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Not a Stat Geek - The Curious Case of the SOS

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Let me be clear. I am not a stat geek. I don't know how to calculate PER or true shooting percentage, nor do I care to find out. I think p/40min stats are superfluous. Per game numbers suit me just fine. They say that the numbers never lie, but the people who use them do. They bend and twist the stats to fit their own narrative. Athletics are not equal to the sum of the numbers. There's more to it than that.

All that being said, my day job in IT has conditioned me always back up any statement with a supporting fact. At work, this means sifting through corporate documents that make my head swim. In sports, it's scouring statistics that provide some order to the chaos that is the action on the playing field. Not a Stat Geek is a weekly column that examines the hard data in an attempt to see how the numbers correlate to actual performance.

This week: The Curious Case of the SOS.

Stop me if this sounds familiar:

Syracuse doesn't play anybody.

Syracuse doesn't leave the state of New York until January.

Syracuse has no quality true road wins.

Syracuse always manages to steal a 3 seed with a weak out of conference slate.

Shall I continue? I don't know how RPI and SOS are calculated, and I don't really care. What I do know is that those are the key metrics when used for comparing teams that don't play head to head. There a reason why every basketball analyst with a microphone has RPI coming out the wahzoo come tourney time. Most of the controversy surrounding Syracuse's #1 ranking is the notion that it simply fell into their laps by virtue of all the teams ahead of them losing on the same weekend. There's some truth to that. If Kentucky, Ohio State or North Carolina were undefeated, there's little doubt that they would still be ranked ahead of the Orange. That's the conventional polling etiquette, and that's fine. The reality is, though, that Syracuse still has a zero in the L column and those other teams don't. Syracuse was awarded the top spot, and until they lose, they'll stay there.67359_seton_hall_syracuse_basketball_medium

But do the Orange reallydeserve their ranking, or is etiquette getting in the way of common sense? I mean, does it really matter which side of the plate the salad fork goes on? After all, while Kentucky, UNC and Ohio state were battling the likes of Michigan State, Indiana and Kansas (all ranked in the top 10 as of the latest AP and coaches' polls), Syracuse was beating up on Colgate and Tulane. Conventional wisdom suggests that the best team would be the one that beats other good teams the most. So, Syracuse can't be the best team, right? Sure, they're undefeated, but who did they beat? The Fordham Rams? This, of course, is a highly subjective topic, so luckily we have RPI and SOS numbers to help us out.

The likes of Ron Morris, Doug Gottlieb and Seth Davis would argue that, while Syracuse is certainly a very good team, they can't really be called the "best" team because of their flaccid schedule. Syracuse didn't play Michigan State on an aircraft carrier in San Diego, so how can the Orange possibly be that good?

Well, the numbers support the Orange.

As of January 10, Syracuse has the top ranked RPI in the country. They've had the top RPI spot for the last 8 weeks. In fact, even while Syracuse was beating down lowly Fordam and Manhattan, the Orange RPI has never been below 27. Jim Boeheim's squad also boasts the sixth ranked SOS as of January 11, a ranking that was as high as third last week. Compare those rankings to Ohio State, Kentucky and North Carolina, the three teams most often cited at the "true" best team in the country. All three trail Syracuse in both RPI and SOS. Ohio State and Kentucky only outranked Syracuse in either during the first week of the season. The Tarheels have trailed Syracuse in both categories all season by a considerable margin. On the flipside, why isn't Duke, a perennial daring of the talking heads, in the conversation for this season's "best" team? The Blue Devils have as many losses as the Buckeyes and Tarheels, but out rank them both in RPI and SOS by far. So, statistically speaking, not only has Syracuse played a better schedule than all of the other potential #1 teams, but the Orange have also managed to win every single contest where the others all have at least one loss.

So, what does it all mean? First off, it means what I think we all knew already; Syracuse is a deserving #1. Five weeks on top of the polls is the easy way to see it, but the metrics back it up. I won't go so far as to say they prove Syracuse to be the outright best team in the nation. I don't think such a thing exists anymore in college basketball. There's too much talent to go around for one team to hoard enough of it to raise itself head and shoulders above the rest. To claim, though, that the Orange haven't earned their spot is ludicrous.

What else does this mean? Jim Boeheim isn't an idiot. As few as five years ago, Syracuse was left out of the NCAA tournament despite yet another 20 win season under Boeheim. The reason? Poor scheduling. The criticisms leveled at Syracuse's scheduling have a valid root in Boeheim's history of feasting on weak non-conference opponents. Two consecutive seasons ending in the NIT, though, pushed him to schedule tougher to satisfy the demands of a changing college basketball landscape. What that doesn't mean, though, is taking on a murderer's row in the non-conference and entering league play with three or four losses. By blending the traditional blowouts (Colgate, Albany, etc.) with "should win" games against respectable teams (NC State, Florida), Boheim has found a balance between meeting the mathematical requirements of the RPI and the real world necessity of playing non-conference games his team can win. The result? A #1 ranking and a program that is poised to cement its place in the upper echelon of college basketball for years to come.

Stats courtesy of