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Objects In The Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

March 17, 2022

Although I’m not fully intending a Meat Loaf reference, I thought the headline above was an apt metaphor for the 2022 Edition of the NCAA Men’s Division I College Basketball Championship. Allow me to explain.

Gonzaga started the regular season ranked #1 in the polls, then ended the regular season as the #1 team in the country, in not only the polls but the NCAA NET, Jeff Sagarin’s Ratings, Ken Pomeroy’s College Basketball Ratings, and 42 other college basketball rating metrics. Although they weren’t #1 wire-to-wire, Gonzaga was the top team in college basketball for the majority of the season. The Zags are so far ahead of the next team in the KenPom Ratings – 5.71 points in Adjusted Efficiency Margin (AdjEM) ahead of #2 Arizona as of March 16, 2022 – that their statistical performance is not only heads and shoulders above the rest of the country this season, it is a margin larger than in any other season-ending ratings between #1 and #2 since 2002, which is the earliest KenPom’s data tracks back. As such, last year’s National Finalist is the overwhelming favorite to win the title in New Orleans come the first weekend of April.

Still skeptical about that? Not convinced because Gonzaga has lost two of the last four National Title games (which seems more like an argument in favor to me, but whatever)? Or that they come from a non-Power conference like the West Coast Conference (WCC), and don’t allegedly get tested in conference play? Never mind that the WCC is the 9th-rated conference out of 32 according to the Jeff Sagarin Ratings, or that two other WCC teams, St. Mary’s and San Francisco, are at-large invites to the Field of 68.

How about Vegas and the online sportsbooks, who are in consensus agreement, listing only four (4) teams with shorter than 10:1 odds to win it all? BetMGM has Gonzaga at 3:1, followed by Arizona (6:1), Kentucky (8:1) and Kansas (9:1) as most likely to cut the nets.

What about the data-driven hoop nerds? Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight crew crunched data for their 2022 March Madness predictions and determined that these same four (4) teams have a combined probability just over 51.5% of winning the NCAA Title, with Gonzaga at roughly a 27% probability, followed by Kansas (~9%), Kentucky (~9%), and Arizona (~7%), which together is greater collective odds than the rest of the field. ESPN Insider John Gasaway recently published his yearly “The 350 men’s college basketball teams that won’t win 2022 March Madness”, suggesting every year that eight (8) teams (and only 8) have a legitimate chance at the title. You can click the link if you have ESPN+ to see those teams, or keep reading as my Contenders will have quite a bit of overlap, but trust that Gonzaga made that list as well.

If not Gonzaga, then who? By my count, 15 other teams either fit the statistical profile of a National Champion or are thiiiiiiiiis close (imagine my thumb and forefinger barely apart) from elevating their performance into a level consistent with title contention. By my count, that’s a large contingent of teams trying to run Gonzaga down.

Put another way, as the great Satchel Paige once said, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”

Without further ado, I present my macro-level look at the NCAA Tournament field. My bracket is here as a matter of disclosure, a paper copy of which should be crumpled up in the wastebasket by Saturday afternoon.

Contenders – Saying you have to be really good to win an NCAA Men’s Division I College Basketball Championship is a bit of a “Duh!” statement. But, exactly how good do you have to be, compared to your peers over an entire season, to be the last team standing in April? At what statistical level does a team have to perform on offense and defense, to be good enough to win a Title?

In previews past, I used what I referred to as three “Championship Tests”, first identified and written about by a gent named Peter Tiernan on the now defunct, who has since gone on to better things. Using both statistical data kept by KenPom dating back to the 2002 season, and a historical examination of the individual and team performance characteristics of every National Champion since 2000, Tiernan had done the research to identify what National Championship Teams had in common (for a detailed breakdown of each of those Championship Tests, refer to my 2015 NCAA Tournament Preview). Establishing a set of minimum statistical thresholds that all Champions meet, to act as a filter to help identify future potential National Champions while a season is ongoing, or in this case on the eve of the Tournament’s First Round, to me is a both a worthwhile and prescient exercise.

In the interim between the last time I did this preview in 2019 and now, I decided to narrow my scope and rely on KenPom’s 21 seasons of historical data on offensive and defensive efficiency (expressed in points per 100 possessions, adjusted for opponent), and the relative rankings of each team’s data that season to simplify the filter. I kept the two KenPom tests Tiernan identified and replaced Tiernan’s Criteria with two more KenPom Tests. Every National Champion since 2002 (with one exception noted below) has met the following statistical criteria:

KenPom Efficiency Data Test: Scored ≥ 112.4 (Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, or AdjO) and allowed ≤ 95.4 (AdjD) points per 100 possessions;

KenPom Efficiency Rankings Test: Ranked overall ≤ 18th in AdjO and ≤ 49th in AdjD that season (except for 2014 Connecticut, who finished ranked 39th in AdjO, something I’ve referred to in the past as the “UConn Standard”);

KenPom Adjusted Efficiency Margin (AdjEM) Test: Had an AdjEM (the difference between a team’s AdjO & Adj D) ≥ 22.13; and

KenPom Overall Ratings Test: Ranked in KenPom’s Top 15 (by AdjEM) overall.

Subjecting this year’s field to this filter, eight (8 – there’s that number again) meet all four Tests. Not so coincidentally, these happen to be eight (8) of the Top 11 overall teams in KenPom’s Ratings. Another non-coincidence, seven (7) of Gasaway’s eight teams are listed below (the only difference to be revealed in the “Darkhorses” section below). Finally, in the era of the Super Senior, that extra season of eligibility the NCAA granted on account of the COVID-19 Pandemic, it’s also no coincidence that all of last year’s Final Four participants are listed below. If any team is going to prevent Gonzaga from finally having that One Shining Moment, it will be one of these seven teams listed below them:

  • Gonzaga
  • Arizona
  • Kentucky
  • Baylor
  • Houston
  • Kansas
  • UCLA
  • Villanova

Darkhorses – That thin margin separating Darkhorses from the Contenders above manifests itself on one side of the ball, whether lacking in reliable offense, or inconsistent team defense. Nevertheless, these teams have all proven they not only can compete at an elite level, but at the very least meet the UConn Standard for the KenPom Rankings Test. Auburn is the only team here with a path clear of Contenders or Darkhorses before the Elite Eight, and they are six (6) AdjO ranking spots away from meeting all four tests, so they are at the top of the list. Tennessee and Texas Tech both have Top 3 defenses (AdjD) according to KenPom, and if they were a few points more efficient offensively, they along with Auburn would be Contenders. As would Duke if they were 0.2 pp100 possessions better on defense – The Blue Devils made Gasaway’s Eight as it is, and I basically have UCLA in their place as they passed all the thresholds. Texas and Arkansas are a little further afield than Tennessee from an AdjEM standpoint, but have similar profiles, while Illinois and Connecticut are within striking distance of working their way into Contender status during a Tournament run.

  • Auburn
  • Tennessee
  • Texas Tech
  • Duke
  • Texas
  • Illinois
  • Connecticut
  • Arkansas

Pretenders – These teams are what I previously referred to as “Feast or Famine” teams, quintessential high ceiling/low floor teams that are in many ways the next level down from Darkhorse status, in that two wins in the first weekend would automatically elevate them to that status. All of them are seeded between Nos. 3-8, and are either acutely one-dimensional, prioritizing offense over defense (Purdue, Iowa, Alabama, North Carolina) or vice-versa (Seton Hall), or because they are “jack of all trades/master of none” teams (Wisconsin, Providence, Michigan State) that don’t do anything at an elite level. Roster composition factors can further explain this stasis, such as an over-reliance on one player, and/or a lack of depth or roster balance due to injury or attrition, all increasing the difficulty of stringing together tournament wins compared to Darkhorses or even Stepsisters.

Providence is not only the “luckiest” team in the country according to KenPom, (whereby “Luck” is a measure of the contrast between expectations based on the team’s actual efficiencies and their actual results), they are the 3rd “luckiest” team in the last 21 seasons. Wisconsin is the 6th-luckiest team this season for that matter.  You’ll also notice half of the remaining eight (8) Big 10 teams here. For my money, Purdue, Alabama and North Carolina are the most dangerous among these for their propensity to score in bunches:

  • Purdue
  • Wisconsin
  • Providence
  • Iowa
  • Alabama
  • Michigan State
  • North Carolina
  • Seton Hall

Cinderellas – These are the Belles of the Ball, the ones the media fawns over after the first weekend of the Dance, the potential Sweet 16/Elite 8/Final Four teams from mid-major or low-major conferences that fly below the radar until they send a favorite or two home early. The NCAA Tournament still thrives on the notion that the glass slipper might fit anyone. Many of these teams have under-the-radar stars waiting to become basketball household names, whether it’s Memphis’ Jalen Duren, Colorado State’s David Roddy, San Diego State’s Matt Bradley, or San Francisco’s Jamaree Bouyea (Booyah!). St. Mary’s is a #5 seed who was one of three (3) teams to beat Gonzaga so far, which seems hardly fair to call them a “Cinderella”, but they have a tough path to the second weekend, starting with a frisky Indiana team that has momentum from winning their First Four game, then a potential matchup with UCLA. Murray State is 30-2, and only Arizona has more wins this season. One of them has Sister Jean on the sideline. I don’t think any of them will duplicate the feats of “2006 George Mason” or “2018 Loyola Chicago” (not even 2022 Loyola Chicago) and make the Final Four, but the beauty of this tourney is, one never truly knows until it happens:

  • St. Mary’s
  • Colorado State
  • Memphis
  • San Diego State
  • Loyola Chicago
  • Murray State
  • San Francisco
  • Boise State
  • Davidson

Stepsisters – In contrast to the Cinderellas, these are the underachieving or underseeded teams capable of stringing several wins together, AKA, the “Memorial LSU 1986/1987 Underdogs”, hearkening to Dale Brown’s double-digit seeded 1986 (#10) and 1987 (#11) Tigers that reached the Final Four and Elite Eight in succession. Like those LSU underdogs from 30 years ago, these eight (8) teams a.) Come from a high-major conference, b.) Are seeded No. 8 or worse (except coincidentally for this group’s namesake, #6 seed LSU), 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 extended stretches of losing, are talented with difference-makers that can heat up and win games. The majority of these teams will be returning home this weekend, but one usually makes it to the second weekend, and if you can pick it, your bracket could have a big edge on your competitor as all these Stepsisters will very likely have to knock off a either a #1 or #3 seed to make the Sweet 16. LSU was almost a Darkhorse, as they have a similar profile to Texas, and probably should be a Pretender, but they just fired their coach. All four #11 seeds are here as well, and all of them have a decent chance to beat their #6 seeded opponent:

  • LSU
  • Virginia Tech
  • Michigan
  • TCU
  • Notre Dame
  • Iowa State
  • Marquette
  • Creighton

Free-fallers – With a nod to Tom Petty’s “Free Falling”, these teams are trending downward due to inconsistency or a notable down-shift in performance from earlier in the season – USC has lost three of their last four games, and Ohio State four of their last five – and with better results leading up to the tournament would have been Stepsisters or Pretenders instead, as well as being seeded higher than #7. Heck, I had Ohio State out of my projected Tournament field. Michigan State was close to being placed here instead (another #7 seed), for reasons I’ll explain later. TCU could also have been here, having lost three of their last four, but two of those losses were to Kansas, and as they had beat Kansas earlier this month as well, earn some benefit of the doubt that I am unwilling to extend here:

  • Ohio State
  • USC

Enigmas – Every year there are some teams I truly don’t know what to make of, despite attempts to watch and analyze their play, often leaving me with either confusion or ennui. In this instance, it’s a sense wanting “more” from Indiana and Miami despite not being exactly clear on what that “more” would be. I actually thought I would be talking about Wyoming as a potential Cinderella instead of not talking much about Indiana here. Both teams also have difficult First Round matchups that I think they will lose, but who knows:

  • Indiana
  • Miami

More Likely Upsets – Seed upsets tend to occur when roster turnover and attrition lower the ceiling (and thus the seed) of high-major conference teams, who end up facing mid-majors with upperclassmen-laden rosters. The #12 vs. #5 seed matchup seems to be the minimum threshold for what can actually be considered an “upset”, as #5 seeds have a .600 winning percentage (36-24) the last 15 tournaments, while the #6-11 matchup is just about a 50/50 proposition (31-29) over that same time span. Although only one of the #12 seeds beat a #5 seed last year (Oregon State, who beat Tennessee in the First Round and advanced to the Elite Eight), all the #5 seeds this year seem a little vulnerable. While the most difficult aspect of filling out a bracket is assessing the deeper seeds for upset potential, I leaned on the wiseguys a little and looked at matchups that had single-digit point spreads; Of the teams listed below, only Richmond (+10.5 against Iowa) is a 10-plus point underdog, and that line could move before tipoff. I even picked two of these teams in my bracket:

  • Vermont
  • UAB
  • New Mexico State
  • Richmond
  • South Dakota State
  • Chattanooga
  • Colgate

Less Likely Upsets – As I’ve often said in this space: Just because a team could beat higher seeded opponents in the Round of 64 or beyond, doesn’t mean they actually will. Only one No. 16 seed has ever beaten a No. 1 seed since the tournament field expanded to 64 in 1985, so the No. 16 seeds here are only included by reference, as I can’t see any of them winning a game. Once again, I’m not buying any of the #15 seeds this year, although Delaware may be a little frisky against Villanova, and I really want to think Longwood has a puncher’s chance at Tennessee, but Tennessee’s defense is just nasty. Seeing as most have unfavorable matchups, these teams should play to their seed (i.e., lose):

  • Akron
  • Longwood
  • Montana State
  • Yale
  • Delaware
  • St. Peter’s
  • Jacksonville State
  • Cal-State Fullerton

And Now … Five Fearless Quick Hitting Archetypal Predictions …

“First Four” Team Most Likely to “VCU” and Make a Final Four … Last year it was UCLA, coming out of the First Four as a #11 seed and not only making the Final Four, but pushing Gonzaga to the limit, This year, I don’t see either Notre Dame or Indiana making it out of the first weekend, mainly due to potential matchups awaiting each team should they survive their first round game – Likely Texas Tech for Notre Dame, and UCLA for Indiana. If I had to pick one though, I’d go with Notre Dame. Again though, I thought I would be talking about Wyoming here when the brackets were announced.

This Year’s “Texas Longhorns 2010 Memorial Shambles Team” is … Michigan State. As I mentioned above, they were almost listed among the Free-fallers, having lost eight (8) of their last 13, but it was the quality of their wins over two Top 3 seeds (Wisconsin and Purdue) in that stretch that kept them from that categorization. Still, they were ranked in the Top 10 as recently as the January 24, 2022 AP Poll. I can never count out a team coached by Tom Izzo, but this is as close as I’ve come in the last 20 years.

This Year’s “Kansas Jayhawk Memorial Round of 32 Upset Departure Team” is … a tough call between Auburn and Wisconsin. I don’t have either team as Contenders, and while Auburn is a Darkhorse that was extremely close to being a Contender, they have lost four of their last nine games since being voted the #1 team in the February 7, 2022 AP Poll, including a first round loss in the SEC Tournament. Although Auburn Head Coach Bruce Pearl is what some would call “wily”, who else besides future Top 2 pick Jabari Smith and likely Defensive POY Walker Kessler will step up this first weekend? As for Wisconsin, a Pretender if I ever saw one, the co-Big 10 Regular Season Champion earned a #3 seed despite being ranked #24 overall in the NCAA Net Rankings and #33 overall in KenPom. They should benefit by playing 50 miles away from home in Milwaukee, but their 1st-Team All American Johnny Davis is playing through an ankle injury. Can I say “Both?” I will go ahead and pick Auburn, as I think they will play USC in the Second Round and I know that despite their recent travails, USC can match up with Auburn’s height and length, and won’t be intimidated by Auburn’s talent having beaten UCLA earlier this season.  If USC loses to Miami, the Hurricanes won’t be an easy out for Auburn either.

Juggernaut No One Is Predicting Much For … Kansas. I should just rename this one “This Year’s Kansas”, having picked them for this spot in 2012, 2014, and 2015, and rename the “Kansas Jayhawk Memorial Round of 32 Upset Departure Team” something else, but then I’d have to come up with another team here. Many of the Midwest Regional predictions I saw on television and online had several other teams making the Final Four besides the #1 seed Kansas, from Auburn, to Wisconsin, to Iowa. While I do think the Midwest Region has the most potential for bracket chaos, Kansas with their experience both on the floor (five upperclassmen in their 8-man rotation) and manning their sideline (Bill Self with his ninth #1 seed in the last 18 seasons), and a 1st_Team All-American in Ochai Agbaji leading the way, should find themselves in the Big Easy.

My Final Four and Champion … Despite my efforts here to show there are several other teams that can win the title, I believe the Gonzaga Bulldogs will make their third trip to the NCAA Championship Game the charm. In a story that almost writes itself, Mark Few and his talented charges will overcome his protégé Tommy Lloyd and his Arizona Wildcats in the Final, Mentor versus Mentee, West Coast Giant versus West Coast Giant, speed versus speed, and size versus size. Gonzaga’s third National Final in five seasons, versus Arizona seeking their second National Title 25 years after their first, achieved under Lute Olson, a coach and program that Mark Few and company emulated in building their own program. Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren would be the most talented player on the floor in that game, and Gonzaga’s Drew Timme might be the best college player on that floor. While Arizona’s best is as good as anyone’s best this season, for a team so talented I have yet to see them put 40 good-to-great minutes together (although judging by their Pac-12 Title Game win over UCLA, they are getting closer). As I’m not often one to argue much with Vegas and Hoop Nerds, I will round out my Final Four picks with the Kentucky Wildcats, ending a seven-year absence from the Final Four for John Calipari, and the Kansas Jayhawks. Over 3,400 words and I haven’t even discussed The Last Ride of Coach K, or Baylor’s efforts to defend their 2021 National Title. In the end, the field should be close, yet still far away from the eventual Champions from a small school in Spokane. Quite a thing, really. Or, as they say in the Final Four host city of New Orleans, Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler!

P.S. – Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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