Basketball scientist KenPom knows what time of year it is—we’re starving. It’s August, and I legitimately can’t wait for the FIBA tournament to start, despite the notable fact that the USA Basketball team this year includes a Plumlee. The night is dark and it’s full of terrors. It’s a good time to really throw beach-ball shaped arguments out into the crowd, and KenPom knows how to frame data as good as anyone in the data biz.
First of all, the structure of the argument here is a novel one, with the bonus of basically absolving KenPom of any kind of bad faith take-baiting. Pom’s program ranking rationale—to approach this ranking as if you were a head coach or a recruit with scholarship offers to every school in the country—is certainly one way to look at it. For the sake of really honing on an an argument that’s basically invincible in its narrowness—the list uses numbers from 1997 on—it’s a masterpiece of data journalism. KenPom is KenPomming out during the Great Winter of the basketball season, and you know I’m here for it.
That being said—Kansas is third on the list. That might strike some people as a sleight. Even though Pomeroy’s rankings are about tournament performance and Top 25 consistency, I’m going to take license to ask the bigger question that this whole query scratches the surface of:
Where does Kansas stand in 2019?
This might be an unpopular opinion, but as someone who is looking at this question this through the lens of basketball culture at large, Duke and Kentucky are not going to be topped right now. Those schools have become one-stop branding shops for elite high school players—the major networks aren’t creative enough to market teams, so they market stars like Zion and hope that singular focus someone lifts up the product. Kyrie Irving played like, eight games at Duke and still easily went #1 overall; he still regularly puts out Duke-themed versions of his signature sneaker.
UK and Duke come with Nike packaging. Coach K is in charge of USA Basketball, and is well-liked by the game’s biggest stars: LeBron went ahead and said he hoped Bronny would go there, even though he knows that the NBA is about to tear up the age limit so father and son can play in the NBA together. I’m not going to get into the weeds of “earned media” but you could definitely come up with some astronomical $ figure there for both teams, just based on how much they get gassed up during the season.
Kansas isn’t Duke or Kentucky, and I think that’s something that’s been easy to talk myself into liking. Of all the fan bases, I would guess that KU fans are the least likely of the top four to also be giant NBA fans. In recent years, the top of the prospect class (i.e. the players most likely to be lottery picks eventually) has been a crapshoot—for example, #1 in the 2019 class, James Wiseman, is going to Memphis and #2 and #3 are going to Washington and Georgia, a starkly different result than last year’s Reddish/Barrett/Williamson trio. If you go to Kansas, succeed and go through the process, you’re going to get a crack at the NBA. For the lion’s share of the recruits—aka, the many great players that are not ranked in the top 20 by scouting services—the fact that KU gets its best players from point A to point B is all that matters.
Although the list is positioned as a ranking based on what might be attractive to a coach or recruit, it’s also a snapshot in time. This kind of logic might track for an established college coach on the move—say, Fred Hoiberg. However, teams seem to be breaking from the old ways a little bit—Penny Hardaway, who had no college coaching experience before landing the Memphis job, is probably better at finding the kids where they want to be found than, like, Roy Williams is. Jerry Stackhouse (coached in the G League) is at Vanderbilt, which is a very “let’s see if this does anything”-style move.
Speaking of Roy Williams, it’d be a shame not to comment on UNC’s spot at #4 on the list, despite the fact that they’ve won three national titles—three times as many as Kansas—in the timespan Pomeroy is monitoring. All I have to say about that is, LOL. No matter what direction your mind races in while taking in this list, UNC being ranked fourth just feels good.