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Guest post: Re-reading the tea leaves, a midseason report on UK basketball

Jeff Houchin Photo (Vicky Graff Photo)

By RICHARD CHEEKS, Contributing Writer

In mid-November, I invoked every visionary tool available to foretell the future of the 2017-18 Kentucky basketball season. This forecast flew in the face of the conventional wisdom as portrayed in the sacrosanct Pomeroy ratings (#8, 0.238 ppp) and the wire service polls. However, Pomeroy systematically over valued Kentucky’s adjusted net efficiency (thereby Kentucky’s rank) due to giving huge weight to its own preseason values for UK (#2, 0.277 ppp) rather than the actual performance of the Kentucky team in those first 5 games (#44, 0.147 ppp).

The Pomeroy weightings have effectively played out through game 17, and the Pomeroy net efficiency calculation is nearly in sync with ANE after 17 games. There remains a difference in the ranking position (#35 ANE v #25 PomNE), but that is due to the differences in the systems, magnified by the fact that the difference in net efficiency in that range, team to team, are very small. That means a rank #25 team is nearly equal to a #35 team in either system. For example, on a neutral court, the ANE #25 team would be favored over the #35 ANE team by 1 point, almost a 50-50 matchup.

The following graph shows the complete ranking distributions for all teams by each system, and I have emphasized the UK rank for each system with the large colored diamonds.

The following graph shows the game-to-game net efficiency by each system. The green dashed line is the linear projection of ANE from game 5 to the end of the season (Game 37 in the Sweet 16) as provided in my “Tea Leaves” article I posted in Vaughts Views in November following Game 5.

Note the steady decline in the Pomeroy Net Efficiency despite the fact that from game 6 through game 17, the Cats were 10-2. This mirrors UK’s precipitous fall in the wire service polls during the same period that fans have decried as ludicrous. However, the real disconnect in the Pomeroy and Wire Service polling over the last 2 months has been Kentucky’s ranking that has been higher than their poor play could actually justify. In contrast, the ANE values since Game 5 have been tracking along with the “Tea Leaves” projection about as well as anyone could expect. In this regard, as the red and blue lines converged at games 17. In my opinion, these values will track together over the balance of the season now that the Pomeroy (Red) trajectory is bending from its steady downward slide to parallel the ANE (blue) trajectory.

The season W-L projections for the season have improved slightly from 21-10 to 22-9 with the wins over Texas A&M and at Vanderbilt. I am hopeful that we will see some continued improvement in the next 2 to 3 weeks, but this will only happen if the Cats win all of the remaining games currently projected as W’s by larger margins than projected, AND pick up 1 or 2 of the current projected L’s as a W’s. That is the only way the ANE will continue to track along the rising projected trajectory between games 18 and 31. In addition, that is the only way this team will earn a top 4 seed, which carries a legitimate Sweet 16 expectancy. At present, this team has earned only a top 8 seed, which carries Round of 32 expectancy, at best.

Looking ahead at the schedule, there are two fragile projected wins, Tuesday at South Carolina the Cats are a 1 point favorite, and Feb 6 against Tennessee at Rupp, the Cats are less than a 1 point favorite. The Florida game at Rupp has a projected 4 point margin.

On the other side of the ledger, the current six projected losses have projected margins of -10 (@WVU), -6 (@ Mizzou), -5 (@TAMU), -6 (@Auburn), -5 (@Ark), and -6 (@Fla). To shift these projected losses into the W column will require a higher ANE by about 0.1 ppp (0.29 ppp range). This is a tall order, but achievable for this team. I believe that if the Cats can manage to finish the season 10-4 instead of 8-6, then the Cats would finish 24-7, which should be sufficient for one of the top 4 seeds, carrying a legitimate Sweet 16 expectancy.

Of course, in about 7 weeks we will know the answers to all of these riddles.

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