Key ratings tell who may be NCAA threats

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Each March I do an important exercise in which I find the shared quantitative characteristics of teams that have won championships and then fit the current tournament field to the findings. This helps me uncover which teams have the best shots at winning the title. I do the same thing to project potential upset winners and losers as well as Cinderella teams and Final Four candidates. It has been remarkably successful, particularly in pegging champions. In fact, in the last tournament played, Virginia was tied atop the chart you’ll see a little later as it stood on Selection Sunday that year. This was also the case for Villanova in 2018 and North Carolina in 2017. I have the evidence in print if you don’t believe it! Kansas was expected to be a runaway winner last year using this analysis before the tournament was canceled.

As to futures odds, it is never too early to acknowledge teams proving themselves best suited to make runs at this year’s crown. Of course, with the entire tournament being played in the Indianapolis area this year and the schedule tightened a bit, some things will be different. But typically the best and most prepared teams adapt to changing circumstances best, so if anything, I believe this type of analysis will only be strengthened for the 2021 tournament. As of Thursday, we will be seven weeks from the start of this year’s madness. It’s safe to say we know a lot about the teams, and I would happily endorse anyone using this analysis as the foundation for a tourney futures wager or two.

So let’s go through the list of the characteristics I use to compare this year’s teams with previous champions. Some are based on my four sets of strength ratings, some are based on my effective stats — which take into account recent play and strength of schedule — and others are pure raw statistics accumulated by teams this season. 

Champions are also defined by other characteristics, notably experience level, pro talent, size and coaching prowess. Using your knowledge of those factors combined with these quantitative measures is a great recipe for tournament handicapping success.

I use 17 key categories, so a team can obtain a maximum score of 17. Virginia totaled 14 checkmarks at the outset of the 2019 tournament. Here are the categories:

— 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 last-10 rating

— Effective offensive points per possession

— Effective defensive points per possession

— Offensive field-goal percentage

— Offensive 3-point field-goal percentage

— Rebounding percentage

— Assist-to-turnover ratio

— Offensive turnovers per possession

— Defensive turnovers per possession

— Defensive field-goal percentage

— Combined average ranking

After determining the national season ranks for all Division I teams, I pulled information on the last eight tournament champions 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. Finally, I take a combined national ranking of the 16 sortable categories to separate the more complete teams from the rest.

To summarize the findings, it was determined that the relationship between my effective strength indicator was the most significant of all categories analyzed. The average of the last 28 Final Four teams ranked 12.0 in the country in that rating. Among the harder-core statistical categories, effective defensive points per possession was most important. The least important factor was defensive turnovers per possession, or the ability to create turnovers on defense.

Shared Traits of Tournament Champions

Recent years of tournament action have shown 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 nine seasons. These are the eight champions during that span:

2012: Kentucky (#1)

2013: Louisville (#1)

2014: Connecticut (#7)

2015: Duke (#1)

2016: Villanova (#2)

2017: North Carolina (#1)

2018: Villanova (#1)

2019: Virginia (#1)

2020: No tournament

Looking for clear separations in the teams’ stats and ranks among the last eight NCAA champions:

— Seven went into the tournament with a Steve Makinen power rating of 89 or higher.

— Seven finished the regular season with a schedule strength ranked in the top 45 nationally.

— Six ranked in the top 55 in offensive points per game and scored at least 72 ppg.

— Six ranked in the top 115 in defensive points per game or allowed fewer than 70 ppg.

— Seven had a Steve Makinen effective strength indicator rating of at least + 18.5 and ranked in the top six nationally.

— Seven had a Steve Makinen bettors rating of at least -15.5 and ranked in the top five nationally.

— Seven had a Steve Makinen last-10 rating in the top eight nationally.

— Seven scored at least 1.185 effective points per possession on offense and ranked in the top 18 nationally.

— Seven allowed better than 0.955 effective points per possession on defense and ranked in the top 15 nationally.

— Six shot at least 46% from the field for the season, ranking in the top 45 nationally in field-goal percentage.

— Six made at least 34.5% of their 3-point attempts on the season, placing them in the top 100 of all teams.

— Six had a rebounding percentage rate of at least 52% and ranked in the top 65 in the country.

— Seven had an assist-to-turnover ratio of at least 1.170, ranking in the top 45 nationally.

— Six ranked in the country’s 60 top teams in terms of offensive turnovers per possession.

— Six ranked in the country’s top 190 teams in terms of defensive turnovers per possession.

— Six allowed opponents 42.0% or less on field-goal attempts, a mark typically good enough for the top 60 in the country.

— Seven had a combined average ranking of 50.0 or better in all analyzed stats.

Looking at each of these key categories and every team’s standing as of Monday, this chart shows the teams most ready for a title run in 2021. Nineteen teams score eight marks or better.

I was surprised to see Michigan sitting alone atop the chart as the only program with 15 checkmarks. With Gonzaga and Baylor ranked as highly as they are in my sets of strength ratings, I assumed they would be the front-runners. The only marks the Wolverines miss out on are in the offensive and defensive turnover percentages. Despite being underrated and perhaps in the shadow of Gonzaga and Baylor, Michigan looks to be a legitimate threat. Even though their program is paused for 14 days due to COVID concerns, playing the rigorous schedule of the Big Ten should prepare the Wolverines come tournament time. At this point, with the Bulldogs and Bears missing checkmarks on schedule strength and defensive field-goal percentage, we should really be concerned as to whether they will be tested enough to make a run or whether they are good enough defensively.

Based on this chart, I could certainly get behind a wager of Michigan + 900 to win it all or + 150 to make the Final Four. 

In terms of potential sleepers, Florida State’s + 450 odds to make the Final Four look attractive. They are one of just six teams with 10 marks or better and are positioned 16th in the country in terms of the + 450 payout. The Seminoles are also one of the biggest and most athletic teams in the nation, and anyone who watched them dominate Clemson on Saturday can speak to their potential.

Interestingly, five teams from mid-major conferences are on the chart, headlined by Loyola (Chicago), which is red-hot and grabs a key marker for last-10 performance. Saint Louis, Colgate, Boise State and Drake are also programs you might want to start considering as potential Cinderella teams.

With seven weeks left, a lot will shake out. But value can be had right now, and I’m not one to miss out on a nice wagering opportunity. Stay tuned to Point Spread Weekly for more analysis as we move deeper into the season.

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