Truthfully, I just needed an excuse to post this picture again.
In the coming weeks, March Madness will consume this fine nation of ours. Millions of brackets will be filled (and promptly busted), parties will be hosted, and BW3’s will constantly remind us they have the worst commercials in the business. Another thing that makes the tournament so special is the unifying effect it can have on a city. I don’t think anyone needs to be reminded, but Lexington around this time last year was something special. This season is drastically different as Kentucky sits firmly on the bubble for the time being. However, many teams around D-1 have a legitimate shot at taking home the title. Given that predicting tournament outcomes is such an integral part of the Madness, I thought it’d be interesting to research past championship caliber teams and compare them to today’s contenders using Kenpom.com’s advanced database.
First and foremost, this comparison isn’t meant to compare the individual talent of respective teams. This comparison will solely examine a team’s statistical profile, meaning I’ll be investigating overall offensive/defensive efficiency paired with “four factor” characteristics. Again, it’s not based off individual talent, it’s strictly a numerical comparison. Finally, if possible, I’ll be pairing this year’s contenders with similar teams who were successful in taking home the title (and teams who weren’t).
Indiana: (#1 Adj. Offense, #16 Adj. Defense)
Championship Team Comparison: 2009 North Carolina (#1 Adj. Offense, #16 Adj. Defense)
Non-Championship Team Comparison: 2008 North Carolina (#1 Adj. Offense, #19 Adj. Defense)
Much to the dismay of everyone around the nation, Tom Crean and his band of flopping Hoosiers are legitimate title contenders. If you were unaware, they fit the statistical profile of a champion perfectly. Since 2003, eight teams ranked either #1 or #2 in adjusted offensive efficiency have taken home the NCAA title. As it currently stands, the Hoosiers are the nation’s best offensive team by a significant margin. For perspective, Michigan, the #2 ranked offense, is behind by 4.6 points. The Hoosiers are prolific shooters, rebound extraordinarily well, and get to the free throw line at a high rate. However, they aren’t without fault as they rank 113th nationally in turnover percentage. While detractors can point to their defense as a weakness (and legitimately so), 2009 North Carolina proved that you can win the title with a non-elite defense. However, you need a powerful offense to mask that problem. Sadly for everyone, Indiana has just that.
Florida: (#4 Adj. Offense, #2 Adj. Defense)
Championship Team Comparison: 2004 UConn (#5 Adj. Offense, #5 Adj. Defense)
Non Championship Team Comparison: 2008 Memphis (#4 Adj. Offense, #4 Adj. Defense)
It’s difficult to get a read on the Gators; they’re one of the nation’s most efficient teams on both sides of the ball, yet they’ve lost five times to clearly inferior competition (granted those were mostly road games). On the surface, Florida does not fit the #1 or #2 offense trend, but once you dig deeper, you realize just how close they are to the #2 spot. Currently, Michigan holds the #2 distinction, but the Gators only find themselves a minuscule 0.5 points behind. While the Gator offense is elite, they aren’t as balanced offensively as Indiana. Whereas the Hoosiers rank within the top-10 in three of the four “four factor” categories, Florida only finds themselves inside the top ten in effective field goal percentage. This is concerning because every team will experience an off shooting night eventually. The question going forward will be; how does Florida recover offensively when the shots aren’t falling?
Louisville: (#25 Adj. Offense, #1 Adj. Defense)
Championship Team Comparison: N/A
Non-Championship Team Comparison: 2009 Memphis (#25 Adj. Offense, #1 Adj. Defense), 2007 Kansas (#17 Adj. Offense, #1 Adj. Defense)
The first thing you should notice about Louisville is that they don’t match the profile of any past champion (since 2003 when these statistics became available). However, this doesn’t mean the Cardinals can’t cut down the nets in Atlanta. Their offense may not be the best, but they have steady ball handling in Peyton Siva, elite rebounding from Chane Behanan & Gorgui Dieng, and potential for great scoring in Russ Smith (among other things). While their offense isn’t elite, many of their opponents have found it difficult to score against Rick Pitino’s defense. Currently, Louisville has the highest rated defense since 2003, allowing just 0.809 points per possession. Defense itself may not win championships in college basketball, but if any team can buck the trend, it’ll be the team with the best statistical defense since 2003.
Gonzaga: (#3 Adj. Offense, #23 Adj. Defense)
Championship Team Comparison: N/A
Non-Championship Team Comparison: 2007 Georgetown (#2 Adj. Offense, #20 Adj. Defense), 2010 Baylor (#3 Adj. Offense, #34 Adj. Defense)
For the first time in school history, Gonzaga is perched atop the AP and Coaches polls, becoming the first non-power six conference school to do so since 2008 Memphis. The Bulldogs have the nation’s third most efficient offense (0.1 behind Michigan). They’re led by 7-foot forward Kelly Olynyk, who’s one of the nation’s premier scorers, pouring in 17.7 per game. The Zags aren’t one-hit-wonders on offense either as both Kevin Pangos and Elias Harris are averaging over 11 points per game. While Mark Few’s squad is elite offensively, they have some work to do defensively as they’re 2.3 points away from a top-ten defensive rating. Much like Louisville, it’d be unprecedented if they were to win a title given their statistical profile. However, with some defensive improvement, they could be right there in the end.
Duke: (#5 Adj. Offense, #28 Adj. Defense)
Championship Team Comparison: N/A
Non-Championship Team Comparison: 2011 Pittsburgh (#5 Adj. Offense, #25 Adj. Defense), 2010 Ohio State (#7 Adj. Offense, #24 Adj. Defense)
While the nation has a firm grasp on how strong the previous four teams are, we know a lot less about Duke because of Ryan Kelly’s recent return. The Blue Devils lost four games in his 14 game absence, but they’re undefeated with him on the floor. This is due to his team best offensive rating and three point percentage (56%). Currently, Duke finds themselves 1.1 points away from the magical #2 offensive ranking and the re-addition of Kelly may be exactly what the Devils need in order to pull that feat off. While Coach K’s squad is fine offensively, they need some polish defensively. They’re currently slotted 28th overall in defensive efficiency, lingering 3.2 points away from a top-ten ranking in that category. Duke is certainly a contender, but they need to improve quickly if they want to fit the historical profile.
Admittedly, this kind of comparison isn’t perfect, but it gives a good gauge on how strong some of the perceived contenders are. Currently, only two schools, Indiana and Florida, fit the profile of a champion according to the numbers. However, two other schools, Gonzaga and Duke, have a shot if they can clean up their defensive play. Louisville doesn’t fit the traditional profile, but a defense that strong cannot be ignored. While these five are the class of D-1, it may not even matter this year given the perceived “downness” of college hoops. Knowing this, it’s anyone’s guess to who takes home the title.