College Basketball National Championship Contenders: Tennessee’s Defense is Slipping

College Basketball National Championship Contenders: Tennessee’s Defense is Slipping article feature image
  • Ryan Collinsworth identifies eight college basketball national championship contenders based on a specific statistic profile.
  • Tennessee is one of four teams currently facing obstacles to its national title hopes.

A couple weeks ago, I introduced a way to identify college basketball teams that fit the statistical profile of a national champion. After another intense week of conference play, we have enough new information to warrant another follow-up.

Elite teams have begun to really separate themselves from the rest of the country, and our list of national title contenders has largely stabilized over the last couple of weeks. Nonetheless, several of our contenders are holding on by a thread to their elite status, while others must overcome injury setbacks.

Let’s begin with a brief recap of our methods and qualifications, then review the teams shuffling up and down our rankings.

I initially analyzed all college basketball teams based on three metrics — each sourced from Ken Pomeroy — to determine which could win the national title this season:

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 correlated each of these metrics with NCAA tournament performance. AdjEM boasted by far the highest correlation (at r=0.561), which suggests that well-balanced teams are more successful in the postseason.

We established that national champion-caliber teams generally boast an AdjEM score of 23.81 or higher. This threshold serves as the primary qualifying factor in our analysis.

In another article on our Final Four dark horse candidates, we also established statistical thresholds for AdjO and AdjD. Generally, Final Four teams boast an AdjO score of 114.0 or higher and an AdjD score of 96.2 or less.

Teams must fulfill all three of the above criteria in order to qualify as a national championship contender.

Updated 2018-19 Championship Contenders

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:

As of writing, the Westgate SuperBook reports each team’s current odds to win a national championship as follows:

  • Duke +175
  • Gonzaga +700
  • Virginia +800
  • Kentucky +1000
  • Michigan State +1000
  • Tennessee +1200
  • North Carolina +1600
  • Virginia Tech +8000

Seven of those eight teams currently boast top-eight odds to win the national championship this season, Virginia Tech remains a long shot at +8000 (they were +5000 last week).

Our list of championship contenders also currently excludes Michigan (+1400), Villanova (+3000), Purdue (+3000), Nevada (+3000) and Kansas (+3000). All five teams currently have top-12 odds to win a national championship this season.

Iowa State also makes its ungraceful departure after just one week on our list. They now join the Michigan Wolverines and Purdue Boilermakers as one-week wonders this season.

Neither Michigan nor Purdue have regained national title contender status since falling from grace weeks ago — can the Cyclones buck that trend and rally back to form?

Virginia Tech Holding On by a Thread

Despite all odds, the 18-5 (7-4 ACC) Hokies continue to hang on to their national title contender status. However, there are signs they could be fading.

Virginia Tech’s offense — which ranks 11th in the country with an AdjO of 117.5 — has managed only 54 points per game in their past three against NC State, Louisville and Clemson. They lost two of those games, with their only win coming against the Wolfpack — who managed only 24 points in the entire game!

As a result, the Hokies’ AdjO has fallen from 120.1 on Jan. 29 to 117.5 as of writing. Their AdjEM score of 24.65 hangs precariously above our 23.81 threshold. If you bet their championship odds a few weeks ago, it may be worth hedging against the Hokies until they right the ship.


Cause for Concern in Knoxville?

Tennessee has held the top spot in the AP Top 25 for four consecutive weeks and has also been a fixture on our national title contenders list since its inception. The Volunteers boast one of the top offenses in the country, athletic wings in Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield, and senior leadership.

Tennessee has reached a stretch of SEC basketball riddled with average-to-below-average opponents. Their last four foes boast middling offenses, and yet the Vols have not shut them down like championship-level defenses do. And as a result, their AdjD is slipping. On Jan. 27, their AdjD was a very healthy 93.3; as of writing, it has dropped a full two points to 95.3.

This may simply be an elite team taking their foot off the gas during the grind of conference play. However, it could also be a sign of fatigue or defensive weakness.

Continue to monitor their defensive effort as we approach conference championship season. Their AdjD is only one point away from pushing them out of national title consideration, which is unnerving for futures bettors supporting the No. 1 team in the country.


Zags and Spartans Soldier On

Gonzaga and Michigan State have remained resilient to recent set-backs.

For the Bulldogs, forward Killian Tillie has been ruled out indefinitely with a plantar fascia injury. This is Tillie’s second major injury this season; he underwent surgery to repair an ankle injury eight weeks ago.

Gonzaga has played well without Tillie, including a win over Duke without the upperclassman. Nonetheless, Tillie’s uncertain status potentially limits the Zags’ tournament depth.

Michigan State rallied back from a three-game losing streak by beating Minnesota and Wisconsin in consecutive games. Remarkably, the Spartans’ adjusted efficiency metrics barely declined during their losing streak.

They’ve fallen to No. 11 in the AP poll, but that decline seems like an over-reaction to their recent performance. No need for any alarm bells here: All is well in East Lansing.


We’ve still got plenty of basketball left to play, so I’ll be periodically publishing follow-ups to this piece as we approach March Madness. Whenever a team ascends into championship consideration — or falls from grace — I’ll continue to keep you updated.