04 March 2016

A win is a win is a win?

Northwestern's win at Penn State felt good for at least a few reasons.  The win kept NU's hopes for an NIT berth alive.  It was also a nice little bit of revenge for that bad early season loss to the Nittany Lions at the Welsh.  And while the NIT years seem like a long distant memory after 3 and possibly 4 years living in post-season purgatory it still was nice to get a little payback for seasons past when perennial losses to Ed DeChellis-led teams played no small part in torpedoing NU's NCAAs dreams.

While the Penn State win felt good regrettably it also resurfaced mixed feelings about NUs season.  Generally speaking NU has taken care of business this season by racking up wins against opponents that with a couple of exceptions could be fairly labeled as anywhere between hapless to below average.  We would've preferred that NU scheduled a harder non-conference schedule (#345/351 per kenpom -- c'mon!), and it would've been nice for NU to get another notch or two in its belt against the upper portion of the Big Ten.  But the schedule is what it is, and there's nothing wrong with NU winning games one should win.

Our mixed feelings are rooted in our distaste for the superficial spin of NUs season results.  For example last night we saw the program tweet that NU has now matched its high water mark of 19 regular season wins.  This is an indisputable fact, and we're not going to criticize the program for arguably doing its job promoting itself in whatever positive light possible.  But as fans we are not beholden to promoting the program.  And simply pointing to statistics absent any context is not what we are about.

Perhaps an even better example is the NIT speculation that 20 wins is NU's magic number.  Hogwash.  20 wins is a nice round number and may sound good in people's heads, but it's not like the NIT committee will think twice about rejecting a B1G team with 20 wins.  There's a reason the guidelines for selection are silent on win totals, and that reason is that context free win totals are a particularly poor way of assessing a team's comparative merits.

So let's dig a little bit into NU's 19-11 record.  12 of those wins were racked up against the nation's 7th worst nonconference schedule.  7 of those wins came against teams ranked 285+ by kenpom.  That is a no-no to the selection committee and will be a negative factor for NU.  The only positive from non-conference play is that OT win at VaTech.  Will that be enough to offset the weak schedule?  Very unlikely.  So the nonconference schedule is not going to help NU's NIT aspirations and will likely hurt.

With no help from the non-conference slate it all boils down to NU's B1G results.  NU is now 7-10 in B1G play.  In the past NU received NIT bids on the heels of two 7-11 B1G records and two 8-10 B1G records.  That history suggests NU is likely to make the NIT, right?  Wrong.

As the chart below demonstrates, NU has racked up its 7 wins against the dregs of the conference which have an average kenpom rating of an astonishingly high 154.   That's over 60 rungs higher than the B1G wins racked up during the NIT years.   If you don't think the NIT committee will consider the opponents' weakness in NU's B1G wins then you're living in denial.

Big win totals are good for those who want to use them for spin.  And they help to make fans feel good and may even sound good to some recruits.  But detailed analyses into the wins are necessary if one wants insight into just how good or successful a team has been.  Reasonable minds may even come to different conclusions even when looking at the same metrics.

Let's see how it all plays out and whether NU makes the NIT.  At the end of the day we hope that we can all agree that is a reasonable and unbiased benchmark because the NIT committee fully understands that it's patently false that a win is a win is a win.