Numbers don’t lie. They just don’t tell you what they really mean. There’s no question that college basketball is higher scoring than it’s been in a long time. But what’s not clear is how that should influence your bracket picks.
This week’s top 20 AP teams average scoring 76.6 points per game. Last year at this time, the AP’s top 20 were exactly four points lower scoring. In fact, only eight of the 20 teams last year met the 73-point scoring threshold for champ status. This year, 15 of the teams meet the offensive output qualifications.
If we only considered this year’s eight highest scoring teams as potential champs, we’d be looking at (in scoring order): Iowa State, Iowa, Louisville, Duke, Creighton, Villanova, Memphis and Kentucky. Of these teams, only Louisville, Duke and Villanova possess the other six champ stats. More interesting, perhaps, is who didn’t make this list. Syracuse. Arizona, Kansas. Michigan State. Wichita State. San Diego State. Michigan. If I had to pick the first set of teams or the second as the most likely overachievers, I’d probably go with the second.
Some readers have also pointed out that the average scoring margins of the top teams are wider than they’ve been in the past as well. That’s true—but not as much as you’d think. Last year at this time, the AP’s top 20 teams owned a scoring margin of 13.0 points per game. This year, that margin is 13.2 points.
The fact is, given the lower scoring last year, 13.0 points is a wider gap by percentage than 13.2 points. Put it this way: last year’s best teams scored 21.8% more points than the 59.6 points they allowed. This year’s elite are scoring 20.8% more than the 63.5 points they allow. So, at least by percentage, this year’s top 20 are playing closer games than they did last year.
What are we to do with all this information? The easiest way to factor in this scoring boost is to raise the champ threshold by the four-point increase in offensive output. Veteran readers may recall that the old Champ Check did indeed used to be 77 points. Before 2011, 23 of 26 champions (and 21 of 22) were at least that prolific. In this case, our only champ candidates would be Villanova, Kansas, Duke, Michigan State and Kentucky. Not a shabby handful at all.
But before we dismiss the lower scoring teams, I think we need to consider another possibility. With such a quick transition from grind-it-out to high-scoring ball, it could be that the teams with more efficient defenses will prevail in this year’s dance–especially considering that tighter scoring games are getting player. After all, the boost in scoring is artificial to some extent, more the result of offensively friendly refereeing. And what’s interesting is that many of the higher scoring teams are not very solid defensively. Duke ranks 92nd in defensive efficiency, Michigan is 77th, Creighton is 59th and Kentucky is 40th. These aren’t the sort of defenses that make for championships.
Bottom line: in this transition year, I won’t factor raw scoring output into my bracket decisions as much as I have in previous years. While I do think the ultimate tourney champ will be offensively efficient, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll rack up a bunch of points. Look at Syracuse. The Orange run the fifth most efficient offense in the country—and yet they average just 71.1 points a game. I’m not inclined to dismiss them as a possible champion. At least, not yet.