In just four days’ time, the NCAA Tournament field will be set, and bracket pool participants will begin pondering a difficult annual question.
Who is going to make the Final Four?
There is, of course, no fool-proof system. But a look back at past national semifinals can help identify some contenders and pretenders in the field.
Since 2010, a perusal of data at KenPom.com shows almost every one of the 40 teams that made the Final Four were elite on at least one end of the court — if not both.
Just two of those 40 teams entered the tournament with offenses and defenses both ranked outside the top 30 in Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency rankings, and the two outliers were both in 2011.
Butler entered the tournament that year with the No. 34 offense and No. 69 defense. VCU advanced to Houston despite being assigned to play in the First Four as a No. 11 seed. The Rams had the 60th-ranked defense and the 126th ranked defense when they played USC in Dayton, Ohio.
Pre-tournament data was used in this analysis because a team’s metrics change when playing elite competition. Butler, which made a second-straight run to the national title game, lost 11 spots on offense but rose 23 on defense during its six games. VCU was 47th and 78th, respectively in Pomeroy’s offensive and defensive rankings after the tournament.
Furthermore, just seven other teams advanced to a Final Four with either an offense or defense ranked outside the top 50.
Making the national championship game has required even stronger metrics.
In addition to 2011 Butler, just three other teams have played in the title game without both offense and defense ranking in the top 40 of KenPom’s efficiency ratings, and only Connecticut in 2014 won it all with a sub-40 unit (No. 57 on offense). Eight of the 10 champions in the 2010s ranked in the top 10 of at least one of the two efficiency ratings. (The aforementioned Huskies were 12th in the defensive rankings, and their 2011 version was No. 21/27 when it beat Butler for the championship.)
Overall efficiency has been a good predictor of tournament success.
Since 2010, six eventual national champions were No. 1 overall at KenPom before the tournament, and two others, 2015 Kentucky and 2017 runner-up Gonzaga made the Final Four.
So, if we apply these numbers to this year’s prospective field, who are the serious contenders for the Final Four and national title?
This week there were 16 teams in the top 40 in Pomeroy’s rankings on both offense and defense.
Seven of them, led by presumptive No. 1 overall seed Kansas, check all the KenPom boxes (top 10 in overall efficiency, top 40 on offense and defense and top 10 in at least one of the two). The others: Gonzaga, Baylor, Dayton, Duke, San Diego State and Michigan State.
The Jayhawks (No. 9 offense, No. 2 defense) are the only team in the top 10 at both ends.
Not surprisingly, six of those seven teams top the current futures line, ranging from 6-1 to 14-1. Michigan State was tied for 11th at 20-1.
Efficiency ratings — especially on defense — can also help point out potential sleeper candidates for the Final Four.
Louisville in 2012 and South Carolina in 2017 advanced to the Final Four despite having sub-100 offenses. But the Cardinals, a 4-seed, and Gamecocks, a 7, had the second- and third-ranked defenses, respectively, those years.
Last season, Auburn made the Final Four as a 5-seed with the No. 56 defense. The Tigers entered the tournament with the eighth-ranked offense.
In 2020, West Virginia, which had a bounce-back win over Baylor on Saturday has the No. 68 offense but is ranked third on defense. Texas Tech, Rutgers, Stanford (if the Cardinal gets in) and Wichita State all are questionable on offense but have elite defenses.
Virginia has the nation’s most efficient defense and finished the regular season with eight straights wins. But the Cavaliers would be treading new ground if they advanced to the Final Four with the 234th-ranked offense.
On the flip side, Creighton, LSU, BYU, Oregon and Iowa have elite offenses but could be dragged down by spotty defending.
Selection Sunday is almost here.
Here are this week’s picks. The numbers for the spreads are based on game predictions at KenPom.com.
Boston University at Colgate -6: The Raiders’ sweep of the season series with the Terriers was the difference at the top of the standings in the Patriot League.
Now, Boston U. gets a third shot at Colgate as the conference’s top two seeds meet with the winner advancing to the NCAA Tournament.
The Raiders, who are playing at home, won the previous two games by a combined 25 points. COLGATE
Washington vs. Arizona -4: What to make of the Huskies?
Their early season win over Baylor was long forgotten after they started the conference season 2-12. But Washington won three of its final four, including on the road against both Arizona schools last week.
The Wildcats stumble into the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas having won once in five games. WASHINGTON
Purdue vs. Ohio State, Total 128: The 16-15 Boilermakers are in serious danger of missing the NCAA Tournament.
Their offense has been wildly inconsistent, but the Purdue defense has been good. The Buckeyes also have a top-20 defense. UNDER
Marquette vs. Seton Hall -1: Speaking of teams that should be desperate: Marquette is just 1-6 in its past seven games.
The Golden Eagles were just 5-9 away from home during the regular season.
Losses last week to Villanova and Creighton cost the Pirates the outright Big East regular-season crown, but a strong showing at Madison Square Garden will guarantee them a top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament. SETON HALL
Last week: 3-1