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College Basketball National Title Contenders: Gonzaga & Baylor Hold Substantial Edge

College Basketball National Title Contenders: Gonzaga & Baylor Hold Substantial Edge article feature image

William Mancebo & John E. Moore III/Getty Images. Pictured from left: Corey Kispert (24) of the Gonzaga Bulldogs & Davion Mitchell (45) of the Baylor Bears.

During the Spring of 2019, I authored two recurring college basketball futures columns as a writer here at The Action Network. Those columns were titled, “College Basketball National Title Contenders,” and “Final Four Dark Horse Candidates.”

Now — following a nearly two-year hiatus due to the cancelation of last season’s NCAA Tournament — I believe it’s high time that we revived both of those previous columns. After all, that body of research and series of updates from 2019 enabled the development of the NCAA Tournament “Cinderella” Model and achieved some fairly astounding final results:

Final National Title Contenders Rankings from 2018-19:

Among the 10 teams that qualified as “National Title Contenders” in the final version of this column (published immediately following the conclusion of all conference tournaments):

  • Virginia won the National Championship.
  • Two teams (Virginia and Michigan State) made the Final Four.
  • Six teams made the Elite Eight.
  • All 10 teams made the Sweet 16.

On top of all that, four of the 10 teams (Duke, Purdue, Tennessee and Virginia Tech) lost to other end-of-season National Title Contenders:

  • Duke defeated Virginia Tech in the Sweet 16
  • Michigan State defeated Duke in the Elite Eight
  • Purdue defeated Tennessee in the Sweet 16
  • Virginia defeated Purdue in the Elite Eight

What Qualifies a Team as a “National Title Contender?”

For a thorough explanation of my full methods, refer to my original National Title Contenders and Final Four Dark Horses articles from the 2018-19 season. But, as a down and dirty summary, qualification essentially comes down to three metrical thresholds, each sourced from Ken Pomeroy.

  • Adjusted Offensive Efficiency (AdjO) of 113.9 or higher.
  • Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (AdjD) of 96.0 or lower.
  • Adjusted Efficiency Margin (AdjEM) of 23.91 or higher.

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

The prescribed thresholds above correlate precisely with significant z-scores among our sample population of teams since the 2001-02 season. Furthermore — and this point is very important — there is no statistically significant improvement in a team’s odds to win a championship beyond these threshold values.

However, it is imperative that a team meets all three of the above thresholds in order for the preceding statement to hold true. Independently, each metric still reports statistically significant improvement in a team’s probability to win up to approximately z=+2.00.

Also of note: These threshold values have moved ever so slightly from my previously espoused thresholds in 2018-19 due to statistical adjustments based on the results from the 2018-19 season:

  • AdjO threshold has been adjusted down from 114.0 to 113.9 (Net: -0.1)
  • AdjD threshold has been adjusted up from 96.2 to 96.0 (Net: +0.2)
  • AdjEM threshold has been adjusted up from 23.81 to 23.91 (Net: +0.1)

The 2021 National Title Contenders

After cross-referencing 2020-21 teams with an AdjEM of 23.91 or higher, AdjO of 113.9 or higher and AdjD of 96.0 or lower, we’re left with only eight national championship contenders as of writing:

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:

For my money, Baylor (+350) looks like the best team in the country; but Illinois (+1500) offers the best value among our list of national title contenders.

This is unadulterated conjecture on my part, but Houston (+2000) feels more like a Sweet 16 team to me — depending on the Cougars’ draw in the tournament, of course. And Ohio State (+2000) profiles more closely to a Final Four Dark Horse than to a championship contender.

I much prefer the Fighting Illini’s 15-1 odds over either the Cougars or Buckeyes … but call me when either of the latter squads drops to 40-1 or longer, and I might change my tune (I’m not holding my breath that it will happen, of course).

Our list of eight championship contenders notably excludes the following teams, each of which is ranked in the current AP Top 25 poll and boast 25-1 odds or better to take home the title this season:

  • No. 8 Iowa (+1500)
  • No. 6 Texas (+1700)
  • No. 10 Alabama (+1900)
  • No. 11 Tennessee (+2200)
  • No. 19 Wisconsin (+2200)
  • No. 20 Florida State (+2300)
  • No. 15 Creighton (+2500)
  • No. 13 Texas Tech (+2500)
  • No. 17 West Virginia (+2500)

But, 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 2021. Whenever a team ascends into championship consideration — or falls from grace — I’ll be sure to keep you updated.

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