Conference play is underway. That last of the undefeated teams has been humbled. And Selection Sunday is just two months away. Seems like a good time to assess the state of college basketball.
This is my first pulse check of the season. I’ll do a second “stretch-run” report right before the field is set on March 17. (Hey! Selection Sunday is St. Paddy’s day this year.)
I’ve evaluated 40 teams based on their performance to data and slotted them into seven different groups:
- Favorites – These are the five teams with the best chance to reach the Final Four and cut down the nets.
- Challengers – These teams are good bets to reach the Elite Eight and are capable to getting to the final weekend of the dance.
- Contenders – This group of squads is good enough to reach the Sweet 16, but have too many flaws to get the nod as challengers.
- Scrappers – These 10 teams will make the dance and could spring a mild surprise, but figure to bow out in the first weekend.
- Sleepers – These teams haven’t been getting a lot of buzz lately and might wind up with a middling seed, but are definite threats to win at least a couple games.
- Pretenders – These teams have gotten more recognition so far than they might deserve and are prone to be upset.
- Scramblers – These teams are accustomed to making noise in the dance, but are in serious danger of finding themselves on the outside looking in.
A few comments about this list. First off, this isn’t necessarily a list of which teams I think are the top 40 in college hoops right now. Some of the categories, like Pretender and Scrambler, force me to pick a team that’s more prominent or obscure over a higher quality squad. For instance, if I were to pick the 40 best teams in the land, I wouldn’t have North Carolina on it, but since they’re a big-name program that’s scuffling, they fit in the Scrambler category. If I were to go straight “Top 40,” Mississippi or Temple or Memphis or Colorado might sneak into the rankings.
Second comment: This is a dynamic list. It’s Tuesday night and Notre Dame is losing right now to St. John’s (!) Later, Indiana takes on Wisconsin. In the next three nights, nearly all the top 25 teams will play—including Michigan at Minnesota. Depending on how these games go, I could change my mind before you even read this. As of this moment, however, this report reflects my thinking.
I’ve reviewed 40 teams through the infamous “eye test,” as well as nine key stats that foretell tourney success or failure. In the chart below, a red highlight means that a team fails to meet the basic criteria for overachievement in the dance. The last column, “TOT,” tallies the number of positive stats that each team possesses. The teams with orange-boxed “eights” fulfill our new stats champ requirements. (There are 10 potential champs). Here’s what each column means and the requirement:
- ↑↓: How is the team trending?
- AP: What’s their AP rating? (The top 20 avoid a red disqualifier. There were 39 teams that got a vote this year. I gave any team without a vote a “40.”)
- Ken: What’s their KenPom possession-based Pythag ranking (There’s no real disqualifier here. I just think it’s good to compare the AP ratings against the possession-based ratings. In some instances, it reveals sleepers and pretenders.)
- +/-: I’ve highlighted in green the teams whose Pythag ratings are ten positions better than the AP ratings…and highlighted in red those whose possession numbers are ten positions worse than their AP rank.
- CF: What’s their conference affiliation? (Should be “B” for Big Six.)
- */12: Does the team have a pre-season All-American or did they go to the previous dance? (Not possessing one of these attributes is a sign of tourney underachievement.)
- CO: How many tourney trips and Elite Eight runs has the coach made? (Should be more than five trips and at least one Elite Eight run.)
- F>73: What’s their point scoring average? (Should be more than 73 points per game.)
- A<73: How many points do they allow on average? (Should be less than 73 points per game.)
- M>7: What’s their average scoring margin? (Needs to be higher than seven points.)
- S<75: What’s their strength of schedule? (A rating worse than 75 is bad.)
- TOT: How many of the eight champion stats does the team possess? (Having all eight qualifies the team as a potential champ.)
Now, without further ado, here’s the chart, with quick team comments afterwards:
- Indiana – I still like Indiana even though they just lost to Wisconsin at home. Only two teams rank in the top ten of KenPom’s offense and defense efficiency ratings. One is Florida; the other is Indiana. The Hoosiers have all the elements of a championship team—a high-powered offense, one of the nation’s best big men, secondary scorers and glue-guys. The question mark is Crean. He took Marquette to the Final Four…but he’s still a tourney underachiever. Let’s hope he doesn’t have to face Ryan again. Bo has his number.
- Louisville – The Cardinals aren’t a great offensive team, but nobody is better on the defensive end of the floor. They force opponents to turn the ball over on nearly 30% of their possessions. And they do have one big scoring option. Russ Smith is a legit POY candidate who can create his own offense. Throw in Siva, Dieng, last year’s experience and a big-time tourney coach…and you have the makings of a Final Four squad.
- Florida – Since the Gators won back-to-back dances, they’ve been sort of a flaky squad—strong on offense, weak on defense. This year is different. They have the second best offense in the nation and the second best defense. Get this: Florida’s .9789 KenPom Pythag value ranks fifth best among all tourney teams since 2004—better than either of their championship teams.
- Duke – I have to admit: I did think twice about keeping the Blue Devils in the Favorites club. It doesn’t have anything to do with their play or the NC State loss. Heck, this team has one of the toughest schedules in the country, they’ve beaten five top 20 teams, and they’re efficient on both ends of the court. It’s the injuries to Kelly and Curry. Without them, Duke would be scary thin. In the end, though, I decided that there’s plenty of time for these two big wheels to rehabilitate.
- Kansas – This isn’t a powerhouse Jayhawks team like the 2008 championship squad. But they’re one of only four schools in D-1 with top 15 rankings in KenPom offense and defense efficiency. With three solid scorers, including prolific freshman Ben McLemore, and one of the nation’s most imposing big men, the Jayhawks should be a tough out in the dance.
- Ohio State – No, their offense isn’t great, and they rely too much on Deshaun Thomas. But this team has lock-down defenders, starting with Craft and Scott. Put it this way: only seven teams in the country have top 20 offense and defense efficiency ratings. The Buckeyes are one of them.
- Minnesota – The Gophers are the best offensive rebounding team in the nation. The two-headed monster of Mbakwe and Williams is imposing, but brawn isn’t all that Minnesota has. The Hollins boys and Joe Coleman are solid and athletic. I was tempted to make the Gophers Favorites, but I’ll wait until Thursday to see how they do against Michigan.
- Michigan – It wasn’t so much the OSU loss that convinced me to drop my beloved Wolverines from the ranks of Favorites. It’s the low defensive efficiency ranking—just 39th best in the land. No high seed ranked that poorly on D has reached the Final Four. Then again, this team is deep and has a lot of scoring options. I think the key for Blue is the progress of McGary…and the health of little-used but much needed Jon Horford.
- Gonzaga – I’ve been a Zag skeptic for years. After all, Mark Few is one of those snake-bitten coaches I’m always talking about. But this squad might be Few’s best ever. We all knew about Kevin Pangos and Elias Harris. But it’s seven-footer and Jar Jar Binks look-alike Kelly Olynyk that makes Gonzaga a team to watch.
- Syracuse – This was a tough call. I considered dropping the Cuse to Contenders and elevating Arizona. My only eye-ball test with Boeheim’s bunch was the Temple game…and they looked a little skittish. Since then, Syracuse hasn’t exactly been tested. But I’m giving the Orange the benefit of the doubt because of its depth, its defense…and the fact that Brandon Triche is playing his eighth year in college—or so it seems.
- Arizona – The Wildcats aren’t the toughest defensive team and they’ve scraped out some close wins. But they did beat Florida, they’re efficient on offense, and Solomon Hill and Mark Lyons are reliable veteran scorers. Plus, Sean Miller has a penchant for tourney overachievement.
- NC State – This is a big, tough team that will drive at you and keep driving at you and wear you down. Just ask Duke. There are a lot of great pieces in this Wolfpack—Leslie, Warren, Brown, Howell and Wood. The chink in the team’s armor is defense. You’re not going to get to the last weekend of the dance with a defense that ranks 165th in the nation. Yowch.
- Missouri – If you’re like me, you flinch at the word “Mizzou.” Okay, forget about last year’s bewildering 2v15 loss to Norfolk State. This team still has enough to reach the Sweet 16. Phil Pressey is one of the nation’s elite guards, Bowers and Brown are great complement scorers…and UConn transfer Alex Oriakhi anchors the paint. What’s not to like? A so-so defense is what—just 52nd in KenPom’s efficiency rankings.
- Cincinnati – After three losses in their last five games—all of them at home—you could be forgiven for losing faith in the Bearcats. But they aren’t as bad as their recent stretch would indicate. Cinci is the sixth most efficient defensive team in the land and they have a solid trio of scoring options in Kilpatrick, Wright and Parker. But consistency eludes them on offense. They’re just the 70th best offensive team. Still, as they proved last year, hard-nosed defense will make the Bearcats a tough tourney out.
- Michigan State – Why do I feel like the Spartans are laying in wait to surprise the Big Ten’s elite squads? Could it be that I’m a Michigan grad? One thing we should all know by now is that you never count out an Izzo-led squad. This year’s group is young and still learning to play together. But Appling, Dawson and Harris give MSU three legit threats. And Nix and Payne show flashes of dominance in the paint. Developing consistency, however, will be the key to how far the Spartans go.
- UNLV – I’m not drinking the Mountain West Kool-Aid. I’m just not. The MWC is the biggest underachieving conference in the country (-.336 PASE). Sure, UNLV is a solid squad and Anthony Bennett is a marquee player. But the efficiency numbers are nothing to write home about (73 OE, 31 DE). Prove it to me, Rebs. Prove it to me.
- Oregon – Let’s not get carried away with the Ducks’ home win against a shaky Arizona squad. Oregon isn’t that good—particularly on offense, where they rank just 60th in efficiency. The problem may be the lack of a go-to guy. While they have five players averaging double figures, none of them scores more than 11.8 points a game. Then there’s the Dana Altman factor: his -.515 PASE ranks 57th out of 59 coaches with five or more tourney appearances.
- Butler – Sure, they beat Indiana. And they are ranked 13th in the AP Top 25. Plus, there’s the whole Brad Stevens tourney magic thing. But I’m here to tell you, these Bulldogs aren’t going to spring the surprises of past teams. They just don’t play solid enough defense (91 DE). That said, teams would be well advised to blanket Rotnei Clarke as he crosses half court. Crazy range.
- Wichita State – I originally had the Shockers as Pretenders. But who are we kidding? They don’t have lofty enough expectations to disappoint anybody but their most optimistic fans. The Shockers’ efficiency numbers aren’t bad (46 OE, 39 DE), but they turn the ball over and foul a lot. That’s not a prescription for a Sweet 16 run.
- UCLA – Most people wrote off the Bruins after they lost at home to Cal Poly in November. But UCLA has been surprisingly strong since then. They aren’t great defensively (111 DE)—and that’s being kind, but they have a big-time offensive weapon in star Shabazz Muhammad. With Oregon and Arizona coming up within 10 days, we’ll know more about how good this team is. Who knows? By next progress report, they may be sleepers.
- Marquette – Like all Buzz Williams teams, these Golden Eagles are a scrappy bunch. And they have plenty of players, like Vander Blue, Davante Gardner and Junior Cadougan, who can attack the basket. But Marquette doesn’t play great defense (70 DE) or shoot threes well (288th in the country). They’ll make life hard for someone in the tourney…but that doesn’t mean they’ll win.
- Belmont – KenPom’s efficiency numbers love the Bruins, even if the AP rankings don’t. They play well on both ends of the floor (34 OE, 29 DE) and are among the top dozen shooting teams in the nation. But Belmont doesn’t rebound well and they haven’t really proven they can beat a quality team. One win in the dance? Maybe…but I doubt it.
- Kansas State – The Wildcats are the fourth best offensive rebounding team in the nation. Good thing, because they also rank 2368h in effective field goal percentage. K-State can play D (28 DE) but you’re not going to get very far in the tourney with an offense that ranks just 97th in the land.
- Baylor – The Bears have a solid offense (32 OE) with an elite guard in Pierre Jackson. But defense will be their downfall. They rank just 58th in efficiency, give up too many offensive boards and don’t defend threes. Still, Scott Drew’s crew has some good wins (Lehigh, Kentucky, BYU and Texas) and hasn’t gotten dusted by anyone—except the Jayhawks last night.
- Wyoming – The raw efficiency numbers say that the Cowboys are a better team than the AP gives them credit for. Wyoming isn’t weak on either end of the floor, but they aren’t spectacular either (43 OE, 38 DE). Anyone who plays them will have to be prepared for a grind-it-out game. The Cowboys are Princetonish when it comes to slow-down play.
- VCU – The AP says that Shaka Smart’s bunch are just outside the top 20. But KenPom numbers say they’re closer to a top 10 team. After two tourneys of Cinderella runs, it’s hard to call the Rams sleepers. But this team is even more dangerous than the experts are giving them credit for. They force a higher percentage of turnovers than any team in the nation and have a solid effective shooting percentage. Like the last two Shaka teams, this squad wants a helter-skelter game. If they can force that, they may topple more giants.
- Wisconsin – I had Wisconsin as a Scrapper…until they shocked the Hoosiers. Now they’re a Sleeper. KenPom’s algorithms love the Badgers—even when they’re struggling to crack the AP Top 25. The Badgers aren’t quite as efficient in the slow-tempo game as they’ve been in the past. And there are a lot of good teams in the Big Ten. But with a signature win, the Badgers are in…and they’re style of play could be deadly for some high seed.
- Miami FL – After wins against Michigan State, North Carolina and Maryland, people are starting to wake up to the Hurricanes. But their efficiency numbers still outpace their AP ranking. A solid defense (14 DE), a balanced offense (53 OE) and exceptional height could make Miami a Cinderella come March.
- Pittsburgh – Don’t laugh. I know the last blog post identified the Panthers as the biggest tourney underachiever of the 64-team era. And I’ve had one or two brackets busted by Dixon’s bunch. That’s why it’s fitting to tab this team as a Sleeper. After all, who’s going to roll the dice with Pitt AGAIN? But when you look at the numbers—ninth in overall efficiency and yet unranked in the AP—and all the close losses to quality teams, you may want to think twice. This team doesn’t turn the ball over, hits the glass and keeps games close. Watch out,
- Kentucky – Sleepers? A Calipari team considered quietly underrated? Let’s face it: that Texas A&M loss was ugly. And the Wildcats are yet to score an impressive win. But even though they didn’t get a single vote in the AP poll, Kentucky’s efficiency numbers say they’re the 17th most efficient team in D-I. My guess is that this young Calipari squad will get better as the season wears on, surprise someone in the dance, but ultimately fall without an elite guard.
- Creighton – This team reminds me of the Jimmer Fredette-led BYU Cougars…who I tabbed as pretenders two years running. I was tempted to do the same with these Bluejays. But then I looked more closely at the efficiency numbers. Not surprisingly, with POY candidate Doug McDermott leading the scoring, Creighton is an excellent offensive team (4 OE). But they’re not exactly terrible on defense either (61 DE). Both the AP and KenPom say Creighton is among the top dozen teams in the land. If they fall to a five or six seed, they might be a good Cinderella pick.
- Illinois – The AP still thinks this is a top 25 team. But KenPom numbers say otherwise. Illinois has lost four of its last six, including a home beatdown by Minnesota. Under Jim Groce, the Illini are better offensively (33 OE) than recent Weber-led squads, but they’re also worse defensively (85 DE). Big Ten play will likely expose their flaws—heck, it already has. For some reason, though, the experts haven’t caught wind. Ergo: the Pretenders tag.
- New Mexico – The Lobos are still managing to hang in the AP top 20…even with losses to South Dakota State and St. Louis. Granted, wins against Davidson, UConn and UNLV should count for something. But KenPom says New Mexico is just a mediocre offensive team (76 OE) with a solid defense (26 DE).
- Georgetown – The Hoyas are hovering just outside the AP Top 25, they have solid wins against UCLA and Texas…and they took Indiana to overtime. And they’re Georgetown. Maybe that explains why the love they’re getting from pollsters is so out of whack with the reality of the numbers. Sure, the Hoyas have the 11th best defense in the nation. But their offensive efficiency ranks 196th! That’s not good. By the end of Big East play, Georgetown could find itself in the Scramblers club.
- San Diego State – The Atzecs are ranked right around the same place in both the AP poll (#15) and KenPom’s efficiency ratings (#23). So why am I down on them? In a word, offense—or lack thereof. There are plenty of low scoring yet efficient offensive teams. But Fisher’s crew is both low scoring and inefficient. Not a good combo for tourney advancement. Jamaal Franklin is a beast…and Tapley and Thames are solid. It gets thin quick after that.
- Notre Dame – I am watching them as I type (which explains why I’ve retyped this three times). They’re struggling with St. John’s, the 117th most efficient team in the country. Like recent Irish teams, they’re efficient offensively (6 OE), but abysmal defensively (DE 158). Look: this isn’t the 20th best team in the country. No chance. And then there’s the whole Mike Brey thing. Call me perpetually down on Notre Dame. I got burned by the Harangody years…and haven’t forgotten.
- North Carolina – I’ve watched the Tar Heels three times now…and they just look more and more lost. Roy’s boys are weak on defense (DE 77) and don’t guard threes well. But the real surprise is that they’re also not very strong on offense (OE 39). Yes, they’re young and there’s time to turn it around, especially in the soft ACC. But I’m inclined to think the potential this year isn’t much higher than what we’ve already seen.
- BYU – In my original write-up, I thought the Cougars were still in the MWC. My bad. One of my biggest challenges every year is updating who’s coaching where. Now with conference realignment, it’s remembering where teams are playing. I still can’t wrap my head around West Virginia in the Big 12. Okay, here’s a new take on the Cougars. I’m still saying they’re a Scrambler because the WCC is a two-bid league, Gonzaga’s a lock and St. Mary’s will be tough to beat. I may change my mind tonight, though. The Cougars have the Gaels at home. The reason I think BYU is in trouble is that their offense (OE 62) isn’t so great, and they don’t make up for it with a lock-down defense (DE 30). The lack of a quality win will also be a negative for the committee.
- Memphis – The Tigers only losses have been to great teams (VCU, Minnesota and Louisville). And they currently sit atop the C-USA standings. So why do I think they’ll struggle to make the dance? Well, none of their wins have been very impressive. And the numbers aren’t either (OE 69, DE 44). They turn the ball over a lot and aren’t a big threat from the three-point arc. Figure on a rough patch some time during conference play.
- Oklahoma State – I was debating between the Cowboys or the Sooners as my last bubble team. Then Oklahoma beat State on Saturday. So I’ve put the Cowboys in this group. To be fair, I think they’ll be battling with Iowa State and Baylor for the last of five bids in the Big 12. If you look at the KenPom numbers, there’s a lot to like about Oklahoma State. They’re athletic, they have solid scoring trio (Brown, Smart and Nash), and their D is ninth best in the country. But they don’t do anything particularly well on offense (OE 83).