College Basketball National Championship Contenders: Spartans Stumble Against Indiana

College Basketball National Championship Contenders: Spartans Stumble Against Indiana article feature image

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Xavier Tillman and Justin Smith

  • Ryan Collinsworth identifies nine college basketball national championship contenders based on a specific statistic profile.
  • Virignia Tech and Iowa State both stand out as longshots among the group of contenders.

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.

Two new teams have joined the ranks of our contenders, while one team highlighted last week has fallen out of consideration.

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 reported via Westgate SuperBook as of Monday, February 4, 2019, each team’s current odds to win a national championship are posted below.

  • Duke +175
  • Gonzaga +700
  • Michigan State +700
  • Virginia +800
  • Tennessee +1000
  • North Carolina +1200
  • Kentucky +1200
  • Iowa State +4000
  • Virginia Tech +5000

Seven of those nine teams currently boast top 10 odds to win the national championship this season, but two are still longshots: Iowa State (+4000) and Virginia Tech (+5000).

Both of those longshots could be deserving of a futures wager due to the nature of our statistical methods. Our qualifying metrics act as threshold values in defining a potential champion. After thorough correlational analysis, we found limited additional predictive validity as any of our three metrics improves beyond our threshold values.

This means that if a team passes the cut as a national title contender based on our qualifications, there is no statistically significant method of identifying which of those teams is most likely to win a championship. They all boast approximately the same historical odds of winning a title.

So, if you’re in the market to place a futures bet on any of these teams based on our method of analysis, you should wager on teams with the longest odds. This week, such teams include the Iowa State Cyclones and Virginia Tech Hokies.

There is, however, one caveat. Our historical analysis judges teams based on their end-of-regular-season metrics. So, if you choose to wager on Virginia Tech or Iowa State, for example, you must believe that each team is capable of sustaining their current performance for the remainder of the regular season.

Our list of championship contenders also currently excludes Michigan (+1400), Villanova (+2500), Purdue (+2500), Nevada (+3000) and Kansas (+3000). All five teams currently have top 12 odds to win a national championship this season.

Hokies Continue to Hang Tough

Virginia Tech has hung on to its National Championship contender status each week since we launched this column. At first, I — like many others — thought its metrics might be a bit fluky. But, the Hokies have dispelled my doubt. It seems like they’re the real deal.

They boast four wins against teams ranked in the top 50 in NET Ranking and AdjEM: Purdue (11/10), Washington (28/34), Syracuse (42/35) and NC State (34/42). Additionally, three of four losses have come to teams ranked in the top 15 in NET Ranking and AdjEM: Virginia (1/1), North Carolina (10/7) and Louisville (15/13).

They rank fourth in effective field goal percentage (58.9%), 23rd in field goal percentage defense (40.0%), fifth in average scoring margin (16.8) and sixth in scoring defense (60.2). The Hokies have a modern offense, tenacious defense and balanced overall profile. They deserve public respect — and perhaps public betting support as well.

Welcome Kentucky and Iowa State to the Party

The Case for Kentucky

Kentucky is long, athletic and physical. The Wildcats rank 6th in offensive rebound percentage (37.5%) and sixth in rebound margin (9.3). They play tenacious man defense and rank 11th in blocks per game (5.3).

However, their offense may be too predicated on athleticism. They rank 309th in three-pointers made per game (6.2) and 169th in turnovers per game (13.2). Against a stout zone defensive team like Virginia, the Wildcats’ offense could stagnate.

Nonetheless, their gifted athletic talent has earned them six wins over teams in the top 50 in AdjEM: North Carolina (7), Louisville (13), Auburn (14), Kansas (15), Mississippi State (23) and Florida (33). That’s certainly a championship resume.

The Case for Iowa State

The Cyclones represent something close to an antithesis to Kentucky. Their offensive profile is based on efficient shooting, ball movement and ball security. Iowa State ranks 19th in effective field goal percentage (55.5%) and 24th in turnovers per game (11.0).

Like the Wildcats, ISU also boasts plenty of wins against top 50 teams in AdjEM: Kansas (15), Texas Tech (16), Texas (30), Oklahoma (38) and Ole Miss (46). At least a share of the Big 12 regular season title has resided in Lawrence, Kansas for 14 consecutive seasons, but Iowa State could be the team to finally dethrone the Jayhawks this year.


Just one week removed from entering the national title conversation, Purdue has already fallen back down to earth.

The Boilermakers rose to national acclaim following consecutive wins against Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan State. Since then, they’ve won at Penn State and against Minnesota at home, bringing their current winning streak up to seven straight games. They’re also a perfect 11-0 at home this season.

So, what gives? Why the demotion if they keep on winning?

The problem is the way they’ve been winning. In particular, their 99-90 overtime win at Penn State really hurt them. The Nittany Lions’ offense ranks 287th in scoring (68.5 points per game) and 140th in AdjO. Giving up 90 points to that team simply isn’t a good look. In fact, Purdue’s defensive performances against Penn State and Minnesota resulted in its AdjD falling from 95.3 to 97.2 over the span of just one week.

So, is Purdue a one-week wonder, or is this demotion just a temporary setback?

The Boilermakers’ next five games should be telling. They draw five straight matchups against competent to above-average foes, including a revenge date against Penn State on Feb. 16th.

Time to Short the Spartans?

Michigan State received news last week that junior guard Joshua Langford will miss the remainder of the season due to an ankle injury suffered against Northern Illinois on Dec. 29.

Prior to his injury, Langford ranked third on the team in points (15.0), second in three-pointers made (2.2), second in minutes (28.6) and second in field goal attempts (12.9) per game. On top of that, Langford proved himself as a big shot-maker during non-conference play. Without him, even more pressure will fall to Cassius Winston to will the team to victory when it counts.

Nonetheless, Michigan State has has gone 7-2 in conference play without Langford already. Unfortunately, its two conference losses came in back-to-back games against Purdue and Indiana last week.

The Spartans should be able to get back on track against Illinois and Minnesota, but the news on Langford is a big blow to their long-term ceiling. Make no mistake: Michigan State is still one of the best teams in the country and features a top-five all-time college basketball coach with Tom Izzo at the helm. However, Langford’s absence during their tournament stretch could be cause to fade the Spartans’ title odds.

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.