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College basketball rankings: Friday Facts about strength of schedule

The non-conference slate goes out with a bang. And let's settle this once and for all: who had the toughest and easiest non-conference schedules?

How impressive is Penn State's 10-1 start really?
How impressive is Penn State's 10-1 start really?
Brett Carlsen-USA TODAY Sports

It's been tough here in Chicagoland. We're down to about three hours of murky cloudlight per day now, as we approach the depths of winter. To make matters worse, the Badgers are in the midst of a nine-day "Finals Break" (whatever that means) between games and much of the rest of college basketball has gone into a mini-hibernation as well.

But, like the promise of longer days that comes with the winter solstice, we have something to look forward to -- the conference season begins soon. As an added bonus, tomorrow is one of the biggest days of Big Ten action in the entire non-conference schedule. So let's get down to it.

The Friday Facts and the Week that Was

Rank Team Name W-L EM+/G Adj OE Adj DE cW
2 Wisconsin 10-1 40 119.9 82.3 16-2
8 Ohio St. 9-1 35 117.2 87.5 14-4
12 Michigan St. 8-3 27 112.6 86.8 13-5
21 Iowa 8-3 20 107.8 87.8 10-8
28 Illinois 8-3 21 111.0 92.1 10-8
32 Maryland 10-1 20 111.7 93.0 10-8
33 Purdue 8-3 20 108.7 90.6 10-8
35 Minnesota 8-2 18 106.9 90.3 9-9
53 Indiana 8-2 17 117.3 102.2 8-10
63 Michigan 6-4 10 109.8 97.2 7-11
88 Nebraska 6-3 7 99.2 90.8 6-12
106 Penn St. 10-1 6 103.2 96.6 5-13
139 Northwestern 6-4 1 98.3 96.5 3-15
178 Rutgers 6-4 -3 94.2 96.4 3-15

No significant change from last week, except that Michigan continued its descent by losing a non-competitive laugher, by 27 points, to Arizona. Losing to the Wildcats at their place is no shame, obviously, but the way Michigan lost was alarming. I was among those who thought Michigan might bounce back from their shocking home losses to NJIT and Eastern Michigan by at least making a game of it. Boy, was I wrong.

Is there hope for Michigan? It is looking pretty grim. For some perspective, consider this. Since 2011, Kenpom.com has kept a record of each team's KenPom rank going into every game it has played. The lowest the Badgers have been ranked in that time is 22nd. Michigan is now down to 60th. So this is not some run of the mill rough patch. Moreover, if you run them through the RPI Wizard, and give them a win over SMU and a 10-8 Big Ten record, they still end up with an RPI around 60.

Still, there is reason to think Michigan could turn things around in conference play -- but that will be the subject of next week's Friday Facts (Big Ten preview edition). It's just like Christmas; sometimes you have to wait for the good stuff.

Most of the other teams in the Big Ten just took care of business in "buy" games. Two exceptions:

1) Nebraska beat Cincinnati in a rock fight. This was a huge win for Nebraska, as they try to salvage something from a completely forgettable non-conference season.

2) Northwestern looked pretty, pretty good in scoring 101 points against Mississippi Valley State (a game I had the immense pleasure of attending with a bunch of first graders). But reality came to town later in the week with a crushing 13-point home loss to Central Michigan. Ugly.

Here are all the results from Big Ten teams last week:

Matchup T-Rank Prediction Result
63 Michigan @ 11 Arizona Arizona, 73-62 (86%) Arizona 80-53
277 Grand Canyon @ 53 Indiana Indiana, 87-64 (96%) Indiana 94-66
158 USC Upstate @ 32 Maryland Maryland, 75-58 (94%) Maryland 67-57
46 Cincinnati @ 88 Nebraska Nebraska, 61-60  (52%) Nebraska 56-55
329 Nicholls St. @ 2 Wisconsin Wisconsin, 87-48 (99%) Wisconsin 86-43
207 Oakland @ 12 Michigan State Michigan State, 87-63 (97%) Michigan State 87-61
349 Mississippi Valley St. @ 139 Northwestern Northwestern, 79-56 (97%) Northwestern 101-49
116 Central Michigan @ 139 Northwestern Northwestern, 66-62 (68%) Central Michigan 80-67
132 Eastern Michigan @ 12 Michigan State Michigan State, 72-55 (95%) Michigan State 66-46
347 North Carolina A&T @ 8 Ohio State Ohio State, 83-46 (99%) Ohio State 97-55
266 Hampton @ 28 Illinois Illinois, 84-61 (97%) Illinois 73-55

The Week to Come

The finals week doldrums come to an end tomorrow, with what I'm dubbing Showdown Saturday for the Big Ten:

Date Matchup T-Rank Prediction
12/20 8 Ohio State vs. 9 North Carolina Ohio State, 76-75 (53%)
12/20 33 Purdue vs. 23 Notre Dame Notre Dame, 70-68 (55%)
12/20 37 Northern Iowa vs. 21 Iowa Iowa, 63-60 (61%)
12/20 39 SMU @ 63 Michigan Michigan, 63-62 (53%)
12/20 22 Butler vs. 53 Indiana Butler, 74-69 (68%)
12/20 133 Western Michigan @ 139 Northwestern Northwestern, 67-64 (63%)
12/20 28 Illinois vs. 143 Missouri Illinois, 75-63 (88%)
12/20 172 Drexel vs. 106 Penn State Penn State, 64-59 (72%)
12/21 32 Maryland @ 27 Oklahoma State Oklahoma State, 70-66 (66%)
12/22 2 Wisconsin @ 52 California Wisconsin, 66-55 (89%)
12/23 88 Nebraska @ 164 Hawaii Nebraska, 69-66 (62%)

Saturday features five games between potential tourney teams, headlined by Ohio State's neutral court tussle with North Carolina. The Tarheels already lost at home to Iowa, so the Big Ten is looking to go 2-0 against North Carolina for the season. Ohio State lost in their B1G/ACC challenge game as well, to Louisville, but they have pretty much wiped the floor with everybody else. It will be very interesting to see if the Buckeyes can make a statement.

Then there is the event that I like to call The Indiana Extravaganza: Purdue vs. Notre Dame and Butler vs. Indiana in Indianapolis. T-Rank likes Notre Dame and Butler, but these figure to be two close games.

Michigan and SMU play what could be seen as a Bracket Buster game. The loser (especially if it's Michigan) would have to put on quite a run during conference play to make a case for an at-large.

And, what's that I see? A college basketball game involving the Badgers? Hark!

Yes, indeed, the Badgers travel to Berkeley to play the Cal Bears, led by first-year coach Gonzo Martin. Check that, I'm being told it's Kwanzaa Martin.

Cheap name jokes aside, this is a real test for Wisconsin. So far the Bears have played like a well-coached but maybe not super-talented team. Their one loss is to Texas, and they've got good wins over Syracuse and Wyoming. But then there are a bunch of close wins over bad teams.

If you look at their numbers, you'll see a striking resemblance to the numbers Bo Ryan's teams usually put up: great defensive rebounding, good effective field goal percentages on offense and defense, and low turnover rates. When two teams like that play each other, the result just comes down to shooting (even more than usual). The Badgers are the better shooting team, so they should win. But they are coming off finals, a nine-day break, and they are playing on the road ...

Cal gets a tuneup tonight against Eastern Washington, a team which is no joke (just ask the Hoosiers). If they survive that, it will be a pretty significant game between two 10-1 teams. Should be fun.

A Final Word on Non-Conference Schedule Strength

Crimson Quarry (the Indiana Hoops blog) ran an interesting post this week defending the Hoosiers from accusation that their schedule is nothing but cupcake city. It's worth a read. The main knock against Indiana is that they play a bunch of home games against the worst of the worst, and didn't schedule even a single solitary true road game. But, on the other hand, they've got neutral court games against Butler (Indiana Extravaganza!), Georgetown, and Louisville. How to evaluate this?

When we're talking about high major conference teams who play a few good teams and maybe some really terrible teams, the best way to evaluate the schedule is to determine what an elite team's winning percentage would likely be against that schedule. This is superior to merely averaging the rank or Pythagorean expectancy of opponents, because a high-major team that plays the No. 1 and No. 351 teams has played a much tougher schedule -- in terms of the likelihood of suffering a loss -- than a team that plays No. 175 and No. 176. In other words, that method over-emphasizes the difference between bad (No. 175) and terrible (No. 351) teams -- both of which a high-major team is very likely to beat.

Luckily, the T-Rank spreadsheet can tell us how an elite team (defined as a team with a .9000 Pythagorean winning percentage) would likely fare against any schedule. Here are the Big Ten results, including all games (played and unplayed):

Team Name Elite WP Opp. Pyth
Wisconsin 0.719 0.5892
Michigan 0.757 0.5459
Iowa 0.761 0.4948
Michigan St. 0.770 0.4642
Illinois 0.782 0.4624
Rutgers 0.783 0.5063
Maryland 0.830 0.4956
Indiana 0.832 0.4581
Nebraska 0.844 0.4681
Minnesota 0.848 0.4173
Ohio St. 0.849 0.4176
Purdue 0.864 0.4914
Northwestern 0.896 0.4158
Penn St. 0.938 0.4295

So, by this measure, Wisconsin will play the toughest non-conference schedule because an elite team would likely end up with a .719 winning percentage against its non-conference foes (Note: this also automatically adjusts for the location of the games and home-court advantage). Meanwhile, Indiana is in the middle of the pack -- not embarrassing at all!

At the bottom, we have Penn State, which gives us ample reason to be suspicious of PSU's 10-1 record. Notably, if you merely took the average of PSU's opponents' numbers, their SOS would look significantly better (ahead of Minnesota, OSU, and Northwestern). But this is because those schools' SOS are being weighed down by having played the very worst of the worst, while Penn State has scraped by in close wins over the best of the worst. For example, in the SOS measure PSU isn't weighed down nearly as much for playing #250 Bucknell as Ohio State's is for playing #345 North Carolina A&T. But, as an elite team, Ohio St. is basically equally likely to beat either Bucknell or NCA&T, so there's no real reason to treat them much differently.

So, there you go, it's settled. Wisconsin had the toughest non-con slate, and Penn State had the easiest.