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Contenders and Darkhorses, Dogs and Cats, Mass Hysteria

March 16, 2023

I’ll cut to the chase and declare that any one of 21 teams can win the 2023 Edition of the NCAA Men’s Division I College Basketball Championship this year. That’s 21 “Contenders” and “Darkhorses” listed below who under the right circumstances and matchups could string six (6) wins together and cut the nets in Houston on the first Monday in April. Put another way, 21 teams either fit the statistical profile of a National Champion or are thiiiiiiiis close (imagine my thumb and forefinger pinching a piece of paper) from elevating their play to a level consistent with title contention.

Well, well, well, how the turn tables …

Seven (7) years ago, in previewing the 2016 NCAA Tournament, I boldly proclaimed “Parity Schmarity” while stating anywhere from 3-7 teams only had the goods to win it all back then. Now, the gap between Contenders and Darkhorses has narrowed to the point where I had a difficult time drawing the line between them. I’m sure ESPN Insider John Gasaway had more difficulty than usual determining the eight (8) teams that have a legitimate chance at the title, although as usual there is plenty of overlap with my Contenders below.

Once the bracket was announced Sunday, Houston was the pre-tournament favorite on BetMGM at 6:1, which are the longest odds for a pre-tournament favorite since the tournament field expanded to 64 teams in 1985. NCAA NET, Jeff Sagarin’s Ratings, Bart Torvik’s T-Rank Stats and 62 other college basketball rating metrics meanwhile collectively favor Alabama to win it all, having them #1 in 37 different metrics, compared to Houston as #1 in 22 metrics. Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight data-driven hoops nerds crunched data for their 2023 March Madness predictions and concluded that after Houston (22%) and Alabama (16%), there were nine (9) more teams have at least a 3% probability of winning the National Championship.

Compare to last season, where Gonzaga was the 3:1 odds-on favorite to win the title, going from Preseason #1 to NCAA Tournament Favorite to bowing out in the Sweet 16, while Kansas, the 4th pre-tournament favorite at 9:1, emerged as the National Champion. This season, the Preseason #1 team was North Carolina, who over the course of the season was met by and succumbed to the march of parity, and not only failed to make the NCAAs (first Preseason #1 to do so since 1985), but took their ball and went home as they apparently decided the NIT was beneath them.

Will a truly “great” team emerge from several “really good” Contenders and Darkhorses over the next three weeks? Or will one just survive like Kansas did last season? Let’s see if my annual macro-level look at the NCAA Tournament field has any suggestions. My bracket is here as a matter of transparency, a paper copy of which should be run through the shredder by Sunday morning.

Contenders – All these categories I’ve used over the years are a bit of a shorthand. When I use “Contenders” I mean legitimate challengers for the National Championship, teams that during the course of the season identified and maintained a level of performance consistent with past National Champions well before March goes Mad. Which isn’t to say some teams who don’t play at that level during the season can’t rise to meet it over the course of the tournament, recent examples of such including 2015 Duke and 2018 Villanova who worked their way into Championship form.

As a reminder, here are the four Championship Tests (“Tests”) I used to filter and separate the field into several tiers, comprised of minimum statistical thresholds using 22 seasons of historical data on offensive and defensive efficiency (expressed in points per 100 possessions, adjusted for opponent), from Ken Pomeroy’s College Basketball Ratings that Every National Champion since 2002 (with one exception noted below) meet:

KenPom Efficiency Data Test: Scored ≥ 112.4 (Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, or AdjO) and allowed ≤ 95.4 (AdjD) points per 100 possessions (pp100p);

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 (which was 2014 Connecticut’s Final AdjEM, as every other Champion exceeded that mark); and

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

Subjecting this year’s field to this collective filter, seven (7) of the eight (8) teams listed below pass all four Tests – At least the UConn Standard in the Rankings Test and all the other the thresholds – and the 8th team (Arizona) is 2.1 pp100p in AdjD from meeting all four tests as well (Arizona does meet the full Rankings Test, but not the AdjD in the Data Test). Eight (8) of the Top 10 overall teams in KenPom’s Ratings are represented below, which clearly isn’t an accident, although there is a #4 seed lurking among the #1 and #2 seeds:

  • Houston
  • Alabama
  • UCLA
  • Connecticut
  • Purdue
  • Texas
  • Arizona
  • Kansas

Darkhorses – The thin margin separating Darkhorses from the Contenders above manifests this year on one side of the ball, as 12 of the 13 teams pass at least one Test (UConn Standard on the Rankings Test for five teams), and meet a threshold on offense or defense in the either the Data or Rankings Test. In other words, these teams only narrowly miss meeting all of the Tests:

  • Marquette
  • Creighton
  • Duke
  • Gonzaga
  • Baylor
  • Xavier
  • St. Mary’s
  • Arkansas
  • Kansas State
  • Texas Christian
  • Texas A&M
  • Memphis
  • Indiana

Of these teams, Marquette, Creighton and Duke pose the most significant threats of reaching the Final Four, as they are within striking distance of working their way into Contender status during a Tournament run and meeting all the thresholds. Marquette, like Arizona, does not meet the AdjD threshold in the Data Test, but unlike Arizona, also doesn’t meet the requisite AdjEM threshold, which is why they are at the top of the Darkhorse list, and not the bottom of the Contender list. Duke in particular has been playing some of the best basketball in the country, winners of their last nine (9) games and coming off an impressive ACC Tournament Title run. Arkansas was almost a “Free-faller” below, 5-6 since the beginning of February, but Freshman guard Nick Smith, Jr., the #1 rated prospect in the Class of 2022, missed 19 games managing a knee injury and has played in the last nine (9) games for the Razorbacks, and their roster overall is talented and dangerous. Gonzaga meanwhile has the #1 offense (AdjO) in the country, while Baylor is #2 and Xavier #8 while also leading the country in Assists per game (19.3). Finally the sheer volume of Contenders and Darkhorses means every one of them has a potential path to the Elite Eight with one or more fellow Contenders and Darkhorses. Not to get Biblical, but iron sharpens iron.

Pretenders – These teams are the true “Feast or Famine” teams, quintessential high ceiling/low floor teams that are in many ways the natural third tier of teams vying for a deep run, in that making the Sweet 16 would automatically elevate these teams to Darkhorse status:

  • Maryland
  • Michigan State
  • Miami (Fla.)
  • Kentucky
  • San Diego State
  • Northwestern
  • Virginia

All of them are seeded between #3-8, and are either acutely one-dimensional, prioritizing offense over defense (Miami, Kentucky) or vice-versa (San Diego State, Northwestern, Virginia), or because they are “jack of all trades/master of none” teams (Maryland, Michigan State) that don’t do anything at an elite level. All of these teams also have some sort of roster weakness, whether it’s an overreliance on one (Paging Oscar Tshiebwe … Kentucly Blue Courtesy Phone for Oscar Tshiebwe …) or two (Boo Buie, with one of the best names in the tournament, along with Chase Audige produce approximately 46% of Northwestern’s offense between them) players, and/or a lack of positional depth or roster balance due to injury or attrition. Miami for instance is guard-heavy, and their one true big, Norchad Omier is still recovering from an ankle sprain suffered at the ACC Tournament. San Diego State is sort of an outlier here, as they meet the Overall Ratings Test, have good depth across the board and can match athleticism with most teams, yet their offense too often experiences drought conditions. As usual there are multiple Big 10 teams here as well. For my money, Miami is the most dangerous team on this tier, especially if Omier can play and be effective as they were and Elite Eight team last year and can score in bunches.

Cinderellas – The magic of the NCAA Tournament can be summed up in the notion that the glass slipper might fit anyone. These teams are the Belles of the Ball, 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 and become media darlings, like St. Peter’s Elite Eight Run last season or Loyola of Chicago’s 2018 Final Four run:

  • Florida Atlantic
  • Utah State
  • Oral Roberts
  • Boise State
  • Virginia Commonwealth
  • Drake
  • Charleston

Usually these are upperclassmen-laden teams with underappreciated stars. Hoop heads remember Max Abmas (pronounced “ACE-miss”) of Oral Roberts from their Sweet 16 run in the 2021 Bubble Tourney as a #15 seed, but he’s back and better than ever. Utah State has Taylor Funk whose name undoubtedly will spawn bad puns over the weekend, yet he is but one of five (5) Aggie starters who, like fellow Mountain West team Boise State’s starting five, average double figures in points. Only Houston can match the 31-3 overall record of Florida Atlantic and Charleston.

Stepsisters – In contrast to the Cinderellas, these are the underachieving or underseeded teams capable of stringing together several wins, 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:

  • USC
  • Iowa
  • West Virginia
  • Penn State
  • Pittsburgh
  • Arizona State

Like those LSU underdogs from 30 years ago, these six (6) teams are a.) From Power 5 conferences, b.) Seeded No. 8 or worse, c.) In double digits in the Loss column, d.) Victors over one or more teams that have a Top 4 seed in this Tournament, and e.) Talented with difference-makers that can lead their teams to wins despite these teams also lacking cohesion or suffering extended stretches of losing. 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 competition, as they will likely have to beat a Top 3 seed to make the Sweet 16. Put another way, these teams are basically lower-seeded Pretenders that were never good enough during the season to convince anyone they could have been Contenders. If I had to pick one team to win a few rounds here, I’d go with either USC, as they have softer targets (Michigan State, then likely Marquette) than the rest of their colleagues here, or Pittsburgh since they are the only team above I have in my bracket notching a win.

Free-fallers – There are an unusual number of teams who, in the spirit of Tom Petty’s “Free Falling”, are trending downward due to inconsistency, injury, or a notable down-shift in performance from earlier in the season:

  • Tennessee
  • Auburn
  • Iowa State
  • Illinois

Through January Tennessee was a bona fide Contender for the National Championship, but has dipped since (more on that below), while Auburn and Iowa State have both lost nine (9) of their last 13 games. Illinois hasn’t been much better over that time span (4-6 since February 1) either, even as 11 of their 12 losses this season were to NCAA Tournament invitees. I actually think Auburn is playing decent basketball, and Tennessee and Iowa State remain tough outs, but I don’t see any of these teams playing beyond Sunday.

Enigmas – Despite my best efforts at watching them within the last month, to get a better idea of what they are about, these are the three (3) teams I truly don’t have much of a grasp on, and am still somewhat confused about how they go about the business of winning games:

  • Missouri
  • Providence
  • North Carolina State 

Oddly, two of these teams (Providence, NC State) are the two #11 seeds that did not have to play in the First Four” play-in games on Tuesday and Wednesday, and these would normally be Stepsisters, and maybe they should be, but I’m not fully convinced of their upside. Providence in particular doesn’t seem to be the usually guard-strong Ed Cooley team, overly reliant on Kentucky transfer power forward Bryce Hopkins, while North Carolina State seems to be the opposite with excellent guard play and an average frontcourt beyond D.J. Burns. Missouri is undersized, and even though their “big man”, 6’7” forward Kobe Brown looks like a future pro, they are shockingly poor on defense, with the 7th-worst AdjD in the field. Plus, it’s tough to trust the success Missouri has had, as they are the 3rd “luckiest” (whereby “Luck” is a measure of the contrast between expectations based on the team’s actual efficiencies and their actual results) team in the field of 64 according to KenPom. Almost no result would surprise me with any of these teams, although I have them all losing in the First Round.

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. Previously, the #12 vs. #5 seed matchup used to be the threshold for what can actually be considered an “upset” – #5 seeds have a .594 winning percentage (38-26) the last 16 tournaments, while the #6-11 matchup are a 50/50 proposition (32-32) over that same time span – but this year all of the #12 seeds are in the Cinderella tier as all the #5 seeds are vulnerable due to either a reliance on youth (St. Mary’s, Duke) or an imbalance at one end of the floor (San Diego State, Miami), so the “upset” threshold has shifted. The question here is, which of the #13-16 seeds are more likely to win a game or two, and which are not?:

  • Iona
  • Kent State
  • Louisiana
  • Furman
  • UC Santa Barbara
  • Montana State
  • Colgate
  • Grand Canyon

All of the teams above are veteran squads who have made good use of the transfer portal to grab one or more starters (except Furman, all but one of their 10-man rotation are home-grown), are Top-75 in efficiency on one end of the floor, and only UC Santa Barbara has a scoring margin of less than 7.0 ppg (barely, at 6.6 ppg). They also have potentially winnable matchups; I picked two of these teams to win in my bracket, and even an unlikely victor like Colgate may well put a scare into Texas.

Less Likely Upsets – Your yearly reminder: Just because a team could beat higher seeded opponents in the Round of 64 or beyond, doesn’t mean they actually will. All of these teams have unfavorable matchups and should play to their seed (i.e., lose):

  • Princeton
  • Vermont
  • Kennesaw State
  • UNC Asheville
  • Northern Kentucky
  • Texas A&M Corpus-Christi
  • Howard
  • Fairleigh Dickinson

Only one No. 16 seed has ever beaten a No. 1 seed since the tournament field expanded to 64 in 1985, and I don’t see that happening this year. Don’t like most of the #15 seeds either, although Princeton could back door any team to death, and Vermont is in a word, frisky, as Catamounts can be, but neither team is a vintage version of these programs that have achieved past NCAA glories. UNC-Asheville has a terrible matchup as their weaknesses in rebounding and taking care of the ball are UCLA’s defensive strengths. Kennesaw State gives me “happy to be there” vibes, which, when facing Xavier and their coach Sean Miller who at times never seems happy to be anywhere, isn’t promising.

And Now … Four Fearless Quick Hitting Archetypal Predictions …

“First Four” Team Most Likely to “VCU” or “UCLA” and Make a Final Four … If I absolutely had to choose, I would go with Pittsburgh, as they finished 1 game behind 1st place in the ACC Regular Season. I actually think they beat Iowa State, but I have a hard time seeing them get past Xavier. Last year Notre Dame won their First Four and First Round games before losing to Texas Tech in the Round of 32. As the other First Four #11 seed to make it through, Arizona State is actually the type of athletic, frenetic, boom-or-bust team that fits this traditional archetype, but I think TCU rolls them Friday night. Going forward, even in an age of parity, it will likely be exceedingly difficult for teams to duplicate what VCU and UCLA accomplished.

This Year’s “Texas Longhorns 2010 Memorial Shambles Team” is … Tennessee. Heading into February the Vols were 18-3 and ranked 2nd in both polls and holding steady atop the KenPom rankings. It’s easy to cite losing PG Zakai Zeigler to an ACL injury on February 28 for dim NCAA Tournament prospects, but Tennessee’s issues began weeks before, with five (5) losses already in February entering that game against Arkansas, which they won, then lost two of their final three games before Selection Sunday. Any team that loses their lead playmaker will suffer diminishing returns, but something’s been off about the Vols for a while, that I for one can’t put my finger on, especially since they beat Alabama in that same stretch, are still #5 overall in KenPom, and still meet three (3) of the four (4) Championship Tests. Listed among the Free-fallers above, going 5-7 in your last 12 games before the NCAAs, including bad losses to non-Tournament teams in Vanderbilt and Florida is hardly a recipe for success, and for a team that has trouble scoring points, losing Zeigler only compounds all of that. I would be more than mildly surprised to see them playing next weekend.

This Year’s “Kansas Jayhawk Memorial Round of 32 Upset Departure Team” is … A coin flip between Baylor and Virginia, two of the last three National Champions, who are relative shadows of their Championship selves on defense. Only Gonzaga has a more efficient offense than Baylor in the country according to the KenPom rankings, but that only masks a defense that is shockingly ineffective. Virginia still meets the KenPom thresholds for defensive efficiency, but their offensive is mediocre (75th in KenPom AdjO) for an NCAA Tournament team. I really should just name Virginia here as I have them in the Pretenders tier (while Baylor is a Darkhorse on their day), but I have both gone before the Sweet 16. Indiana and Kansas State are on my personal Upset Alert as well, based on their particular matchups and subpar season-long 6.5 ppg scoring margins. Purdue also merits mention here due to their underwhelming guard play. Imagine where Purdue would be if probable Consensus National Player of the Year Zach Edey had chosen baseball over basketball five years ago?

Juggernaut No One Is Predicting Much For … Break out the 8-clap because it’s U *clap-clap-clap* C *clap-clap-clap* L *clap-clap-clap* A *clap-clap-clap*! Every bracket show on ESPN and CBS talked about stacked the West Region is, and most of the predictions I’ve seen have Kansas, Gonzaga or UConn making it to Houston. Yes, UCLA will be without Jaylen Clark, ostensibly their third-best player and someone who did a little bit of everything for the Bruins. However, UCLA will likely get Adem Bona back in the first weekend, and they have the best 1-2 punch in all of College Basketball with point guard-extraordinaire Tyger Campbell and newly crowned Pac-12 POY do-everything forward Jaime Jaquez. Their first two games pose less of a challenge than the other high seeds in their region, and with the West’s second weekend in Las Vegas, do not be surprised if it’s UCLA with the best hand on the river.

My Final Four and Champion

After all this talk of parity, so many teams that can vie for the National Championship, and after going through several bracket variations to arrive at my one, not-so-perfect bracket, my Final Four is rather chalky. Playing in their hometown, the Houston Cougars are the best, most balanced and most dangerous team I’ve watched all season, and they are my pick to hoist the trophy on April 3. But not before reprising the 1968 “Game of the Century” in the Semifinals with a rematch of the 1968 NCAA Semifinals against the UCLA Bruins, who will survive the toughest Regional of the four (West), only to leave the Las Vegas frying pan for the Houston fire. If only the Astrodome could host it. In the other Semifinal, I have the Alabama Crimson Tide outlasting the blue-hot Duke Blue Devils (I can hear the groans already) to reprise another matchup for the Final, this one a rematch of the game earlier this season between Alabama and Houston that Alabama won on Houston’s home floor 71-65. NRG Stadium, however, can fit 64,000 more fans than the Cougars’ home court Fertitta Center, the majority of whom will likely be rooting for the hometown team to complete their Cosmic Revenge Tour. Three Contenders, and a Darkhorse in Duke that has played like a Contender the last six (6) weeks. Like dogs and cats living together, I’m ready for the mass hysteria.


From → Basketball, Sports

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