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NCAA Tourney by the Numbers

By Marty Coleman


[Author’s note: This post was written prior to the injury to Michigan’s Isaiah Livers]

I like to think of myself as a semi-reformed metrics guy. Initially, I was drawn to numbers as a way to cut through the endless hyperbole around sports teams, both the ones I love and the ones I hate. I eventually found out that, just like with everything else in our lives, metrics can be overused to the point of becoming useless; so over time I’ve become less numbers driven.

Now, instead of the be all and end all, I see metrics as one piece of the puzzle of figuring out good teams from bad teams and bad teams from worse teams, combine that with the old eyeball test and a dash of input from people much smarter than me, and then concoct a conclusion.

It’s with that background that I present the information below. It should be one piece of your puzzle in making tournament projections and it’s more likely to tell you who won’t win the title as opposed to who will.

With the caveat that this year’s tournament is unique - held in a single city, with teams disappearing seemingly by the hour in the middle of a pandemic - there’s a clue in Ken Pomeroy’s numbers: 15 of the 18 national champions since 2002, including the last 5 and 7 of the last 8, finished in the top 9 of the offensive efficiency metric.

Most fans and analysts focus on defense and that’ll get you through the regular season just fine, generally your conference tourney, and maybe the first weekend of the Big Dance.

But when push comes to shove offense wins championships, or at least it has since 2002.

Defense is important too, just to a lesser degree. Clue number two is that 14 of the 18 most recent champions finished in the top 11 in defensive efficiency.

Naturally, that made me curious as to how many finished in the top 9 on offense AND top 11 on defense? Thirteen of 18, that’s how many.

But offense dominates, especially at the end. Four champions finished number 1 in offense, four more finished number 2, three finished 3rd, and another finished 4th. That means 12 of the last 18 champions - two-thirds - finished in the top 4 in offensive efficiency.

The final clue in the numbers is strength of schedule: no team has won the title with a SoS below 33rd and only 1 team has won it with an SoS lower than 24th.

So there’s your criteria:

  1. Offense 9th or better

  2. Defense 11th or better

  3. SoS 33rd or better

I credit former Clemson shooting guard Terrence Oglesby (TO) for leading me down this rabbit hole. As a guest on the Sluggo Podcast last month, TO praised Gonzaga but questioned their schedule. He also pointed us to Illinois. TO was deadly from 3 point range and now he’s dead on as a basketball analyst.

Which brings us to 2021 teams that fit the profile (or are considered possibilities).

Last week I planned to bet on Baylor and Gonzaga vs. the field. This week, I wouldn’t touch them.

Remember, the historical data from previous years above are finalized AFTER the tournament; so theoretically teams could move in and out of the list during the tourney.

Also remember I’m not saying Gonzaga or Baylor, etc won’t win games or even make the Final Four or Championship game. I’m saying history tells us they’re not likely to win the title.

As March Madness kicks off, Gus starts screaming, upsets happen, and feel good stories abound, keep an eye on a couple of teams from the Big 10.

If history holds, one of them is likely to be cutting down the final net.

(As for our friend TO, and his pick? ...)

I tend to agree.

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