Celebrated stats guru Ken Pomeroy ranks teams by Adjusted Efficiency Margin, which he lists in the “AdjEM” column on his website. Each team’s AdjEM “represents the number of points the team would be expected to outscore the average D-I team [by] over 100 possessions,” Pomeroy wrote in 2016. Calculating it involves merely subtracting a team’s defensive efficiency number, adjusted for strength of schedule, from its adjusted offensive efficiency number.
Pomeroy has been publishing his ratings since the 2001-02 season, so we can go back and look at each national champion’s profile entering the NCAA tournament. This yields one clean number to see how teams in this year’s field compare with past champions. In order for a pick to make sense as the last team standing, it needs to clear a minimum threshold. Here’s how the tiers break down:
The low bar: 19.1 This is the lowest adjusted efficiency margin for any NCAA men’s tournament champion since 2002, when Pomeroy’s data begins. The honor is held by the 2014 Connecticut Huskies, a No. 7 seed that was pretty meh statistically — entering that year’s tournament, the Huskies ranked 57th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency — but still had enough firepower to win it all. If your title pick clears 19.1, it’s not completely insane, but most rational picks look a little more like …
The “average” champs: 28.1 If a team enters the tournament with an AdjEM number above this, it’s a sound choice to be your champ. The North Carolina team that won the 2017 national title came closest to this average, with a 28 AdjEM number entering the NCAA tournament.
The best of the best: 35.7 Virginia raised the bar with its 2019 title run, becoming the most efficient team in the Pomeroy era to cut down the nets. Considering the team the Cavaliers overtook for the honor was the 2008 Kansas Jayhawks, who prevailed in a Final Four of all No. 1 seeds, that’s a notable achievement.
The best bet
For the second straight year, there is only one team that surpasses the winners’ AdjEM average of 28.1. This season it’s Houston, Pomeroy’s No. 1 team, which sits at 28.82 entering the NCAA tournament.
There’s one caveat: Only three teams that entered the NCAA tournament ranked first in Pomeroy’s ratings — 2008 Kansas, 2012 Kentucky and 2019 Virginia — have won it all. Gonzaga, last year’s pre-tournament No. 1 with an AdjEM of 32.97, flamed out in the Sweet 16 against Arkansas.
Here’s a breakdown of how Pomeroy’s pre-tournament No. 1 teams have fared over the last two decades:
Round of final game played
Number of teams
National title game loser
The average pre-tournament Pomeroy ranking of the past 20 national champions is 5.8. Kansas was ranked sixth in Pomeroy’s final ratings before last year’s tournament and won it all.
The other options
There are 17 teams that clear our low-bar AdjEM number of 19.1.
To narrow that list, we can point to the fact that all but two national champions since 2002 — U-Conn. in 2011 and 2014 are the outliers — have ranked in the top 20 of Pomeroy’s offensive efficiency metric entering the tournament. That means we are crossing the following teams off our list: UCLA, Tennessee, Kansas, St. Mary’s, Creighton and San Diego State.
Let’s further narrow it down to teams that rank in the top 20 in offensive efficiency and in the top 40 in defensive efficiency, a feature of all but two of the past 20 national champions. That leaves us with Houston, Alabama, Connecticut, Purdue and Texas (odds taken Monday from DraftKings Sportsbook).
No. 1 in Midwest Region
After trips to the Elite Eight and Final Four in the past two NCAA tournaments, the Cougars reached No. 1 in the Associated Press poll for the first time in 40 years. Now they have a chance at the ultimate in home cooking, with this year’s Final Four being played in Houston. The Cougars get tons of offensive rebounds (they rank fourth in Pomeroy’s offensive rebound percentage statistic) and don’t turn over the ball that much (27th in Pomeroy turnover percentage), meaning they regularly get more chances than their opponents. The Cougars might be the closest thing to a sure thing during a season when truly great teams have been hard to find.
The two caveats are the Pomeroy No. 1 curse mentioned above and the health of national player of the year candidate Marcus Sasser, who suffered an apparent groin injury Saturday in the American Athletic Conference tournament semifinals. Sasser, who didn’t play in the Cougars’ loss to Memphis in Sunday’s AAC title game, leads the team in scoring and has taken a sizable majority of the team’s shots this season.
No. 1 in South Region
The Crimson Tide inched into the best bets category Sunday after pounding Texas A&M to win the SEC tournament. Alabama operates at the fastest pace of any team in the tournament — 72.7 possessions per 40 minutes — while also leading the nation in opponents’ effective field goal percentage (41.5 percent). The Crimson Tide commits its fair share of turnovers (No. 241 in turnover rate on offense) and doesn’t force all that many on defense (No. 305), and it relies on three-pointers falling (36.7 percent of its points come from long range, No. 32 nationally) even though it doesn’t shoot them all that exceptionally.
Brandon Miller is the first player to be named SEC freshman of the year and solo player of the year since Kentucky’s Anthony Davis in 2012, but he has been under the microscope over his alleged involvement in a January shooting death. Questions about that case will only intensify with Alabama one of the favorites to win the NCAA tournament.
No. 4 in West Region
The Huskies enter on a 10-3 run, with the three losses coming by a combined eight points to NCAA tournament teams Xavier, Creighton and Marquette. No team has rebounded its own missed shots better than Connecticut, which has a national-best 39.2 offensive rebounding percentage. On defense, the Huskies have held opposing teams to a 45.5 effective field goal percentage, which accounts for the fact that three-pointers are worth more than two-pointers; that ranks 11th nationally. Opponents are shooting just 30 percent on three-pointers against Connecticut. Coach Dan Hurley’s past two Huskies teams were beaten by lower-seeded teams in the first round of the NCAA tournament, but this year the pieces may be in place for an extended run.
No. 1 in East Region
Matt Painter’s Boilermakers have been seeded fifth or better in their past six NCAA tournament appearances but have made it past the Sweet 16 only once over that span (an Elite Eight appearance in 2019). With dominant, 7-foot-4 presence Zach Edey corralling rebounds at an impressive rate, anything seems possible. The Boilermakers aren’t going to win any footraces on offense — they operate at one of the slowest paces of any tournament team — and aren’t the best from long range, but otherwise they’re one of the more balanced teams in the tournament after winning the Big Ten title Sunday.
No. 2 in Midwest Region
This season could have gone sideways for the Longhorns after Coach Chris Beard was arrested on a domestic violence charge in December and was fired in early January. But instead, interim coach Rodney Terry’s team is peaking at the right time. Texas stormed through the Big 12 tournament, winning its three games by an average of 13.3 points and clinching the title after running away from defending national champion Kansas on Saturday night (its second double-digit victory over the Jayhawks in eight days). The Longhorns have a lot going for them: They’re battle-tested after playing in the nation’s top conference this season, they rank seventh nationally in Pomeroy’s experience metric, and they feature nine players who average at least 12 minutes per game.
Two teams from the Pac-12 missed out on being best bets by slim margins. UCLA (+1000 to win the tournament) is Pomeroy’s No. 2 team entering March Madness, ranking first in defensive efficiency but only 25th on offense, and the loss of defensive standout Jaylen Clark to a season-ending Achilles’ tear will be difficult to overcome. Arizona (+1400), which won two of three games against the Bruins this season — including in Saturday night’s Pac-12 title game — ranks fourth in offensive efficiency but 41st in defensive efficiency. The Wildcats sport an effective field goal percentage of 56.8 percent, third in the nation.
(See also, Neil Greenberg’s Perfect Bracket, some of our favorite first-round upsets, an argument against taking Alabama to win it all, our handy cheat sheet, and the full bracket here.)