Taking a Stab at Tamping Down the Hostility Toward Arkansas’ Computer Rankings

Devo Davis

The warning flags for the Razorbacks’ most recent game against Tennessee had been raised since the day the schedule was set last year. It was the toughest road game on the Arkansas basketball schedule, and it was senior day for the Vols.

Those flags were raised even higher a couple of weeks ago when Vols coach Rick Barnes openly criticized the officiating following Tennessee’s paltry 48-point effort after a tough loss in Fayetteville.

The flags were blown off the flagpole before Saturday’s game when it was revealed that Arkansas starter Au’Diese Toney would not play due to a previously undisclosed injury.

Sure enough, Tennessee came out as angry as the “Rocky Top” character seeing his first telephone bill. They blitzed Arkansas for 50-first half points behind 9-of-12 shooting from three and took advantage of Jaylin Williams spending extended minutes on the bench with foul trouble.

The refs ended up calling 51 fouls in the 40-minute game on Saturday. When games are called that tightly, and a team like Arkansas is already a man down, it makes things, um, interesting. KK Robinson and Jaxson Robinson were even both on the court at the same time in the first half for the first time since Arkansas started its run in January.

And yet – it was just barely enough to beat the Razorbacks. The Hogs were down by as much as 24 in the first half and were down 21 at halftime, but cut the lead to a single possession in the final minutes. The Razorbacks had the ball down two points in the final minute, but a bad pass on a fast break from JD Notae ended Arkansas’ best chance at tying the game, and the Vols held on to claim the 2-seed in the SEC Tournament. Arkansas will be the 4-seed and start its postseason run on Friday in the SEC Tournament.

Despite the loss in Knoxville, Arkansas hasn’t dropped much if at all in the computer rankings (and in fact moved up two spots in the NET). Skies are still sunny in the NCAA Tournament bracket projections, too:

Arkansas Basketball in the Computer Rankings

There’s been a lot of talk about open hostility toward the computer rankings since the Hogs had won so many big games in recent weeks and barely saw any upward movement in them. Arkansas coach Eric Musselman made his feelings about the computer rankings quite clear following the Hogs’ win over LSU on Wednesday:

The frustration is absolutely warranted. The computer rankings are flawed. That’s why there’s so many of them. If there was a perfect formula, we would only need one. Instead, we have the NET, we have KenPom, we have Sagarin, we have the KPI and the BPI (but I think we’ve gotten rid of the RPI). They’re all different because they measure different things. That means each of the rankings must inherently believe flaws exist in the others. Ergo, they’re all flawed.

Still, we’re a society consumed with charting and measuring. So here’s where Arkansas basketball fall in the latest iterations in some of these polls:

NET: No. 20 nationally, No. 5 in the SEC behind LSU (No. 16)

Sagarin: No. 16 nationally, No. 4 in the SEC (one ahead of LSU)

KenPom: No. 19 nationally, No. 5 in the SEC behind LSU (No. 17)

One thing computer rankings generally have in common is an attempt to measure offensive and defensive efficiency. Basically, rather than measure teams by wins and losses, they measure possession by possession. They also tend to apply equal weight to every game whether it was played in November or played this week. As a result, by the time we get to the end of the regular season, every team has so many possessions in the books that it’s hard to see significant movement from game to game.

This is maddening because it’s not the way college sports fans have been conditioned to watch their teams. We’ve watched AP polls and the BCS and the weekly playoff committee rankings for years. While we don’t always agree with those either, you can generally expect a win – especially a win over a highly-ranked team – to be reflected with a jump in the next set of polls, and a loss to be similarly reflected. Human polls have behaved that way for decades.

Computer rankings act differently. For them, each game is nothing more than additional data inserted into a team’s profile that consists equally from each possession from every game that team has played since the first game of the season. Even if a computer ranking applies more weight to recent games, and there may be some that attempt that, it’s still an arbitrary decision as to when to apply the extra weight. There’s no way for a computer ranking to start applying more weight to Arkansas at the point that the Hogs figured out their starting lineup back in January and started their run.

There’s value in using advanced analytics to break teams down. Unbiased data is important. I’ve been a KenPom user for several years. But like any data analysis, it’s only truly valuable if you are able to apply context to the numbers.

This is what’s caused Hog fans to pull the razors off their backs in recent weeks. If you look at resumes across the country over the last two months, Arkansas clearly has the resume of a 1-seed.

Since January 9th, the Hogs have lost twice by a combined five points to quality teams on the road and hold victories over Auburn, Kentucky, Tennessee and two wins over LSU. Only Gonzaga can boast a better win/loss record in that time, and their recent loss to St. Mary’s was by 10 points. Even SEC champion Auburn, who has a great chance to be a 1-seed, lost three times in the last month, only won one game among the top four of the SEC all season, and won games against SEC jobbers Missouri and Georgia by a combined three points.

Where the Razorbacks Will Be Dinged

Arkansas should not be a 1-seed. Those earlier games should and do count. Other teams did not take so long to get their act together, and will be appropriately rewarded for it. The Razorbacks also put together a substandard nonconference schedule and will be appropriately dinged for it (although that’s not completely Arkansas’ fault as a game vs Illinois would have been stronger than the game vs Cincinnati in the Hall of Fame Classic, and UA had no control in getting West Virginia in the Big 12 challenge in a year that WVU is at the bottom of that league).

But should Arkansas be a 5 or 6-seed? If the point of the seeding is place teams in the order of probability that they can win the tournament, the answer is no. The Razorbacks should be higher unless the selection committee members really think there are 20 teams more likely than Arkansas to win the tournament. Arkansas proved on Saturday that it’s at least on Tennessee’s level even with a starter out.

The Razorbacks’ placement in the computer rankings are being held down by poor defensive performances (even though some of them were wins) from November up through the loss at Texas A&M in the third tilt of the SEC slate.

It’s almost comical to look back at those games and see that the team still didn’t even know which players should start or come off the bench. There were starters in those games who barely see the court now. It’s easy to wonder what Arkansas’ resume would have looked like if the players and coaches figured everything out sooner. The Razorbacks may have celebrated an SEC championship after defeating LSU last week. Alas, they didn’t and earned the 4-seed at the SEC Tournament.

The way that seed was earned is very clear. The NCAA seeds are subjective. The Hogs do have stains on their resume from the beginning of the season. That should be considered, but if you were one of the teams that earned a top seed, would you be happy with drawing the Razorbacks sooner than you had to? I wouldn’t.

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