Otskey’s Observations: Episode XIIIPosted by Brian Otskey on February 20th, 2014
North Carolina Flying Under the Radar
Heading into tonight’s showdown with rival Duke, the North Carolina Tar Heels have won seven straight games since a 1-4 start to ACC play that had some folks wondering if this team would even make the NCAA Tournament. North Carolina has assuaged those concerns while ascending the ACC standings where it sits fourth entering tonight. Roy Williams’ team has done it with defense. Since allowing 1.23 points per possession in a January 20 loss at Virginia, North Carolina has held all but two opponents under 42 percent shooting with lower defensive efficiency numbers to match that effort. While the competition hasn’t been brutal, the Tar Heels are playing like the team that beat Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky in non-conference play. James Michael McAdoo seems to be finally asserting himself as a go-to guy but his free throw shooting remains a liability on one of the nation’s worst teams from the charity stripe. However, that can be misleading. When the game is on the line, Williams can put the ball in Marcus Paige’s hands and not worry too much. Paige is an 89.4 percent free throw shooter. The Tar Heels have two games with Duke left plus a tricky trip down the road to Raleigh to face NC State. Other than that, there isn’t a game North Carolina shouldn’t win left on the schedule. An 11-7 or 12-6 conference record is definitely possible for this group and I am not sure many people would have predicted that after the Tar Heels lost four of their first five ACC games.
Wisconsin Back on Track
Here is your reminder that it is a long season and teams are going to lose games. Remember when everyone panicked about Wisconsin losing five out of six games? Since then the Badgers have won four in a row heading into a big trip to Iowa this Saturday, including impressive performances against Big Ten co-leaders Michigan State and Michigan. When you really look at it, the losing streak was a correction that was long overdue. Wisconsin is a very good basketball team but the 16-0 start was almost too good to be true. Bo Ryan’s club put together an impressive resume with wins over St. John’s, Florida, St. Louis, West Virginia, Virginia and Marquette out of conference, along with an early conference victory over Iowa. If you told me the Badgers would be 21-5 at this point in the season I would probably agree with that. It is just the way Wisconsin got to that 21-5 mark that has some folks unsettled. This team has a very favorable schedule down the stretch and should finish with at least 11, probably 12, conference wins. Given what the Badgers did out of conference and the big wins they’ve had in Big Ten play, they are looking at a top three or four seed in the NCAA Tournament. The question then will become can Wisconsin take the next step and get to the Elite Eight or the Final Four? Under Bo Ryan, the Badgers have made the NCAA Tournament every year but have made the Elite Eight only once (2005) with seven first or second round exits in 12 years. That’s certainly a great track record all things considered, but Wisconsin fans are itching for the team to take the next step. In a wide open year like this one, perhaps this will be the season to do that.
St. John’s is Hot but the Resume is Lacking
Another team left for dead after a miserable start to conference play was St. John’s. Just one month ago, the Red Storm was 9-8 overall and 0-5 in the Big East after suffering a double overtime home loss to Providence. Since then, the Johnnies have only lost once, a three point decision at Creighton, a place where only one other Bluejay opponent has come within single digits. St. John’s is now 18-9 overall and 8-6 in the Big East heading into a huge Saturday afternoon opportunity at Villanova. While the record and hot streak looks good, St. John’s is squarely on the bubble with a 54 RPI and only one top 50 win to its credit. In fact, the Red Storm is just 5-7 against the RPI top 100 with two sub-100 losses to Penn State and DePaul. St. John’s certainly passes the so-called eye test but when your second best RPI win is against a Georgetown team that is 6-7 in a watered down Big East, you have plenty of work to do. If Steve Lavin and his team can knock off Villanova, it would be hard to deny them entry into the NCAA Tournament (assuming they don’t collapse down the stretch). Even with a loss to the Wildcats, opportunities for decent wins remain against Xavier and at Marquette, plus the Big East Tournament on St John’s home floor at Madison Square Garden. The bottom line is St. John’s is now in the conversation and that is something that seemed impossible just one month ago.
Can Past KenPom Numbers Predict the Future?
I took some time this week to chart every Ken Pomeroy statistic for each national champion since 2003, as far back as Pomeroy’s database goes. The results were very intriguing to me. All but two champions have been rated either No. 1 or No. 2 overall while those same two (2003 Syracuse and 2011 Connecticut) were the only champs to finish outside the top ten in adjusted offensive efficiency. Defensive efficiency is obviously important too with no champion finishing the season ranked worse than No. 21 in that category. A deeper look reveals that last year’s champion, Louisville, was an outlier in terms of creating turnovers. Before the Cardinals (No. 2 in defensive turnover percentage), the best team at forcing turnovers was 2005 North Carolina (No. 56). Ball protection is more important with the average national champion ranking No. 67 in minimizing turnovers versus No. 181 in creating turnovers. Other statistics that stood out to me were offensive rebounding (average champ ranked No. 27), defensive block percentage (No. 39) and strength of schedule (No. 17).
Getting extra possessions through offensive rebounding and protecting the rim on defense are vital to winning national championships. 2006 Florida was the only champion that wasn’t elite on the offensive glass while 2005 North Carolina and 2010 Duke were the only teams without a major rim protector. If you take the past numbers as a fairly good indicator of what a potential champion must do and apply it to this year’s crop of contenders, only a couple of teams jump out at you. Arizona and Florida seem to be the top contenders because they each have a number of statistics similar to past champions. However, Arizona’s offensive efficiency is a major red flag, ranked No. 48 nationally (not including last night’s Utah game). Duke and Creighton have great offenses but they lack the elite defenses needed to win a title, according to history.
Of your 10-15 contenders, only Creighton, Michigan and Michigan State lack the offensive rebounding prowess necessary to come out on top while Florida, Duke, Creighton and Michigan are missing the necessary rim protector a la Gorgui Dieng last year. Speaking of Dieng and Louisville, are the Cardinals an under the radar pick to win it all? It is certainly possible and the statistics back it up when compared to past champions. However, there is one major red flag. The Cardinals have not been tested in the way that champions usually are. Their strength of schedule ranks No. 160 overall and No. 305 out of conference. This is the time of year when I usually have a national champion clearly in mind or already picked out. Last year I was right about Louisville but this year I honestly have no idea who is going to go all the way and win on April 7 in Arlington, Texas. While this look at prior year statistics was really interesting to me, it did not help me identity a champion. Get ready for a crazy NCAA Tournament with perhaps more unpredictability than ever before.