Last season, the North Carolina Tar Heels became the first team in college basketball history to go from preseason No. 1 to missing the NCAA Tournament. But don’t blame Ken Pomeroy.
“I think North Carolina was ninth in my rankings,” said Pomeroy, the namesake of KenPom. “If you look at all the mathematical ratings out there, I don’t think anybody had Carolina at 1. It was kind of a runaway snowball situation in the offseason. It went from everybody thought they’d be top 10 to everybody agreed they’d be No. 1. It’s kind of odd. You saw what could happen. The worst-case scenario played out for them.”
The entire point of Pomeroy’s website is to ignore the type of hot-take groupthink that put the Tar Heels atop the polls. Since its creation in 2004, KenPom has become the college basketball analytics bible, with everyone from radio announcers to fans to team officials checking in on what the numbers say about their program. Pomeroy realized his site had jumped into the establishment mainstream when he fielded his first angry call from a head coach.
“I used to have pace of play on the site,” Pomeroy remembers. “But there were definitely differences about how that pace comes about — how fast a team plays on offense or defense can have an effect on pace. Then I had a coach complain to me about just looking at pace.
“You have us playing at a slow pace, but we actually play pretty fast,” Pomeroy remembers the coach saying. “I’m not running down the shot clock every time or anything like that.”
Pomeroy started explaining how pace was calculated, and the coach cut in.
“I’m trying to get recruits here,” the coach said. “And they’re looking at pace and thinking we play slow down.”
Pomeroy looked into the numbers and determined that the coach was right. His team did have a brisk offensive pace. “His defense was slowing him down,” Pomeroy said. So he ended up breaking the statistic into separate numbers for offensive and defensive pace of play.
Pomeroy started KenPom as a hobby while working as a meteorologist, but the angry coach was just one of several signs that what once had been a side gig had quickly grown into an industry for him.
“I definitely feel more responsible,” he said. “That’s one of the drawbacks of doing this as a job. When it was a hobby, it was like, ‘Hey, all this is for fun.’ If there was bad data on the site, who cares? I remember one summer the site was down for three days, and I didn’t even know it.”
“That was obviously pre-Twitter,” he added.
It’s a different world for Ken Pomeroy, and KenPom, now.
“A lot of times, I would get creative ideas, things I want to try,” he said. “That’s always a fun part of this enterprise, to just throw silly stuff on the site and see what happens, how people react. That’s the part of the creative side of me I need to exercise. But I can do that less and less, now. It’s most critical that the site works. I don’t want to put something up and jeopardize the site functioning.”
Still, with the start of a new season, Pomeroy remembers what lured him away from the weather and onto the hardwood — the joy of coming up with preseason ratings.
“This is one of my favorite times of the year as an intellectual exercise,” he said. “Once the season starts, all the ratings converge, since we’re all using the same data. But preseason ratings, there are a lot of different methodologies, and we’re all trying to come up with the most accurate rating. It’s a really fun challenge.”
As the Tar Heels showed last season, however, even if Pomeroy has a team ranked ninth, it doesn’t mean they’re destined for greatness.
“Preseason rankings can only be so accurate,” he cautioned. “Just because we ranked somebody 12, it’s not set in stone they’ll be that team over the course of the year. UConn won it all. They were around 25 in my preseason ratings. FAU had a run. They were in the 90s. That stuff happens. It’s just a testament to the sport. Preseason ratings are an estimate of what we think you’ll do based on a history of all the teams that look like you. The error bars associated with those are pretty large. Carolina is the first 1 to not make the tournament, but reasonable error bars for the top team — half the time, they’d finish out of the top five, or maybe worse — top seven or eight.”
The good news is, he doesn’t have to worry about getting nasty calls from coaches about where their team is ranked to start the year.
“Preseason rankings, fans get a little offended by them sometimes,” he said. “I haven’t heard complaints from coaches. In my own experience, when coaches disagree, I can usually have mature conversations with them. A lot of them don’t pay attention to them. They don’t know where they’re ranked.”
After all, this whole thing was supposed to be just a hobby.