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Making sense of Northwestern basketball’s national ranking

Should the ‘Cats be higher or lower than No. 25 in the AP’s latest poll?

NCAA Basketball: Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off-Rhode Island at Northwestern Mark Smith-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time since February, Northwestern is back in the AP Top 25 Men’s College Basketball Poll. After beating No. 1 Purdue to start the month, the ‘Cats received 77 points in the Dec. 4 AP Poll. With a win against Detroit Mercy and teams like Texas A&M, San Diego State and Ohio State suffering losses, NU vaulted to the No. 25 spot in this week’s rankings.

But the AP Poll is flawed, as voters tend to give boosts to big name teams and rely too heavily on the previous week’s rankings. In the early weeks of the season, preseason expectations play a factor too — just look at Michigan State, which after starting the year at No. 4, have plummeted to a 4-5 record. This creates a ranking that’s slightly behind reality, letting expectations, storylines and personal preference dictate a nationally accepted poll. In no way is this a bash against the AP Poll, but it’s essentially a futile midpoint between a glorified power ranking and ranking the best 25 teams in the country.

So what about rankings like KenPom, RPI and the NET?

KenPom’s ranking uses an algorithm to measure teams’ adjusted efficiency margin, using elements like strength of schedule to rank teams based on how efficient they are. On KenPom’s rankings, Northwestern sits at No. 41 — above Big Ten schools like Michigan, Iowa and Nebraska, but below Purdue, Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio State and Michigan State.

More interestingly, Northwestern ranks at No. 40 in adjusted offensive efficiency (points scored per 100 possessions adjusted for opponent) but No. 70 in adjusted defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions adjusted for opponent), with the great equalizer being Northwestern’s No. 341 ranking in adjusted tempo out of 362 Division I programs. Although fans might think of Northwestern as a defensive minded team, stats available like this on KenPom indicate that Northwestern’s glacial pace might subtly strengthen their defensive effort over band-aiding a lack of perceived offense.

Every Northwestern fan should love the RPI ranking, which has Northwestern at No. 22. The RPI uses a mechanism that includes a team’s winning percentage, average opponent’s winning percentage and the average opponent’s opponent’s winning percentage. After beating Purdue — which has already beaten Gonzaga, Tennessee and Marquette this season — Northwestern saw its ranking as high as No. 3, but beating Detroit Mercy on Sunday caused the ‘Cats to tumble down to No. 20 on Monday as the Titans haven’t found the win column yet.

The RPI is great for elevating good basketball teams that fly under the radar of heavy national attention. Especially early in the season, the RPI’s dependency on a large sample size to accurately rank teams leads to questionable results. For example, Memphis ranks at No. 7, Grand Canyon at No. 12 and Drake at No. 19. All are capable programs, but none of them have any business as top-20 basketball teams. The RPI’s reliance on lots of data causes results that progressively become more precise as the season progresses. For now however, it is ineffective.

The NET system, part of the NCAA formula to select March Madness teams, focuses on game results. It balances strength of schedule, game location, how much teams win or lose to their opponents by as well as the quality of wins and losses. Northwestern sits at No. 48 in the NET, going 1-1 in Quad 1 games (beating Purdue and losing to Mississippi State), 1-0 in Quad 2 games (beating Dayton), 1-0 in Quad 3 games (beating Rhode Island) and 4-0 in Quad 4 games (beating Binghamton, Western Michigan, NIU and Detroit Mercy).

The biggest reason Northwestern ranks so low, is the fact it hasn’t played many highly ranked opponents which is crucial to success in the NET rankings and could play a key factor with potential March Madness seeding if Northwestern can get back to the tournament. Even though Texas A&M lost to Memphis on Sunday, the Aggies sit at No. 23 thanks to a 3-3 record in six combined Quad 1 and 2 games. Although there’s a discussion to be had regarding if Texas A&M or Northwestern is better, it’s certainly not by the large margin suggested by the NET.

The best example is Indiana State’s No. 13 ranking in the NET due to a perfect 4-0 record against Quad 2 competition. If you can find any expert, analyst or college basketball fan that thinks Indiana State, even with a 9-1 record, should be ranked higher than Northwestern, please let me know. No disrespect to Indiana State, who powered by Robbie Avila — a.k.a. college Jokic — will continue to make noise in the MVC this season, but the Sycamores don’t have an All-American type point guard that dropped 31 points against the best team in the country 12 days ago.

So the AP Poll is problematic, KenPom has its pitfalls and the RPI and NET systems fall short. Math and algorithms are important tools to determine team rankings but there’s no perfect procedure.

So where should Northwestern rank?

Paired with the eye test of watching every minute of Northwestern basketball this season and the numbers of KenPom, RPI and the NET, the ‘Cats are a top-35 basketball team in the country. They’re dynamic with their playmakers, have the size and versatility to match up against anyone, as well as the defensive core to support a surprisingly efficient offense. More importantly, NU is good enough to compete with anyone — and after beating Purdue, potentially good enough to even win against anyone — but shouldn’t necessarily be favored against a slew of power conference teams.

Rankings don’t matter. They don’t dictate wins or losses, but are merely indicators of what should happen. However, if what should happen was the only outcome, there wouldn’t be upsets, there wouldn’t be drama and there wouldn’t be college basketball.

So celebrate Northwestern’s No. 25 ranking in this week’s AP Poll with a sense of modesty. It’s a great look for a program on the rise, but as long as the ‘Cats keep winning, their ranking in the AP Poll, KenPom, RPI and the NET won’t make the slightest difference — until March when college basketball uses imperfect methods to determine a field of 68.

For now, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.