Monday, April 22, 2024
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Court Report: Auburn’s Bruce Pearl could be coaching carousel target; Ken Pomeroy should be in Hall of Fame

Few coaches in college basketball have the magnetism, optimism, enthusiasm and high-level win rate to match Bruce Pearl across all of those categories. He exudes unrelenting vibes of being a Big-Time College Coach. It’s because of this, along with having No. 14 Auburn ranked seven weeks straight while cruising to another NCAA Tournament, that Pearl could be pushed to a big decision next month.

I was on hand for Kentucky’s 70-59 upset win over Auburn on Saturday, which I detailed in column form here. (One-sentence review on Neville Arena: Perhaps the most underrated building in high-major college hoops.) Hours before the game, I sat down with Pearl and probed on something that seems inevitable in the next few weeks: his name bubbling up on the rumor mill as more high-profile jobs come open. Ohio State is already vacant. Incoming OSU athletic director Ross Bjork doing a temp check on Pearl’s status seems like a practical move. After all, Pearl previously revived men’s basketball at a football-first-football-second-football-third school (Tennessee).

Elsewhere, Louisville is expected to open, and you could argue that Pearl is built to handle the pressures and rebuild of that job as well as anyone. (Pearl was a rumored Louisville candidate two years ago, before Kenny Payne was hired.)

Would he consider an offer from an Ohio State, Louisville or anyone else in that top-20-job range? Here’s what Pearl said when I asked.

“I’ve liked every place I’ve been. I’ve never liked any place I’ve been more than Auburn,” Pearl said. “I’ve liked everywhere. This is the best I’ve ever been.” 

He’s also never had more support than at Auburn, despite having three athletic directors (Jay Jacobs, Allen Greene, John Cohen). Pearl said the school’s “family atmosphere is real” and that the community around Auburn has made this his most fulfilling job.

“This would be a really, really hard place to leave,” he said. 

He stopped short of saying he’d never leave, though. 

I expect Pearl to be contacted as other high-majors open in March, especially with 20-6 Auburn overshooting expectations this season; the Tigers have rated in predictive metrics as a top-10 team for basically all of 2024. The fact he took Auburn to its only Final Four (2019) will also be the biggest selling point for potential bird dogs. He’s had lottery picks, won SEC championships and established a winning culture that was previously unthinkable at that place.

To wit: Auburn has won more games than any SEC team in the past eight seasons, narrowly edging Tennessee.

Maybe Pearl coaches Auburn another 5-8 years and retires with an irreplaceable legacy. I could see it. Based on multiple conversations I’ve had with him over the years, I know he’d cherish that. Incredibly, the 63-year-old is already in his 10th season with AU. Pearl’s never held a coaching position longer than this one. A move doesn’t have to happen, but if a move is going to happen, it sure seems like it’s going to be this year or next at the latest.

Something else I think would be on the table is the issue of Pearl’s son, Steven, who is Auburn’s associate head coach. He’s not officially next in line there. It took years for Kellen Sampson to be guaranteed the Houston job after Kelvin leaves. Is that on the table at Auburn? Knowing how these things go sometimes, I wonder if that’s a sweetener that would fend off other schools — if Pearl really did come to a moment where he had a competitive offer from somewhere else.

Auburn’s finish may well affect matters, too. Jaylin Williams is the team’s second best player and he’ll miss a couple of weeks after suffering a knee injury against Kentucky. The Tigers are also in the middle of their toughest run on the schedule. So, TBD.

I’m anticipating another busy carousel cycle with a litany of sitting head coaches having their names attached to high-major jobs. Some will parlay this into bigger contracts, but as another prominent coach told me last week, “I think there could be some names on the move this year that would shock you.”

Syndication: The Montgomery Advertiser

Pearl’s record in 10 years at Auburn: 207-117 and a 2019 Final Four.  USATSI

Ken Pomeroy deserves to be in the Naismith Hall of Fame

It’s Analytics Month here at the Court Report, where we’ve been highlighting independent statisticians and data enthusiasts who make us smarter about college basketball. This week, instead of spotlighting an up-and-coming voice in the space, I’m turning my attention to the king of all hoops metrics and finally writing about something I’ve believed for a while.

Ken Pomeroy needs to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a Contributor to the game. 

The 2024 Hall of Fame finalists were announced last Friday. Among them is Bo Ryan, who won four Division III championships and took Wisconsin to back-to-back Final Fours in 2014-15. His nomination is well-earned and apropos of my argument: Ryan’s Wisconsin teams were so reliably efficient, they finished in the top 12 of the Pomeroy Ratings 10 out of his 14 seasons. Wisconsin consistently being ranked so high at KenPom.com brought much attention to Pomeroy’s metric; Ryan’s teams were so good, in fact, that Pomeroy had to modify his algorithm so it wouldn’t overcompensate for Wisconsin blowing out bad teams.

The man’s a forerunner to an analytics movement that became a mammoth industry unto itself. Pomeroy changed our perception of basketball. His influence across the sport for 15-plus years (and counting) is undeniable. KenPom.com has made everyone attached to college basketball — coaches, media, fans, agents, athletic directors, etc. — smarter about the game. Pomeroy widened the discussion by popularizing the Four Factors and allowed us to better comprehend why efficiency explains/distinguishes the teams that are really good from the ones that are merely … good.

More than any other major American team sport, college hoops thrives on the “styles make fights” credo. KenPom illustrates why that’s the case and how teams that average 60 points can be just as good or better than the ones putting up 80 per night. His new-age data made traditional statistics look basic, if not sometimes incomplete. Pomeroy didn’t invent the concept of tempo-free stats (Dean Oliver, you deserve your honors as well), but he brought it into the mainstream.

When your name becomes shorthand in any culture, you’re ubiquitous. You’re Hall of Fame-worthy. That’s KenPom. It’s not that hard to understand. His influence and legacy deserves permanent recognition and inclusion in Springfield, Massachusetts. 

Don’t take my word for it — take it from a coach already in the Naismith Hall of Fame.

“I think it makes total sense,” Kansas coach Bill Self told CBS Sports. “We’re living in our profession based on what he’s developed and his analytics and all that stuff. He probably has more to do with scouting and game planning and also setting criteria for the NCAA Tournament selection more than anybody.”

Here’s what longtime ESPN analyst Jay Bilas (who will no doubt one day also be in the Hall of Fame) said on Pomeroy’s case: “I think it’s a great idea. Ken Pomeroy changed the way people look at the game. He’s the Bill James of basketball. His analytics are quoted constantly, they’re used by teams and they’ve illuminated the game and spotlighted it for the average fan to be able to decipher and unlock what they’re seeing and may not understand. I think it’s changed everything in basketball.” 

Read a college basketball story, listen to a college hoops podcast, watch a game broadcast: KenPom is referenced daily and has been for years. A college hoops lover without a KenPom subscription is an incomplete fan of the game. Pomeroy’s rankings and data have become useful for everything from whimsical fan curiosities to NBA general managers building out scouting reports for lottery picks. 

“Truthfully, I do think there’s something to it,” Self said. “When you look at some of the other contributors that have been in the game and awarded the Hall of Fame, I would think that he would be up there toward the top.”

In the late 2000s, his predictive model also became an underground betting oasis for gamblers, who realized KenPom.com’s score projections were ahead of the curve of Las Vegas’ oddsmakers. Eventually, Vegas caught up and started setting its lines much, much closer in accordance to what KenPom was forecasting. That’s how good his metric is. 

One word to describe KenPom’s relationship to college basketball: essential.

This is the 25th year Pomeroy has published his ratings. He first started in 1999 while working as a full-time meteorologist. In the early days, his basic website would get maybe a couple hundred hits per week. Now, it’s viewed millions of times over each year. 

By 2003-04, KenPom.com was a dedicated college hoops rating service. In 2005, first-year Xavier coach Sean Miller was the first coach to publicly credit Pomeroy’s algorithm in helping him further understand his own team and Xavier’s opponents. Miller also enthusiastically endorses Pomeroy as Hall-worthy.

“I probably look at it, other than the year I didn’t coach, four times a day,” Miller told CBS Sports. “What his website does for me, and I would say a lot of coaches, is it takes the emotion out of it. He’s giving you real information based on the level of competition, the games you’ve played, the games your opponent has played and the rest of the world of college basketball.” 

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how the 2006 March Madness preview edition of Sports Illustrated gave Pomeroy his first wave of real publicity, thanks to a fellow visionary, legendary writer Grant Wahl. But KenPom’s watershed moment that validated his metric for good came during 2009-10, when Duke was ranked No. 1 at KenPom for most of the back half of that season. The Blue Devils had a really good defense but didn’t have the sweetest-looking offense. In January and February, when Duke was in the top 10 of the AP poll, it remained perched at No. 1 in Pomeroy’s ratings, which came under constant attack from people in the media — and even plenty of coaches who resisted new-age data. 

Duke of course beat Butler to win the 2010 national title. Pomeroy’s system was not only validated, it was elevated all the more when Brad Stevens referenced it often as a critical resource for Butler’s back-to-back championship game runs. Stevens’ endorsement sent Pomeroy into the mainstream. By 2012, his site was so widely subscribed to, he quit his day job and dedicated his life’s work to making college basketball a smarter sport. 

“He’s allowed me to see things very matter-of-fact and clearly,” Miller said. “In my case, it’s amazing how accurate he’s been over the 19 years I’ve been as a coach. I find it amazing, fascinating.” 

What began as a passion project soon became an unassuming doctrine that changed a sport.

Reminder: The Naismith Hall of Fame is for all levels of basketball. There are 76 people who’ve been inducted into the Hall under the “Contributor” designation. Search through that list and you’ll see everyone there has provided something to validate inclusion, some more than others. 

Few people on that list have fundamentally changed our understanding of basketball like Ken Pomeroy.

“The inventor of the shot clock is in the Hall of Fame and rightfully so, but that just shows that there are things that go in and around the game that make it better without necessarily setting foot on the court as a player,” Bilas said.

If the inventor of the shot clock (Danny Biasone) can be in the Hall of Fame, so can the king of modern analytics. Pomeroy’s case is a no-brainer. 

Saint Mary’s tries to keep undefeated conference trend going

Did you realize we almost always get at least one team to run the table in conference play each season? If it’s going to happen this year, Saint Mary’s has to be on the one to do it because it’s the only one left without a league loss. What a journey Saint Mary’s has taken over the past three months. The Gaels opened 3-5 and, on Dec. 23, took a terrible home loss to Missouri State to drop to 8-6. They had almost zero chance of building out an at-large résumé at that point. Since then, a near-180.

SMC has won 13 straight and is the last undefeated team in its conference, holding a 12-0 mark in the WCC. The Gaels have a big matchup at home tonight vs. 21-6 San Francisco. There’s also the regular-season finale vs. Gonzaga awaiting on March 2. If the Gaels can get to the WCC Tournament without a WCC loss, they’ll continue a trend we’ve seen over the past decade wherein we get at least one team to run its regular-season league table. Only one season in the past 10 (2017-18) saw zero teams finish unbeaten in conference play. 

Here are those teams (record vs. all league opponents, postseason included).

* 2020-21 season had shortened league schedules due to COVID-19 impacts
^ No 2020 postseason conference tournament due to COVID-19 impacts

@ me

The Court Report’s weekly mailbag! Find me on X/Twitter or Bluesky and drop a Q anytime.

Second question first: Where does Chris Holtmann land? I put it at 30% he tries to get involved and lands another job this cycle. (The where is TBD.) If not, take a year off. He can do media if he pleases, then he’ll eventually get back in. Holtmann still wants to coach and isn’t looking to spend time away no matter what. 

Who replaces him? Interim coach Jake Diebler’s off to a great start, but this job is too big and coveted obviously. No one really knows the candidate list at this point, but if you want some insight into the process of how a power-conference program takes steps in February and early March, I had a big story last summer that detailed Notre Dame’s tick-tock in how it targeted and hired Micah Shrewsberry. I know Ohio State fans want a realistic name or two right this very moment, but I’m telling you any name you hear as of Feb. 20 is a complete guess. 

Stephen is responding to the official Eye on College Basketball phraseology chart for losing streaks. If you missed it, I debuted it on a recent episode. Notice the sibilance pattern. And once you hit seven consecutive Ls, the storm has officially arrived and there is no going back. (The “T” in Tsunami is silent and so is your participation in the NCAA Tournament.) Here is how we refer to teams taking consecutive losses from here on out. 

screenshot-2024-02-10-at-3-52-40-pm.png

>>Alice Roberts 📬 via Bluesky asks: Why/how is the ACC so bad at basketball? Is it too big? Just bad circumstance?
I think the state of the “down” ACC has been overstated a bit, but obviously the league is not operating as a top-four conference as of late. (It’s comfortably fifth at KenPom, after being seventh last season.) One issue that’s held it back has been size; when you have 15 teams, your 13s, 14s and 15s will sag your league. Louisville has been an anchor. There’s also not been highly rated teams — I’m talking top-five level — in recent years either. Plus, like, check No. 21 Virginia as of late. The loss at Virginia Tech on Monday night is a PR problem, when you consider UVa is still easily in the field yet it is losing games 75-41 to teams not close to the bubble discussion. The ACC has also lost Hall of Fame coaches, so there’s some brain drain at play, too. Still, it over-performs seed expectation with regularity in the NCAAs and I’d bank on that happening again, be it with four or five teams in the Big Dance.

Norlander’s news + nuggets

• No. 2 Houston’s 73-65 win over No. 6 Iowa State on Monday night improved the Cougars to 23-3. This is a great team, just like UConn and Purdue. Today is day 87 the Coogs have been No. 1 at KenPom. Houston leads the nation in scoring defense (55.3 ppg) and field goal % defense (37.4%) while playing in the toughest conference. That’s obscene. Houston is trying to become the first team since 1976-77 Princeton to finish No. 1 in both of those defensive categories. 
• On Monday, Arizona announced a contract extension for Tommy Lloyd through the 2028-29 season that will bump his pay north of $5 million and getting to $6 million by the end of the deal. The University of Arizona is in crippling debt, so how is it able to pay Lloyd and his staff millions? “Donor funds have been secured to fully cover the increase in Lloyd’s university-paid compensation,” according to the school release. 
• Arizona also just plucked Missouri athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois for the same job in the desert. A local columnist tweeted Monday there had been some “low-key” friction. The college hoops connection: Reed-Francois’ well-established connection with Dennis Gates significantly helped him land that job. Mizzou is yet to win a league game this season, so since it’s been so bad, the pressure will be on Gates next year with a new AD.
• Baylor Scheierman is playing like a Second Team All-American. Averaging 18.7 points, 8.7 rebounds and 4.0 assists for a top-15 team. Had a triple-double last week vs. Georgetown. Shooting a respectable 37.1% from 3-point range. Has a huge chance to up his stock Tuesday night in the No. 17 Bluejays’ home game against No. 1 UConn. 
• No update on Tyrese Proctor (concussion) in regard to when he’ll return for No. 8 Duke. The Blue Devils are somewhat quietly 20-5 and in the midst of a three-game road swing.
Colgate beat Lafayette on Monday night, clinching the program’s fifth Patriot League title in a six-year span. The fact Matt Langel hasn’t been pried away to a bigger job by now is an indictment on every athletic director at the multi-bid-league level.
• If you were wondering about Fran McCaffery’s future in light of Iowa having a down season, the 64-year-old clarified that on Monday: He will not be retiring. (And he is not in a hot-seat situation.)
• Mid-major team deserving of more attention: App State. The Mountaineers are 22-5 and in first place in the Sun Belt (11-2). Dustin Kerns’ team is 3-0 in Quad 1/2 games, including a win over Auburn. This is App State’s best start in conference play in 24 years and its first time 15-plus games above .500 in 17 seasons. 
• Not a record you want to have, but DePaul is flirting with becoming the lowest-ranked KenPom team — ever — from a high-major league. The Blue Demons are 3-22 and sit at 302. The record is … 302. Utah went 6-25 in 2011-12, its first season in the Pac-12.
• Will lift a bit from Scott Van Pelt and say this was the best thing I saw on Monday. Imagine being 12 years old and winning $10,000 after making four shots in a row. Blow it all, young fella!

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