Champ Check: Eight is Enough (Sorry Gophers, Buckeyes)

Last week, 10 teams had the stats to be champs. But a lot has happened in the last seven days. Many of the nation’s top 20 squads suffered tough losses -- Duke got blown out by Miami, Louisville dropped its third straight, and Syracuse lost as well. None of those teams played their way off the champ list, but two Big Ten teams no longer make the grade.

Remember the eight “champ-worthy” criteria. Every one of the last 12 champions has: 

  • Earned a one, two or three seed
  • Come from a power conference: ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 or SEC (CF in the list below)
  • Either went to the previous year’s dance or had an All-American (*/12)
  • Were led by a coach with more than five tourney trips and at least one Elite Eight run (CO)
  • Averaged more than 73 points per game (PF>73)
  • Allowed fewer than 73 points per game (PA<73)
  • Owned an average scoring margin of at least seven points per game. (SM>=7)
  • Played a schedule among the 75 strongest in the country (S<75) 

So which teams currently have these eight stats? Check out this table:

Under the “TOT” column at the far right, an “8” means the team met all the credentials. Red-filled boxes identify credentials each team failed to meet. The eight teams on the champ list are Michigan, Kansas, Indiana, Florida, Duke, Syracuse, Louisville and North Carolina State.

Minnesota and <span data-shortcode= State" data-canon="Ohio Bobcats" data-type="SPORTS_OBJECT_TEAM" id="shortcode0"> fell off the champ list this week. The Gophers didn’t make the AP top 20 so are unlikely to bag a one, two or three seed -- at least at this point. And Ohio State averages exactly 73 points a game, but not more. So they miss out by a scant tenth of a point. Three other teams could find themselves on the wrong side of the offensive output criterion if they don’t step up their scoring. Kansas, Florida and Louisville are all trending down toward the 73-point line.

Four stats champs fall short of offensive and defensive efficiency thresholds

Notice the teal flags at the far right of the table? These flags identify six teams that meet two other champ stats I introduced last week. If you’re a fan of Ken Pomeroy’s possession-based statistics, these filters should be of interest. 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, four of our potential champs don’t make the grade: 

  • Michigan drops off because they rank 39th on defense
  • Kansas has only the 18th-best offense
  • Louisville’s offense isn’t efficient enough either (20th)
  • And NC State’s defensive ranking is abysmal (148th). 

That leaves just four teams that have both the basic champ stats and meet the KenPom efficiency rankings: Indiana, Florida, Duke and Syracuse. Interestingly, four teams that don’t make the basic champ stats do however meet the KenPom criteria. You see the flags next to Arizona and Ohio State. The other two teams didn’t even make the AP top 20. One is Pittsburgh, and the other is Minnesota.

One last analysis: I track the teams whose AP rankings don’t reflect their overall KenPom efficiency ratings. Right now, according to possession-based data, eight teams don’t deserve to be ranked in the top 20. That’s the most all year. Check out the red boxes under the second column, labeled “PR.” The biggest imposter is Kansas State (ranked 44th on KenPom) but New Mexico (42), North Carolina State (38), Missouri (36), Butler (28), Mississippi (26), Oregon (23) and Wichita State (21) aren’t playing as efficiently as their AP ranking would indicate either.

They’ve taken the spots of eight underrated squads. Pitt is the most criminal omission (ranked seventh on KenPom). Minnesota (9), Creighton (12), Wisconsin (15), Cincinnati (17), VCU (18), Colorado State (19) and Oklahoma State (17) were also undervalued.

Quality Curve says this year’s dance could be chalkier than 2011 and 2012

A couple years back, I noticed an interesting correlation between KenPom efficiency data and tournament predictability. If you compare the Pythag values of the top 20 most efficient teams to their historical counterparts, you’ll find that the years when the elite squads were relatively more efficient correlated to chalky dances, while those years when they were less efficient aligned with upset-laden tourneys.

Take the 2011 and 2007 dances, the maddest and sanest of the 64-team era. The 2011 tourney saw the worst top 20 teams in terms of Ken Pomeroy’s Pythag efficiency since the data became available in 2004. Conversely, 2007 featured the highest quality top 20. And what happened? The 2011 dance tied a record for upsets (13) and deviated from perfect high-seed dominance by a record 19.8 percent. Meanwhile, the 2007 dance broke records for yawn-inducing predictability, with just three upsets and a scant 4.1 percent deviation from perfect chalkiness.

If you do a line chart of the top 20 from both years, the performance gulf between them is readily apparent. The question is, what if you overlaid this year’s current top 20 Pythag leaders onto the chart? Would the line be closer to the chalkiness of 2007 or the craziness of 2011? The answer is somewhere in the middle. Take a look at how the red line compares to the orange (best field), blue (worst field) and grey lines (average):

One thing jumps out on this table: Florida’s efficiency numbers are head and shoulders above the rest of the top 20. How good are the Gators’ KenPom stats? Chew on this: no team in the last nine years has gone into the tournament with a Pythag as high as Florida’s. Not Kentucky last year. Not the Gator squads that won back to back championships in 2006 and 2007.

It’s still too early to assess just where the 2012-13 Quality Curve will fall, but right now, this year’s best college teams are better than their historical counterparts from 1 to 15 and much worse from 16 to 20.

Let’s say the location and shape of this curve holds. What kinds of conclusions might we draw, assuming that teams are seeded by their Pythag position (a large assumption)?

  • Florida’s efficiency statistics would make it the tourney’s prohibitive favorite. But the other one seeds might struggle because they’re just slightly better than average, while four seeds are closer to quality teams of 2007.
  • Depending on how the quality curve extends out for teams ranked 21 to 52, you may want to pick more 5v12 upsets than usual. There’s a big drop-off after the top 16 teams.
  • Since the two seeds (from Duke through Syracuse) are more efficient than average two seeds and three seeds are closer in quality to their seed counterparts, we may be looking at mostly 1v2 match-ups in the Elite Eight. 

The deeper we get into conference play, the closer this curve will get to its Selection Sunday shape. At that point, we’ll be able to make a better comparison between the 2013 tourney field and the nine fields that came before it. Periodically throughout this season, I’ll update the curve, give my view on whether it suggests tourney madness or sanity, and draw some conclusions on the basic seed match-ups. Then, when the brackets are set, I’ll compare the top 13 seeds and 52 teams with their historical counterparts. That ought to help you decide which favored, contender and Cinderella seeds to advance -- and which to send home early.

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