The 31 teams I’d most like to see in the NCAA Tournament

I do this every year, but seeing as I’m desperate for the NCAA Tournament, it seems like a good enough idea to do this exactly one month from the start date of the First Four. It’s been 22 long months since we last saw an NCAA Tournament game, and even longer since we saw the joys of conference tournament week and Selection Sunday. We won’t have that same carefree spirit this year, probably, but it’ll simply be nice to have some of these things back.

When I did this post last year, I tried to focus on teams that played fast-paced, fun offense. This year, my focus is more on the extremes the sport provides. What team in a conference does one particular thing really well? Is there a team that generates a ton of points from the post in the least post-friendly time in college basketball history? What about a team that leads the nation in turnover margin? Or a team that forces the most off-balance jumpers defensively? All of these things can lead to success in March, but even if they don’t, these are all teams I’m pretty curious about and hope to see more of next month.

There is only one rule for this post: on Bart Torvik’s site, the team selected must have at least a 10% chance of making the field. This narrowed it to 124 eligible teams, which means we picked 25% of this group. It worked out well.

I’ve arranged all 31 teams in alphabetical order by conference, meaning the first team you’ll see in this post is from the America East Conference and the final team is from the Western Athletic Conference. There are 10 conferences on each of the next two pages with 11 on the final page. I’ve got at least one GIF lined up for all 31 teams, minus the most obvious pick in this entire post, Gonzaga. They are above GIFs at this point.

Click below to get to the section of your choice.

Exploring somewhat-sane proposals for the 346-team NCAA Tournament

Like a bolt of lightning in the dead late-summer air came this tweet across my timeline:

Content! Beautiful content. The ACC has achieved what the most daydream-prone among us have hoped for: pure, uncontrollable chaos. Nothing about a 346-team NCAA Tournament (11 of Division I’s 357 programs are ineligible for this year’s Tournament for various reasons) is normal at all, and all it can bring is something wild. Imagine the takes if 1 seed Villanova loses to 346 seed Mississippi Valley State in the shocker of a lifetime!

Of course, that exact scenario takes numerous leaps of logic to achieve. A straight 346-team tournament isn’t possible without either a laundry list of byes or play-in rounds. Everyone knows the NCAA Tournament loves money, and such a massive loss to a star team would be a monetary dent in terms of viewership and advertising dollars, both of which the NCAA needs in droves (apparently!) after the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Tournament. That’s why I’d offer The Will Warren Somewhat Sane Solution. It is not the Everyone’s Easy Solution That Just Adds a Couple Extra Games.

(Quick aside: you can just turn the Field of 64 into the Field of 256 by having one play-in round for teams seeded 167 through 346, protecting the top 166. It’s not a bad idea, but forcing the top teams to win eight straight games instead of six both seems a little nuts and seems like it could massively overwhelm host cities. We’re assuming no/limited crowds for the purpose of this experiment, and having even 16 teams podded up in one city probably means at least a couple of hotels at full capacity. I went to school for English, not Hotel Management, so maybe this is actually fine, but who knows.)

Here is the Official guide to a plan I cooked up yesterday afternoon, along with questions I still have to answer:

1. A ladder system that protects the top 32 teams.

In order to ensure that proper respect is paid to teams that have a lot of success during the conference-only regular season (another assumption that I’m running with), I’ve instituted a system that gives the 32 best* teams a free run to the Field of 64. It’s how it would work in a normal season, so it seems fair to keep this part. What this means is that 32 teams out of the remaining 314 will have to play their way into the Field of 64 by way of our 1-to-346 seeded ladder system.

What’s a ladder system? Think of it the way they run it in the Korean Baseball League.

  • The fifth-seeded team plays the fourth-seeded team.
  • The winner plays the third-seeded team.
  • That winner plays the second seed…
  • And finally, that winner gets to play the first seed.

It’s a testament to how well you can sustain your success if you make it all the way up the ladder, and it rewards those who’ve had full-season success as opposed to those who get hot for a few games. How does our ladder system work?

2. Six play-in rounds, spread out over 10-14 days at neutral sites, that slowly whittle the field from 346 to 64 teams.

Bear with me here. This is pretty nuts, I’ll admit, but so’s the idea of a 346-team college basketball tournament in a sport ripe with variance. Anything can happen in any one game, which is why we’re introducing this ladder system as opposed to the 166-team protection. This enables full-season success to matter, while allowing a team to run their way from the bottom to the big time if they’re hot. It attempts to simulate Conference Championship Week in some form, though with more rounds than any individual conference championship.

Here’s how it works. Teams are reseeded by round; i.e., if the #334 team wins in the first round but no team below them wins, they will play the #212 seed in the second, and so on.

  • Teams seeded 257-346 (90 teams total) will play each other from top to bottom – 257 vs. 346, 258 vs. 345, 259 vs. 344, etc. – in order to eliminate 45 teams. This leaves us with 301 teams after one round.
  • Teams seeded 212-256 (45 teams) will play the first round winners to eliminate another 45 teams, giving us 256 teams after two rounds.
  • Now, we could go right into a 256-team field and stop here. If we don’t, we have a third play-in round that gets the field to 192 teams by way of teams seeded 129-211 playing the second-round winners.
  • For the fourth round, teams seeded 65-128 will play the third-round winners, pushing the field to 128 teams.
  • The fifth round features the teams seeded 33-64 and the fourth-round winners for a total of 48 games being played, eliminating 48 teams to get to 80.
  • Now – finally – our final play-in round allows for teams seeded 49-80 to play each other for the right to be in the field of 64.

This is very much silly, but it also works. Teams are forced to climb their way up the ladder system to earn their spot in the NCAA Tournament in a system that somewhat simulates conference tournaments with much less structure and more chaos. You like chaos, right?

3. Alternately, the same plan, but with four play-in rounds and a 128-team field.

This allows for a shorter time period and is less complicated. Again, teams are reseeded after reach relevant round; if #340 beats #263 but no other team below them wins, they would play #212 in the next round.

  • Teams seeded 257-346 (90 teams total) will play each other from top to bottom – 257 vs. 346, 258 vs. 345, 259 vs. 344, etc. – in order to eliminate 45 teams. This leaves us with 301 teams after one round.
  • Teams seeded 212-256 (45 teams) will play the first round winners to eliminate another 45 teams, giving us 256 teams after two rounds.
  • A third play-in round that gets the field to 192 teams by way of teams seeded 129-211 playing the second-round winners.
  • For the fourth round, teams seeded 65-128 will play the third-round winners, pushing the field to 128 teams.
  • The Tournament is then seeded where 1 plays 128, 2 plays 127, and so on, with aims at ensuring region vs. region play.

Question: What about automatic qualifiers from non-Big Six conferences? We’ll have to work that out. Ostensibly, we could turn the Top 32 into the 32 conference champions/standings leaders at season’s end and it would work out just as well. Then, the final 32 spots are made up of the 32 teams that survive our ladder/play-in system. However…doesn’t it feel kind of weird to have a field where, say, 272nd-ranked-in-KenPom North Carolina Central is guaranteed a spot but 3rd-ranked Baylor isn’t? To be determined, folks. Though if you’re the third-best team in college basketball, you should be able to win against whoever you draw no matter what.

Question: How do we ensure smaller, lower-seeded schools can actually play each other? There’s a clear issue here, and I’m not totally sure how to resolve it under this format. For instance, what if Albany (in New York) draws Florida A&M (very much not in New York) in the first round? That’s a lot of travel costs we’d have to work out, and it likely isn’t worth it for Florida A&M. The best thing we can do is have one city be the host to as many games as possible, similar to the actual Field of 64. Perhaps for this specific example, the two teams could play in Washington D.C. at a neutral site. Someone smarter than me probably has an idea on how to do pods for this, and obviously, the 256-team field is much easier to work out. But it’s also not nearly as protective of those who’ve earned the right to be there.

Question: How long would both plans take? For the six play-in round structure, I think it could be accomplished over the course of 10-14 days – AKA, how long conference championship “week” usually takes – at multiple neutral court sites. We’d have to stuff 314 teams in no more than four cities, but I’d say it’s at least somewhat doable. For the four-round structure, we could realistically accomplish this in anywhere from 6-10 days. Again, this stuffs a lot of teams in no more than four bubble cities, but it also cuts the number of play-in teams from 314 to 218. However, it creates much more variance.

Question: Maybe a 96-team field? Sure! The in-between plan, which the NCAA almost implemented ten years ago. Just take the four-round plan listed above and add a fifth-round between teams seeded 65-128.

The 64 best NCAA Tournament games of all time (sort of)

Obviously, this sucks. It’s going to suck for a while, and it’s going to be much worse before it gets better. That said: if we are all going to be isolated from each other, we can still enjoy each other’s company digitally.

To cope with this from a basketball standpoint, I’ve decided to create my personal list of the 64 best NCAA Tournament games of all time. What this means is the following:

  • Each round, I’ll be showing off what I believe are the best games, split by seed line. For the Round of 64, that means there’s four 1 vs. 16 games, four 2 vs. 15s, four 3 vs. 14s, etc. Round of 32: two 1/16 vs. 8/9s, etc.
  • This will follow round-by-round. Starting in the Sweet Sixteen, there will be no seed limitations, as by then, there’s too many possibilities, but across the first two rounds, all games will be given out to seed lines to the best of my ability.
  • I can’t promise these are, uh, comprehensive. I’m 26 and the first NCAA Tournament I can remember watching in earnest is either 2001 (title game only) or 2002 (Sweet Sixteen onward). If you like a different game more than the one posted, tell me!
  • I based my selections on two criteria: was this game great and is the full version (or at least extended highlights) available on YouTube. That cut out some phenomenal games, but they were necessary sacrifices. We’ve got to use as much of this free time as possible.

As an introduction – and to get us to 64 games – here is the best First Four game ever: Western Kentucky-Mississippi Valley State, 2012.

Here’s the Round of 64. I hope you enjoy.

Round of 64

1 vs. 16

UMBC-Virginia, 2018.

I think this is a pretty obvious one, as it will now be the only 16-over-1 upset for another year.

Georgetown-Princeton, 1989.

For a long time, this held the standard as the preeminent Close Call. Princeton maybe/maybe didn’t get fouled on the final play of the game; watch and make the call.

Oklahoma-East Tennessee State, 1989. 

But this one is somehow forgotten. ETSU has a wild Tournament history; entering the 1989 Tournament at 20-11 and fourth in the SoCon only to lead 1 SEED OKLAHOMA BY 17 POINTS in the first half seems like it tops the list.

Gonzaga-Southern, 2012. 

There’s a very specific moment in this game – for me, when Southern cuts it to 54-52 – where I really did think I was about to see a 16 seed finally do it.

2 vs. 15

Duke-Lehigh, 2012.

It’s Duke. I can’t not put this on here, man.

Georgetown-Florida Gulf Coast, 2013.

Despite being a worse game, this one beat out both Hampton-Iowa State and Norfolk State-Missouri for mere shock value. It’s one thing when a 15 seed wins; it’s another when a 15 seed totally, systematically demolishes their opponent. I had never seen anything like it since I’d started watching the Tournament.

Robert Morris-Villanova, 2010. 

It sucked not getting this one, to be honest. Robert Morris led almost the entire way, led by eight points with nine minutes to play, and just couldn’t pull it off. Villanova would lose two days later, blunting the impact of this one down the road, but as a game, it beats the pants off of several of the actual upsets.

Tennessee-Winthrop, 2006.

Same with this one. It was a very good game made better by the presence of a buzzer-beater. Winthrop was coached by a dude named Gregg Marshall – heard of him? – and this was Bruce Pearl’s first year at Tennessee. Again, Tennessee lost two days later, but the tension of this game over the final five minutes is sky-high.

3 vs. 14

North Carolina-Weber State, 1999.

Harold Arceneaux is the exact type of small-school player every high seed fears in March.

Baylor-Georgia State, 2015.

For 37 minutes, this was a pretty boring game. However: the final three minutes are delirious.

Marquette-Davidson, 2013.

This one has sadly been lost to time in terms of a full game upload, but the ending is all you really need. 14 seed Davidson came out and owned the game for 39 minutes; unfortunately, you play 40.

Michigan-Pepperdine, 1994.

Not a ton to work with here; the number of great 3/14 games aren’t very high. But this one gets unfairly looked over. Minus Chris Webber, this is Fab Five-era Michigan needing overtime to get past a 14 seed. It’s worth a look.

4 vs. 13

UCLA-Princeton, 1996.

Had Belmont completed the backdoor play last March, it would’ve felt the exact same way as this did for basketball nerds in 1996.

Ole Miss-Valparaiso, 1998.

You see the final play every year, obviously. But did you know it was a four-point game at halftime and within five points for basically the entire second half? Tense!

Louisville-Morehead State, 2011.

Annoyingly, this is all that’s on YouTube…..but that shot is worth inclusion alone.

Syracuse-Vermont, 2005.

On any list of “Greatest Gus Johnson Exclamations in American History,” the part where he starts to say T.J. Sorrentine’s name and just goes “SssssssssssssOHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH” is #1.

5 vs. 12

Florida-Creighton, 2002.

This game is secretly one of the five best of this first round.

  1. Double overtime!
  4. One-point final margin!
  5. Udonis Haslem!
  6. Also, the play where Florida deflected the ball out of bounds and the Creighton player holds him back….probably a foul now, yeah?

Drake-Western Kentucky, 2008.

Here’s the thing. If it’s just that buzzer-beater in an otherwise forgettable game, it’s still a good game, because there’s a buzzer-beater. But when you factor in that Drake’s best team ever made a 17-point second half comeback to force overtime, the final score was 101-99, and the guy who made the shot was an otherwise-unnotable four-year Western Kentucky player, it’s basically all of what March Madness is supposed to be. I think this is my personal favorite game of the first 32.

Saint Louis-NC State, 2014.

I picked NC State in this game and still get chest pains every time I see a Wolfpack player step to the line in the final seconds.

Auburn-New Mexico State, 2019.

I had Auburn in the Final Four because I thought it was a very good value pick. It made me look really smart for 39 minutes or so and made me want to die for one. The final 30 seconds or so of this game are genuinely unbelievable.

6 vs. 11

Duke-VCU, 2007.

If you were 16 years or younger in 2007 you thought Eric Maynor was going to be what DeMar DeRozan ended up being.

Miami (FL)-Loyola Chicago, 2018.

Pretty much a perfect finish. The team vying for the upset hasn’t played in the NCAA Tournament since 1985, let alone won a game; the team on top has the head coach of maybe the most famous 11 seed to ever make the Final Four. And the final shot, from the logo…genuinely, had Loyola not defeated Tennessee in the next round, I would have been able to watch this a much happier man.

Iowa-George Washington, 1996.

Not one anyone remembers (I had to do some research on it myself), but a phenomenal game. Iowa comes back from 17 points down in the final eight minutes to win in regulation. Iowa would relive this from the other side of the ball against Northwestern State exactly ten years later.

Maryland-Belmont, 2019.

Watching this and not rooting for Belmont should have been a crime.

7 vs. 10

Nevada-Texas, 2018.

Sometimes I like thinking about how Nevada overcame a 14-point deficit and a 22-point deficit in the span of 48 hours or so to make the Sweet Sixteen.

Michigan-Oklahoma State, 2017.

This was a very rare game: a non-marquee matchup that received a lot of hype and fully lived up to it. It was two of the best offenses in basketball and two very, very good teams that were underseeded. Arguably Derrick Walton’s finest performance. Also arguably the game that got DJ Wilson drafted in the first round.

Gonzaga-Davidson, 2008.

An unfortunate thing about the Stephen Curry Elite Eight run is that, after the first two rounds, the Sweet Sixteen game was over with ten minutes left and the Elite Eight game was a brickfest. That left this game or the Georgetown comeback, and I think this one’s just straight-up better.

Connecticut-St. Joseph’s, 2014.

I still genuinely cannot process that a team that had to go to overtime with a 10 seed on the first day of the NCAA Tournament won the whole thing.

8 vs. 9

Ohio State-Siena, 2009.

Here’s a game that no one remembers but was so, so fun. Siena’s return to the Tournament came after they defeated 4 seed Vanderbilt by 21 points the year before. They faced off against the first post-Greg Oden Ohio State team to get into the Tournament, the game went to double overtime, and you had a phenomenal finish complete with a clutch three-pointer to win it.

Texas-Wake Forest, 2010.

This is the only game on the list that doesn’t have video to go with it, unfortunately. But: it is the game that made me fear Rick Barnes.

Cincinnati-Purdue, 2015.

This game had a buzzer-beater to get to overtime, a near-buzzer-beater that would’ve won it and overtime, and had the incredible storyline of Cincinnati’s coach watching the game from home due to a health scare.

Western Kentucky-Michigan, 1995.

As you’re seeing on this list, one of the easiest ways to ensure you’re watching a great college basketball game in March is to put Western Kentucky in it. I don’t know what it is about this program, but they always bring the goods.

NEXT PAGE: Round of 32 & Sweet Sixteen

How the stats would’ve picked this year’s (theoretical) 2020 NCAA Tournament

BIG OL’ EDITOR’S NOTEEverything you are reading, as follows, is a hypothetical simulation. The 2020 NCAA Tournament obviously did not happen, but I’ve pieced together a field that A. seems realistic and B. helps me waste more time by thinking about it.

So, here we are. I don’t know how much everyone reading this has changed their lives to reflect our global issues, but I do think we all should. The NCAA certainly did, and it’s tough to be rational about it, but we have to. That said, this is our time.

Something I’ve done just about every year since I knew what statistics were was create a mock NCAA Tournament bracket before the real one. This bracket would reflect how I would pick every game when the time came simply because I like being prepared. For the 2019 Tournament, I created a Google Doc that had stats for every seed line. All of this, objectively, would sound purely ridiculous to someone who spends less than ~2 months of the year thinking about college basketball. And yet: I got three of the four Final Four teams right and you didn’t. I’m sorry, that’s a ridiculous brag, but I had to fit it in somewhere.

Anyway, that’s a long way of saying that in the midst of the NCAA Tournament uncertainty on Thursday, I decided to create a fake bracket on my lunch break at my day job. The Google Doc for this one is titled “Let’s have some fun,” because it should be. Here’s how I made my field of 68:

  • For the most part, I just took the highest-rated conference champion for the Big Six and assumed no bid thieves. Cincinnati technically won the AAC due to the cancellations, so I let them in without a further simulation.
  • For the other 26 conferences, I ran RAND() functions in Excel based on the likelihood that the best team in each conference would win it. This was to reflect that upsets frequently happen in conference tournaments. As such, we ended up with 11 non-first-place conference tournament winners, which is actually a little lower than you’d expect, but makes sense given our restrictions. To save time, every conference that had a team at >50% to win the conference tournament was given a pass into the field. Seemed fair and seemed realistic; I am not God.
  • At-larges made the field on a combination of their Bracket Matrix average seed and Bart Torvik’s projected average seed. This shifted the field a small amount, but 66 of the 68 teams that would’ve made the Matrix’s field of 68 as an at-large made mine. (Xavier and NC State are in my field, while UCLA and Stanford are not. Sorry to all Pac-12 fans; I can create a contingency bracket if you want.)
  • Lastly, the field was seeded 1-68 on said seeding combination. It feels right, and I like how it turned out.

Enough wailing. Here’s your field. Where necessary, I’ve included an asterisk* where the conference champion was someone other than the 1 seed.

The 2020 Will Warren Invitational Field of 68

  • 1 seeds: Kansas, Gonzaga, Baylor, Dayton
  • 2 seeds: San Diego State, Florida State, Villanova, Michigan State
  • 3 seeds: Creighton, Duke, Maryland, Seton Hall
  • 4 seeds: Oregon, Kentucky, Louisville, Ohio State
  • 5 seeds: Wisconsin, Butler, BYU, West Virginia
  • 6 seeds: Michigan, Auburn, Penn State, Iowa
  • 7 seeds: Virginia, Illinois, Arizona, Houston
  • 8 seeds: Colorado, St. Mary’s (CA), Providence, Marquette
  • 9 seeds: Rutgers, LSU, Florida, Oklahoma
  • 10 seeds: USC, Texas Tech, Indiana, Arizona State
  • 11 seeds: Utah State, Wichita State/Xavier, Cincinnati, East Tennessee State
  • 12 seeds: Richmond/NC State, Yale, Stephen F. Austin, Liberty
  • 13 seeds: Vermont, New Mexico State, Belmont, Western Kentucky*
  • 14 seeds: Bradley*, Hofstra, Northern Colorado*, North Dakota State*
  • 15 seeds: Texas State*, Winthrop*, Northern Kentucky*, Ohio*
  • 16 seeds: UC Santa Barbara*, Boston University*, Siena/North Carolina Central, Robert Morris/Jackson State*

First four out: Stanford, Texas, UCLA, Mississippi State
Next four out: Northern Iowa, Purdue, Arkansas, Oklahoma State

A quick Q&A session, based on questions I would imagine people asking:

  • Why is Baylor the third overall seed? By Kansas winning the Big 12 Tournament here, we’re assuming Baylor now has four losses on the season, which, in my mind, would elevate Gonzaga to the second overall seed. I don’t know, dude, I just did it because I felt like it.
  • Explain Creighton and Duke as 3 seeds. Creighton was white hot down the stretch of the season; Duke was not, but they are named Duke, so we all rightfully expect them to win the ACC. Again, in our simulation, Florida State won it, so a 3 seed feels accurate. Meanwhile, Creighton did win the Big East in this simulation, but Villanova ranked ahead of them. Why? 1. Ask someone who does this for a living I really don’t know. 2. It actually isn’t that absurd; by Wins Above Bubble, Villanova ranks 7th and Creighton 9th.
  • Kentucky as a 4??? Hater! Correct! I do not like Kentucky. Anyway, this is a team that didn’t crack the KenPom top 20 after January and closed the season 12th in WAB. I’m gonna guess that the teams in actual good conferences would’ve gotten the nod ahead of them. Everyone really undersold how awful it was to watch SEC basketball this season.
  • Explain the Last Four In. Again, not God, but a very white guy who’s drinking coffee out of a Charleston Rainbow Row cup as I type. Anyway:
    • Wichita State ranked 31st in WAB, had good metrics across Torvik and KenPom, and, in our simulation, wins at least one AAC Tournament game.
    • Xavier only ranked 46th, but they had no true bad losses (16-2 against Qs 2-4) and had a true marquee win: their 74-62 road victory over Seton Hall in early February.
    • Richmond: 38th in WAB, made the A10 championship game in our simulation. Xavier got the 11 seed nod only because they were in a significantly stronger conference.
    • NC State: On first run, this was Stanford, but then Stanford totally blew it to Cal in their lone Pac-12 Tournament game…which pushed NCSU just over the edge. They ranked almost exactly the same in metrics averages, but NCSU had a slightly better WAB with one additional Q1&Q2 win. I don’t like either team, to be honest.
  • Explain those who got left out. Just discussed Stanford. UCLA had a worse WAB than any of the four who got in and farted around for half the season. Texas did have a good-enough WAB at 39th but left an awful impression on the committee with a Big 12 quarterfinals loss to Texas Tech, another bubble team. Mississippi State lost to Florida in the SEC quarterfinals and had a worse WAB than the four who got in. The only team in Next Four Out that had a realistic case to me was Northern Iowa, who ranked 41st in WAB, but I simply couldn’t imagine a committee rewarding a blowout MVC quarters loss to Drake with even a First Four Out nod, sadly.

Okay! That’s a lot of words! You came here for a bracket.

The Will Warren 2020 Invitational Bracket

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NEXT PAGE: Bracket breakdowns

This one stat will, in fact, not change your life

Chances are, during Championship Week, you’ll be hearing the following statistic left and right:

“Every champion other than 2014 Connecticut in the KenPom era has ranked in the top 20 of offensive and defensive efficiency.”

On its face, this is a correct stat. If you were to click on right now, you would see that 17 of the last 18 champions, minus 2014 UConn, did indeed rank in the top 20 of both categories. I’ll even ignore Dan Dakich saying during the Green Bay/Northern Kentucky game that every champion has ranked in the top 20 of both; he is 94.4% accurate, at least, under this definition.

However: we have a clear issue that seemingly no one at ESPN, CBS, or the variety of networks that broadcast college basketball seem to be discussing. The KenPom rankings referenced are end-of-season rankings, not pre-tournament rankings. So, yeah, no wonder every champion ended up in the top 20! Here’s the actual pre-tournament rankings for every champion in the KenPom era.

  • 2002: Maryland – 5th AdjO, 11th AdjD, 3rd overall
  • 2003: Syracuse – 16th AdjO, 33rd AdjD, 20th overall
  • 2004: Connecticut – 14th AdjO, 7th AdjD, 5th overall
  • 2005: North Carolina – 4th AdjO, 6th AdjD, 2nd overall
  • 2006: Florida – 14th AdjO, 18th AdjD, 6th overall
  • 2007: Florida – 1st AdjO, 14th AdjD, 2nd overall
  • 2008: Kansas – 1st AdjO, 3rd AdjD, 1st overall
  • 2009: North Carolina – 1st AdjO, 39th AdjD, 3rd overall
  • 2010: Duke – 4th AdjO, 5th AdjD, 2nd overall
  • 2011: Connecticut – 22nd AdjO, 25th AdjD, 16th overall
  • 2012: Kentucky – 2nd AdjO, 6th AdjD, 1st overall
  • 2013: Louisville – 17th AdjO, 1st AdjD, 2nd overall
  • 2014: Connecticut – 58th AdjO, 12th AdjD, 25th overall
  • 2015: Duke – 3rd AdjO, 37th AdjD, 6th overall
  • 2016: Villanova – 15th AdjO, 7th AdjD, 5th overall
  • 2017: North Carolina – 4th AdjO, 25th AdjD, 3rd overall
  • 2018: Villanova – 1st AdjO, 23rd AdjD, 2nd overall
  • 2019: Virginia – 2nd AdjO, 5th AdjD, 1st overall

So, in fact, only 11 of the 18 champions in the KenPom era – barely over half – offered both a top 20 offense and top 20 defense. Generally, the side of the ball that’s been lacking is defense; other than 2003 Syracuse and the two Connecticuts, the other four teams with sub-20 defenses all entered with offenses ranked 4th or higher. Even 2014 Connecticut and 2003 Syracuse did at least have one side of the ball in the top 20, with UConn having one of the strongest defenses in the field.

This particular talking point has irked me for some time. In an era where four of the last six champions didn’t have top 20 units on both sides of the ball, it seems extremely silly to keep promoting this to viewers and giving them the wrong idea. Is it better for a team to be well-rounded on both sides of the ball? Obviously, yes. But it’s not the thing that decides a champion.

Here are several other statistics, all of which are actually true and are more accurate than the one ESPN is using, that I would suggest broadcasters and college basketball tastemakers use.

  • In the KenPom era, 15 of 18 champions ranked in the top six nationally prior to the Tournament beginning.
  • Seven of the last eight champions have had at least one side of the ball rank in the top seven nationally.
  • 17 of the 18 champions in the KenPom era, other than 2014 Connecticut, had both a top 40 offensive and defensive efficiency.
  • The #1 overall KenPom team has won the Tournament only three times in 18 years.

Are we good? We’re good. Let’s keep this from happening all March long.

The teams I most want to make the NCAA Tournament from each conference

These next 12 days or so are among the most fun days of the season. Conference Tournament Week(s) are exciting, sad, happy, and a wild ball of emotions all rolled into a two-week cycle. Some of your faves don’t get to make the Tournament, while others come out of nowhere to become nationally beloved squads. As best as I can, I’ve tried to find the most interesting or exciting team from all 32 NCAA conferences that people should be rooting for to make the NCAA Tournament. Several of these from the Big Six + high-end mid-major conferences are already locks to make the field, but others need to win their tournament to get in. Consider it a rooting guide of sorts.

The teams are listed in alphabetical order by conference. The number in parentheses next to a team is their odds of making the Field of 68, per Bart Torvik’s website. I know it’s not a perfect metric, obviously, but it’s reasonable and worth working with.

Atlantic 10: Dayton (100%)

Like some other teams on this list, I wrote about Dayton back in mid-February, and most of what I wrote still holds true. However, the Flyers have somehow been even better offensively lately. They had a mild hiccup at George Mason last Tuesday, posting their first sub-1 PPP game of the season, which is insane. Other than that, it’s been smooth sailing. Dayton is now shooting 63.1% from two, which would be a Division I record, and hasn’t lost since before Christmas. The A-10 has a couple other fun offenses, namely Davidson, but Dayton stands far, far ahead of the rest of the pack. If you like basketball, you should root for them to make the Final Four.

ACC: Duke (100%)

I’ll admit that this one has become tough to defend lately. The Duke offense has struggled as of late, posting 0.794 PPP against Virginia and 0.866 PPP against NCSU. However, those efforts were interspersed with games like a 1.245 PPP against Notre Dame and 1.213 PPP over Virginia Tech. The fact of the matter is that there’s no runaway great offense in the ACC this year. I considered Louisville for this slot, and they may yet overtake Duke…but no Louisville player is as singularly thrilling as Vernon Carey, Jr.

America East: UMass Lowell (0.5%)

This one requires explanation. Like any lover of 12/13 seeds, I want Vermont to win the America East conference tournament with ease. I’m not that silly. But, in the event Vermont doesn’t win it, I’d love for UMass Lowell to be there in their place.

Pat Duquette, despite coaching at a school with just about zero positive athletics history outside of hockey, has crafted an offense that’s finished in the top 50 of 2PT% in three of the last four years with a great shot at a fourth year in five. Few teams out there get more of their points at the rim. If only they could play defense – they gave up 92 and 94 to Vermont.

American: SMU (4.2%)

There’s no super-lovable AAC offenses this year, but SMU comes fairly close. This isn’t a great team, but they take a lot of threes, get off a lot of good passes, and knock down nearly 55% of their twos. For no reason at all, here’s them dropping eleven threes and a 67% hit rate on twos on the Memphis Tigers:

Atlantic Sun: North Florida (18.4%)

I think this is the single most fun offense that literally no one has seen in 2020. North Florida operates out of Jacksonville, and head coach Matthew Driscoll has stayed the course there for eleven seasons, making the NCAA Tournament once in 2015. For most of his tenure, they’ve been well ahead of the curve on three-point attempts, but this edition of the Ospreys is unhinged: 52.3% of their shots are from three. The Ospreys make 38% of these shots, meaning that almost 46% of their offense comes from the three-point line. Here’s my North Florida sell: on any given night, they could lose to anyone (Ls to #250 Tennessee State, #304 NJIT). Also, on any given night, they can shoot their way to a victory (win over #69 Liberty).

Big Ten: Iowa (100%)

Has Luka Garza, plays fast, everyone shoots threes and passes the ball effectively. What more do you need?

Big 12: Kansas (100%)

The best team in America is also the Big 12’s most enjoyable offering this year. In general, major-conference basketball is a bit more restrictive and on-the-whole less enjoyable than, say, the Ohio Valley, but Kansas has two of the best players in the nation in Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike. They’re also flawed in a fascinating way, struggling to hit free throws to put away easy victories and having turnover issues that lost them games against Duke and Baylor. A very talented, interestingly flawed squad.

Big East: Creighton (100%)

Prior to a horrifying beatdown at the hands of St. John’s this past Sunday, this was the fastest-rising high-major team in the nation. This is the best Creighton squad since Doug McDermott was running off of screens for open threes, and this group hits threes and twos at fairly similar rates. Ty-Shon Alexander (39.3% from three), Marcus Zegarowski (39.1%), and Mitch Ballock (43.3%) are all a blast to watch, and when this offense is cooking, as it was in an 81-59 win over Butler on February 23, it seems particularly hard to slow down.

Big Sky: Northern Colorado (37%)

This could be a stretch, but hear me out: this is maybe the most fascinating mid-major offering of the year. Northern Colorado does the following things:

  • Ranks 20th in eFG% and 11th in TO%
  • Makes 36.8% of threes (33rd), 53.7% of twos (28th), and takes 45.2% of their shots from downtown (26th)
  • Takes fewer non-rim twos (13.4% of all shots) than all but three D-1 teams
  • Opponents have taken just 23.7% of their shots from three against Northern Colorado, the lowest rate in America…
  • …and have also posted an Assist Rate of just 33.2%, easily the lowest rate in America.

They offer such an intoxicating combination of pros for analytically-minded viewers that I can’t imagine not rooting for them to go as far as possible.

Big South: Radford (50.1%)

This one was between Radford and Winthrop, the two best teams in the Big South, but I ended up riding with Radford. The Highlanders have the 36th-best eFG%, the 6th-lowest offensive Steal%, own a Quadrant 1 win over Richmond, and have a coach named Mike Jones.

Big West: Cal State Northridge (4.4%)

If you haven’t heard of Lamine Diane, you have got to hear of him immediately:

Affectionately named Cocaine Diane by NBA Twitter user @Cosmis. Diane averages 25.5 PPG and 10.1 RPG, owns a usage rate of nearly 37%and plays 36 minutes a night. He is a long-lost article of a different era: a high-usage shooter that takes lots of long twos, is recklessly fun to watch, and single-handedly propels a team’s fortunes either upward or downward. CSU Northridge is tracking for a 3/4 seed in the Big West conference tournament, but you really should watch every Lamine Diane game you possibly can.

Colonial: Hofstra (28%)

There are so many options to pick from in what’s quietly been the most enjoyable conference across the board this season. 2 seed William & Mary offers Nathan Knight, who is like East Coast Diane, and has never been to the NCAA Tournament. 3 seed Towson has plenty of good shooters and hasn’t made the Big Dance in 29 years. 4 seed Charleston offers Grant Riller, a future NBA player. 5 seed Delaware made 56.5% of their twos in conference play. Even 6 seed Northeastern has Jordan Roland, a hilarious volume shooter that makes 40% of his threes and scored 42, 39, and 38 points in games this year.

Even keeping my personal bias aside, I sided with Hofstra, who offers up easily the best offense in the conference. The Pride made nearly 40% of their threes in conference play, and star Desure Buie averaged a line of 20/4/6 in conference play. Also, Hofstra hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2001 and owns zero Tournament victories. Basically everyone in this conference is easy to root for, but Hofstra reigns supreme.

Conference USA: North Texas (38.9%)

Along with Northern Colorado, one of my pet teams for the back half of this basketball season. The Mean Green haven’t been to the NCAAT since 2010, but this edition is a blast. North Texas makes 38% of their threes (14th) and 55.2% of their twos (13th) for a 55.9% eFG% (6th!). They’re quietly a great bet for a potential upset, as they limit possessions to an extreme (350th in tempo), make 77.1% of their free throws, and force turnovers on 20.8% of opponent possessions. Per Bart Torvik, North Texas owns the 11th-best offense in the nation in 2020. They’re currently tracking for a 13 seed. Depending on the matchup, they look to be as good a March value as exists at that seed line.

Horizon: Green Bay (8.2%)

Green Bay is the 3 seed in the Horizon League, but due to the Horizon League’s conference tournament structure, they’re at a disadvantage by not finishing in the top two. They’ll have to win three games instead of just two to make the NCAA Tournament. Still, I’ve admired Linc Darner’s strategy since he took over in 2015-16. The Phoenix will push the pace at all costs (#1 in Avg. Poss. Length in 2019-20), limiting turnovers, and don’t care at all if they give up buckets on the other end. They’ve won games 102-92, 92-89, and 94-90…and lost games 92-88, 98-94, and 90-84. They are insane, and they are a blast. (Also considered: Wright State, who had the actual best offense in conference play and are pretty enjoyable in their own right.)

Ivy: Yale (38.3%)

This one is easy. Yale has the best player in the Ivy League (Paul Atkinson, 17.5 PPG, 7.5 RPG), leads the league in 2PT%, 3PT%, and eFG%, takes lots of threes, and is oddly dominating on the defensive boards (4th nationally in DREB%). They’ve still got to win their league, but they’re better set up to pull off a March surprise this year than they were last time out.

MAAC: Siena (31.2%)

This is a wild turn. For most of the last six years, Siena was a brutal watch. In particular, the last two seasons have been awful. Siena offered up extremely slow basketball with lots of missed shots and a pair of offenses that ranked 316th and 251st. This year, under first-year head coach Carm Maciarello, they’ve sped things up a bit. They hit 37.4% of their threes in conference play, rank #1 in the conference in offense, and have the conference’s best player in Jalen Pickett. None of the MAAC teams are all that exciting to watch, honestly, especially in years where Iona is down, but I’ve got to give Siena credit for a watchable product.

MAC: Akron (36.5%)

Loren Cristian Jackson:

LCJ makes an absurd 45.1% of his threes and offers up a 125.4 Offensive Rating, which is the best I could find for someone with a 26% Usage Rate or higher. The team also has a player named Tyler Cheese (TYLER CHEESE!), gets 37% of their points from threes, plays fast, and hung with both Louisville and West Virginia well into the second halves of each game. Currently tracking for a 13 seed or thereabouts if they win the MAC.

MEAC: Bethune-Cookman (15.2%)

To be honest, this is the worst conference in basketball, largely because these universities simply do not have the level of funding necessary to compete with everyone else. It sucks, and I feel terrible for them. But I do think Bethune-Cookman would be a fun story. Daytona Beach’s premier basketball program has never made the NCAA Tournament and plays a fast, loose brand of basketball built on getting to the free throw line and forcing opponents into bad mistakes. Very nearly beat Georgia Tech in early December, losing 68-65 on a late three.

Missouri Valley: Northern Iowa (58.5%)

Already wrote about these guys, but they ended up hitting 40.9% of their threes in conference play and posted a 56.1% eFG%. Behind BYU, they’re the second-best deep-shooting team in the nation. They slumped a bit to end conference play, but did recover to blast both Evansville and Drake. Will be a great value pick at the 11/12 seed line if they make the field.

Mountain West: San Diego State (100%)

This one was pretty easy. Malachi Flynn is one of the most exciting players out there, regardless of conference. If there’s a shooting category in existence, SDSU ranks in the top 35 of it nationally. I recommend watching this past Saturday’s Nevada game, where the Aztecs had an unusually weak defensive performance (by their standards, mind you) and Malachi Flynn’s 36 points on 20 shots covered it all up.

Northeast: St. Francis (PA) (28.2%)

A bit out of left field, this one – few outside of the Northeast are paying attention to Northeast Conference happenings, especially when the conference has never won a non-First Four NCAA Tournament game. St. Francis (PA) will be worth your time on a Tuesday/Wednesday evening if they win the NEC, at least. The Red Flash operate easily the best offense in the NEC, play a faster-than-normal pace, have a great volume of shots, and probably should’ve beaten Richmond in early November in an overtime loss.

Ohio Valley: Belmont (50.7%)

Same as it ever was. Like basically every Belmont team before it, this one takes a lot of threes, makes a lot of twos, plays fast and loose, and wins a lot of basketball games.

Pacific 12: Oregon (100%)

Oregon has risen all the way to 7th in KenPom’s Adjusted Offensive Efficiency on the back of some outstanding three-point shooting (38.4%, 9th) and high-level shot volume (68th in TO%, 43rd in OREB%; one of only nine teams in America to rank top 75 in both). There are points of games where it feels like Oregon’s had the ball for ten minutes straight, and it seems like a potentially devastating offense for March opponents to stop if they can’t beat them on the boards.

Patriot: Colgate (53.4%)

These guys again! Matt Langel’s Raiders are the class of the Patriot League once again, with an offense that generates tons of great looks from downtown and sustains its shot volume by rarely turning the ball over. Every member of the main rotation, including 6’10” center Rapolas Ivanauskas, has hit at least 13 threes this season. They beat Cincinnati in December by way of a bizarre ending, but this is a super-fun offense that could reasonably give a high seed trouble for a while for the second straight Tournament.

Sun Belt: Little Rock (15.4%)

Admittedly, I haven’t thought much about Little Rock since their defeat of Purdue in the 2015 NCAA Tournament damaged the bracket I had with Purdue in the Elite Eight, but hey, here they are. I find this group pretty interesting. They rank 35th in eFG%, get a ton of points at the free throw line (#4 in Free Throw Rate), and are good on the boards. They aren’t the best team in the Sun Belt (Texas State) and might not even be the second-best (Georgia State), but they do have the best offense in the conference.

Southern: Furman (25.5%)

Full disclosure: as a resident of East Tennessee for 8.5 years now, I will not be rooting for Furman to win the Southern Conference. Really, I find myself even more attracted to UNC Greensboro, a team that should have made last year’s NCAA Tournament as an at-large, over Furman. But I’m not going to deny how nice it would be to see this Furman offense on a national stage. The Paladins take over 46% of their attempts from three, making around 35% of them. They make 57% of their twos because of Bob Richey’s creative offense that takes very few bad shots. Most notably, I actually do think they could give a March opponent real trouble. Furman is one of just four teams in the nation to rank in the top 45 in both offensive and defensive Turnover Rate. They’re aggressive and wise – a deadly combo!

SEC: LSU (93.8%)

Talked about these guys back in February, but nothing meaningful has changed – still a top-three offense in America that is an absolute monster on the offensive boards and at the rim. If Skylar Mays was a tiny bit more consistent from downtown and the Tigers bothered to play defense more than one out of every five games, I would trust this team far more in the NCAA Tournament than I do…but it does admittedly make for a super-watchable combination. Certainly worth your time to watch them in an 8/9 game on a Thursday evening as they lose 83-82 to Oklahoma or Xavier.

Southland: McNeese State (0.9%)

The only truly good team in the Southland is Stephen F. Austin, and I am obviously rooting for them to go far. That said: McNeese State has had the marginally better offense in conference play. Most importantly, they have Dru Kuxhausen, maybe the single best three-point shooter in the nation. Kuxhausen is 92-for-197 (46.7%) this season as a JUCO product; in McNeese’s last two games, both wins, he made 14 total threes. All the guy does when he’s on the floor is toss up threes, and a lot of them go in.

Summit: South Dakota State (32.2%)

As I wrote last month, these Jackrabbits are both young (#341 in experience) and a total blast. They ended up making 57.4% of their twos on the season, second-best behind Dayton, and made nearly 40% of their threes in conference play. They’re the best team in the Summit League with the best offense in an absurdly deep offensive conference. We’ve got to get these guys in the Big Dance, though I will accept South Dakota or Oral Roberts as replacements.

SWAC: Texas Southern (13.8%)

Similar to the MEAC in that these teams, sadly, don’t have the funding to compete with many on the big stage. That said, you can always get behind Texas Southern, a team that puts up absurd non-conference schedules every year and almost always puts a serious scare into an opponent or two. This year, it was Wichita State and Oregon, two teams the Tigers were massive underdogs against but hung with to the very end. Plus, they play fast and get to the free throw line a lot, which could reasonably keep them in a game with a 1 seed for a little while. More of a First Four curiosity, if I’m being honest.

Western Athletic: New Mexico State (64.8%)

I love that, no matter who the coach is or what stage of life this program is at, they will basically always be there for me in March to bet on again and lose. New Mexico State’s potential in March has haunted me for a full decade now, starting with them nearly toppling 5-seed Michigan State in 2010 and pushing all the way to last year’s extreme near-upset of 5-seed Auburn. Yet again, despite numerous injuries in non-conference play, NMSU is rounding into a terrifying whole. They’ve won 18 straight games, hit a lot of threes, get a ton of rebounds, force lots of turnovers, are senior-heavy, and will almost certainly lose by six points to 4-seed Oregon in the Round of 64.

West Coast: Gonzaga and BYU (both 100%)

This was the only conference I allowed a quote-unquote “tie” for, because this is the only conference that offers up two of the three most watchable teams in 2019-20 college basketball. For 35 minutes or so, the game between these two at BYU last weekend was as fun a game as any I’ve watched this year; I really wish they played five times this season instead of the maximum of three. Nothing I can say at this point sells these teams better than their own product can. It’s a massive win for basketball if we get a WCC tournament championship between these two.