Searching for the next 60-point scorer

In its own way, 50 or more points is incredibly impressive. Given that college basketball games have around ~70% of the possessions of an NBA game and a significantly lower portion of usage-rate stars, it’s probably no surprise that a 50+ point game happens just over once a season. Only 14 times since 2010 has a Division I player dropped 50 or more against another Division I team; no player has scored more than Cameron Young’s 55 for Quinnipiac against Siena in 2019 in that time span.

Young’s game is worth breaking down, because it’s one of the more realistic paths to a lot of points. Hot night from three? Check (9 for 13). Lots of free throws? Check (16 for 20). Aided by the fact the game went to triple overtime? Oh yeah. Young played 54 of a possible 55 minutes. Only one 50+ point scorer – Ray Lee for Eastern Michigan in 2017 – played less than 32 minutes. Unsurprisingly, you gotta be on the court for most of the game to get close.

What’s perhaps most surprising, though, is realizing that Young’s 55 points is the most anyone has scored in a game in 12 years. Then you Google “most points scored by a player in Division I game” and you are reminded of this.

Those are the last five times anyone has scored 60 or more points in a Division I basketball game. It’s a fascinating list: one NBA player in Eddie House; a cup-of-coffee guy in Askia Jones; three players that only fans of the school (yes, U.S. International was a Division I school) or Kansas fans (in Ben Woodside’s case) would immediately recognize. But the most important thing you’ll see are those dates. The last 60-point games happened within two months of each other in the 2008-09 season. No one has come within five points since.

It’s also interesting to note the obvious: the last three guys to do this all needed multiple overtimes to get there. No one has scored 60 or more in regulation since Bill Clinton’s first term. From 1961 (AKA, when integration really began to take hold in NCAA men’s basketball thanks to Loyola Chicago) to 1994, a 34-year span, a player cracked 60+ points roughly once every two years. It happened 19 times total in that 34-year span. It’s happened three times since.

Why is this? Fourteen players have at least come within shouting distance of it since Ryan Toolson’s 63-point game in 2009, but no one has actually cracked the barrier. It’s not for a lack of triple-overtime or further games, either; there were 15 of those in the 2021-22 season alone. No one has managed to have the combination of high-volume shooting, an unusually efficient night, and the boost of extra time needed because of a lack of help from the rest of the team to drag them over the top.

How do we get there? As best as I can tell, I’ve found a few key commonalities between the best of the best – those who’ve scored 52 or more points – along with notes from the Toolson/Woodside games that stand out. Also, I went on a Facebook adventure to get in touch with a former 60-point scorer to hear their thoughts, so you have that now, too.


*=plus one

1. You’re gonna need 50+ minutes

The average amount of on-court time among the seven players who’ve scored 52+ points since 2010-11 against Division 1 competition: 45 minutes. That might even be too few. Toolson played all 60 minutes in Utah Valley’s four-overtime win; Woodside played 51 of a possible 55 in a triple-overtime loss. (By the way, scoring 60 and still losing has to be a horrific feeling.) Plus, thanks to that list above, you can see that the only three 60+ point scorers in the last 25 years required multiple overtimes to get there.

The seven players that got to 52 or better were averaging around 1.17 points per minute; if you sustain that same rate to get to 60, you need at least 51.3 on-court minutes to do it, or triple overtime. Ryan Toolson, the Utah Valley 63-point scorer, knows very well how long this can take. “My coach always jokes that the most impressive thing of that game wasn’t my scoring but that I stayed in the entire 60 minutes, which also might be some other kind of record,” Toolson told me via Facebook Messenger.

If this happens again – and given basketball’s general move in an offense-friendly direction, it probably will soon – it is likely going to come from a game that required two or more overtimes to decide the winner. “I was lucky that I had a perfect storm where I was scoring well and then was given an entire extra 20 minutes to continue to do so,” said Toolson.

2. No less than 25 field goal attempts, with 15+ makes…

Cameron Young ended his game with 24, but he’s the only player among those who dropped 52+ to take fewer than 26. Young also got 20 free throw attempts, which is certainly plausible on the right night, but college basketball just posted its lowest-ever Free Throw Rate, so who knows. Anyway, Young could get away with 24 shots because he went 15-for-24 from the field and 9-for-13 from deep.

The next guy to do this will almost certainly have to hoist a lot of shots, which he should be, because we’re trying to score 60 points here. Every player who scored 52+ points made at least 15 shots and posted no worse than a 53.3% FG%. The worst two-point outing of any of them was Markus Howard’s 5-for-12; everyone else was at 50% or better from two. You likely can’t just get there on twos, though; not if you want to make your job easier.

3. …and likely at least six made threes

Only one player among the seven at 52+ points didn’t make a three: Darius Lee of Houston Baptist. (Sadly, Lee passed away in a shooting in his hometown of Harlem just a few weeks back.) The other six nailed at least six threes and attempted at least ten. The average production of the crew from deep: 7-for-12. Toolson went 7-for-11 from deep; Woodside went 2-for-6, but he also attempted 35 FREE THROWS. That is in ALL CAPS because it is something you desperately need to know. 35 free throws. (I reached out to Woodside for this article; if I can get in touch with him in the next few days, his comments will be edited in.)

Anyway, you may need to boost this number even further. The final statline of a 60-point game in this day and age is probably requiring something around 8-11 made threes, depending on how much you can produce inside the perimeter and how well you get to the free throw line. Speaking of that:

4. Hope you’ve got a favorable officiating crew

The seven players to score 52 or more averaged 13 free throw attempts, and that average is brought down immensely by a total outlier: Jimmer Fredette, the shooting wunderkind who had one (1) attempt in a 52-point affair. Five of seven players hit double-digit attempts. In their 60-point efforts, Toolson got to the line for 21 attempts and made 20. Woodside got 35 attempts (!) and made 30. The message is relatively clear: gotta get fouled, gotta get lucky.

5. Also, probably be a guard

Toolson and Woodside were both 6’4″ or shorter. All seven 52+ point scorers were guards. This is more about “can shoot really well from deep” than “is small,” but it cannot hurt. Like, sure, Zach Edey can probably take 26 field goal attempts and get to the line 14 times if he wants, but considering he will not be shooting a three, your best-case scenario is, like, 46 points. You need threes, and you need guys that can chuck it from deep.

6 (BONUS). Also also, don’t give up too early

This is not actually something to look for, just a thing to keep in mind. Woodside had SEVEN POINTS at halftime of his 60-point game. Did the three overtimes help? Obviously. But the point stands that he went from being on pace for a 14-point night to merely the second-greatest scoring night of the last 22 years. Toolson had 19 in the first half and had four overtimes to aid his work, but still, that’s just a 38-point pace. He also didn’t understand how well he was scoring. Per Toolson: “I had no idea that I broke the 60-point threshold until after the game when our team trainer asked what I thought I had. My guess was high 40s or low 50s.”

Even Cameron Young, the owner of the highest-scoring game since the Woodside/Toolson run, had all of 24 points 27 minutes into a triple-overtime game. Does it help if you have a monster first or second half? Obviously. The last guy to score 53 or more in regulation – Nate Wolters of South Dakota State in 2013 – got there because he dropped 38 POINTS after the break.

All I’m saying is this: it’s very much okay to get excited about our dumb, hopeful hypothetical if a player enters the halftime break with 25+ points. It’s just not that predictive. In fact, the #1 candidate for our 60+ point game this year dropped 26 in a first half this past season, then proceeded to score all of four points the rest of the way.


Everyone in the sample above used no less than 29% of their team’s possessions over the course of the season. Toolson and Woodside were their respective teams’ main creators and scorers. Fredette was Fredette. Markus Howard was Marquette’s only creator. It’s going to have to be a guard that takes a lot of shots on a nightly basis and simply gets really hot in a game where, more or less, no one else from his team does.

Bart Torvik’s projection tools gives each player for this 2022-23 season a statistical baseline. Whether or not it ends up true is genuine guesswork, but it’s at least something to work with. Could a freshman come through and wreck our analysis? Sure, but considering the highest scorers have overwhelmingly been juniors and seniors, that seems most likely.

So: we’re looking for 1) A guard 2) That is expected to use 29% or more of their team’s possessions 3) And is an upperclassman 4) Who is at least somewhat efficient. Based on that, and on our above research, these are my seven best guesses for a 60-point scorer this season, if it happens at all.

Darius McGhee, Liberty. The list has to begin with the second-leading scorer in all of college basketball last year. McGhee’s career high is 48 points, set last year in a tight three-point win against Florida Gulf Coast. At 5’9″, McGhee may be a little too small for what we’re ideally looking for, but what is college basketball if not a home for misfits? The biggest drawback against McGhee is that he doesn’t get to the line that much; aside from one 18 FTA game against Kennesaw State, his career high in single-game free throw attempts is eight. If he finds a way to hit 16 shots, with 10 of them being threes, and gets to the line 18 times and hits them all, then we’re cooking. I do think he represents the best shot, as he had the highest usage rate in the sport last year.

Antoine Davis, Detroit. The other main contender is Davis, who has never ranked lower than 17th in usage rate nationally in any of his four seasons and decided to come back for a fifth year because he had little better to do. Davis may have the better shot simply because his supporting cast is worse. Liberty has made multiple NCAA Tournaments during McGhee’s time there; Detroit Mercy has not once come close. Anyway, Davis’s career high is also 48, but he gets to the line more frequently than McGhee and has hit 10+ threes three times. It just takes one game where Davis hits 10 threes, gets to the line 13 times (making all 13) and hits eight other shots somewhere. Simple enough! Worth noting that Davis dropped 39 points in 31 minutes this past season in a blowout win.

Max Abmas, Oral Roberts. Pretty easy to guess that a guy who’s averaged nearly 24 PPG the last two seasons will be a contender to score a lot of points on one given night. Abmas has a wider-known case for stardom than almost anyone on this list; the reason why he doesn’t rank higher is two-fold. First, Abmas has yet to top 42 points in a college game, which he did back in February 2021. Secondly, Abmas really doesn’t take as many shots as one would guess; his usage rate only ranked 5th-highest in the Summit last year and he’s touched our 25-attempt threshold just three times in three years. Still: this is a guy who’s played almost 95% of all possible minutes the last two seasons and never fouls, meaning he would be a strong candidate to simply be on the floor in a multiple-overtime game.

Jelly Walker, UAB. Walker became a minor star this March thanks to his terrific name and to a particularly thrilling style of play. Walker almost matches what we’re looking for perfectly: efficient shooter (40% from three), high usage rate (33.3% USG%, 17th-highest), and ended his most recent season by dropping 40 in a triple-overtime conference tournament win. The problem: that game is one of only three times Walker has scored more than 27 points. The good news is that his scoring jumped immensely in conference play, and for whatever reason, his only two 40+ point games are both against Middle Tennessee. Maybe the third time’s the charm.

Jordan Dingle, Penn. A ridiculous name, but also a ridiculous player. Dingle took 36% of Penn’s shots while on the court last winter and averaged over 17 field goal attempts a night. Dingle is capable of a lot. He’s made 7+ threes in a game twice, hit our 25+ attempt threshold twice in a week last season, and scored 30+ points five times in a nine-game stretch. He’s never scored more than 33, and I don’t love getting my hopes up for a guy playing for 1) Penn; 2) A Penn team with precisely zero top-150 offensive rankings since 2012. At the same time, Dingle had as many 30+ point games in 2021-22 as every Penn player did combined from 2015 to 2021. Worth a shot.

As a bonus, here’s two wild cards that are interesting. I didn’t feel their cases were as strong as the main five, but each is capable of a super-spectacular night if everything were to break perfectly.

Daylen Kountz, Northern Colorado. I just don’t think Kountz shoots enough, which is both a blessing (he’s very efficient) and a curse (career high of 21 field goal attempts). The upside here is real, though. Kountz averaged 21.2 PPG last year on 54/42/82 shooting splits and was the Big Sky’s best player. His career high is 36, but in a tight game and on a night he’s really hot, I think someone with those splits can reasonably put up 45-50. The question is if he’s capable of the next step up.

Trayce Jackson-Davis, Indiana. Despite just being in college for three years, TJD is coming up on Perry Ellis territory, where you assume he’s been in college since 2015. The problem with making TJD a real contender here is that he has three career three-point attempts, all misses, and he didn’t even average 12 field goal attempts a game last year. The reason why he’s on this list: he’s extremely efficient (career ORtg of 119) and I have some sort of a proof of concept of how this works. TJD put up 43 in a win over Marshall last November, a game that required zero overtimes and just 37 on-court minutes. That’s 1.16 points per minute, which is above what Toolson did (1.05 points per minute) and almost exactly Woodside’s production (1.17). Plus, he enters as the clear and obvious go-to guy on a team that is presumably aiming to score points. If he learns how to shoot, the case gets stronger.

One day, a Division I college basketball player will score 60 in a game again. Considering that team-wide scoring is up 3% versus where it was in the 2008-09 season, and considering the previous longest gap between 60-point games was nine years (currently 13 going on 14), we’re overdue for a scoring explosion. Except: what if we aren’t?

Over the last two seasons, the scoring leaders in Division I men’s hoops have scored 24.6 (Max Abmas) and 25.2 (Peter Kiss) points per game. Those are fine numbers, sure. The problem is that even the 25.2 figure would’ve ranked second-lowest in the 20-year span from 2001 to 2020. Team-wide scoring is up, but individual scoring explosions are down.

“I was actually very surprised [to hear] that it hadn’t happened again,” says Toolson, the now 13-season owner of the last 60-point outing. “I feel like the basketball world, with Stephen Curry leading the way, has changed drastically allowing players to have more opportunities to score.” It’s been true at the NBA level, where scoring is up 11% in that same 13-year timeframe and 13 60+ point games have happened in the last five seasons alone. (From 2000 to 2009: nine.)

If college basketball can find one guy to get hot on one night, anything is possible. Toolson knows it very well, and knows just the type of game that could do it. “I remember the Jodie Meeks 54-point game during my senior year,” said Toolson. “If you gave that guy on that night four overtimes, he might’ve scored 100.” All it takes is one legendary night – and preferably, one very close game – to make it happen.

The foremost expert on the subject seems to agree. “I feel like a 60-point game will come soon,” Toolson told me, “whether that’s from a one-and-done freshmen phenom or a senior with the ultimate green light and 4 overtimes.” Hopefully for us – though perhaps for him, maybe not hopefully? – that day will come soon.

Reviewing my 2021-22 preseason predictions

Now that the season is over and I’m winding down basketball coverage for a while, I figured I’d do something I’ve never done before: review the preseason predictions I made in early November to see what I got right and got wrong. I’ve also never done preseason predictions publicly to this extent before, so I guess it’s all one big new thing, but whatever.

I felt like doing this because it doesn’t seem like any other writer bothers to check back to November to see where they were right and were wrong. Often, I’d imagine this is out of convenience: if you ignore your wrongest, worst takes, they will eventually float away in the ether as long as the Freezing Cold Takes guy never finds them. People don’t like remembering when they were wrong, therefore they try and sweep it under the rug.

I actually think it makes me, personally, better at writing and at analyzing statistics if I can see where and why I went wrong. I mean, one of the conference champions I picked in here went 2-16 in their conference. That’s hilariously bad. In fact, a lot of these predictions were pretty wrong. That’s why they’re valuable: if I elect to do this again in late October or early November, I can look for commonalities on what went wrong. That’s probably not true; I’ll just keep following KenPom.

Anyway, this also includes a review of the SEC-specific predictions I did at the end of the post. Onward!

Conference Champions

Here’s my rule here, because one-bid leagues are very very weird: I am giving myself a half-point for a regular season champion and an additional half-point for a conference tournament champion. I think this is fair. This gives me a total of 32 points to grab.

Teams are bolded if they won one title or the other and bolded and italicized if they won both titles. If they won neither, they’re just normal old text.

  • America East: Vermont (1 point)
  • American: Houston (1 point)
  • ACC: Duke (0.5 points)
  • Atlantic Sun: Liberty
  • Atlantic 10: St. Bonaventure
  • Big East: Villanova (0.5 points)
  • Big Ten: Michigan
  • Big 12: Kansas (1 point)
  • Big Sky: Southern Utah
  • Big South: Winthrop
  • Big West: UC Santa Barbara
  • CAA: Northeastern (special shame here: they finished dead last!)
  • Conference USA: UAB (0.5 points)
  • Horizon: Wright State (0.5 points)
  • Ivy League: Yale (0.5 points)
  • MAAC: Iona (0.5 points)
  • MAC: Buffalo
  • MEAC: Morgan State
  • MVC: Loyola Chicago (0.5 points)
  • MWC: San Diego State
  • NEC: Bryant (1 point)
  • OVC: Belmont
  • Pac-12: UCLA
  • Patriot: Colgate (1 point)
  • Sun Belt: Georgia State (0.5 points)
  • SoCon: Furman
  • SEC: Tennessee (0.5 points)
  • Southland: Nicholls State (0.5 points)
  • Summit: South Dakota State (1 point)
  • SWAC: Prairie View A&M
  • WAC: New Mexico State (0.5 points)
  • WCC: Gonzaga (1 point)

So: out of 32 conferences, that’s 18 where I picked either the regular season winner or the conference tournament champion; that was the same team in just seven conferences, but hey. That comes out to a total of 12.5 points out of a possible 32. Frankly, getting that much ahead of time is a decent-enough output for me.

The Higher Than/Lower Than Section

  1. Top 15 team I would have in the top 5-10: Illinois.

Considering Illinois wrapped the regular season at 18th in KenPom, I’d call this a mild whiff. Illinois was more or less as good as the average person expected, which is both an achievement (considering how many injuries they had the entire season) and a disappointment (considering they actually got worse once one of those players came back). Illinois failed to make the Sweet Sixteen yet again, so this was a miss. Success rating: 4/10.

2. Top 25 team I would have in the top 15: St. Bonaventure.

I thought this was the best non-Gonzaga mid-major. I thought very wrong. Bonaventure finished in the 90s in KenPom, failed to make it to even the A-10 semifinals, and generally was a huge disappointment. Success rating: 0/10.

3. Top 40 team I would have in the top 25: Xavier.

Look: I think this was defensible. Xavier, for three months, lived up to this just fine. They were in the KenPom Top 25 as late as February 5. Then, they collapsed. It looks really bad now, but I think I’m assigning myself a success rating of 5/10. This feels like less of a miss than Illinois for the sole reason a top 25-40 team’s variance is naturally going to be higher.

4. Top 75ish team I would have in the top 40: Saint Mary’s.

Should’ve said top 20. Success rating: 10/10.

5. Roulette-chip team that I would pick to make the NCAA Tournament and maybe win a game: UCF.

This just didn’t work out. Johnny Dawkins brought back almost everything from a decent team last year and didn’t improve whatsoever. I’d genuinely consider a change. Success rating: 1/10.

6. Top 5-10 team I’m least confident in: Kentucky.

Well, they’re no worse than a top 5 team, so this was a miss. BUT: they lost in the Round of 64, so maybe this is a win? Kentucky gelled together a bit better than I’d anticipated. I thought of Kentucky as top 15, but not top 10; this was incorrect. Success rating: 5/10.

7. Top 11-20 team I’m least confident in: Oregon.

This, however, was nailed. I kept looking for reasons why everyone trusted Oregon all offseason and was completely baffled. Sure, Oregon made the Sweet Sixteen, but two things happened: they lost the best player from that roster and had to replace several more. Along with that, Oregon only actually won one game in the NCAA Tournament; if you’ll remember, VCU had to forfeit their Round of 64 game due to COVID issues.

This is not a 10/10, though. I figured that Oregon would still be of 9/10 seed quality and be in the top 40. Oregon wrapped a profoundly disappointing season at 19-14, #79 in KenPom. The idea was right here, but I was actually a little off by more than anticipated. Success rating: 8/10.

8. Top 25ish team I am not sure makes the NCAA Tournament: Virginia Tech.

Again: could not figure out why this team was in everyone’s top 25 or on the borderline. The metrics average I used had them in the 40s. The problem: Tech was a top 25 team; they just couldn’t buy a close or useful win until the very end of the season, when they used it all up in the ACC Tournament to make the Big Dance. Success rating: 6/10.

9. Non-AP Top 25 Vote-Getter That Will Be in the Poll at Year’s End: Loyola Chicago.

Didn’t end up being true. Loyola ended the season in the KenPom Top 25, which is great, but is not the AP Top 25 I was aiming for. Had they had a better NCAA Tournament outing, maybe they would’ve gotten in, but they didn’t. The actual winner of this was Providence, who was a worse team than Loyola but kept winning because we live in a fallen nation of no consequence. Success rating: 4/10.

10. Preseason KenPom Top 10 Team That Finishes Outside of the Top 25: Baylor or Duke.

No and no. This actually ended up being two teams, both from the Big Ten: Ohio State and Michigan. How convenient. Success rating: 0/10.

11. Preseason KenPom Top 20 Team That Misses the NCAA Tournament: Houston or Alabama.

Again, a whiff. This ended up being #18 Maryland. Success rating: 0/10.

12. Preseason KenPom Top 40-65ish Team That Ends Up 15th or Higher: Saint Mary’s.

This isn’t actually completely 10/10 perfect, but it’s a 9.5. Saint Mary’s finished the season 17th on KenPom and was wildly successful. Success rating: 9.5/10.

13. Sickos Team of the Year: Wisconsin. 

This is an award that goes to the KenPom Top 50 team from a high-major conference with the worst offense, which generally means they’re really good on defense and all of their games are excruciating to watch. Wisconsin, unfortunately, ended up being more entertaining than usual. The 2021-22 Sickos Team of the Year was Iowa State, who fittingly beat Wisconsin in the Round of 32. Iowa State doesn’t feel like a gross team because they were massive overachievers, but they had the 171st-best offense and scored 60+ one time in their final six games.

14. Chaos Team of the Year: LSU.

This is an award that is the inverse of sickos behavior: a Top 25 KenPom team from a high-major conference with the worst defense, which means their games are typically high-scoring, high-variance chaos. LSU was chaotic in their own right, but they did not win this award. The 2021-22 Chaos Team of the Year was Purdue, who had the second-best offense, the 93rd-best defense, and managed to both be ranked #1 in the AP Poll while eventually losing to a 15 seed in the Sweet Sixteen. It was fitting.

15. Where Did You Come From Team of the Year (75th or lower in KenPom to start the season, ends up top 25 by season’s end): Belmont. Or South Dakota State. Or Buffalo.

No, no, no. For the first time since 2016-17, no sub-75th team finished in the top 25. Murray State nearly did, finishing 26th after starting 128th, but it wasn’t enough. Every team in the top 25 opened the season no worse than 47th in KenPom. Success rating: 3/10, because Belmont and SDSU were both really good.

16. Your National Champion Will Be: One of Gonzaga, Michigan, or Kansas. 

HOW ABOUT IT! Success rating: 10/10. Even though I did not pick Kansas to advance beyond the Sweet Sixteen.

SEC-specific predictions

I’m not entirely sure how else to do this so: a guy I know measured my November predictions against everyone else’s and just figured out how many spots I was off in total. I appreciated that, so you’re seeing it copied word-for-word here. A +1 means I had them too high by one spot; a -1 is the reverse.

1. Tennessee (+1)
2. Kentucky (+1)
3. Alabama (+3)
4. Arkansas
5. Auburn (-4)
6. Florida (+3)
7. LSU (-2)
8. Mississippi State (+2)
9. Mississippi (+4)
10. Vanderbilt (+1)
11. Texas A&M (-3)
12. South Carolina (-5)
13. Missouri (-1)
14. Georgia

That’s a total of 30 points off, with three teams being 3+ spots off of their eventual finish. Frankly, it could’ve been worse. The SEC Media Poll finished at 34 points; Athlon, 34; CBS, 32; ESPN, 31. I’ll take it.

Here’s some other predictions from the article:

  1. Seven SEC teams make the NCAA Tournament. One off: six.
  2. SEC Player of the Year: Jahvon Quinerly (Alabama). This guy got benched at one point by Nate Oats and was kind of terrible at times, so whoops. I honestly figured that multiple Kentucky players – mainly Washington and Tshiebwe – would split SEC Player of the Year votes and would likely fail to garner the necessary nod. Unfortunately, Tshiebwe alone was a monster.
  3. SEC Freshman of the Year: Kennedy Chandler (Tennessee). Could’ve been worse. I had Jabari Smith second in this balloting. Chandler was terrific towards the back end of the season and was Tennessee’s best player in March.
  4. Leading scorer: Scotty Pippen Jr. (Vanderbilt). 100% true! Pippen finished at 20.4 PPG in a Sisyphean effort to push Vanderbilt to be a team of any note whatsoever.
  5. Leading rebounder: Oscar Tshiebwe (Kentucky). Well.
  6. Leading assist-er(?): Scotty Pippen Jr. Pippen didn’t even finish in the top five. This ended up being Sahvir Wheeler of Kentucky, a player I thought was kind of awful at times at Georgia but predictably got much better under a real coaching staff.
  7. Sickos Game of the Season: South Carolina at Georgia, February 12, 2022. In terms of lowest FanMatch score for any SEC game this season, it actually ended up being Georgia at Kentucky on January 8 (15.7 FanMatch, or one spot below Belmont/UT-Martin). However, I don’t know if including a good team is the true spirit of the prize. Instead, this should go to Georgia at Missouri on March 5, which was the worst SEC vs. SEC game of the year in terms of pure KenPom ranking average.
  8. Actual Best Game of the Season: I said it would be Tennessee at Alabama on December 29, 2021. While that was indeed a good game, it held neither the highest FanMatch rating of the season for the SEC nor the highest Excitement rating. Respectively, those would go to Kentucky at Tennessee (February 15, 2022; FanMatch of 84.8, 5th-highest of the entire season) and Alabama at LSU (March 5, 2022; Excitement Index of 3.35, overtime game).
  9. Number of 1 & 2 seeds: 0. If only. Instead, this ended up being two (Kentucky and Auburn), but both were out before the Sweet Sixteen.

How did your personal predictions fare this year? I’d be curious to hear about them. Email statsbywill at gmail with the subject line “Bad Predictions” to share the very worst take you had on basketball this season. They’ll be kept private and we can laugh about them privately.

The 2022 NCAA Tournament is possibly the worst offensive tournament in modern history. Why?

In theory, March Madness should be the happiest time of the year for a website like this. Considering this is the first normal Tournament since 2019 – all games have been played, nothing has been cancelled, and full crowds are allowed in all arenas – it should be a time of celebration. To boot, the 2022 NCAA Tournament has produced 12 upsets (a seed difference of 5 or greater), which will go down as tied for fourth-most in Tournament history barring a North Carolina win or two in the Final Four. Everything should be feeling better. So why have I had this nagging feeling that I’m watching maybe the single worst NCAA Tournament of my lifetime?

Let me explain it this way: of course a site centered around Tennessee basketball complaining about a bad NCAA Tournament is going to sound like sour grapes. But I’ll cut you off at the pass. This analysis is mostly objective, even though I’d also say this has been the least satisfying NCAA Tournament in a long, long time. (TL;DR: Upsets are only useful the first two rounds, and the four remaining teams have a combined 7% likability. I’d trade any of them for Houston, Gonzaga, or even blue blood UCLA.) How could a statistician feel positive about an NCAA Tournament producing stats like these?

There have been 35 NCAA Tournaments since the three-point line was introduced in 1987. The 2022 NCAA Tournament is…

  • 27th in points per game at 68.6 (2012, 65.7);
  • 33rd in offensive efficiency (numbers pre-1997 are estimated) at 0.996 PPP (1999, 0.988 PPP);
  • 34th in FG% all time at 42% (1999, 41.9%);
  • 34th in eFG% all time at 47.7% (1999, 47.6%);
  • 34th in Scoring Percentage (i.e., how many possessions end in some amount of points) at 44.5% (1999, 44.2%);
  • and, worst of all, 35th in 3PT% at 31.5%.

The only thing this Tournament has done at an elite level that isn’t a bad elite thing is limiting turnovers (15.5% of all possessions), but that also leads to the lack of excitement. Turnovers are lower than ever and offensive rebounds are similarly at a Tournament-long valley, which means a lack of events. Coupled with the lack of made shots, it’s made for a lot of boring basketball. The median Tournament game has been decided by nine points, which is a hair lower than usual, but this Tournament has also produced eight games where the winner has scored 59 or fewer points. This is all before you get to the usual attractors: no buzzer-beaters, no true Instant Classics after the first day of the Tournament (Arizona/TCU, maybe?), not even many elite players still playing. (Among the 10 players in KenPom’s Player of the Year ballot, just one – Paolo Banchero – is still alive in this Tournament.)

No matter how you slice it, this has been an underwhelming, brick-filled Tournament. Naturally, I had to ask a lot of people smarter than me why. I polled several coaches and media members, giving them anonymity in return for what they thought was the reason for this particularly defense-friendly Tournament. I’ve divided up their responses into five theories, along with a sixth I’ve explored for my own good. Can I promise an answer? Not really. But I can promise that your theory of choice is probably listed on here somewhere, and I have tried to see if it makes sense or not.

Are players taking too many threes?

I’d be interested to know the percentage of threes taken in this tournament compared to past. Maybe too much reliance on the three?

Is the three point attempt rate higher than before?

This one is fairly simple to answer: not really. Actually, for once, three-point attempt rate is going in the other direction. In one aspect, this theory could reasonably be accurate: the 2022 NCAA Tournament has the fourth-highest three-point attempt rate in March since the three-point line was standardized in 1987. That’s pretty big; take a look at the below graph and you’ll see just how big it is.

In fact, you can see a pretty good story with it. In 1994, the 3PA% breached 30% for the first time in March, and it never dipped below 30% again. It held somewhere between 31-34% for 22 years, until finally, in 2016, we hit 35% or higher for the first time. My guess is that it never goes below 35% again. However, you can see that we’ve possibly hit Peak Three with the 2019 NCAA Tournament, the only one to ever have an attempt rate above 40%. This year represents a regression of sorts to the 2016-2017 NCAA Tournaments.

The other intriguing part of this: matching the postseason three-point attempt rate with its larger sample-size brother, the regular season.

There’s a serious part of your story: teams are taking fewer threes in the postseason than they did from November to early March. Three-point attempt rate in March is still pretty close to the regular season rate, but the 2022 NCAA Tournament tells quite the story: only the 2015 NCAA Tournament has a greater decrease from regular season attempt rate to postseason attempt rate. Teams are taking 2.01% fewer threes in March as of now.

In theory, you could explain part of this drop by noting that fewer three-point heavy teams made the field this time around. Among the NCAA’s top 35 teams in 3PA%, only two made the field: Alabama and Villanova. Alabama bombed out early, but Villanova is still playing, so maybe this isn’t the best test case. Still, think of it this way: if you apply that same “top 35 in 3PA%” query to previous years, five Top 35 teams made it in 2021, six in 2019, and five in 2018. We just had an unusual dearth of high-3PA% teams this year. Then again:

Median 3PA% of NCAA Tournament Field, Last Five Years

  • 2022: 37%
  • 2021: 36.9%
  • 2019: 38.5%
  • 2018: 37.3%
  • 2017: 36.4%

If anything, this Tournament should have had marginally more three-point attempts than last year. And yet: that graph above shows it’s the lowest 3PA% since 2017. So: I don’t think it’s the volume of threes, necessarily. Maybe it’s the quality?

Are the wrong players taking the shots?

Players that don’t shoot the three well enough are embracing the revolution by shooting more threes than they typically do . This has caused an influx of three-point attempts, but the percentage of makes across the entire NCAA drops because these new shooters aren’t shooting at a good enough percentage.

Guys who should not be taking threes are taking them.

I’ve broken down the concept of the Right Shooter™ as follows: a player who hit 34% or more of his threes in the regular season (AKA, above the national average of 33.7%) while taking 45 or more (AKA, roughly 1.5 or more a game). That gave us a sample size of 187 players across 68 teams to work with, or roughly 2.67 per team. I think this lines up with a subjective view of the game: the average NCAA Tournament team has about 2-3 guys you’re happy with taking whatever they want to take from three, followed by a lot of coin-flips or no-gos on the rest of the roster.

The best way to compare this is to show what these guys did in the regular season. Across a data set of 187 players, this group went 9428-for-24284 on threes, or 38.8%. Every other three-point attempt by NCAA Tournament teams: 7343-for-23483, or 31.3%. That’s a huge difference: 1.164 points-per-shot versus 0.939. You’d much rather have the Right Shooters take these shots than the Wrong Shooters. Something else you’ll notice is that our Right Shooters took 50.8% of their team’s three-point attempts on average; everyone else got slightly less than half. Again, seems right: 2-3 shooters getting just over half the deep balls tracks mentally.

What’s left to prove, or disprove, is if these splits held up in the 2022 NCAA Tournament. Here’s how it’s held up in March:

  • Right Shooters™: 53.1% of all three-point attempts; 32.9% 3PT%
  • Wrong Shooters™: 46.9% of all three-point attempts; 30% 3PT%

Interestingly, teams’ best shooters are actually taking a hair more of the share of three-point attempts than they did in the regular season, at 53.1% vs. 50.8%. The problem: the best shooters have gone dead cold this March. Collectively, those 187 players, which include some of the best shooters in America, are shooting 5.9% worse in this three-week sample size than they did across the regular season as a whole. It’s the Wrong Shooters that are more in line with expectations, at 1.3% below.

So: it’s not that bad shooters are necessarily taking more shots, really. It’s that the best shooters are failing to produce the best results in the spotlight, and teams frequently have nowhere else to turn. Why could this be so?

Is there more switching defensively/better defense in general?

The defense has been outstanding [this Tournament]. Hard to get open looks. 

Much more switching defensively than in years past both on and off the ball makes it harder to create advantages which generate open looks. Length across the board in college basketball is at its highest level both in standing height and wingspan, which makes everything more difficult, including shooting and finishing.

Yes and no. I think this is pretty hard to measure with straight-up metrics. Subjectively, you could say “yes” and not many people would really blink at it. Per Patrick Stevens, this has been the most defense-friendly Tournament in years:

What makes that stat even worse is that the number is now eight, after Villanova’s 50-44 defeat of Houston, with three games still left to play. The possibility of one final stinker still exists. Stevens only goes back to 2011, but eight sub-60 winners is tied with 2006 for the most Defensive Battles™ in the shot-clock era (36 Tournaments strong). You’re watching the fastest Tournament by average tempo (68.6 possessions per game) since 2003, but simultaneously the lowest-scoring Tournament since 2015. What gives?

A popular theory, among nearly everyone I talked to, is that the defense is just straight-up better this March than usual. There’s a few different ways of looking at this that could help things make sense. If you want to see if more high-end defenses made the Tournament than usual, you can look at this and say…no, actually:

Percentage of Top 30 Defenses That Made NCAA Tournament:

  • 2022: 26/30 (86.7%)
  • 2021: 26/30 (86.7%)
  • 2019: 26/30 (86.7%)
  • 2018: 22/30 (73.3%)
  • 2017: 22/30 (73.3%)

If you prefer the median NCAA Tournament defense:

Median NCAA Tournament Team’s Defensive Efficiency:

  • 2022: 95.9 Adj. DE
  • 2021: 94.1 (!)
  • 2019: 96.6
  • 2018: 98.1
  • 2017: 96.6

You could look at that and say that, yes, this is a pretty strong defensive Tournament. And yet: shouldn’t 2021 have been far more defense-friendly if that were the case? The 2021 NCAA Tournament ranked 19th out of 35 NCAA Tournaments in terms of offensive efficiency; in the KenPom era (2002-pres.), it ranks 14th of 20. Not a great offensive Tournament, really, but certainly better than this one. Along with that, despite having the worst defenses in the sample size, 2018 actually ranks second-worst among the last five Tournaments in terms of efficiency.

One final way of attempting to answer this is through Synergy data. Like anything that requires human eyes to log statistics, Synergy’s data is subjective to the viewer. Still, it’s the best publicly-available database out there that is even somewhat comparable to Second Spectrum for the NBA. The best way of using it for this purpose is to take their Guarded/Unguarded data, as well as what they have for pull-up (off-the-dribble) jumpers, and see what it says.

In the regular season this year, Division I basketball teams shot 32.1% on guarded catch-and-shoot threes, which is any spot-up three where a defender is within four feet on the shot. (Synergy may deem this differently, but it is what I’ve always taken to mean an open vs. contested attempt.) On open catch-and-shoot threes, the D-1 average was 37.4%. Clearly, being open makes a difference: over the course of 100 three-point attempts, you’d hit about five more ‘open’ ones than you would ‘guarded’. Some teams are great (Villanova) or terrible (Wisconsin) at shooting against any sort of guarding, so, again, subjective.

Still, we could use that in three purposes: to determine if teams are simply missing a bunch of catch-and-shoot threes in March, to see if there are more guarded attempts than normal, and to see if teams are getting fewer catch-and-shoot threes period.

Catch-and-shoot threes, regular season versus NCAA Tournament:

  • Regular season: 34.6% 3PT% on all C&S threes; 37.4% open; 32.1% guarded
  • NCAA Tournament: 33.8% 3PT% on all C&S threes; 37.8% open; 30% guarded

Guarded vs. unguarded threes, regular season versus NCAA Tournament:

  • Regular season: 53.4% Guarded, 46.6% Unguarded
  • NCAA Tournament: 52% Guarded, 48% Unguarded

Average number of catch-and-shoot threes per game, regular season versus NCAA Tournament:

  • Regular season: 15.8 combined per game (8.4 Guarded, 7.4 Unguarded)
  • NCAA Tournament: 14.5 combined per game (7.5 Guarded, 7 Unguarded)

There’s a lot to take from this. Firstly, teams are having a horrific time hitting guarded catch-and-shoot threes this March. 30% on guarded ones is what Nevada, who ranked 247th in guarded FG%, shot in the regular season. That’s pretty bad. But the fact that the sport as a whole is down 0.8% on these shots (admittedly in a smaller sample size) is pretty interesting. Along with that, there have been fewer catch-and-shoot attempts in the postseason by a significant margin…but said catch-and-shoot attempts have also been slightly more open.

Subjectively, you could say that this has been a fantastic defensive Tournament, and it would be hard to disagree. At the same time, take a look at Ken Pomeroy’s pre-Tournament rankings on March 15. Zero top 10 defenses made the Final Four. In fact, none of the top 25 did: Villanova, at 28th, was the best defense before the Tournament started to be one of the last four standing. How much does defense matter in terms of stopping opposing threes? Pomeroy’s research, spilled onto this page several times over, notes that teams can prevent three-point attempts, not makes as frequently. The field of 68 has done a good job of this, but it alone would not explain the worst 3PT% in Tournament history.

Is shot selection worse than usual?

I think decision making [this Tournament] is very poor. Kids are trying to finish drives at the rim over length vs. playing off 2 feet and making a play for their teammate on a drive and kick. Tons of tough long twos as well – poor shot selection leads to poor FG%.

Thankfully, this one is a little easier to measure. In the regular season, teams got 35.5% of all shots at the rim, 26.8% in Other Twos territory (not a layup, dunk, or tip-in, but still a two), and 37.7% threes. I’ve done private work in the past for teams that shows the percentage of Other Twos increases by roughly 4% when playing Top 100 opponents versus playing everyone else, and one would expect that to more or less hold in a Tournament that mostly contains Top 100 opponents.

Still: I think this one has real merit. The average attempt at the rim in half-court offense, per Synergy, went down at a 55% rate. (Per Hoop-Math, this is 59.3%, but I don’t have the ability to split by regular season/postseason on there.) In the NCAA Tournament, this conversion rate has fallen to 53.5%. Makes sense; you’re playing tougher opponents in general. Has the theory held up for shot selection?

  • Regular season: Rim 35.5%, 3PA 37.7%, Other Twos 26.8%
  • NCAA Tournament, per CBB Analytics: Rim 32.6%, 3PA 35.7%, Other Twos 31.7%

The CBB Analytics work is of particular note, because it hammers in something that’s felt very real while watching the games. Per their data, 10% of all shots have been 16+ foot two-point jumpers, the least-efficient shot in college basketball. 18.3% of all shots have been two-pointers outside the paint. (There’s an array of runners, floaters, paint jumpers, post-up turnarounds, etc. that fall in the Other Twos category, too.) These rates are +2.6% and +4.6% above their regular season counterparts. So, yes: shot selection has been markedly worse in the NCAA Tournament, about 1-2% worse than what I would’ve personally expected.

And yet: the two-point shooting hasn’t really been the problem. Even despite this downgrade in shot selection, the 2022 NCAA Tournament has produced a 2PT% of 47.9%. That’s down from the last several Tournaments, sure, but it’s also a superior 2PT% to 14 NCAA Tournaments from 1987 to now. In fact, this has more or less been an average Tournament from a two-point perspective. Teams are missing a few more shots at the rim than usual, but it’s been counterbalanced somewhat by about a 0.5-1% over-performance on mid-range twos, per the CBB Analytics data. To sum it up: the shot selection has been bad, but it hasn’t really been the entire reason for this Tournament’s offensive car crash.

Is it the ball?

An issue I think that is crazy in college basketball is the variance in basketballs used: Adidas, Nike, Wilson Evo NXT (NCAAT), Old Wilson Evolution, and Spalding TF-1000. [With regards to the Evo NXT], these balls are pumped up and not broken in for March throughout the season.

This is, by some measure, the hardest one to prove or disprove. I am not there in person feeling the basketball itself, so I cannot tell you if it feels like an outdoor ball or it’s hard to get in a rhythm with. Several reviews online believe this ball to be an upgrade over the previous model (Wilson Evolution), which is the ball I own and love. Considering that basically nobody used this ball in games from November to early March, though, it makes the below trendline pretty troubling.

68 NCAA Tournament teams, regular season, various balls: 35.1% 3PT% on 47,767 attempts
68 NCAA Tournament teams, 2022 NCAA Tournament, Evo NXT ball: 31.5% 3PT% on 2,674 attempts

Now, it’s worth noting that in most NCAA Tournaments, there’s an underperformance of about 1-2% from regular season to postseason. You can explain this in various ways, all of which we’ve tried in the past: better defenses, tougher competition, higher stress, unfamiliar venues. All of those are reasonable. But: to be underperforming that regular season rate by 3.6% is a serious outlier. Did any team foresee this coming?

The only way I can imagine testing this, and it is extremely silly, is to use Getty Images to our advantage. I looked through photos of every team in the field from November to March, looking to see which ones used the Evo NXT in any game this season. (Inspired by a New Mexico State fan sharing a photo from January.) Is this unscientific? Yes, and it leaves smaller schools at a serious disadvantage, because photographers aren’t at their games as frequently. But what other way can you really test this that isn’t me telling you this is the worst 3PT% ever and a massive delta from the regular season?

Of the 68 teams in the field, I could confirm, via at least one photo, that 25 teams used the Evo NXT ball either in the regular season, their conference tournament, or both. That’s just 37% of the field using the ball that 100% of the field uses for three weeks in March, which seems less than ideal. If you split out the 25 teams who did have photographical evidence of experience with the ball versus the 43 who didn’t, here’s how it shook out:

  • Did use the Evo NXT ball prior to the NCAA Tournament: 283-for-894 (31.7%)
  • Didn’t use the Evo NXT ball: 560-for-1780 (31.4%)

Uh…well, that’s all of a 0.3% difference. It’s more that everyone isn’t shooting well versus just the teams that had no experience. Still, I think there’s a great point to be made here. Why are we entering the NCAA Tournament with a ball that over half the field seems to have not used in a game? Why can college basketball not agree on one, or at most two, standardized balls to use over the course of a season? The answer, as always: money.

Is it simply a sample size issue?

No coach or media member mentioned this theory, which is completely fine. All of the five theories above were interesting and worth researching. However, it’s a question I have to ask myself: would I be worrying this much about March Madness if this same sample of play happened over two weeks in November?

All you have to do is look back to the first three days of the season, in fact.

  • November 9-11: 31.6% 3PT%
  • NCAA Tournament: 31.5% 3PT%

But that sort of obscures what we’re talking about here. The trendline of a season’s 3PT% goes up from November to March, and true to form, the last three days of the regular season (March 4-6) saw teams shoot 33.9% from three, which is 2.3% higher than they did in the first three days of the season. So why would it bottom out, seemingly out of nowhere, at a time when teams should be shooting better than usual?

If you just watched the first round of the 2022 NCAA Tournament, you wouldn’t imagine that much of anything was wrong at all. Teams shot 34.2% from deep, about 0.5% above the average of the last 10 years. That’s not a huge leap, but it was surprising. The regular season’s 3PT% of 33.7% is the second-lowest ever since the NCAA began tracking threes at the introduction of the three-point line in 1986-87. This is undoubtedly due to the NCAA moving the three-point line back. The three seasons before the line was moved back a foot: 34.8% from deep. Last three seasons: 33.6%. So there’s that.

But that alone still wouldn’t explain what’s happened, starting in the Round of 32. Across the nine Tournaments directly preceding 2022, teams shot 1.1% better in the Round of 32 than they did in the Round of 64. This has a pretty simple explanation, to me: better teams are alive, and said teams are playing their second game in the arena of a weekend. You’re more familiar with your surroundings. That did not happen this year. In fact, it gave us the worst Round of 32 3PT% performance I can find on record.

Teams shot 29.1% in the Round of 32 this year, the worst single-round performance of either of the first two rounds I was able to find. That, obviously, is not ideal. To go with this, teams have shot about 1.1% worse from deep from the Sweet Sixteen onwards. There are multiple explanations for this that all make sense to me: different venues, tougher defenses, more stress, etc. But it’s still hard to explain the 2022 teams shooting 27.5% from deep in the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight.

With the trendlines looking the way they look, one of two things seem like they can happen this coming weekend:

  • It gets worse. The remaining Final Four teams are now moving to another different arena, their third in three weeks. Teams will have likely never shot at this arena before arriving. What’s turned into a truly disastrous shooting performance remains disastrous, as the Final Four teams (expected to shoot 36.1% on threes based on season-long numbers) shoot 32% or worse.
  • It really is a sample size issue and regresses to the mean. You can’t judge everything off of 24 games of data, and the Final Four teams have a reasonable outing in line with previous NCAA Tournament trends: roughly 34-35% from deep across the three games.

Either answer will give us more theories, which leads us back to the initial question of why this happened, which then starts the debate(s) all over again. Have we learned anything? I’m not so sure. But I look forward to learning how this closes up this weekend.

How stats and history would pick the 2022 NCAA Tournament

A year ago today, I published what became one of the most popular posts on this website, about how 20+ years of data accumulated from KenPom and Bart Torvik could tell you what might happen in March. Whether or not it was useful in any real way is frankly up to the reader, I guess. It got two of the four Final Four picks right, including the #1 value pick of the entire NCAA Tournament, Houston. However, it missed on five Elite Eight teams and seven Sweet Sixteen sides. However, it did go 27-5 in the first round, the best record I have ever posted in a bracket I’ve submitted to a bracket pool.

I’m going to be frank. The level of care I have for submitting brackets at this point is pretty low; I am doing this more because a lot of people really like it than because I personally desired to write this. But: there is some sort of enjoyment in sharing a relatively unique perspective of current statistics and previous history to attempt to inform your bracket.

For whenever this gets picked up by people who don’t normally read this website, many of these picks will be wrong. Even the very best brackets miss on an average of 13-15 picks out of 63 total a year. If I missed on 15 total picks, I would be beyond thrilled. I missed 22 last year; maybe that can get below 20 this year. Who knows. I look forward to seeing how it all unfolds.

As a reminder, here’s how all of this works: What this is is simply a game-by-game projection of the field of 68 based on a document I’ve put together since 2018. Bart Torvik has an amazing page on his site with detailed historical KenPom projections of each game over the last 20 years of postseason play. Using that, I’ve accumulated enough data to make informed, quality guesses on how the NCAA Tournament may go.

Along with that, this year’s projections will factor in heavily to provide a baseline of measurements. KenPom’s numbers expect about 5.04 Round of 64 upsets, the highest number I’ve seen in a projection in a few years; Torvik sits at 4.75, a little lower, but still in that 5 upset range. I’ll share the five upsets these numbers would most incline you to pick. Author’s note: many stats were also brought in from this amazing guide to the NCAAT I found on Reddit.

Onward? Onward.

Round of 64

West Region

(1) Gonzaga over (16) Georgia State. Well, obviously.

(9) Memphis over (8) Boise State. KenPom actually has Boise as a tiny favorite, but Torvik and EvanMiya have Memphis as a favorite. Either pick is fine because I don’t think either team is beating Gonzaga (more later), but the favorite in these 8/9 games over the last 21 years is 58-26.

(5) Connecticut over (12) New Mexico State. The metrics average here has UConn at about 71.5% to win; 5 seeds at 70% or better are 28-6.

(13) Vermont over (4) Arkansas. This is probably wild if you’re an SEC fan, but, again, riding the metrics. 4 seeds at 70% or worse to win since 2000 are 7-10. This is also a play against Arkansas going deep; teams at 40% or worse to make the Sweet Sixteen (Arkansas is at 38%) are 2 for 29 in doing so. Catamounts!

(11) Notre Dame over (6) Alabama…or (6) Alabama over (11) Rutgers. Precisely what you needed: a game that you have to wait until Wednesday at midnight to pick. Notre Dame would be at 42.1% to beat Alabama if they played; 11 seeds at 37% or better are 29-21 since 2000 in winning. Rutgers, however, would be at 34%, which is below that 37% threshold. 11 seeds below 37%: 7-27. I don’t know that I really like picking either, frankly, but again, a situation where either winner would be out in my Round of 32.

(3) Texas Tech over (14) Montana State. At 91.1%, Texas Tech is merely one of the eight largest 3-seed favorites since 2000. No 3 seed at 85% or better has lost their Round of 64 game, a perfect 36-0.

(7) Michigan State over (10) Davidson. Utterly disgusting. But: Michigan State, in the metrics average, is at 52.2% to win. The favorite in 7/10 games is 65-19.

(2) Duke over (15) Cal State Fullerton. The general threshold for “oh?” 2/15 games is about a 10% chance of winning for the 15 seed. Fullerton is at 7.6%. I’d love to see it, but.

South Region

(1) Arizona over (16) First Four Winner. No need to elaborate.

(9) TCU over (8) Seton Hall. Either pick is fine here. TCU is favored by Torvik; Seton Hall by KenPom. Tiebreaker goes to the better team as of late: TCU.

(5) Houston over (12) UAB. What a huge bummer UAB couldn’t be matched up elsewhere; I wanted to see them make a run. I guess they technically could. But: at 80.9% to win, Houston is one of the largest 5-seed favorites in modern Tournament history. No 5 seed at 76% or better has lost (17-0). This reminds me strongly of Villanova/Winthrop a year ago.

(4) Illinois over (13) Chattanooga. Technically, this meets our criteria for a 13 over 4. UTC has a 31.2% shot to win per KenPom; we’re focusing on 13 seeds at 30% or better this year. Unfortunately, Torvik has them at just under 23%, and the average takes them out of full consideration. I would not be surprised at all to see UTC win this, though; Illinois is not a strong 4 seed.

(11) Michigan over (6) Colorado State. About once every Tournament, a 6 seed will be at 54% or worse to win their first game. Those 6 seeds are 4-16 in the Round of 64 since 2000. Colorado State is at 50.4% on KenPom and a hilarious 41.7% on Torvik. Absolutely amazing draw for Michigan, at least for one game.

(3) Tennessee over (14) Longwood. Refer back to the Texas Tech stat: No 3 seed at 85% or better has lost their Round of 64 game, a perfect 36-0. Tennessee is at 92%. Feels like the Wright State game all over again.

(10) Loyola Chicago over (7) Ohio State. A tricky one: Loyola is at 54.3% to win per KenPom, but 47.3% on Torvik. Loyola wins both the averaging out and is the better team in their last 10 games.

(2) Villanova over (15) Delaware. So: remember the note about 2/15 games needing to be at that 10% threshold to be generally pretty interesting? Villanova sits at 89.4% to win by KenPom, 90.8% on Torvik. They’re the only 2 seed on either site to dip below 90% to win. Do I think Delaware wins this game? No. But 15 seeds at 10% or better to win, despite being 4-24, have an average margin of defeat a few points shorter than those worse than 10%. I think this one could be worth tracking.

Midwest Region

(1) Kansas over (16) First Four. Again, not expecting much. Similar to how the 2/15 games have a threshold, 1/16 games sit at 5% or above for interest and curiosity. This one is consistently at 3.6%. Skippable, especially since it’s the final game of Thursday. That being said: Texas Southern, if they win their First Four game, has the best defense of any 16 seed this year at 108th overall and did beat Florida in December.

(8) San Diego State over (9) Creighton. FINALLY! An 8/9 game that doesn’t require a coin-flip. San Diego State is at 62.2% to win; 8/9 seeds at 55% or better are 37-6. I would be very surprised to lose this one.

(5) Iowa over (12) Richmond. Iowa is at 82.5% to win; refer back to the “no 5 seed at 76% or higher has lost” stat.

(13) South Dakota State over (4) Providence. Apparently the Giant Killers system hates this pick, but whatever. Providence is at just 57.2% to win. Not only is this the third-lowest mark for a 4-seed ever, I had to institute a new part of the study for it: teams at 65% or worse are 3-7 in the Round of 64 all time, with none of them breaching the Sweet Sixteen.

(6) LSU over (11) Iowa State. Disgusting. Sickening. Makes me want to barf in a bag and pour it on my laptop. Unfortunately, someone must win this game. LSU sits at 62.2% to win, the highest of any 6 seed this tournament, unless Rutgers plays Alabama. As much as I’d like to see all four 6 seeds lose, one of them probably has to win. Even better: as you’ll see in the Round of 32, one of these two may be in the Sweet Sixteen.

(3) Wisconsin over (14) Colgate. Which is because the committee placed KenPom #34 at a 3 seed, the lowest-seeded 3 since 2011 New Mexico (#39), who got ransacked in the Round of 32 by an 11 seed and nearly lost to 14-seed Montana. Wisconsin sits at 75.5% to win on KenPom and 81.4% on Torvik. I would not blame you if you feel compelled to pick Colgate, because 3 seeds at 80% or worse are 21-6 at winning. Still, that’s 21-6. I know that I’m personally rooting for Colgate, because presumably, most ESPN users have Wisconsin at least in the Sweet Sixteen.

(7) USC over (10) Miami (FL). Neither one of these teams is very good, and both are the lowest-rated teams at their respective seedlines. Congratulations to Auburn on the Sweet Sixteen bid. USC is at a combined 51.9% average to win, and 10 seeds ranked 50th or worse on KenPom are 3-13 since 2006. Nasty, nasty game. Nasty!

(2) Auburn over (15) Jacksonville State. Ever since I saw this tweet:

I was rooting for Auburn to draw the hardest 15 seed imaginable. Of course, they drew one ranked ten spots below Missouri. Auburn is at 91.4% to win; the only upset path I can think of is one where Auburn foolishly attempts 30 threes and misses 24 of them. Wait a minute, that’s actually pretty realistic.

East Region

(1) Baylor over (16) Norfolk State. But with a warning: this is the only 1/16 game this year where the 1 is below 95% to win. Baylor is still at 94.7%, so something would have to go wildly wrong for an upset to happen. Still, maybe this one provides some interest at some point.

(8) North Carolina over (9) Marquette. Another easy one: UNC is at 56.1% to win; the KenPom favorite is 57-25 since 2000. Stylistically, Marquette generates almost no second-chances at all, which is a problem against a UNC team ranked #2 nationally in DREB%. This would require Marquette shooting 40% or better from deep to win.

(12) Indiana over (5) Saint Mary’s. I would actually prefer Wyoming win, because Wyoming is subjectively much more fun to watch for me. That being said, they would have about a 31-32% chance to win; while that’s still the best of any 12 seed this year, the hit rate for 12 seeds greatly increases beginning at 33-34%. Indiana would be at 41.2%, easily the best of any 12 seed. If you like upsets, root for Indiana; if you like fun basketball, root for Wyoming.

(4) UCLA over (13) Akron. In general, this is either the worst batch of 4 seeds or the best batch of 13 seeds in a decade. But this game sort of ruins the average on both sides. UCLA is a 2 seed in a 4 seed’s body; Akron is ranked below three teams seeded 14-15. UCLA is at nearly 90% to win; no 4 seed has ever lost above 83%.

(11) Virginia Tech over (6) Texas. I cannot stand picking super-popular upsets like this one. There’s actually more statistical value in taking Texas, because over half of ESPN users have selected VA Tech. The problem is that this upset simply makes a lot of sense. 11 seeds at 41% or better to win since 2000 are 23-12; all others are 13-36. VA Tech is at 44%, the second-best of any 6 seed this year. Considering the stats expectation is that 1.7 of the 6 seeds lose, I would pair this with the Colorado State pick and hope for the best.

(3) Purdue over (14) Yale. An upset would be fun, but Purdue is at 90% to win. Really wish Princeton had won the Ivy.

(10) San Francisco over (7) Murray State. San Francisco is at an impressive 57.6% to win and weirdly isn’t the Vegas favorite. The metrics favorite in 7/10 games is 65-19 over the last 21 tournaments.

(2) Kentucky over (15) Saint Peter’s. Somewhat similarly to Villanova/Delaware, I could see this one maybe being interesting, but it’s unlikely. Kentucky is at 90.7% to win, right near that 10% cutline, because Saint Peter’s is the best of the 15 seeds by some margin and has a legitimate top-40 defense. My guess is more that this is a lower-scoring affair – maybe something like Kentucky 69-56.

Round of 32

West Region

(1) Gonzaga over (9) Memphis. The wild thing about this game in particular is that, in theory, it could be Gonzaga’s single toughest game they play prior to the Final Four. Memphis has played like a top-10 team over the last several weeks and is a legitimate threat. Still, Gonzaga sits at 82.9% to make the Sweet Sixteen. No 1 seed at 82.5% or higher has missed it (18 for 18). I’ll believe it when I see it.

(13) Vermont over (5) Connecticut. The risk here is kind of obvious: what if Vermont loses in the first round? Well, then you lose a total of three points out of 192. Big deal. This is more of a three-pronged bet:

  • (4) Arkansas sits at 36% to make the Sweet Sixteen, per KenPom. 4 seeds at 40% or worse are 2-for-29 in making the second weekend since 2000. This includes Purdue and Oklahoma State from 2021.
  • (5) Connecticut sits consistently at 38-39% to make it on both KenPom and Torvik. 5 seeds at 41% or worse to make the second weekend: 10-for-56. Creighton broke the trend last year, but they did get to play a 13 seed on the way there.
  • (13) Vermont is at 13-15% depending where you look. Only ten 13 seeds since 2000 have been at 12% or better to make the second weekend; they’re 3-for-10 in doing it.

The problem is that only three 13 seeds period have made the Sweet Sixteen. If you want to take UConn here, that’s a fine pick, too. Somewhere, though, you have to try and create added value. Vermont has better versus-the-field value than nearly any other 13 seed to take the court before them. It’s worth a try.

(3) Texas Tech over any of (6) Alabama, (11) Notre Dame, or (11) Rutgers. This one is drama-free. Tech is at 66.2% to advance; 3 seeds at 57% or better are 20-for-26. If you really want to narrow it down, 3 seeds at 64% or better are 8-for-8.

(2) Duke over (7) Michigan State. Otherwise known as THE MOST INSUFFERABLE GAME IN THE HISTORY OF MANKIND. Unfortunately, Duke is at 63.6% to advance on KenPom and a bizarrely-high 69.8% on Torvik; 2 seeds at 63% or better are 32-for-42. If we’re lucky, this is Davidson vs. Cal State Fullerton instead.

South Region

(1) Arizona over (9) TCU. Same with Seton Hall. Arizona is at 76.3% on KenPom and 71.9% on Torvik; 1 seeds at 70% or higher are 51-for-57.

(5) Houston over (4) Illinois. With ya, Ken:

I just…don’t get it? Even if you like Illinois in this specific matchup, they’re at just 28.2% to touch the Sweet Sixteen. No 4 seed at 34% or worse has ever made the Sweet Sixteen (0-for-13). I guess Illinois could make it 1-for-14, but I’m not sure what about them is trustworthy.

(3) Tennessee over (11) Michigan. If you are a reader of this blog, you know that this will be a nightmare game for me. The good-ish news is that it doesn’t feel terribly dramatic. Tennessee is at 66.3% to touch the second weekend; refer back to the Tech stat for why those are absurdly good odds for a 3 seed.

(10) Loyola Chicago over (2) Villanova. Here is the thing: in a one-off affair, Villanova would be favored by four points or so. That still means Villanova is the most likely Sweet 16 squad. They’re at 58.8% to make it, per KenPom. And I know Tennessee fans probably want no part of another Sister Jean run. But whatever. I’m showing my work:

  • 2 seeds at 63% or worse to make the Sweet Sixteen are 19-for-42 in doing so. Villanova is the only 2 seed below 63% this season on KenPom. (Duke is at 63.6%, for the record.)
  • 2 seeds at 60% or worse, per Torvik’s database, sit at 14-for-35 in making the second weekend, just a 40% success rate.
  • 2 seeds with a spot differential of 20 or lower in KenPom are 16-12 since 2006. Loyola Chicago is 13 spots behind Villanova, while Ohio State is also pretty close at 21.
  • 2 seeds favored by 5 or fewer points, since 2006: 9-11. Villanova, per KenPom, would be favored by 4.08 points.
  • Loyola sits at 22.2% to make the Sweet Sixteen, per KenPom. 10 seeds at 17% or higher to make the Sweet Sixteen are 11 for 28 in doing so; all others are 2 for 56. (For what it’s worth, San Francisco and Davidson also meet this. Go 10s!) 20% or higher: 9 for 20.
  • Even if this is Ohio State instead, it’s still worth rooting for, but Ohio State is below the 20% threshold for 7 seeds to make the second weekend. (Below: 5-for-46. Above: 14-for-38.)

To win a bracket pool, you have to swing for the fences on a couple of picks. Just like last year, I’m hoping Loyola repays the faith. All of this over a two-point pick. Why do I do this?

Midwest Region

(8) San Diego State over (1) Kansas. This pick was originally Kansas over SDSU. This one is absurdly tough, and it’s one where I have to go against my first instinct, which is to pass on the upset. Kansas is the only 1 seed below 70% on KenPom to make the Sweet Sixteen, and there is real value to be had in betting against them. The problem is two-fold: 1. San Diego State’s offense, which ranks 157th on KenPom; 2. Since 2006, 1 seeds playing 8/9 seeds with offenses ranked worse than 50th are 23-2.

The odds of all four 1 seeds making the Sweet Sixteen are just 31%. This is fully an odds play; I am trusting that San Diego State will overcome their offense to go deep. They are the best 8 seed on the board by some distance, and their odds are significantly better than those of 8 seed counterpart UNC. Gotta swing for it.

(5) Iowa over (13) South Dakota State. Even if Providence wins, this is very easy: Iowa is at 60.4% to make the Sweet Sixteen, and 5 seeds at 45% or better are 13-for-16 in advancing. Quick sidebar: Iowa’s 60.4% Sweet Sixteen odds are the highest ever for a 5 seed.

(6) LSU over (3) Wisconsin. LOL. But I can defend this. LSU has the best odds of anyone in this quadrant to advance at 40.2%; 6 seeds at 34% or better are 11-for-23 in advancing. This is more a bet against Wisconsin, who sits at 34.5% to advance. 3 seeds at 42% or worse are 2-for-11 in making it. What an awful quadrant. This could just as easily be Iowa State/Colgate, frankly.

(2) Auburn over (7) USC. As funny as an Auburn loss would be, it seems unlikely. Auburn sits at 69.5% to advance; 2 seeds at 63% or better are 32-for-42 in making it.

East Region

(1) Baylor over (8) North Carolina. This is the toughest one in the entire bracket for me.

Do I like this pick all that much? Frankly, no. I don’t like either Baylor or Kansas to go far at all, really. But this came down to two things:

  1. Significantly more people are picking UNC than San Diego State despite SDSU having the better upset odds;
  2. In a larger bracket pool, that makes San Diego State the superior value pick over UNC.

I believe that one of the 1 seeds will be going home before the Sweet Sixteen, based on the numbers that show me 1.02 are expected to go home. I think that it will either be Baylor or Kansas. I just simply think Kansas may have the worse matchup.

(4) UCLA over (5)/(12) Doesn’t Matter. UCLA is at 58.2% to advance per KenPom and 58.1% per Torvik; both are well above the standard 53% rate that I normally look at for obvious 4-seed advancements. 53% or better: 15-for-17 making S16. I suppose I’m rooting for the 12 seed to win so UCLA’s path is better.

(11) Virginia Tech over (3) Purdue. Slightly over half of all 3 seeds make the Sweet Sixteen: 48-for-84 since 2000, or 57%. We all expect 3 seeds to make it every year, particularly when their paired 6 seeds lose over 50% of the time in the first round since 2011. That’s just not the case. 3 seeds that actually make the Sweet Sixteen have insane win rates – 50% in the next round! – but getting there is a struggle.

Anyway, Purdue is at 50.5% to advance, per KenPom. 3 seeds at 52% or lower to make the next round are just 19-for-48; all others are 29-for-36. Even if you bump that up to 57% or lower, it’s still just 27-for-58, or a 46.5% shot at getting through. The other numbers are this: Ken’s numbers expect about 2.36 10+ seeds in the Sweet Sixteen. Torvik’s: 2.13. EvanMiya: about 1.96. The message is that at least two 10+ seeds should make the Sweet Sixteen. Three may be aggressive, but in 13 straight NCAA Tournaments, at least one 10+ seed has made the second weekend. The most common number of 10+ seeds in the Sweet Sixteen: three, which has happened 13 times in 36 tries. Try, try again.

(2) Kentucky over (10) San Francisco. This one is sad to say no to. Kentucky comes close to meeting the metrics for a two-seed loss, but at 64.9%, I can’t pull the trigger. Also, this is the nation’s #1 rim FG% offense going up against a team that ranked 90th-best in a significantly worse conference. For the record, I think Murray State would be an even less optimal matchup. The best possible single-game matchup here among the 7/10s may have been USC or Loyola.

Sweet Sixteen

West Region

(1) Gonzaga over (13) Vermont. Nice and calm. Gonzaga is at 70.8% to make the Elite Eight. Not only are those insanely high odds, but no 1 seed at 65% or better has missed the Elite Eight (13-for-13).

(3) Texas Tech over (2) Duke. You may have to wait until the second weekend to blissfully rid yourselves of the Retirement Tour™, but when it happens, I think it comes at the hands of this scary Texas Tech team. Not only would Tech currently be favored on a neutral court, they have superior Elite Eight odds to Duke (38.2% vs. 35.5%). 3 seeds at 31% or better: 16-for-24. All others: 8-for-60. 2 seeds at 40% or lower: 12-for-47. All others: 24-for-37.

South Region

(1) Arizona over (5) Houston. This one was a tough one to say no to. Both of these teams are utterly terrific, and the fact that KenPom’s #2 and #4 teams are forced to play each other in the Sweet Sixteen is an insanity that only European football’s seeding system can match. Again, this is a numbers game we’re playing. The numbers say this: Arizona has the second-best Elite Eight odds of the 1 seeds. 1.97 of the four 1 seeds are expected to get there, per KenPom. We need to drop two of them.

The issue is this: I just think Houston > Arizona is a taller mental gymnastics task than Iowa > Kansas. (Spoiler.) Teams with 44% or worse odds to make the Elite Eight are just 7-for-19; Baylor is at 43.3% on KenPom, while Kansas sits at 44.3%, right on the cutline. Arizona being at 47.2% was enough to push them just over the edge. Houston would have the on-paper shot volume edge, but Arizona would win in the foul department with relative ease and should out-shoot Houston. Tough, but fair.

(3) Tennessee over (10) Loyola Chicago. I would also take Tennessee over Villanova, for the record, as they’re the higher-rated team on both KP and Torvik. I promise this makes some pretty good sense, though, and not just out of homerism. Tennessee’s 39.2% Elite Eight odds are the eighth-highest ever for a 3 seed, per Torvik. The seven teams all ahead of them: Elite Eight entrants. Alternately, just refer back to the Texas Tech stat. There are two terrific 3 seeds this year and two meh ones; ride the two terrific ones.

Midwest Region

(5) Iowa over (8) San Diego State. Even if this is Kansas instead, Iowa is actually ranked ahead of Kansas on Haslametrics right now, and it genuinely may be defensible. Since January 15th – two months ago today – Iowa has played at the level of the 4th-best team in America, per Torvik. Kansas is third, but it’s a virtual tie. Frankly, it just comes back to the numbers: Iowa has the HIGHEST ELITE EIGHT ODDS EVER for a 5 seed at 31.4%. If not now, when? I shudder to think of the Fran McCaffery takes I’ll have to delete.

(2) Auburn over (6) LSU. Unfortunately, this one is straight forward: Auburn is at 48% to make the Elite Eight; 2 seeds at 40% or better are 24-for-37 (12-for-47 all others) and they very nearly crack the 50% super-safe barrier. Here’s hoping for an upset somewhere along the line. Jacksonville State?

East Region

(4) UCLA over (1) Baylor. 4 seeds at 25% or better to make the Elite Eight are 6-for-15, and UCLA sits at about 31-32%. Baylor is at just 43.3% to reach the Elite Eight, the lowest of any 1 seed. With the knowledge that 1 seeds at 44% or worse to make the Elite Eight are 7-for-19 in doing so, I am simply playing the odds.

(2) Kentucky over (11) Virginia Tech. Again, hoping for an upset, but I imagine the miracle VA Tech run ends here if it gets that far. Kentucky is *just* above that 40% barrier to crack the Elite Eight at 41.3%. Statistically, we can expect 0.73 10+ seeds to make the Elite Eight. I feel fairly confident that Virginia Tech is the most likely team to make it happen. Go Hokies?

Elite Eight

West Region

(1) Gonzaga over (3) Texas Tech. Gonzaga is at an astounding 53.7% to make the Final Four. Only 16 1 seeds have ever cracked 46%, and they’re at a collective 15-for-16. Gonzaga did it last year; I bet they do it again this time out, too.

South Region

This should go over well.

(3) Tennessee over (1) Arizona. Again: I’m merely playing the numbers. This is not a homer pick. If I could pick against Tennessee, I would, because doing this makes me nauseous. But I want to show you a couple of things.

These are the current odds on KenPom and Torvik. Arizona sits at 29.1% to make the Final Four on one site and 21% on the other. I think Torvik’s number is a little wild, but bear with me. 1 seeds with 33% or lower odds to make the Final Four are 4 of 40 in doing so (all others 28 of 44). Only one 1 seed this year is better than 33%: Gonzaga. The expected number of Final Four teams that are 1 seeds: 1.36 per KenPom, 1.29 per Torvik. That’s not two. That’s one.

Tennessee’s odds, for a 3 seed, are consistently at 20% to make the Final Four. Those are the seventh-highest odds for any 3 seed since 2000. They’re 5% higher than Texas Tech’s in 2019. 7% higher than Michigan’s in 2018. They are 1.7% higher than Florida in 2006. What I am telling you is this: it is okay to believe that the chance is real. If you don’t know, it was probably even harder to believe Tennessee would win the SEC Tournament, a tournament they had a 20.4% chance of winning.

The chance is there. Tennessee has a 53% chance of playing someone other than Arizona if they can make the Elite Eight. We’ll see if it happens.

Midwest Region

(5) Iowa over (2) Auburn. I don’t trust anyone in this region at all for a variety of reasons. Kansas’s metrics are very weak for a 1 seed hoping to make the Final Four; they’re out. Wisconsin is one of the weakest 3-seeds ever. Ditto Providence at the 4. 6-seed LSU has good metrics, but questionable motivation after firing their head coach. USC is the weakest 7-seed in the field. Miami is the weakest 10. San Diego State is the best 8, but their offense ranks in the 150s. Creighton lost a starter and is a big underdog in their first game. Iowa State looked great two months ago but appears to have firmly ran out of gas, scoring 41 points in their only Big 12 Tournament game.

That leaves you with Iowa, a team that hasn’t touched the Sweet Sixteen since 1999 or the Elite Eight since 1987. It has never made a Final Four in the 64-team era. It also leaves you with Auburn, a team that was #1 at one point this season. Auburn was great for a while, but they have some extremely obvious shortcomings: 258th in 3PT%, a bad offensive steal rate, and a 5-4 finish to the regular season that included an awful SEC quarterfinals loss. High seeds that lose in the conference tournament quarterfinals rarely make positive history.

However, high seeds that lose in the conference tournament quarterfinals rarely get such an advantageous draw. Think about Baylor, another team that copied Auburn’s result. Baylor’s path to the Elite Eight is likely #28 and #8 in KenPom. Auburn: #42 and #19, if LSU holds it together long enough. The problem with that is that Auburn just got done losing to #43 on a neutral court. Iowa, meanwhile, has lost twice since January 31 and has risen to #13 in KenPom, just three spots behind Auburn.

Frankly, this is not a pick I love. If any region seems destined to have a truly absurd champion, it is the Midwest, a region where teams seeded 5 or worse have a 39% chance of coming out on top. That is insane, especially when you consider the other three regions are at 21.5% (East), 14.2% (West), and 29.7% (South). The South Region reasonably could blow up, sure, but most of that value is generated by Houston with 17.6%. The non-Iowa 5+ seeds are at 20.7%, and Iowa has better Final Four odds than any other 5+ seed out there. Ride the insanity.

East Region

(4) UCLA over (2) Kentucky. Enough words. Straight to it: 2 seeds at 25% or worse to make the Final Four are 4-for-62 in getting there. Auburn is the only 2 seed that qualifies to go far enough this year, so maybe I lose it there, but whatever. At 17% to get to New Orleans, UCLA has the sixth-highest odds of any 4 seed since 2000 to do it. I recommend attempting to take advantage of one of the worst selection committee jobs in recent memory.

Final Four

(1) Gonzaga over (4) UCLA. When you say it like that it does sound pretty crazy: a straight-up Final Four rematch. It’s happened before, and UCLA was even involved in it with Florida, but it’s rare. Still, I just like the value of UCLA enough to take a swing at it. I think it ends against Gonzaga. Everything at this point of the tournament is a pure coin-flip, but Gonzaga sitting at 38.5% to make the title game is pretty good. 1 seeds at 33% or better, per Torvik, are 10-for-12 in getting there.

(3) Tennessee over (5) Iowa. Look, if you’re still reading, I think you know how stupid and insane this game even looks on paper. Tennessee ranks higher on every metrics site but Haslametrics and is one of the best 3 seeds ever. Give it a whirl, see how it feels.


(1) Gonzaga over (3) Tennessee. Whether Tennessee makes it or not is sort of besides the point for this exercise. Gonzaga is at 27.5% to win it all; no other team is above 9%. Even Arizona is the only other team above 6.6%. Baylor entered at 8.2% last year, but those numbers were COVID-dampened. 2019: Virginia, 21.4%. 2018: Villanova, 18.1%. 2017: UNC, 10%. Weird champions happen, but the majority were at least in the double-digits. Only three champions have been below 7% to win it all since 2006: both UConn titles and 2015 Duke. That’s 11 of 14 tournaments where an unsurprising champion came out on top. Barring some sort of serious surprise, your champion this year is either Gonzaga or Arizona. I have Gonzaga as the only one of these in the title game, so there you go.

One final plea: please do not use these picks to bet on games or futures or whatever. These are for fun and are the product of a lot of weird research I feel bizarrely compelled to work on. If you want to win a bracket pool, please do not expect much, because I did not win mine last year and have not since 2010. However, I hope this helps.

College Basketball Watchability Above Replacement (CBBWAR): A new-old way to find the NCAA’s most entertaining teams

I think anyone who’s read my writing on Tennessee basketball can tell that over the course of the last month, the writing itself has grown more…negative? Cynical? Downward-looking? Over it? I’m not sure what the phrase is, but I’ve had a couple of people reach out with suggestions like “watch other teams.” I appreciate said suggestion, as I already do watch other teams, but that idea became rooted in my head as something I’d like to explore.

Long ago on Fangraphs, a baseball statistics site, writer Carson Cistulli created NERD, “an attempt to summarize in one number (on a scale of 0-10) the likely aesthetic appeal or watchability, for the learned fan, of a player or team or game.” I like baseball, but I realized about ten years ago that what I really love is postseason baseball. Regular season baseball…it’s 162 games, man. But instead of giving up on 162 games entirely, I loved reading Cistulli’s NERD reports every day, pinpointing the most interesting games of the week.

Cistulli left NERD (and Fangraphs) behind a few years ago, but the formula remains out there. I copied it to run my own sort of NERD for MLB this season, with a few tweaks (higher emphasis on homers, because homers) and new calculations. It selected the Los Angeles Dodgers, Toronto Blue Jays, and Tampa Bay Rays as the three most watchable baseball teams of 2021, which, yeah. (Braves fans: you were fifth. I imagine that if Weighted NERD existed, you would probably be top four or top three.)

Anyway, this is a long way of getting to the point: I’ve workshopped a similar idea for college basketball. Ensuring that all 359 team ratings are 100% accurate is borderline impossible, because 1) I have a day job and 2) As such, I’m unable to watch a lot of teams until they either play the team I cover or they’re on a network that everyone can agree on. I watch a lot of college hoops, but Sean Paul (not the singer) and others are whooping me in this regard.

To make up for this, I’ve devised a metric I’m loosely calling College BasketBall Watchability Above Replacement (CBBWAR). The name could be changed, but it’s a name that describes the point of the project and the acronym makes it sound like something that will get $41 billion dollars in military funding somehow. Here are the components involved, all sourced from either KenPom or Hoop-Math:

  • Tempo (alternately possessions per game)
  • KenPom Adjusted Offensive Efficiency (Adj. OE)
  • Effective Field Goal Percentage (eFG%)
  • Percentage of Shots That Are Long Twos (Mid%)
  • FG% at the Rim (Rim%)
  • Three-Point Efficiency (3PT%)
  • Defensive Block Rate (Block%)
  • Defensive Steal Rate (Steal%)
  • Three-Point Attempt Rate (3PA%)

Here’s how these components are currently weighted in my Excel sheet:

Tempo*0.5 + OE + eFG*1.5 – Mid*0.5 + Rim*0.5 + 3PT%*.75 + Block*0.5 + Steal*0.5 + 3PA*0.25 + Constant (currently 2.2, a completely arbitrary number to provide us with higher-rated teams)

What this roughly comes out to is an equation that values offense at 75%, defense about 18%, and tempo 7%. I like fast games, but I like seeing shots go in the net more. I do not like watching a bunch of mid-range twos by teams that generally cannot hit them. (Consider that the NBA average on a mid-range shot this season is 40.3%; in college basketball, it’s 36.9%, and only 21% of teams in America shoot at 40.3% or better. Thanks, but no thanks.) I like when teams hit threes. Also, I like when teams create havoc on defense by blocking a bunch of shots and forcing turnovers.

Unsurprisingly, eFG% and Adj. OE have the strongest correlation to a higher CBBWAR score at +0.94 and +0.86. Of the defensive stats, blocks (+0.30) have a higher correlation to watchability than steals (+0.10), which makes sense, because really good blocks are freaking cool. Tempo makes very little of a difference, which is ideal.

Your personal formula is probably different, which is fine. No two watchability metrics would ever be the same. But for me, this makes sense, and maybe it will for you, too. This metric is a work in progress, so don’t be surprised if/when it changes. For now, CBBWAR is what I’m using going forward to figure out which games and which teams are the ones I want to watch the most.

The initial CBBWAR rankings can be scrolled at the sheet below. A version where you can see the individual Z-scores is linked here:

As seen above, here’s the initial top 10 teams:

  1. Gonzaga (+14.19)
  2. Purdue (+12.5)
  3. Arizona (+11.48)
  4. Kansas (+10.56)
  5. South Dakota State (+10.15)
  6. Auburn (+10.08)
  7. Duke (+9.83)
  8. Iowa (+9.68)
  9. Davidson (+9.62)
  10. Colorado State (+9.46)

I genuinely like and would approve of this initial draft. To my eyes, I don’t see many teams missing from this top 10 (or top 20, to extend) that would be huge misses. Some of the selections will certainly appear strange, such as a 9-7 Memphis team being 18th overall or Santa Clara, the fifth-best WCC team, being in the top 12. What I would offer is this: no metric is perfect, and these two are early outliers. Still: as someone who isn’t a Memphis fan, this Memphis team is hilarious and amazing to watch. Santa Clara plays fast, scores efficiently, and is one of the best shooting teams in America. I kind of get it.

There are improvements to be made, certainly. I’ll expand on CBBWAR in coming weeks, with more changes after further testing and additional analysis with fair frequency. Hopefully, this gets us closer as a college basketball community to some sort of tool that combines team quality and subjective enjoyment. It will never be perfect or fully satisfactory, but I think it’s a decent start to expand upon.

Lastly, here’s a sheet that will be updated daily with the day’s most watchable games, per CBBWAR.

Tennessee’s tricky December is likely going to result in a loss or two, which is fine

I joke about two things online very often: 1. The nuthouse fervor of any and all online communities based around college athletics; 2. The fact that said nuthouse communities apply Football Mindset to other sports. When you are stuck in Football Mindset, every loss is a Big Event. Every loss that happens has the potential to change a narrative for a coach for years to come. (Unless you root for Indiana or Duke football, I guess.) It makes sense for a sport that has 12-game seasons and very few data points to apply to.

It doesn’t make sense to apply Football Mindset to college basketball, a sport with greater variance, 30+ game seasons, and a significantly higher amount of parity. Only one program (Florida) has posted back-to-back championships in the same year. No team has finished a season undefeated in 45 years. The best program over the last decade of the sport is in freaking Spokane, Washington. And yet:

I feel like this perhaps applies especially well to fan bases where football is the dominant sport. There’s nothing inherently wrong with football being the dominant sport at a school! It’s just a bit of a strange way to look at basketball, a sport where literally everyone loses at least once and in almost every season, every high-major basketball team loses 3 or more times. Heck, Tennessee’s most recent SEC basketball title came in a year where they lost five regular season conference games. The arc of history is a long one, and not everything is linear; off nights happen.

I bring all of this up because this December is Tennessee’s trickiest month of pre-January affairs they’ve had to navigate since November 2010 if not further back:

That’s an astounding five opponents ranked 57th or better in the span of four weeks. As far as I can tell, Tennessee hasn’t had a December this busy in over two decades. They’ll be favored in six of these seven games, and two are fairly obvious gimmes, but that leaves five games with a spread within three points, i.e. Literally One Possession in a Basketball Game. That’s five somewhat-weighted coin flips. Apologies to UNC Greensboro (who’s dropped 11 spots since the start of the season, FWIW, and has a new coach) and USC Upstate, but this month should be remembered by the Tier A games.

I ran the numbers on what fans can reasonably expect after remembering how you’re supposed to calculate probabilities. Here’s the rough odds of each record in this five-game stretch, based on KenPom’s numbers:

  • 0-5: 1.6%
  • 1-4: 10.4%
  • 2-3: 26.7%
  • 3-2: 34%
  • 4-1: 21.8%
  • 5-0: 5.5%

The point of this exercise is that it’s going to be very, very hard to get through this month unscathed. Bart Torvik’s TeamCast notes that even a team playing at the level of the current #1 team in metrics systems (Gonzaga) would only be expected to go 5-0 about 31% of the time. When you’re Tennessee – very good, very interesting Tennessee, but a flawed and imperfect Tennessee – your odds are understandably quite a bit shorter. Even the very best team would fail to go 5-0 against this fivesome in 69% of scenarios.

The good news here is that, 83% of the time – AKA, five out of every six – Tennessee is going to win between 2 and 4 games against this tough slate. Unless an outlier performance happens, you can count on Tennessee finding at least two wins. Even in the very worst-case scenario for an NCAA Tournament resume – one where the Volunteers only take the two ‘easiest’ wins – Tennessee would walk away with a road win over Colorado (who is 20-5 at home against Top 100 teams since 2017) and either a home win over Arizona (who looks like a legitimate Top 15 team) or a neutral site win over Texas Tech.

Consider the possibilities of the potential win triplets in the scenarios where Tennessee goes 3-2 (what a top 10-20 team would be expected to do):

  • Road win over #57 Colorado, neutral win over #29 Memphis, home win over #19 Arizona: 24.2% chance of winning all three; most likely three-team pairing
  • Road win over #57 Colorado, neutral win over #16 Texas Tech, home win over #19 Arizona: 20.2%
  • Road win over #57 Colorado, neutral win over #16 Texas Tech, neutral win over #29 Memphis: 19.8%

Or the most chaotic, most annoying, also most satisfying, and therefore funniest tri-win scenario:

  • Neutral win over #16 Texas Tech, neutral win over #29 Memphis, road win over #11 Alabama: 12.1%

I am no psychic; I do not know what will happen this month. What I do know is that if you allow yourself to understand that a two-loss month for Tennessee is Actually Good and genuinely very beneficial to the team’s fortunes in March, you’ll be a much more satisfied and well-adjusted person if that comes to fruition. (If they go 2-3 or worse, depending on the losses being close, you’re more than welcome to get a little upset.) If they go 4-1? Well, buddy, that’s icing on the cake. Any scenario where Tennessee gets four wins out of five would genuinely move them up an entire seed line and possibly two come Selection Sunday while (likely) temporarily placing them in the AP Top 10.

I have two goals in mind:

  1. Win three of the first four games (Colorado, Texas Tech, Memphis, Arizona). Any collection of wins here is great for a March resume, and it allows Tennessee (in my head, but not in reality) to go into the Alabama game with less stress.
  2. Get at least two wins away from home. Winning in front of a home crowd is nice, but you don’t play in front of home crowds in March.

Months like this are horrible and wonderful. Gone are the stress-free blowouts of Quadrant 4 teams (minus the obvious one on Tennessee’s schedule); now, you get to find out just how good Tennessee actually is. To be honest, it’s better to find out something now than to find out something at the worst possible time three months from now. This is going to be a December to remember in some aspect, but hopefully, you don’t have to sit through 500 car commercials to see it unfold.

And hey, if you like applying Football Mindset, think of it this way: you’ve only gotta go .500 to make a bowl. Tennessee only has to go .600 (roughly 7-5, which they did this season) to make this month a successful one. “Vols with two losses or fewer!” doesn’t have the same ring as “Vols by 100”, though, so do what you gotta do.

My 2021-22 SEC basketball projections, tier-by-tier

So: I attended a college football game for the first time since August 2019 this past Saturday. Memphis played SMU at the Historic Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in Memphis. (My future brother-in-law is the Memphis punter and kicker. Humblebrag!) The Tigers won, it was a fine and nice day, 62 degrees, all that. There were even points! 53 of ’em!

There were also commercials. Lots of ’em. Every time I watched the little man in the red hat take the field with a digitized sign that either read 3:05 or 3:25 depending on which car company needs to shove their newest $39,399 MSRP vehicle in my face, I felt just a little more internal groaning turn external. By halftime, I’d seen the Red Hat six different times, each for a commercial break that lasts longer than most songs on the radio do. If I remember correctly, there were 14 full commercial breaks, which means for a solid 45ish minutes of a gorgeous fall Saturday, you’re sitting there watching the Overseer of Advertising.

And this wasn’t even one of the bad games, because it only took about 3 hours and 15 minutes. The FOX Game of the Week seems to take four full hours every time out. This is where the beauty of college basketball, in all of its profound ugliness, lies: the longest regulation games basically never run longer than 2 hours and 20 minutes. Tennessee played an exhibition game against a Division II opponent with eight full media timeouts last weekend and it didn’t even crack the 1:50 mark. The average in-season game runs right at two hours. It’s one of the most economical viewing experiences a time-conscious viewer can have outside of European football/soccer.

This is a very weird and roundabout way of saying that I am looking forward to a capital-N Normal college basketball season like nothing else. Four months of interesting storylines, statistics, and coverage; the most perfect and ludicrous postseason format in existence; a profound lack of in-game Buick ads or the Kenny Chesney Tailgater of the Week when you’re in the arena. For all of this sport’s problems, it holds excitement and wire-to-wire intrigue for me unlike basically anything else. I recognize this probably says more about me than it does the actual sport, and I accept that. But I’m still pretty darn excited about all of this. It’s nice for normalcy to be back on a national stage.

Without further bloviating, the SEC is broken up into five tiers, with an explanation of each tier below its designation. There are 14 teams in all; at the bottom, there is a short list of awards and weird superlatives and whatnot. All rankings in (parentheses) are from the metrics composite I’ve been using for other posts.

Tier 1

Nothing surprising if one (or multiple) of these teams win the SEC regular season title or the SEC Tournament.

T-1. Tennessee (#14)
T-1. Kentucky (#15)
T-1. Alabama (#17)
4. Arkansas (#21)

Yes, this is a copout and whatnot; I also do not care. I genuinely think that all three of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Alabama are pretty much dead even to the point that if you graded them on KenPom’s Adjusted Efficiency Metric I don’t think there would be even half a point of separation between the three. It’s fine. We can have a tie.

Tennessee has been consistently ranked somewhere between second and fourth by media members and ended up fourth in the SEC preseason poll, so it may be a surprise that I would rank them in a three-way tie for first. The media members that make up these polls do generally know their stuff and try pretty hard. That said, I’m simply siding with the computer numbers here; Tennessee has a tantalizing combo of returning talent (John Fulkerson, Josiah-Jordan James, Santiago Vescovi, etc.), high-end freshmen (Kennedy Chandler, Brandon Huntley-Hatfield), and a key transfer (Justin Powell via Auburn) that feels like the best regular-season mix for wins if I had to pick one.

The case against Tennessee is that none of the returning talent is an ideal #1 option offensively and that the best defensive player the program has had in a long time just left for the NBA. If Tennessee can’t figure out how to appropriately replace Pons defensively, it could be an unusual Barnes-era situation in that the team is relying on the offense to provide key wins. (Sort of a Pearl-era situation?) The interesting thing with Tennessee is that, of these four teams, you could make the argument that their floor is higher than everyone else’s…but the ceiling may be lower than both of the teams they’re tied with. Time will tell.

Kentucky is a curious case: they have the most proven coach of anyone in the SEC, of course, and John Calipari largely ditched his usual blue-chip recruiting strategy to go hard in the transfer market after a variety of fixes. (They also may get to add the #1 recruit in the 2022 class midway through the season, but that seems both up in the air and unlikely to actually help them all that much.) They’re the preseason SEC pick by most, and I totally get it; I think that of the four teams in Tier One here they’re kind of the obvious upside pick because if it all comes together correctly, they’ll be one of the 10 or so best teams when things actually matter, i.e. March.

However: this is Kentucky. That means several things. One of them is that “this is Kentucky” means that John Calipari, barring a 38-1 style level of talent, will probably lose a couple more games than expected from November-January only to properly round into form by mid-March. I feel somewhat backed up by this argument because Kentucky just got done defeating a middling Division II side by NINE POINTS in their exhibition game where everyone was available. Also, “this is Kentucky” means that objectively, Kentucky’s average star rating on this team (per 247’s Composite) only ranks 16th-best, the lowest that Calipari has offered since…well, probably 2012-13? That’s still a very good roster, of course, but both Tennessee and LSU rank ahead of the ‘Cats in this metric that is usually dominated by Calipari and crew. I’m very intrigued because this is the most un-Kentucky team of the Calipari era.

Alabama was en route to be a somewhat-clear #1 until Josh Primo left for the Draft and they had a couple unfortunate injuries (Nimari Bennett and James Rojas) that have done serious damage to their rotation. The factors in Alabama’s corner, however, are quite nice. One of them is that Nate Oats has done the massive, revolutionary thing of bringing Moreyball to the SEC and instantly turning a dormant Alabama program into a dominant force. (Yes, it is very funny that all Oats had to do was run the Houston Rockets offense to become a top ten team in college basketball. And his offense wasn’t even elite!) The other is that they got to bring back Jaden Shackelford and Jahvon Quinerly while adding five-star JD Davison to the mix. It’s a really good roster.

The “but why they won’t do it” section is a little more hypothetical here but stick with it. Alabama’s amazing defense last season covered up the fact that the offense was…kind of not great? All of the Ball & Oates headlines ignored that it was the defense that finished the year in the KenPom top five. The offense barely cracked the top 30, and of the team’s eight best offensive outings, only two came after January 19. The team’s two best defenders (Herbert Jones and Primo) both left for the NBA; while I think the offense is probably a hair more well-rounded, the defense seems unlikely to repeat its amazing 2020-21. Can the offense’s progression make up for that in a manner that’s better than “well, we’re a 5 seed?”

Arkansas has the Sweating Screaming Energizer Bunny at head coach and a revolving-door of transfer market talent every year, so you generally know that every season is likely to follow a similar storyline. This year’s big addition is Chris Lykes, a 5’7” point guard from Miami who can score in bunches and has a surprisingly low turnover rate for a ball-dominant guard. There’s also Au’Diese Toney (Pittsburgh) and Stanley Umude (South Dakota), both of whom were quite excellent at their previous stops in lower-profile roles. Add J.D. Notae (also a ball-dominant guard) and Davonte Davis (hero of the Sweet Sixteen last year) back to the mix and you’ve got a team that everyone seems reasonably high on in the manner of Arkansas being back to yearly Top 25 status.

The downside to this is two-fold: eventually, you’re not gonna hit on all your transfers, and also, unless Jaylin Williams (not Auburn’s Jaylin Williams) or Connor Vanover (Slenderman video series) is able to step into an extended role late in the season, this is going to be a really small basketball team. Arkansas’s current lineup, per Torvik, projects at 5’7”/6’1”/6’3”/6’6”/6’6”. That’s kind of fine if you’re Arkansas State; it’s less great when you have Oscar Tshiebwe and Walker Kessler and Darius Days and the Mississippi State bigs and even John Fulkerson on your schedule. Vanover was played out of the rotation last March because he’s not mobile enough at all to handle ball-screen heavy offenses; Williams is much better in this regard but committed 4.8 fouls per 40 last year and was a turnover machine offensively. Can one of those two players become reliable enough to be playable for 20+ minutes a night in March, or will Arkansas simply have to find a way to win with a super small-ball center?

Tier 2

Either team could reasonably outperform preseason expectations and contend for the SEC title(s)…but either team also has the potential to underperform and end up near the NCAA bubble as a mid-pack squad.

5. Auburn (#28)
6. Florida (#26)

Auburn is ahead of Florida for three reasons:

  1. Their head coach is Bruce Pearl;
  2. Florida is coached by Mike White;
  3. Auburn’s schedule actually lines up very nicely for them to finish in the top four with a couple breaks.

But that’s being maybe a hair unfair to both sides. Let’s tackle the Auburn case first. The Tigers are exiting a rebuilding year where the team basically never played at full strength and you only got 12 games of Sharife Cooper thanks to a postseason ban. Auburn finished 60th in KenPom, their worst season since 2016-17 and essentially the first time since that year they haven’t been a serious SEC factor. But: their coach is Bruce Pearl, and that kind of makes up for a lot. There’s no direct 1-to-1 comparison between 2021-22 Auburn and any of Pearl’s Tennessee teams, but this group is straight-up more talented. Cooper is gone, but five-star freshman Jabari Smith enters, as does Georgia transfer K.D. Johnson (who was excellent in his first season) and Walker Kessler (you know who this is).

The Auburn Problem, as much as there’s an obvious one, is their lack of a standout defense under Pearl. When Pearl was at Tennessee, the Volunteers did post three Top 20 offenses, but it wasn’t until Tennessee finished the 2009-10 season 11th-best defensively that they touched the Elite Eight. Auburn’s been to a Final Four, obviously, but they haven’t topped being the 36th-best defense nationally under Pearl. The defensive rankings of the best KenPom SEC team over the last five years: 3rd, 52nd, 8th, 6th, 7th. Excluding the 2019-20 season when there were no excellent SEC teams, it’s pretty obvious that to be the best of the best, Auburn’s just gotta get better defensively.

Florida, meanwhile, is a way stranger case. Under Mike White, the Gators haven’t finished worse than 41st on KenPom, have made four consecutive NCAA Tournaments, own an Elite Eight bid, and have yet to finish sub-.500 in conference play. The problem is that Mike White is not Billy Donovan, and the Mike White Basketball Experience might be best summed up with a tweet I posted this summer.

Only Penn State offers a greater gap over the last five seasons between their expected record and their actual record. Objectively, Florida has played high-quality basketball over the full sample size of an average 30-40 game season. They win seven games a season against the toughest competition they play; only Kentucky has more Quad 1 wins. Yet Florida always finds a way to do one of three things: blow a close game, lose to an opponent they’re significantly better than, or blow a close game to an opponent they’re significantly better than. If you flip the result of, like, five games in the Mike White tenure, things might feel different than they do. But they don’t, and such is life.

This particular Florida roster is a pretty fascinating one. At a surface level, it’s roughly as talented as White’s 2018-19 squad that made the Round of 32 and was probably 2-3 wins better than its actual record. Myreon Jones transferred over from Penn State, where he averaged 15.3 PPG and seems to be the kind of scoring guard Florida desperately needs. All-SEC Colin Castleton is back. Tyree Appleby is back. The eight-man rotation projects to have six seniors in it. If you measured this team by objective talent, you’d say it’s a Top 25 roster. All it would take is one season where Mike White and crew catch a few lucky breaks and they’re suddenly in the thick of the SEC race. But…don’t you kind of have to see it to believe it at this point?

Tier 3

One, possibly two, of these teams will make the NCAA Tournament. Which ones? I’ll know in a few months.

7. LSU (#40)
8. Mississippi State (#52)
9. Mississippi (#65)

LSU is once again going to have an excellent offense (three straight in the top 15) and an awful defense (three of four years in the 100s in KenPom). The difference here is that this might be Will Wade’s most talented starting lineup ever. Xavier Pinson transfers over from Missouri and could easily hit 15-18 PPG; Darius Days is fabulously efficient; freshman Efton Reid seems awesome. If they could find even one or two decent bench players, they could easily outperform this ranking. But: until they have a good defense, I’m not gonna believe in them, and on a surface level, this looks to me like a team that will have about 6.5 playable guys in March.

Mississippi State got a strangely high amount of Top 25-adjacent buzz this offseason and ended up fairly high in Others Receiving Votes. Most seem to believe that this is the team Ben Howland has been building towards. Fair enough, whatever, I’ll hear it out. And when I saw Iverson Molinar, Tolu Smith, and Garrison Brooks all on the same roster, it seemed somewhat reasonable. Unfortunately, this is not 3-on-3 basketball, and I remain both unimpressed and confused by the rest of the team. I have three serious questions:

  1. Do people think Tolu Smith and Garrison Brooks, both 6’10”, both non-factors in the shooting department, can play together? This seems like a futile hope that basketball somehow returns to 2010, but then again, that’s how every Howland-era MSU team has looked to me.
  2. Do you think Rocket Watts and D.J. Jeffries will suddenly live up to recruiting expectations? Watts was a horrendous shooter in two years with one of the best coaches in America; Jeffries posted a 96 Offensive Rating with Memphis last season on a team that badly needed offense.
  3. Can you name the bench players? State’s likely bench options are Derek Fountain (okay-enough stretch 4), Shakeel Moore (NC State transfer with a 93 Offensive Rating), Cameron Matthews (bench player last year), and…uh…yeah.

If State answers these questions appropriately, then it seems reasonable that they end the season in the top 30-35 or so and maybe win a Tournament game. If they can’t, as I anticipate, this is an NCAA bubble team that will spend the entire year being talented enough to win some interesting games, yet frustrating enough to make you wonder why they just lost a can’t-lose game to South Carolina.

Mississippi is in another transition year under Kermit Davis, which is fine. They have a solid amount of talent and some intriguing players: Jarkel Joiner, Luis Rodriguez, Matthew Murrell. They run the most unique defense the SEC has to offer, a weird 1-3-1 that extends into a full-court zone press and can turn a generally-fine opponent into absolute sludge on the right night. The problem for Ole Miss, just like it was the last two seasons, is that I can’t tell you with any real feeling who their second scoring option is going to be. Joiner feels likely to get them somewhere between 13-16 a night, but who’s the #2? Do they have any #2? Torvik projects this offense 147th; KenPom has it 110th. Both feel pretty much spot-on. For Ole Miss to overachieve, either the defense has to be a top-five unit all year long or the offense needs to be at least in the top 75. Both seem a little lofty.

Tier 4

This ranges from “could reasonably make NIT” to “is bad, but not bad enough to avoid stumbling backwards into multiple upset wins.”

10. Vanderbilt (#88)
11. Texas A&M (#101)

12. South Carolina (#108)
13. Missouri (#111)

More quick-hitters here because, well, none of these teams project to be of ultra-serious importance. One or even two could become Tier 3 with a couple good breaks, but none seem possible to breach Tier 2.

Vanderbilt returns one of the nation’s most exciting players in Scotty Pippen, Jr. and juuuuuust enough interesting pieces (Rodney Chatman via Dayton, Liam Robbins via Minnesota) that you can talk yourself into Vanderbilt no longer being in Sickos Territory. They’ve been awful defensively in both Stackhouse seasons and I don’t see why that will change this year, but they’re no longer going to be the obvious doormat. They’ll have several reasonable shots to pull off a Top 25 win or two. Texas A&M has been excruciating to watch under Buzz Williams, which is The Point. Williams just hasn’t been able to find an offensive option that can get things going for his squad; through two seasons this is why they’ve ranked 203rd and 175th in offense nationally. Tyrece Radford (Virginia Tech) is their best hope yet in this regard, but the odds of Buzz running a smoke-and-mirrors campaign like he did in 2019-20 to get A&M to 10-8 in the SEC are not high.

South Carolina retained Frank Martin, and he repaid them by making precisely one significant addition in the transfer market: Erik Stevenson, a Washington guard who averaged 9.3 PPG for a 5-21 team. If I had to place a bet on which team in the SEC will have the lowest-ranked offense at season’s end, I would still choose Georgia, but South Carolina makes a depressingly strong argument. Missouri had a hot 2020-21 start, crashed to the ground, and lost over 80% of minutes and scoring while not really doing much recruiting-wise to replace it. Cuonzo Martin seems fine treating this as a transition/rebuilding year; finishing higher than 11th in the SEC with this roster would genuinely be the best accomplishment of his tenure.

Tier 5

This tier is reserved for one team: the worst roster on paper that I’ve seen from an SEC squad since 2012-13 Mississippi State.

14. Georgia (#185)

When the Bulldogs hired Tom Crean prior to the 2018-19 season, it was met with a lot of generic excitement. Here is a mostly-anonymous basketball program that hadn’t made headlines in almost two decades hiring a guy with a Final Four on his resume and a couple genuinely very good seasons at Indiana. Nothing to sneeze at, particularly when you consider what Georgia’s had in the past for coaches. Sure, they go 2-16 in the SEC in Crean’s first season; sure, they go 5-13 in the SEC with the #1 draft pick on their roster. It takes time.

Whatever time it’s taken has resulted in one of the worst high-major rosters I have seen in the time that I’ve been deeply following college basketball. It was already bad before Georgia’s lone notable returner, P.J. Horne, was announced as being out for the season with a torn ACL. That injury dropped Georgia to #237 on Bart Torvik’s site; no team has breached the 210+ range in the SEC in eight full seasons. It would be insane for any team to get that low.

This Georgia roster is stunning in all the wrong ways. Its leading scorer from any roster is Jailyn Ingram, a sixth-year super-senior who averaged 10.4 PPG at Florida Atlantic despite not starting in nearly half the team’s games. That’s the only double-digit scorer the roster has. The team’s next-best player is probably Jabri Abdur-Rahim, who failed to crack the rotation at Virginia. It’s extraordinarily dire.

Because it is really, really hard to lose every game in a conference season, Georgia should be able to stumble their way to 2-4 SEC wins. They may even end up in a position that isn’t last place, depending on how 10-13 shake out. But it is very, very hard to imagine Georgia playing a close game against any of the SEC’s top six, and it is almost as hard imagining them finding a win against an opponent higher than Tier 4. Torvik projects their final record as 9-21, 3-15 SEC; if that comes true, it would be beyond me how you’d give Tom Crean another chance at turning this thing around. 3-15 SEC would mean 17-55 SEC through four years. How would a fifth year fix that?

Some other various dumb predictions

SEC Player of the Year: Jahvon Quinerly (Alabama). Two things generally hold true with this award: it’s given to a higher-usage player (24% USG% or higher) and you have to at least be on one of the SEC’s four or five best teams to get it. That’s why I wouldn’t guess Pippen Jr. gets it, even if he is the actual best player in the conference. Quinerly projects to be the highest-usage player on a top-three SEC side and the one who will likely get the ball the most in late-game situations. Others receiving votes: Kennedy Chandler (Tennessee), Myreon Jones (Florida), uh…one of like four Kentucky players?

SEC Freshman of the Year: Kennedy Chandler (Tennessee). I think Jabari Smith at Auburn is a perfectly fine pick, too, and would not be surprised for him to win it. I just anticipate that Chandler probably will be a bigger focus of his team’s offense and, as projected, Tennessee figures to be a slightly better SEC team on the whole. That would be the tiebreaker if there is one. Others receiving votes: Jabari Smith (Auburn), J.D. Davison (Alabama).

Leading scorer: Scotty Pippen Jr. (Vanderbilt). Unless there’s a Cam Thomas waiting out there this would be Pippen’s ‘award’ to lose; it’s hard to find another player on the Vandy roster willing to take as many possessions as Pippen does and he’s going to be the main path to possible upsets. I’ll guess somewhere around 21-22 PPG.

Leading rebounder: Oscar Tshiebwe (Kentucky). If he can stay on the court consistently, Tshiebwe genuinely should average 10+ rebounds a night. Few were as dominant as he was on the boards at West Virginia.

Leading assist-er(?): Scotty Pippen Jr. I mean it all runs through him.

Sickos Game of the Season: South Carolina at Georgia, February 12, 2022. You could pick a non-conference game, but I restricted this award to SEC only. Georgia, obviously, is the worst team in the SEC. However: this ranks as their very best shot at an SEC win this season. They’re likely to be a slim underdog to a directionless South Carolina program. The loser of this game may fire their coach. The winner might also fire their coach.

Actual Best Game of the Season: uh…I actually think it’s Tennessee at Alabama, December 29, 2021? This is the very first SEC game for both of these teams, but with a 77.8 FanMatch rating, this is KenPom’s highest SEC vs. SEC rating given to a game all season. Clear your schedule!

Number of NCAA Tournament teams: 7. As you can guess, I think LSU is the seventh; whatever holes they have will be erased for long enough to get them in the field as a 9 or 10 seed.

Number of 1 & 2 seeds: 0. ZERO!!!! You get what you deserve! I’m kidding. The problem with having four legitimate Tier One teams and six teams that could win 12+ SEC games is that they’re all going to beat up on each other over the course of two months. Unless one of those four/six teams is considerably better than expected, every team in the SEC is going to end the season with at least four and probably five conference losses; if they don’t make up for those in November and December, it may collectively be too much to produce a top-eight side.

Your SEC standings projections: are below. There are a total of 126 wins to be collected among the 14 teams; whether they live up to these idiotic guesses is up to them.

T-1. Tennessee (13-5)
T-1. Alabama (13-5)
T-1. Kentucky (13-5)
4. Arkansas (12-6)
T-5. Auburn (11-7)
T-5. Florida (11-7)
T-7. LSU (9-9)
T-7. Mississippi State (9-9)
9. Mississippi (8-10)
10. Vanderbilt (7-11)
T-11. Texas A&M (6-12)
T-11. South Carolina (6-12)
13. Missouri (5-13)
14. Georgia (3-15)

Predictions for the 2021-22 college basketball season

After the longest, strangest, dumbest season in college basketball history, we’re mere days away from a Mostly Normal Season for the first time since 2018-19. 2019-20 may have appeared normal, but we found out later that it simply wasn’t meant to be. Finally, we get our beloved sport back. It’s time for normalcy.

Which means it’s time to go on the record and make some predictions based off of probably-flimsy metrics that will look silly several months from now. What, you don’t do these things?

Here’s a loose overview of what I’m doing here:

  1. Picking winners for all 32 participating conferences in college basketball.
  2. Selecting some teams I am ‘in’ or ‘out’ on, relative to the national consensus.
  3. A list of superlatives based on recent history, mostly for overachievers and underachievers.

I beg of you to not take this too seriously. I came up with this idea just to flesh out some thoughts I had about the season recently that others may or may not want to read about. All of what I’m doing here is based on my research, along with help from the preseason ratings from KenPom, Torvik, EvanMiya, and Haslametrics. There’s short reasoning provided for each pick, along with where each team ranks in my mini-consensus.

AFTER THE READ MORE TAG: bunch o’ stuff

Continue reading “Predictions for the 2021-22 college basketball season”

How much mid-range is too much mid-range?

Hello out there. I hope you’re trying to enjoy the dog days of summer. Every day is exactly the same; an 88-to-93 degree high, a 69-to-73 degree low. Sometimes it rains. Sometimes it doesn’t. Much like basketball, something either goes down or it stays out. This is perhaps the peak time of boredom, something we rarely get anymore with our collective addiction to social media and online life. You can zone out for minutes, even hours and realize that nothing around you has changed all that much. In its own way, it is quite nice.

More than any other time this could possibly be written, mid-August in the middle of Sludge Weather seems like the ideal time to continue the Mid-Range Discourse.

AFTER THE JUMP: The Discourse begins anew

Continue reading “How much mid-range is too much mid-range?”

What matters most in winning college basketball’s closest games?

Sports, in general, lend themselves to classic cliches. The team that continuously wins coin-flip fixtures wants it more. They get the 50/50 plays. Clearly, they have more heart, or perhaps they’re just the more experienced team. Sometimes, we talk about how you can’t let a team like them hang around and how these teams, or players, or coaches, or heck, fans are simply winners. They get it done when it counts.

All of the above are various cliches I’ve heard surrounding close, tightly-contested games. Also, all of the above are cliches I’ve heard across every single sport I watch. The same teams with experience or heart or devil magic seem to exist in all sports, from football to basketball to hockey to European football to curling. They’re everywhere, pervasive at all times, unable to be hidden from. Announcers and sportswriters love cliches like these because they’re narrative-friendly and for the most part, you can’t really disprove them.

How is one supposed to disprove an individual or team having the larger amount of heart, exactly? Do we get postgame MRIs detailing heart girth? Do we get live blood pressure readings in the final moments of a high-leverage situation? Along with that, I’ve never understood how I can say a team didn’t want it more. I mean, I can’t get in their heads or read their inner thoughts. I don’t know if one player is thinking about wanting to take the last shot or throw the final pitch while another is thinking about Arby’s.

Basketball, particularly of the college variety, could be the best testing grounds for all sorts of ideas and philosophies. Are there certain statistical elements that lend themselves to teams winning more close games? Are these elements different in any way from those that decide every other basketball game? Can we actually prove or disprove some of the less airy cliches surrounding basketball’s closeness? I spent a month’s time this offseason diving deep into these questions and more. Whether or not it proves to be of real use, we’ll see.

NEXT PAGE: What defines a close game? What are some of the common stats-unfriendly tropes that can be proven or disproven?