By Ross Benes
With a wealth of NBA talent and a proven coach, Kentucky has appeared unstoppable this season as it's inched closer and closer to becoming the first undefeated NCAA men's basketball team in nearly 40 years. But now that the Wildcats will be playing some of the best teams from conferences outside their own, it's time to see how much Kentucky's schedule influenced its dominance.
As seen in this chart from Redditor erdub, Kentucky held onto the AP No. 1 ranking all season long. Blowing through their schedule, the Wildcats have given little reason for anyone to doubt them, making their status as the tournament's No. 1 overall seed a foregone conclusion. But even early on the season it was apparent the SEC was weaker than other major conferences. How weak was it exactly? And how did that affect Kentucky?
To find out we compared Kentucky's KenPom ratings and SRS numbers to previous national champions. KenPom measures expected winning percentage against an average opponent, and Sport-Reference's SRS measures expected point differentials against an average opponent. KenPom is the flagship statistic in college basketball analytics, but since those numbers only go back to 2002, SRS gives us more scope going back to 1980.
Kentucky has the highest KenPom rating since the stat was tracked in 2002. Kentucky's 0.9777 expected winning percentage against an average opponent is a full standard deviation above the 0.9555 mean of previous national champions since 2002. But its SRS of a 28.60 point expected victory margin against an average team ranks only fourth among champions since 1980.
Fourth is a bit low for a team people have been comparing to NBA teams. Larry Brown said Kentucky could even make the NBA playoffs. So how come this dominant team hasn't put up more staggering SRS numbers?
It's because SRS depends a lot on strength of schedule. And outside Kentucky, the SEC's average SRS is just 9.45, with teams ranking 61.55 on average. That means throughout the season Kentucky has primarily played squads that beat an average opponent (and remember "average" here accounts for the 300-plus teams in NCAA Division I basketball) by less than 10 points, and typically aren't among the best 60 teams in the country.
The sortable chart below shows each champion's (with Kentucky as proxy for this season) SRS score and rank, conference (excluding the champion) SRS score and rank, KenPom score and rank, and strength of schedule according to KenPom.
|2000||Michigan State||25.04||3||Big Ten||11.65||57.00||n/a||n/a||n/a|
Kentucky's strength of schedule rank of 46th is the worst among champions since 2002 (and, yes, we realize Kentucky isn't a champion quite yet). Its conference's average SRS rank of 66.46 is the sixth worst among national champions since 1980, and is about 10 spots worse than the 56.98 average. Sixth might sound okay, but three of the conferences ahead of it -- 1990 Big West, 1980 Metro, 2014 AAC -- weren't really "major" conferences (although the AAC can make an argument for it). The only two champions from major conferences that performed worse than this year's SEC are 1984 Georgetown (when the Big East was very top heavy with a weak bottom) and 2012 Kentucky (which played in a similar SEC environment to this year's Wildcats).
What this spells out is the SEC this year is worse than nearly every major conference that produced a national champion since 1980. Which makes Kentucky's true greatness a bit uncertain since it hasn't been challenged much. As Matt Brown noted, Louisville was the last top-four seed the Wildcats faced. And that was in December.
Since 2002, champions have had a strength of schedule (SOS) rating of about 18 on average. Kentucky's SOS of 46 is nearly two standard deviations worse than that mean. However, it's tough to separate cause and effect here. Maybe strong conferences prepared 2005 North Carolina and 2011 UConn for national title runs. Or maybe being in a league filled with other powers was coincidental to their tournament success. UNLV won it all in 1990 and came from a paltry Big West. And just a few years ago, playing in a pedestrian SEC didn't stop from Kentucky from dominating the 2012 tournament. This quickly turns into a game of anecdotes.
What we do know, is that Kentucky hasn't been pushed much yet this season. But that has as much to do with its opponents as it does with its ability.
* * *
Ross Benes is a Sports on Earth contributor who has written for Deadspin, The Wall Street Journal, Esquire and Slate. You can reach him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @RossBenes.