BLANK: Are advanced metrics right about Virginia?
Few books have impacted the sports world as much as Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball.” Among other things, the book illustrated a stark difference between what advanced statistics and common wisdom said about teams and players. This dichotomy has been at the center of sports debate ever since — whether the eye test or the numbers are a more accurate measure of true ability.
The Virginia men’s basketball team represents this dilemma perfectly. After a difficult stretch during which the Cavaliers lost four-consecutive games, the Cavaliers dropped to No. 23 in the nation in the AP poll — landing them behind six other ACC teams. Even after wins over North Carolina and North Carolina State, Virginia ranks at a lowly No. 8 in the conference standings, justifying the AP ranking on the surface.
However, the statistics have Virginia ranked much differently. KenPom — one of the leaders in the field — has Virginia ranked No. 8 in the nation and No. 1 in defense. KenPom clearly views the Cavaliers in a different light than their record would indicate.
KenPom accounts for this with their schedule difficulty and luck algorithms. It views Virginia as unluckier than five out of six teams in college basketball — ranked No. 52 of 351 — and rank its schedule to date as the No. 5 most difficult in the nation. For KenPom, these numbers show more than Virginia’s nine losses.
This disparity has continued throughout the season. Before their losing streak, Virginia was ranked No. 2 in the nation by KenPom but No. 12 by the AP rankings. So far, it’s difficult to tell whether the team is as good as the stats say, or if it is as mediocre as the public and rankings seem to believe.
During Monday night’s game against North Carolina, however, the Cavaliers played so well that they not only validated what the statistics said about them, but they also exceeded expectations.
Virginia held an offense that was ranked as one of the top four most efficient by KenPom to only 43 points. The Tar Heels’ previous low was 62 and their offensive efficiency was only 65 percent of their season average. Junior forward and ACC three-point percentage leader Justin Jackson was held to one of six from long range — an area that can be a weakness for Virginia’s pack-line defense.
Virginia’s dominant performance validated its KenPom rating as a team, but it also showed support for some of the smaller things statistics had been saying all along as well. Freshman guard Kyle Guy and redshirt freshman forward Mamadi Diakite had struggled to find playing time of late, but the statistics haven’t stopped believing in them.
Through Monday’s game, Guy ranked as the team’s most efficient offensive player — followed by Diakite in second — and Diakite ranked first on defense. The game against North Carolina showcased this, as Guy’s 17 points led the team, and Diakite had two blocks. The two played 52 total minutes, despite averaging only 31.5 minutes on the season.
From a big picture perspective, however, this isn’t the first time advanced statistics and the eye test have disagreed about Virginia. Last year, KenPom had Virginia ranked No. 3 in the nation after the season, despite only reaching the Elite Eight. In 2015, the Cavaliers ranked No. 6, despite falling in the round of 32. The story was similar in 2014, as KenPom ranked the Cavaliers No. 4 despite their Sweet 16 loss.
Given Virginia’s troubling tournament performances over the past few seasons, it’s easy to dismiss the computers and assume the eye test was right about those teams. This season has showed a similar pattern, and a high KenPom ranking will be little consolation if the Cavaliers make an early tournament exit. In fact, it may be a critical year for the system’s evaluation of Virginia.
However, Monday night’s win counts as a big victory for the Cavaliers, and correspondingly, for the computer rankings that support them. If this season represents yet another round in the seemingly never-ending fight between fans’ gut-instinct and the statistics — both for Virginia men’s basketball and sports in general — Cavalier fans will have to hope the old adage “numbers never lie” holds some truth.
Jake Blank is a Sports Senior Associate for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @Jake_33.