College Basketball: Providence Is Probably Overrated
I hate to do this, guys. I really do.
Providence basketball has been one of the pleasant surprises of the year, and has one of the most fun players in the country to watch, so it gives me no pleasure to pour cold water on the Friars.
Providence ranks 47th in our nERD ratings here at numberFire, and we are hardly alone. The Friars are 38th at KenPom, 39th in the Sagarin ratings (and 45th in terms of Sagarin’s predictor points), and 43rd in ESPN’s BPI.
From a backwards looking standpoint, the Friars have a very impressive resume (more on that shortly), but it is hard to see them as a Top 10 team going forward.
Why the Poll Voters Like Providence
Looking solely at wins, losses and quality of opponent, Providence certainly looks the part of an elite team.
The Friars are 5-2 against the nERD Top 50, a record which includes two wins against No. 31 Butler, and victories over Arizona (No. 16) and Villanova (No. 3).
Their only losses of the season came against Michigan State (12), Seton Hall (48), and Marquette (105).
They also have an additional two wins against Top 100 foes, knocking off number-62 Evansville and number-82 Rhode Island earlier in the season.
The Friars are 21st in the RPI, which, it just so happens, only looks at record, who you played, and who they played
Why the Computers Like the Friars Less
Of course, there is more to measuring team quality than merely looking at wins, losses and opponent. The key piece the RPI and (apparently) many poll voters miss is scoring margin, and this where holes in Providence’s resume begin to emerge.
Providence has outscored opponents by 7.4 points per game, which ranks 62nd in Division I, while playing the nation’s 53rd-hardest schedule, per Sports-Reference.com (while Providence played those seven teams in our top 50, it also had five games against teams ranked 200th or worse).
The Friars have used an extremely good record in close games to translate the solid point differential into a great record; Providence is 6-1 in games decided by two baskets or fewer, notching tight wins over Illinois, Arizona, Rhode Island, Creighton, Butler and Villanova, while losing by a point to Marquette.
Four of these wins (Illinois, Rhode Island, Creighton, Butler) had a margin of three points or fewer.
Generally speaking, in college basketball (and almost any sport) winning close games is not a repeatable skill, but rather the product of random variation (or “luck,” if you prefer).
Teams that win a high percentage of close games early in the season are no more likely to win a high percentage of close games in the second half of the season than those who lost a high percentage of their early tight games, as this study (and others) found.
While there may be some factors that help Providence late in close games (like excellent guard play), it would be unrealistic to expect the Friars to keep winning 80% of their one-score games.
Playing in a loaded Big East, Providence has the opportunity to improve its standing in the eyes of the computers.
The next two weeks could be critical, as the Friars host 13th-ranked (according to nERD) Xavier tonight, before road dates against 56th-ranked Georgetown and 157th-ranked Depaul. On Super Bowl Eve, Providence will have its own big game, in a rematch against Villanova at home.
The schedule does not really let up after that, as we project Providence to go 5-6 the rest of the way, which would give them a 22-9 record.