As every KU fan with a pulse knows, the Jayhawks won a share of their tenth consecutive Big 12 championship. Additionally, the Kansas basketball program has now won nineteen conference titles in the past twenty-four seasons and twelve of the past thirteen Big 12 titles. KU's home record in home games against conference opponents since the 2002 season is 102-5. (For those interested in trivia, name the five programs that defeated KU in Lawrence and the years in which those losses occurred.)
Cynics of KU's streak will claim that KU could not have won this championship if they played in another power conference. KU fans will counter this argument by claiming that the country's other elite programs could have not accomplished this feat if they took KU's spot in the Big 12. Neither argument cannot be proven as being factually accurate without a time machine and omnipotent power over the conference landscape.
Modern college basketball makes it more difficult to sustain success because of premature departures to the NBA, an increasingly high number of transfers, coaching changes, and conference instability. Kansas basketball has remained impervious to the down years that have occasionally plagued Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisville, North Carolina, Syracuse, and UCLA. (For the purposes of accuracy, Indiana's bad seasons have occurred frequently after Kelvin Sampson nuked their program.) Each of those programs missed the tournament over the previous decade, and many of those schools have missed on multiple occasions in the past ten years. Duke comes closest to paralleling KU's consistency, but even the Blue Devils wound up with a six seed in 2007 and finished their conference season with eight losses.
I created an interactive data visualization to make sense of KU's streak. This chart contains the following:
- The first two sheets provide records and efficiency statistics in conference games for each team in the AAC, ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, and SEC over the past decade. Teams with only one year of participation in one of those seven league have been expunged from the chart. Don't look for Butler, Creighton, Houston, Memphis, SMU, Temple, and UCF. The records listed only include regular season games against conference opponents. Conference affiliation is organized by each team's current league. (For example, Syracuse is listed as an ACC team despite having played in the Big East for nine of the past ten seasons.)
- The next six sheets contain heat maps that chart the performance of each Big 12 program over the past decade. This includes winning percentages, efficiency statistics, and Dean Oliver's "Four Factors of Basketball Success." The darker shades of blue illustrate exceptional performance. The darker shades of crimson illustrate poor performance.
Please click on the data visualization below:
* EDIT: I noticed a typo and wanted to fix it. I then noticed that this tiny change made it impossible to interact with the chart. Until I get this fixed, the hot link will have to do.
Observations pertaining to KU's ten-year run:
- Among major conference teams in league games, KU finished first in every single category listed on the first two pages. This means they had the best winning percentage, home winning percentage, road winning percentage, offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency, and net efficiency.
- KU did not post a losing record at a single Big 12 venue. They did however go .500 in games played in Columbia, Austin, Stillwater, Fort Worth, and Morgantown. (KU has obviously played two games in Fort Worth and Morgantown.)
- KU went 18-0 in conference road games at Nebraska, Colorado, and Texas A&M.
- Critics of college basketball claim the regular season has been rendered irrelevant by its bloated postseason. If you look at the programs with the best winning percentages in conference games over the past decade, you find that the top five teams (Kansas, Duke, UNC, Florida, and Kentucky) have won seven of nine national titles. This same observation can be made for the teams with the five best net efficiencies in conference games. The only difference with the net efficiencies is that Louisville is in the top five instead of Kentucky.
- KU has posted a winning record in conference road games in each of the past ten seasons. The other Big 12 teams combined to post a winning road record fourteen times. Of those teams, Texas came closest with four years of winning road records in conference games.
- KU posted the top defensive efficiency in eight of the past ten seasons. They even somehow posted the league's top defensive efficiency this year.
- The Jayhawks finished in the top three in offensive effective field goal percentage in each of the past nine seasons. They finished first in defensive effective field goal percentage in eight of the past ten years.
- Bill Self's have teams never been particularly good at limiting offensive turnovers. They never finished among the top four teams in turnover percentage over the past decade. The turnover problem has been magnified this season because more teams in the Big 12 have done a better job of taking care of the ball on offense.
- KU has been first or second in defensive rebounding in seven of the past eight seasons. The one year they weren't among the league's top teams in terms of defensive rebounding was 2010, and that makes no sense when that team had a frontline of Cole Aldrich, Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris, Thomas Robinson, and Jeff Withey. (Robinson and Withey had yet to develop. That's still an embarrassment of frontcourt riches.)
- Opposing fans have often claimed that KU's success has been on an unfair officiating bias. The mathematical facts resoundingly reject this claim. There is no doubt officials can affect a game's outcome, but it certainly does not explain KU's consistent success. I correlated KU's net effective field goal percentage, turnover percentage, offensive rebound percentage, and free throw rate with their net efficiency in conference games. Here's the evidence of this finding:
- Everyone knows that shooting better than the other team is the most important thing in basketball. If I write anything more than that about shooting, it will come as incredibly condescending. KU's rebounding statistics correlate more strongly with their success than turnovers. (Turnovers exhibit a negative correlation because teams want to the ball over less frequently than their opponents.) The Jayhawks' free throw rate exhibited an incredibly weak and almost nonexistent correlation with net efficiency.
Random observations about the NCAA Tournament:
- I have to mention Joel Embiid at some point in this post. Seeding KU will already be difficult for the selection committee because they will have to reconcile their high number of losses with their strength of schedule. Embiid's injury only makes seeding KU more complex. The most obvious solution to this problem for KU is to win the Big 12 Tournament. (Don't misinterpret that comment as me saying this will be easily accomplished. No game in this conference tournament will be particularly easy.) When looking at this optimistically, KU's struggles primarily occurred on the road this season. They scored twelve fewer points per 100 possessions and allowed ten more points per possession 100 in road games. Games at the Sprint Center should not be particularly hostile. Tournament games in St. Louis with the Shockers would be more problematic.
- Michigan State could lose by 40 points to Northwestern, and Seth Greenberg will still pick them to make the Final Four. The Spartans have lost to Illinois and Nebraska at home. (I realize this is the best Cornhusker team in a long time. MSU should still beat them at home.) They lost to a mediocre Georgetown squad in New York City. I won't dispute Tom Izzo's ability to coach, but people need to remember that prior tournament history means nothing.
- Don't pick Wichita State to make the Final Four because of their success in last year's tournament. The most impressive thing about Wichita State is their poise. Many top teams get anxious when an opponent unexpectedly plays a close game against them. I think it will be fascinating to see the Shockers respond to adversity in the NCAA Tournament because no opponent has shaken their confidence yet.
- When picking your bracket, remember that the West region has often been a disaster in recent seasons. Butler won it as a five in 2010, UConn won it as a three in 2011, Louisville won it as a four in 2012, and Wichita State won it as an eight in 2013. The one seed in the West has not made it to the Elite Eight since 2009. The disastrous state of basketball in the Pac-12 is largely to blame for this. Arizona unquestionably deserves a number one seed, but they have unquestionably struggled to score without Brandon Ashley.
- I predict that this year's most annoying commercial during the NCAA Tournament will be Old Spice's ads with singing mothers. If this prediction proves to be accurate, it will quite easily supplant the "NAPA Know How" (2011) and Applebee's "Tales of a Tasty Shrimp" (2006) commercials as the most irritating in recent memory. I will boycott Old Spice for the remainder of my lifetime if they continue airing these obnoxious commercials.
For those interested, I compiled this information using StatSheet.com. A Dropbox folder containing tempo-free statistics for the past eighteen seasons can be accessed at the link below:
Feel free to use these spreadsheets as a template if you are a fan of another team.
Lastly, some will wonder why I have such an odd screen name. I run a college football blog that compiles drive-based statistics for each of the past seven seasons called FBSDriveStats.com. Please feel free to call me Justin.