2021 NCAA Tournament Bracket: Title Contenders, Final Four Sleepers & Dark Horses, Based on Statistical Models

2021 NCAA Tournament Bracket: Title Contenders, Final Four Sleepers & Dark Horses, Based on Statistical Models article feature image
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Williams Paul/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images. Pictured: UConn Huskies guard James Bouknight (2).

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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.”

We revived each of those columns this season, culminating in last week’s penultimate update prior to the Power-6 and high-major conference tournaments.

Now, it’s NCAA Tournament time.

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The regular season slate of games is now complete; there’s no more need to adjust team metrics on a daily basis; and I’m finally at liberty to offer the final update to this column before March Madness 2021 tips off on Thursday. In this article, I will highlight every NCAA Tournament team whose statistical profile fits our prescribed thresholds as a potential Final Four or national title contender.

But — the basketball gods have granted us an extra day of preparation prior to March Madness this year, so why don’t we take the scenic route? Before I reveal the final rankings for 2021’s contenders and dark horse candidates, let’s revisit the 2019 season and take a look at how our top-ranked teams performed in the tournament two years ago:


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 from 2019:

  • 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

Alright, enough reminiscing; on to the good stuff.


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)

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, here are the final 2021 National Title Contender Rankings:

Technically, Virginia and Villanova have each accrued season-long metrics that fit our prescribed parameters. So, by the letter of the law, each of those schools should be included with the six teams above. However, the gulf between the sixth-ranked team (Houston) and the seventh-ranked team (Virginia) is massive.

How massive, exactly? To be mathematically precise, the difference between Houston’s and Virginia’s AdjEM is 6.17.

But to appeal to some anecdotal evidence, the AdjEM difference between Houston and Virginia is approximately equivalent to the difference between Virginia and … Utah State.

Considering this obvious tier break in the data — combined with Villanova’s injury setbacks late in the season and Virginia’s issues with COVID-19 entering the tournament (if indeed the Cavaliers can clear medical protocols to even participate) — it’s perfectly sensible to me to leave both clubs off of our final list of contenders.

That leaves us with only six remaining national title contenders entering the 2021 NCAA Tournament. Each of those teams is represented below based on their current AdjO and AdjD, in order to help you visualize their standing relative to previous national champions.

 

 


2021 Final Four Dark Horse 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 Final Four teams:

 

 


Notable Teams That Do Not Qualify as a Final Four Dark Horse

The following 11 teams do not qualify for either national title contention or Final Four dark horse candidacy — yet each of them boasts 10-1 odds or better to at least make the Final Four:

Among this list of teams that just missed the cut, a few stand out as possible exceptions/exclusions to our strict statistical thresholds.

The first and most glaringly obvious exception is Ohio State (+400 to make Final Four). The Buckeyes boast an elite AdjEM (26.85) well surpassing our prescribed threshold of 23.91, their AdjO (123.0) is off the charts, and only their AdjD (96.1) is holding them back.

That AdjD score of 96.1 is literally only 0.1 away from being included as a national title contender, which is an audaciously slim margin to use as justification to cut a No. 2 seed that’s red-hot right now. Furthermore, that AdjD measure of 96.1 would have been sufficient for the Buckeyes to qualify in 2019 when the threshold was still set at 96.2.

The other two teams worth mentioning here are USC (+1000) and Texas Tech (+600). The Trojans are excluded due to their AdjO of 113.6 (0.3 short of the 113.9 threshold). The Red Raiders are excluded due to the same metric: AdjO. Texas Tech has a slightly larger margin (AdjO of 113.1; 0.8 short of threshold) to Final Four Dark Horse candidacy, but both teams are on a proverbial razor’s edge between inclusion and exclusion.


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