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College Basketball National Championship Contenders: Michigan Sneaks Back Into the Party

College Basketball National Championship Contenders: Michigan Sneaks Back Into the Party article feature image

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Isaiah Livers

  • Ryan Collinsworth identifies 10 college basketball national championship contenders based on a specific statistic profile.
  • After a few weeks outside the mold, Michigan's recent play has it back in contention.

Seven 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

Nine of those 10 teams currently boast top-10 odds to win the national championship this season. Virginia Tech remains a long shot at 60-1.

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:

Michigan Makes Its Move

The Wolverines made our original list of national title contenders back on January 23rd on the strength of their AdjO score of 114.2 and AdjD score of 87.5. Michigan’s AdjO fell the next week, and it has remained outside of national title contention ever since.

However, improved offensive performances against Nebraska and Maryland over the last two games has Michigan right back in the national championship hunt.

Still, a couple important questions remain for this Wolverines squad. Why haven’t they been able to sustain championship-caliber offense this season? And what exactly has changed in recent games to revive their anemic offense?

Michigan’s statistical improvement in AdjO can be attributed to three primary factors:

  1. Greater emphasis on perimeter shooting, combined with an uptick in team 3-point percentage.
  2. Improved ball security and offensive movement, which has resulted in an improved team assist-to-turnover ratio.
  3. Solid play from Isaiah Livers, playing in relief for the injured Charles Matthews (ankle).

Michigan’s Improved Perimeter Offense

Since January 25th, the Wolverines have demonstrated marked improvements to their offensive philosophy and execution. Michigan has begun taking — and making — more 3-pointers, which has led to improved scoring and efficiency. It has also improved its assist-to-turnover ratio over the same span, likely due to improved floor spacing and less reliance on the post game.

Michigan’s commitment to a more modern perimeter offense has also resulted in a 3.4% improvement to its 3-point shooting percentage. The Wolverines are finally shooting with confidence, bolstered by stellar shooting from Ignas Brazdeikes in particular.

Isaiah Livers’ Enhanced Role

Senior guard Charles Matthews suffered a right ankle injury in a loss to Michigan State on February 24th. His 32.9 minutes per game in conference play has largely been redistributed to sophomore forward Isaiah Livers.

Livers has responded with back-to-back double-digit scoring games on a combined 6-of-14 shooting from behind the arc. In fact, the talented sophomore leads all starters in Offensive Box Plus/Minus (+5.1), 3-point percentage (43.8%) and eFG% (62.0%) this season. Contrast that with Matthews’ +1.6 Plus/Minus, 32.1% 3-point shooting and 48.0% eFG%.

Of course, Matthews’ injury should not be viewed as a net positive for an unusually shallow Wolverines rotation. Nonetheless, Livers’ offensive spark correlates precisely with Michigan’s huge spike in AdjO. Furthermore, Matthews’ absence has allowed co-captain Zavier Simpson to flourish as the team’s primary facilitator. He has dished out 10 assists in each of the past two games.

The loss of Matthews has also led to enhanced usage (26.7%) for Ignas Brazdeikis, who has been red-hot in his last two games. He has shot 6-for-9 from behind the arc and has posted back-to-back 20-plus point games.

One Final Test Remains

The Wolverines close out the regular season on Saturday on the road against rival Michigan State. Matthews, who remains without a timetable for his return, is not expected to play.

Matthews’ prolonged absence hurts Michigan’s tournament upside, but it does provide extended run for Livers and Simpson in particular. If the Wolverines intend to challenge for a national championship, they will need Livers’ offensive spark off the bench.

Hopefully the Big Ten tournament will provide extra time for the offense to develop a stronger rapport. Nonetheless, if Matthews does not make a full recovery by the tournament, all of this may be moot. It’s hard to imagine Michigan winning six straight games without one of its senior leaders.

As we head into conference tournament play, I’ll be periodically publishing follow-ups to this piece. Whenever a team ascends into championship consideration — or falls from grace — I’ll continue to keep you updated.

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