The 2019-20 college basketball season has been a wild ride. As we move towards the end of February, it can mean only one thing — we’re approaching three weeks until Selection Sunday.
When the NCAA Tournament begins, it’s sometimes hard to handicap the matchups as we’ll see a lot of different seeds going head-to-head versus teams they haven’t faced before on neutral sites. Before you bet the games, you’ll need to know which statistics offer a reasonably good measurement of the teams most likely to win the college basketball national championship. Let’s take a look at some of those statistics here.
Offensive Efficiency and Defensive Efficiency
This is a cousin of offensive rating, part of a number of formulas in basketball that have emerged as a result of the analytics revolution. The offensive efficiency number is derived from a formula that charts points per 100 possessions. Points per 100 possessions can be evaluated and studied in ways that help analysts compare longer-term trends to shorter-term trends, particularly the number of points allowed for every individual possession. Getting a look at teams’ average points scored per individual possession and per 100 possessions enables basketball students to look at what teams are doing right now and what they have been doing all season. Offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency (defensive efficiency involving points allowed per 100 possessions, compared with points allowed for every individual possession) are reliable bedrock elements of a team’s statistical profile.
Entering the 2018 NCAA Tournament, the median offensive efficiency rating for NCAA champions in the first 16 years of the KenPom era (which began in 2002) was four. The median defensive efficiency rating was 12.5. Most national champions finished in the top 15 of both with very few exceptions. One of the exceptions was 2009 North Carolina, which was an average defensive team, but No. 1 and historically great on offense. These efficiency ratings generally do matter a lot in identifying champions.
Average Margin of Victory
The teams with higher average margins of victory generally win national championships. Elite teams sometimes emerge in the NCAA Tournament and simply demolish the opposition. Villanova in 2018 was just such a team. The great UCLA teams under Lew Alcindor (before he changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) won by huge margins. The 2009 North Carolina team, 1990 UNLV, 1979 Michigan State, 2001 Duke, and other national champions were No. 1 or No. 2 seeds and regularly outclassed the opposition by large margins. San Diego State and Gonzaga this year have big margins of victory, but they come from smaller conferences with less competition. If you see a team with a large margin of victory in a power conference such as the Big Ten, that’s a great indicator for March.
The statistical ratings at Ken Pomeroy’s site have predicted college basketball national champions extremely well going back to its debut in 2002. Even the unlikely national champions going back to 2002 have been in the top 15 of KenPom’s defensive metric. UConn in 2011 and 2014 was outside the top 15 in offense, but it was inside the top 15 on defense and it won the national title in both of those years. 2003 Syracuse was outside the top 15 in offense, but inside the top 15 in defense. The 2009 North Carolina team was a rare example of a team that finished outside the KenPom top 15 in defense but still won it all. That UNC team was No. 1 in KenPom on offense.
Free Throw Shooting Percentage
The free-throw shooting percentage of the past 35 national champions is 72 percent. Last season’s national champion, the Virginia Cavaliers, shot 74.4 percent from the free-throw line. That isn’t a spectacular statistic, but it does mean that if you see a team shooting 67 or 68 percent on its free throws, you probably want to think twice about picking that team to make the national championship game or even the Final Four unless its other stats are absolutely amazing.