Friday, March 1, 2013

Road Warriors

In the moments after Wisconsin's historic win at Indiana, SI writer Andy Glockner tweeted that Wisconsin's five straight victories at Indiana were particularly amazing because the Badgers are "not exactly known as road warriors." Several Badger fans responded that Wisconsin under Bo Ryan has the best road record in the Big Ten. Glockner was seemingly surprised by this and went on to do an extended Twitter investigation. Having found the basic contention to be true (though not necessarily in Big Ten games only), Glockner narrowed his focus to road record over Top 25 teams. Predictably, the Badgers' road record over AP Top 25 teams is not impressive, but no one's is. The result of Glockner's investigation was that OSU, MSU, and Wisconsin all have pretty much the same record in road games against Top 25 teams in the Bo Ryan era.

But I dislike the metric of "record against Top 25 teams" because it is based on stupid polls that use stupid criteria and often lead to stupid results. I don't really care whether a team happened to be ranked if it turns out that team was awful. And, similarly, I don't care whether a team happened to be unranked at the time a certain game took place if it turns out that the team was actually really good.

An example of the silliness of poll rankings as your metric is the recent headline that "Indiana is the first team to lose to three unranked team as #1 in the same season since..." The three unranked teams IU lost to as #1 are Illinois, Butler Wisconsin, and Minnesota. But all three of these teams have spent multiple weeks ranked in the top 15 of the AP poll. So this is just an accident of timing. And it is bizarre to me that Indiana's loss at Illinois is considered a lowly "loss to unranked team" while Wisconsin win over that same Illinois team at home is considered a "top 15 win." Illinois is both ranked and unranked! And the same is true for Wisconsin, of course. The next team to beat Wisconsin will get a win over a top 20 (probably top 15) team, but Indiana's loss (as No. 2) to Wisconsin will forever be labeled a monumental upset to an "unranked" ragtag squad.

Worse, there's really no excuse for relying on polls to be the arbiter of good wins anymore. We've got great rankings, such as Pomeroy's, that give you much better information about how good a team really is, how impressive a victory was, and how humiliating a defeat was. Indiana's loss to Wisconsin is not so shameful after all, if you look at Pomeroy's ranking: based on all the data at our disposal, Wisconsin is a top ten team—and it was a top 15 team based on the available data at the time.

So in examining Wisconsin's road record under Bo, I would rather use Pomeroy's ratings from the end of the season. That way, you know how good the win actually was—not how good it seemed to be at the time.*** The only downside is that the ratings go back only to 2003, so you miss Bo's first year (when he had historic, program-defining road wins at MSU and IU). For that year, I have used Basketball Reference's SRS, which is essentially margin of victory adjusted for strength of schedule. (Better than nothing.) So, here are the results, presented by number of road wins since 2001-02:

***The only argument for using contemporaneous rankings (that is, the rank of a team when it played the game) is that teams do sometimes get significantly better or worse during a season—particularly if they suffer a major injury. But in my opinion that possibility is overstated and, anyhow, those kinds of things should even out in this kind of comparison. 


  1. Good post, but Indiana wasn't #1 when Wisconsin beat them, they were #2. Butler beat them early in the year when Indiana was #2 and Butler wasn't ranked.

    1. Oops, You are of course correct.

    2. I even did a while post looking at all the times #2 had lost at home in the last five or so years after the Indiana win, so silly lapse on my part.