One of these six teams will win the men's NCAA tournament

In the first year of the Championship Arc, the nine championship contenders all made the Sweet 16 and six made the Elite Eight

Gonzaga. Michigan. Illinois. Baylor. Iowa. Houston.

The eventual winner of the men’s 2021 NCAA Tournament is among that group of teams, according to the Championship Arc, which you can read more about here. In short, the Championship Arc tells us that most national champions over the last 20 seasons fit a similar profile in terms of their offensive and defensive efficiency ratings, courtesy of kenpom.com.

Sure, there have been exceptions and anyone whose system was able to identify No. 7 seed UConn as a national championship contender in 2014 is either a liar or they’re currently living a life of luxury in Las Vegas. So the Championship Arc is by no means foolproof but in its first season in 2019, the nine national championship contenders it identified included:

  • The national champion (Virginia)

  • Another Final Four team (Michigan State)

  • Four other Elite Eight teams (Duke, Gonzaga, Kentucky and Purdue)

  • Three other Sweet 16 teams (Michigan, North Carolina and Tennessee)

Through Selection Sunday, there are six teams that fall inside the Championship Arc and to no surprise, they’re the four No. 1 seeds, plus No. 2 seeds Iowa and Houston.

Below is the final Championship Arc update before the NCAA tournament, with adjusted offensive efficiency on the x-axis and adjusted defensive efficiency on the y-axis. The past national champions and Final Four teams on the scatter plot are graphed based upon their pre-NCAA tournament efficiency ratings, such that their positioning isn’t affected in hindsight by their respective NCAA tournament runs.

Based on Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, those six teams inside the Championship Arc collectively have a 77-percent chance of winning the NCAA tournament, leaving the rest of the field with a 23-percent chance.

Gonzaga is the strongest national championship contender since…?

Gonzaga’s adjusted efficiency margin (calculated as points scored per 100 possessions minus points allowed per 100 possessions, both of which are adjusted by kenpom.com for the quality of opponents, the location of games and when games were played) is currently +38.05 points per 100 possessions, which means Gonzaga would be expected to beat an average team on a neutral floor by roughly 26 points.

From the 2002 season, which is the oldest season in kenpom.com’s archives, through 2020, here are the 22 teams that had a pre-NCAA tournament adjusted efficiency margin of at least +31.00:

Key:
* = National champion
** = Made the Final Four
*^* = National champion that had its championship vacated, so its asterisk gets an asterisk

  • 2015 Kentucky**: +37.43

  • 2019 Virginia*: +35.65

  • 2002 Duke: +34.02

  • 2008 Kansas*: +33.96

  • 2015 Wisconsin**: +33.53

  • 2005 Illinois**: +33.31

  • 2017 Gonzaga**: +33.05

  • 2019 Gonzaga: +32.86

  • 2010 Kansas: +32.51

  • 2015 Arizona: +32.31

  • 2011 Ohio State: +32.23

  • 2018 Virginia: +32.15

  • 2005 North Carolina*: +32.00

  • 2013 Florida: +31.98

  • 2019 Duke: +31.96

  • 2007 North Carolina: +31.74

  • 2004 Duke**: +31.73

  • 2012 Kentucky*: +31.73

  • 2010 Duke*: +31.55

  • 2018 Villanova*: +31.41

  • 2013 Louisville*^*: +31.14

  • 2019 Michigan State**: +31.11

All of those efficiency margins go to show that Gonzaga has a better efficiency margin than any team that has entered the NCAA tournament in the last 20 seasons. Six of the top seven teams on the list above made the Final Four and two of the top four won the national championship.

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Maybe we should talk about Ohio State the way that Iowa has often been discussed

Ohio State nearly won the Big Ten tournament, as it fell 91-88 to Illinois in overtime on Sunday, and the Buckeyes are one of two Big Ten teams that received a No. 2 seed, along with Iowa. At the time of the midseason Championship Arc update, Iowa’s offense was ranked No. 1 in the country and its defense was ranked No. 90, which was frankly nothing new for Iowa over the last decade or so – having a very good, if not elite offense, along with a pedestrian defense.

The following data comes from kenpom.com:

From the last Championship Arc update to Selection Sunday, Iowa’s offensive efficiency ranking only dropped one spot to No. 2 nationally, while its defensive efficiency ranking was nearly cut in half from No. 90 to No. 50, which allowed the Hawkeyes to move inside the arc and not too far from No. 2 Baylor (No. 3 offensively, No. 44 defensively), and that might come as a bit of a surprise.

Whatever you think of Baylor’s ceiling and whatever you think of Iowa’s floor, there’s a chance that you should have similar feelings about the other school’s ceiling and floor – at least in a vacuum, while setting aside specific matchups and NCAA tournament draws.

That brings us back to Ohio State, which occupies a similar position where Iowa used to reside, as a really strong offensive team whose defense leaves more to be desired. The Buckeyes are the team that’s positioned closest to the Championship Arc but not inside it, so they could clearly make a deep NCAA tournament run but their defense (No. 79 nationally) leaves them potentially exposed, even as a No. 2 seed.

There’s an argument that, collectively, we should probably talk about Iowa more like how we talk about Baylor and that we should probably talk about Ohio State more like how we have previously talked about Iowa.

If you’re looking for a dark horse

Before the 2019 NCAA Tournament, the Championship Arc identified Texas Tech and Virginia Tech as two potential dark-horse national championship contenders, as a No. 3 seed and No. 4 seed, respectively. The former lost in overtime in the national championship game and the latter nearly beat No. 1 overall seed Duke.

If we self-impose a rule that a No. 2 seed that’s located outside of the Championship Arc can’t be a dark horse – seems fair and obvious, right? Ohio State and Alabama are probably in a tier of their own – then Virginia and Florida State are arguably the next-best candidates, since Villanova lost starting point guard Collin Gillespie with a season-ending knee injury, so the Wildcats need to be taken off the board, unfortunately.

Of course, it’s worth mentioning that Virginia was unable to play in the ACC tournament semifinals due to a positive Covid-19 test and subsequent contact tracing, and the Cavaliers aren’t scheduled to travel to Indianapolis until the day before their first-round game, when they’re scheduled to play Ohio, which only lost by two points to eventual No. 1 seed Illinois when the two schools met in November.

So Virginia would admittedly be a more appealing dark-horse pick under better circumstances.

Florida State, which finished second in the ACC regular-season standings and as the runner-up in the ACC tournament, was the 11th team listed in Pomeroy’s tweet above about national championship favorites, and the Seminoles were the first No. 3 or No. 4 seed listed.

Note that Loyola Chicago and Wisconsin are two deep sleeper candidates if you’re feeling bold but given that both teams will play in an 8/9 game in the first round, followed by a potential second-round meeting with a No. 1 seed, their paths to the second weekend, let alone the Final Four, will be a challenge.

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Recap of last week’s newsletter

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“If annual revenue doubles again in 10 to 15 years during the next round of media rights deals, then a 50-percent revenue-sharing model in the 2030s could theoretically force athletic departments to spend at 2021 levels. Just as an administrator might wonder how to get by in 2021 with a late-aughts revenue of, say, $80 million, the same administrator might wonder in 2035 how to get by with present-day revenue levels, like $160 or $170 million.”

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