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Inside the numbers: Undefeated, yet unimpressed?

January 17th, 2014 by Drew Hallett


Four Big Ten games down, four Big Ten wins in the books. Through the first three weeks of the Big Ten season, Michigan has a 4-0 conference record and is one of only two Big Ten schools that have yet to lose to a conference opponent. The other is Michigan State, sporting a 5-0 record. This is the first time the Wolverines have won their first four Big Ten games since 2003. Yet, of these two teams, the media have been impressed with only the Spartans, not the Wolverines.

In the past few weeks, many columns published by various media outlets have dubbed Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Ohio State as the best of the Big Ten. Very few have given Michigan a legitimate shot to win the Big Ten championship, with most slotting the Wolverines one tier below the top group. The media were skeptical of Michigan initially because U-M opened the season with a shaky 6-4 record. Nonetheless, despite U-M’s four losses, advanced metrics still ranked Michigan as a Top 25 team last month. Since then, the Wolverines have made those advanced metrics look quite intelligent, rattling off six straight wins.

However, the media still are not impressed with the Wolverines. They remain skeptical. The media see Michigan’s six-game winning streak and all they do is point to U-M’s weak conference strength of schedule. To them, Michigan’s perfect start to conference play carries little weight and is insignificant because U-M has not been challenged. Until the Wolverines beat one of the elite Big Ten squads, the media will continue to exclude Michigan from the group of contenders.

Michigan's win at Minnesota - something Ohio State couldn't do - is the second-best conference win so far this season (Marilyn Indahl, USA Today Sports)

The media are not completely wrong. Michigan has had the weakest conference strength of schedule in the Big Ten thus far. And it is not even close. Ken Pomeroy created an algorithm that incorporates advanced statistics to evaluate college basketball teams. His rankings include nine Big Ten schools in the Top 85. In its first four conference games, Michigan played only one of those teams—Minnesota. The other three Big Ten opponents U-M faced are the three lowest-ranked teams—Nebraska at #95, Penn State at #108, and Northwestern at #169. Those three bottom-dwellers currently have a combined 1-13 conference record. And Michigan has the good fortune of being the only team to face all three so soon.

But that does not mean that Michigan’s perfect start to conference play should be discounted entirely. Contrary to the media’s beliefs, the Wolverines do not need to face one of Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa, or Ohio State to face strong conference competition. U-M already has played against a quality Big Ten opponent. How? The reason is because Michigan currently has the second-toughest Big Ten win of any school through the first three weeks of conference play.

Pomeroy’s algorithm projects the odds a team has to beat an opponent it will play in the future. A team’s odds to beat a future opponent are determined by the quality of the team, the quality of the opponent, and where the game will be played. Those odds will be lower against better competition. But those odds will be higher if the team plays the opponent at home rather than on the road.

Pomeroy’s algorithm projects these odds for each of a team’s remaining games. One could rank these odds in ascending order to determine which remaining games will be the most difficult to win. “Inside the Numbers” decided to take this one step further. “Inside the Numbers” listed each Big Ten team’s most difficult conference games using these odds and compared the lists. As a result, “Inside the Numbers” determined which Big Ten games Pomeroy’s algorithm project will be the most difficult for teams to win this season.

Here is a brief example of the analysis utilized. Pomeroy’s algorithm projects that Michigan has an 89 percent chance to beat Nebraska at home, but only a 28 percent chance to beat Ohio State on the road. It then projects that Illinois has a 71 percent chance to beat Nebraska at home, but only a ten percent chance to beat Ohio State on the road. Therefore, beating Ohio State on the road would be listed as a much more difficult win for Big Ten teams than beating Nebraska at home.

This seems like common sense. That is only because the example used two teams on opposite ends of the Big Ten spectrum. But deciding whether a win against Michigan State at home or a win against Indiana at Assembly Hall is more difficult is not so simple. So, using the analysis shown in the example in the preceding paragraph, “Inside the Numbers” listed which Big Ten games Pomeroy’s algorithm currently considers to be the toughest to win this season in the table below:

Toughest Big Ten Games to Win in 2014 – Toughest to Easiest
Rank Opponent (Home/Road) Rank Opponent (Home/Road)
1 Wisconsin (Road) 13 Michigan (Home)
2 Iowa (Road) 14 Purdue (Road)
3 Michigan State (Road) 15 Nebraska (Road)
4 Ohio State (Road) 16 Penn State (Road)
5 Michigan (Road) 17 Minnesota (Home)
6 Minnesota (Road) 18 Indiana (Home)
7 Wisconsin (Home) 19 Northwestern (Road)
8 Iowa (Home) 20 Illinois (Home)
9 Michigan State (Home) 21 Purdue (Home)
10 Indiana (Road) 22 Nebraska (Home)
11 Ohio State (Home) 23 Penn State (Home)
12 Illinois (Road) 24 Northwestern (Home)

The main takeaway is that road games will be much, much more difficult to win than home games in the Big Ten. The six toughest Big Ten games to win are all road games. Further, 11 of the 16 toughest Big Ten contests to win this season are on the road. A road win against the second-worst team in the conference will be more difficult than beating the sixth-best team at home. Big Ten contenders will need to protect their home court, but the championship likely will be decided by which school can garner the most road victories.

And guess what Michigan did in its conference opener? The Wolverines traveled to Minneapolis and edged Minnesota, 63-60, in a game in which no team led by more than eight points. According to Pomeroy’s algorithm, beating the Gophers on the road is the sixth-toughest win for a Big Ten team to earn. It shows, too. The Gophers have won the other 11 games they have hosted at Williams Arena, including knocking off the supposedly elite Buckeyes by ten points at home last night.

Iowa's victory in Columbus is the only conference win better than Michigan's so far but the Wolverines can top it with a win at Wisconsin tomorrow (Ryan Young, Getty Images)

Only one other school has earned a tougher Big Ten victory thus far: Iowa’s 84-74 win against Ohio State at Value City Arena in Columbus. That is considered the fourth-toughest win a Big Ten team can earn. And none of the other teams in the top half of the Big Ten have experienced a home conference loss. Therefore, the Wolverines currently have the second-most impressive Big Ten win thus far. It is more impressive than any conference win earned by Michigan State, Wisconsin, or Ohio State through the first three weeks.

So the media need to stop taking a wait-and-see approach with Michigan. Yes, the Wolverines’ home games against Northwestern and Penn State were the two easiest conference games a Big Ten can play. Yes, the Wolverines also played the third-worst team in the Big Ten, although the game was played in Lincoln. But the Maize and Blue are one of only two undefeated teams remaining in conference play and have notched the second-toughest Big Ten win to date. The media cannot deny it any longer: Michigan is a Big Ten championship contender right now.

Nevertheless, the media finally will receive what they have desired for so long tomorrow evening: for Michigan to play one of the Big Ten’s best. Tomorrow at 6pm ET, Michigan and Wisconsin will tip off at the Kohl Center in Madison. It is a game of monumental importance for both teams. And the media surely will use it to stack up Michigan against the rest of the Big Ten’s best.

That is not necessarily fair to Michigan, though. As the table above shows, beating Wisconsin at the Kohl Center is the toughest Big Ten victory a team can earn this season. Pomeroy’s algorithm gives U-M only a 22 percent chance to win. Additionally, the Wolverines have a 1-11 record against the Badgers under John Beilein and have not won at the Kohl Center since 1999. The odds are slim for Michigan. Even though a win certainly would be of great benefit to the Wolverines in the Big Ten race, Michigan does not need it to prove that it is a Big Ten contender. Maybe the media finally will realize that tomorrow.