In the spirit of the NCAA tournament coming up next week, let’s take a look at the best 25 college teams, using both analytics and the eye test.
UVA is not the prototypical “#1 team” – they don’t have a superstar, no Herculean one-and-done players, and they score 68 points per game. How, then, have they made it through this season as the unquestioned best team? Defense. Themselves and Cincinnati (more on them later) are so far ahead of the field in Adjusted Defense (the amount of points allowed per 100 possessions, adjusted for opponent), that the gap between the Cavaliers and the third overall team is the same as the gap between that team and the 63rd overall. That’s domination.
While the team above them excels with their defense, Nova is incredible because of their offense – far and away the most efficient in the country this year by Adjusted Offense. They’ve played a strong schedule, including convincing wins over Gonzaga and Xavier (twice), and have come out with it with only 4 losses. Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges are studs, and the team as a whole is shooting almost 50/40 from the field. Watch out.
Duke Blue Devils
You know that a team is good when every game that they lose is a surprise. “NC State? Really?”. “BC? Wow”. Yes, they have blemishes on their resume, but this is an extremely well-rounded team without a true weakness. Marvin Bagley is one of the top 5 players in NCAA basketball, and Grayson Allen is a former Wooden Award candidate. They’re fantastic on offense and defense; and even though they’re prone to the occasional game-long lapse in concentration (loss to BC, loss to St. John’s), there’s not a team in the field they can’t beat.
Here we go again – a Wolverines team flies under the radar all season long until they explode into the national spotlight in March. When have we seen this before? (Oh, right, last year). For the first time ever under John Beilein, Michigan’s defense is their calling card (ranked top 5 in the nation). When combined with their slow pace and reliance on the 3, teams can get extremely frustrated by their ability to go on a run at any time. Watch sixth man Duncan Robinson’s production as well; when he’s scored 6 or more points in a game, Michigan has never lost.
Even though the numbers say that Villanova and Duke have more efficient offenses than Purdue, I don’t care. When these guys are hitting, they remind me of UCLA’s fabled offense last year. Two of the best I’ve ever seen. The Edwards’ and Haas are always going to get their points, but watch out for Dakota Mathias, a sniper who’s ability to fly around screens and hit could be a game changer late in some second halves.
Michigan State Spartans
A strong, built team that’s going to beat you with their size and power. They’re the only team to rank in the top 10 in both Adjusted Offense and Defense, and they can hurt you from inside and outside (shooting 50/40 as a team). They’re not flashy, but they’re very dangerous.
The analytics don’t agree with me here, as kenpom.com lists them even lower as the 13th overall team. Some pundits have found Xavier’s defense too weak or believe that they are just lucky, as they rank only 59th in Adjusted Defense and in the top 10 in Luck rating. However, at some point, the fact that they just get the job done has to be respected. They only have three losses all season outside of Villanova, and they’ve beaten the top of the Big 12 along with dropping 89 against Cincinnati’s defense earlier this year. This is a well-rounded team and an offensive powerhouse who could make moves in March (unless they run into Nova too early).
A deep offensive team that can hit from anywhere inside 35 feet. Devonte’ Graham is on the Wooden Watch and Svi Mykhailiuk might be the best college shooter in the country. Kansas is potent, they’re hungry – and they’re dangerous.
North Carolina Tar Heels
They have a lot of losses, but they’ve played the hardest schedule in the country by the measure of the Adjusted Efficiency Margin of their opponents. They have wins over Michigan, Ohio State, Tennessee, Clemson, Duke (twice), and Miami. It’s unlikely to win two years in a row, but the Tar Heels can hang with anybody.
The main knock against them is that their strength of schedule is too easy, making their record smoke and mirrors. However, they rank in the top 100 in the same SOS rating we just used to measure UNC. They’ve beaten Wichita State once and play one of the most efficient defenses of all time (second this year only to UVA). Any team who believes they have a strong offense would be afraid to play them in March.
Wichita State Shockers
Can they shock the world once more? Defense, usually a constant on Gregg Marshall’s teams, has not been a strength of this Shockers squad. However, their offense is top 5 in the country and they can hurt opposing teams in so many ways: Landry Shamet is a machine and when Shaq Morris produces like he has been recently, this is a borderline unstoppable offensive powerhouse.
Texas Tech Red Raiders
Save for a recent four game stretch in which star Keenan Evans was either injured or hobbled, this is a 4 loss team in the toughest conference in the country. Adjusted Defense paints them as (underratedly) a top 5 defensive team in the country, and when Evans is on, they’re one of the best offensively as well.
West Virginia Mountaineers
Their full-court press is feared around the country. However, an important key to it – they have to be making their shots in order to set it up and force turnovers, their bread and butter. If they’re hitting, they’re an incredibly tough team to beat and can hang with anyone (even beating Virginia earlier this year).
I’m much less high on the Zags than most other analysts, and that mostly comes down to strength of schedule. They’ve really only beaten two legitimate teams this year: Ohio State (before Keita Bates-Diop’s explosion) and Saint Mary’s. They’re a strong team who can make a run – but nowhere near as powerful as last season’s squad.
Placed beneath Gonzaga mainly as a virtue of losing to them earlier this season – but this team was reborn after beating Wisconsin and Michigan back to back, with the aforementioned Bates-Diop taking off as a 20 PPG scorer. Watch out before penciling in the Buckeyes to the Final Four though, as they’re 2-3 in their last 5.
Losing Donte Grantham to injury hurt. After starting the season strong, Clemson has faded a little down the stretch, going 4-4 in their last 8. They’ve shown that by virtue of their defense (8th in Adjusted Defense), they can hang with some quality teams, but they’re unlikely to have the firepower to go too far.
Part of me wants to rank them higher. Deandre Ayton is a Greek god brought down to Earth, and Allonzo Trier is a superstar masquerading as second fiddle. However, it’s hard to ignore their lack of quality wins – victories over Texas A&M and Arizona State don’t look nearly as good as they used to, and those were their only victories over ranked opponents.
I’m not nearly as high on the SEC as many others. They’re deep, yes, but they lack high-end talent. Auburn, their pride and joy, has failed to impress me – especially recently. After a great start to the season, they’ve gone 2-4 in their last six. And reading deeper into their wins, they haven’t beaten quality opponents besides Middle Tennessee and Tennessee. Nothing they do really sticks out in the numbers, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they get bounced early.
Wins over Wichita, Providence and Cincinnati gives you validity in my book. Houston ranks in the top 30 in both Adjusted Offense and Defense, and they’re a balanced team that plays a deep lineup without one player averaging 32 MPG or more. That could help them in the tournament, especially if some of their top guys fail to impress.
Beating Purdue early in the season is a great win that shows their tough defense (3rd in Adjusted Defense) can put up a fight against anybody. However, they lack another signature win. Similar to Houston, though, they play a deep lineup – without anyone averaging even 29 MPG. Depth helps when it matters.
After beginning the season as one of the projected top teams, Florida has fallen in the eyes of many. Don’t be fooled by their record, though – Jalen Hudson and Chris Chiozza anchor a team that can hang with anybody. They’ve beaten Gonzaga, Cincy, Auburn, and hung with Duke. They could duck out early – but they could go on a run as well.
Saint Mary’s Gaels
Say it with me – Jock Landale is really, really good. The superstar upped his scoring, rebounding, and efficiency this year after already being one of the top players in the nation last year. He’s surrounded by shooters (the team shoots 50/40, with everyone besides Jock over 10 PPG on the team over 40% from 3) and the offense is efficient and fun to watch. Two problems though: they can’t play defense (120th in Adjusted Defense) and their only legitimate win this year is over Gonzaga.
Virginia Tech Hokies
One of the most bipolar teams in basketball this year, the Hokies have wins over UVA (on the road), UNC, Duke and Clemson but several losses in winnable games at home and one “yikes” home loss against Saint Louis. They deserve to be ranked this highly, but they’re a team to watch next week – you never know what you’re going to get.
Rhode Island Rams
The Rams can be hard to watch at times – they’re a team with two fantastic players in E.C. Matthews and Jared Terrell, but yet they’ve faded down the stretch and lost against teams they should be outmatching. They have the talent, but they need to put it all together (and fast).
Make no mistake, this team has not played against strong competition. Every criticism I’ve made about a team playing a weak schedule, they fit it. However – the degree to which they’ve dominated their league over the past 18 games deserves recognition. They play at a slow pace, they move the ball, and they shoot almost 50/40 from the field. That’s a hard combination for opposing college teams to handle. Watch out next week – any team playing against them, in my book, is on upset alert.
Just missed the cut: