Last March, the statistical sages of The Washington Post told you that a wide-open NCAA tournament featured no fewer than 26 men’s college basketball teams capable of cutting down the nets as national champions — and of those 26, there were three clear favorites. We hope you were listening.
Not to toot our horn too loudly, but here’s how last season’s tournament played out in relation to our list: 14 members of the Sweet 16 came from that list, as did three members of the Final Four, including both finalists. That should tell you something about the importance of playing efficient basketball at the collegiate level.
It should also tell you that you’d be wise to pay attention to what our metric to identify the best bets to win it all says about the 2018 field. And because the scoring systems of most bracket pools weight the champion pick so heavily, it’s virtually impossible to win if you don’t pick the title winner. That’s where the stat comes in.
Every NCAA tournament winner since 2002 has cleared a simple statistical bar that we’ve dubbed WTEff, or Winner’s Total Efficiency. The metric is simple enough: We look at the number of points a team would produce if it played a 100-possession game, adjusted for strength of schedule, and as compiled by stats guru Ken Pomeroy, and then subtract the number of points the team would allow in such a contest. The difference provides a single number that sets the bar for smart title picks and significantly reduces the number of potential champions the savvy pool player will select for their bracket.
Here’s how teams have profiled in the past and the key thresholds for potential title teams in 2018:
The low bar: 20.4. Not to diminish the achievement, but when the Connecticut Huskies won the title in 2014, they set a new low of the WTEff bar. We suspect they care little. You, however, should care because, if you’re selecting a title winner with a WTEff lower than 20.4, you’re betting against history and making a very risky title pick.
The “average” champs: 27.7. Historically the 2002 Maryland Terrapins profile closely as the average title-winner, though last season’s national champion Tar Heels checked in at 28.0 on Selection Sunday. Picking any squad above this threshold is a solid selection (at least before you consider the specific matchups they’ll face in the bracket and teams well-suited for upsets. … Don’t sweat it; we’ve got you covered there, too).
The best of the best: 32.9. The 2008 Kansas Jayhawks remain the gold standard for efficient teams winning the title, emerging from a Final Four field that contained all four No. 1 seeds.
No team from 2018 quite compares to the Jayhawks, but one comes close thanks to its remarkable play on the defensive end. In all, three seemingly special teams meet or surpass the efficiency profiles of past “average” national champs, but a total of 18 clear the bar. Here’s a look at the full field of teams that measure up in the eyes of WTEff:
Arizona and Michigan State are going to be trendy title picks, but while the Spartans would come in close to average compared to past tournament winners, the Wildcats don’t clear the bar. If you’re looking for a safe, smart pick, these three teams are your best bets:
Virginia: The Cavaliers are a wet blanket. They stick to opponents, they slow them down, they inhibit the glorious scoring of points, they are zero fun, and, oh yeah, they win a lot of basketball games. It’s dull, but it’s been wildly effective this season, and they also boast a WTEff (32.1) close to that record-setting 2008 Kansas squad. Virginia’s defense matches that of Kentucky’s 2015 Final Four team as the most efficient since 2009. If you’re the type who loves to tell everyone how defense wins championships, this is your team.
One caveat that could come into play: Post colleague Matt Bonesteel pointed out recently that every NCAA title winner but one has ranked in the top 20 of offensive efficiency since 2002. The lone exception? That 2014 Connecticut team. The Cavaliers sit at No. 21. That doesn’t bode well for the Cavaliers, but overall, this Virginia team is much, much, much more efficient overall than that title-winning U-Conn. squad.
Another potential problem: Virginia’s bracket is stacked with the No. 4 team according to WTEff — Cincinnati — as the No. 2 seed. Still, the Cavaliers are easily among the three best bets to take home the title.
Villanova: Like offense? You’ll love this team. The Wildcats can shoot from everywhere and own the most efficient offense in the country. They score a ton of points off three-pointers, which can be risky, but they’re also the second-best shooting team in the nation inside the arc and don’t rely on foul shots to score. So if they’re not getting the calls on a given night, it doesn’t really matter.
Defensively, Villanova is not nearly the match of Virginia, but it’s definitely not a deficiency, ranking No. 22 in the nation.
No. 2 seed Purdue is Villanova’s biggest stumbling block in the East Region. West Virginia also could prove meddlesome given its ability to force turnovers, but the Wildcats are the No. 8 team in the nation in terms of holding on to possessions.
Duke: Of the three teams that surpass our bar for “average” past champions, Duke is by far the most well-rounded. The Blue Devils rank third in the nation in offensive efficiency while sitting seventh on the defensive end. Two big keys to that success? They’re the best team in the nation at chasing down their missed shots, putting up an offensive rebound rate of 39.1 percent. They also don’t put opponents on the line, with the nation’s lowest ratio of free throw attempts to field goal attempts.
The biggest hiccup for Duke in its bracket? A potential Sweet 16 run-in with Michigan State. Tom Izzo is never a welcome sight on the opposing sideline in March, but if Mike Krzyzewski and Duke can prevail there and the seeds hold in the top half of the bracket, they have the benefit of playing a Kansas team that profiles closer to a No. 3 seed than a No. 1.
More on the NCAA tournament: