Ask Ken Pomeroy, the statistician, about Kansas’ run for a 12th straight conference title, and he’ll tell you it’s difficult to put into perspective.
Pomeroy, who is the founder of the advanced stats site KenPom.com, knows what the odds should be of winning a competitive Big 12 each year. The Jayhawks still repeatedly defy those numbers.
“It seems like there’s always a time where it looks like there’s a realistic shot of it ending, and obviously, it doesn’t end,” Pomeroy said. “Something happens to keep it going. It’s pretty amazing.”
No. 2 KU, which can clinch a share of the league title with a victory in its 11 a.m. home game Saturday against Texas Tech, has put together a streak that is nearly unmatched in today’s era of college basketball.
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The only team with a comparable run is Gonzaga, which has won 14 of the last 15 conference titles, which included 11 straight from 2001-11. That’s been in the West Coast Conference, though, a league that doesn’t have the same star power as the Big 12.
Look across the rest of America, and no one else is doing what KU is doing. There’s good reason for that as well.
Though the Jayhawks have made winning league titles look easy, Pomeroy says it’s much harder than it appears, as fans tend to overestimate the chances of any one team winning its conference before the season begins.
To believe KU will win or share the Big 12 each year, someone is essentially taking the Jayhawks over the Big 12 field. Even if the Jayhawks are a heavy favorite, Pomeroy says percentages shouldn’t be more than about 75 percent for one team to win a 10-team league title because there are so many unknown variables. There are other years, when the conference is strong, that KU being the favorite might only mean it has a 40 or 50 percent chance of taking the crown.
“Injuries can happen,” Pomeroy said, “and most of the unexpected things that can happen tend to hurt the favorite.”
The reasoning is simple: If KU loses a top player, its odds of winning the title are immediately affected. If one of the teams chasing KU has a significant injury, though, there are still other teams that could play well and unseat the Jayhawks.
Here’s another reality that is rarely talked about: Even if KU is the best team in the Big 12, there’s no guarantee that it will become the conference champion.
Pomeroy uses Michigan State as an example. The Spartans are widely considered to be the best team in the Big Ten, yet they are in fourth place and nearly eliminated from the conference race with a 10-5 league mark. Indiana, 13-3, Iowa, 11-4, and Maryland, 11-4, all are in better position to win the league title.
“If you go through each conference, you’ll find that maybe over half the time, the best team wins it, but barely over half,” Pomeroy said. “An 18-game schedule is a really short time to try to prove who the best team is, and so often, it doesn’t do that good of a job of it.”
Yet no unexpected team has risen up to beat KU in the Big 12 — not even at a time when the conference is at its strongest.
According to Pomeroy’s numbers, this year’s Big 12 is tied as the toughest out of 390 conferences in the last 12 seasons, matching the Big Ten in 2010-11. Pomeroy, who calls this year’s Big 12 “historically good,” says if he’d have known the league would turn out this competitive at the beginning of the season, he would have predicted KU’s title streak would have come to an end.
Of course, that doesn’t look like it will happen.
“You have to obviously give Bill Self a ton of credit for what he’s been able to do to prepare his team during the streak,” Pomeroy said. “He obviously gives Kansas some sort of advantage beyond the talent.”
Other college basketball analysts have taken note as well.
ESPN’s Jay Bilas, when asked about KU’s 11 straight conference titles last month, called it “one of the great accomplishments in the history of college basketball.”
“It’s become so commonplace,” Bilas said, “that it’s almost passé to talk about it.”
Seth Greenberg, who is Bilas’ colleague at ESPN, believes the streak is a testament to Self recruiting the right guys then getting them to trust each other while playing hard.
“To be that consistent, to be that good, to be the team — the red-letter game, the biggest game on everyone’s schedule — and have that consistency, it’s mind-boggling. It’s phenomenal,” Greenberg said. “It’s even hard to fathom.”
Here’s another way to look at it: Even if we assumed that KU had a 50-percent chance of winning or sharing the Big 12 title each year, the odds of KU accomplishing the feat 12 straight times would be the same as flipping heads 12 times in a row: 1 in 4,096.
Though Pomeroy believes Self bumps up the probability significantly, he’s still in awe of the accomplishment.
“You talk about 1-in-4,000. I don’t think it’s that rare, but it’s pretty rare,” Pomeroy said. “Hopefully Kansas fans appreciate just how rare it is.”