Yes, technically 68 teams will begin the 2017 NCAA tournament with a chance to claim the national title. But if you actually believe everyone has an equal shot, you probably also spend a lot of time replying to emails from Nigerian princes.
The smart bracket picker will be able to discount the teams with no real shot to cut down the nets. And the truly savvy selector will read our historical research below to see why the only rational title picks should come from a greatly reduced field.
Using the advanced statistical analysis of basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy, we reviewed the title winners of the past 15 years to identify the threshold for the only teams that should hold out hope for a title, then highlight the best bets among that crop. As we’ve done the past two seasons, by subtracting the adjusted defensive efficiency from the adjusted offensive efficiency of past national champs, we can see the margin title contenders must clear in order to be deemed a realistic threat to cut down the nets. We call this bar winners total efficiency, or WTEff.
The low bar: 20.4. The Connecticut Huskies of 2014 were the least efficient team to ever win it all. If a squad from the 2017 field can’t surpass this threshold you’d be wise to select a stronger team as your title pick.
The “average” champs: 27.7. The average dropped slightly last season when Villanova won it all with a WTEff of 24.2, but historically the 2002 title-winning Terrapins of Maryland sport the profile that aligns best with an average title-winner.
The best of the best: 32.9. In 2008, all four No. 1 seeds made the Final Four and the Kansas Jayhawks claimed the crown. Figures they would be the most efficient champs since 2002 … unless a certain team from Spokane can go all the way this time. More on that in a second.
To make the most of our WTEff metric, you should remember that it’s best used not to identify a particular team as a title pick, but rather to reduce the size of reasonable candidates. Last season just 10 teams clear the lowest bar. This season? Well, let’s just say the Madness figures to live up to its name. A total of 26 (not a typo) squads enter Selection Sunday with better efficiency margins than those ’14 Huskies.
Those 26 teams clearing the minimum bar are easily the most since 2002, but there’s a trio that comes in well above average. If you’re looking for a favorite, one of these three teams could be your best bet.
Gonzaga: If the Bulldogs go all the way, they will take over the distinction of most efficient title-winner from the Jayhawks. That said, there’s no doubt a lot of people are going to discount the Zags due to their softer-than-most schedule in the West Coast Conference. Two key things to remember there: First, Gonzaga has wins over Florida, Iowa State and Arizona (albeit without scoring star Allonzo Trier), two of which won their conference tournaments and all of which land on our list of possible title contenders. Second, KenPom adjusts for schedule strength, and the Zags are still No. 1.
Villanova: Scary thought, the reigning national champs may be even better this season, upping their efficiency margin from 24.2 last season to 30.8. The Wildcats have lost just once since February and appear to be a very serious threat to become the first repeat national champions since Florida in 2007. In case you’re curious, those Gators sported a WTEff of 30.2, meaning this season’s Wildcats are even more efficient.
North Carolina: The Tar Heels are a bit of an enigma. They’re the third most efficient team this season, but they’ve still managed to drop seven games. Still, they profile above the efficiency margins of the “average” past champs. Even if you don’t want to pick them to go all the way, you’d be wise to consider them for a deep run.
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