There is no denying NCAA basketball is one of the most entertaining sports in the world. The fast paced action. The drive of young kids working to reach their goals. And of course, the NCAA Tournament. Whether you call it March Madness, the Big Dance or simply the tourney, the entire month of March is filled with great college hoops action.
Now in most years, there are a select few teams that are considered to be the hands down favorites to take home the National title. Whether it is a Kentucky team loaded with all of the best freshman in the country or a Duke team that simply dominated, that short list of true contenders is usually left for the programs with seen as the powerhouses of the sports, thanks to a long and rich history of success.
But 2017 is different. For starters, that list of true contenders is not all that short (more on that shortly). Secondly, it is not all about those iconic programs this season. Teams like Gonzaga, Villanova, and Oregon, do not have the long history of greatness like the Blue Devils and Tar Heels, even if they have been good in recent memory. Kentucky and Kansas both have solid teams, but they are nowhere near as dominant as they usually are. As a result, there will be a ton of different teams on the championship line when people fill out their brackets in just about a month.
So who exactly could those teams be? Well considering I am a numbers guy, I love to dig a little more into the statistics than most. Statistics help to tell a story about who a team is, even if you have not seen them play a single game. Yes the eye test is a big help in confirming some assumptions made, but when it comes down to it, the numbers help define a team.
Every college basketball season I have a set of numbers I like to look for to help determine the true champion contenders. So let’s take a look at what those numbers are and which teams currently match the profile!
First off, created possession margin is by far the most underrated metric in the entire game, but it is always the first one I look at. The metric is a combination of rebound margin and turnover margin and it helps show how many extra possessions a team creates over it’s opponents. Possessions are crucial in the game of basketball, as the more possessions a team has, the more chances they have to score points. The number five is the benchmark I look for here, with anything greater being even better.
Next I like to look at the shooting percentages for a team, both offensively and defensively. In terms of regular field goal percentage, anything above 45 is solid. A team should also be able to hold opponents under that 45 percent number. As far as three-pointers, the magic number is 36 percent on both sides of the court.
The fouling part of the game is also crucial. You want a team that is going to be able to win the free throw battle at the end of the game if necessary. A team should be shooting at least 70 percent from the line to be considered a solid contender. As far as personal fouls go, they should also be keeping that number at or under 18 a game on average. The more fouls a team commits, the more free points they give away. And that will be a serious problem in March, as the farther into the tourney they go, the more likely they are to come across a team that consistently bangs down their free throws.
Finally, I take a look at the scoring aspect as a whole. I do not care how many points a team puts up per game, but rather their scoring margin. This gives a glimpse at both the offense and defense in one quick look. Anything above 10 here is worth a further look. But this is also the most likely number to be skewed if a club is playing in a weak conference. Points per shot is another solid metric, as it helps identify how efficient a team is shooting the ball. I tend to look for a team who averages .9 points for every shot they take.
Now typically when I run through these numbers, I usually end up with only two or three teams reaching all of these metrics. But to further my point of this season being so wide open, there are currently nine teams who hit them all, with another three only one metric away (and just missing out in that one).
So when it comes to filling out my brackets, this tends to be my starting point when it comes to picking my overall champ. The current list of nine meeting all of my requirements are: Arizona, Baylor, Gonzaga, UNC, Oregon, Purdue, St. Mary’s, Villanova and Virginia.
Now, this is where the eye test will come into play for all of you moving forward for the next month. Personally, I have not been overly impressed by the likes of Baylor when I have watched, but it has only been a small sample size. St. Mary’s may be a product of a weak conference in terms of numbers, making their matchup with Gonzaga this Saturday that much more critical to watch.
The three teams that are on the cusp of hitting all the targets include Duke, Florida and SMU. Duke is a team I think I set for a nice run based on what I saw the other night against North Carolina in addition to everything I have heard about them getting stronger as the season progresses. Florida is a team I have yet to watch fully, but whenever I check their score, they are blowing out whoever they are playing. And SMU is a team I know nothing about, so I will certainly be looking to check them out in the coming month to see if they could be a sneaky good Sweet 16 or Elite Eight type of play.
You may have noticed there are a few big name programs left off these lists as well. Some of the biggest omissions being Kentucky, Kansas and Louisville. Kentucky’s biggest weakness comes in terms of fouls and free throws. Kansas suffers from the same issues, plus a lack of depth. Free throws and fouls could also be the thing that holds Louisville back as well.
Then we have the teams who may not be as high profile but are lingering as some potential dark horses. Cincinnati has an extremely talented group who just need to learn how to shoot free throws better. Same goes for Florida State. USC is not the greatest shooting team and could really benefit from a few extra possessions created. UCLA, West Virginia and Wisconsin are also right there as well.
The moral of this story is the race is wide open this season. So in such an open competition, look to the numbers to help you determine this season’s big winner. Matchups will be even more integral this season. I would be honing in on that list of nine as a starting point and using that to get a feel for each club with the eye test over the next month.
And this piece simply would not be complete without me making my early NCAA Tournament champ prediction. So as things stand right now, I am going with the Villanova Wildcats as repeat champs. They have some serious talent, the experience, and most importantly, the numbers to back it up!
So who do you think will win the Big Dance this season? Tell us in the comments!