A couple weeks ago, I launched this Final Four dark horse candidates column as a companion piece to our national championship contenders column. The latter piece has received two follow-ups since its installment. Now, it’s time for a substantial update to our Final Four hopefuls.
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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Updated 2018-19 Final Four Dark Horse Candidates
In the first edition of this article, I highlighted nine teams that fit our statistical profile as a Final Four dark horse. Those nine teams included: North Carolina, Nebraska, Kentucky, Iowa State, Auburn, Maryland, Louisville, Nevada and Buffalo.
Since then, North Carolina, Kentucky and Iowa State have all ascended into National Championship consideration based on their current efficiency metrics. Meanwhile, Nebraska, Auburn and Buffalo have all slipped out of Final Four Dark Horse candidacy.
So, we are now left with just three teams who have survived that attrition over the past two weeks:
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 23.44 AdjEM score is just 0.37 points away from national title consideration. Meanwhile, Nevada and Maryland have more work to do in order to ascend from Dark Horse purgatory.
Let’s take a quick dive into each team’s current tournament resume, and then I’ll highlight four additional teams that are tenuously close to joining their ranks as Final Four dark horses.
Louisville Cardinals Team Profile
The Cardinals are one of the most battle-tested teams in the country, boasting a 12th-ranked overall strength of schedule. They’ve notched three wins against AP top 15 opponents (Michigan State, North Carolina and Virginia Tech), and four of their six losses have come to AP top 10 opponents (Tennessee, Marquette, Kentucky and North Carolina).
Louisville is led by forward Jordan Nwora, who ranks fifth in the ACC in points per game (17.8) and 10th in rebounds per game (7.7). Surrounding Nwora is a balanced and deep class of high-effort role-players. As a result, Louisville boasts a balanced, above-average profile across nearly every statistical category.
But, the Cardinals absolutely feast at the free throw line. They rank eighth in free throws made per game (17.7) and 13th in team free throw percentage (76.5%). Louisville’s consistency at the charity stripe makes them hard to put away in close games — and even harder to catch when playing from behind.
Nevada Wolf Pack Team Profile
After reaching the Sweet Sixteen last season, the Wolf Pack have come out in 2019 with their irons to the fire. They boast an impressive 21-1 overall record and feature two excellent wings in Caleb Martin and Jordan Caroline, who combine for 37.4 points per game. Martin also ranks 22nd in three-pointers made per game (3.4) while Caroline ranks 21st in total rebounds per game (9.9).
Nevada boasts the second-most experienced team in the country, and their statistical profile reflects their maturity and leadership. The Wolf Pack is the nation’s top team in turnovers per possession (13.5%).
However, their Achilles heel is their lack of physicality. They rank 224th in opponent rebounds per game (35.9) and 258th in offensive rebound percentage (25.6%). The Wolf Pack could struggle against a long and athletic team like Duke or Kentucky, who may exploit Nevada’s size to create extra scoring opportunities.
Nevada is also severely limited by their poor strength of schedule, which ranks 106th in the country. Their top wins have come against Arizona State, Utah State and Fresno State, none of whom are guaranteed a NCAA Tournament berth.
To add insult to injury, they also have a terrible 27-point loss against New Mexico, which has a 10-12 overall record and ranks 174th in AdjEM.
For Nevada to seriously contend for a national title, it will have to prove it can be physically tough — not just mentally tough. The Pack also cannot afford injuries to either Martin or Caroline, both of whom shoulder the lion’s share of the team’s offensive output.
Maryland Terrapins Team Profile
Of the three qualifying Final Four dark horses, I have the least faith in Maryland. The Terps lack a go-to offensive leader, they are overshadowed in their own conference by the likes of Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue and Wisconsin. And they’re reeling, having lost three of their last four games.
Maryland has four key weaknesses that concern me. First, they’re incredibly young. They rank 351st in experience at just 0.63 years per player. Second, they don’t get to the free throw line often: They rank 173rd in that category at 19.4 attempts per game. Third, they don’t take many threes: The Terps rank 262nd in three-pointers attempted per game (20.2). And finally, they don’t force turnovers, ranking 349th in that category at just 10.1 turnovers forced per game.
Now that I’ve sufficiently berated them for two full paragraphs, you might be asking yourself, “Then… why is Maryland a Final Four Contender?”
Answer: Size, physicality and rebounding.
Maryland ranks first in the nation in rebounding rate (57.5%) and 22nd in offensive rebound percentage (35.5%). When a team rebounds the ball that effectively, it limits opponents’ possessions and also increases the team’s second-chance opportunities.
The Terrapins also rank 11th in offensive rebound percentage allowed (23.2%) and 35th in two-point percentage allowed (45.9%). Simply put, their rim protection and rebounding are second to none.
Still, they could be particularly vulnerable against a sharp shooting team like Gonzaga or Creighton. They’re not particularly adept at defending the 3, and they demonstrate little aptitude at sinking the three ball themselves. That combination may prevent them from overcoming deficits against efficient offenses, which severely limits their tournament ceiling.
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.