Final Four Dark Horse Candidates: Kansas and Villanova Still Have Work to Do

Final Four Dark Horse Candidates: Kansas and Villanova Still Have Work to Do article feature image

Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Villanova Wildcats guard Phil Booth (5), Kansas Jayhawks forward Dedric Lawson (1).

  • Conference play is in full swing and potential national championship contenders are beginning to round into form.
  • There are nine teams that advanced metrics see as potential Final Four candidates this season.

Earlier this week, I published an article identifying seven college basketball teams with a strong shot at winning the national title. Now, I'll turn my attention to dark horse Final Four candidates.

As in my previous piece, I analyzed all college basketball teams based on three metrics, each sourced from Ken Pomeroy:

Adjusted offensive efficiency (AdjO): Points scored per 100 possessions, adjusted for opponents

Adjusted defensive efficiency (AdjD): Points allowed per 100 possessions, adjusted for opponents

Adjusted efficiency margin (AdjEM): The difference between a team's offensive and defensive efficiency

I then correlated each of these metrics with NCAA tournament performance. AdjEM boasted by far the highest correlation at r=0.618, which suggests that well-balanced teams are more successful in the postseason. This high correlation served as justification to use AdjEM alone to identify possible championship contenders.

Nonetheless, AdjO (r=0.456) and AdjD (r=0.429) each report statistically significant correlational coefficients of their own. We can utilize these two metrics in combination to identify teams that may not win the Big Dance, but could at least make a run to the Final Four.

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Establishing Our Statistical Thresholds

Adjusted Offensive Efficiency (AdjO)

Our next step is to establish statistical thresholds for AdjO and AdD that clearly discriminates Final Four teams from the set of all tournament teams.

Through statistical treatment, I've established an AdjO threshold of 114.0 as our first baseline parameter. This filter captures 16-of-17 national champions, 12-of-17 runners-up and 51-of-68 Final Four teams since the 2001-02 season.

This, of course, excludes one former national champion: The 2014 Connecticut Huskies. They won a national title despite an AdjO of just 111.4. This AdjO figure has a z-score of -0.04, which is consider below-average among all tournament teams in our sample. This makes the Connecticut's 2014 team a pretty extreme outlier.

For context, let's compare our target sample (AdjO = 114.0 or higher, z-score = +0.42 or higher) to the class of teams among which the 2014 Connecticut team ranks (z-score = -0.05 to +0.41):

As you can see in the chart above, excluding UConn removes a lot of clutter from our analysis.

Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (AdjD)

Our statistical threshold for AdjD is set at 96.2 or less.This filter captures all 17 national champions, 16 of 17 runners-up and 63 of 68 Final Four teams since the 2001-02 season.

This AdjD baseline is actually fairly low; it includes all teams with an AdjD z-score of 0.00 or higher. That means that any team with a historically average defense or better makes the cut.

That seems a bit fishy, doesn't it? Can it really be the case that "average" defensive is enough in college basketball?

Based on my statistical analysis, yes; that indeed seems to be the case. Unlike AdjEM or AdjO, improved AdjD beyond 96.2 does not improve a team's tournament success.

Put differently, a team must have an AdjD score of 96.2 or better in order to contend for a championship; but, improving beyond that mark does not improve the likelihood that they will win a title.

The 2018-19 Final Four Dark Horse Candidates

After cross-referencing 2019 teams with an AdjO of 114.0 or higher and an AdjD of 96.2 or lower, we're left with 16 teams who fit our profile as a Final Four Dark Horse candidate.

Seven of those teams (Virginia, Duke, Michigan State, Gonzaga, Tennessee, Michigan and Virginia Tech) also qualify as a national championship contender. However, nine additional teams remain who have strong resumes to make the Final Four — or better:

  • North Carolina: AdjO = 115.7, AdjD = 92.4
  • Nebraska: AdjO = 116.5, AdjD = 94.0
  • Kentucky: AdjO = 115.4, AdjD = 93.2
  • Iowa State: AdjO = 115.7, AdjD = 93.5
  • Auburn: AdjO = 118.0, AdjD = 96.1
  • Maryland: AdjO = 116.6, AdjD = 95.5
  • Louisville: AdjO = 116.4, AdjD = 95.7
  • Nevada: AdjO = 114.2, AdjD = 93.9
  • Buffalo: AdjO = 115.9, AdjD = 96.0

Each of these teams is represented below based on their current AdjO and AdjD, in order to help you visualize their standing relative to previous national champions and Final Four teams:

This list of potential Final Four candidates notably excludes No. 9 Kansas, No. 12 Marquette, No. 14 Texas Tech, No. 17 Houston and 18th-ranked defending Champion Villanova.

Now that teams have entered the heart of conference play, stiffer competition should gradually weed out the pretenders from the contenders.

Perhaps the teams excluded above will elevate their play against familiar conference foes. Even so, there still may be cause for concern for teams who haven't yet made the cut.

Accordingly, I'll be publishing follow-ups to this piece as teams move into and out of Final Four contention throughout the season. Whenever a team ascends into Final Four consideration — or falls from grace — I'll be sure to keep you updated.

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