The best women’s college basketball offenses of 2020-21

This is a very simple post. It’s a list of the most efficient women’s college basketball offenses this season, and it’s a list I’ve made in years prior. This year, I cut the list from 25 down to 20 for one simple reason: COVID-19 and a lower number of games than normal.

There will be two calculations included here. The first, and the one I note in tweets, is from Synergy Sports, which accumulates stats from every single college basketball program in America. Their points per possession numbers will look smaller than most for one specific reason: Synergy notes offensive rebounds as separate possessions. Most others (i.e. KenPom, StatBroadcast, etc.) do not.

First up, Synergy. This one is pretty simple: it’s the 20 best offenses of the season, as determined by a minimum number of possessions (1100 or more). Normally, I don’t really have to filter out many teams, but there was a huge variety in how many games teams were able to play this season thanks to COVID-19. Hopefully, this is the only season we’ll ever have to filter out teams again.

20. Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs (Duluth, MN)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.93
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): P&R Ball Handler (99th-percentile), Spot-Up (97th), Post-Up (93rd)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 39.5% Rim (0-4 feet from the rim), 28% Non-Rim Twos, 32.5% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 55.9% Rim, 38.2% Non-Rim Twos, 36% 3PT
  • Tempo: 66.03 possessions

19. Taylor University Trojans (Upland, IN)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.932
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Spot-Up (100th), Post-Up (94th), P&R Ball Handler (92nd)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 31.5% Rim, 14.8% Non-Rim Twos, 53.7% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 61% Rim, 36.7% Non-Rim Twos, 37.1% 3PT
  • Tempo: 72.39 possessions

18. Colorado State Rams (Fort Collins, CO)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.933
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Transition (99th), P&R Ball Handler (96th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 31.5% Rim, 35.5% Non-Rim Twos, 33% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 59.3% Rim, 37.7% Non-Rim Twos, 37.7% 3PT
  • Tempo: 73.83 possessions

17. Central Michigan Chippewas (Mount Pleasant, MI)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.934
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Transition (100th), P&R Ball Handler (99th), Spot-Up (92nd)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 33.2% Rim, 21.1% Non-Rim Twos, 45.7% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 62.4% Rim, 39.2% Non-Rim Twos, 35.1% 3PT
  • Tempo: 72.55 possessions

16. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (New Brunswick, NJ)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.936
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Transition (99th), P&R Ball Handler (99th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 37.2% Rim, 30.7% Non-Rim Twos, 32.1% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 63.4% Rim, 37.2% Non-Rim Twos, 36.1% 3PT
  • Tempo: 68.27 possessions

T-14. Stanford Cardinal (Palo Alto, CA)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.937
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Transition (97th), P&R Ball Handler (97th), Cut (94th), Spot-Up (91st)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 40.3% Rim, 23.7% Non-Rim Twos, 36% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 57.6% Rim, 39.2% Non-Rim Twos, 37.6% 3PT
  • Tempo: 69.81 possessions

T-14. New Mexico Lobos (Albuquerque, NM)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.937
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Off-Screen (99th), Cut (93rd), Spot-Up (90th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 33.5% Rim, 20.8% Non-Rim Twos, 45.7% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 61.5% Rim, 42.5% Non-Rim Twos, 32.9% 3PT
  • Tempo: 76.06 possessions

13. Louisville Cardinals (Louisville, KY)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.939
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Transition (97th), P&R Ball Handler (97th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 35.9% Rim, 30.4% Non-Rim Twos, 33.7% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 61.6% Rim, 39.6% Non-Rim Twos, 34.7% 3PT
  • Tempo: 70.16 possessions

12. Westminster College Lady Griffins (Salt Lake City, UT)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.944
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Post-Up (99th), Cut (99th), Spot-Up (95th), P&R Ball Handler (92nd)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 41.3% Rim, 26.3% Non-Rim Twos, 32.4% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 58.8% Rim, 43% Non-Rim Twos, 36.4% 3PT
  • Tempo: 66.31 possessions

11. North Carolina State Wolfpack (Raleigh, NC)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.946
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): P&R Ball Handler (98th), Spot-Up (96th), Transition (94th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 39.8% Rim, 28.3% Non-Rim Twos, 31.9% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 61.4% Rim, 39.2% Non-Rim Twos, 36.3% 3PT
  • Tempo: 71.61 possessions

10. Sterling College Warriors (Sterling, KS)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.948
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Transition (98th), P&R Ball Handler (97th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 40.6% Rim, 35% Non-Rim Twos, 24.4% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 57.5% Rim, 43.2% Non-Rim Twos, 39.2% 3PT
  • Tempo: 78.23 possessions

9. Drury Panthers (Springfield, MO)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.956
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Transition (100th), Hand-Off (94th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 36.8% Rim, 35.6% Non-Rim Twos, 27.6% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 63.4% Rim, 41.7% Non-Rim Twos, 34.7% 3PT
  • Tempo: 74.97 possessions

8. Lubbock Christian Chaps (Lubbock, TX)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.963
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Spot-Up (100th), Transition (97th), Post-Up (95th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 41.9% Rim, 18.3% Non-Rim Twos, 39.8% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 58.2% Rim, 40.7% Non-Rim Twos, 36.7% 3PT
  • Tempo: 70.13 possessions

7. Bryan College Lions (Dayton, TN)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.964
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Transition (100th), Spot-Up (96th), P&R Ball Handler (94th), Cut (92nd)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 46.7% Rim, 13.1% Non-Rim Twos, 40.2% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 56.9% Rim, 39.2% Non-Rim Twos, 37.2% 3PT
  • Tempo: 79.71 possessions

6. Arkansas Razorbacks (Fayetteville, AR)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.975
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Spot-Up (100th), Hand-Off (96th), P&R Ball Handler (94th), Transition (91st)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 34.7% Rim, 26.5% Non-Rim Twos, 38.8% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 57.5% Rim, 33.8% Non-Rim Twos, 38.4% 3PT
  • Tempo: 76.64 possessions

5. Connecticut Huskies (Storrs, CT)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.986
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Transition (98th), Cut (97th), Post-Up (95th), P&R Ball Handler (95th), Spot-Up (90th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 46.3% Rim, 22% Non-Rim Twos, 31.7% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 67.3% Rim, 51.7% Non-Rim Twos, 35.4% 3PT
  • Tempo: 71.4 possessions

4. Florida Gulf Coast Eagles (Fort Myers, FL)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.988
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): P&R Ball Handler (100th), Off-Screen (97th), Cut (96th), Spot-Up (94th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 37.3% Rim, 7.8% Non-Rim Twos, 54.9% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 63.6% Rim, 49.3% Non-Rim Twos, 32.9% 3PT
  • Tempo: 75.56 possessions

3. Cedarville Yellow Jackets (Cedarville, OH)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.993
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Spot-Up (100th), P&R Ball Handler (93rd), Hand-Off (93rd), Transition (90th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 36.4% Rim, 20.8% Non-Rim Twos, 42.8% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 57.4% Rim, 36.7% Non-Rim Twos, 38.8% 3PT
  • Tempo: 75.7 possessions

2. Maryland Terrapins (College Park, MD)

  • Points Per Possession: 1.023
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Transition (99th), Spot-Up (98th), P&R Ball Handler (97th), Cut (97th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 41.9% Rim, 28.2% Non-Rim Twos, 29.9% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 61.4% Rim, 41.2% Non-Rim Twos, 40.2% 3PT
  • Tempo: 74.25 possessions

1. Iowa Hawkeyes (Iowa City, IA)

  • Points Per Possession: 1.034
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Everything but Isolation, Hand-Off, and P&R Roll Man.
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 38.1% Rim, 23.4% Non-Rim Twos, 38.5% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 65.5% Rim, 45.5% Non-Rim Twos, 40.3% 3PT
  • Tempo: 75.28 possessions

NEXT PAGE: Top 20 teams by traditional possession calculations

Final Four Preview: (1) Baylor vs. (2) Houston

No long-winded introduction here; this is merely the game I’ve been hoping to see since the Field of 68 was announced. (Though I’m still a little sore over Ohio State blowing it in the first round. I root for you people once and that’s how you repay me?) These are two shot volume machines, with Houston being the very best team in America in terms of generating shots per 100 possessions. Baylor hits a ton of threes; Houston brutalizes you for 40 minutes. It’s the most enjoyable matchup of styles we’ll get until the title game.

When Houston has the ball

No proper Houston preview can start without heading directly to their prime strength (and Baylor’s main team weakness): rebounding. Or, if you prefer, shot volume versus shot efficiency. I started noticing a very specific trend that I decided to call The Houston because no other team does it so frequently and so brutally. To achieve The Houston, you need to rebound 35% or more of your misses and turn it over on 16% or less of your possessions. Houston did it 15 times this season. No other team in America got past eight.

It’s why the Cougars’ struggles in actually hitting shots has been the B-story of sorts. In the NCAA Tournament alone, Houston has posted 63, 62, and 67 points in their last three games, with an eFG% of 44.1%, 44.2%, and 41.1% along the way. They went 9-for-30 on two-pointers against Oregon State and 14-for-37 against Rutgers. By all means, teams that post those numbers generally shouldn’t be anywhere near the Final Four. And yet: here’s the Houston Cougars, who have only posted a sub-1 PPP five times this year and keep getting there because of an absolutely bonkers amount of offensive rebounds.

The Cougars have rebounded 39.8% of their misses, the second-highest rate in college basketball and the highest by any Final Four team not named North Carolina since 2014. This is important, because we should note that offensive rebounding percentage has slowly dwindled over the last 15 years and tied for an all-time low this season at just 28%. Offensive rebounds will always be important, but they don’t hold the same level of importance that they did in, say, 2006. You can’t tell Kelvin Sampson and the Houston Cougars that, though. You certainly can’t tell their opponents this March, either. Houston has attempted 51 more field goals and 13 more free throws than their NCAA Tournament opposition because they are demolishing the glass:

Houston has been held below a 30% OREB% twice all season, the last of which was over two months ago against Temple. It really hasn’t mattered as to who the opposition is, either. Houston has played teams ranked 25th (Boise State), 31st (Memphis, twice), and 38th (Western Kentucky) in defensive rebounding; the Cougars went for 41.7%, 36.6%, 37.9%, and 35.3% OREB%, respectively. They’ve gone 43% or better in three of four NCAA Tournament games.

This is a serious problem for Baylor before we even get to actual attacks/counterattacks strategy. The Bears rank 273rd in defensive rebounding percentage, easily the lowest ranking of the remaining Final Four teams. In the team’s first loss to Kansas in late February, the Bears allowed the Jayhawks to rebound an astounding 48.3% of their misses, which helped Kansas overcome a 3-for-16 day from deep and Baylor winning the turnover battle 14-3.

If that level of poor defensive rebounding shows up, the Bears may be done before the game even starts. Even if their normal levels attend, it’s going to be very tough. Of Baylor’s four NCAA Tournament opponents, only one (Arkansas) ranked above the national average in offensive rebounding. They haven’t really faced a tough test on this front since playing West Virginia in early March, but even Arkansas and Villanova easily beat their season averages in terms of offensive rebounding. Villanova, a team that averaged rebounding 27.8% of their misses this year and is not exactly tall, got back a third of their missed shots. Arkansas: 37.9%.

If Baylor can’t clean this up, the game really could swing Houston’s way to an extent a lot of people may not expect.

Beyond the rebounding battle, there’s two clear areas where Houston has to succeed: finding open shots from deep and avoiding getting themselves into a mid-range chuck-fest. Houston would be a fairly ideal underdog in a different setting for two reasons: they keep the tempo very slow (64.9 possessions per game, 319th of 347 teams) and they jack up lots of threes. 42.5% of all Houston shots are from downtown, and their 34.9% hit rate is a bit above the national average.

The primary shooter is Quentin Grimes, the Kansas transfer who entered late-bloomer status this year and quietly became one of the best players in college basketball. Grimes is shooting 41.2% from deep on 240 attempts, and as evidenced by Houston’s run so far, he’s very unafraid to shoot. Grimes has taken a hilarious 39 three-point attempts in four games, but he’s backing it up by having hit 17 of these so far (43.6%). In fact, Grimes has hit at least four threes in seven straight games and nine of the last ten despite being the primary offensive focus for opponents to gameplan against, which is very impressive.

Grimes has been lethal this year in the Cougars’ rare transition runs: 30-for-59 in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock and 69-for-181 on all other attempts. It’s not natural for Houston to run and gun, but when you have a shooter as good as Grimes, you’re kind of obligated to do it occasionally. Watch for Houston to push the pace off of steals and, every now and then, off of a particularly bad Baylor miss.

Baylor’s defense has been excellent this season, and aside from a blip in February/March due to their three-week COVID pause, they’ve been hard to score on. The most successful team to do so in this Tournament was easily Arkansas, who didn’t shoot particularly well from deep but worked to push the pace off of misses + rare steals. By doing so, it earned the Razorbacks several open layups when Baylor wasn’t settled, as well as forcing some key Bear defenders into foul trouble. Still, this is a Baylor defense that’s excellent at guarding threes and even better at forcing the right people to take them.

Lastly: ball screens. We haven’t seen Houston run a massive amount of these over their last couple of games, as both Syracuse and Oregon State went heavy with zone defense in an attempt to force the Cougars to shoot over the top of them. Houston has a good zone offense, but zones take away Houston’s two most efficient play types: transition ball and the pick-and-roll. Houston’s ball-screen offense ranks in the 80th-percentile, per Synergy, with the ball handler having a ton of success. The main ball handlers this season have been DeJon Jarreau, Marcus Sasser, and Grimes, with Grimes/Sasser being more likely to pull up for threes and Jarreau being more likely to take a mid-range jumper.

Baylor’s goal in this game should be taking away these jumpers from Jarreau and forcing him/Sasser to shoot over the top of them instead. Neither Jarreau (35.2% 3PT%) nor Sasser (32.6%) are quite as automatic from deep as you’d hope, but both are solid rim scorers, and everyone in Houston’s main rotation converts at least 57% of their attempts at the rim. The problem: they don’t get to the rim all that often (25.8% of all attempts). If Baylor can drag Houston’s possessions out and force them to take 25-footers deep in the shot clock, it’s an optimal outcome for Scott Drew and company.

They just have to remember to rebound. Good luck!

NEXT PAGE: When Baylor has the ball

Final Four Preview: (1) Gonzaga vs. (11) UCLA

Amazingly, of all possible games Gonzaga could’ve been involved in to make the national title game, this is the opponent they drew. The team responsible for what was the definitive Gonzaga loss for a generation. The team that went all the way to the title game that year. A program with so much history, so many championships, and so much success…and a program that we are now simultaneously treating as a massive underdog against the team that championed being the underdog.

This is a weird game to preview, but I can’t help but love it. It’s been a weird year. We deserved at least one out-of-nowhere Final Four game, and I’m sure Gonzaga fans are probably happy that they’re the likely beneficiary of such a draw. But: you cannot underestimate this UCLA team. No one has for weeks now, not after they knocked off analytics darling Alabama and sentimental favorite Michigan. (Do you realize how cool Juwan Howard has to be to make Michigan a sentimental favorite?) They’re coming into this one with nothing to lose against the one team that hasn’t experienced a loss to date. I can’t wait to see how it unfolds.

NEXT PAGE: When UCLA has the ball

Game Preview: (12) Oregon State vs. (8) Loyola Chicago

Here comes a Sweet Sixteen fixture that roughly 0.36% of people appear to have projected, per ESPN. It was one thing for Loyola Chicago to be a top 10 KenPom team, to be underrated the entire season, to get an 8 seed they deserved better than…but it was honestly an entire other thing for an Oregon State team that entered the Pac-12 Tournament outside the KenPom top 100 to be here, too.

To put it in perspective, think of it this way: every other 12 seed, two 13 seeds, and a 14 seed all were picked by more people to make the Sweet Sixteen than the Beavers. Who could blame them? The Beavers have gone from an afterthought that hadn’t won an NCAA Tournament game in 39 years to 40 minutes away from their second Elite Eight appearance in the last 55 years. For Loyola, it’s a chance to show everyone that 2018 wasn’t a one-hit wonder. While this isn’t the game anyone saw coming, it’s perhaps the game with the richest possible storylines.

NEXT PAGE: When Oregon State has the ball

Key stats and notes for each Sweet Sixteen matchup

During the regular season, I provided what I called “stat sheets” to a few key people. These included broadcasters, SIDs, and anyone that was curious. Tennessee’s season is over, but college basketball isn’t, and it seems like a waste to not do these anymore. I don’t know if any broadcasters will end up seeing these, but if it helps even one fan view a game through a different lens, I’ve done well.

In order are this weekend’s eight Sweet Sixteen games, with stats and notes on all 16 teams involved. I’m going to be doing these for the Elite Eight, Final Four, and National Championship, and as fewer games are played, the sheets will grow larger.

NEXT PAGE: Saturday’s games

Ranking the Round of 32 games by watchability

Just like Thursday’s post, but for the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Rankings are based on a combination of quality offense + closeness of the matchup + interesting players + whatever other factors I cook up.

These are not meant to be taken too seriously.

Sunday

Five Basketballs

1. (8) Loyola Chicago vs. (1) Illinois (12:10 PM ET, CBS)
2. (11) Syracuse vs. (3) West Virginia (5:10 PM ET, CBS)
3. (9) Wisconsin vs. (1) Baylor (2:40 PM ET, CBS)

This is flawless scheduling by Turner; the three best games of the day are all on the network everyone has and will all be over by about 7:30 PM ET, meaning early Monday risers probably won’t have to fret about missing an instant classic. Loyola is the second-highest rated sub-2 seed in the field behind USC and will give Illinois all they want for 40 minutes. Syracuse’s Buddy Boeheim is the hottest shooter left in the Tournament and could single-handedly burn West Virginia down. Wisconsin/Baylor is a game that sounds unappetizing on paper but is quietly a matchup of #4 vs. #12 in KenPom. Again, worth remembering just how brutal a path Baylor has even with Ohio State out of the field.

Four Basketballs

4. (6) Texas Tech vs. (3) Arkansas (6:10 PM ET, TNT)
5. (10) Rutgers vs. (2) Houston (7:10 PM ET, TBS)

Both of these are pretty good games, but neither quite have the firepower to be must-watches. The first half of Texas Tech’s game on Friday was absolutely miserable to watch, and the 26-23 halftime score felt generous. Arkansas looked a lot better in the second half against Colgate, but they were similarly brutal for a solid 15-20 minutes. Worth noting that this is the single closest projected scoring margin (~0.2 points) of this round, though, so you’re pretty likely to get some sort of a good finish. Meanwhile, Rutgers is not a fun team to watch, but Rutgers has some good storylines that helped push them to this level. Houston may also be without a great player in Dejon Jarreau, so this could be closer than expected. I’m hoping not.

Three Basketballs

6. (15) Oral Roberts vs. (7) Florida (7:45 PM ET, TruTV)
7. (13) North Texas vs. (5) Villanova (8:45 PM ET, TNT)
8. (12) Oregon State vs. (4) Oklahoma State (9:40 PM ET, TBS)

Again, brilliant decision-making by Turner; the three least-interesting games of the day are all slammed together at the end when not many people will be watching. Oral Roberts/Florida is the best of the three for the obvious reason of everyone rooting for a 15 seed to make the Sweet Sixteen. North Texas/Villanova has a similar factor to it, but I don’t know that people can rally behind UNT the same way they did Oral Roberts. Critically, Oral Roberts simply plays a much more fun style of basketball. Lastly, I think only fans of both teams will be terribly invested in Oregon State/Oklahoma State. It’s a three-basketball affair because of Cade Cunningham alone; if it had been Virginia or Purdue in this game instead, I would have considered a one-basketball rating.

Monday

Five Basketballs

1. (8) LSU vs. (1) Michigan (7:10 PM ET, CBS)
2. (5) Colorado vs. (4) Florida State (7:45 PM ET, TBS)
3. (7) Oregon vs. (2) Iowa (12:10 PM ET, CBS)

Three bangers. LSU/Michigan is the most important game of Monday because LSU is finally appearing interested on defense at the most critical time of the season. If they’re willing to invest in that for a full 40 minutes, Michigan is in serious trouble. Colorado/Florida State is just your garden-variety excellent game between a pair of very good basketball teams. Oregon/Iowa features two top 15 offenses and, strangely, an Oregon team that will be playing its very first game of the Tournament. All three are must-watches.

Four Basketballs

4. (14) Abilene Christian vs. (11) UCLA (5:15 PM ET, TBS)
5. (13) Ohio vs. (5) Creighton (6:10 PM ET, TNT)
6. (6) USC vs. (3) Kansas (9:40 PM ET, CBS)
7. (10) Maryland vs. (2) Alabama (8:45 PM ET, TNT)
8. (8) Oklahoma vs. (1) Gonzaga (2:40 PM ET, CBS)

Monday just has much more interesting action than Sunday, which isn’t the fault of the Sunday participants at all. It’s just that pretty much all of these games worked out in really good fashion. Abilene/UCLA is fascinating; the Wildcats shot horrendously against Texas but won because they forced 22 turnovers and got a zillion offensive rebounds. Ohio/Creighton is another garden-variety fun fixture between two good offenses that features multiple unique storylines. USC is the highest-rated sub-2 seed in the entire field at #8 on KenPom and is quickly closing in on actual 2-seed Iowa to be the second-highest rated team in their region. Maryland/Alabama would have been a better game with UConn in it, but it’s still pretty good. Lastly, Oklahoma/Gonzaga being the worst game of the day tells you how good this day is. Oklahoma beat four Top 10 teams this year, and Gonzaga has the very best team in the sport, but someone had to be last.

Ranking the Round of 64 (and First Four) games by watchability

Do you have a finite amount of time or control over the remote this weekend? If so, this might be the perfect list for you. Or perhaps it won’t be. I can’t predict how you feel!

Game watchability is assigned on a very arbitrary scale, but is essentially a mash-up of how close the game will be + how many points you should see. Close games are fun, but 51-49 games really aren’t. They’re sloppy.

Tiers are on a scale of 1 to 5 basketballs. There are no half-basketballs, and none of this is very serious.

First Four

Five Basketballs

  1. (11) UCLA vs. (11) Michigan State (9:57 PM ET, TBS)
  2. (11) Drake vs. (11) Wichita State (6:27 PM ET, TBS)

I’m being lenient here, but the NCAA Tournament is back for the first time in two years. Why wouldn’t you watch both of these games? As a bonus, UCLA/Michigan State single-handedly decides a pick in my bracket, so I’m really looking forward to that one. Drake/Wichita is also pretty intriguing, particularly now that it appears Drake will be closer to full strength than they’ve been in six weeks.

Three Basketballs

3. (16) Appalachian State vs. (16) Norfolk State (8:40 PM ET, TruTV)
4. (16) Texas Southern vs. (16) Mount St. Mary’s (5:10 PM ET, TruTV)

I do feel bad for these teams. In a normal year, they would’ve gotten timeslots to themselves and a chance to tell the country who they are. Instead, they’re sort of the simultaneous undercard to games people would much rather watch. If you have to pick one of these to see a few minutes of, App/Norfolk is better. Norfolk is a very good deep-shooting team, while App’s defense has been fairly spicy lately. TXSO/MSM is useful because it’s the very first game of the Tournament and you can see how many offensive rebounds both teams get, as they both rank in the top 60 of OREB%.

Friday

Early Afternoon

Five Basketballs

  1. (3) Arkansas vs. (14) Colgate (12:45 PM ET, TruTV)

Colgate is a total mystery; a team that only played five teams this year but dominated almost every single game they participated in. Arkansas is a tad overrated, per the metrics, and could be in trouble against a Colgate team that averages more points per game than any team not named Gonzaga. If nothing else, I fully think both teams are scoring 80+.

Four Basketballs

2. (6) Texas Tech vs. (11) Utah State (1:45 PM ET, TNT)
3. (7) Florida vs. (10) Virginia Tech (12:15 PM ET, CBS)

Texas Tech/Utah State is the most boring 6/11 matchup on the board, which means it’s still a good game. Neither team ranks higher than 180th in eFG%, and both teams have top-25 defenses, meaning this could be a game with <120 combined points. Florida/VA Tech is the first game of the tournament and features a pair of teams that have either looked fantastic or awful offensively depending on which game you’ve watched.

Three Basketballs

4. (1) Illinois vs. (16) Drexel (1:15 PM ET, TBS)

Rare is the 1/16 game I actually think is worth watching, but I could include this one in said group. Drexel is easily the best 16 seed this year, and while I can’t really fathom them beating Illinois, it’s the only 1/16 that I could see being close at halftime. Drexel is an excellent shooting team that ranks top 50 in both 2PT% and 3PT% and plays very, very slowly, which is a really good recipe for keeping things close. Unfortunately, they also don’t force any turnovers and are a middling offensive rebounding squad. Still, the path is there to keep this within ten.

Late Afternoon

Five Basketballs

1. (8) Loyola Chicago vs. (9) Georgia Tech (4 PM ET, TBS)

This still stands even with Georgia Tech’s first or second-best player out in Moses Wright. Loyola is one of the three highest-rated 8 seeds in the last 20 years, and they play an entrancing style of basketball that essentially chokes opponents out slowly for 40 minutes. Alright, I didn’t sell it very well. Anyway, both teams here are very good, and you get to see the most unusual elite basketball player in the sport in Cameron Krutwig.

Three Basketballs

2. (5) Tennessee vs. (12) Oregon State (4:30 PM ET, TNT)
3. (2) Ohio State vs. (15) Oral Roberts (3 PM ET, CBS)

Tennessee/Oregon State is the most boring 5/12 game, which, again, still means it’s somewhat watchable. The Vols do have two likely first-round picks in Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer, while Oregon State’s backcourt of Ethan Thompson and Jarod Lucas is also good. That being said, I can almost guarantee there will be a three-minute stretch where neither team scores. Ohio State/Oral Roberts would be higher if ORU were better. Oral Roberts has the leading scorer in basketball in Max Abmas, but they’re atrocious defensively and seem very likely to give up 90+. Worth watching if you like 92-74 final scores.

Two Basketballs

4. (1) Baylor vs. (16) Hartford (3:30 PM ET, TruTV)

Least interesting game of the day.

Early Evening

Five Basketballs

1. (8) North Carolina vs. (9) Wisconsin (7:10 PM ET, CBS)
2. (4) Oklahoma State vs. (13) Liberty (6:25 PM ET, TBS)

That’s right! TWO five-ball games. UNC/Wisconsin features a hot UNC squad and a Wisconsin team that’s in the top 15 on most metrics sites. Will there be many points scored? Not likely. But it’s two very good teams that both could push Baylor hard in the next round. Oklahoma State/Liberty features Cade Cunningham, which is all you need to know.

Four Basketballs

3. (4) Purdue vs. (13) North Texas (7:25 PM ET, TNT)

Normally a low-and-slow game wouldn’t be that intriguing, but I do think this one is. Purdue/UNT feels unlikely to even crack 65 possessions and will more likely be in the 58-62 range, which is a great recipe for a 13-over-4 upset. And everyone likes upsets.

Two Basketballs

4. (2) Houston vs. (15) Cleveland State (7:15 PM ET, TruTV)

Houston is simply far, far better than a Cleveland State team that had a great season. Houston has the best eFG% defense in the nation, blocks 14.5% of twos, and is going to demolish the boards in this one. Houston ranks #2 nationally in OREB%; Cleveland State, #302 in DREB%. It’s a bad recipe.

Late Evening

Five Basketballs

1. (6) San Diego State vs. (11) Syracuse (9:40 PM ET, CBS)
2. (5) Villanova vs. (12) Winthrop (9:57 PM ET, TNT)

Everyone loves a plucky underdog! Those 11 and 12 seeds that come from small conferences to play with the big boys and are…somehow still coached by Jim Boeheim. Every year Syracuse gets in the field as a 9-11 seed, and every year, they pull an upset. I don’t expect this to go any differently. Meanwhile, Winthrop gets a Villanova team without Collin Gillespie, but Villanova still has a lot of firepower and can run with the Eagles if they so choose.

Three Basketballs

3. (7) Clemson vs. (10) Rutgers (9:20 PM ET, TBS)
4. (3) West Virginia vs. (14) Morehead State (9:50 PM ET, TruTV)

Clemson/Rutgers is an awful offensive matchup, but it should be fairly close and it’s quite nice to see Rutgers finally make the NCAA Tournament without it being cancelled. Meanwhile, both Morehead and West Virginia play moderately exciting styles of basketball, which seems pretty likely to result in West Virginia winning by 15 points.

Saturday

Early Afternoon

Five Basketballs

1. (8) LSU vs. (9) St. Bonaventure (1:45 PM ET, TNT)

Could have a ton of points scored in this one, and it’s a coin-flip game. Either team could win, likely by a score of 79-78. Both teams were underseeded, and it seems like either will have at least some amount of a shot to beat Michigan in the next round. Very much worth watching.

Four Basketballs

2. (5) Colorado vs. (12) Georgetown (12:15 PM ET, CBS)

Everyone’s favorite upset pick this year, which actually makes more sense if you remember how much of an advantage Colorado loses when it plays away from home. Colorado’s home court advantage, per KenPom, is the best in all of college basketball. They went 11-1 at home this year. When they’re on the road or at a neutral site, though, this evaporates. They went 11-7 away from home this year, still good but not nearly as dominant. Georgetown’s going to have a very good shot.

Three Basketballs

3. (3) Kansas vs. (14) Eastern Washington (1:15 PM ET, TBS)

Eastern Washington plays a fun brand of basketball and has a uniquely talented center in Tanner Groves. The issue here is more with Kansas, who looks lost offensively from time to time and had their worst offense in Bill Self’s entire tenure this year. A Kansas win doesn’t feel exciting.

Two Basketballs

4. (4) Florida State vs. (13) UNC Greensboro (12:45 PM ET, TruTV)

Isaiah Miller alone should’ve pushed this to three basketballs, but the gap between FSU (the best 4 seed in the field) and UNCG (the worst 13) is simply too large to make this a higher-rated game. A UNCG upset would probably be more surprising than a 15 seed winning, to be honest.

Late Afternoon

Five Basketballs

1. (6) USC vs. (11) Drake (4:30 PM ET, TNT)
2. (5) Creighton vs. (12) UC Santa Barbara (3:30 PM ET, TruTV)

Drake’s got to beat Wichita to get here first, but if they do, it’s an utterly fascinating matchup with the best USC squad since O.J. Mayo was in town. Drake simply is a more interesting athletic match with the Trojans, who are pretty likely to beat either opponent but would face a greater point-for-point battle with Drake. Meanwhile, UCSB is the most enjoyable 12-seed this year and does an excellent job of doing all the little things that lead to upsets.

Two Basketballs

3. (2) Alabama vs. (15) Iona (4 PM ET, TBS)

Yes, a lot of points are going to be scored in this game. Iona doesn’t play as fast as they used to, though, and they commit a ton of turnovers. The Rick Pitino storyline is obviously hilarious, but if you don’t like watching top 10 teams beat overwhelmed opponents by 20 points in December, why would you now?

One Basketball

4. (1) Michigan vs. (16) Mount St. Mary’s or Texas Southern (3 PM ET, CBS)

The two worst 16 seeds in the field versus a 1 seed missing its best shooter. Pass.

Early Evening

Five Basketballs

1. (4) Virginia vs. (13) Ohio (7:15 PM ET, TruTV)
2. (7) Connecticut vs. (10) Maryland (7:10 PM ET, CBS)

How could you not be utterly fascinated by the Virginia Quarantine storyline? No one knows which UVA players will be available for Saturday’s game yet, and that’s before you get into Ohio being a fairly strong 13 seed who plays the right brand of basketball to pull an upset. Meanwhile, there’s also a UConn team that’s in the top 15-20 of every metric but somehow got a 7 seed.

Four Basketballs

3. (2) Iowa vs. (15) Grand Canyon (6:25 PM ET, TBS)
4. (8) Oklahoma vs. (9) Missouri (7:25 PM ET, TNT)

Grand Canyon doesn’t exactly have a wonderful offense (it’s the 10th-worst in the field), but the question for the entire season has been this: can Iowa’s defense figure it out in time to help their offense out? The Hawkeye defense has climbed all the way to 50th after being at 130th on February 7th. That’s terrific; I’m also quite skeptical. Since the Ohio State loss on February 4, opponents have shot just 32.4% from downtown despite getting off an astounding 24.1 three-point attempts per game. Iowa doesn’t guard these particularly fiercely; a Grand Canyon team that makes 55.4% of their twos and will be taking 40% or more of their shots from deep could reasonably exploit this. Still a likely 10-14 point win for Iowa.

Oklahoma/Missouri was more intriguing before a key Oklahoma player was ruled out, but it’s still worth keeping track of.

Late Evening

Five Basketballs

1. (6) BYU vs. (11) UCLA (9:40 PM ET, CBS)
2. (3) Texas vs. (14) Abilene Christian (9:50 PM ET, TruTV)

UCLA over BYU is the most likely 11-over-6 upset…but it requires UCLA to actually win in the First Four, which won’t be easy. That’s why I haven’t completed my bracket yet, as a Sweet Sixteen spot quite literally depends on that outcome. Texas/Abilene Christian is the most must-watch 3/14 game since West Virginia/Stephen F. Austin, simply because no 3/14 game has had this level of a turnover delta since. Texas averages a -2.3 turnover margin per 100 possessions; Abilene Christian is the second-best in all of basketball at +7.3. Averaged out to a 70-possession game, that’s almost seven extra possessions for Abilene. Can Texas make up for that? I’m excited to find out.

Three Basketballs

3. (7) Oregon vs. (10) VCU (9:57 PM ET, TNT)

I’m not sure I have a single thought either way on this game. It’s like the exact picture I have in my head of “replacement-level Round of 64 game.”

One Basketball

4. (1) Gonzaga vs. (16) Norfolk State or Appalachian State (9:20 PM ET, TBS)

I have Gonzaga as roughly a 28-29 point favorite in this game, regardless of who they play.

The best (and worst) value picks for the 2021 NCAA Tournament

No fancy intro here – just big, dumb stats stuff.

The values below are based off of the traditional bracket scoring of 1 point per Round of 64 win, 2 per Round of 32, 4 per Sweet Sixteen, 8 per Elite Eight, 16 per Final Four, and 32 for getting the champion right.

Round of 64

As a reminder, picks in this round are just one team against another; if one team is a great value pick, their opponent is a bad one. Pretty simple.

Best Values

(9) St. Bonaventure over (8) LSU (50.1% to advance/31.9% ESPN picks/+.182 expected points added). Only 31.9% of the public have picked the Bonnies, but St. Bonaventure is the KenPom favorite and, in my combined metrics, a 50.1% likely winner. Is this a safe pick? No, but it could be a huge first-round swing pick.

(11) Utah State over (6) Texas Tech (39.7% to advance/22% ESPN/+.177 EPA).

(13) North Texas over (4) Purdue (28.6% to advance/11% ESPN/+.176 EPA).

(10) Rutgers over (7) Clemson (53.6% to advance/39.3% ESPN/.143 EPA). I assume that this is some sort of weird college football residual affection for Clemson?

Worthy Moon Shots

(14) Eastern Washington over (3) Kansas (23.5% to advance/7.1% ESPN/+.164 EPA). No team in this bracket has less value than Kansas, to be honest, though I see this being more of an issue in the Round of 32 than here.

(14) Abilene Christian over (3) Texas (23.2% to advance/7.3% ESPN/+.159 EPA).

(13) Liberty over (4) Oklahoma State (26.1% to advance/14% ESPN/+.121 EPA).

(14) Colgate over (3) Arkansas (25.3% to advance/13.9% ESPN/+.114 EPA).

Round of 32

Best Values

(6) USC over either (3) Kansas or (14) Eastern Washington (44.6% to advance/24.9% ESPN/+.394 EPA). USC is well-rated in the metrics, would be a neutral-court favorite over both teams, and both were true before Kansas announced a starter would be out for at least the first weekend. As mentioned above, Kansas may be the single-worst value pick in this Tournament.

(6) BYU to the Sweet Sixteen (34.8% to advance/18.9% ESPN/+.318 EPA). I really do not like this pick, for the record. BYU is going to be very vulnerable in the first round. This is more of an anti-Texas pick, which will be explained later.

(8) Loyola Chicago over (1) Illinois (21.3% to advance/6.5% ESPN/+.296 EPA). Explained yesterday.

Teams to Avoid

(3) Kansas (36.8% to advance/68.2% ESPN/-.628 EPA). If you add Jalen Wilson back to these projections, Kansas is still the lowest-value pick of the first two rounds. They haven’t gotten above 19th in KenPom since Tennessee blew them out in late January, and the last time they actually played like a 3 seed (AKA, being ranked 9th-12th in KenPom) was January 9.

(3) Texas (41.9% to advance/70% ESPN/-.562 EPA). Texas has a really tough Round of 64 matchup and would either face BYU or a very good 11 seed in the next round. The Big 12 wasn’t quite as good this year as it has been the last several, and I think in general, the league’s being overvalued this March.

(4) Oklahoma State (38.2% to advance/59.4% ESPN/-.424 EPA). I promise this wasn’t all that intentional, but again, another Big 12 team to avoid. Oklahoma State never got higher than 30th in KenPom, which is the range for 8 seeds traditionally.

Sweet Sixteen

Best Values

This round isn’t quite as ripe as the others, to be honest. This is more of a round to avoid certain teams than to go all-in on some.

(6) USC (18.6% to advance/7.6% ESPN/+.44 EPA). Not a great value, to be honest, but it’s #1.

(8) Loyola Chicago (13% to advance/3% ESPN/+.389 EPA). 

(7) Connecticut (15.8% to advance/6.2% ESPN/+.384 EPA). I actually like this one, for what it’s worth.

(6) BYU (15.6% to advance/6.4% ESPN/+.367 EPA).

Teams to Avoid

(1) Baylor (50% to advance/70.1% ESPN/-.806 EPA). Baylor has to go through a really good 8/9 seed combo and either Purdue or Villanova in the Sweet Sixteen. Let me put it in perspective: Gonzaga actually does have 70% odds to advance. Baylor does not.

(1) Michigan (44% to advance/63.7% ESPN/-.79 EPA). This hurts, but no Livers is a real killer. If you haven’t watched them, Livers would pretty easily be the best player on Tennessee, for example.

(1) Illinois (51.1% to advance/69.1% ESPN/-.719 EPA). 

(3) Kansas (12.7% to advance/28.3% ESPN/-.626 EPA).

This team is actually lower than some others, but they required a shoutout: (2) Ohio State (43.7% to advance/57.6% ESPN/-.554 EPA). 

As well as this one: (2) Alabama (35.5% to advance/47.1% ESPN/-.462 EPA).

Elite Eight

Best Values

(2) Houston (31.3% to advance/15.3% ESPN/+1.28 EPA). This is our first >1 point value add of the Tournament and one of just four the entire way through. Two of the other three? Also Houston. I cannot believe the Cougars can be had at this “price,” if you will; they were in KenPom’s top 7 for basically the entire season and never wavered. There isn’t a realistic reason for Illinois to be receiving 53.9% of Final Four picks from this region when Houston would only be a one-point underdog on a neutral court.

(2) Iowa (20.9% to advance/14% ESPN/+.552 EPA). Iowa is up here simply because everyone is taking Gonzaga to the Final Four and further. Gonzaga has received an astounding 67.2% of ESPN user picks in this region, a full 13% higher than any other team in the field. I’m taking Gonzaga there myself, but there is real value in giving Iowa a shot if you’re in a bracket group of, say, 50+ people.

Teams to Avoid

(1) Illinois (31.7% to advance/53.9% ESPN/-1.773 EPA). Because Illinois has gotten hot at the right time, they’ve received the second-highest percentage of Final Four picks in the field. This is a lot for a team that has a negative turnover margin, ranks 235th in FT%, and has been the serious beneficiary of an opponent cold streak from three over their seven-game win streak (expected 3PT% 35.7%; actual, 29.7%). Illinois is a wonderful team, but they aren’t a lock to even get to the Sweet Sixteen given that they may be playing the ninth-ranked team in KenPom in the Round of 32.

(1) Baylor (33.6% to advance/50.1% ESPN/-1.32 EPA). Baylor’s struggles as of recent are probably overblown, but they kind of quietly received a real bummer of a draw. In the Round of 32, the Bears either have to face KenPom’s #10 team (Wisconsin) or the #28 team (North Carolina) that’s risen 14 spots in the last three weeks. The Sweet Sixteen opponent is likely either Purdue (#13 KenPom) or Villanova (#12). Lastly, they’d likely have to get past #7 Ohio State to make the Final Four. That’s as many as three Top 12 opponents in four games, which is a huge ask for pretty much any team. It’s like having to beat a 3 seed three straight times despite playing an 8, a 5, and a 2.

(1) Michigan (28.3% to advance/42% ESPN/-1.093 EPA). This is entirely based on the Livers injury. If he were available, Michigan would actually be the best value pick of any 1 seed.

(3) Texas (7.8% to advance/15.1% ESPN/-.583 EPA). Lowest value pick of any non-1 seed.

Final Four

Best Values

(2) Houston (19% to advance/7% ESPN/+1.919 EPA). The second-highest value by any team in any round.

(2) Iowa (13.1% to advance/7.6% ESPN+.879 EPA).

Teams to Avoid

(1) Illinois (19.8% to advance/30.6% ESPN/-1.722 EPA). 

(1) Baylor (19.4% to advance/29.6% ESPN/-1.629 EPA).

Champions

Best Values

(2) Houston (9.5% to win/2.5% ESPN/+2.229 EPA).

(2) Iowa (7.9% to win/3.4% ESPN/+1.426 EPA).

Way down the board, but still worthy of consideration in, say, 150+ person bracket groups: (2) Ohio State (4.7% to win/3.4% ESPN/+0.41 EPA).

Teams to Avoid

(1) Illinois (10.2% to win/14.9% ESPN/-1.516 EPA). Perhaps call this the anti-hot hand.

(1) Gonzaga (32.6% to win/37% ESPN/-1.415 EPA). Gonzaga has the best chance to win the NCAA Tournament of any team since 2000-01 Duke, and truth be told, they are a perfectly fine pick. If you’re in a 100-person bracket group, on average, 37 people will pick Gonzaga. If you’re one of those 37, you have to nail the earlier rounds to scratch out an advantage. That’s why Gonzaga is both the smartest pick in the field and one of the worst.

Thanks for tagging along! One final ranking is below.

Teams with the most total added points value in the field:

  1. Houston +5.514 expected points added
  2. Iowa +2.588
  3. Loyola Chicago +1.702
  4. USC +1.5
  5. Wisconsin +1.482

Teams with the lowest added points values:

  1. Illinois -6.136
  2. Baylor -4.741
  3. Gonzaga -3.339
  4. Michigan -3.112
  5. Kansas -2.656

How stats and history would pick the 2021 NCAA Tournament

BIG LARGE UPDATE: I made a Google Doc showing how this method has performed over the last five NCAA Tournaments. It would have correctly selected three of five champions and 14 of 20 Final Four teams. You can check it out here

Last year, to avoid the depression of knowing the NCAA Tournament was cancelled, I posted a super-long statistical breakdown of how the stats I’ve collected over the years would’ve picked every game of the NCAA Tournament. It was really fun to put together, and I made myself a promise that when the 2021 Tournament came around, I’d do it again for the real thing.

Well, here we are. After the longest year in human history, the 2021 Tournament is right around the corner. Matchups were revealed yesterday evening, and I’ve spent the night and morning putting together what I think is 99% likely to be my own bracket. Does this mean you should copy it exactly? Of course not. What’s the fun in that?

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.

The only NCAA Tournament I’ve had the chance to apply this to was 2019’s. It correctly identified three of the Final Four teams, missing only on Gonzaga, and said Virginia would be the national champion. It also correctly picked three Round of 64 upsets and went 26-6 in the first round. I’m hoping to beat both numbers this year, and we’ll simply have to see how it plays out.

First disclaimer: I feel confident that at least 90%, if not more, of the picks on the following pages will be the same ones I make in an actual ESPN bracket selection. That said, I reserve the right to change selections up to Friday morning, and if they’re meaningful, I’ll send out the article again with alterations.

Final disclaimer: this method is going to end up missing on several games and picks throughout March and early April. This is simply how it works, because it is impossible to have a perfect bracket.

To click ahead to a preferred section, use the below menu:

NEXT PAGE: Round of 64 picks

The best college basketball players you haven’t heard of (yet)

Firstly, happy March. The best month of the season for college basketball fans has finally arrived!

Secondly, this post is not really meant as much beyond an appreciation for some of the more overlooked talents of this strange sport. Every March, a good collection of players get their respective chances to make their March moments. Unfortunately, this means that many, many more don’t. Less than 20% of all college basketball teams will make this year’s NCAA Tournament, and in the post you’re going to see below, only one player belongs to a team that’s a lock to make the Field of 68. While you can likely expect two or three of the below ten to make some sort of March Madness appearance, a lot of these players won’t get their shot.

That’s why I’m writing it. Several of these players are having fabulous, historically impressive seasons that have largely gone unnoticed. They’ve racked up KenPom MVPs left and right while barely scratching the national surface if they have at all. That’s what I’m looking for: players who most college basketball fans likely haven’t heard of who deserve the recognition that would come with an NCAA Tournament appearance.

Beside each player and team is the current likelihood that said team will make the field of 68, per Bart Torvik’s site. These players are in no real order, as will be evident shortly. They’re simply ten college basketball players that are stuffing boxscores every night and are of serious interest to stats nerds like me.

Max Abmas (Oral Roberts)

Current odds of making the NCAA Tournament: 15%

Abmas stands as the nation’s leading scorer at 24.8 points per game, which somehow still undersells just how uniquely efficient he is. Abmas is one of two players in the nation (the other being Drew Timme) with a Usage Rate above 25% and an Offensive Rating above 125, and he’s a significantly more deadly shooter than Timme. Abmas is 84-for-182 (46.2%) from three this season and has scored 40+ twice:

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Abmas is that he’s doing this in a season filled with back-to-backs and rarely, if ever, sees the bench. Oral Roberts has played 20 games against Division I competition; Abmas has gone the full 40 minutes in 12 of them, including nine of their last 11 games. Again, this is in a season where every single Oral Roberts conference game but one has been part of a weekend back-to-back. Out of seven weekend series, Abmas has played every single minute in four of them.

Oral Roberts finished as the four seed in the Summit League despite Abmas’ insane heroics, mostly in part to having the 298th-ranked defense on KenPom. Objectively, they are no better than the third-best team in their own conference. And yet: the idea of seeing Max Abmas versus a 1 or 2 seed is one of those things I can’t help but root for.

Gaige Prim (Missouri State)

Current NCAA Tournament odds: 9.1%

Prim’s odds of seeing March glory, along with a few others on this list, are quite slim. Missouri State did finish the year third in the MVC, but when the top two teams in the league are Loyola Chicago (11th in KenPom) and Drake (started the season 18-0), your chances of beating both are not terribly high. (Unsurprisingly, Missouri State went 0-4 against both schools, with only the Drake fixtures being somewhat close.) So this is more of a “let’s appreciate what Gaige Prim has done” post.

KenPom has 18 categories that he measures national rankings for. Prim is in the top 250 (of 2,132 eligible players) in ELEVEN of them and in the top 500 for an additional two more. Few players have ever had a season as well-rounded as his. Prim ranks 65th in eFG% at 61.7%, 32nd in OREB% at 13.8%, 216th in Assist Rate at 24.4%, top 500 in both Block and Steal Rates, and, just for fun, draws 5.2 fouls per game, which ranks 194th. In Bart Torvik’s database, which dates back to the 2007-08 season, Prim is the only player ever with a Usage Rate of 25% or more, an eFG% of 60% or greater, an OREB% and DREB% of 10% and 20%, and an Assist Rate of 20%.

Quite literally, there has not been a player in modern college basketball like Gaige Prim. Appreciate him while you still can, as it seems likely that this upcoming MVC Tournament —

YES!!!!!! Alright, you have a full extra year to appreciate what’s going on here. But also, just watch Missouri State this weekend.

JaQuori McLaughlin (UC Santa Barbara)

Current NCAA Tournament odds: 41.2%

Add JaQuori McLaughlin to the “players who make college basketball special” pile. McLaughlin is one of just eight players in the last 14 years to hold the following distinctions:

  • Usage Rate of 25% or higher
  • Offensive Rating of 120 or higher
  • eFG% of 55% or higher
  • Assist Rate of 30% or better

Some of the players on this list are fellow college basketball luminaries: Payton Pritchard of Oregon in 2019-20; Denzel Valentine of Michigan State in 2015-16; Thomas Walkup of Stephen F. Austin in 2015-16. McLaughlin belongs on that list. He only averages 15.9 points per game, but it’s his remarkable efficiency at all three levels of the floor (40.8% on threes, 45.2% on long twos, 62.7% at the rim) and solid defense that has elevated UCSB to its best season since 2001-02 if not further back. March needs McLaughlin.

Terry Taylor (Austin Peay)

Current NCAA Tournament odds: 5.9%

Terry Taylor is perhaps this list’s Career Achievement Award recipient. None of Taylor’s Austin Peay teams have come close to making the NCAA Tournament, and this year’s group appears to have a similar future of falling out in the Ohio Valley semifinal. I don’t think it’s Taylor’s fault by any means. He has an extra year of eligibility if he wants it, and I don’t know if he’d spent it at Austin Peay or not, but his stats are so special that it requires a full breakdown.

  • 2,488 career points scored.
  • 1,232 rebounds secured, 508 of them offensive.
  • Averaged a double-double in both his junior and senior year, with nearly the exact same averages (21.8 PPG vs. 21.7 PPG; 11.0 RPG both seasons).
  • Averaged 5.1 offensive rebounds PER GAME this season.
  • In the last 14 seasons of college basketball, 28 players have posted the following collection of stats in a season of play: 110+ Offensive Rating, 20%+ Usage Rate, 10%+ OREB%, <15% TO%, 2.5%+ Block%, 90+ made free throws, and 20+ made threes.
    • Only two players have done it in multiple seasons. Luka Garza did it last year and this year. Terry Taylor did it in every season of his college career.

I would like to note two things here: TERRY TAYLOR IS 6’5” AND GETS ELEVEN REBOUNDS PER GAME. That really does require all capitals. Also, he and Luka Garza may be the only players ever to do this exact thing. It’s just Terry and the almost-certain National Player of the Year. No big deal.

Kendric Davis (SMU)

Current NCAA Tournament odds: 28%

Davis and SMU are sort of on the periphery of the NCAA Tournament as of now; Bracket Matrix has them as the fourth team out of the field at the time of writing. I’ve been greatly disheartened by the Michigan State and Duke surges of late, because 1. Those don’t interest me whatsoever; 2. They dwindle down the spots available to extremely weird cases like SMU. SMU only got to play 15 games this season and went 0-2 against Houston, but they do own three KenPom Top 100 wins, rank higher than Michigan State in KenPom, and, most importantly, have Kendric Davis.

Davis is a TCU transfer that’s averaging 17.7 a game, which probably doesn’t sound all that notable at first. However, he’s one of just three players this season averaging at least 16 points and seven assists a game, and he’s easily the player that’s closest to making the field of 68. Davis is a fabulous passer, with 45.9% of SMU possessions when he’s on the court resulting in a Davis assist. He’s also the only way the SMU offense becomes watchable, as it’s 16 points better per 100 possessions with him on the court.

Tyson Etienne (Wichita State)

Current NCAA Tournament odds: 15.2%

Etienne is the other AAC representative on this list. This has been a surprisingly good year for Wichita State, which goes to show just how low expectations felt after Gregg Marshall was rightfully fired before the season started. The team has banded around now-permanent head coach Isaac Brown, with Etienne as their leader. It’s been Etienne’s phenomenal shooting and overall smart play that’s helped the Shockers overachieve.

Etienne is 45-for-114 (39.5%) from three and has one of the lowest turnover rates in all of America at just 6.8%. He makes a ton of smart decisions with the ball, and it’s been his ability to stay on the court (1.6 fouls committed per 40 minutes) that helps Wichita be Wichita. Their sample size is very small thanks to multiple COVID pauses (17 total games played), but after luck and schedule adjustments, the Shockers go from a team ranking in the 120s to a team in the 40s when Etienne is off versus on the court. He’s the main reason they have at least a shot at being in the field two weeks from now.

Alex Barcello (BYU)

Current NCAA Tournament odds: 100%; projected 7 seed on Bracket Matrix

This BYU season caught a lot of people by surprise. The Cougars’ moment was supposed to be last year, when they had one of the best offenses in America and a roster loaded with seniors. Instead, most of their best players departed, and a new group was expected to pick up the slack. All the Cougars have done is go 19-5, be the second-best team in the WCC, and become an NCAA Tournament lock once again. A lot of this is due to Mark Pope being one of the most underrated coaches out there, but one would obviously be remiss to not give significant credit to BYU’s best player, Alex Barcello.

Barcello is an astounding 43-for-89 (48.3%) from three, which would be pretty notable on its own, but he’s also converted 54.7% of his twos and has become a deadly mid-range shooter, making 47.3% of his attempts there. Barcello has also stepped it up against his toughest competition: 23 in a win over Utah State, 22 against San Diego State, and 20 in BYU’s most recent outing against Gonzaga. I want to see what he can do in March, given that BYU is well overdue to show what they’re made of.

DeVante Jones (Coastal Carolina)

Current NCAA Tournament odds: 13.3%

Two things of note here: yes, Cliff Ellis still coaches Coastal Carolina somehow, and yes, they are pretty unlikely to make the field of 68, even in the strangest Sun Belt season of all time. (Some teams have played 17 conference games, others have played 12, no team ranks higher than 148th in KenPom, and everyone has at least three in-conference losses.) What Coastal mainly has going for them is the sheer excitement that shooting guard DeVante Jones brings to the table.

Remember the 18 KenPom categories from earlier? Jones ranks in the top 500 in 13 of them and in the top 300 in nine. Jones is one of eight players this year to have a Usage Rate of 25% or above and an Offensive Rating of 120 or better. When you’re on the same list as Luka Garza and Drew Timme, you’re doing something correctly. (Abmas, Prim, and McLaughlin are all on this list, too.) Jones is really special, and I hope he gets his March moment somehow.

Loren Cristian Jackson (Akron)

Current NCAA Tournament odds: 8.3%

I have posted about my infatuation with Loren Cristian Jackson, Akron’s 5’8” point guard, many times before. I even did it pretty recently! So why post about him again? Two reasons. Firstly, Akron’s NCAA Tournament hopes are very slim. They did get to 12-6 in MAC play, but that was only enough to make them the fourth-best team in the league. 

Secondly, Loren Cristian Jackson is a senior and has yet to say if he’ll come back for a fifth year or not. I can’t blame anyone for choosing either side of the possible coin here; you can either get paid or you can hope things get better in a non-COVID year. Still, there’s only so much time left to appreciate little LCJ, and he’s really made the most of it lately. Over Akron’s last eight games, Jackson has averaged 23.4 points per game and took a hilarious 28 shots against Buffalo in an 80-78 loss. He’s playing like he’s racing against the clock, which somehow only makes him more thrilling.

Obadiah Noel (UMass Lowell)

Current NCAA Tournament odds: 4.1%

UMass Lowell is in an America East semifinal for the first time ever Saturday, where they’ll take on UMBC as a somewhat-heavy underdog. Lowell has done their thing in the middle-pack of the AE for years now after coming up from Division II. As stated above, they only have a 4.1% chance of making the NCAA Tournament, which is not high. And yet: I’m pretty fascinated by foul-drawer extraordinaire Obadiah Noel.

Noel isn’t extremely efficient, but he’s extremely unique: a backcourt player that draws 8 fouls per 40 minutes. Those are Sharife Cooper numbers, and I can almost guarantee Noel doesn’t get quite the same calls and/or respect from officials that Cooper has received. (Not complaining here, just stating a fact.) Noel was out with an injury for Lowell’s final four conference games, where they went 1-3 in his absence. He’s come back for the America East conference tournament, and through two games, he’s dropped 51 points on 33 shots and pretty much single-handedly led them to their win over New Hampshire. I don’t know how it’ll end up for him, but he’s quite a fun curiosity to keep track of as a 20.5 PPG scorer.