We’ve hit the halfway point of the Big 12 season and the conference race is as clear as mud. Houston leads the pack at 7-3, while more than half the league lurks within two games.
Over the past decade, things were much more cut-and-dry — the Big 12’s double round-robin schedule made it pretty clear who needed wins and where. There was no hiding from the best or racking up wins against weaker opponents. This season, the race for a title in America’s toughest conference is much more interesting. Fourteen teams play unbalanced schedules, all clawing their way to the top. Next season, it only gets more complicated with 16 teams.
In my quest to spreadsheet everything that confuses me to find order, I borrowed a popular concept in the scheduling world — the schedule matrix. Usually used to announce an entire conference’s season schedule visually, all it takes is some sorting using predictive analytics and some color-coding to create a living, breathing visual of wins and losses in the conference.
Simple enough, right? Well, as Ted Flint said after seeing an early version of the matrix, “You know there is no way I’ll understand this right?”
Okay, maybe a grid of 392 possible results color-coded in 5 ways isn’t exactly “simple,” but if you know what to look for, it can be a very powerful tool. I’ve been posting weekly updates on my Twitter page, but the matrix has undergone enough changes along the way that it’s time I make a “beginner’s guide” to help you navigate the matrix as things heat up down the stretch.
Above is the latest version of the matrix. Along the top row, you can see the teams listed in order of Kenpom rank — Houston is the highest-ranked team (#1 in the nation) through West Virginia, which currently sits at #133. Note: The teams are NOT organized by conference standing. For example, BYU currently sits 2 full games behind both Baylor and Iowa State in conference record but rank slightly ahead of both teams analytically. It’s not a perfect system and most of these rankings sort themselves out over time, but it helps keep the chart organized.
The basic concept of the matrix is you can look at any vertical column for each team and see which games they have won (green), lost (red), play next (yellow), don’t play at all (gray and black), and have yet to play (white). The column is organized vertically by difficulty of opponent, determined by Kenpom probabilities. The opponents near the top are the most difficult games and they get increasingly easier as you move down the column. Pro Tip: Don’t get caught up in comparing wins and losses line-by-line and focus more on results in each tier. A good example of this is the bottom-four teams in the “elite” tier are virtually all exactly as difficult to beat — they are separated by less than 2% win probability. However, if you compare at Texas Tech to a home game against BYU, the difference is nearly 10% in win probability.
Don’t sweat it if your favorite team seems to have a jumbled mess of wins and losses within a tier — that’s normal variation. The real delineation is from tier to tier. Speaking of tiers…
Along the far left side, I’ve included the average Big 12 team ranking in Kenpom (about #32) and “tiers” for the different opponents. The “Elite” tier features opponents that the average Big 12 team would have less than a 40% chance of beating. The “Good” tier features opponents that the average Big 12 team would have a 40% to 60% chance of beating. And the final “Should Win” tier are opponents that the average team would have a 70%+ chance of beating. Pro tip: You can find the “coin flip line” by drawing a line between the black cells for each team. Everything above that line, that team has less than a 50% chance of winning that game. Everything below that line, the team has more than a 50% chance of winning that game. As we know, teams get upset all the time, and coin-flip games do not mean you will lose every 49% probability game and win every 51% probability game. You can use the “coin flip line” as a general guide for expected wins and losses for each team.
And lastly, I’ve added a new feature along the bottom: current and remaining strength of schedule. While the matrix provides a nice visual for the opponents each team has played, there is a LOT of data to analyze all at once. To make it easier, I’ve added the Big 12 strength of schedules in games that have already been played, as well as the remaining strength of schedules for unplayed games. This provides some good context as we try to make sense of the current standings and the upcoming grind heading into March.
Make sense? Don’t worry if you’re lost, here are some notes rattling around in my brain as we prepare for an exciting final month of the season:
- The Gauntlet for Goliaths: Houston, Baylor, and Kansas are all sniffing the lead in the conference, but get the script flipped on them as February heats up. The trio had the three easiest schedules to start the Big 12 slate, and not only do they have the three toughest schedules in the back half, but they all face each other multiple times. Who survives?
- Home Sweet Houston: While Houston is the favorite to win the league, I can’t stop looking at this row on the matrix:
- The Cougars have been perfect at home (the red shows losses by TTU, UCF, KSU, etc.), but an odd scheduling quirk made it so the 5 home opponents they’ve played also happen to be the 5 easiest home opponents in the league. Sure, they’ve dominated at the Fertitta Center, but now they’ll host Iowa State and Kansas teams that already handed them 2 of their 3 losses, as well as Texas and Cincinnati squads that have performed well on the road this season.
- BYU, the Paper Cougar: The Cougars have impressed the computers, but the jury is definitely still out on whether they are a competitor. BYU is 0-4 in “elite” games and the number of opportunities they have to prove themselves is dwindling fast. They luckily play the easiest remaining schedule, but the Mormons will likely be praying they don’t end up in a tie-breaker situation against more proven teams.
- Got a Good Feeling: No one is feeling better in the race right now than the trio of Iowa State, TCU, and Texas Tech. Each team has multiple “elite” tier wins and softer schedules ahead, paving the way for a run at the title. But a pivotal matchup awaits this weekend — TCU hopes to spoil an Iowa State sweep in Hilton on Saturday and pull even with the Cyclones in the conference standings.
- Horns Up, Horns Down: Perhaps the strangest case in the Big 12 is the Texas Longhorns. Texas has rattled off 3 of the best road wins in the conference, making them just 1 of 2 teams (with Iowa State) to have 3 “elite” tier wins. Impressive, until you see that the Longhorns have the 3 worst losses in the conference to date, as well, with an atrocious 1-4 home record.
- Wild Finish: While I maintain that the double round robin is the best way to determine a conference champ, this exercise has proven to be more exciting and interesting to track than ever before. While there are bound to be teams that will catch lucky or unlucky breaks in scheduling, I’ve found the matrix to be a comforting guide to managing expectations. And I hope you do, too.