Perhaps more than any year in recent memory, the list of contenders for the NCAA basketball title is long and indistinct. Sure, the usual top dogs like Kansas, Duke, Baylor and Michigan State are expected to make noise in March, but none is an overwhelming favorite. That’s not to say the heavy favorite at this point always wins — note Duke last season — but this year’s NCAA tournament looks to be as wide open as ever.
What does this newfound parity mean? To me, it gives the little guys a chance to dream bigger. Who’s to say a mid-major team can’t win the title this season? At least a few of these teams are noteworthy contenders, and without the usual power teams dominating the landscape, you never know. If you’ve been following the season closely, you probably know who the mid-major power players are. I’m talking specifically about Gonzaga, Dayton and San Diego State, but how about some other bigger long shots like BYU, Houston and Wichita State? Do any have a real shot to hoist the championship trophy in April and become the first mid-major champion since UNLV in 1990?
To determine whether we should take any of these six teams seriously in terms of NCAA title odds, I’ve focused on some of their stats and key effective strength indicators at this point and have cross-referenced them against teams from the past that have reached the Final Four. Here is the list of Final Four traits to which I fit teams along with the aforementioned six probable mid-major power players in 2019-20 that qualify for the various traits:
— Went into the tournament with a Steve Makinen Power Rating of 89 or higher: Gonzaga
— Finished the regular season with a schedule strength ranked in the top 45 nationally: BYU
— Ranked in the top 55 in offensive points per game and scored at least 72 PPG: Gonzaga, Dayton, BYU
— Ranked in the top 135 in defensive points per game, allowing 70 PPG or fewer: Houston, Gonzaga, Dayton, BYU, San Diego State, Wichita State
— Had a Steve Makinen Effective Strength Indicator Rating of at least + 18.5 and ranked in the top 6 nationally: Gonzaga
— Had a Steve Makinen Bettors Rating of at least -15.5 and ranked in the top 5 nationally: Gonzaga, Dayton
— Scored at least 1.185 Effective Points per Possession on offense and ranked in the top 18 nationally: Gonzaga, Dayton, BYU
— Allowed better than 0.955 Effective Points per Possession on defense and ranked in the top 15 nationally: San Diego State, Wichita State
— Shot at least 45% on the season, ranking in the top 45 nationally in FG%: Gonzaga, Dayton, BYU, Wichita State, San Diego State
— Made at least 34.5% of its 3-point attempts attempts on the season, placing in the top 100 of all teams: Gonzaga, Dayton, BYU, San Diego State
— Had a rebounding percentage rate of at least 51.5% and ranked in the top 70 in the country: Gonzaga, Houston, Dayton, San Diego State
— Had an assist-to-turnover ratio of at least 1.170, ranking in the top 45 nationally: Gonzaga, Dayton, BYU, San Diego State
— Ranked in the country’s 100 top teams in offensive turnovers per possession: Gonzaga, BYU, Houston, San Diego State, Wichita State
— Ranked in the country’s 185 top teams in defensive turnovers per possession: Houston, Gonzaga, Dayton, BYU, San Diego State, Wichita State
— Allowed opponents 42.0% or less on field goal attempts, a mark typically good enough for the top 60 in the country: San Diego State, Houston, Wichita State
— Had a combined average ranking of 50.0 or better in all analyzed stats: Gonzaga, Dayton
From these lists, it’s obvious that Gonzaga and Dayton are complete teams, and it takes that type of resume to reach the Final Four. San Diego State, Houston and Wichita State are defensively oriented, while BYU is one of the top offensive teams in the country. Historically, teams that are better offensively tend to have greater success in the tournament than those that primarily focus on defense. What about Virginia last year? The Cavaliers were one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country but played a slower pace, which proves to be unimportant.
With a little more than a month left in the regular season, I would feel quite comfortable taking Gonzaga or Dayton on some futures bets. The Zags are listed about 10-1, while the Flyers are at 20-1. Both are good value prices.