Long shots are lurking

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After Gonzaga earlier this season became the first team to beat four Top 25 opponents in its first seven games while making the competition appear severely overmatched, many college basketball watchers outside of Waco, Texas, seemed to consider the 2020-21 national champion a forgone conclusion.

We would have gathered more information if the coronavirus pandemic hadn’t erased from the schedule a classic 1-vs.-2 battle between the Zags and Waco’s Baylor Bears last month.

Statistically speaking, the Bulldogs and Bears have been dominant in 2020-21. But who else has a legitimate shot at winning a national title this season?

Poring over Ken Pomeroy’s advanced analysis of college basketball sheds some light.

During the KenPom era (starting with the 2001-02 season) there have been 18 NCAA Tournaments. Just one champion, Connecticut in 2014, has failed to finish the regular season in the top 40 in both adjusted offensive efficiency and adjusted defensive efficiency, based on pre-tournament data at KenPom.com.

That Huskies team was No. 12 on defense but just 57th on offense. In fact, 15 of the 18 title holders were top-25 in those two columns. Syracuse in 2003 was No. 18 in offensive efficiency and 31st on defense; 2015 Duke was third and 37th.

Since the 2002 tournament, 55 of the 72 Final Four participants have been top 40 in both efficiency metrics.

So, how do 2020-21 teams stack up against these trends?

As of Monday afternoon, there were 23 teams — from Gonzaga (second on offense, thirteenth on defense and No. 1 overall) to Saint Louis (39th, 36th and No. 30 overall) — ranked in the top 40 in both offensive and defensive efficiency (sorry, Iowa, No. 2 in offensive efficiency but 69th on the defensive end). Just 11 of those teams were ranked in the top 25 in both categories. (That group of 11 includes three Gonzaga victims — Virginia, Kansas and West Virginia.)

But we can break this down further by looking at Pomeroy’s data.

His rankings are based on what he calls adjusted efficiency margin (AdjEM). Setting aside the complicated formulas used at KenPom, a team’s AdjEM is simply the difference between its offensive and defensive ratings.

The Zags and Bears have separated themselves from the pack at KenPom.com.

Gonzaga was at +32.93 AdjEM and Baylor +32.74 on Tuesday morning. Among the past 18 national champions, only 2019 Virginia (+35.7) and 2008 Kansas (+33.9) had higher efficiency margins.

Since 2002, just four teams have won the national title with an AdjEM of less than 25.

Requiring this year’s teams to be in the top 40 in efficiency on both ends of the court and hold an AdjEM of at least 25 gives us six serious contenders: the Zags, Bears, Villanova, Michigan, Tennessee and Virginia. Four other schools currently in the top 40 of both efficiency rankings — Texas, Houston, Wisconsin and Illinois — are close to 25 in AdjEM with plenty of time to get there.

In futures betting, Texas and Wisconsin were +1100, Houston +1200 and Tennessee +1400 on Monday. Even better: Virginia was +2200.

Here are this week’s picks. The numbers for the spreads are based on game predictions at KenPom.com.


Clemson -1 at Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets stumbled out of the gate to start the season, losing to Georgia State in quadruple overtime and to Mercer two days later.

Since then, Georgia Tech (6-3) has six wins and just one loss, at Florida State a month ago.

The Tigers will be smarting after being embarrassed by Virginia on Saturday. But Clemson is 14-27 SU in road games in the past four seasons under head coach Brad Brownell. GEORGIA TECH 


Rutgers at Penn State -1: The Scarlet Knights were 7-1 and in the top 20 at KenPom after beating Purdue on Dec. 29. They’ve lost four straight and tumbled to No. 40 since. They’ll tumble out of tournament consideration if they lose to the Big Ten lesser lights.

The Nittany Lions (3-5) have also lost four in a row, and they’ve joined Nebraska in the Big Ten basement.

Rutgers’ 6-foot-11 shot-blocking center Myles Johnson will be too much for the undersized Nittany Lions, who aren’t good on the inside on either end of the court.

The Scarlet Knights will need improvement from wing Ron Harper Jr., who averaged 23 points in his team’s first seven games but less than 11 during the losing streak. RUTGERS


Cal Poly at UC Irvine -17: The Anteaters have recovered from slow start to the season and have two wins over likely their chief rival in the Big West Conference, UC Santa Barbara.

The Broncos are one of the worst teams in any conference. They’re 343rd in effective field goal percentage, and UC Irvine has improved on defense during their four-game win streak. It’s a lot of points, but … UC IRVINE 


Furman -4 at East Tennessee State: The Paladins are one of the best shooting teams in the nation. Guarding shooters is not the Buccaneers’ specialty.

Furman (10-3) were 4-0 in the Southern Conference prior to Wednesday’s game at VMI. The Paladins’ three losses came against Cincinnati, Alabama and Winthrop.

East Tennessee State has been surprisingly competitive after losing six players and the head coach from the 2020 team that went 30-4 and was a trendy Cinderella pick last March before the tournament was canceled.

But the Paladins are a bad matchup for first-year coach Jason Shay’s team. Furman can create points off turnovers and exploit the Buccaneers’ poor perimeter defense. FURMAN 

Last week: 2-1-1

Season: 18-5-4

About the Author

Ched Whitney

Ched Whitney has been a journalist in Las Vegas since 1994. He worked for the Las Vegas Review-Journal for 18 years, where he was the paper’s art director for 12. Since becoming a freelancer in 2012, his work has appeared at ESPN.com, AOL, The Seattle Times and UNLV Magazine, among others. ​

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