After this year’s dance, I’ll have ten years of KenPom efficiency numbers in my Bracket Science database. That doesn’t exactly consistute a huge sample size, especially when compared to the 29 years I’ll have for other attributes like coaching, momentum, guard play and about 20 other stats. Nonetheless, it’s getting to be enough data that we can get an idea of its value and make some comparisons between this year’s top teams and past elite squads.
If the tourney were to start today, I could rank 630 teams on their offensive and defensive efficiency, along with their overall quality value (KenPom’s Pythag). Amazingly, three 2012-2013 teams would be in the top five of each category. Only four other teams have offensive efficiency numbers better than Michigan (125.1 points per 100 possessions). Louisville’s 79.5 defensive efficiency rating ranks second among the 630 teams analyzed. And, more surprising than that, the two-loss Florida Gators own the second best Pythag value (.9816) of all teams since 2004, better even than their two championship teams.
So…should you slot these teams for a deep run in your brackets? Not so fast. Let’s look at what happened to all the squads ranked higher than Florida, Louisville and Michigan in their respective possession-based categories.
The only team with better overall quality numbers than this year’s version of Florida, was Kansas in 2008. They parlayed a hefty .9860 Pythag into a championship run. But it wasn’t easy. The Jayhawks squeaked by Stephen Curry’s Davidson Wildcats in the Elite Eight, 59-57, before annihilating North Carolina and benefiting from John Calipari’s mismanagement in the finals.
The 2009 Memphis Tigers had a more efficient defense (79.4) than Louisville does today. But they actually underachieved as a two seed, losing to three seed Missouri in the Sweet Sixteen. That loss didn’t exactly showcase the Tigers’ stellar D. They lost 102-91 to Mizzou.
How did the four teams with better offenses than Michigan fare in the tourney? The results are mixed. Two of them, North Carolina in 2005 and Kansas in 2008, won the championship as top seeds. The other two, Wake Forest in 2005 and Missouri last year, underachieved as two seeds. The Tigers’ vaunted offense couldn’t even put down 15 seed Norfolk State.
The bottom line: while the historical accomplishments of Michigan, Louisville and Florida are impressive, they don’t necessarily correlate to overachievement in March. I would pay more attention to the Gator’s high Pythag value, because it signals a strong overall team. Michigan’s high-powered offense needs to be evaluated against its less impressive defense, with ranks 44th in possession-based efficiency. The inverse is true of the Cardinals. They’ve got a lock-down defense, no doubt. But tourney champs usually have better than the 15th best offense in the land.