After a week that saw volatile changes in the AP Top 25—with Miami, Michigan State and Kansas rising as Duke, Michigan and Ohio State fell—you’d think there would be big changes in the list of teams with champion credentials. In fact, there wasn’t that much movement at all.
If you haven’t been following the champ check for the past few weeks, here’s a quick refresher: the last 12 champions have possessed these eight stats:
- A one, two or three seed (AP Top 20 make the grade)
- Member of 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 have an All-American (*/12)
- Led by a coach with more than five tourney trips and at least one Elite Eight run (CO)
- Averaging more than 73 points per game (PF>73)
- Allowing fewer than 73 points per game (PA<73)
- An average scoring margin of at least seven points per game. (SM>=7)
- A schedule among the 75 strongest in the country (S<75)
Today, only seven teams meet all these criteria—one more than last week. Here are the numbers:
Under the “TOT” column at the right, an “8” means the team met all the credentials. (Ignore the blue flags for a moment.) Red-filled boxes identify credentials each team failed to meet. The seven teams on the champ list this week are Indiana, Florida, Duke, Michigan, Syracuse, Kansas and Louisville. Kansas climbed back on the list by creeping back above the 73 point scoring average requirement.
Given how low scoring conference games can be, the Jayhawks could be bouncing on and off this list for the rest of the season. They aren’t the only ones. In fact, Florida, Syracuse and Louisville are all within two points of falling off the champ list. It’s been an exceptionally low-scoring year in college basketball. More about that in a minute.
First, let’s talk about those blue flags. These tabs identify five teams that meet two other champ stats I introduced a month ago. If you’re a fan of Ken Pomeroy’s possession-based statistics, these filters might be valuable to you. 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, three of our potential champs don’t make the grade: Michigan drops off because they rank 48th on defense (yikes!). And both Kansas (24th) and Louisville (21st) rank too low on offense. On the other hand, one team meets the efficiency ranking criteria that doesn’t have the eight traditional champ stats. That would be Pittsburgh (6 OE, 14 DE).
One more point before we talk about the dearth of scoring: see the red boxes in the second column titled “PR”? These highlight the teams whose KenPom ranking suggests they shouldn’t be in the AP Top 20. Butler is the most stunningly overrated team. The Bulldogs rank 15th in the AP Top 20, but are just the 51st most efficient team in the nation. Other overvalued teams include: New Mexico (33 in KenPom), Kansas State (32) and Marquette (25). By efficiency numbers, they should be downgraded in favor of these four teams: Minnesota (14 in KenPom), Colorado State (15), VCU (18) and Virginia (19).
As if you needed any prompting, I’ll say this: keep your eye out for VCU. That’s not just because Shaka Smart seems to work magic in the tourney. It’s also because the Rams are one of the very few college teams that are prolific scorers. The only teams in the AP Top 20 that score as many points as VCU’s 78.1 per game are Indiana, Duke and Gonzaga.
In fact, scoring is way down this year. So is offensive efficiency. I asked Ken Pomeroy about this a few weeks ago, and he told me that offenses tend to get more efficient as the season wears on. But that’s not happening this year. If anything, the defenses are getting more efficient. Whatever the reason, the top 20 most efficient teams are putting up the fewest points in nine years—as far back as my database goes. Here’s a year-by-year breakdown of the average points the KenPom top 20 has scored and allowed, along with the margin of victory, the margin percentage (I’ll get to this) and the average Pythag value:
This year’s KenPom top 20 average just 72.9 points per game, while allowing 59.3—and those averages are bound to go lower. Even if they don’t, they’re both lows for the nine-year period. In fact, the next lowest scoring group of teams was last year’s tourney elite. But they still averaged 1.5 points more than today’s bunch. Heck, it was just eight years ago that the best teams heading into the dance averaged a hefty 77.8 points a game. Of course, if we’re talking about raw scoring prowess, you can’t beat the 1989 tourney. The field of 64 averaged 82.7 points a game, never mind the elite teams. A year later, Loyola-Marymount and Bo Kimble showed up at the dance sporting a 124.8 points-per-game average.
Ah…the good old days, when basketball wasn’t wrestling. I only sort of mean that. But there’s no question that a lot of coaches are deciding that their best chance of winning is to slow down games and get in a mud fight. That 59.3 points-allowed average for today’s KenPom top 20 is 2.9 points fewer than any of the nine preceding tourney top 20s.
Before we decry the current state of college basketball, however, it’s important to realize that, while scoring is down, efficiency isn’t necessarily following suit. Check out the last column. Today’s top 20 have an average KenPom Pythag value of .9337. That ties for sixth with the 2009 tourney elite among the ten year’s we’ve studied. And if you look at the scoring margin (13.6ppg), that’s the biggest gulf of the ten years. It’s more impressive when you calculate out the margin percentage—that is, the percentage gap between points allowed and scored. At nearly 23%, the gap shows the this year’s elite are outpacing their opponents by the most in the last decade.
Let’s not too excited though. All these numbers are bound to go down and tighten up. Average points scored for the KenPom top 20 could very well dip below 72, while the margin will almost certainly fall—as will the percentage gap. Since raw scoring output has always been a measure of tourney overachievement, it will be interesting to see which teams maintain high scoring averages and which teams succumb to the mire of slow-down play.