College Basketball National Title Contenders: Time to Reinvest in Tennessee
Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports. Picutred: Derrick Walker, Admiral Schofield and Lucas Campbell
Six 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
Eight of those nine teams currently boast top-10 odds to win the national championship this season. Virginia Tech remains a long shot at 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:
Reinvest in Tennessee’s National Championship Futures
The Volunteers lost their contender status last week due to some suspect defense. But, they have rallied to reclaim their place among basketball’s elite — even despite two losses in three games to Kentucky and LSU.
So, how has Tennessee achieved this despite losing those games? And, perhaps more importantly, why should you overlook those losses and take them to win the Big Dance?
The Vols’ Defense is Improving
Even though Tennessee has disappointed on the national stage in the last week, its defense has shown marked improvements. Two games ago, the Volunteers held Vanderbilt to its lowest scoring output (46) of the season.
Then, most recently in a loss at LSU, they held the Tigers’ elite offense to 71 points in regulation. LSU ranks ninth in scoring (82.7 points per game) and 13th in AdjO (117.4).
Nonetheless, their improved defense couldn’t save them from losing two of their last three games. So, how exactly did they lose those games?
Understanding Tennessee’s Losses This Season
I examined each of the Volunteers’ three losses this season and found a few interesting trends that may help us understand what has gone wrong for them lately.
First of all, each of their three losses has come against a team currently ranked in the top 15 of the AP poll. Two of those losses have come in overtime. And, all three losses also came either on the road or on a neutral court. They remain a perfect 24-0 at home this season and hold a 32-game home winning streak dating back to last season.
Second, they have shot uncharacteristically poorly from 3 in each of their losses, despite facing defenses that have been average at best at defending 3-pointers. The Vols went 7-for-27 (25.9%) against Kansas, 7-for-25 (28.0%) against Kentucky and 8-for-22 (36.4%) against LSU.
Tennessee has shot a very respectable 36.0% from 3 this year, which ranks 96th in the country. Yet in losses against average-to-below average perimeter defenses, they’ve combined for just 22-for-74 (29.7%) from behind the arc.
Third, they’ve gotten themselves in big foul trouble in each of their losses. In their 24 wins this season, the Volunteers have committed on average 16.9 team fouls per game, which ranks 76th in the NCAA. However, in their three losses, they’ve averaged 24.0 team fouls per game.
This uncharacteristic foul trouble could indicate poor defensive discipline. After all, Kentucky and LSU rank among the country’s most physical, athletic offensive teams. Both rank in the top 20 in free throws attempted per game.
Moreover, the Volunteers’ early-season loss to Kansas came against a Jayhawks team that still had Lagerald Vick and Udoka Azubuike. That squad notched three big wins over Michigan State, Marquette and Tennessee to open the season. The Jayhawks’ offense averaged a whopping 85.3 points per game against those top 40 defenses.
Still, I’m equally willing to excuse the Volunteers’ foul issues based on pure variance. Some games just go like that.
Why You Should Buy Back in on the Volunteers
Tennessee has the seventh-best odds to win the national title at 16-to-1 as of writing. But, as I’ve noted in previous articles, they have the same statistical probability of winning a championship as any other championship contender on this list.
Further statistical improvement beyond our metrical qualifications provides no added predictive value. Instead, factors we cannot control — such as tournament seeding, upsets, and individual game matchups — begin to more strongly affect a team’s destiny.
So, at 16-to-1, you can buy back a team that has flirted with No. 1 overall status all season, ranks 13th in scoring offense, sixth in scoring margin, second in AdjO and ninth in AdjEM. And best of all, that same team offers approximately the same national title chances as Duke, Gonzaga, North Carolina … or any of the teams on this list.
If that sales pitch appeals to you, move swiftly in placing your futures bet. Tennessee’s next four opponents each rank in the top 50 in AdjEM: Ole Miss (43), Kentucky (6), Mississippi State (21) and Auburn (14).
If the senior-laden Volunteers can rebound from their recent struggles and put together a strong finish against that caliber of competition, you can expect their national title odds to decline quickly. It’s best to get in on Tennessee now before a potential home win against Kentucky this Saturday crushes their market value.
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.