How do you factor this year’s scoring binge into your bracket picks?

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.

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13 Responses to How do you factor this year’s scoring binge into your bracket picks?

  1. Justin says:

    Pete,

    I have this idea that UVA(2014) matches the style of Georgetown(2013) in that they are decent at offense(not great), great at defense but play at a slow tempo. I believe this leaves them open to variability in the early rounds against a team that could get hot. To me, the better a team is, the more possessions it should want to reduce randomness.

    I can send you my KenPom numbers comparison, but they are nearly identical in offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency and tempo. In fact, Georgetown had a better offense and played slightly faster.

    • ptiernan says:

      The tourney is littered with seemingly strong slow-paced teams that fail to meet expectations. The Georgetowns, Wisconsins and Pitts of the world. I would agree with you on Virginia. I’m leery.

  2. Andy says:

    Lump Syracuse as a slower-paced team, in fact their tempo is the 7th slowest in the country at the time of this post. Since kenpom.com was launched, no champion has played that slow, with the slowest being a shade above 65 possessions per game (Duke in 2010 and UConn in 2011).

    I’ve also taken a look at Syracuse’s stats and put them with models like the Seed Matchup and Upset Spotting models, and a good chunk of their numbers to date suggest they could miss the Elite Eight if the make a 1 seed. The Seed Matchup model even says they might lose to an 8 seed if the right one comes along. I’ve always thought there was something about the Orange that made me doubt them, and now I am finally seeing it. If we were doing brackets right now, I don’t think I could take them to the Final Four, let alone win the championship.

    • bullets-and-blazers!! says:

      Agree, and Syracuse has huge depth issue. Foul trouble and how they struggle against a depleted offensive squad in umiami. Quick question: how do you know if a team plays fast tempo? would it be to calculate the average of posession per game?

      • ptiernan says:

        This one’s easy “bullets.” If you go to KenPom.com, the chart you see has “AdjT” as one of the columns. Click on that and it will order the teams by tempo. The fastest team (Northwestern State) has 76.4 possessions per game. The slowest (Miami) grinds out just 58.8.

    • ptiernan says:

      Ken Pomeroy wrote an interesting post about how fortunate the Orange have been not to play very tough road games. This was, of course, before last night’s buzzer-beater against Pitt. But before that, they’d only played five true road games, the toughest of which was St. John’s in the Garden (not exactly a snake pit). I’m skeptical of a deep run, but I will say this: that Ennis kid is a gamer…and you can’t leave Cooney alone. They’ll be a tough team to ponder come Selection Sunday.

    • jcurry says:

      Do we think pace is going to matter so much this time around? If you sort by AdjT on KenPom you’ll notice that only 3 of the top 25 teams in pace only include 3 of KenPom’s top 25 ranked teams: Iowa, UCLA, and VCU. I’m not sure I buy any of those three as champs.

      • ptiernan says:

        I’ve never thought pace was a sign of tourney overachievement. OFfensive output and efficiency would seem to be…but that doesn’t necessarily correlate to playing tempo. Look how many of the fast playing teams are actually pretty inefficient offensive scorers.

        • jcurry says:

          I agree. It seemed in the comments there was a general assertion that slow pace of play was related to early exits. Yet last year the four Final Four squads ranked 126th, 210th, 252th, and 209th in pace. SU is definitely extra slow this year, according to KenPom. I guess I just never considered pace an issue at all come tournament time.

          By the way, these are my firsts comments here, but I’m a long time reader. Love your work.

          • ptiernan says:

            The biggest issue with pace, JC, is that it can serve as a dagger for some efficient teams. When you limit possessions, you also make games closer…and open yourself to the risk of loss. This has been the argument people use to explain premature exits by teams like Wisconsin. Last year, I did a comparison of unlucky teams (according to KenPom) and PASE. It showed that the teams most victimized by bad luck tended to be slow paced. It makes sense.

          • jcurry1 says:

            Thanks for the insight. I’ll look for that post.

  3. jbessa says:

    Ooops. My comment got lost. Let’s try again

    If you take (AdjO-AdjD)*AdjT and rank from top to bottom, Syracuse drops from 5th to 9th which is not a #1 seed.

    What is a better key to success in tourney, Offense or Defense?

    • ptiernan says:

      JB and Justin – Agreed that you can’t just take KenPom Pythag values to determine your bracket picks. Only point I was making was that, as a simple predictor, it’s not much better than picking higher seeds, nor is BPI or any other system.

      JB – As to offense versus defense, I can do a quick analysis. I’ll include that in my Mythbusting blog series. Good suggestion.

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