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Parity Schmarity

March 17, 2016

All I’ve heard since November is how much parity there is at the top echelon of college basketball this year, that any of 15 (or more) teams could win the NCAA Men’s Division I College Basketball Championship™, and that many more could reach the Final Four. That we are due for the craziest, the Maddest March of recent memory.

Not. Completely. Buying it.

First, there are the wiseguys, the various oddsmakers who only have 3 teams at shorter than 10:1 odds to win it all: Kansas (9:2), Michigan State (5:1) and North Carolina (11:2) according to Sportsbook.ag. Then there are the smart guys, like Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight crew that crunched the data for their March Madness predictions and determined that four (4) teams – the aforementioned Kansas, Michigan State and North Carolina, plus Virginia – have a combined probability just over 52.5% of winning the NCAA Title. Four teams, better than the Field. And, like ESPN Insider John Gasaway, who 10 days ago postulated there are only “… eight teams that may win the national championship.” You’ll have to click the links to find out who he thinks those teams are, or just read further as my list of Contenders will have quite a bit of overlap.

Finally, there’s the often mocked, misunderstood, and subjective yet completely entitled “eye test”. Kansas and North Carolina won both their regular season and conference tourney titles, riding 14 and 5-game win streaks respectively. Michigan State recovered from a 3-game losing streak in January to take 13 of their last 14, avenging their only loss in that period (by 1 at Purdue) in the Big Ten Tournament Title game. Virginia is the only other team than Kansas to be Top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. To these steely blues, few other teams look the part of a National Champion as we find ourselves, again, at the precipice of the Madness.

Without further ado, I present my “TL:DR”, macro-level look at the NCAA Tournament field. My chalky bracket is here as a matter of disclosure, a printed copy of which will surely be crumpled up in the wastebasket by Sunday afternoon.

Championship Contenders – Formerly of the now defunct BracketScience.com website, a true gent by the name of Peter Tiernan had developed three Championship Tests based on the common characteristics of every National Champion since at least 2003 (for a detailed breakdown of each Championship test, one can refer to last year’s NCAA Tournament Preview, under the same “Championship Contenders” heading). In the last couple of years, these tests have taken on a bit of water, Connecticut having blowing out half the criteria in 2014, and Duke having to work their way into meeting the defensive efficiency thresholds on their way to the 2015 Title; Entering the NCAAs, Duke had passed all criteria except for defensive efficiency (AdjD) by less than 1.0 point per possession (96.1, ranked 57th), but ended the tournament ranked 12th overall with an AdjD of 92.3, meaning they REALLY played great defense during the NCAAs to lower their season-long AdjD by almost 4 points per possession, both of which demonstrated that teams close to meeting these tests entering the tournament can play their way into matching their criteria and becoming an NCAA Champion.

I’ll save a more thorough analysis of these tests for later – Now is where I point out that we still don’t have a full appreciation for what the 30-second shot clock and emphasis on “freedom of movement” have done to collective efficiencies, pace and overall scoring this season, how that plays out in this and future NCAA Tournaments, and how that might inform attempts at forecasting legitimate title contenders – but I still find them to be a useful filter for separating Championship-level contenders from the vast multitude of pretenders, as well as identifying those teams who are thiiiiiiiiiis close (imagine my thumb and forefinger barely apart) from putting it all together and making the final step(s) into title contention.

Testing this year’s field, only nine (9) teams meet the Pomeroy Raw Data test. Nine (9) teams meet the Pomeroy Rankings Test; only five (5) of which also meet the original Raw test, with six (6) others conforming to what I shall refer to as the “Connecticut Standard” (Offensive Efficiency Ranking equal or better than #39, as opposed to #18 in the original Raw test), for 15 total passing in some form or fashion. Six (6) met Tiernan’s Eight Criteria: Kansas, North Carolina, Michigan State and Villanova pass all three tests, while West Virginia and Oklahoma satisfy the Connecticut Standard in addition to the other two tests. Virginia makes it a Magnificent Seven gunning for the NCAA Title, even as their coach Tony Bennett hasn’t taken a team to an Elite Eight (yet), and despite a healthy scoring margin (+10.7 points per game over their opponents) the Cavaliers don’t score as much as past Champions – only 70.4 ppg, lower than the 73 point threshold, but then again Connecticut (71.8 ppg) never met that threshold in 2014 either. Not so coincidentally, these happen to be the Top 7 overall teams in the Pomeroy College Basketball Ratings this season. From more to less likely, one of these teams will have that One Shining Moment:

  • North Carolina
  • Kansas
  • Michigan State
  • Virginia
  • Oklahoma
  • West Virginia
  • Villanova

Darkhorses – That slim margin separating Darkhorses from the Contenders above manifests itself in one aspect of each team’s season-long performance, whether lacking in reliable offense, or inconsistent team defense, or as Nylon Calculus suggests, how tested a team was by their non-conference schedule as a potential indication of their ability to close out close games under the pressure of tournament play. By the same token, each of these teams have proven they can perform at an elite level in the other aspects, well enough to compete with any team. These 10 Darkhorses are highly efficient offensively or defensively (if not both), but consistently fall short in one key area such as rebounding, turnovers, rim protection, shooting or defending the 3-pointer, or making free throws, or they may simply lack the depth to have a productive bench. All but two teams listed below meet one or both Pomeroy tests, with four of them (Oregon, Miami, Xavier, Arizona) one criterion short of passing Tiernan’s Eight, and the other four (Purdue, Texas A&M, Maryland, Iowa) as relatively efficient as 2014 Connecticut was, while the other two (Utah, Indiana) could play themselves into Championship levels like Duke last year. Although it might seem silly to call a #1 seed like Oregon a “Darkhorse”, they are much less tested out of conference than every Contender except Michigan State as well as lacking the defensive efficiency of their other fellow #1 seeds, so they’re here almost by default. Fortunately for the Ducks of Eugene, Oregon is the only team here with a path clear of Contenders or Darkhorses before the Elite Eight, so they are at the top of the list. At the other end of this spectrum, Arizona might have the toughest road to the Final Four, in that barring upsets, every team they could face will have a higher Pomeroy Rating, and they had the 3rd weakest non-conference schedule in the entire tournament field (behind only Hawaii and Pittsburgh). Yet Sean Miller’s squad hasn’t lost a game by double digits all season, their eight (8) losses by an average of 4.1 ppg. By Sunday, the true Darkhorses among this group will have revealed themselves:

  • Oregon
  • Miami
  • Purdue
  • Texas A&M
  • Xavier
  • Iowa
  • Maryland
  • Utah
  • Indiana
  • Arizona

Potential Sweet 16/Elite 8/Final Four Cinderellas – While the idea of a mid-major/low-major team that sneaks up on the rest of the field and surprises the even the casual fan has lost the element of true surprise, in a television landscape that turns former novelties like Gonzaga and Wichita State into household names, College Basketball still thrives on the notion that the glass slipper might fit anyone. So the following teams are only relatively below-the-radar compared to the field, identifiable names despite their mid-major status with players you may not (or actually may) be familiar with (such as Gonzaga’s Domantas Sabonis, Butler’s Roosevelt Jones, Northern Iowa’s Wes Washpun, or St. Joseph’s DeAndre Bembry), but will be before this weekend ends (everyone by now already knows my main man Scoochie from Dayton). Something else to note is that everyone listed below except Butler either won a share of their conference’s regular season title, or played in their conference tournament final (three of whom, Gonzaga, St. Joseph’s, and Northern Iowa, won). I don’t think any of them will replicate “2006 George Mason” or “2010 Butler”, but the beauty is, you just never know:

  • Gonzaga
  • St. Joseph’s
  • Dayton
  • Wichita State
  • Northern Iowa
  • Butler
  • VCU

Underachieving or Underseeded “Stepsisters” Capable of a Deep Run – AKA, the “Memorial LSU 1986/1987 Underdogs”, harkening to Dale Brown’s double-digit seeded 1986 (#11) and 1987 (#10) Tigers that reached the Final Four and Elite Eight in succession. Like those LSU underdogs from 30 years ago, all seven (7) teams a.) come from a high-major conference (like Cinderella’s Stepsisters), b.) Are seeded No. 8 or worse, c.) Have double digit losses, d.) Have beaten or pushed multiple highly ranked teams to the limit this season, and e.) Despite lacking cohesion or suffering curious losing stretches or streaks, are very talented with difference-makers that can heat up and win games. Most of these teams will shortly become “Also-Rans”, but one usually makes it to the second weekend, and if you can correctly call it, your bracket would likely have a big edge on others as all of these Stepsisters will have to knock off a Top 2 seed in the Second Round. I like Providence to have the best opportunity to pester and persevere, led by two future NBA players in forward Ben Bentil, and for my money the best point guard in college basketball, June NBA Lottery Pick Kris Dunn. Followed closely by (dare I say it?) Connecticut:

  • Providence
  • Connecticut
  • Syracuse
  • USC
  • Colorado
  • Temple
  • Pittsburgh

Feast or Famine – This category will also serve as the answer to last year’s archetypal question, “Could Some Middle-Seeded Team Pull a 2014 Connecticut on The Field?” The Quintessential high ceiling/low floor teams, matriculating in the Nos.3-8 seed range because they are either “jack of all trades/master of none” teams (Baylor) or are acutely one-dimensional, prioritizing defense over offense (California, Seton Hall) or vice-versa (Kentucky, Duke, Iowa State, Notre Dame). Several factors explain that stasis, such as an overreliance on underclassmen, a lack of depth or roster balance due to injury or attrition, and/or uncertain quantities in their coaching, all increasing the difficulty of stringing together tournament wins compared to Darkhorses or Stepsisters. In many ways, the next level down from Darkhorse status, where two wins in the first weekend automatically elevates them. Every #4 seed made this group, teams full of NBA talent and the opportunity to seize their promising future now. Three (3) teams also played in their respective conference tournament finals, with Kentucky (Big 12) and Seton Hall (Big East) winning, and three more (Cal, Baylor, Notre Dame) got to their conference tourney semis, so momentum could play a factor for these squads:

  • Kentucky
  • Duke
  • Seton Hall
  • California
  • Iowa State
  • Notre Dame
  • Baylor

“I Have No Idea What to Make of This Team” Teams – A true “Grabbag” category. Every year there’s a few teams I truly don’t “get”, despite multiple attempts to watch and analyze their play, often leaving me with a sense of basketball ennui, wanting more from these teams despite being unable to put my thumb on what exactly that “more” would be. Only Oregon State has what I would consider as recognizable, surefire NBA-level talent in Gary Payton II (does that make him “The Mitten”? Not if he has anything to say about it), so it could be the lack of an obvious Alpha with all of these other teams that confounds:

  • Texas
  • Oregon State
  • Wisconsin
  • Texas Tech
  • Cincinnati
  • Michigan

Upset Picks That Actually Could Happen – What is an “upset” anymore? Not a #10 beating a #7 seed to be sure, and when you consider in the last six (6) NCAA Tournaments #11 seeds are 12-12 vs. their #6 seed counterparts, it’s hard to consider that scenario an upset either. Surprisingly, none of the #12 seeds beat #5 seeds last year, so maybe that pendulum is swinging back into “Upset” territory (Yale fits that bill nicely). So is #13 over #4 the new threshold (Iona, please)? Two of the #14 seeds last year also won their First Round games, so maybe that’s the new sweet spot (I’d be more bullish on Pomeroy Rated #34 Stephen F. Austin here if they weren’t playing Championship Contender West Virginia)? Seed upsets tend to occur when high roster turnover and inconsistent results among high-major conference schools lower their seed to the point where they face mid-majors who have managed to assemble upperclassmen-laden rosters – where competitive “parity” actually occurs in the early rounds. In this field, most of the spry low-to-mid-majors are in the #12-14 range. It’s the most difficult aspect of filling out a bracket, assessing the deeper seeds for opening game upset potential; However, it’s no coincidence however that many of the teams here are the opponents of the “Feast or Famine” teams listed above:

  • Yale
  • Iona
  • Arkansas Little-Rock
  • Hawai’i
  • UNC Wilmington
  • Fresno State
  • Stephen F. Austin

Upset Picks That Probably Won’t Happen – Remember: Just because a team could beat higher seeded opponents in the Round of 64 or beyond, doesn’t mean they actually will. A No. 16 seed has never beaten a No. 1 seed since the tournament field expanded to 64 in 1985, despite coming close a couple of times, so I’m only including the No. 16 seeds here only by reference. These double-digit seeds have unfavorable matchups and should play to their seed (i.e., lose). In particular, I’m not buying any of the #15 seeds this year, and according to Pomeroy, Chattanooga is the 2nd-luckiest team in the field (a measure of the contrast between expectations based on the team’s actual efficiencies and their actual results), so I figure that “luck” runs out.

  • Chattanooga
  • South Dakota State
  • Stony Brook
  • Buffalo
  • Green Bay
  • Middle Tennessee
  • UNC Asheville
  • Weber State
  • Cal State Bakersfield

And Now … Four Fearless Archetypal Predictions …

“First Four” Team Most Likely to “VCU” … Wichita State. They are the #9 rated team in the country according to Pomeroy. How they are a #11 seed is beyond me. They virtually traded the graduated Tekele Cotton for Kansas transfer Connor Frankamp, added under-recruited super-Frosh Markis McDuffie, and return their senior, war-tested backcourt of Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker to a tenacious 9-man rotation, filling the rest with athletic frontcourt depth. Currently the Shockers sit as the No. 1 defense in the country, whether you measure it by scoring allowed (59.0 ppg) or Defensive Efficiency (88.6 AdjD). Plus they just don’t turn the ball over (less than 10/game), while they will turn you over (opponents average over 15/game), both in Top 20 in the country. In their First Four game on Tuesday, they closed out Vanderbilt on a 20-2 run, and held all five of Vandy’s starters to single digit point production, making them look not so Dandy. Finally, since VCU in 2011, one of the First Four teams has gone on to win multiple games every tournament. In sum, Arizona has their work cut out for them, as does any future potential opponent all the way to potential Elite Eight, in-state foe Kansas.

This Year’s “Texas Longhorns 2010 Memorial Shambles Team” is … Iowa. As recently as four weeks ago, they were ranked #4 in the AP Poll. Since then, Tom Petty called, and said the Hawkeyes are Free Falling into the NCAAs, losing 5 of their last 6 games, including their only game in the Big Ten Tournament to a 15-18 Illinois squad that lost their subsequent and final game of the season by 31 points, and likely dropping 4-5 seedlines in the process. All of which is eerily reminiscent of their 2014 season in which they lost 6 of their last 7 games prior to the NCAAs and ended their season in the First Four with a loss to Tennessee. Five of their seven rotation players average more the 30 mpg, and while Jarred Uthoff has garnered some All-American consideration, he and his teammates, and his coach Fran McCaffery, just look worn down. Yet, they beat Michigan State twice this season by a combined 30 points, beat Purdue twice this season by a combined 19 points, became a tempting pick to upset Villanova in the Second Round (more on that in a sec), and one of my Darkhorse teams for a Final Four berth due to meeting the “Connecticut Standard” Pomeroy Rankings Test. Go figure.

This Year’s “Kansas Jayhawk Memorial Round of 32 Upset Departure Team” is … Villanova. Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Jay Wright (once again) has (possibly) his best team since his 2009 Final Four squad, balanced (might be more guard dependent actually, but go with it), versatile, and eager to atone for last year’s (once more) premature exit to North Carolina State in the Round of 32. By seed, they are scheduled to face an Iowa squad (should they stop moonwalking and beat Temple) that a month ago was vying for a #1 seed alongside Villanova. Or in the alternative, a less than desirable matchup with “Big 5” rival Temple. Even though they are one of my seven (7) Contenders for the NCAA Title, much will rest on the healing right ankle of big man Daniel Ochefu. Despite their gaudy analytics and win totals, I’ll believe Villanova gets to the Final Four this year when I actually see it happen, and not a second before.

My Final Four and Champion … Last year I went 1 for 4, as my Champion pick Kentucky lost in the Final Four, so I’m starting to get a complex about it, but we forge ahead. Hollywood wouldn’t buy this script, but Cryin’ Roy Williams will surpass his mentor Dean Smith and win his 3rd National Title at North Carolina, at the expense of his former betrothed Kansas Jayhawks. Joining them in Houston will be the Oklahoma Sooners (AKA “The Fighting Buddy Hields”), losing for the 3rd time this season to the Jayhawks in what would  become a classic trilogy of games between the Big 12 rivals, and the Michigan State Spartans, getting “Izzo, Tom Izzo” to his 8th Final Four before losing a rematch of the 2009 Final. While it wouldn’t necessarily surprise me if one of these other three teams took home the NCAA Title, my final calculus is simple: All the top teams at their best, the Tar Heels just have too much talent and experience for anyone else, and they are the best team I’ve watched all season. In my mind, it’s gone to Carolina. Can’t you just see the sunshine?

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