While tooling around the VSiN website last week and reading some of my colleagues’ pieces, I came across an article from Aaron Moore entitled Examining the best futures bets for college basketball. In it, he stated that he believes the CBB futures board hasn’t been picked over by the betting public yet because so many are still focused on the Super Bowl market rather than March Madness. He used this as a justification for sharing his thoughts on which teams have the best value now in looking ahead to who could cut down the nets at Houston in early April.
While I won’t go through all his insights, particularly those about the potential home team for Final Four weekend, I will take the opportunity to piggyback on his piece by sharing the method I use to find teams that have championship-level resumes at this point in the season, and I will be focused a lot on those Houston Cougars, my current top power rated team.
Most of you that read my work know that I like to employ a methodology called Shared Statistical Traits to compare current teams to past teams achieving a certain goal or level of success. While the teams and players might change from year-to-year, the overall resume of what it takes to be a champion does not.
For this exercise, I’ll take a current snapshot of the key stats, rosters, and strength ratings of the country’s top teams and share which ones have the most traits befitting of a title contender. I do this annually at tournament time, and it has become quite popular among readers. Essentially, I pick out 12 different key statistical categories and four of my own personal Strength Indicators, plus a Combined Average Ranking.
Steve Makinen’s Power Rating
Opponent Power Rating (Schedule Strength)
Offensive Points per Game
Defensive Points per Game
Steve Makinen’s Effective Strength Indicator
Steve Makinen’s Bettors’ Rating
Steve Makinen’s Momentum Ratings
Effective Offensive Points per Possession
Effective Defensive Points per Possession
Offensive Field Goal %
Offensive 3PT Field Goal %
Assist to Turnover Ratio
Offensive Turnovers per Possession
Defensive Turnovers per Possession
Defensive Field Goal %
Combined Average Ranking
After determining the national season ranks for all the Division 1 teams, I compared them to the Championship teams from the nine tournaments for special analysis. For each stat category, I look for minimum performance, typical national ranking, and the percentile of teams that qualify within certain ranges. As a final exclamation point on the analysis, I take a Combined National Ranking of the 16 sortable categories to separate the more complete teams from the rest.
In the past, when summarizing the findings, I have determined that the relationship between my Effective Strength Indicator was the most significant of all the categories analyzed. The average of the last 36 Final Four teams ranked about 12th in the country in that rating. Among the harder core statistical categories, Effective Defensive Points per Possession was most important. Interestingly, the least important factor was Defensive Turnovers per Possession, or the ability to force turnovers on defense.
Shared Traits of Tournament Champions
Recent years of tournament action have shown that there is a big difference between reaching the Final Four and winning the title. Typically, only the truly elite teams accomplish the latter. Here’s a look at the minimum requirements for winning a tournament championship over the last decade. Just to jog your memory, these are the nine champions during that time span:
2013 LOUISVILLE (#1)
2014 CONNECTICUT (#7)
2015 DUKE (#1)
2016 VILLANOVA (#2)
2017 N CAROLINA (#1)
2018 VILLANOVA (#1)
2019 VIRGINIA (#1)
2021 BAYLOR (#1)
2022 KANSAS (#1)
Looking for clear separations in the teams’ stats/ranks, of the last nine NCAA Champions:
- Eight of them went into the tournament with a Steve Makinen Power Rating of 89 or higher.
- Eight of them finished the regular season with a Schedule Strength ranked in the top 45 nationally.
- Seven of them ranked in the Top 55 in Offensive Points per Game and scored at least 72 PPG.
- Six of them ranked in the Top 115 in Defensive Points per Game or allowed less than 66 PPG.
- Eight of them had a Steve Makinen Effective Strength Indicator Rating of at least +18.5 and ranked in the Top 7 nationally.
- Eight of them had a Steve Makinen Bettors Rating of at least -15.5 and ranked in the Top 7 nationally.
- Eight of them had a Steve Makinen Momentum Rating ranked in the Top 8 nationally
- Eight of them scored at least 1.185 Effective Points per Possession on offense and ranked in the Top 18 nationally.
- All nine of them allowed better than 0.97 Effective Points per Possession on defense and seven of them ranked in the Top 15 nationally.
- Seven of them shot at least 45% from the field on the season, ranking in the Top 45 nationally in FG%.
- Seven of them made at least 34.5% of its 3PT attempts on the season, placing them in the Top 100 of all teams.
- Seven of them had a Rebounding Percentage Rate of at least 52% and ranked in the Top 65 of the country.
- Eight of them had an Assist to Turnover Ratio of at least 1.185, ranking in the Top 55 nationally.
- Seven of them ranked in the country’s 100 top teams in terms of Offensive Turnovers per Possession.
- Eight of them ranked in the country’s 190 top teams in terms of Defensive Turnovers per Possession.
- Seven of them allowed opponents 42.0% or less on field goal attempts, a mark typically good enough for the Top 75 in the country.
- Eight of them had a Combined Average Ranking of 51 or better in all of our analyzed stats.
Looking at each of these key categories and every team’s standing as of Monday (1/16), here is a chart showing the 24 teams most ready for a title run in 2023, each with at least seven marks.
If you’re wondering, Kansas, the 2022 tournament champion was one of eight teams to notch 11 or more marks on this chart going into the tournament. It’s a fairly safe bet to say that the eventual 2023 Champion will be found among the top teams on this list.
As of now, I would consider there to be seven “true contenders.” Here is a look at each of those, along with their title odds on DraftKings. Considering the worst odds in this group is +650, the options for hedging with any/all of these teams are unlimited.
KANSAS (+1000): With 15 out of a maximum 17 marks, Kansas shares the honors with UCLA as having the best resume currently among the 363 Division 1 basketball teams. Furthermore, the defending champion Jayhawks rank 16th in defensive efficiency by my measures, so they are just one spot away from notching a 16th mark. This team is 16-1 right now but just 7-10 ATS after a relatively slow start. They are starting to find their footing now, and they are riding a 10-game winning streak in which they’ve held eight of 10 opponents to 67 points or fewer.
UCLA (+1200): The Bruins also generate 15 of 17 qualifying marks, and have somewhat quietly inserted themselves back into title consideration talk. Other than the three-day span in November in which they lost back-to-back neutral games in Las Vegas, Head Coach Mick Cronin’s team has been perfect. Ironically, one of the areas in which UCLA failed to earn a mark was in rebounding percentage, but I don’t think anyone who watches this team regularly finds them deficient in that area. They’re a solid veteran team that could eventually earn a top seed.
HOUSTON (+650): The Cougars program seems to have been building for this season for the last half-decade. While solid in most areas, I don’t think the past teams matched the overall dominance this team has shown as they try to reach a Final Four in which they would have a massive advantage playing in their home city. Head Coach Kelvin Sampson’s team earns 13 marks, but perhaps most importantly, it is the most respected team in most of my current strength ratings. Can a team coming out of the American Conference be strong enough at tourney time to take down the blue bloods?
CONNECTICUT (+2000): Connecticut has lost four out of its last five games, yet remains a top contender in the eyes of the oddsmakers and by the evidence supporting this study. The Huskies have a dynamic roster loaded with size and talent and have posted impressive wins over teams like Alabama, Iowa State, Florida, and Creighton among others. The recent struggles are of concern, particularly since in three of the four losses, the opponent shot better than 50% and scored 80+.
GONZAGA (+2000): This is not the strongest of recent Gonzaga teams by any measure, but perhaps the aspect of playing a bit under the radar might benefit the Bulldogs in 2023. They still have Drew Timme, a player capable of a huge tournament MOP-type performance, and there are very few teams that can match their ability to score. Head Coach Mark Few’s team has topped the 100-point mark six times already.
TENNESSEE (+1500): This is another program that seems like it’s been building for a season like this to finally take things to the next level. With four straight tournament appearances but only one Sweet 16, Head Coach Rick Barnes has his best defensive team, and that could carry the Volunteers deeper this time around. In 17 games, Tennessee has held nine opponents to 50 points or fewer. They are also the only team to beat Kansas this season.
PURDUE (+1500): The Boilermakers are the only one from the single-digit mark team list that I would find capable of winning a title at this point, and its for no other reason than the presence of 7’4” C Zack Edey. His presence alone makes this team a threat, as he is a dominant force capable of taking a game over on both ends, and not just by scoring either. He is a tremendous passer out of the post to Purdue’s elite shooters, and that makes this team very dangerous. After a hot start that concluded with back-to-back wins over Gonzaga and Duke, this team went eight games in a row without covering a point spread. Now on a three-game SU and ATS winning streak, Head Coach Matt Painter’s team seems to be finding its rhythm again.
Other potential considerations: Alabama, Texas, Marquette
Notable mid-majors: Florida Atlantic, St Mary’s, Charlotte, Utah State