The Michigan Wolverines are into the second year of the Juwan Howard era and so far, so good. After a promising debut season (that was unfortunately cut short to COVID-19) and holding the No. 1 haul of players thus far in the 2021 recruiting class, fan excitement and support is about as strong as it ever has been.
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 set of metrics cited in the college basketball sphere. 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 KenPom 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 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 16th overall. Heading into the 2020-21 season, the Wolverines sit at 17th.
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 20th in the country in AdjO by averaging 113.2 points per 100 possessions. KenPom ranks the Wolverines at 9th heading into this upcoming season at a projected 109.2 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 28th-ranked team in AdjD in college basketball with 93 points surrendered per 100 possessions.
Heading into 2020-21, Michigan ranks 31st in projected AdjD with 88.8 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 in 2018-19 under John Beilein, but that’s not as bad as it might appear on paper. Virginia was dead last in this category that season and, of course, won it all. The Wolverines play much faster under Howard and finished last season at 150th in the country. KenPom projects a further jump this year with Michigan set at No. 140 in this category.
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 when it won the 2019 national title 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. Duke finished last season ranked fifth on KenPom overall and had a tempo ranking of 34th. Florida State (15th overall, 89th in tempo), Seton Hall (20th overall, 93rd in tempo) and Iowa (23rd overall, 77th in tempo) were the other top 25 teams that are mostly exceptions to the rule.
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 301st in luck last year at -.048, so they were a bit less than half a percentage point worse than their projected record.
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 (+12.79) was tops in college basketball last year, illustrating just how tough a slate they played.
- OppO: The amount of points your opponents score per 100 possessions. Michigan’s OppO was also ranked No. 1 in college basketball last season at 110.2.
- OppD: The amount of points your opponents surrender per 100 possessions. Michigan’s OppD was 27th in college basketball last season at 97.4
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 difficult non-conference schedule last year that ranked 105th in the country at +2.00. For comparisons sake Michigan State, who has a reputation of scheduling as tough as anyone in non-conference play, ranked 109th 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.”
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
2020: no champion, thanks COVID!
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.