Attempt to Reduce Hostility to Arkansas Computer Rankings

Attempt to Reduce Hostility to Arkansas Computer Rankings

Warning flags for the Razorbacks’ final game against Tennessee had been raised since the day the schedule was set last year. It was the toughest road game on Arkansas’ basketball schedule, and it was senior day for the Vols.

Those flags were raised even higher a few weeks ago when Vols coach Rick Barnes openly criticized the officiating after Tennessee’s meager 48-point effort after a tough loss at Fayetteville.

The flags were ripped from the mast ahead of Saturday’s game when it was revealed Arkansas starter Au’Diese Toney would not play due to a previously undisclosed injury.

Sure enough, Tennessee walked out as angry as the “Rocky Top” character upon seeing his first phone bill. They bombed Arkansas for 50 points in the first half behind 9-for-12-of-three shooting and took advantage of Jaylin Williams who spent long minutes on the bench with fouls.

Referees ended up calling 51 fouls in Saturday’s 40-minute game. When games are called this tightly and a team like Arkansas is already a man down, it makes things, uh, interesting. KK Robinson and Jaxson Robinson were even both on the court at the same time in the first half for the first time since Arkansas started their run in January.

And yet, it was barely enough to beat the Razorbacks. The Hogs were down 24 points in the first half and 21 at halftime, but cut the lead to a single possession in the final minutes. The Razorbacks were down two points in the final minute, but a poor pass on a fast break from JD Notae ended Arkansas’ best chance to tie the game, and the Vols held on to claim the second seed. SEC Tournament Series. Arkansas will be the 4th seed and begin its postseason run Friday in the SEC Tournament.

Despite the loss in Knoxville, Arkansas didn’t drop much, if at all, in the IT rankings (and actually moved up two spots in the NET). The skies are still sunny in the NCAA tournament bracket projections:

Arkansas Basketball in Computer Rankings

There have been a lot of talk about open hostility to the computer rankings since the Hogs had won so many big games over the past few weeks and seen little upward movement there. Arkansas coach Eric Musselman made his feelings about the computer standings clear after the Hogs’ win over LSU on Wednesday:

The frustration is absolutely justified. Computer rankings are skewed. That’s why there are so many. If there was a perfect formula, we would only need one. Instead we have NET, we have KenPom, we have Sagarin, we have KPI and BPI (but I think we got rid of RPI). They are all different because they measure different things. This means that each of the rankings must inherently believe that flaws exist in the others. Ergo, they are all defective.

Yet we are a society absorbed in mapping and measurement. So here’s where Arkansas basketball stands in the latest iterations of some of those polls:

REPORT: #20 nationally, #5 SEC behind LSU (#16)

sagarine: No. 16 nationally, No. 4 in SEC (one ahead of LSU)

KenPom: #19 nationally, #5 SEC behind LSU (#17)

One thing computer rankings generally have in common is an attempt to measure offensive and defensive effectiveness. Basically, rather than measuring teams by wins and losses, they measure possession by possession. They also tend to apply equal weight to every game, whether it was played in November or played this week. As a result, as we come to the end of the regular season, each team has so many possessions on the books that it’s hard to see any significant movement from game to game.

It’s infuriating because that’s not how college sports fans have been conditioned to watch their teams. We’ve watched the AP and BCS polls and the weekly playoff committee rankings for years. While we don’t always agree with those either, you can generally expect a win – especially a win over a highly ranked team – to result in a jump into the next set of polls, and that a defeat is reflected in the same way. Human polls have behaved this way for decades.

Computer filings act differently. For them, each game is nothing more than additional data inserted into a team’s profile which consists of equal parts of each possession from each game the team has played since the first game of the season. Even if a computer ranking applies more weight to recent games, and there may be some that attempt this, it’s still an arbitrary decision as to when to apply the extra weight. There’s no way a computer ranking would start putting more weight on Arkansas by the time the Hogs determined their starting lineup in January and began their run.

It is useful to use advanced analytics to break down teams. Unbiased data is important. I have been a KenPom user for several years. But like any data analysis, it only really has value if you’re able to apply context to the numbers.

That’s what’s got Hog fans cutting razors for the past few weeks. If you look at resumes across the country over the past two months, Arkansas clearly has the resume of a 1 seed.

Since Jan. 9, the Hogs have twice lost by five combined points to quality teams on the road and hold wins over Auburn, Kentucky, Tennessee and two wins over LSU. Only Gonzaga can boast a better win/loss record in this era, and their recent loss to St. Mary’s was 10 points. Even SEC champion Auburn, who has a high chance of being a 1 seed, lost three times last month, won just one SEC top-four game all season and won games against SEC jobbers Missouri and Georgia by a combined three-pointer.

Where the Razorbacks will be hit

Arkansas should not be a 1 seed. Those previous games should and do count. Other teams didn’t take that long to pull themselves together and will be rewarded appropriately. The Razorbacks also implemented a substandard non-conference schedule and will be properly chimed in for that (although it’s not completely Arkansas’ fault as a game against Illinois would have been stronger than the game). against Cincinnati in the Hall of Fame Classic, and UA had no control in getting West Virginia in the Big 12 Challenge in a year where WVU is at the bottom of this league).

But should Arkansas be a 5 or 6 seed? If the purpose of the ranking is to place the teams in the order of probability that they can win the tournament, the answer is no. The Razorbacks should be higher unless the selection committee members truly believe there are 20 teams more likely than Arkansas to win the tournament. Arkansas proved on Saturday that they were at least level with Tennessee, even with an absent starter.

The Razorbacks’ IT rankings placement is held back by poor defensive performances (even though some of them were wins) from November until the loss at Texas A&M in the SEC’s third roster tilt.

It’s almost comical to look back on those games and see that the team still didn’t know which players should start or come off the bench. There were starters in those games who barely see the field now. It’s easy to wonder what Arkansas’ resume would have looked like if players and coaches had it all figured out earlier. The Razorbacks may have celebrated an SEC championship after beating LSU last week. Alas, they didn’t and took 4th place in the SEC Tournament.

How this seed was earned is very clear. NCAA seeds are subjective. The Hogs have had spots on their resume since the start of the season. That should be taken into account, but if you were one of the teams that got a first seed, would you be happy to draw the Razorbacks sooner than necessary? I will not do it.