Early Warnings: Sizing up college hoops' contenders, pretenders
I should start by saying that there is no formula that can predict, with certainty, which teams will or won't make the Elite Eight, Final Four or title game in a few months. When you decide your national champ by seeing who can win six (or seven) consecutive, one-game series, a lot of randomness is involved in the outcomes. That's why the NCAA tournament is such great television.
What I do believe, though, is that efficiency profiling can help identify teams that are more -- or less -- likely to make deep runs in the NCAAs. Halfway through the 2012-13, teams' true profiles have started to emerge, and even within the AP's Top 25, there are more teams that raise red flags than look fit to be playing into late March. I'll identify those teams later; first, let me explain the concept of a strong tourney "profile".
Thanks to kenpom.com, 10 years of adjusted points-per-possession data is available for all of Division I. The following chart includes the season-ending offensive and defensive efficiency rankings of every team that reached the Elite Eight or beyond from 2003-2012. A few defensive truths from this stretch are important: Only five teams ranked worse than 25th in defensive efficiency have made the Final Four -- and only two of those teams were outside the top 50. And when it comes to the Elite Eight, only three teams ranked worse than 80th in DE have made it. See for yourself:
The average OE/DE ranking for an Elite Eight team from 2003-12 was 15.8/19.1. For a Final Four team, it was 12.8/9.9.
With that established, the next step is to look for ranked teams whose efficiency stats aren't even close to the ideal tourney profile. These four -- the Serious Early Warnings club -- raise doubts about their viability for a deep run:
* The biggest red-flaggers are the Irish, who have the worst DE ranking of any Mike Brey team in the tempo-free era (which is saying a lot). Their closest comp is the '09-10 Notre Dame squad that went 21-10 in Luke Harangody's final season, and was upset by 11th-seeded Old Dominion in their opening game of the NCAA tournament. That version of the Irish ranked sixth in OE and 132nd in DE.
* Even after that court-storming win over No. 1 Duke, there's reason to be wary about NC State as a contender. The Wolfpack have been guarding at a level that could make them vulnerable to a first-weekend upset.
* Ben Howland recently talked about "evolving" into a more offensive-minded coach, but the byproduct of that evolution has been a defense much, much worse than those of his old Final Four teams. That No. 109 ranking is in part due to struggles that happened before the young Bruins gelled, but even at their best they have trouble controlling the defensive glass.
* You don't need this chart or any analysis to know that Illini is in trouble. They lost at home at Northwestern on Thursday.
Next up are teams deserving of Milder Early Warnings:
* Creighton and Gonzaga have such great offenses that they might be able to mask the fact that they aren't among the defensive elites. Two great scoring teams with lesser defenses (see: Texas and Marquette, 2003) have made the Final Four, but the fact remains that the odds are against them. The Bluejays have made huge defensive strides since last season, when they ranked 178th in DE, but their defense is still a good deal away from typical Final Four strength.
* Missouri, Butler and Marquette have less room for error. I'm hesitant to under-project a Brad Stevens team given his postseason game-planning wizardry, but the Tigers' and Golden Eagles' outside-the-top-50 defenses, if they stay that way, are likely to limit their NCAA-tourney ceilings.
As for the teams that actually fit the Final Four profile, there are five:
* Florida and Duke are the most balanced in terms of offensive and defensive quality; they're the only two teams in the country that rank in the top 10 in both. Louisville and Kansas are in a similar situation where they're tilted toward D, although the Cardinals rely a lot on turnover creation, while the Jayhawks' focus on protecting the basket (and having Jeff Withey swat everything). Indiana, meanwhile, shouldn't be kicked aside after that home loss to Wisconsin. The Hoosiers have an efficiency profile that suggests they're still the Big Ten's best title candidate.
* You might be asking, what about Michigan? If the Wolverines' profile stays the same, they could be the most interesting test-case of this NCAA tournament. They have the nation's best offense but only the No. 45 defense -- not red-flag-worthy, but well worse than any champ from the past 10 years. Michigan cutting down the nets in Atlanta would be a breakthrough statement for the power of offense.
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