There have been about one million rankings published since the end of the college basketball season last year. Most titled “Way too Early Top-25!” or “Preseason NCAA Tournament Bracket” or something else of that ilk. Well, as of Sunday morning, the cream of the preseason rankings crop has come out. The KenPom.com rankings are probably the most prestigious analytic rankings out there (sorry, Bart Torvik, but even you know it’s true). And I don’t just say that because your favorite team is ranked 17th to start the season.
That’s right, the Marquette Golden Eagles team who lost two of their best players has actually moved up in the rankings from last year’s final rankings by 16 spots, from their 33rd place finish last year, as well as seven spots higher than their peak before the implosion that followed.
Yeah, let that sink in for a minute.
According to KenPom, Marquette finished last season with the 32nd best offense and 45th best defense. Considering KenPom had predicted they would have the 9th best offense and 66th best defense in last year’s preseason rankings, I would say his recent track record for predicting Marquette teams is pretty good.
Enough with the past, this article is about the future. KenPom gets Marquette to #17 to start the year by way of the 17th best offense and 34th best defense in the country. If you are not downright giddy with those rankings (especially the offensive one), you need to go home and rethink your life. If you are already home, you may commence rethinking immediately.
You are probably wondering how Marquette is expected to improve their offensive ranking without two brothers who happened to carry a significant load last season, including one who finished the season with a third straight Offensive Efficiency Rating above 120. I am too. However, I am not only writer working here so after posing it to the AE collective (minus Sam, who slept in, get it together Sam, important things are happening). we have some theories.
First up is that KenPom is very high on Sacar Anim continuing his hot streak from the end of last year. After starting his career as a non-shooter, Anim shot nearly 43% from beyond the arc during conference play last season, ending up as the third most accurate shooter in Big East play. Although to improve his personal offensive rating after taking a sophomore to junior year dip, Anim will need to show improved playmaking ability as he averaged 1.2 assists last season.
Another possible reason for the uptick is the addition of big man Jayce Johnson. The seven-footer led Utah last year with a 14.1% offensive rebounding rate which was good enough for 27th in the country. I don’t see Johnson being a huge difference maker but those rebounding numbers certainly don’t hurt on a Marquette squad that wasn’t particularly great at extending possessions with second chances last year. The final reason KenPom could be so high on Marquette’s offense is the return of Greg Elliott. Elliott had an offensive rating of 116 two years ago before he sat out all last season with a thumb injury. If Elliott is projected to have a major role and retains his stellar offensive rating and/or makes a standard issue sophomore/redshirt jump, it would make sense for the algorithm to be high on Marquette’s offense.
The defense improving to 34th is really no shocker. We lost two players who were neutral to bad on defense and added a 7-foot shot blocker, plus a Swiss Army Knife defender in Elliott. Never forget he was a top 300 guy in blocks and steals while playing with one good hand as a freshman. Projecting newcomer Koby McEwen’s defense is a bit tricky because he was pretty damn good his freshman year at Utah State and fell off hard his sophomore year. Overall, 34th on defense seems both fair and something that you could easily sign me up for right now.
Marquette is projected to finish the season with a record of 19-9 and a Big East record of 11-7. By no means a bad season and good enough for a tie with Xavier for second place in the Big East. Villanova is the projected favorite at 12-6 in league play. 19-9 and 11-7 is the peak of the bell curve season long projection, of course. If you prefer the game-by-game projection, that’s 20-8 and 12-6 in the Big East. If you’re thinking that the math is slightly off in terms of how many games Marquette will play this season, you’re right. Since two of MU’s games in the Orlando Invitational won’t be set until the event actually takes place, the projection currently doesn’t factor those in for obvious mystery reasons.
Three of Marquette’s projected losses — at Wisconsin, at Kansas State, and at Creighton — are coinflip losses, meaning MU’s chances of victory are somewhere between 45% and 50%. Three of Marquette’s projected wins — vs Purdue, vs Villanova, and at Georgetown — are coinflip wins, meaning the chances of victory are between 50% and 55%.
With the favorite expected to take six losses this season, you won’t be surprised to hear that KenPom predicts a rather tight Big East in 2019-20. Everyone is in the top 100 to start the season, yes, even St. John’s, with their new head coach and barely anyone returning from last season. The top eight in the league are all top 60 squads, and the top seven are all in the top 40 of the preseason rankings.
The overall Big East rankings are as follows:
As you can see by the six teams ranked between 17 and 36, KenPom has the Big East being a bloodbath this season. However, that is not necessarily a bad thing as the Big East is rated the second-best conference in the country. The league starts things off with a projected adjusted efficiency margin of +16.14, trailing behind only the Big 12, which is at +16.93.
On a non-conference note, as many have pointed out, Marquette has beefed up its buy games and projects to only face two opponents outside the KenPom preseason top 260. This may not seem like a big deal but playing those terribly ranked teams requires you to beat them by a bazillion to maintain your ranking. For example, Marquette would need to beat #306 Robert Morris by 26 (the current expected margin of victory) in order to not slip. Thankfully there are only two such games surrounded by other solid buy games such as those against North Dakota State (#165) and Loyola Maryland (#186). Those games require a lesser margin of victory to maintain the ranking.
Overall, I am pleasantly surprised that Marquette is ranked this high to start the season. Having such a prestigious and generally accurate ranking system look favorably on us means something. Not a lot, because you actually have to play the games eventually, but it’s something. If you have any other ideas on why Marquette’s offense is supposed to be just as good or better without the brothers Hauser, please sound off in the comments or on Twitter because we all really want to know.