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KenPom 101: What the college basketball metric system is and how it ranks Michigan

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What does it mean when analysts and fans cite KenPom? Grab a chair and let’s go through it in its most basic forms.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Michigan vs Florida Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan basketball is in its golden era in the here and now, even as they transition from John Beilein to Juwan Howard with the Wolverines factoring into the national picture now. That has led to an explosion of fan support and interest in the product, which in turns brings a lot of the casual fans and followers of college basketball into the fold.

Still, as fans of a traditionally strong football school, basketball can be a foreign language at times, especially when people start throwing advanced stats into the picture. Among them is Ken Pomeroy’s advanced metric system (better known as KenPom), which is probably the most popular thrown around. KenPom measures teams based on efficiency to not only paint a picture of how a basketball team compares to the rest of the nation, but also a fairly predictive formula that can chart where a team might be heading, as well.

Some people, especially the people who do not know as much about the sport or get intimidated by numbers, might feel like it is way too over their head to follow along with. The good news is that it really isn’t if you can follow along with the basic definitions of what it measures.

We’re here to give you at least a very basic understanding of what KenPom is and how it pertains to the game so at the very least, you can follow along with a break room or bar conversation about college basketball. You don’t just need to be the fan that watches the game by “hey look ball goes through hoop!” anymore.

What we will look at here is everything that you will see on the front page first and then get into some of the other odds and ends stuff in a later piece. KenPom is a subscription site, so you have to be a paying customer to get more than what you see right out front. We want to make sure you understand what you can already access for free before deciding that you may be interested in more of a statistical deep dive.

Adjusted Efficiency Margin (AdjEM): This is how KenPom determines the overall ranking of teams. This takes the offensive efficiency minus the defensive efficiency to determine how much X team would outscore the average Division I program by. We will define those two terms below.

Last year, Michigan finished sixth overall. Heading into the 2019-20 season, the Wolverines sit at 21st.

Adjusted offensive efficiency (AdjO): This is the amount of points a team scores per 100 possessions, or trips down the floor with the basketball. Last season, Michigan finished 24th in the country in AdjO by averaging 114.5 points per 100 possessions. KenPom ranks the Wolverines at 54th heading into this upcoming season at a projected 108 points per 100 possessions.

Adjusted defensive efficiency (AdjD): This is the amount of points a team allows per 100 possessions. Last season, Michigan was the second-best team in AdjD in college basketball with 86.2 points surrendered per 100 possessions. The only team that was higher was Texas Tech, who handled Michigan in the Sweet Sixteen and rode their defense to an appearance in the National Title game against Virginia, who was fifth in this category.

Heading into 2019-20, Michigan ranks 13th in projected AdjD with 89.9 points per 100 possessions.

Adjusted tempo (AdjT): We’re going to spend a little bit of extra time on this one.

It’s not enough to just take offensive and defensive efficiency metrics and spit out the numbers from there. KenPom also accounts for tempo, which is the amount of possessions that a team has per 40 minutes (over the course of one game).

This is how KenPom says possessions in a game can be estimated using a box score:

Field goals attempted - offensive rebounds + turnovers + 0.475 x free throws attempted

Possessions are counted for both teams and then averaged out to give us the AdjT metric.

Michigan was 317th out of 353 teams in AdjT last season, but that’s not as bad as it might appear on paper. Virginia was dead last in this category and, of course, won it all. The Wolverines are projected to play much faster this season with its preseason AdjT ranking set at 232nd in the country.

This is something that people should look at as just a piece of the puzzle as opposed to something that is a damning stat about a team’s offensive prowess. Virginia had the 2nd-most efficient offense in the country last year despite being dead last in tempo. Efficiency is based on making the possessions that you have count.

When you look through the rankings, you will usually see a lot of teams in the 180s and lower being among the highest tempo teams in college basketball. That’s usually because they do not have the athletes or talent on their own and have to rely on playing a fast, perimeter-based game.

There are exceptions to the rule, of course, as KenPom’s sixth-ranked North Carolina comes into this year ranked eighth in terms of tempo. The next highest top 25 team is Duke, who comes in at a AdjT that ranks 35th. From there, it is Kansas at 62nd.

Luck rating (Luck): This isn’t as complicated as some people think it is because luck and intangible things cannot be quantified. All this does is measure a team’s actual record with the projected record that KenPom spits out for them. Michigan was 181st in luck last year at -.001, so they were one-thousandth of a win worse than they were projected to be.

Darn! Such underachievers!

There’s obviously no preseason metric for this seeing as there’s no data and numbers to crunch just yet.

Strength of Schedule: This measures the total efficiency of the opponents that a team has faced on the year. Again, there is no preseason data seeing as it is dependent on games being played.

  • AdjEM: Once again, as it was defined above, this measures the point differential by which the teams a school has played would defeat the average Division I school by. Michigan’s opponent AdjEM was 20th in college basketball last year at +11.27.
  • OppO: The amount of points your opponents score per 100 possessions. Michigan’s OppO was 35th in college basketball last season at 109.2.
  • OppD: The amount of points your opponents surrender per 100 possessions. Michigan’s OppD was 12th in college basketball last year at 98.0.

Non-conference strength of schedule (NCSOS): KenPom attempts to paint a picture here of the portion of the schedule that a team’s athletic department can control, which obviously rewards a team that schedules tougher opponents as opposed to cupcakes in non-conference play.

AdjEM: Third time’s a charm. This measures the point differential by which your opponents would defeat the average Division I school by. Michigan played a very soft non-conference schedule last year that ranked 309th in the country at -5.42. Texas Tech, the national runner-up, was two spots ahead of them at 309th. From there, the next-lowest top ten team in terms of ADjEM in non-conference was top-ranked Virginia, who came in at 255th. Michigan State, who has a reputation of scheduling as tough as anyone in non-conference play, ranked 82nd in the country.

Again, this doesn’t take into consideration the caliber of teams. Most non-conference schedules for Power 5 schools are fairly light with some bigger matchups. This is more a measure of how bad the worst teams you play are. They really should rename this part of it the cupcake metric.

Final Thoughts

KenPom can be intimidating and sometimes advanced stats in-general do not tell the whole story. There are certain bounces of the ball or a shot going in and out that can change the complexion of an entire game. It is why this is arguably the best sport, especially when tournament time comes around. Anything can happen inside the vacuum of one game if shots are falling for one team and are not for the other.

All that KenPom serves to do is create a profile of a team over an extended amount of time for background. There is more advanced stuff on the site that is a little more complicated to explain than what we went over here, but for the average fan, the above is a pretty good starting point, especially if you’re wanting to know what the full picture of a team looks like.

As far as how KenPom measured the last 10 national champions:

2010 Duke: 1st in Adj0, 5th in AdjD

2011 Connecticut: 19th in AdjO, 15th in AdjD

2012 Kentucky: 2nd in AdjO, 7th in AdjD

2013 Louisville: 7th in AdjO, 1st in AdjD

2014 Connecticut: 39th in AdjO, 10th in AdjD

2015 Duke: 3rd in AdjO, 11th in AdjD

2016 Villanova: 3rd in AdjO, 5th in AdjD

2017 North Carolina: 9th in AdjO, 11th in AdjD

2018 Villanova: 1st in AdjO, 11th in AdjD

2019 Virginia: 2nd in AdjO, 5th in AdjD

Outside of a pair of UConn teams in this decade, the trend over the last ten years of college basketball is that the team that wins it all generally has one of the ten most efficient offenses in America and are also in the top 15 defensively.

For Michigan, they were 4th in AdjO and 37th in AdjD when they were national runners-up in 2013 and 35th in AdjO and 3rd in AdjD when they lost in the national title game to Villanova in 2018. If only they could have Frankensteined those teams together, Beilein might have a title to his name.

So, that’s the long and short of the basics of KenPom entering the season. What are some other questions you may have? Sound off and share your thoughts in the comments below.