Every year about this time, a group of anywhere from a half dozen to 30 college basketball teams rank as possible national title contenders. In some years, only a handful of teams have reasonable title aspirations. In some years, there are no clear cut favorites, and many teams could become Cinderella’s with the perfect fit for the glass slipper.
There has been a bit of a paradigm shift in college basketball the last two seasons. It wasn’t much of a change, but lowering the shot clock from 35 to 30 seconds has done a world of good for the game. The 14% less time per possession has led to 8-12 more possessions per game for each team. Teams that three years ago averaged 65 possessions per game are today pushing the ball to the tune of 80 possessions per game.
Contrary to what may have been predicted, offensive efficiency has not gone down. It has gone up, because the layup and dunk off a fast break when the attacking team has a number’s advantage has led to more points per possession. The offensive increase has once again made college basketball as exciting as it was in its hey days of the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Also contrary to belief, the increased pace has not created a new UCLA dynasty in the men’s game like U Conn has done with the women’s side. There are more than enough quality athletes throughout the nation and the world to make 100 teams competitive enough to win an NCAA Tournament game and 25 teams strong enough to reel off six consecutive wins after March 10.
We are not saying that the following 25 teams are the best 25 in the nation. We have taken a sampling of the top teams from power conferences, the two or three current leaders from among the leagues just shy of being a power conference, as well as a couple of teams from mid-major conferences.
Today’s first look at the contenders will concentrate on showing you how the Four Factors and some of our own PiRate Ratings criteria can isolate where a contender might be vulnerable come NCAA Tournament time. When it comes time for the teams to have one shining moment, the game changes a little.
In the past, teams that got to the Dance by beating opponents at the foul line sometimes floundered in the tournament, because officials let the players have a little more leeway before blowing their whistles.
Additionally, some teams that went 28-4 in the regular season but did so by running opponents out of the gym or holding onto the ball in a slower-paced offense found that quality opponents like they faced in the Dance did not succumb to their methods of operation.
Likewise, some full court pressure teams that entered the Dance with large scoring margin advantages (often padded by beating poor teams by 40 points), found that quality ball-control teams did not turn the ball over and allow these teams to score in transition. These pressing teams had little half-court offense and quickly fell to teams that turned the ball over 10 times per game.
Today, we look at 25 chosen teams to tell you where they can exploit other quality teams, and also where they are vulnerable. As you will see in this first look, there are no teams today that are not totally vulnerable in some way. Thus, there is no clear-cut favorite to cut down the nets in Phoenix on April 3. In point of fact, as we see it today, there are a couple dozen quality teams capable of making the Final Four, and yet all of these teams have an Achilles’ Heel and could lose before the Sweet 16 commences.
Before we get into the meat of this report, there could be a few readers not totally familiar with the Four Factors in basketball. It is not rocket science. The Four Factors (applies to both offense and defense) are:
- Field Goal Efficiency
- Turnover Rate
- Offensive Reboundin Rate
- Free Throw Rate
Field Goal Efficiency: [FGM+(3ptM * 0.5)]/FGA
Where FGM is field goals made; 3ptM is three-pointers made; and FGA is field goals attempted. If your favorite team attempted 60 shots in a game and made 28 of these shots with 8 coming as three-pointers, then their FG Efficiency is [28+(8*0.5)]/60 which equals .533 or 53.3%
The difference between the offensive FG efficiency and the defensive FG efficiency is the FG efficiency margin. This is by far the most important contributory part to winning in basketball, which is obvious, since the object of the game is to put the ball in the basket and score points, while limiting the opponents from putting the ball in the basket.
Turnover Rate: TOV/100 Possessions figured as: [TOV/(FGA+(FTA*0.475)+TOV]*100 and expressed as a percentage
This is a simple metric. All it seeks to discover is how many turnovers does a team commit for every 1oo possessions. There is a small adjustment in what qualifies as a possession for this metric as opposed to actual possessions. Offensive rebounds are not factored into the possession counting here, as once a team secures an offensive rebound, they have already attempted a shot without committing a turnover. The chance for a turnover after this is limited and can skew the real rate at which a team turns the ball over or forces their opponent to turn the ball over.
If your team committed 14 turnovers in a game in which they took 60 field goal attempts and 25 free throw attempts, their turnover rate for that game was: [14/(60+(25*.475)+14]*10o which comes to: 16.3%
Offensive Rebounding Rate: [OR/(OR+ Opponents’ DR)]*100,
Where OR is offensive rebounds and DR is defensive rebounds.
If your team had 12 offensive rebounds, and their opponent had 32 defensive rebounds, your team’s offensive rebounding rate was: [12/(12+32)] * 100 which is 27.3%
Obviously, the compliment to this is defensive rebounding rate, which is the same formula applied to the opponents’ rebounding.
Free Throw Rate: FTM/100 Possessions or (FTM/[FGA+(FTA*0.475)-OR+TOV]) *100
There is a difference of opinion on how the expert analytics gurus figure this metric. Some simple use FTA/FGA. Some prefer FTM/FGA. We have heard arguments in favor of both of these metrics, but we really liked a paper written by The Harvard Sports Analysis Collective’s John Ezekowitz, who argued for the metric we chose above in his February 21, 2011, paper entitled Re-examining The Four Factors: The Case For Free Throws Made Per 100 Possessions.
Putting It All Together
The key to the four factors is finding an algorithm in which the results of each team can be turned into some form of a rating or to produce a spread for a game between teams. What good is it to know that Team A has X, Y, Z, and W rates in the four factors, and their opponent has a little better X and Z, and weaker Y and W rates. So, where does that get us? Only when the Four Factors can be turned into a rating of some sort is the data useful to the fan.
The PiRates tried for a few years to come up with an accurate rating from the Four Factors. Our original mistake was assuming the different factors would not affect the college game any different than it does the NBA, where the numbers were determined to be 40% FG efficiency, 25% turnover rate, 20% offensive rebounding rate, and 15% free throw rate.
This did not make for an accurate rating when applied to college teams and uses to compare them in a point spread sort of way. Whereas the NBA teams basically play equal schedules in terms of strengths of opponents (once enough games had been played), this cannot be said of the college game, where one team’s schedule could be as much as 20 points per game stronger than another team’s schedule. Also, in the NBA, every team plays 41 home games and 41 road games. The top college teams might schedule 19 home games, 3 neutral games, and just 9 road games.
We also realized that not all turnovers are the same. A steal is worth more than any other type of turnover, because the ball remains live, and the defense frequently finds itself with a 2 on 1 or 3 on 2 fast break opportunity following a high percentage of their steals. In the college game, more full court pressure can lead to steals that produce a lot of easy baskets, whereas in the NBA, this is a rare occurrence.
After much trial and error, we came up with three separate algorithms that when back-tested in past seasons produced acceptable predictive results.
Now, we can take a look at these 25 teams and make some assumptions based on their four factors data to date. We can add some PiRate Rating data (like our unique R+T formula) to polish our beliefs.
The numbers you see below are our Blue Rating Scores for each of the Four Factors plus the Strength of Schedule score, the R+T rating, and the teams rating in true road and neutral games (neutral games when a team plays in another gym in their area against an out of town team does not count–like Kansas playing a Big East team in Kansas City).
Cincinnati: FG 6.4 TO 0.8 OR 0.6 FT 0.2 SOS 56.1 R+T 18.4 Rd W-L 4-2
The Bearcats do not excel in any one factor, but they are better than average in all factors. Their SOS is good but not great, and their R+T rating is very good. They will benefit from having extra scoring opportunities. Cinti will run into trouble against big muscle teams from the power conferences, and they will struggle against teams that play choking man to man defense. However, this team has enough talent to make it to the second weekend of the Big Dance.
Virginia: FG 12.0 TO 4.7 OR 4.3 FT -1.2 SOS 59.6 R+T 16.2 Rd W-L 6-1
The Cavaliers are going to be a tough out for any opponent in the NCAA Tournament. Their style of defense will destroy teams that cannot shoot from the perimeter, and the Cavs will also exploit teams that do not have excellent passers. To beat UVa, you must be able to pass the ball quick enough from the strong side to the weak side and then penetrate their interior defense for either an open look inside or a pass to a wide open three-point shooter. Virginia will not beat itself. Wisconsin and Arizona could be trouble for the Cavs, whereas Virginia could be a tough out for a team like Florida.
North Carolina: FG 6.4 TO 3.7 OR 17.4 FT 7.7 SOS 58.9 R+T 33.6 Rd W-L 7-3
The Tar Heels have the look of a Final Four team. However, they have some small vulnerabilities. First, they are not the best shooting team in Chapel Hill history, in fact far from it. They do make up for this by being the best offensive rebounding team in college basketball. They are not that shabby in the turnover department either, and thus, they have the best R+T rating in many years. By the time the season moves into March, UNC will either be unbeatable and peaking at the right time or a major disappointment due to fatigue and injuries. This is one team we cannot see losing prior to the Sweet 16, as they will be a 1 or 2 seed and no 15 or 16 seed can compete with them, with only a slim chance that a 7 or 8 seed can keep a game within single digits.
The team that beats UNC will be the team that can muscle their way under the basket and make the rebounding part of the equation only a minor Tar Heel victory. Said team will also have to force the Heels into a few more turnovers than normal and produce some quick points off those turnovers. West Virginia and Kentucky are the teams that will give UNC fits, while a great shooting team like UCLA or Gonzaga will find that they must do more than shoot lights out to beat this team.
Florida St.: FG 11.2 TO 2.8 OR 2.5 FT 2.4 SOS 58.6 R+T 15.6 Rd W-L 4-2
The Seminoles are going to be a tough match-up for teams outside the ACC that have never played against them. Their style of play will lead to large victories in the early rounds of the tournament, but once FSU faces stiff competition, their inconsistent style of play will hurt their chances. There will be many teams with a resume similar to theirs from amongst the power leagues. FSU will be more like a poor man’s Kentucky. They might win by 20-30 in the opening game, and they might make it to the Sweet 16 by way of a double digit win in their next game, but once they get to the Sweet 16, the Seminoles should be a quick out against a quality opponent like Villanova, Kansas, or Oregon.
Louisville: FG 6.5 TO 4.8 OR 7.9 FT 1.7 SOS 62.9 R+T 20.3 Rd W-L 5-2
Don’t dismiss this edition of Cardinals. Rick Pitino knows how to coach in March, and there is enough talent at the Yum Center to guide UL to the Final Four. The Cards have played a tough schedule to date and pulling off numbers like their current Four Factors against the opposition they have faced is a sign of a top 10 team. In most years, these numbers would be the best in the nation, and even in a year where there are many great teams, these numbers stick out as among the best.
To beat the Cards, it is going to take a team that can shut off their inside game and force UL to beat them from the perimeter. Not many teams can do this, but there are some potential teams out there that can send the Cards home, such as Virginia from their own league, Oregon, and Purdue.
Notre Dame: FG 8.5 TO 4.0 OR 0.2 FT 3.8 SOS 56.3 R+T 11.2 Rd W-L 5-2
The Fighting Irish have been consistently good for several years but with also a consistent liability. Notre Dame has not been a dominant rebounding team since Digger Phelps retired. While, the Irish have numbers strong enough to indicate they are Sweet 16 worthy, they do not have the dominating inside game that will get them to Phoenix. A host of quality teams are out there that can hit the glass and limit ND to one shot per possession, and the Irish are bound to face one of them if they make it to the Sweet 16. Baylor, Wisconsin, Arizona, and Kentucky could send Mike Brey’s bunch home to Indiana. On the other hand, Notre Dame could be a tough opponent for UCLA, Villanova, or Maryland.
West Virginia: FG 7.2 TO 16.0 OR 5.8 FT 5.1 SOS 53.7 R+T 27.2 Rd W-L 5-2
The jury is still out on this team, even though our PiRate Blue metrics say that Coach Bob Huggins has the currently top team in the land. Huggie Bear’s Mountaineers have to prove they can sustain these fat metric ratings against the top teams. WVU’s SOS is rather low for a Power Conference team, and they have yet to face Kansas or any tough team on enemy hardwood. Their toughest road game to date came against Texas Tech, and they flunked that exam.
If WVU can keep their TO rate at astronomically high numbers and also maintain their better than average rebound rate, they are capable of making it to Phoenix. Whereas many pressing teams eventually run into a team that does not fret the pressure and actually exploits it for points, WVU is more than your typical on the line/up the line gimmick defense. This team can win by dominating on the glass, getting the ball inside for easy baskets, hitting the three, and playing strong half-court defense. Once again, until they play Kansas a couple times, Kansas State on the road, as well as road trips to Iowa State and Baylor, it is too early to make a logical call on this team.
Baylor: FG 11.1 TO -0.2 OR 9.5 FT 8.1 SOS 61.8 R+T 20.5 Rd W-L 6-1
Scott Drew has been to the Elite 8 before, and this Baylor team looks like his next Elite 8 club. Until the Bears face a team that can force the issue and pressure the ball, they look like a favorite to advance in each round. As West Virginia showed, Baylor is not equipped to handle crazy pressure. Other teams that might exploit this weakness include Virginia, Butler, Kentucky, and Florida. And, if a mid-major like UNC-Wilmington or Middle Tennessee meets the Bears in the round of 32, Baylor will have to bring their A-game to avoid a major upset loss.
Kansas: FG 11.2 TO 1.7 OR 6.2 FT 0.1 SOS 59.1 R+T 16.4 Rd W-L 4-1
The Jayhawks have been flying under the radar if that is possible, but now that KU has ascended to the top of the charts, they will be on the center stage every game they occupy the penthouse. Bill Self always has a contender in Lawrence, so this should come as no surprise when we say that the Jayhawks have the right stuff to make it all the way to the Final Four. They can shoot the ball with the best of them, and they can defend the ball with the best of them. They are not world-beaters anywhere else, but their other metrics are quite strong. And, they have produced these numbers against a very good schedule. KU has another big bonus, something they had when they won the title back in 1988. With a star like Frank Mason III, teams will have to concentrate and dedicate another defender to stop this star. That might work against some teams, but KU has five or six other players that can carry the team, so it is impossible to really double up on Mason. If you are old enough to remember 1988, this reminds us of Danny Manning.
Villanova: FG 12.1 TO 1.6 OR 4.1 FT 9.6 SOS 61.1 R+T 16.1 Rd W-L 8-1
The Wildcats have proven so far this year to be good enough to repeat as National Champions, and in point of fact, at this point in the season compared to last year, they are a better team. The rub is that so are about 30 other dominating teams. VU has been putting teams away by getting their regulars into foul trouble from making quick moves to the basket. Unlike other teams with very high FT rates, they are less likely to suffer from how the game is called differently in the Big Dance, because officials will blow their whistles on drives to the basket that produce contact.
Considering ‘Nova has put up these gaudy numbers against A+ competition, and they have an 8-1 record away from Philly, they are more than capable of making it back to Phoenix. But, as Alabama just found out in football, getting back to the title game and winning it, are in different universes. Villanova wants no part of North Carolina in a rematch.
Creighton: FG 12.5 TO 2.7 OR -3.4 FT 2.7 SOS 58.8 R+T 7.3 Rd W-L 7-0
Every year, one or two highly-rated teams gets sent home from the Dance early by a mid-major team that can exploit the power team’s weakness. Creighton has the resume of a power team that could be susceptible to an early round loss. Their negative rebounding rate might be covered up by other assets during the regular season, but come tournament time, just about every opponent they might face will be able to exploit this poor metric. If their TO rate was really good, they could overcome this liability, but this is not the case, as the Blue Jays are just average or a little below in this department as well. Their R+T rating is too low to make it to the Elite 8, and the Sweet 16 is their ceiling. If they make it to the Sweet 16, teams like Baylor, Wisconsin, Oregon, and Kentucky can beat them by double digits.
Butler: FG 6.5 TO 5.1 OR 0.1 FT 2.1 SOS 61.3 R+T 10.0 Rd W-L 5-3
When Butler made back-to-back appearances in the National Championship Game, their Four Factors numbers were consistently good but not outstanding in any category. This Butler team has somewhat inconsistent numbers compared to those Bulldog teams, but at the same time, they are stronger in the turnover rates and have played a much tougher schedule to date than those teams that won five tournament games.
Butler is probably a little too inconsistent this year to win five games and make it to the championship. They might be better equipped to beat a North Carolina or Kansas than the 2010 and 2011 teams, but this Bulldog edition could easily stub its toe right out of the gates and not get a chance to upset teams like the 2010 and 2011 teams did (Syracuse, Kansas State, Michigan State, Pittsburgh, Wisconsin, and Florida).
The Big Ten has been able to make it to the Final Four multiple times in recent years, but no league team has cut down the nets since Michigan State in 2000 (Maryland was in the ACC when they won in 2002). There are a couple teams this year capable of giving it a good try.
Wisconsin: FG 8.9 TO 3.9 OR 15.9 FT 2.6 SOS 52.7 R+T 28.8 Rd W-L 4-3
The Badgers have played a rather weak schedule to date, and that could send their current numbers much lower once the better Big Ten opponents have been faced away from Madison. With Bronson Koenig, Ethan Happ, and Nigel Hayes, the Badgers have a trio of quality players good enough to carry them to the Final Four. In past years, overall team speed was an issue with this team, but the Badgers have quickness, finesse, and power this year. UW has been much, much better at home than away from home, and a lot of teams that go 18-0 at home and 9-6 away from home leave the Dance early. A quality team that is headed to the Elite 8 usually wins 70% or more of its games away from home, and UW is just 4-3 at this point. Of course, those three losses came to Creighton, North Carolina, and Purdue. Recent road wins against Marquette and Indiana could be an indication that UW is on the verge of breaking out and becoming a serious contender.
Maryland: FG 6.1 TO 0.5 OR 3.4 FT 7.5 SOS 56.4 R+T 8.8 Rd W-L 6-0
An aside: Back in the days when only one team per conference went to the NCAA Tournament, Maryland had a team that was good enough to win the national championship but was just a couple points away from getting a chance to play in it. The 1974 Terrapins went 23-5. Their five losses represent the best five-loss team in history. Loss number one came at the hands of #1 UCLA in Pauley Pavillion to open the season (Bruins had won more than 70 consecutive games), in a game in which the officiating was very generous to the Bruins and yet UM lost by just one point and had a chance to win the game at the buzzer. Loss number two came at North Carolina State, who had won 35 of its previous 36 games (lone loss to UCLA) and who would be the eventual national champs. This loss was a six-point loss, and the Terps led this game into the second half before a Wolf Pack rally won it for the home team. Loss number three came on the road against #4 North Carolina, yet another contest where UM had a chance to win until late in the second half. The Terps only home loss came against NC State, who by now would not lose again until the following season. This loss to the Pack was another close affair with UM losing by six after leading in the second half. You can probably guess where loss number five came. Once again, NC State topped UM in the ACC Championship Game in what is probably the best every ACC Title game. State won by a score of 103-100 in overtime. Maryland’s 23 wins were mostly lopsided affairs. Even the two other contests against North Carolina were not close, as the Terps won by 11 in College Park and by 20 in Greensboro in the ACC Tournament semifinals.
What has that got to do with this year’s Terp team? Nothing, except this year’s UM team will be in the Big Dance even if they do not win the Big Ten Tournament or the regular season title. However, this year’s UM team is primed to be an early round upset loser, because it is nowhere near as talented as that 1974 team that featured John Lucas, Tom McMillen, and Len Elmore. That UM team out-shot quality opposition by 11%, out-rebounded them by 11 per game, and outscored them by 17 points per game.
Purdue: FG 10.1 TO -0.7 OR 10.5 FT 8.3 SOS 55.9 R+T 19.7 Rd W-L 5-2
We could give another history lesson on this Big Ten team. Purdue has been to the Final Four twice before, but both times, it was with teams that played an entirely different style of basketball from this team and from all the teams during the Gene Keady era.
We have a lot of respect for Coach Keady and his successful disciples, including current Boilermaker coach Matt Painter. However, history has not been kind to the “Keady system” in NCAA Tournament history. Purdue never made it to the Final Four with all the highly-ranked teams of the 1980’s and 1990’s and seldom made it past the second game. Case in point, last year, the Boilermakers left the Dance immediately, losing to Arkansas-Little Rock in their first game.
Why is it that Purdue has under-performed so consistently for so many years? Coach Keady and his disciples strongly advocate an intelligent offensive half-court set and tough man-to-man defense to prevent good shots. That works well in the regular season, as teams like this routinely play smart ball and beat all the teams they are supposed to beat, and even upset some better teams. But, when you get into the second week of March, the opposition is usually as good as you at shooting and preventing good shots. Games are more frequently decided by which team gets more opportunities to shoot. Thus rebounding and turnover margin play significantly more important roles than they do in the regular season. Purdue has not been a consistently tough team on the boards, and they do not pressure the passing lanes.
This year’s Boilermaker squad is one of the best rebounding teams in Mackey Arena in a long time, but once again, PU is stinking it up in the turnover rate metric. The rebounding strength could get Painter’s squad past the first game and maybe even into the Sweet 16, but when the Boilermakers run into a team like Butler, Kentucky, or Florida, or even a Mid-major like UNC-Wilmington or Middle Tennessee, they are going to have a tough time advancing. And, should they find West Virginia in their bracket…..
UCLA: FG 14.2 TO 0.3 OR -1.0 FT 3.2 SOS 53.4 R+T 10.0 Rd W-L 8-1
This might be the most exciting team to watch, but this UCLA team suffers from the same issues that Purdue suffers from as stated above. When the Bruins are hot, they can put any team away, and their win at Kentucky showed this. However, they will run into defenses that can slow them down when they get to March, and the Bruins do not have what it takes to get additional scoring chances through rebounding and turnover margin. Additionally, the Bruins have played a lot of cupcakes this year, and a lot of their shooting stats have been aided by playing weak defensive teams. Until they are ousted thought, Lonzo Ball and company promise to give the fan his or her money’s worth.
Oregon: FG 10.2 TO 3.0 OR 7.5 FT 6.5 SOS 57.1 R+T 19.5 Rd W-L 5-2
The Ducks could be a contender for the Final Four. After a slow start, Oregon has now won 14 consecutive games and looks like the team the pundits expected they would be this season. The Ducks have a really tough closing stretch in the regular season with seven consecutive tough games between February 4 and 25. Included in this slate is a three-game stretch against Arizona, UCLA, and USC, with the latter two on the road. If Oregon can come through this three-week stretch without injuries or undue fatigue, this team can repeat its performance of last year and maybe make it one round past what it did last year. That would mean they make it to Phoenix.
Arizona: FG 8.3 TO 0.6 OR 7.3 FT 10.4 SOS 58.1 R+T 20.2 Rd W-L 5-2
At first glance, Arizona’s numbers don’t look much different than Oregon’s above. Look a little closer. This is a team that relies a bit too much on free throw rate and is vulnerable against a team that can pressure the ball and force turnovers. Arizona wants no part of West Virginia, but they could fall prey to a lesser pressure team or a team that turns the ball over less than 10 times a game like Virginia. In their loss to Gonzaga, the Wildcats turned the ball over nine times in the first half and didn’t shoot well, and Gonzaga pulled out to a double digit lead. Arizona did get to the foul line several times, but they missed too many foul shots to get back in the game. This is likely to happen to them in an NCAA Sweet 16 game if UA makes it that far.
Kentucky: FG 9.1 TO 6.7 OR 7.4 FT 4.7 SOS 61.1 R+T 22.3 Rd W-L 6-1
This is always a tough team to figure out. Annually, John Calipari recruits the top talent in the nation to Lexington, and Kentucky has better talent than every team on its schedule. However, that talent is almost always freshmen, and even five McDonald’s All-Americans as college freshmen are bound to play a bit inconsistently. On any given night, these future NBA stars are liable to blow out an average team by 30 to 40 points. On any given night, these future NBA stars are liable to fiddle around and allow a mediocre team to stay in contention.
In Kentucky’s favor, these freshmen will have 33 to 35 games of experience by the time the NCAA Tournament begins, and the Wildcats will have a 1 or 2 seed, able to get to the Sweet 16 just by showing up. Once at the Sweet 16, this team will have the talent and tools to keep winning, but they will still be just raw enough to lay an egg and go home with a disappointing loss.
It will take a muscle team to beat Kentucky, one that can throw its weight around on the glass, make their fouls count more like unnecessary roughness penalties in football, and has the ability to outscore the Wildcats from behind the arc.
Florida: FG 3.1 TO 6.6 OR 1.7 FT 8.9 SOS 63.0 R+T 11.4 Rd W-L 8-3
Here is a really interesting team. At first glance, this Florida team looks like many of the Florida teams under former coach Billy Donovan. The Gators’ ball-hawking defense tends to lead to more scoring opportunities for the orange and blue than for their opponents. However, the really good Gator teams under Donovan played incredible half-court defense. This Gator team is a bit weak defending inside, and that will be their downfall in March. The Gators are adequate but not great shooting the ball, and when they don’t force a turnover, they are not great at stopping the ball from going through the opponents’ basket.
One thing in UF’s favor is their schedule has prepared them to play top-flight teams. Outside of the league Florida played Seton Hall, Miami, Gonzaga, Florida State, and Duke.
South Carolina: FG 7.8 TO 4.9 OR 4.6 FT -5.4 SOS 56.2 R+T 13.9 Rd W-L 4-2
You have to look at South Carolina’s statistics a bit differently than just viewing their numbers. This is a tale of two teams. There is the USC team that is 11-0 when its best player, Sindarius Thornwell has been healthy enough to play, and there is the USC team that is 3-3 when Thornwell has not played.
The bad news for SEC teams is that Thornwell is close to 100% well again, and the Gamecocks are 4-0 in the league because of it. A healthy Thornwell is a threat to record a triple double or score 20 points and pull down a dozen boards, while playing exemplary defense.
If the Gamecocks stay healthy this year, they look like a near lock to make the Dance, and once they get there, we have faith in Coach Frank Martin that they will play multiple games. USC’s defense is tournament worthy, and they have just enough offense to pull away in the second half. Their major liability is at the foul line, where they commit more than an average number of fouls. However, this stat suffered considerably during Thornwell’s absence. Since his return, the Gamecocks have a much better showing.
Gonzaga: FG 15.6 TO 1.6 OR 2.6 FT 5.6 SOS 55.9 R+T 16.9 Rd W-L 7-0
Gonzaga faces a similar task that Wichita State faced in 2014, when they went 34-0 in the regular season. The Bulldogs are the last undefeated team standing at 17-0, and the way they dominated St. Mary’s Saturday night, many sports professionals are calling for an undefeated regular season. They still have to go to St. Mary’s, and they have to play at BYU, so they could still lose one or two regular season games this year.
Gonzaga has been a number one seed before as well as the top-ranked team in the nation, and things did not go all that well for the Bulldogs. In 2013, the Zags entered NCAA Tournament play with a 31-2 record. They almost became the first number one seed to lose to a 16-seed, when they had to hold on to narrowly edge Southern University in the Round of 64. Then, GU fell in the Round of 32 to Wichita State, and the Shockers rolled to the Final Four from there.
Might things be different this year for Mark Few’s squad? Gonzaga looks a lot like UCLA. They are not quite as good shooting the ball, but they are a tad better defending the ball. They are considerably better on the boards, but by the time the Dance begins to tap, their strength of schedule will have dropped to a point where they may not be ready to face a quality team in the Sweet 16. The Kyle Wiltjer Gonzaga team that made it to the Elite 8 was more equipped for the tournament than this year’s squad, so we believe Gonzaga will fall in the Sweet 16 round.
Nevada: FG 5.4 TO -1.8 OR 3.5 FT 9.8 SOS 52.3 R+T 8.0 Rd W-L 8-3
If you consider Gonzaga not to be a mid-major, then Nevada is the best non Power Conference team in the West this year, but the Wolfpack are a paper tiger. They do not have the numbers to be a serious contender like some former Mountain West Conference teams in the past. Their low R+T number coming from a below average schedule strength means Nevada is likely to exit the Dance quickly and by double digits. We wanted to include them here today so you can compare them to the two mid-majors most likely to advance to the second weekend this year.
UNC-Wilmington: FG 3.8 TO 7.1 OR 3.7 FT -2.0 SOS 51.2 R+T 12.9 Rd W-L 9-2
UNCW gave Duke a big scare last year in the Round of 64, and this year’s team is better, capable of making a run to the Sweet 16. Coach Kevin Keatts is a Rick Pitino disciple, and we would not be shocked to see Keatts taking over a big time program sooner rather than later. He has all the tools to be a star on the big stage, and his team plays like it deserves a shot on basketball’s Broadway.
UNCW’s biggest liability is their negative FT rate. This has come about because the Seahawks commit a lot of fouls with their pressure defense. We tend to believe that some of this has been because they have played a lot of games on the road, where the officials whistled them for more fouls than they would have received had they been at home. When the NCAA Tournament begins, a lot of the plays in which they might have been whistled for a foul in the regular season will no longer draw a foul call.
UNCW is the poor man’s West Virginia, and they could easily be this year’s Stephen F. Austin. Beware if your favorite big time program makes the Tournament and they draw this team, and your team is like Purdue, Baylor, UCLA, Arizona, or Creighton. The Seahawk press can produce a quick burst of points and put your team behind the eight ball.
Middle Tennessee: FG 3.7 TO 5.0 OR 7.4 FT -2.5 SOS 56.3 R+T 17.5 Rd W-L 8-1
If you like UNCW’s chances, then you’ll love Middle Tennessee’s chances this year. This is the CUSA team that upset Michigan State in last year’s tournament, and this year’s Blue Raider squad is maybe 10 points better than last year’s group. Middle Tennessee actually played UNCW over the Thanksgiving holiday and beat the Seahawks by five. The Blue Raiders went on the road to Ole Miss and destroyed the Rebels in the first half with a 29-point halftime lead before coasting to a 15-point win. They repeated the performance against SEC neighbor Vanderbilt winning by 23 and never being challenged.
The Blue Raiders could have 30 wins when the NCAA Tournament begins, and it would not surprise us if they receive a seed as high as 9 or 10. Of course, this would mean they would play a 1 or 2 seed in the Round of 32 should they win their first game. The Blue Raiders’ fans should root for your team to draw a team like Purdue, Notre Dame, Creighton, Butler, or Maryland in the first game and not someone like West Virginia, Virginia, Wisconsin, Oregon, or Kentucky. Of course, these teams are most likely to be encountered after the opening game, which means the Blue Raiders should be a hot pick in the Round of 64.
We did not include the 25 best teams in this presentation. There are many other quality teams like Indiana, Duke, Miami, TCU, Xavier, Akron, Illinois State, California, Utah, USC, and New Mexico State.
We hope you enjoyed this piece and learned a little about how the Four Factors has been part of the new analytical study of basketball.
Coming Friday: We take our next stab at the Field of 68, and if we can get our gurus to send us the information in time, we will debut our annual Bracketology Guru report. Shout out to the Gurus that have not done so–please return the email we sent you to tell us if you plan to participate this year. If we do not have enough information to debut our guru composite, we will attempt to select 68 teams ourselves.