Kansas basketball coach Bill Self understands that he’s built up some crazy standards in Lawrence.
The expectation for the KU men’s basketball team — each year — is a Big 12 regular-season title. The Jayhawks have won 13 in a row, so 14 shouldn’t be so difficult, right?
Advanced stats expert Ken Pomeroy is here to provide some context.
Yes, KU has been amazingly successful during conference play under Self. And yes, the Jayhawks are favored to win the league again this year.
Having said all that: What is the actual chance that KU wins at least a share of the conference crown for a 14th straight season?
Based on his rankings — and 10,000 simulations — Pomeroy has an exact number: 47 percent.
“The chances are probably lower this year than normal seasons,” Pomeroy told The Star on Wednesday, “but I think it puts in perspective what they’ve had to do to pull off this run.”
Pomeroy knows most fans will see 47 percent and believe it’s too low. And he admits that he would adjust the number up based on the Jayhawks’ roster situation; KU added forward Silvio De Sousa to the roster this week, and the team also could get freshman Billy Preston eligible soon.
There are still good reasons, though, why the Jayhawks could find this year especially difficult.
That starts with the strength of the Big 12. Going back to 2001-02 — the season Pomeroy began compiling advanced stats on his site — this year’s Big 12 ranks as the third-toughest league out of more than 500 conferences tracked in that time.
“Top to bottom, it’s just super-strong,” Pomeroy said. “The easiest road game’s going to be at Iowa State, and that’s obviously not going to be very easy. Every road game is a test.”
For reference, the worst three Big 12 teams in Pomeroy’s rankings are Kansas State (43rd), Oklahoma State (48th) and Iowa State (76th). To compare, Nebraska is 91st (KU defeated the Huskers on the road by one), while Washington is 131st (KU lost by nine in Kansas City to the Huskies earlier this month). That only re-emphasizes the notion that each away game could be difficult.
The Big 12, though, is also stacked at the top. Six conference teams are ranked in this week’s AP poll, which includes three (West Virginia, KU, Oklahoma) at 12th or above.
“Certainly the notion of getting through the league with two or three losses seems to be far-fetched. It wouldn’t be shocking if four losses won the league,” Pomeroy said. “If Kansas could go through with four losses, that’ll be actually a really good year. It may set them up for possibly a 1 seed in the (NCAA) tournament.”
Pomeroy’s projection, built on adding win probabilities from each remaining game, has KU going 12-6. That’s one game better than Texas Tech, West Virginia and Oklahoma, who all are listed at 11-7.
And that clumping at the top poses a risk for KU as well. An 18-game league slate is a relatively small sample size, so even if KU is statistically best in the conference, it still could be overtaken by a team on a hot stretch or one that is able to win more than its share of close games.
The Big 12 has many candidates capable of that sort of run.
“That’s why the chances for Kansas can’t go too high, because it just takes another team getting through the conference with four losses, and you could easily envision Kansas losing five or more games,” Pomeroy said. “You’ve got to lose a game at home, then you’ve got to lose four on the road. Suddenly, it’s far from a guarantee they’ll win the league.”
So what does Pomeroy, the human, think? Taking his numbers into account —while also considering KU’s roster additions and the team’s history of winning Big 12 titles — and he’d bump the Jayhawks’ odds to “maybe 55 to 60 percent, something like that.”
It still reiterates the reality of the situation. KU winning the Big 12, even as the favorite, will not be as easy as many fans think.
“In retrospect, it’s always easy to overestimate what Kansas’ chances have been in each season of the streak,” Pomeroy said. “But especially heading into conference play, there’s just nothing certain.”