Finding elite CBB contenders

December 21, 2021 07:37 PM

At this time last year, it was fairly obvious that Gonzaga and Baylor were head and shoulders above the rest of the field in college basketball. I wrote on several occasions how I thought those teams looked unbeatable, and I wasn’t alone. Of course, the Zags and the Bears were the last two standing in the NCAA tournament, with Baylor winning its first title.

I’m not trying to toot my own horn, but when I compared their stats and other shared characteristics with other recent champions, the Zags and Bears checked almost every box. No other team was close.

With that in mind, let’s look at those championship characteristics at this point in the 2021-22 season and see if we can find the true title contenders. My natural inclination is that we won’t find anything resembling last year in terms of obvious favorites. However, that doesn’t mean we won’t find some value for national championship futures.

This exercise will seek to find the shared statistical characteristics from this season’s pool with the last nine NCAA champions (2012-21), using the six most impactful strength indicators. Here they are:

— Steve Makinen’s Power Rating

— Makinen’s Effective Strength Indicator

— Makinen’s Bettors’ Rating

— Makinen’s Momentum Rating

— Effective Offensive Points per Possession

— Effective Defensive Points per Possession

I look at 10 other areas before the tournament each March, but most of the qualifiers only require a team to be in the top 50 or so. The list above is clearly more exclusive. Let’s go to the numbers:


The trend: Eight of the last nine champions entered the tournament with a Power Rating of 89 or higher.

2021-22: As of Monday, eight teams had a Power Rating of 89 or higher:

Gonzaga: 93

Purdue: 92

Arizona: 91.5

Baylor: 91.5

Kansas: 91

Duke: 90

Houston: 90

LSU: 89.5


The trend: Eight of the last nine champions had an Effective Strength Indicator of at least + 18.5 and ranked in the top six nationally.

2021-22: Ten teams have an Effective Strength Indicator + 18.5 or higher: 

Arizona: 27.8

Purdue: 24.7

LSU: 23.9

Houston: 23.7

Baylor: 23.4

Gonzaga: 22.5

Duke: 21.1

Kansas: 21.1

Illinois: 19.5

Tennessee: 19.4


The trend: Eight of the last nine champions had a Bettors’ Rating of at least -15.5 and ranked in the top five nationally.

2021-22: Fifteen teams have a Bettors’ Rating of -15.5 or better:

Gonzaga: -25.2

Purdue: -21.1

Arizona: -20

Baylor: -19.2

Kansas: -19

Duke: -18.3

Houston: -17.3

LSU: -17.3

Tennessee: -16.8

UCLA: -16.6

Auburn: -16.5

Illinois: -16.1

Kentucky: -16.1

Alabama: -15.9

Iowa: -15.8


The trend: Eight of the last nine champions had a Momentum Rating ranked in the top eight nationally.

2021-22: The top eight teams in Makinen’s Momentum Rating:

Illinois: 27.8

Tennessee: 25.9

Houston: 25.3

Baylor: 24.6

Arizona: 24.3

Xavier: 23

Kansas: 22.7

Auburn: 21.1


The trend: Eight of the last nine champions scored at least 1.185 Effective Points per Possession and ranked in the top 18 nationally.

2021-22: Teams scoring at least 1.185 Effective Points per Possession as of Monday: 

Purdue: 1.304

Kansas: 1.286

Iowa: 1.266

Arizona: 1.247

Houston: 1.233

Illinois: 1.233

Duke: 1.231

Gonzaga: 1.223

Loyola (Ill.): 1.215

UCLA: 1.213

Colorado State: 1.213

Alabama: 1.211

Villanova: 1.21

Ohio State: 1.21

Baylor: 1.204

Kentucky: 1.199

Auburn: 1.189

Tennessee-Chattanooga: 1.185


The trend: Eight of the last nine champions allowed fewer than 0.955 Effective Points per Possession and ranked in the top 15 nationally.

2021-22: Teams allowing fewer than 0.955 Effective Points per Possession as of Monday (this list will trim dramatically by March after teams have played a full conference slate): 

LSU: 0.768

VCU: 0.845

Baylor: 0.853

Arizona: 0.86

Houston: 0.862

Tennessee: 0.865

Iowa State: 0.875

Texas: 0.884

Michigan State: 0.885

Xavier: 0.891

Gonzaga: 0.896

Virginia Tech: 0.899

Indiana: 0.902

San Diego State: 0.903

Seton Hall: 0.91

North Texas: 0.912

Texas Tech: 0.914

Florida: 0.915

Purdue: 0.917

Saint Mary’s (Calif.): 0.919

Auburn: 0.921

Duke: 0.923

Connecticut: 0.924

Kansas State: 0.924

USC: 0.925

Oklahoma: 0.925

Oklahoma State: 0.927

Boise State: 0.927

Jacksonville: 0.927

Cincinnati: 0.929

Wagner: 0.929

Louisville: 0.93

Florida State: 0.935

UC Irvine: 0.935

South Carolina: 0.935

Washington State: 0.936

BYU: 0.936

Wisconsin: 0.936

UCLA: 0.937

Villanova: 0.938

West Virginia: 0.94

Kentucky: 0.942

Michigan: 0.942

San Francisco: 0.948

Illinois: 0.95

Oakland: 0.95

Wichita State: 0.95

Memphis: 0.952

Navy: 0.952


Once again, only two teams check all six boxes, and they might surprise you. Neither is among the three favorites at this point. Those favorites check five of the six boxes, and I will include them.

The two teams that check all six boxes (odds courtesy of DraftKings):

Baylor (+ 1200): Baylor is atop the AP poll with a 10-0 record entering the week, but the Bears aren’t getting much respect on the futures board with four teams in front of them. I would argue that while they might not be as talented or poised as their predecessors, the 2021-22 Bears are more athletic and more physically imposing than the championship team. They are 7-2-1 against the spread and allowing just over 55 points per game. Nothing comes easy against Baylor, as Oregon became the first team to shoot more than 46 percent from the floor against the Bears on Saturday. While Scott Drew’s squad lost four starters from the title team, the Bears are starting to put it together and can match up physically with anyone. They have enough experience and good scoring balance, too, as four players average in double digits.

Houston (+ 2200): Houston is the best non-power conference team to consider. Surely you are asking about Gonzaga, right? Well, Gonzaga hasn’t exactly played its best ball since clobbering UCLA a month ago. Houston is the one that is checking all the boxes right now. While it’s true that the Cougars have lost two games, to Wisconsin in Las Vegas and at Alabama, they are suffocating on defense, and that will always make them a threat. Plus, Kelvin Sampson’s team has a legit scorer and playmaker in Marcus Sasser. There is always a concern that an American Athletic Conference schedule won’t properly prepare Houston for March, but the Cougars’ losses are by a combined three points and they’ve proven themselves with blowouts of Oklahoma State, Oregon, Butler and Virginia. Don’t sleep on this team as they are at least a legit Final Four contender, and those odds are attractive at + 500.

Six other teams check five of the six boxes, including the four current favorites. These are the only other teams I would consider in terms of championship or Final Four futures wagers.

Gonzaga: + 500 to win the championship/+ 100 to reach the Final Four

Duke: + 800/+ 180

Purdue: + 800/+ 180

Kansas: + 1200/+ 300

Arizona: + 1600/+ 350

Illinois: + 2500/+ 550

Our numbers for the best teams don’t quite match up with those of Baylor or Gonzaga from December 2020, so there’s no way I would pound the table again. But with uncertainty comes value for bettors, and at this point, two teams stand taller than the rest, and six more make for what would be a very Elite Eight.

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