The key to winning your bracket pool is simple: Pick the champion. In most pools, nailing the national champion is equivalent to picking a perfect first round. Identifying the team that will claim the 2019 title is easier said than done, but The Washington Post has developed a system to help you whittle the field of 68 to a more manageable shortlist of potential champs.
Since 2002, every national title winner has cleared a statistical bar that measures the combined offensive and defensive efficiencies of championship-caliber teams. We call this metric Winner’s Total Efficiency (WTEff). There’s nothing too crazy about the calculation; we simply look at the metrics of noted college basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy to see how many points a team would score over 100 possessions, adjusted for strength of schedule, and then subtract from that the number of points they would allow over that same amount of time. The result is a single number that serves as a quick check for your championship pick based on three historical thresholds.
The low bar: 20.4 This is the lowest mark for any past champ since 2002 and the bare minimum for any reasonable title pick. The 2014 Connecticut Huskies were not statistically dominant, but they had enough success to cut down the nets. Most title teams rate significantly better than this, however, so if your champ checks in below this number, you’re way out on a limb.
The “average” champs: 27.9 The 2002 Maryland Terrapins profile closely as the epitome of what a national title winner usually looks like. Any team checking in above 27.9 could be a savvy pick.
The best of the best: 32.9 The 2008 Kansas Jayhawks remain the top team in terms of efficiency to claim the national championship. Fittingly, they emerged from a Final Four field of all No. 1 seeds.
What’s notable this season is that we have a contender that could top this impressive mark. More on that in a second. First, here’s a look at this year’s field of title contenders.
Viewed through the WTEff prism, six teams surpass the “average” threshold for national champions: Virginia, Gonzaga, Duke, Michigan State, Michigan and North Carolina. You won’t get an argument from anyone if you go with one of those squads (at least not a rational one). But we’re going to focus on the first four names there as the most likely bets to cut down the nets in 2019, starting with the potentially record-setting Virginia Cavaliers.
The Cavaliers’ efficiency margin of 35.66 is downright absurd. They rank as the second-best offensive team in the nation and No. 5 for defensive efficiency. And their region looks pretty favorable, though Wisconsin appears to be underseeded — and thus an upset threat — at No. 5. As we noted Sunday night, there is one reason to be concerned about another early exit related to Virginia’s pace of play. But if Virginia and its foe both play their best games on any given night, the Cavaliers will be moving on easily.
There could be concern stemming from the Bulldogs’ surprising 60-47 loss to Saint Mary’s in the West Coast Conference final, but before that they hadn’t lost since Dec. 15 against North Carolina. The Bulldogs will get some criticism for their soft conference slate relative to the major conference teams, but even after adjusting for strength of schedule, Gonzaga features the nation’s most efficient offense, particularly inside the arc, where they shoot 62.3 percent. Add in a top-20 defense (No. 16 in defensive efficiency) and it’s clear why Gonzaga sits among the tournament favorites.
There’s a Zion Williamson-sized caveat that comes along with Duke’s season-long efficiency margin. Without their star freshman, the Blue Devils were putting up 1.025 points per offensive possession, well down from their season-long mark of 1.20. If he had never gotten hurt, the Blue Devils probably would look even better through the WTEff lens. Duke will be considered the prohibitive favorite in this field, which might make them a poor value bet in your bracket pool. But taking the Blue Devils to win it all is indisputably a smart pick.
The Spartans got no luck by getting slotted in Duke’s region, particularly when, by all efficiency metrics, the Spartans play like a No. 1 seed. The reason we’re spotlighting them ahead of North Carolina or Michigan — which, for the record, would also be good picks to win it all, per WTEff — is because of the value they provide you in your bracket pool if you pick them as your champion. With Duke easily the most popular pick to win it all, a Michigan State pick could be a key differentiator. And Tom Izzo’s team is worthy of that selection given an adjusted efficiency differential above 30, as well the No. 3 defense against two-point field goals. One thing the Blue Devils don’t do well is shoot from three-point range. If Michigan State can clog the paint, the Spartans have as good a chance as anyone in the bracket at stopping Duke.