College Basketball National Championship Contenders: Can You Still Buy Virginia Tech?
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 followup.
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. Adjusted efficiency margin has the highest correlation, 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
Six of those seven teams currently boast top-eight odds to win the national championship this season. Virginia Tech remains a long shot at +8000, or 80-1.
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:
ACC Rivals Clash with National Title Implications
Monday night, Virginia and Virginia Tech face off in in a much-anticipated rematch between national championship contenders. The Cavaliers won the first matchup in a 81-59 blowout, but they now must travel to Blacksburg for the regular season sweep.
Regardless of the outcome, Virginia seems like a lock to maintain its national championship contender status for the remainder of the season. The Cavaliers rank second in AdjEM (34.46), fifth in AdjO (120.8) and third in AdjD (86.3).
The Hokies are a different story. Virginia Tech has somehow held on to their championship contender status despite losing their leader Justin Robinson to a foot injury a couple weeks ago. The Hokies’ offense remains elite, but their once top-10 defense now ranks 32nd with an AdjD score of 95.0. That defensive decline is likely due in large part to Robinson’s suffocating ball pressure.
Even if Virginia Tech loses to the Cavaliers tonight, it’s unlikely that their AdjD would further tumble past our threshold of 96.2. The Hokies and Wahoos both rank among the slowest teams in the country in adjusted tempo.
Nonetheless, Robinson’s absence could lead to losses down the stretch, which could — in turn — drop them out of championship consideration.
Robinson’s potential return is critical to their tournament success — and their futures value. If he recovers in time for the NCAA Tournament, Virginia Tech will be as dangerous as anyone. If he doesn’t, then many in Blacksburg will be left wondering what could have been in 2019.
Of course, the Cavaliers and Hokies aren’t the only in-state rivals facing off in ACC play this week. North Carolina and Duke also meet at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Wednesday. For North Carolina, its matchup against Duke should serve as an important test in determining whether or not Nassir Little is the answer at the wing.
These two ACC contests should also bring clarity to the three-way ACC regular season championship race between Virginia, Duke and UNC.
The King is Dead. Long Live the King
Notably absent from this week’s list of national title contenders is the Tennessee Volunteers, who have been a fixture on our national title contenders list since its inception. The Volunteers held the top spot in the AP Top 25 rankings for four straight weeks before a 17-point loss at Kentucky dropped them to No. 5 in this week’s rankings.
Tennessee’s loss to the Wildcats punctuated a six-game defensive skid that saw the Vols’ AdjD fall from 93.3 on January 27th to 97.2 as of writing. That AdjD score falls a full point below our 96.2 requirement, thereby disqualifying them as a potential national champion.
We highlighted this possibility in last week’s column, and unfortunately Tennessee was not able to right the ship against the Wildcats.
Tennessee joins Michigan, Purdue and Iowa State among teams to make this list and subsequently fall from grace. So far this season, no team that has fallen out of consideration has ever regained national championship contender status.
Spartans Suffer Another Setback
It seems I spoke too soon in last week’s column when I declared, “No need for any alarm bells here: All is well in East Lansing.”
Indeed, all is not well: Michigan State has yet another significant injury — this time to forward Nick Ward. Ward suffered a hairline fracture to his hand in the Spartan’s 62-44 win over Ohio State this weekend. He is expected to miss at least the remainder of the regular season.
The once deep Spartans bench now finds itself particularly thin. Ward joins Joshua Langford (ankle) as valuable contributors who are now likely out for the season. Ward and Langford combined for 30.1 points per game when healthy. It will now primarily fall to Xavier Tillman and Matt McQuaid to pick up that offensive responsibility.
To be clear, the Spartans remain a postseason threat despite their injuries. But, when comparing them to the likes of Duke, Gonzaga, Kentucky or Virginia, the Spartans’ injuries do hurt them significantly.
I don’t expect them to statistically fall out of championship contention as a result of these injuries. Nonetheless, I personally no longer view them as a strong futures bet, especially at +1000.
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.