With less than a week before Selection Sunday—and most of the conference tourneys about to start—I figured I’d take the pulse of college basketball one last time before going into heavy number crunching mode.
If you’ve read any of the Insider articles, you know that there are certain statistics—like low scoring or soft schedules or sputtering momentum—that foretell underachievement in the dance. I evaluated 40 potential tourney teams, tallied up the number of disqualifiers each had, then factored in the proverbial “eye test.” I slotted the teams into 10 groups ranging from favorites, challengers and sleepers to pretenders, dead-enders and even head-scratchers.
A few comments about this list, since you’ll be seeing a similar breakdown after Selection Sunday. First, this isn’t necessarily a list of who I think are the top 40 teams in college hoops right now. Some of the categories 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’d probably have Colorado State, Wichita State and Memphis on it before Ole Miss, Butler and Tennessee.
Second comment: This is a dynamic list. In the next few days, as conference tourney play gets underway, we’ll no doubt see results that could affect these ratings. But at this moment, this is where my head’s at.
The chart below evaluates the 40 teams against a dozen tourney performance disqualifiers. The final column, “DQ,” tallies the number of disqualifiers that each team possesses. Disqualifying stats are highlighted in red. Here’s what each column means and the disqualifiers:
- 12 – Did they go to last year’s dance? (An “N” gets a disqualifier)
- CY – How many tourney trips has the coach made? (Should be three or more)
- E8 – How many times has the coach been to the Elite Eight? (At least once)
- PASE – Is their coach a historical over- or underachiever? (A negative PASE gets a scarlet box)
- CA – What’s their conference affiliation? (Should be a Big Six conference)
- SOS – What’s their strength of schedule (Anything worse than 50 is bad)
- PR – What’s their possession-based Pythag ranking (Should be top 15)
- OE – Where do they rate for offensive efficiency? (Must be 25 or better)
- DE – Where do they rate for defensive efficiency? (Must be 25 or better)
- PPG – What’s their point scoring average (Should be 73 points per game or more)
- MAR – What’s their average scoring margin (Needs to be better than 10 points)
- MO – How’s their current momentum (any team with four losses in the last 10 or two in a row gets a disqualifier)
Without further ado, here’s the chart, with write-ups for each grouping afterwards:
Favorites (complete teams with the best chance to win the tourney)
It wasn’t that hard to settle on these four teams. I briefly considered replacing Florida with Kansas because both teams only have one disqualifier and both suffered stinging losses over the weekend. In the end, though, I thought the Gators were a little more reliable on offense—and the Jayhawks loss to Baylor was a beatdown. The return of Ryan Kelly made selecting Duke easy. And Indiana’s offensive efficiency, along with the lock-down defense of Oladipo and the inside presence of Zeller, made the Hoosiers a no-brainer as well. Some might argue that Louisville isn’t worthy of Favorite status. However, like Duke, the Cardinals were free of disqualifiers. And their high-pressure defense can give teams that haven’t played them fits. Finally, Pitino’s been a consistent overachiever in the dance.
Challengers (solid teams that could make a Final Four run)
I was going to tab Gonzaga as a pretender—mainly due to Mark Few’s penchant for tourney underachievement—but I thought better of it. The Zags have a legit pro-style frontcourt with Olynyk and Harris. So this should be the year that Few breaks his 13-year streak of missing the Elite Eight. It better be…because he’ll never have this good a chance. The other tough call here was dropping Georgetown down to Pretender status and slotting Michigan State as a Challenger. The Hoyas have been hot lately—and that counts for something, but their offensive numbers are weak for a Final Four contender. Plus, when it comes to the tourney, Izzo is Izzo. I mentioned that I considered Kansas as a Favorite, and for good reason. The Jayhawks have an imposing big man in Withey, an emerging star McLemore and a stifling defense. Their offensive numbers are a little suspect, though. Then there’s the Buckeyes. Of all these teams, I actually like Ohio State the best. They’ve been playing strong lately—and Craft’s take-charge play has changed the dynamics of the offense.
Contenders (limited teams what are strong enough for the Elite Eight)
I wouldn’t be shocked if any of these teams snuck into the Final Four, but I think they all have weaknesses that will limit their potential. Michigan is the shakiest, yet most dangerous of the Contenders. I debated making them or the Hoyas a Pretender. In some ways, the teams are mirror images. Michigan is a cold team with a high-powered offense and weak defense. Georgetown is a hot team with a weak offense and lockdown defense. In the end, I decided that Michigan’s low number of disqualifiers would hold sway. Wisconsin is another team with a slogging offense and slug-it-out defense. Their style of play might surprise some people, but usually doesn’t translate into a deep run. Miami also likes to grind out their possessions, but the Hurricane’s struggles are more on the defensive side of the ball. Then there’s Syracuse. Early last week, I had them as a Challenger, but the Georgetown loss convinced me that this team wasn’t among the top eight. The Orange only have two disqualifiers, but I think they could fall to a good team with enough time to prepare for their zone.
Scrappers (teams too flawed for a deep run that could reach the Sweet 16)
Look at the offensive and defensive efficiency numbers for these four teams. Marquette, Creighton and NC State have awful defensive numbers. And UNLV suffers on offense. But each of these squads is dangerous and talented enough to reach the second weekend of the dance. Marquette fights you every minute of the game. Creighton’s got a top-ten offense and a star in Doug McDermott. UNLV has all sorts of talent waiting to gel, but plays surprisingly good defense. And NC State has a strong front-line and a handful of dangerous scorers.
Sleepers (quietly dangerous teams that could make a surprising run)
It was tough to separate the Sleepers from the Upsetters. Basically, the distinction is where these teams are likely to fall in the seeding. I see Sleepers as four to seven seeds that can make more noise than a single upset. By that standard, K-State, Pitt, OK State and VCU are my choices for Sleepers. None of them have a bunch of disqualifiers and they all have better efficiency numbers than their national reputation. Kansas State has an efficient offense fueled by strong offensive rebounding numbers. Pitt is the sixth most efficient team in the country—and the most consistently disrespected. Oklahoma State makes up for an average offense and poor three-shooting by stifling teams on defense. And VCU is an unorthodox, fast-paced, high-risk/high-reward team that thrives on turnovers. Plus, there’s the whole Shaka Smart thing. He’s the all-time top overachieving coach with a gaudy +1.969 PASE.
Upsetters (likely low seeds that could surprise a high seed)
These squads will likely get seeded somewhere between nine and 12—and could surprise a higher seed, but are unlikely to string together more than a couple wins. Minnesota has won only four of their last ten, but they have the number-one offensive rebounding squad in the nation, and a host of scoring options. St. Mary’s has been living in Gonzaga’s shadow all season—but could get out of it tonight. They’re one of the better shooting teams in the country, and Matt Dellavedova is the kind of go-to player that can take over games. Iowa State has sputtered of late, but they have a top-ten offense—and they won a tourney game last year. Finally, you have to love the St. Louis story. Not only are the Billikens among the 25 most efficient teams in the country, but in the wake of Rick Majerus’ death, they’re playing with a higher purpose. That’s not statistically measurable, but it’s significant nonetheless.
Pretenders (teams unlikely to meet seed expectations)
I had a hard time with this group—mainly because I wanted to identify more of the elite teams as Pretenders. Let’s face it: among the top 12 teams above, half will exit the dance earlier than expected. I’ve already explained why I put Georgetown here instead of Michigan. It’s fair to ask why the Hoyas rate as Pretenders over Syracuse, who they annihilated over the weekend. Basically, I went by the efficiency stats and the overall number of disqualifiers. As bad as it looked on Saturday, the Orange have only two red marks on their line. Aside from Georgetown, the other big name here is Arizona. In spite of Sean Miller’s high PASE, the Wildcats have won only six of their last 10 and are pretty generous on defense, especially from the three-point line. Notre Dame and New Mexico were no-brainers on this list. For some reason, the Irish and the Lobos always garner seeds higher than they deserve…and all short of expectations. Both teams have a ton of disqualifiers and dramatically underachieving coaches who’ve never reached the Elite Eight. ’Nuf said.
Sneakers (teams no one is talking about that could make some noise)
There are a bunch of tourney fixtures that no one is talking about—but who have quietly been improving throughout the year. I wouldn’t be surprised if any of the teams in this category won a couple games. North Carolina and Kentucky are the marquee schools here. Both have their weaknesses—the Tar Heels can’t shoot and the Wildcats can protect the ball. But they’re both led by legendary coaches and they’ve had to claw their way into the tourney. Villanova has played a lot of good teams tough—including Georgetown and Marquette. Their efficiency numbers aren’t anything to write home about, but they go to the line more than any other D-I school, they’re solid defenders and Jay Wright has a record of overachievement in the dance. Lastly, we have Tennessee. The Volunteers have won eight of their last nine, after losing seven of their previous ten. That includes solid victories over Florida, Kentucky and Missouri.
Dead-enders (teams that probably won’t make the tourney)
I’m not a Bracketologist. I leave that sort of speculation to Jerry Palm and Joe Lunardi. So I have no idea where these teams fall in the most recent projections. Whether they’re on the outs or not, however, I don’t see them making any noise in the tourney. I guess Baylor and Virginia have the best shot at success in the dance. But the Bears probably won’t get there, in spite of the Kansas pummeling. It’s hard to make a case for dancing when you’re 4-8 in your last 12 games. Virginia is surprisingly efficient and Joe Harris just seems like one of those Wally Szczerbiak types that could throw in a big shot. But they have some work to do in the ACC tourney to punch a ticket. Cinci and Ole Miss have both struggled down the stretch, and own ugly efficiency numbers—the Bearcats on offense, and Mississippi on defense.
Head-scratchers (inconsistent teams that I can’t figure out)
I don’t know what to think about these squads. Butler doesn’t even rate out as a top-50 team, has a low 5.8 average margin, and has suffered some ugly losses. On the other hand, they beat Indiana, feature a dangerous sniper in Rotnei Clarke, and are led by a coach who makes magic in March. Illinois is all over the place. They’ve played well enough to beat the likes of Gonzaga, Ohio State and Indiana, and then fallen on their faces against Northwestern and Iowa. UCLA has a star player in Shabazz Muhammad and has scored some impressive wins (two against Arizona), but they don’t rebound or shoot particularly well. And then there’s Missouri. The numbers say they’re among the top 20 most efficient teams in the land—and any starting lineup that includes Phil Pressey, Lawrence Bowers and Alex Oriahki ought to be strong. But the Tigers shoot themselves in the feet with poor shot selection and sloppy ballhandling. All of these teams are capable of making the Sweet 16…or getting smoked in the first round.