Final Four Dark Horse Candidates: Kansas Makes the Cut … For Now
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Kansas Jayhawks guard Devon Dotson (11), TCU Horned Frogs guard Alex Robinson (25).
A couple weeks ago, I launched this Final Four dark horse candidates column as a companion piece to our national championship contenders column. Another week of conference play has illuminated three new Final Four hopefuls, two of which qualify for the first time all season.
In my original article, I analyzed all college basketball teams based on three metrics, each sourced from Ken Pomeroy:
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 analyzed former Final Four teams and national champs and established statistical thresholds for each metric that define the profile of a potential champion.
Based on that historical analysis and statistical treatment, Final Four Dark Horse candidates must achieve an AdjO score of 114.0 or higher and an AdjD score of 96.2 or less. National Championship Contenders fulfill both of those criteria while also boasting an AdjEM score of 23.81 or higher.
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2018-19 Final Four Dark Horse Candidates
Updated through Feb. 12, 2019.
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:
Louisville’s colossal 23-point blown lead against Duke on Tuesday night likely prevented them from ascending into the pantheon of national title contenders. Nonetheless, they proved against the Blue Devils precisely why they’re such a dangerous tournament team.
Despite their disappointing loss, the Cardinals still boast the best resume of all Final Four Dark Horse candidates. Continue to buy the Cardinals (+6000) and the Terrapins (+10000) at long odds to challenge for a national title.
Jayhawks Finally Break Through
Kansas makes this list for the first time this season following an overtime road win against TCU. While that’s certainly cause for optimism, that optimism may be short-lived.
The Jayhawks’ AdjO rating of 114.0 sits exactly on the threshold for a Final Four dark horse candidate, and their AdjO rating has oscillated between 112.0 and 114.0 all season. Since losing center Udoka Azubuike to a season-ending hand injury in January, Kansas has not consistently shown elite offensive potential.
On top of that, senior guard Lagerald Vick has taken a leave of absence to attend to unspecified family matters, and there is currently no timetable for his return. In his stead, Devon Dotson has really stepped up, scoring 18 or more points in three of his last four games.
The bottom-line is that Kansas is a good team that is proficient at nearly everything and excellent at nothing. They have mature senior leadership, but they are also mired in off-court drama and on-court injury trouble. I fully expect that they will once again fall from Final Four dark horse candidacy in another week or two.
Marquette Rises to the Occasion
The Golden Eagles (21-4, 10-2 Big East) notched one of their biggest wins of the season this weekend against defending-champion Villanova. Marquette now owns six victories over teams with a top 50 AdjEM rating, including: No. 11 Wisconsin, No. 12 Louisville, No. 21 Villanova, No. 24 Buffalo, No. 27 Kansas State and No. 49 Creighton.
The Golden Eagles’ defense is above-average at best, but they boast one of the sharpest-shooting offenses in the country. Marquette ranks ninth in free throw percentage (76.9%), 10th in three-point percentage (39.6%) and 41st in effective field goal percentage (54.5%). That highly efficient offense has resulted in 79.0 points per game and a 26th-ranked average scoring margin of +10.0.
Still, Marquette is not quite the caliber of the other teams on this list. Their 18.56 AdjEM score falls far short of the rest of the pack; all five of the other teams on our list have an AdjEM of at least 21.00.
While they may not be quite as dominant as Louisville or Iowa State, they’re just as dangerous. If the Golden Eagles get hot going into the NCAA Tournament, watch out: They can absolutely run teams out of the gym with their razor-sharp three-point shooting.
Is the Big Ten Over-Rated?
The Big Ten features six teams in the Week 15 AP Top 25: No. 6 Michigan, No. 11 Michigan State, No. 12 Purdue, No. 20 Wisconsin, No. 21 Iowa and No. 24 Maryland. However, among them, only Michigan State and Maryland boast adjusted efficiency metrics that qualify them as a potential Final Four team or better.
Michigan’s lowly offense has kept them off this list all season, and they just suffered an embarrassing loss to Penn State on Tuesday. Wisconsin’s offense also failed them in back-to-back losses to Michigan and Michigan State. On top of that, Purdue has fallen short defensively for two consecutive weeks — despite going 8-1 in their past nine games.
To be fair, these are all good teams that are cannibalizing one another in conference play. However, this dynamic is also true of the ACC, and that conference boasts four national title contenders and one Final Four candidate.
The Big Ten needs its top teams to emphatically separate themselves down the stretch. Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue and Maryland need to take care of business against teams like Wisconsin, Iowa and Indiana, leaving little doubt as to which teams are at the top of the league. If they can manage that, maybe they’ll sneak another team or two into these rankings next week.
First Four Out
The following teams boast efficiency metrics that just barely fall short of our statistical thresholds to be a Final Four candidacy. Keep a keen eye on each of these squads over the coming weeks:
I’ll be publishing follow-ups to this piece as teams move into and out of Final Four contention throughout the season. Whenever a team ascends into Final Four consideration — or falls from grace — I’ll be sure to keep you updated.