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:
MAKINEN’S POWER RATING
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:
MAKINEN’S EFFECTIVE STRENGTH INDICATOR
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:
MAKINEN’S BETTORS’ RATING
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:
MAKINEN’S MOMENTUM RATING
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:
EFFECTIVE OFFENSIVE POINTS PER POSSESSION
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:
Loyola (Ill.): 1.215
Colorado State: 1.213
Ohio State: 1.21
EFFECTIVE DEFENSIVE POINTS PER POSSESSION
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):
Iowa State: 0.875
Michigan State: 0.885
Virginia Tech: 0.899
San Diego State: 0.903
Seton Hall: 0.91
North Texas: 0.912
Texas Tech: 0.914
Saint Mary’s (Calif.): 0.919
Kansas State: 0.924
Oklahoma State: 0.927
Boise State: 0.927
Florida State: 0.935
UC Irvine: 0.935
South Carolina: 0.935
Washington State: 0.936
West Virginia: 0.94
San Francisco: 0.948
Wichita State: 0.95
CHECKING THE BOXES
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.