Another guidepost to the start of the college basketball season has fallen, as KenPom.com has released the 2015-16 preseason rankings. If you're reading this, you're most likely a Marquette Golden Eagles fan, so let's skip right to what matters to you.
KenPom ranks Marquette #54 in the country in the preseason rankings. That projects MU to go 19-11 overall and 9-9 in the Big East. There is one game missing from that overall record, as KenPom doesn't predict games that aren't officially on the schedule yet, and we don't know MU's second opponent in the Legends Classic yet. 9-9 in the Big East slots the Golden Eagles into a tie for fifth place with Providence.
Here's what the whole conference looks like:
While that prediction matches up exactly with how the Big East coaches voted for Marquette in their preseason poll, I should point out that there is some reason for optimism. KenPom is a statistical projection system. That means it takes years of data and says "freshmen improve X% to sophomore year, sophomores improve Y% to junior year" and so on to figure out where to start each team out. It also uses the data on hand to see how a coach operates his system on average and applies that to the model, and it uses recruiting rankings to create an average estimate on how a recruit ranked in a particular spot will perform in college, generally speaking.
The math is sound, and it gets better every year because there's more data points to create a model for the future. I can obviously understand why you might think that Marquette will be better than 19-11 and 9-9, but most of that completely depends on the freshmen being great. Right now, the KenPom model is approximating Henry Ellenson's contributions to whatever similarly ranked freshmen have contributed in the past. Ellenson's ranked #9 in the 247 Sports composite, so that means he's being compared to guys like Justin Jackson, James Young, and Grant Jerrett, who were all the #9 ranked 247 Sports players in the three previous incoming classes. Jackson was a 10/3/2 guy in 26 minutes for North Carolina last year, Young averaged 14 & 4 for Kentucky two years ago, and Jerrett averaged 5 points and 3 rebounds during his only year at Arizona. I could go on a deep dive and compare Haanif Cheatham or Traci Carter to their recruiting rankings matches, but you get the idea. If the freshmen (and Wally Ellenson, who's not taken into account at all as a transfer) all play above expectations, then Marquette's going to be better than that predicted record.
The other thing that might have an impact on Marquette's record and/or ranking by the end of the season is how KenPom treats Steve Wojciechowski as a coach. Right now, the model only has one year of him as a head coach to base anything on. Right now, KenPom expects Marquette's offense to improve (#183 last year to #68 now) as well as seeing an improvement in the defense (#74 last year, #48 now). That can largely be explained through the influx of talent into the roster, as what Marquette is adding is greater than what they're losing due to graduations. The one thing that Wojo is more responsible than anything else right now in the model is tempo, and KenPom actually expects Marquette to slow down ever so slightly. MU ended last year at #202 in tempo, and the model sorts them at #212 to start 2015-16. The number of possessions are actually up, but that's explained because of the shot clock shortening to 30 seconds. Wojciechowski has repeatedly said that he wants Marquette to play high octane and up tempo. From what we saw of MU constantly pushing up the court in Europe in August, I find it hard to believe that the Golden Eagles will end up slower relative to the rest of the country this season. The key there, though, is whether or not MU will be efficient on offense when running the break.
Finally, we should look at is Marquette's non-conference schedule. We were critical of the schedule when it was announced, but in fairness, a lot of that criticism was based on using the KenPom rankings from the end of last season. So, let's pull up the teams that MU's going to be playing this season and look at their preseason rankings. Hey, maybe it won't be as bad as originally thought!
|Team||14-15 Final||15-16 Preseason|
|North Carolina State||31||41|
|San Jose State||349||341|
Nope, it's still bad.
Again, my argument isn't that Marquette should be scheduling Duke, Kentucky, Virginia, Kansas, and Arizona. There has to be a middle ground between scheduling a crazypants tough schedule and scheduling seven of the 50 worst teams in college basketball, and eight of the worst 100.
Look at this lineup of buy games (we'll ignore IUPUI here, because that was assigned by the Legends Classic), and you tell me if it's really that different:
|Actual Schedule||Theory Schedule|
|Grambling State||Tennessee State|
|San Jose State||North Carolina A&T|
|Chicago State||New Orleans|
|Stetson||East Tennessee State|
All I did was move 50 spots up on the KenPom preseason rankings for each team. It's not like that's the 1927 Yankees of a college basketball schedule, and hey, look, I accidentally have Marquette not playing teams from the damn SWAC twice. Maybe the MEAC twice isn't much of an improvement, but hey, MU did okay the time they played Norfolk State twice in one season.