% chance of going undefeated before the NCAA Tournament. Predictably, this figure is mostly due to playing in the West Coast Conference, which will give the Bulldogs two, maybe three real tests in conference play. The next-highest chance at an unbeaten record belongs to Duke, which has a 0.05% chance.

So far, the Bulldogs’ only expected non-conference loss is at Arizona (of all teams) on Dec. 14 — and even that win probability sits at an even 50%. Aside from that game, Gonzaga’s most difficult game is at home against the sixth-ranked team in KenPom, the North Carolina Tar Heels; in that one, Pomeroy predicts a 81-79 win for the Bulldogs.

In WCC play, a familiar spoiler awaits: The Saint Mary’s Gaels are projected to be the lone blemish on Gonzaga’s otherwise-spotless record. McKeon Pavilion is a notoriously difficult place to win in the mid-major circuits, and hosting Gonzaga is usually a sold-out, nationally-televised affair. The Bulldogs’ have a 49% chance at winning in Moraga on Feb. 8. Should Gonzaga win on the road, its chance of finishing a perfect 16-0 record in WCC play for the second-straight year should rise considerably from the current 6.8% odds.

2. The SoCon is rising

It took a few years, but the computers have finally caught on to the Southern Conference.

Steve Forbes’ East Tennessee Buccaneers — which are slotted at No. 11 in our Other Top 25 preseason poll — start the year ranked 74th in the nation. The last time the SoCon had a preseason top-75 team on KenPom was the 2013 season, when current Atlantic-10 member Davidson started the year ranked 44th.

From there, Furman and UNC Greensboro are outside the top 100 at 105th and 108th, respectively. This might not seem too significant, but having a solid top three around the top 100 puts the SoCon on par with conferences like top-tier mid-major leagues like the MAC, Missouri Valley, Ivy League and Conference-USA.

3. VCU’s defense is going to be elite

The Rams are ranked 23rd overall and 14th in defensive efficiency, making their defense the best out of the teams this site covers. (Yes, they’re expected to be better than Gonzaga, which ranks close behind in 19th.)

This shouldn’t be surprising. The Rams ranked seventh nationally in this category last year thanks to holding teams to only 43.5 eFG% and holding teams to a meager 28.5% from distance — that last mark was second in the nation behind Houston. Naturally, VCU also returns nearly everyone from that roster, namely Marcus Evans, Issac vann and Di’Riante Jenkins — all of whom have high-major height and versatility on the perimeter.

4. Missouri State just got some bulletin-board material

Pomeroy’s projections are bearish on the Bears.

Despite boasting some high-major transfers and retaining most of its contributors from last year’s 16-16 campaign, the KenPom preseason projections put Missouri State at 166th with a 14-15 record and a 9-9 finish in the Missouri Valley. That .500 record is in a four-way tie with the likes of Drake, Indiana State and Evansville — four teams that went a combined 24-30 in Valley play last year.

Yet if there’s a silver lining, these are merely one (very important) person’s preseason predictions. The Bears were picked first in the MVC Preseason Poll and are 13th in our Other Top 25 rankings, so people around the sport see the potential of Dana Ford’s team this season.

Along similar lines, here are how the other teams in The Other Top 25 fared compared to KenPom’s preseason rankings:

25. Bowling Green (117th on KenPom)
24. Pepperdine (104th)
23. Louisiana Tech (110th)
22. New Mexico (91st)
21. UC Irvine (111th)
20. Liberty (88th)
19. UTSA (143rd)
18. Wright State (103rd)
17. Belmont (85th)
16. Furman (105th)
15. Rhode Island (83rd)
14. BYU (72nd)
13. Missouri State (166th)
12. Western Kentucky (86th)
11. ETSU (74th)

5. Merrimack debuts at 285th

On the heels of a 22-10 season and a first-round loss in the NCAA Division II Quarterfinals, the Merrimack Warriors are Division I’s newest member. This season they’ll make the move to the in the NEC, in which the Warriors are picked to finish tied for sixth with St. Francis NY, per KenPom. Even though Merrimack won’t be eligible for the NEC championships, this middle-of-the-pack start is probably more optimistic than expected.

KenPom rankings have been a tad harsh for D1 newcomers. Last season, Cal Baptist started at 227th, while North Alabama was all the way at 337th. Both teams overachieved their records by the season’s end.

6. Want to watch a good mid-major offense? KenPom recommends looking westward

Of the schools this site covers (read as: non-Power 5s, American and Big East), three of the top five offenses reside on the west coast. Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s lead the way in fifth and sixth, respectively, and then there’s a sizable gap before Davidson (35th), BYU (37th), ETSU (45th) and Utah State (46th) round out the top 50.

The placement of these schools should come as no surprise to anyone following the mid-major basketball world. Gonzaga adds 24/7 Sports’ 13th-best recruiting class in the nation to a team that already has Killian Tillie, Corey Kispert and Filip Petrusev. Saint Mary’s hyper-efficient offense brings back four of its starting five from last season, including Jordan Ford (21.1 PPG, 55.7 eFG%) and Malik Fitts (15.2 PPG, 55.1 eFG%). Davidson, BYU and Utah State have some of college basketball’s best guards in Kellan Grady, Jake Toolson and Sam Merrill, respectively.

Further down the list. both New Mexico schools crack the top 100, for obvious reasons: New Mexico has an intriguing group of transfers, while New Mexico State has intriguing transfers plus an absurd 14-man rotation. With so much offensive talent on so many objectively entertaining teams, staying up late to watch west coast mid-majors might actually be worthwhile.

7. California could finish in the top half of the Big West...

...but just barely.

The good news: KenPom’s rankings put the Golden Bears at 178th, which would put them fifth in the Big West Conference. Mark Fox’s team is barely behind Cal State Northridge (175th) and Hawai’i (172nd), but has the fourth-best offense with 1.003 points per possession (189th nationally).

The bad news: Cal plays in the Pac-12.