Champ Check: Are we headed over the quality cliff?

While the AP Top 25 had its share of shuffling this week, the list of teams that meet tourney champion credentials barely changed. For those who haven’t been following our weekly “champ check,” here’s the skinny -- the past 12 champions have possessed these eight stats:

• A one, two or three seed (the AP Top 25 make the grade)
• Member of a power conference: ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 or SEC (CF in the list below)
• Either went to the previous year’s dance or have an All-American (*/12)
• Led by a coach with more than five tourney trips and at least one Elite Eight run (CO)
• Averaging more than 73 points per game (PF>73)
• Allowing less than than 73 points per game (PA<73)
• An average scoring margin of at least seven points per game. (SM>=7)
• A schedule among the 75 strongest in the country (S<75)

Today, seven teams meet all these criteria -- the same number as last week. Here’s the breakdown:

Under the “TOT” column at the right, an “8” means the team met all the credentials. (Ignore the blue flags for a moment.) Red-filled boxes identify credentials each team failed to meet. The seven teams on the champ list this week are Indiana, Duke, Michigan, Kansas, Florida, Louisville and Syracuse. This is the same group of teams as last week -- and the same cast of characters that has been swarming around the AP Top 10 pretty much all season.

A couple of weeks ago, when top-ranked teams were getting knocked off every other game, a lot of the pundits proclaimed this would be a year of parity in college hoops. I even heard one analyst say that any one of 20 teams could cut down the nets this year. Don’t believe it. The fact is, there are a dozen teams that are performing at the same rate as their historical counterparts -- and then we fall off a “quality cliff.” More about this in a moment.

First let’s talk about those blue flags. These tabs identify six teams that meet two other champ stats I introduced five weeks ago. If you’re a fan of Ken Pomeroy’s possession-based stats, these filters might be valuable to you. I don’t include them in the basic champ check because I only have nine years of pre-tourney KenPom data. That said, every one of the nine champions since 2004 has had an offensive efficiency rank among the top 17 and a defensive rank among the top 25.

When you evaluate the AP top 20 on these two KenPom rankings, three of our potential champs don’t make the grade: Michigan drops off because they rank 43rd on defense. And both Kansas (28th) and Louisville (19th) rank too low on offense.

On the other hand, three teams meet the efficiency ranking criteria that don’t have the eight traditional champ stats. Gonzaga (4OE, 24DE) barely made the KenPom efficiency thresholds by shoring up their defense. Ohio State’s (13OE, 17DE) solid wins against Minnesota and Michigan State greatly improved their offensive numbers. And Pittsburgh (12OE, 9DE) also made the grade -- despite getting left out of the AP Top 20 (they're No. 23).

Speaking of criminal omissions, check out the red boxes in the second column titled “PR.” These highlight the teams whose KenPom ranking suggests they shouldn’t be in the AP Top 20. Butler is the most overrated team. The Bulldogs rank 20th in the AP Top 25, but are just the 52nd most efficient team in the nation. Other overvalued teams include: Memphis (38 in KenPom), Kansas State (33), New Mexico (28) and St. Louis (25). By efficiency numbers, they should be downgraded in favor of these five teams: Pittsburgh (6 in KenPom … yes, you read that right), Virginia (17) Colorado State (18), Minnesota (19) and San Diego State (20).

I mentioned that we were experiencing a “quality cliff” this season -- essentially a gulf between the performance of the top 12 teams and everyone else. What evidence do I have that we’re headed for a cliff come tourney time?

I compared the KenPom Top 20 to their historical counterparts from the last nine years. That is, I compared this year’s best team, Florida, to the best teams since 2004. Then I compared the second-best team (Indiana) to second-best teams from the past nine years, and so on for the 20 most efficient teams based on Pomeroy’s tempo-free stats. Here’s what I found:

Take a look at how the red line compares to the thick light blue line (the average KenPom values between 2004 and 2012), the orange line (the best tourney field) and the thin blue line (the worst tourney field). I put the best and worst fields in here not just for perspective, but also because the relative “madness” of a dance correlates with the quality of the top 20 teams. In 2007, we saw the strongest top 20 KenPom teams, and had only three upsets. In 2011, the top 20 was the weakest in nine years, and we had a record 13 upsets.

So if the 2013 quality curve holds its shape up to Selection Sunday, what can we expect? The top three teams -- Florida, Indiana and Louisville -- are solidly better than average. In fact, the Gators and Hoosiers are among the best of the last nine years. Then, from the fourth best team (Gonzaga) to the 12th most efficient squad (Michigan State), the quality curve eerily tracks just a tick below the average curve.

And that’s when we go over the cliff. The quality difference between Michigan State and Miami is precipitous. The Spartans are a bit weaker than your average 12th best team. The Hurricanes are nearly as bad as the worst 13th best team, and the Hoyas are solidly worse than the worst 14th best team. From there on, from Oklahoma State through to San Diego State, the curve tracks closely to the historically worst -- and most unpredictable -- tourney.
To give you some idea of how big this cliff really is, consider this: As the 16th best team, Arizona would figure to get a four seed. But in most years, their KenPom rating would be good enough for just a six seed. And in 2007, they would’ve been an eight seed.

Let’s face it: If the teams rated worse than 12th by KenPom efficiency data don’t pick things up, we will be looking at some historically bad four and five seeds. Let’s assume that the seeding breaks down perfectly by KenPom data (an assumption that never comes to pass, but bear with me). If this were to happen, here’s the dynamic we’d be staring at in our brackets:

• Two top seeds would be historically strong (Florida and Indiana) and the other two (Louisville and Gonzaga) would have typical top seed strength.
• The second and third seeds would all be about average -- slightly weaker, but not significantly so.
• All the four seeds (Miami, Georgetown, Oklahoma State and Arizona) would be among the worst of the last nine years.
• Virginia, Colorado State, Minnesota and San Diego State would be among the weakest five seeds as well.

So what might all this mean for building your bracket? My guess is that we’d see one or two 4/13 shockers and a couple of the annual 5/12 upsets. But with the unusual strength of top seeds, you might not see anyone surprising them in the first three rounds of the dance.
On the two-seed side of the bracket, I’d predict that it would play close to historical seed match-up probabilities. Three two seeds would reach the Sweet 16 and a couple of three seeds would face them there. And the winner would face a strong one seed in the Elite Eight.

The bottom line is that we could see a tourney where there are lots of upsets in the Round of 64, maybe just a couple in the Round of 32, and then relative chalkiness from there on in. Of course, the vulnerability of the three through six seeds depends on the quality of the teams seeded six through 13. That’s essentially the 21st through 52nd best teams in college ball. After Selection Sunday, I’ll do a curve of the actual teams in their actual seeds and we’ll have a better picture of how the tourney might play out.

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