A month ago, we showed you a couple dozen top college basketball teams’ advanced statistics and then tried to examine through those stats where each team might be vulnerable. We found vulnerability with every team to some extent, so it is obvious that there is no clear-cut favorite to win the NCAA Championship. The days of UCLA having a 95% chance of winning the title have come and gone. The team with the most chance of winning it all this year might have something like a 7-8% chance of winning it all, while up to 20 teams may have 4% chances of cutting down the nets at University of Phoenix Stadium in The Valley of the Sun.
In our second edition of the Best of the Best, we see only minor changes from before. While we hope all of you regularly read our little project, we know this is not so. Therefore, we will bring the newcomers up to speed on how we operate here on the PiRate ship.
First, we are math geeks. We have linear and boolean algebra experts helping us out, and our founder is an amateur mathlete and a professional in baseball analytics. Fret not; you do not have to know algebra to enjoy this site. We have done all the calculations. We will show you some of the formulas that we use to come to our conclusions, but it won’t be on the test. You get an A+ if you just show up (maybe that’s why we don’t teach at Cal Tech or M.I.T.).
The PiRates are proponents of the Four Factors in basketball. We have found that with a little different emphasis in each of the factors, this set of data can be applied to the NBA, College, High School, Middle School, and even the kids’ youth leagues (although if somebody is using Four Factors’ data to coach a 5th and 6th grade team, they need to reconsider why they are coaching at all).
The Four Factors can really be considered Eight Factors, because they can be used to rate teams’ offense and defense. When you subtract the defensive factor from the offensive factor in each of the four stats, you get a Four Factors margin (just like when you subtract points per game allowed from points per game scored, you get scoring margin).
Here are the Four Factors. If you just want this week’s results, skip down to “BEST OF THE BEST”
- Effective Shooting Percentage
- Turnover Rate
- Offensive Rebounding Rate
- Free Throw Rate
1. Effective Shooting Percentage: (FG+(0.5*3pt))/FGA
The difference between regular field goal percentage and effective field goal percentage is that you count all made three-pointers as 1.5 made field goals. So, if a team hits 25 of 55 shots and makes 6 three-pointers, their EFG% is: (25+(6*.05))/55 which equals 50.9%.
The defensive equivalent uses the same formula, and the difference between the offensive and defensive EFG% is the EFG% margin.
2. Turnover Rate (TOV/100 Possessions not including offensive rebounds)
The TOV Rate is the number of turnovers committed per every 100 possessions (and forced per 100 possessions for the defensive factor). You can accurately measure possessions in college basketball by using the following formula.
However for TOV Rate, we remove the offensive rebounds because it skews the rate. When a team gets an offensive rebound, they almost always get another shot attempt and do not hold the ball long enough to commit additional turnovers at the same rate that they do in a possession not involving an offensive rebound.
If a team commits 14 turnovers in a game in which they had 69 possessions but with 8 offensive rebounds, their TOV Rate for the game is: 14/61, which comes to 23%
3. Offensive Rebound Rate: (Off. Rebounds/(Off. Rebounds + Opponents’ Def. Rebounds)
This is basically the percentage of offensive rebounds a team retrieves off its own missed shots. If a team has 35 total missed shots in a game where a rebound is then retrieved by one team or the other, and they finish with 8 offensive rebounds, their Offensive Rebound Rate is: 8/35, which comes to 22.9%.
The defensive counterpart to this is Defensive Rebound Rate. If a team’s opponent has 38 total missed shots in a game where there were rebounds retrieved by one team or the other, and the opponent finished with 6 offensive rebounds, then the team’s defensive rebound rate is: 6/38, which comes to 15.8%. The rebound rate margin would be: 22.9-15.8 or 7.1%.
If you count the two examples, in standard parlance the better rebounding team won the battle of the boards 40-33.
4. Free Throw Rate
The basketball math experts disagree on how to calculate this rating. Some believe that just getting fouled is all that matters, since each foul makes it one foul closer to an opposing player becoming disqualified. Others believe that this rate should be the percentage of free throw attempts to field goal attempts. Others say, it should be made free throws per field goal attempts.
We disagree with these beliefs. These numbers can easily become skewed when a team plays enough close games with the lead in the final minutes. Said team may not attempt another field goal, while the opponent fouls them on purpose to stop the clock and hope this team misses foul shots.
Let’s say Florida leads South Carolina, Alabama. Arkansas, Ole Miss, and Tennessee by a few points in every game as the clock reaches 2 minutes. These other teams foul the Gators’ players on purpose in hopes that the shots will be missed, and they can come down the floor and hit buckets to win the game or force overtime.
At the same time, Kentucky plays these same five teams and leads by 20 with 2 minutes to play. These opponents do not need to foul at this point, as the reserves are ready to come in and try to get in the scorebook. Are we to believe that Florida is a more effective free throw shooting team, simply because their opponents can still win in the final 2 minutes, so they will purposely foul, while there would be no use in fouling Kentucky with the Wildcats up 20.
So, what is the answer? We must admit that there is no way to fully eliminate the intentional fouling in multiple close games, but at least we reduce it as much as possible. And, we use made free throws to at least show that it is important to make them, especially in those close games.
We go with: (FT/100 Possessions) and this time we include offensive rebounds, because defenses frequently foul following an offensive rebound.
If a team makes 17 foul shots in a game in which they had 71 possessions, their Free Throw Rate is 17/71, which is 23.9%.
We take the stats (offense and defense) for each team we evaluate. We have an algorithm (formula) that we use that gives different weight to each of the factors. The weights differ depending on whether it is NBA, NCAA, High School, Middle School, or Youth. Turnover margin matters less in the NBA than it does in college, and it matters more the lower you go down, until by the time you reach the 5th and 6th grade, it is the most important factor of all (so if you coach 5th and 6th grade basketball, you should do what you can to force as many turnovers as possible and then create the fastest offense you can have so as not to commit too many turnovers–think about a 10-second offense).
Now, you should have picked up on the apparent weaknesses of the Four Factors for college basketball. By now, you have probably thought that Gonzaga’s stats might look a lot better than Wisconsin’s stats, because the Bulldogs play a much weaker conference schedule than the Badgers. We use the strengths of schedule for every team to adjust their factors to a point where we hope we have found a happy midpoint to show what each teams’ stats might be against average competition.
Also, think about a team that plays 18 home games, 4 neutral site games, and 9 road games, versus another team that plays 14 home games, 3 neutral site games, and 14 road games. We adjust for this as well.
As a point of fact, we treat schedule strength and ability to win away from home (nobody plays at home in the Big Dance) as importantly as a good horse handicapper treats class in a horse race. The mid-major and low-major teams are like claiming and allowance horses, while the power leagues are like stakes-racing horses. North Carolina is the horse that runs in the Breeder’s Cup Classic, while Cal State Bakersfield is still a maiden until it wins its small track maiden claiming race at WAC Downs. We know which horse is going to finish ahead of the other as long as it does not throw his jockey. The stakes horse finishes 20 lengths ahead.
The last component in our best of the best look is something we trademarked at the PiRate Ratings. R+T is a combination of rebounding, turnovers, and steals. It reveals how many extra shooting opportunities a team might have against any type of opponent. To have a really good R+T number, a team must be equally competent in rebounding, forcing turnovers while not committing many, and by getting steals.
The formula is: (Rebound Margin * 2) + (Steals per Game * 0.5) + (6 – Opponents’ Steals per Game) + (Turnover Margin)
If a team has an R+T rating better than 20, then they can overcome a cold shooting night and still win an NCAA Tournament game over a team with an R+T rating below 10. If a team has an R+T rating in the 28-35 range, they will be very difficult to beat if they also come from a power conference and wins consistently away from home. If you find a team from one of the top leagues with an R+T over 28 and said team wins 75% of its games away from home, you have a team that frequently wins four games and makes the Final Four.
To the contrary, if you find a team that looks really good on paper, and they have a gaudy won-loss record, but their R+T rating is under 8, watch out. All it takes is one cold shooting night or one hot shooting night from the opponent. and this team can go home.
And, if you find a power league team with a negative R+T rating, give great consideration toward picking the Cinderella underdog to pull off the upset in the Big Dance. A majority of the higher seed power conference teams with negative R+T ratings actually lose in their first tournament game. It does not happen that often, but ask Georgetown fans about Florida Gulf Coast and Virginia Commonwealth. Ask Vanderbilt fans about Siena, Richmond, and Murray State. Ask Purdue fans about Arkansas-Little Rock. In all these cases, the favorite had a lousy R+T rating, while the underdog had decent or even very good R+T ratings. The low R+T teams can win in the regular season against lesser-quality teams, but in the Big Dance, that stuff doesn’t cut it. It is vital to get extra scoring opportunities while limiting them to your opponents.
Now it’s time for the reveal.
BEST OF THE BEST
We look at 28 teams this week. As before, we have selected three mid-major teams as possible upset winners in an opening game if they get the right draw. We do not include #1 Gonzaga as a mid-major.
We are listing these teams alphabetically. The first four columns have already been adjusted using our algorithm.
Arizona: The Wildcats do not have the look of a Final Four contender at this point. They do not have a glaring weakness, but their strengths lack muscle. Their TO and OR numbers would be adequate if they had a better EFG% margin, but teams with their resume seldom win four games in the NCAA Tournament. They do have a decent road win-loss record, and it includes a win at Pauley Pavilion.
Baylor: The Bears are very vulnerable to pressure defenses, as their game against West Virginia showed. BU turns the ball over just a little too much and then does not force many turnovers on their defensive end. A strong schedule predicts that they should slide through to the Sweet 16, but after that point, any pressure defense from a quality team is going to make the going tough for BU.
Butler: In December and early January, it looked like this Bulldog edition could contend for a deep run in the Dance. Now, it looks more like Butler could be a team to watch out for an opening game upset. They might handle pressure defenses better than most other tournament teams, but the Bulldogs lack enough rebounding strength and do not shine in the EFG% department. It may be a stretch for this team to make the Sweet 16, and it is 50-50 as of now whether they can get to the Round of 32 if they fall to a 5-seed.
Cincinnati: The Bearcats are somewhat of a mystery. They looked like an Elite 8 team and Final Four contender until they took a trip to Dallas, where SMU stopped the UC offense and won an ugly contest. It’s a good bet that the Bearcats and Mustangs will meet again in the AAC Championship Game. If Cinti enters the Big Dance playing at their peak, then the Bearcats should move on to the Sweet 16 with a chance to advance past that if they get a good draw and do not have to face a North Carolina, Villanova, Florida, or Oregon, teams with the right type of offense to hurt the Bearcats.
Creighton: This one is cut and dry. The Blue Jays look like a team that will lose its first game in the NCAA Tournament. They do not rebound the ball well enough to advance, and their R+T is the lowest of the 28 teams we have featured today. We expect Creighton to go home quickly in the Dance, and a team like Monmouth, Wichita State, Middle Tennessee, or Bucknell could possibly dominate them in the Round of 64.
Duke: Coach K is back on the sideline, and there is going to be some silent gossip going around that he might be thinking about retiring. So, his players might pick up on this and play the best they can play. It won’t take much for this team to move into the Final Four discussion. Duke is a better version of Arizona this season. The Blue Devils’ numbers are just enough better to move from a Sweet 16 to an Elite 8 and better team. The one thing that bothers us is that Duke has not always been sharp away from Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Florida: A month ago, we considered Florida a two and out team at best. The Gators have started to turn things around this year, and their numbers are improving as the season continues. They are not West Virginia when it comes to pressure defense, but they are better than most of the rest in that regard. A dominant rebounding team may give the Gators fits. An exceptional record away from home and a tough schedule indicates that the Gators are a force to be reckoned with and a Final Four contender this year.
Florida St: The Seminoles have begun to swoon a bit, and with every successive road game in the ACC, they look more vulnerable than the previous game. Winning big at home and then losing on the road does not lead to a lot of success in the NCAA Tournament. However, a few well-timed ACC road wins and a run in the ACC Tournament could give FSU a resume not that different than that of Duke..
Gonzaga: In case you didn’t know, technically a West Coast Conference team has won the NCAA Championship before. When San Francisco won back-to-back championships in 1955 and 1956, they were a member of the California Basketball Association, which would be renamed the West Coast Athletic Conference in 1957. This Bulldog team is different from others that did not make the Final Four, namely they are quite strong defending in the paint and then preventing offensive rebounds. Opponents do not shoot the ball with much success against the GU defense, while the Bulldogs have a strong shooting offense. However, they have yet to face a really quality pressure defense, and they could be somewhat vulnerable to a West Virginia, Florida, or even a South Carolina.
Kansas: This is not Bill Self’s best Kansas team, but if you watch this Jayhawk team play, you can see a winning attitude, where KU seems to find a way to win games. A strong schedule and very successful road record tells us that Self definitely has a Final Four contender. We think that the Jayhawks will meet their match in an Elite 8 matchup, because teams with this resume seldom get lucky more than once, and KU may need a little luck against other power teams.
Kentucky: Don’t underestimate John Calipari’s ability to get a bunch of 5-star players to play cohesively as a team. It isn’t easy. The Wildcats could easily become a group of future first round picks that do not hustle, and even let up so as not to suffer an injury just before the draft. Then again, this team has had bouts of inconsistency. When the players are on their game, there are few teams (maybe no other teams) that can match up with them on talent alone. When they are acting like they have ADHD, they are vulnerable even to mediocre .500 teams. We won’t dismiss, Cal’s kids, because their resume says they have Final Four numbers. They also have the fastest pace of any team that will be in the Dance, and they could wear opponents down.
Louisville: A little dissension can become a lot of dissension in a hurry, and recent troubles involving players on this team could come back to hurt the Cardinals. UL looked like a team headed to Spring Break in their loss to Virginia when not at full strength. When they are on their game, they are the best team in the Commonwealth, and that says they are a Final Four contender.
Middle Tennessee: The top mid-major team will not be overlooked this year, when they trounced Michigan State in the opening game last year. The Blue Raiders are a better team in 2017 than they were in 2016, so it is not unthinkable to say they are a sweet 16 contender. Their pressure man-to-man defense creates a lot of turnovers with easy scoring opportunities thanks to some quick perimeter players. Their big liability is their schedule strength, as it is too low for a team to think about advancing past the sweet 16.
North Carolina: The Tar Heels looked like the best team by far back before New Year’s. They still look like one of the best, but their EFG% margin has fallen a bit too much, while their incredible rebounding prowess has weakened a little. We are not saying that UNC is doomed to lose in a big upset, but we are saying they could fall in a mild upset, but not until the Elite 8 round. If we had to choose one team with the absolute best resume of a national champion, North Carolina would be surely be one of those teams in the discussion thanks to the Heels owning the best R+T rating; they are the only team with an R+T in excess of 28. It will take a team that can shoot lights out from outside and put up a good fight inside to beat UNC, but there are a half-dozen or so teams this year that can do it.
Notre Dame: For the same reason as Creighton, we do not see a deep run for the Fighting Irish this year. They cannot hold their own on the backboards, and they do not dominate teams in the field goal department. and, they are not a team capable of forcing a lot of turnovers. Their current R+T is the second worst in this field. They do not look like a sweet 16 team.
Oklahoma St.: Brad Underwood was not supposed to get the Cowboys to the Dance in year one in Stillwater. We’re not sure this OSU team could beat Underwood’s Stephen F. Austin team from last year, but the Cowboys have improved their resume the most in the last month. If they continue to improve, then they will be a dangerous team in mid-March. When Underwood gets his type of player on campus, watch out!
Oregon: Which Oregon team will show up in March–The team that beat Arizona by a million points, or the team that blew a 19-point lead to UCLA? If basketball were all about shooting and defending the shot with no rebounding or turnovers, the Ducks would be a national title contender. Still, this team would not surprise us if they cruise to the sweet 16 and survive to the elite 8 like last year.
Purdue: In past years, Gene Keady coaching tree members have under-performed in the NCAA Tournament, and they all share something in common. These coaches stress half-court defense and prefer not to pressure the ball and play in the passing lanes. They train their players to play smart and not take many chances, trying to win a game one possession at a time. These coaches should have become football coaches. In the NCAA Tournament, a team needs to have a way to get extra shooting opportunities, when they run up against an opponent that can shoot better than they can. Purdue has its best chance in a long time to break that bad streak this year, not because the Boilermakers can force a lot of turnovers (which they cannot). PU is such a dominating rebounding team that they can get those extra chances by taking multiple shots per possession. We think PU has its best shot to get past the first weekend to the sweet 16 and maybe elite 8. Still, the Boilermakers are not in the same class with the final four contenders.
SMU: Tim Jankovich served as an assistant under multiple NCAA Tournament coaches including two that have championship rings–Bill Self and Larry Brown. Jankovich has a sleeper in Dallas this year. SMU excels in all four phases of the game. A schedule that is on the lower side of strength when compared to ACC, Big 12, and SEC teams, and a road record that is not indicative of winning 4 NCAA Tournament games probably foretells an exit in the Sweet 16 or round of 32.
South Carolina: Just getting to the NCAA Tournament after a long drought should be enough for Gamecock fans this year. USC does not possess a Final Four resume, and it is debatable if what they have is strong enough to predict a sweet 16 appearance. Their R+T is 11.0, which is okay in the first game and better than average for a second game, but the entire range of data puts them in the same boat as Arizona.
St. Mary’s: In a typical year, the Gaels might be considered the darling of the best of the rest conferences. SMC has advanced to the sweet 16 before, and it would not be a major shock if they do so again this year with an incredible defense, a decent group of rebounders, and a tough road team. Like Gonzaga, they do not have an overwhelmingly strong schedule.
UCLA: The Bruins can shoot an opponent out of a gym in two minutes, but other than that, they do not shine in the other departments. They play better on the road than they do at home, and they play at a pace that can cause a lot of problems for teams that do not have a lot of depth or conditioning. However, in the Big Dance, most teams have ample supplies of both as well as competent defenses. Because UCLA cannot rebound or force turnovers well enough, this does not look like their year. A run to the sweet 16 could be bumpy, and if they sons of Westwood make it that far, they should be an underdog in that game.
UNC-Wilmington: The Seahawks are starting to fade, and now it is only a 50-50 chance they will win the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament and earn a spot in the NCAA field. A month ago, they were on par with Middle Tennessee as the top mid-Major threat. This is the one team in this field that is hurt by fouling too much, and it comes because the players are getting hurt when opponents break their pressure defense. Still, UNCW could recover and be a tough out in the NCAA Tournament. They have the confidence.
Villanova: The last team to repeat as National Champions was Duke in 1992 and 1993. Before that, you have to go back to UCLA in 1967-68-69-70-71-72-and 73. The Wildcats could be the next one to do it, because this team is even better than last year’s champion. VU wins on the road against quality competition, and while they are not exceptionally strong in the R+T department, they are adequate. The Wildcats will have trouble with a Kentucky, West Virginia, or even against a Middle Tennessee or Wichita St. However, we expect VU to be in the elite 8 with a chance to make it back to the Final Four.
Virginia: Teams that play like Virginia seldom win the NCAA Tournament. They always seem to run up against a team that can score on a couple of cheap baskets, and they cannot make up the difference in the remaining amount of time. UVA has good numbers in all but their free throw rate. The Cavaliers have played a tough schedule, but we do not believe they can win four games against NCAA Tournament-caliber teams. We expect the Cavs to be put out as early as the second game and most likely in the sweet 16.
West Virginia: The Mountaineers are going to embarrass their early round opponents, possibly winning their first two games by a combined 50 points. Then, they are going to run into trouble in either the sweet 16 or elite 8, when they face a team that does not wilt to their defensive pressure and one that can dominate them on the glass. WVU’s biggest liability is that they don’t shoot the ball all that well. They can still beat an average team while having an awful shooting night, because they can get 10 extra good shooting opportunities. A team like Kentucky or North Carolina will turn the tables and embarrass the Mountaineers.
Wichita St.: The Shockers shocked the world with a Final Four trip and then shocked the world the following year by going undefeated in the regular season with a team that looked like it could contend for the title. WSU ran up against an underrated Kentucky team that advanced to the national title game. This year’s team is somewhere in between those two teams from their past. Coach Greg Marshall has a team with no apparent weakness. The only fly in the ointment is that this team has played a weak slate, and it is going to come back to haunt them when they face a power conference opponent like Duke or Baylor.
Wisconsin: The Badgers are the Midwest version of Arizona this year. They have decent numbers in all respects, and they have played well on the road. However, the Big Ten is definitely down this year. We do not see a repeat of a couple years ago for the Badgers. UW is no better than a sweet 16 team for now.