How lack of efficiency could doom some contenders
Posted: Wednesday January 2, 2008 2:30PM; Updated: Wednesday January 2, 2008 8:59PM
College hoops turns the corner into the conference home-stretch this evening, and as much as we think we've learned from the first two months of the season, it's not enough. The final Associated Press poll of December 2006 is evidence of just how worthless early-season assessments can be. No one considered that Top 25 to be a total abomination at the time, and yet there was one future NIT team (Alabama) in the top 10 and three more (Oklahoma State, Air Force and Clemson) scattered below.
Even worse, there were four teams ranked at the time (UConn, Washington, Wichita State and LSU) that didn't go on to play in any post-season tournament. And while three of the eventual Final Four schools were properly in the top 10, the fourth, Georgetown, was buried all the way down in the others-receiving-votes category -- a true sleeping giant.
So: Which of the teams ranked at the conclusion of 2007 could be doomed? Which ones look like true contenders? And what sleepers are sitting outside the Top 25? In hopes of providing some answers, I present the third annual Early Warnings List.
First compiled in late 2005 and again in 2006, it shelves sight-and-rankings evaluations in favor of efficiency data -- exactly how many points a team scores and gives up per possession. In this year's column, there are three lists that cover the following:
1) Ranked teams that could fail because of suspect D.
2) The actual title contenders, broken into three tiers.
3) Unranked teams that look like legitimate sleepers.
The inspiration for this column is the mega-chart below, which uses kenpom.com data to show the efficiency profiles -- offensive and defensive points per 100 possessions, adjusted for competition -- of the past four sets of Elite Eight teams.
Other than 1-over-16 in the first round, there is no such thing as a lock in the NCAA tournament, but there are a few common traits of teams that make deep runs. It's no coincidence that every Final Four team has ranked in the top 25 in defensive efficiency, and nearly all of them have had elite offenses as well. And it seems that only one team, at most, makes the Elite Eight each year with a mediocre D. Once you're done perusing this list, we'll look at ranked teams that don't fit the contender profile in 2007-08.
In the latest AP poll, there are four teams in top 20 that don't have the D to match their offensive potency: Texas, Vanderbilt, Butler and Villanova. The Longhorns are the poster children for this Early Warnings list: They have the nation's best offense as well as the best point guard, which makes them electrifying to watch ... but covers up the fact that they aren't playing strong defense.
Some of Texas' issues can be attributed to fatigue: All five of its starters are averaging more than 30 minutes per game, and perhaps the addition of freshman Gary Johnson, who missed the first two months while being monitored for a heart condition, will provide an energy boost. But the 'Horns are still lacking the size to defend the paint against big teams like Wisconsin, who upset them on Saturday in Austin. Unless Texas can make like Georgetown, which appeared on last season's Early Warnings list but shored up its D in time for the NCAA tournament, it's tough to think of the Horns as serious national-title candidates.
Nearly every pundit, myself included, will say that Vanderbilt is the second-best team in the SEC this season after Tennessee. The Commodores, after all, are 13-0 and have a formidable inside-outside duo in Shan Foster and A.J. Ogilvy. But the efficiency data suggest that the gap between the 'Dores and Vols is much bigger than the seven spots between their AP rankings. Tennessee has an elite offense that has only been getting better with the addition of J.P. Prince, as well an adequate D. Vandy has a good offense and a D that ranks a miserable 130th in efficiency, the worst of any team in the top 25. Villanova is in a similar situation, only 10 spots behind Georgetown and seven behind Marquette in the AP poll -- while in terms of efficiency, a chasm exists between those two powers and the Wildcats, whose defense has been just as bad as Vanderbilt's.