Final Four Dark Horse Candidates: Buffalo Surging, Auburn Bouncing Back
- Ryan Collinsworth has established metric thresholds needed to reach the Final Four based on the last 15 years of NCAA Tournament data.
- Buffalo is poised to play spoiler again, and Auburn is regaining its footing after a slow start to SEC play.
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 two new Final Four hopefuls, one of which is a bonafide upstart mid-major that qualifies 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.
>> Sign up for The Action Network’s daily newsletter to get the smartest conversation delivered into your inbox each afternoon.
2018-19 Final Four Dark Horse Candidates
Updated through Feb. 18, 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:
Buffalo is an Archetypal Bracket-Buster
After upsetting 4-seed Arizona in last season’s NCAA tournament, the Bulls once again appear poised to upset brackets in 2019.
Buffalo is led by four seniors in C.J. Massinburg, Jeremy Harris, Nick Perkins and Dontay Caruthers, who combine for 55.7 points per game. Those four seniors lead a team that ranks 16th in experience and No. 8 in minutes continuity.
The Bulls’ most common lineup — which includes all four seniors — features 6-8 Nick Perkins as its tallest player on the court. That go-to small ball lineup enables them to unleash an aggressive, high-scoring offense that ranks sixth in adjusted tempo. Buffalo also ranks seventh in scoring offense (84.8 ppg).
Despite their relative lack of size, the Bulls are also a great rebounding team. Buffalo ranks 34th in offensive rebounds (10.6), 23rd in defensive rebounds (26.5) and 10th in total rebounds (40.5) per game.
Experience, maturity, chemistry, effort, high tempo… Buffalo fits the classic mold of previous mid-major bracket-busters. Don’t sleep on the Bulls.
Auburn Recovers from Mid-Season Stumble (…Sort Of)
The Tigers return to our list of Final Four dark horse candidates after a four-week hiatus.
Auburn started the season 11-2 in non-conference play and reached as high as No. 7 in the AP Top 25 poll. It then went just 2-4 to start conference play, sliding all the way out of all national rankings. Now, the Tigers seem to have turned a slight corner by going 4-2 in their last six games.
They haven’t yet found a way to put it all together consistently, but they nonetheless boast staggering metrics in key facets of the game. Auburn runs a modern offense that ranks 14th in 3-point rate (47.2%) and fifth in 3-pointers attempted per game (29.2).
The Tigers also wreak havoc on opposing teams by means of their defensive toughness and hustle. Auburn ranks eighth in blocks per game (5.1), 10th in steals per game (8.9) and 13th in offensive rebounds per game (11.4). The Tigers also rank first in opponent turnovers per possession. On average, Auburn forces a turnover on a staggering 25.2% of opponent possessions.
As you can see from the Tigers’ elite metrics, they possess immense potential. But, they’ve failed to take advantage of key opportunities against Ole Miss, LSU, Kentucky and Mississippi State. For all their talent, they lack few great wins on their tournament resume.
They are the ultimate wild card: A potential giant-beater… or a possible First Round exit.
First Four Out
The following teams boast efficiency metrics that just barely fall short of our statistical thresholds to be a Final Four dark horse. Keep a keen eye on each of these squads over the coming weeks:
Next Four Out
The pool of teams vying for Final Four candidacy has grown steadily each week. There are so many competitive teams, in fact, that I’ve had to add this new section to accommodate them.
As of writing, there are 10 to 15 teams who could realistically make this list over the remaining two weeks of the basketball season. Among them, these are the Next Four Out:
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.