With a month until Selection Sunday and fewer than 10 games left for most teams, the 2014 bracket seems to be coming more into focus—if you don’t look too closely. Undefeated squads like Syracuse and Wichita State would seem to have locks on top seeds. And Arizona, Florida and Duke look like dominant squads of the past. But as strong as these elite teams appear, each of them have suspicious stats that will present bracketeers with confounding conundrums. Let’s take look each team, Hardy Boys style:
‘Cuse and the Close-Game Quandary – The Orange probably won’t wind up undefeated. (KenPom rates their chances at 4.7%–and that doesn’t even include the conference tourney.) But it’s not out of the question that Syracuse could have a two-loss season heading into the dance and the number one position in the bracket.
There’s just one problem: the Orange haven’t really been as dominant as their possible number one spot would warrant. Today, their average scoring margin is just 11.8 points. In the 29 years of the 64-team era, you know how many top seeds have come into the dance with fewer than four losses and an average margin below 12 points a game? Four—Michigan and St. John’s in 1985, Duke in 1986 and Missouri in 1994. St. John’s made the Final Four and Duke reached the finals, but the group is a -.103 PASE underperformer overall.
Setting aside record for a moment, top seeds with low margins (under 12 ppg) don’t fare well in the tourney. Only seven of 19 beat seed expectations and they have a -.301 PASE.
Here’s the other scary thing about Syracuse: in a year when scoring is up, the Orange are a shockingly low-scoring number-one team. They average 70 points per game. How many one seeds have had scoring averages that low? Try none. The lowest scoring top seeds were 1995 Wake Forest and 2003 Oklahoma. Both teams underachieved.
Don’t get me wrong: there’s a lot to like about Syracuse. Their offense is better than the raw output suggests because they play at such a slow pace. And they do have a clutch finisher in Tyler Ennis (if you believe in that sort of thing). I’m just saying that Syracuse will certainly be an outlier top seed…and similar team’s with their numbers haven’t fared well. Who knows? They could be 1986 Duke. Then again, they could be 2003 Oklahoma.
The Shocker Pushover Issue – Unlike Syracuse, Wichita State has a great shot to be undefeated heading into its conference tourney. With an away game against Bradley as the toughest tilt left on their schedule, the Shockers have a 76.8% chance to stay perfect in the regular season. If we assume that it runs the table, Wichita State will be only the second team in the last 29 years to enter the dance undefeated. Jerry Tarkanian’s vaunted 1991 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels were the only other perfect squad. They did overachieve and got to the Final Four, but their loss to Duke in the semifinals was a definite disappointment. And Wichita State is no UNLV. Those Runnin’ Rebels averaged 100.7 points a game and had a stunning 28.9 average scoring margin. The Shockers’ numbers: 74.8 points scored and a 14.8 margin per game.
Setting aside the question of an undefeated record, the tourney just hasn’t been all that kind to high-seeded Mid-Majors. There have been only 28 Mid-Majors to earn a one or two seed. Their PASE is an underachieving -.135. In fact, over the last 20 years, it’s -.555.
Here’s another point to consider. Wichita State’s SOS currently ranks 94th. Only two top seeds have had a weaker ranked schedule. Both of them were Stanford, versions 2000 and 2004, and both got knocked out by an eight seed in the second round. Heck, only eight top seeds have had a weaker SOS rank than 50th. And their collective PASE is -.603.
Again, I’m not trying to say that Wichita State isn’t worth considering as a Final Four candidate. I’m just saying that historical numbers would suggest that a run that deep is an anomaly. But, hey, the Shockers’ Final Four run as a nine seed last year was the ultimate anomaly.
Worries for the Wounded Wildcats – For most of the season, the numbers and my eyes told me that Arizona was the most complete team in the country. Then they lost Brandon Ashley—and their offense has seemed to sputter. Four games without Ashley is a small sample size, but their scoring average (66.8 ppg) is more than four points below their season average (73.1 ppg).
Let’s assume, however, that the Wildcats maintain their 73.1 scoring average (which, by the way, is just a scant 0.1 ppg above the basic champ test threshold). Only five top seeds have been that low scoring in the modern era. Just one of them, MSU in 1999, got to the Final Four. Altogether, they fell almost a game per dance below seed expectations (-.953 PASE).
More concerning than the raw output is the Wildcat’s offensive efficiency. They currently rank 53rd in the country. That’s frighteningly low for a top seed. I only have ten years of KenPom data, but the average top seed has ranked around ninth in offensive efficiency among the tourney field. In fact, only eight one seeds have owned an offensive efficiency rank worse than 15th. Just two of those eight, finals contender Memphis in 2008 and UConn in 2009, reached the Final Four. Overall, the eight teams struggled with a -.603 PASE.
This year, I’ve fielded more emails than ever about the impact of injuries on tourney performance. I’m sorry to say that I don’t track injuries in my database. But I think we all intuitively understand that when you lose a key player, you’re likely to perform at a lesser rate than when you had him. If there’s any silver lining for Arizona, it’s that they’re a deep squad—and they lost Ashley in plenty of time to adjust.
Enigma of the Grinding Gators – Not to beat a dead horse, but low scoring top seeds don’t tend to fare well in the dance. If Florida grabs a top seed, they will be the second lowest scoring top seed in the modern era (71.1 ppg)—behind this year’s Syracuse squad. I won’t repeat the outlier stats on low-scoring, low-margin one seeds. But they aren’t pretty.
The Gators do have some encouraging possession-based stats going for them, however. They have the 13th most efficient offense and the fifth most efficient defense in the country. Both those ranks fall well within the threshold of past champions. So do the raw possession-based numbers. In fact, they are the only team in the country to meet the offense and defense criteria of 115.1 and 92.2 points per 100 possessions that the last ten champs have met.
Danger for the Defenseless Devils – Duke doesn’t have the scoring problems that Syracuse, Arizona and Florida have. The Blue Devils’ troubles are on the other end of the court. While it’s true that Duke has the offense firepower of successful one seeds (81.7 ppg), they don’t have the defensive efficiency.
The Blue Devils currently rank 77th in points allowed per possession. Eight top seeds have been ranked worse than 15th on defense among the tourney field. Only two of them—North Carolina versions 2008 and 2009—have beaten expectations. The good news is that the 2009 Tar Heels cut down the nets. The bad news is that the collective PASE of these eight teams is -.603. It bears mentioning that Duke was in a similar position back in 2006. They were a high scoring (82.5 ppg) team with a suspect defense. That team bowed out in the Sweet 16.
The 2014 Blue Devils have a lot going for them—including the best player in the country this side of Doug McDermott. But defense matters in the dance. The average Final Four contender has been among the top 15 in the field…and the average champ has been among the top 10. Duke ain’t there.