College Basketball Final Four Dark Horse Candidates: Can Colorado, Pac-12 Flip the Narrative This Season?
Michael Hickey/Getty Images. Pictured: McKinley Wright IV (25).
For those interested in a deeper understanding of my statistical methods and deductive reasoning, please refer to last week’s columns (linked above) and the inaugural article that launched the series in 2019.
Now, let’s speed along to this week’s update. As in my previous columns, 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 and established metrical thresholds that clearly discriminate Final Four teams from the set of all tournament teams.
National Title Contenders must report an AdjO of 113.9 or higher and an AdjD of 96.0 or lower in order to qualify for championship contention. These teams must also report an AdjEM of at least 23.91. However, the latter AdjEM stipulation is waived for Final Four Dark Horse Candidates.
The 2020-21 Final Four Dark Horse Candidates
After cross-referencing 2020-21 teams with an AdjO of 113.9 or higher and an AdjD of 96.0 or lower (following the conclusion of play on Feb. 15), only 12 teams fit our profile as Final Four Dark Horse candidates.
Seven of those teams (Gonzaga, Baylor, Michigan, Illinois, Houston, Ohio State, and Virginia) also qualify as National Championship Contenders. However, five other teams remain that have strong resumes to make the Final Four — or better:
West Virginia still holds appeal for me at +500, but the Mountaineers are a difficult team to trust. Their most impressive performances have come via losses … vs. Gonzaga (82-87), at Oklahoma (71-75), vs. Texas (70-72) and vs. Oklahoma again (90-91, 2OT) as recently as last Saturday.
The team’s defining wins include a season sweep of Texas Tech and a season split with Kansas. The resume is compelling, but it is by no means overwhelming.
However, I can easily parry the same criticism in the direction of Creighton (+550), Colorado (+900) and Florida (+1200) — and among that cohort, West Virginia profiles strongly.
The lone exceptional team among this list is Florida State (+550), which just polished up a bonafide smackdown of Virginia on Monday night, leading nearly from the outset and coasting to an 81-60 victory over a top-10 opponent.
The Seminoles also boast wins over Indiana, Florida, North Carolina, Louisville and Clemson. That assortment of quality wins may not take your breath away, but all six of those opponents rank in the KenPom top 50.
The case for the Seminoles is a fairly easy one to make, especially on the heels of their tremendous victory over the Cavaliers on Monday night. However, I’m not keen to lay 5-1 odds on either FSU or West Virginia, even despite each squad’s strong resume and team composition.
The Power 6 conferences are down yet again this season, the Big Ten notwithstanding, and there are ample mid-major teams that constitute fierce impediments to any team’s potential Final Four run. No team in the country wants to draw Loyola Chicago, San Diego State, BYU, Saint Louis, Richmond or Dayton in March. And frankly, that list doesn’t even come close to touching the depth of the mid-major threats this season.
Therefore, if I’m targeting a team from this list of five Final Four Dark Horse Contenders, then I’d prefer Colorado (9-1) or Florida (12-1). And between those two, the Buffaloes are the most intriguing to me.
I have ample biases against Pac-12 teams that perennially let me down when it matters most, and Colorado is no exception: On Friday night, I dropped a half-unit on the Buffaloes to win the Pac-12 at +1000 … and they rewarded me by laying an egg against bottom-feeder California in an 11-point loss on Saturday. Colorado was a 10.5-point favorite.
Yet, despite that, I’m still advocating for Colorado anyway. Why? In a word, balance.
Colorado doesn’t do any one thing particularly exceptionally (barring the team’s first-place national ranking in free throw percentage at 82.4%). However, this team is deep (nine players averaging 10 or more minutes per game), experienced (33rd in average player experience, per KenPom), possesses strong guard and wing play, can blister you at any time via the 3-point jumper (35th in NCAA in 3P%), takes care of the ball (41st in turnover percentage), and is battle-tested (top-100 strength of schedule in-conference and non-conference).
If the Buffs drop a second straight road game against Oregon on Thursday, then try to grab a piece of them at 10-1 or longer. Alternatively, consider the play I made on them to win the Pac-12 Tournament at 10-1 or better.
First Four Out
The following four teams are knocking on the door for Final Four Dark Horse contention, but each of them still has some ground to make up in order to qualify (AdjO of 113.9 or higher | AdjD of 96.0 or lower).
In fairness to Purdue, it did sweep its season series with Ohio State, which is indeed an impressive feat. And furthermore, the Boilermakers hung tough in losses to Rutgers (by 5), Illinois (by 8), Maryland (by 1) and Minnesota (by 3). Given the staggering depth of the Big Ten this season, it’s expected that teams like Purdue are going to get a bit chewed up during conference play.
But — while those concessions may be reasonable — they are also damning, at least insofar as a potential Final Four run is concerned. Trevion Williams is a double-double machine, but I’m hard-pressed to back a team that features a 6-foot-10, 265-pound big man as its chief offensive weapon come tournament time.
Williams ranks first in the country in percentage of shots taken (37.3%) for his respective team, per KenPom. Purdue also ranks 285th in Adjusted Tempo. The playbook is straightforward enough: Feed Williams on the block, crash the boards, milk the clock, and grind out a win in the final five minutes of regulation.
That strategy may have been good enough to sweep the Buckeyes during the regular season, but it’s not a paradigm I trust on a two-day turnaround entering the Round of 32 or the Elite Eight.
Next Four Out
Top 4 Mid-Major Threats
We will be publishing follow-ups to this piece as teams move into and out of contention throughout the season. Whenever a team ascends into Final Four Dark Horse consideration — or falls from grace — we’ll be sure to keep you updated accordingly.