Big Ten Geeks: Surprises and Disappointments

Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Big Ten Geeks: Surprises and Disappointments

Before a very important weekend of games, let’s take a quick look at where Big Ten teams currently rank in KenPom relative to where they were ranked in the preseason.

For those unfamiliar, Ken Pomeroy uses an objective system to come up with preseason rankings for every DI team. I’ll let Ken explain it:

The system is largely the same as in recent seasons. It independently predicts a team’s adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. As a reminder, it uses information split into two categories:

– Base level of the program. This takes into account the last five seasons of data for the same unit (offense for predicting offense) and the last season for the opposite unit (defense for predicting offense). It also includes data for how much money the program has spent on men’s basketball for the last three seasons. The bulk of this component is determined by the most recent season’s performance of the unit.

You can make a decent predictive system just by knowing what is normal for a program. If we were predicting the Big 12 standings in 2025 (assuming the conference exists), it would bereasonably safe to say that Kansas will have a winning record and TCU will have a losing record. We can say that with some confidence even though some of the players on those rosters haven’t picked up a basketball yet.

– Personnel. This component handles who’s coming back from last season’s team and which impact recruits are being added to the roster. More impact is given to returning players from earlier classes. And minutes played by those with a high-efficiency/high-usage profile are particularly important. Recruits in the RSCI top 100 have some influence here as well, although most of the influence is in the top 50.

This is all to say: KenPom’s preseason rankings give us at least some kind of an objective measure of what kind of team we can expect. They certainly aren’t perfect, but they stand as a baseline.

By comparing current KenPom ranks with preseason ranks, we get an objective measure of which teams have surprised and which teams have disappointed. In the following table, I’ve sorted from biggest positive surprise to biggest disappointment.

Team Preseason KenPom Rank Current KenPom Rank Difference
Nebraska 123 59 64
Iowa 15 6 9
Wisconsin 22 13 9
Michigan 12 18 -6
Ohio St. 6 14 -8
Penn St. 82 96 -14
Michigan St. 2 17 -15
Minnesota 35 50 -15
Illinois 46 73 -27
Northwestern 86 120 -34
Indiana 25 75 -50
Purdue 30 98 -68

The conference as a whole hasn’t performed quite as well as KenPom’s model expected. The average Big Ten team is 13 spots lower than projected, and only three teams are currently ranked better than they were in the preseason.

The biggest surprise – and this should come as no surprise – is Nebraska. The Huskers were projected to be the Big Ten’s worst team, but they’ve blown that expectation out of the water. If the Big Ten coach of the year goes to the guy whose team surprised most – and that always seems to be the rationale used – there’s not an argument for anybody but Tim Miles.

Iowa and Wisconsin have also played better than projected, but the difference is much smaller than that for Nebraska. Those were projected to be good teams, and they’ve been a bit better than that.

Michigan is technically a mild disappointment by this measure, but I’d argue that being within six spots of its preseason projection is a good result for a team that lost a starter early in the season.

Beyond that, we see a litany of teams that haven’t quite lived up to expectations. Much was made of Northwestern’s surprising conference success a few weeks ago, with Chris Collins receiving some coach of the year hype, but that really should have been a top 100 squad given the personnel.

Indiana and Purdue are the conference’s biggest disappointments, and it’s not close. The Hoosiers were pegged as a borderline top 25 team, which made sense given the talent on the roster, and instead Indiana has struggled mightily. Purdue was expected to be a solid tournament team (both by KenPom and by us), but the season opening escape against lowly Northern Kentucky was a sign of things to come.