For the 2019 NCAA Basketball tournament, we published a piece explaining just how to determine a national-title contender in advance. We identified eight teams, pre-tourney, that were the best bets to win it all, and low and behold, our top bet (Virginia) actually did win it all, while one of our other best bets also made the Final Four (Michigan State).
Sure, Texas Tech came close to making liars out of us, but in the end, we were right. Using that same methodology, these are the only teams we would have place bets on this year:
- Kansas: 8th in offensive efficiency, 2nd in defensive efficiency
- Baylor: 17th, 4th
- Duke: 9th, 12th
- San Diego State: 11th, 10th
- Michigan State: 10th, 13th
- Ohio State: 13th, 19th
Teams that were on the cusp of the top group that could have made a moderately predictable run at the title:
- Maryland: 18th, 22nd
- Houston: 22nd, 21st
As our piece last March noted and eventually confirmed, just one of the last 18 champions didn’t fit this Top-20-efficiency-on-both-ends-of-the-court criteria. So if you see March Madness predictions posing as journalism right now, remember that there is a 94-percent probability that the 2020 title winners would have come from the above select group of six teams, with the Terps and the Cougars perhaps crashing the party from the fringe.
Sabermetrics do not lie. There will be some wishful thinking, perhaps, of teams outside of these groupings making a run to the title—like the 2014 Connecticut team did with its elite offense at No. 10 and solid-enough defense at No. 39—and that kind of miraculous winner is always possible. Those Huskies proved the madness of March, and the Red Raiders almost duplicated it last year with their top-rated defense and their 25th-ranked offense.
Teams this year that profiled like that 2014 UConn team (or the 2019 Texas Tech team):
- Gonzaga: 1st, 43rd
- Dayton: 2nd, 38th
Really, that’s about it. The efficiency ratings are the best measurement of a team’s potential and ability to win games. So, the six teams first listed above were the best bets, follow by two teams just outside of those finite parameters. And these last two teams were the only true outliers that may have made a “miraculous” run to the title.
Again, keep these statistical realities in mind when you read predictions for the March Madness that never was.