Gonzaga is the best bet to win the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament
Pomeroy has been posting its ratings since the 2001-02 season, so we can go back and look at the WOMEN of every national champion entering the NCAA Tournament. Using this method, you have a clean number to see how teams in this year’s peloton compare to past champions to better gauge their chances of winning it all. For a pick to make sense as the last team standing, it must cross a minimum threshold. Here’s how the tiers break down:
The low bar: 19.1 This is the lowest adjusted efficiency margin for an NCAA men’s tournament champion since 2002, when Pomeroy’s efficiency data begins. The honor goes to 2014 Connecticut Huskies, a No. 7 seed who was pretty meh statistically — entering that year’s tournament, the Huskies ranked only 57th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency — but still had enough firepower to win it all. If your title choice wipes out 19.1, that’s not completely crazy, but most rational choices look a bit more like…
“Average” champions: 28.2 If a team enters the tournament with an AdjEM number higher than this, it is a very good choice to be your champion. The North Carolina team that won the 2017 national title came close to that average, with 28 MWOs entering the NCAA Tournament.
Going into last year’s NCAA Tournament, there were six teams with AdjEM numbers above 28.2. Three of them – national champion Baylor, national runner-up Gonzaga and Houston – ended up in the Final Four. Another qualified for the Elite Eight (Michigan).
Best of the best: 35.7 Virginia raised the bar with their 2019 title run, becoming the most effective team to cut the nets. Considering the team the Cavaliers passed for the honor was the Kansas Jayhawks in 2008, who prevailed in an all-seeded No. 1 Final Four, that’s quite a remarkable achievement.
Going into this year’s tournament, there is only one team that exceeds the AdjEM winners’ average of 28.2: Gonzaga, which sits at 32.97. If the Bulldogs finally cut the nets, they would have the third-highest starting MWO of any national champion since 2002, behind only Virginia in 2019 and Kansas in 2008.
There’s a lot to like about the Bulldogs, who rank first in KenPom’s offensive efficiency and seventh in defensive efficiency. Led by versatile big men Drew Timme and Chet Holmgren, Gonzaga has an effective field goal percentage – which takes into account that three points are worth more than two points – of 59.4 (second nationally) and keeps opponents on effective field goal percentage of 43.2 percent (first nationally). Its three losses have been to Duke (a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament), Alabama (a No. 6 seed) and Saint Mary’s (a No. 5 seed), and the Bulldogs have won double-digit wins over Texas, UCLA, Texas Tech and San Francisco, all tournament teams.
This season, there are 19 teams that cross our AdjEM number of 19.1 at the low bar entering the NCAA Tournament.
Offensive Efficiency (Rank)
Defensive Efficiency (Rank)
To narrow down this list, we can highlight the fact that all but one of the national champions since 2002 have ranked in the top 20 on Pomeroy’s offensive efficiency metric entering the tournament (the 2014 Connecticut is, you guessed it , the outlier). So that means we’re removing the following teams from our list: Tennessee (36th in offensive efficiency), Texas Tech (65th), Auburn (24th), Texas (32nd), Saint Mary’s (63rd), Illinois (23rd), Connecticut ( 21st) and LSU (89th).
And let’s narrow things down more to teams that place in the top 20 in both offenses and defensive efficiency. This leaves us with…
Arizona: Of the 68 field, only Gonzaga and Bryant are running at a faster pace than the Wildcats, who are the top seed in the South Region. Arizona is a young and versatile team led by three foreign-born players: second-year fullback Bennedict Mathurin (Canada), second-year forward Azuolas Tubelis (Lithuania) and first-year center Christian Koloko (Cameroon).
Houston: Including the Cougars here is something of a tough spot, as they are expected to overtake Arizona in the Sweet 16. Houston also has a tricky first-round matchup with UAB, which probably should have been a higher seed than the No. 12. But the Cougars, a Final Four team last year, have exceeded expectations since leading scorer Marcus Sasser and key contributor Tramon Mark suffered season-ending injuries before the start of the conference games.
Baylor: No team has been national champion since Florida in 2006 and 2007, but the Bears have the talent to accomplish the feat, although they also had to play through injuries (Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua suffered a knee injury in end of the season in February, and outside threat LJ Cryer has been missing time recently with a foot injury). Five Baylor players are averaging at least 8.4 points per game, but there’s also reason to be wary: Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, no team has won the title national after losing in the quarterfinals of their conference tournament (Baylor fell to Oklahoma in the Round of 16 of the Big 12).
UCLA: The Bruins went from the qualifier to the Final Four last year, and this year’s version is even better on paper. UCLA won’t chase anyone out of the gym with their pace, but they’re extremely careful with the ball and rarely waste offensive possessions. Four of the five players who started in last year’s Final Four classic against Gonzaga — Johnny Juzang, Jules Bernard, Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Tyger Campbell — are still up for the Bruins this season. But again, we run into the vagaries of the bracket: UCLA will have to overtake Baylor in the Sweet 16.