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Thursday, January 3, 2008
Final Four teams win big, shoot and defend 2-pointers well

By Andy Glockner
ESPN.com

The beauty of college basketball is in the varied approaches, as contrasts in style and tempo make for entertaining evenings and frequent upsets that fuel the imagination.

The truth about college basketball, though, is very simple: When evaluating the quality of teams, you should ignore the white noise from those one-off vignettes and focus on two larger-scale trends:

• The best teams win by the greatest average margins (adjusted for schedule).
• The best teams are among the best at both scoring and preventing 2-point baskets.

Everything else, relatively, is gravy.

Want proof? Just check out the recent Final Fours and see what those teams do best. Great teams can play very fast (North Carolina, 2005) and very slow (Georgetown, 2007). They can make tons of 3s (UConn, 2004; Illinois, 2005) or not many at all (UCLA and LSU, 2006). Almost to a team, though, the 16 teams that made those Final Fours a) had dominant season-long scoring margins and b) controlled inside the arc at both ends.

Using data from kenpom.com and our own Bracketologist, Joe Lunardi, we can prove these points and get a good start on guessing which teams will end up in San Antonio this season.

Let's tackle the "margin of victory" question first. While scoring margins don't get factored into RPI, they are a useful tool for evaluating the relative strength of teams. Lunardi's metric, Adjusted Scoring Margin, takes the evaluation one step further by assigning relative merit for the opponent. In simple terms, beating North Carolina by 10 is worth a lot more than beating North Carolina Central by 10.

Over the past four seasons 13 of the 16 Final Four teams have finished in the top 10 in ASM that year, including nine that were in the top six. The supposedly worst of those Final Four teams, 11-seed George Mason in 2006, finished 17th that season.

Sure, things like your location and draw matter greatly in a knockout event, but this trend isn't a fluke. Much like in baseball, where a team's record in blowouts is much more indicative of its overall quality than its mark in one-run games, the same is true in college basketball.

Now let's address the stats behind those Final Four teams. The chart below breaks down the national ranks in a number of standard categories for those 16 Final Four teams:

Offense
Offense Average Median Best Worst Teams in top 50
2-point FG% 23.6 12.5 1 85 14 of 16
3-point FG% 75.7 69.5 7 265 6 of 16
Off Reb% 74.1 42.5 3 233 10 of 16
TO % 119.0 135.5 2 224 3 of 16

Defense
Offense Average Median Best Worst Teams in top 50
2-point FG% 36.8 24.5 1 102 12 of 16
3-point FG% 87.5 64.5 1 231 6 of 16
Off Reb% 89.9 63.5 8 278 5 of 16
TO % 124.4 106.0 24 321 1 of 16

As you can see, 2-point field-goal percentage and defense were the only categories where a below-average team didn't make a Final Four, and the average ranks and variance are much lower than any other category. The only other category that appears to have a reasonable impact is offensive rebounding rate. Everything else is basically team preference.

Given all that, we can start to evaluate some of the top teams in the nation and get a sense of their positioning to make it to San Antonio. We also can look at a few teams that may surprise in their respective leagues.

Highly ranked teams with a possible red flag (2-point FG%/2-point FG D/ASM)
Duke (35th/78th/3rd)
We've seen the Blue Devils slip past a similar team in Marquette and fall in the final seconds to a team that was a physical mismatch in Pitt. They have the 3-point potency to hammer a lot of teams, but can the guard-heavy Devils handle big, physical teams with comparable talent? The defensive and rebounding numbers right now suggest no.

Cause for concern: Moderate. It's really matchup-based more than anything.

Memphis (22nd/41st/7th)
The Tigers turn teams over a lot and are a superior rebounding team at both ends, but the 2-point percentages are something to watch. In a knockout-tournament, one subpar game can mean an unexpected exit, and you can't always count on rebounds landing in your hands.

Cause for concern: Modest, as the offense should continue to improve and the defense and rebounding are great buffers.

Michigan State (44th/35th/13th)
The Spartans are playing better and better basketball and were extremely impressive against Texas, but they currently are living on an unsustainable 45.1 percent offensive rebounding rate (tops in the nation).

Cause for concern: Somewhat modest, as the team is maturing. The defense isn't championship-caliber right now, though.

North Carolina (36th/94th/2nd)
This is a bit of a surprise, but the Heels are a very offense-heavy team that is lagging defensively. Their No. 2 ranking in ASM is completely due to their offensive outperformance, which includes superior offensive rebounding.

Cause for concern: Modest. The offense is so devastating, they can get away with OK defense most nights.

Tennessee (37th/232nd/14th)
Only 14th in ASM despite a free-wheeling style and the best turnover differential in the country. If the Vols don't turn you over, you'll probably score a deuce. They also aren't great on the offensive glass or from behind the arc.

Cause for concern: Fairly high. All-or-nothing teams like this are more ripe for one bad game, which means a March exit.

Need more data
Georgetown (1st/5th/15th)
Top-five in both 2-point categories but only 15th in ASM means the Hoyas have played their soft schedule more closely than you would expect. Would they be viewed differently right now had Jeff Green's apparent travel been called in the Sweet 16? The suspicion is that they are very good, but we'll know more after a few Big East games.

UCLA (27th/75th/11th)
The Bruins get a statistical pass for now because of the extended absence of Darren Collison, which likely has impacted their performance on both ends. Defensively, they are statistically elite from an efficiency standpoint because they rarely put you on the line and they don't let you rebound your missed shots.

Washington State (2nd/4th/28th)
The Cougars are top-five in both 2-point categories, and the ASM is somewhat related to their system. They also are a statistically poor offensive rebounding team, though, so their margin for error is less than others.

Better than you think
Kansas (3rd/8th/4th)
Yes, yes and yes. Those are Final Four levels. The Jayhawks have struggled in their two road games, so final judgment is being reserved. But this is a fine team by any metric and should be better with full health come tourney time.

Indiana (20th/40th/10th)
The Hoosiers also hit the offensive glass well and should have at least three efficient offensive players each night with Eric Gordon, D.J. White and Armon Bassett and/or Jordan Crawford.

Marquette (18th/22nd/4th)
The Golden Eagles also are a shocking eighth in offensive rebounding. If that number, along with contributions of Ousmane Barro and Co. come anything close to holding, this team will be deep into the NCAAs.

Texas A&M (14th/2nd/8th)
This is like a repeat of last season, when most people were late to the Aggies bandwagon, except without the sexiness of Acie Law. They're also a good 3-point shooting team, which is a bonus.

Wisconsin (90th/10th/6th)
The shooting inside the arc isn't great, but the Badgers are compensating by pounding the glass at both ends and defending very well. A lot of the improved perception right now, though, is built on beating Texas, which is a bit worrisome with the Horns' youth. Duke, a very bad matchup for this team, exposed some of their limitations.

Five sleepers (picked mid-level or lower in the respective conference preseason poll)
Arizona State (9th/25th/42nd)
The Sun Devils have won 10 of 12 games and have the statistical makings of a solid NCAA Tournament team behind Jeff Pendergraph, James Harden and Ty Abbott.

Baylor (38th/28th/46th)
A poor man's Marquette, the Bears have hardly played anyone since the three-point loss to Wazzu, but this team looks legit. The Big 12, with its impressive depth, with be the proving ground.

Nebraska (30th/1st/57th)
The 2-point defense is (unsustainably) great, but it's the offensive trio of Aleks Maric, Ryan Anderson and Ade Dagunduro that's most intriguing.

Stanford (43rd/21st/23rd)
Even without Brook Lopez for all but three games, the Cardinal have some nice numbers, and that 2-point field-goal percentage will improve the more Lopez is on the floor.

West Virginia (19th/17th/1st)
Much like last season's Air Force and Texas A&M teams, the Mountaineers are killing a weak schedule, which means something. Whether they are closer to those Falcons (NIT) or the Aggies (Sweet 16) will be clear in Big East play.

Andy Glockner is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's college basketball coverage and is the host of the ESPNU College Basketball Insider podcast. He can be reached at bubblewatch@gmail.com .