Duke earns conventional champ cred, but Arizona stands out

There hasn’t been a lot of movement over the holidays in our champ assessments. Based on  conventional champ criteria, 11 teams are in the running to cut down the nets. If you haven’t been following along, here’s a quick explanation. Every champion after 2000 has possessed these characteristics:

  • A one, two or three seed
  • Member of a Power conference: ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 or SEC
  • Either went to the previous year’s dance or have an All-American
  • Led by a coach with more than five tourney trips and at least one Elite Eight run
  • Averaging more than 73 points per game
  • Allowing fewer than 73 points per game
  • An average scoring margin of at least seven points per game
  • A schedule among the 75 strongest in the country

Eight teams meet all these credentials. They are Syracuse, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Duke, Villanova, Kentucky, Kansas and North Carolina. The Blue Devils finally made the grade by reducing their points allowed below 73 per game. Arizona dropped off the list, but only because they’ve feasted on two marshmallows since beating Michigan and their SOS dropped below 75th. Ohio State and Louisville are in the same boat. They meet all the other champion criteria but  strength of schedule. Both teams will eventually get there—but by then the Buckeyes might fall below the 73-point-per-game offensive threshold. We’ll see. So far, Big Ten teams have played more offensively than in the past.

Eleven teams passing the basic champ check is a lot, four more than at this time last year. But it’s a different story when you dig into the possession-based numbers. The last ten champions have ranked no worse than 17th and 25th in offensive and defensive efficiency, respectively. By that standard, only five teams make the grade:  Louisville (7 OE, 4 DE), Oklahoma State (4 OE, 18 DE), Arizona (13 OE, 6 DE), Kansas (10 OE, 16 DE) and Wisconsin (17 OE, 10 DE). Only the Cowboys weren’t on the basic champ list.

If you go by raw possession-based numbers instead of rankings, the list of potential champs dwindles to just two. The last ten champions have averaged scoring at least 115.1 points and allowing no more than 92.2 points per 100 possessions. Only Louisville (117.8, 91.2) and Arizona (115.5, 91.3) meet those limits. Of course, the Cardinals just dismissed Chane Behanan, so they’ve got some challenges that might jeopardize their standing on all these lists.

That leaves Arizona as the team with the inside track to win the 2014 tourney. Having seen the Wildcats live, I think the numbers—at least at this point—aren’t lying. Time will tell. Arizona has beaten three solid teams so far (San Diego State, Duke and Michigan), but their schedule hasn’t exactly been a meat grinder. And the Pac 12 isn’t the toughest conference in the world. We may not find out if the Wildcats are for real until they go dancing. That would make them the Gonzagas of 2014…but I don’t think they’re as vulnerable as the Zags were last year. For one thing, they aren’t in the bloated Mountain West.

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8 Responses to Duke earns conventional champ cred, but Arizona stands out

  1. Andy says:

    There are a couple of other things that stick out to me with Louisville and Arizona. If you look at Ken Pomeroy’s website and look a little further at the numbers, it is even more negative for Louisville and maybe more positive for Arizona. First off, both teams have played somewhat shaky non-conference schedules, but ever moreso if you look at the Pythag SOS on Ken Pomeroy’s website. That said, at least Arizona has a schedule of over .5000 and is undefeated, while Louisville’s is .4310 with two losses.

    Louisville’s non-conference schedule numbers and record are very reminiscent of Ohio State last year, a popular Final Four pick that came short. On top of it, their luck needs to improve from the shoddy -0.84 that it currently has to show. I don’t have figures for luck going into each tournament as of now but one thing I have learned is a team with that low of luck is going to have a very hard time reaching the Final Four, and quite possibly the Elite Eight. Add in Behanan done for the year, and I firmly believe Louisville is in danger of underachieving this year, maybe significantly.

    For as shaky as their nonconference SOS is from a Pythag standpoint, Arizona is still very dangerous. I mentioned they are undefeated, but also of their three quality wins so far, not a single one was at home. Credit must also be given for a defensive SOS that is in the top 100 (though their offensive SOS is another story). However, most of the top teams have somewhat weak numbers as well. Of Ken Pomeroy’s current top ten, only Wisconsin, Kansas, VIllanova, and Kentucky have tougher SOS’s to date.

    I’d like to compare these four teams to Arizona. First off, I have bigtime nagging concerns with Kansas and Kentucky as both have similar luck to Louisville’s (bad). Kentucky also did not go to last year’s tournament, and Bill Self is very volatile in the tournament. One year he is in the Final Four, a couple years later he is getting upset by Bucknell or Northern Iowa. I also have some concerns with Villanova, with a #42 offensive rating and a #256 defensive SOS to date. What is their offense going to look like against some of the tougher defenses in the Big East? Finally, there is Wisconsin, whose tempo is slow as molasses, but at least they have a more competitive offense and have played a tough defensive SOS. My problem with them? Bo Ryan has only been the Elite Eight in 2005, has been to every tournament since then, has been seeded more often than not at a 5 seed or higher, and has not repeated that success. In essence, think of him as a snakebitten coach since that one run. And he has never made the Final Four. Arizona may not have the most impressive schedule, but they are getting it done, have a reasonably proven coach who will undoubtedly reach the Final Four sooner rather than later, have very good luck on their side (currently at +0.91, it will probably decline some in the Pac 12 but I would be shocked if it is not positive going into the dance), and meet every other criteria for a champion.

    Of course, besides the already dissected Louisville, two teams do rank ahead of Arizona, and they are both OSU’s (Ohio State and Oklahoma State). I am trying for the life of me to figure Ohio State out. They average 75 points a game so far, but they only score 109.4 points per 100 possessions with a slow tempo of 65.8 possessions per game, against a #275-ranked defensive SOS (again, all current according to Ken Pomeroy). I know their defensive is very elite, but without a much better offense, this team reminds me New Mexico or Georgetown of last year…who both took big upsets on the chin to 14 and 15 seeds. As for Oklahoma State, I really do want to like this team and take them deep in the tournament. They have a lot of things in their favor: a very good offense at 118.6 points per 100 possessions with a top 20 defense, a reasonable amount of luck, a not great but not unacceptable SOS, and an All-American in Marcus Smart. But then I look at Travis Ford and hesitate. He has been to four tournaments and only won one game, in 2009 as an 8 seed against Tennessee. I can’t blame him for his first loss as a 15 seed at Eastern Kentucky, but I can blame him for losses as a 7 seed in 2010 and a 5 seed last year. Plus, it is hard for me to get over a blowout win at home over Memphis, only to play them a short time later on a neutral court and lose. Just reeks of inconsistency there.

    No, if we were doing brackets right now, Arizona would be my champion too. But there is a long ways to go until we get to Selection Sunday, so maybe someone new will sneak up on us that we don’t see, and maybe Arizona will fall on hard times in the Pac 12. Oregon is also undefeated after all and could give them fits, particularly on the road in their last regular season game. Arizona also goes to UCLA, Stanford, and Colorado later this year, and not a single one of those will be easy to win for the Cats. Still, if they can win at least two, and preferably three, of those games, and keep their positive looking formula alive, it will be very hard for me to pick anyone else to win the championship.

    One last champion criteria however: I can’t remember where, but I think I read last year that every champion since 1998 not only came from a major conference, but also has won its conference regular season title, its tournament, or both. Obviously we won’t know who meets that criteria until the end of the year, but it’s just something to chew on during the season.

    • ptiernan says:

      Wow, Andy. Great analysis. You’ve pretty much done my early season pulse check for me. I’m still thinking that Michigan State will figure in the mix, and I’m grudgingly accepting that Duke, as bad as their defense is, will be ready for the dance. In a year when no teams stand out as elite, this could make for a very entertaining, bracket-busting March.

  2. Andy says:

    I agree on Michigan State that they will be a definite factor, though I am concerned about what their teams have been like the past couple years. Namely, their turnover margin has been about even, unlike a usual team coached Tom Izzo. I haven’t crunched that stat for this year so far for Michigan State, so maybe they have improved on it and I am just not aware. As for Duke, their defense is coming around slowly, but I still don’t like a defense giving up 96.7 points per 100 possessions a whole lot. In fact, it’s not far off from their 2012 team that lost to Lehigh (incidentally I was very, very close to picking that upset), but their offense is a few points per 100 possessions better.

    I actually have also come up with a new way I plan to fill out my bracket this year. I always say I play for the later rounds that are worth more points, and it won me a pool one year. However, my strategy was always very inconsistent. My new strategy involves starting out with predicting the Elite Eight. It goes by following a set of rules in order until you reach the end, or are down to just one team to take. In the event that all teams are eliminate, skip the most recent rule you used.

    1. Eliminate any team led by a truly snakebitten coach, unless they are a top seed (but still cast a cold eye on top seeds with such a coach, too).
    2. Eliminate any team with a coach that is not snakebitten by definition, but would be after their most recent Elite Eight run (such as Bo Ryan).
    3. Eliminate any team that didn’t go to last year’s tournament and has a coach making his first ever appearance (only 2 out of 93 teams since 1985 seeded 11 or higher have pulled this off).
    4. Eliminate any remaining team seeded 3 or lower that missed last year’s tournament.
    5. Eliminate any Mountain West teams.
    6. Using Ken Pomeroy’s website, eliminate any team coming into the tournament with luck of -0.50 or less.

    If this were followed last year, there are in fact two regionals were one side would have been down to only one eligible team for the Elite Eight. Florida would have very quickly been the last team standing on its side of the South (despite prohibitively bad luck, every other team was inexperienced, had a snakebitten coach, or was in the Mountain West), but the other one is a little harder to fathom. It is actually Wichita State, whose side of the West had several lower seeded teams that missed the previous dance (Ole Miss, La Salle) and snakebitten coaches (Gonzaga, Wisconsin since 2005).

    However, sometimes these rules still don’t eliminate very many teams. For instance, in the Midwest, on Duke’s side, only Middle Tennessee (who lost in a play-in game anyway), Valpo, and Albany would have been eliminated. But it certainly might be a useful guide if one regional has a bunch of weak teams with unproven coaches. And in the case that it isn’t helpful in one regional, then use what you know about the teams (are there any off-the-court issues? Are they typical underachievers or overachievers in the dance?), their stats, and your gut to determine who will make the Elite Eight.

    There certainly is more to this strategy, but I’m still working out how I might do the final rounds. The champion though would be still be a team that meets all of the rules you established, and meets the conference champion rule that I came up with (though is really credited to someone else, I just learned about it).

  3. Andy says:

    Actually a slight edit to rule #4. Make that eliminate any remaining team seeded lower than 3 that missed last year’s tournament. I initially included 3 seeds by mistake, but quite a few 3 seeds not making the previous year’s dance have made the Elite Eight.

  4. blazer!! says:

    You also want to factor in “one-man consistent team”, and that was Gonzaga and Georgetown of last season. Also, pay close attention to injuries and suspension, especially on teams that doesn’t put stats. Back in 2012, Syracuse was struggling against UNC-Asheville while they suspended their center Fab Melo. That Syracuse squad had an inconsistent stats despite their record. #2 Duke had Ryan Kelly sat out due to injury which may play a role to the loss of #15 seed Lehigh (at the same time, Duke ranked in the 200th on defense; and so did Missouri). Also, you must understand the variety of offense and defense. For example, Georgetown takes about 24.5 seconds per possession to score last season. Is that really defense or stalling offense that keeps the game low-scoring?

  5. Ryan says:

    I’m relatively new to the site, so I apologize if this has been answered elsewhere, but I couldn’t find it while searching…

    Your champ check lists SOS as a key factor. Where do you get the SOS from? It doesn’t appear to be KenPom’s Pythag SOS, which made me curious as to the reasoning for not doing so, and the “new” cutoff number you’d have to use to include it in the list of championship pre-reqs (yours currently being top 75).

    Love the site, and I check it daily for updates!

    • ptiernan says:

      Hi Ryan – Had to travel to Belgium this week for my day job. Sorry not to get back sooner. You’ll see 3-4 new blogs this week, including my big members-only study on picking toss-up games. As for the SOS, I do indeed use the CBS RPI data. I’m not saying that’s the most failsafe way of calculating SOS. It’s just that this has been my source going back to when SOS initially became available. I didn’t want to mix statistical measures in the analysis.

      Thanks for having my back Brigs!

  6. Brigs says:

    @ Ryan He uses CBS

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