As we head into the New Year and college basketball conference play picks up in earnest, I always find it a good time to figure out which teams have separated themselves from the rest as potential Final Four contenders. In each of the last two seasons, I was able to spot the eventual champion among the top four teams in my study.
To complete this exercise, I have captured my current Effective Statistics for overall strength, as well as Offensive and Defensive Points per Possession. In my opinion, all other stats go into these and therefore can best be used to define the strength of teams. I went back to the last five seasons at this point and pulled out the Effective Stats of those seasons’ Final Four teams. I then looked for significant variances in the numbers and rankings of those teams, and the only point lacking major deficiencies were the stats of the eventual champion. In fact, of the three categories I pulled, the lowest national ranking for any of the four teams at that point was No. 17.
For four of the last five seasons, the eventual champion ranked in the nation’s top 12 at this point in Effective Strength, Effective Offensive Points per Possession and Effective Defensive Points per Possession. Here were the stats and ranks (in parentheses) for those last five champions heading into New Year’s:
— 2018-19 Virginia: Effective Strength Rating — 19.4 (10), Effective Offensive Points per Possession — 1.24 (8), Effective Defensive Points per Possession — 0.909 (9)
— 2017-18 Villanova: Effective Strength Rating — 24.1 (2), Effective Offensive Points per Possession — 1.287 (3), Effective Defensive Points per Possession — 0.923 (11)
— 2016-17 North Carolina: Effective Strength Rating — 24.1 (3), Effective Offensive Points per Possession — 1.254 (8), Effective Defensive Points per Possession — 0.915 (12)
— 2015-16 Villanova: Effective Strength Rating — 19.7 (13), Effective Offensive Points per Possession — 1.219 (17), Effective Defensive Points per Possession — 0.907 (8)
— 2014-15 Duke: Effective Strength Rating — 26.8 (2), Effective Offensive Points per Possession — 1.323 (1), Effective Defensive Points per Possession — 0.902 (14)
Last year I tabbed three potential champion teams by using these key statistics. They were Duke, Nebraska and eventual champion Virginia. Obviously, this is a very important and predictive exercise. Here are the three teams that qualify in 2019-20:
— Kansas: Effective Strength Rating — 23.6 (1), Effective Offensive Points per Possession — 1.208 (5), Effective Defensive Points per Possession — 0.857 (3)
Led by guard Devon Dotson and center Udoka Azubuike, Kansas has spent some time at the top spot in the rankings. It has been a revolving door for the No. 1 ranking so far, but Kansas was and remains perhaps the most worthy team. The Jayhawks’ two losses have come at the hands of Duke and Villanova by a combined three points. They have scored at least 90 points five times and held five opponents to fewer than 60 points. In other words, they are potent on both ends of the court, a necessity for title contenders. Coach Bill Self’s team looks poised to regain its perch atop the Big 12 after last year’s rare third-place finish.
— Duke: Effective Strength Rating — 22.1 (3), Effective Offensive Points per Possession — 1.182 (9), Effective Defensive Points per Possession — 0.859 (4)
Duke was the clear front-runner for the title at this point a year ago but lost ground after the injury to Zion Williamson. The Blue Devils reached the Elite Eight but were never quite the same. The 2019-20 Duke squad is playing pretty well, and though the talent level might not be what it was a year ago, the team’s cohesiveness might make up for it. Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s team boasts four double-digit scorers, including center Vernon Carey, who has been a revelation as a true post performer. Guard Tre Jones might be the best true point guard in the country. With wins over Kansas and at Michigan State, this balanced Duke team might be more capable of winning a title than last year’s star-studded team.
— Ohio State: Effective Strength Rating — 22.3 (2), Effective Offensive Points per Possession — 1.214 (4), Effective Defensive Points per Possession — 0.867 (7)
The surprise team on this year’s three-pack might be Ohio State, which, despite losing Sunday to West Virginia, remains one of the country’s top statistical squads. Of concern is that Sunday’s loss was the Buckeyes’ second in their last four games. I wrote a year ago about a Nebraska team that played its best basketball far too early. Does the same fate await this Big Ten juggernaut? We’ll see, but this team has been great so far, with wins over three top-10 teams at the time in Villanova, North Carolina and Kentucky. This is another very balanced team with seven guys playing about 22 minutes per game and eight players averaging over 7.5 PPG. The challenging schedule thus far combined with the rigorous Big Ten slate should prepare Ohio State for a tournament run.