Buried Treasure: How Much Improvement Lies Within the Pirates?

-Jim Root

Let’s start here: preseason/“way too early” Top 25 rankings are an inexact science. Creators of such lists (including ourselves!) must project how returning players will develop, how new coaches will approach their rosters, and most importantly, how new players – both freshmen and transfers – will fit into an already-existing team structure. For this reason, it’s often easy to gravitate towards known quantities: teams that return a ton of pieces from what we watched last year, a team that involves far less conjecture in determining how the pieces will fit together.

At least at this point, this year seems to have a dearth of clear top 15ish teams. Major personnel losses have hit consistently elite teams like Virginia, North Carolina, and Gonzaga, and it’s hard to know how much to trust vaunted freshman classes at places like Memphis, Arizona, and Villanova. As a result, filling the spots has become a particularly difficult guessing game. However, one team has clearly infiltrated the into the college basketball hive mind, largely for the simple reason of “they bring everybody back”: the Seton Hall Pirates. A consensus has formed around the Pirates:

Clearly, the argument in favor of the Pirates is one of “continuity = improvement,” with the expectation that the Pirates’ roster, bolstered by Myles Powell’s return from the NBA Draft precipice, has enough juice to vault all the way into borderline title contender territory.

Not so fast, sweetheart!

Asking a team that returns a ton of minutes/experience from a team that was simply “decent” to vault into the country’s elite (or sub-elite) is a colossal challenge.  And to be clear, “decent” is all 2018-19 Seton Hall was, as the Pirates finished 60th in KenPom (65th BartTorvik, 52nd Sagarin), 18-12 in the regular season, 9-9 in the Big East. I found this to be quite the leap, so I did what any logical person should: started yelling at strangers about it on Twitter! Just kidding, I went to the all-powerful, all-knowing data. Using results from KenPom.com and minutes info from BartTorvik.com, I looked at a specific subset of teams for the past 10 seasons:

1. Ranked between 41-80 in the prior year (logically placing the team in the bubble quagmire, and putting 2019-20 Seton Hall squarely in the middle)

2. Returns 80%+ of player minutes (Seton Hall returns 84.9%)

That yielded a total of 47 teams over the past 10 years examined, with three more – Seton Hall, VCU, and Colorado – adding to the mix this year. For the 47 previous data points, here’s how they ended up the following season:

Only two teams snuck into the top 15, while 35 remained outside of the Top 30. That’s fairly damning evidence that if you are running it back with the same group of players, it’s exceedingly difficult to make sizable jumps up the rankings. And that makes sense - if all of your players are coming back, that means they probably weren’t good enough to leave (you won’t catch Duke or Kentucky returning 80% of their minutes any time soon).

One possible flaw in the above data is that it includes 22 teams from outside the sport’s top 7 leagues, which may indicate more of a “one outlier year” for those programs, rather than a team primed to leap into the country’s upper echelon. In fact, 10 of the 14 teams who got worse were from outside the typical CBB power construct. Still, though, removing them does not paint a much rosier picture:

Teams meeting this criteria from power leagues are a great bet to improve in some fashion - 22 of the 25 did - but it’s exceedingly rare for them to leap all the way into the top 15. In fact, only eight even cracked the top 25:

2019 Wisconsin and 2010 Maryland are the only two teams to make the kind of leap many are expecting from Seton Hall. To contextualize both teams:

2019 Wisconsin – A year of experience was huge, but health was the biggest factor: D’Mitrik Trice missed the last 23 games of 2017-18 and became their second-best player in 18-19, while Kobe King (missed last 23 games) and Brad Davison (repeated shoulder injuries) also saw much better health in 2019.

2010 Maryland – Now THIS is what you are looking for if you are ranking Seton Hall in the Top 15. Maryland went from 55th in the country (10 seed) to 13th (4 seed) while bringing back essentially the same team, buoyed by the return of a rising senior star who could have gone pro (Greivis Vasquez). Sound familiar?

Of course, this is not supposed to be an exercise in picking on poor Seton Hall. The Pirates are merely the 2019-20 version of this phenomenon; last year’s chief example was probably Syracuse (Mississippi State and Kansas State also qualified, and both made the Top 25, as you can see above). It does, however, merit a word of caution for the prognosticators carving the Pirates’ name into stone within the top 15.

Alright, I just said this wouldn’t be exclusively be a Seton Hall thrashing. What about the other two? Despite fitting the same set of criteria, Colorado and VCU aren’t getting the same kind of adoration. Why is that?

For the Buffaloes, it’s likely due to a lack of comparable success last year. The Pirates nearly won the Big East Tournament, narrowly succumbing to Villanova, and made the NCAA Tournament as a 10-seed, falling to the scalding-hot shooting of Wofford in Round 1. Colorado, meanwhile, crashed out in the quarterfinals of the NIT and generally did not distinguish themselves in the pitiful Pac 12. Still, though, the Buffs dealt with injuries (including lead guard McKinley Wright playing through a shoulder injury for the last three months of the year), and were statistically quite close to Seton Hall.

VCU makes a little less sense. They return all of the most important pieces from one of the country’s best defenses and made the NCAA Tournament themselves, albeit also losing in Round 1 (to Tacko and the UCF boys). They even finished ~20 spots higher than Seton Hall in computer rankings (18 at KenPom, 24 at BartTorvik). The difference? I think it’s twofold: they didn’t beat Kentucky on national TV in December (an excellent Gus Game), and they don’t sport an electric shot-maker like Powell to command attention (and they’re in the A-10).

This is not to say either or both teams should be ranked – again, the data says two or even three of these teams will end up outside the top 25. Instead, it’s surprising to see how everyone has unanimously settled on Seton Hall to be the one to buck that trend. The Pirates have the potential to repeat 2010 Maryland’s leap – Powell is an anthropomorphic fireball, and FSU transfer Ikey Obiagu could be a major difference-maker in the paint – but it’s just as likely (or possibly even more likely) that, like so many teams before them, there’s just not enough internal improvements to be made, especially considering how much better the rest of the Big East has gotten around them.