Griffith's Got Stats: A ‘Wild Season’ for NCAA Men’s Basketball Makes Tournament Predictions Difficult

by Evan Griffith | 2/19/18 2:10am

A ‘Wild Season’ for NCAA Men’s Basketball Makes Tournament Predictions Difficult

It’s been an eventful week for Ivy League men’s basketball. The Big Green was able to pick up its first two wins in conference play, taking down Brown University and Princeton University. The Tigers are completely falling apart, losing their last six games and currently coming in at seventh in the Ivy League. On the other hand, Yale University, who defeated the Big Green 77-65 this past Friday, has won three of its last six games. Despite losing star player Makai Mason to injury, the Bulldogs are starting to find their rhythm again as a team. There are many interesting happenings in Ivy League play, but I want to step away from the conference bubble and take a look at NCAA basketball as a whole this week, because this season is wild.

On Feb. 3, three blue-blood basketball programs, Duke University, the University of Kansas and the University of Kentucky all lost on the same day — the first time since March 6, 2005. Likewise, on Jan. 27, Duke and the University of North Carolina both lost on the same day for the first time since Feb. 21, 1973. Then this past Thursday, fifth-ranked University of Cincinnati, sixth-ranked Purdue University and eighth-ranked Ohio State University all fell to unranked teams. On the other side, St. John’s University, a team that started off play in the Big East conference with 11 consecutive losses, won four straight games seemingly out of nowhere, including two straight wins over then-fourth-ranked Duke and then-top-ranked Villanova University. General NCAA Tournament bracket advice is looking harder to give than ever before, with so many top teams losing so often.

This past Sunday, the NCAA Selection Committee, which is in charge of picking and choosing the teams that participate in the NCAA Tournament, released the 16 teams that would comprise the top four seeds in each region. The number-one seeds at the time were Purdue, the University of Virginia, Villanova and Xavier University. Virginia and Villanova only had two losses at the time, Xavier had three and Purdue had four; a respectable number for a top seed.

In the premier matchup of the week, Villanova demolished Xavier 95-79 in Cincinnati on Saturday, but lost to unranked Providence College 76-71 on Wednesday. Villanova has been ranked in the top six in the Associated Press poll all season, and the Wildcats certainly have been flashy all season. According to, Villanova has the best effective field goal percentage in the country, at 60.2 percent. The problem with Villanova is that it relies too much on the three-point shot — 38.9 percent of Villanova’s total points are points from three-point shots, which is the 25th-highest in the nation. When Villanova has an off-night shooting from beyond the arc, the team suffers. In their two most recent losses this season, the Wildcats have shot a combined 11-for-53 from the three point arc. The NCAA Tournament is also unkind to teams that rely too much on the three. Going back to 2013, four of the past five national champions’ percentage of total points that come from threes have been less than this season’s national average of 31.3 percent. The only exception was, curiously, Villanova when it won on a buzzer beater against North Carolina; its percentage that year was 33.4 percent, compared to a national average of 29.4 percent. When teams that shoot often from beyond the arc get hot, they can win games, but it’s very difficult to sustain that shooting through six games in the NCAA Tournament.

Villanova’s most recent opponent, fellow Big East member Xavier, is currently ranked fourth in the AP poll (although that may change on Monday following the team’s loss to Villanova), the highest ranking in program history. Xavier only has four losses at the moment, with two of them to Villanova. The Musketeers have beaten strong teams outside of the Big East, including a convincing victory over cross-town rival and currently fifth-ranked Cincinnati in December. The cause for concern is that Xavier is an offensive-minded team that stinks at defense. Xavier is currently putting up an adjusted offensive efficiency of 121.5, seventh best in the nation, with a 100.3 adjusted defensive efficiency, 70th in the nation. This imbalance may prove dangerous in the NCAA Tournament. A notable comparison is the 2014 Blue Devils. Duke’s offensive and defensive efficiencies were ranked first and 86th, respectively, in the nation at the start of the tournament in 2014. Duke was a No. 3 seed but lost to 14th-seeded Mercer University in the first round. Similarly, Georgetown University’s profile in 2013 was 80th and fourth on offense and defense, respectively. It was also a No. 2 seed and lost in the first round to 15th-seed Florida Gulf Coast University. Still, Xavier is the fourth-luckiest team in the nation. If the Musketeers can lock up the No. 1 seed, they should be fine as a 16th seed has never beaten a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. However, be on the lookout for a second round upset if this is the case.

Then we have Purdue, a team noted for developing tall players for the National Basketball Association. Purdue’s current big man is Isaac Haas, who measures 7 feet, 2 inches and weighs 290 pounds. Even with this once-in-a-decade player on Purdue’s roster, the rankings release seems to have cursed Purdue. The Boilermakers had already lost two straight before the selection committee released the rankings, albeit to Ohio State and Michigan State University, the two other best teams in the Big Ten Conference. After the rankings were released, Purdue lost to the University of Wisconsin, a team that’s currently 5-10 in conference play. In the next committee rankings, Purdue probably won’t have the No.1 seed, and with a game against a suddenly surging bubble team Pennsylvania State University on the horizon this week, Purdue needs to find the momentum it had when it won 19 consecutive games earlier this season.

This leaves Virginia as the last team on the dissection table. Virginia is playing stifling defense this season, with an adjusted defensive efficiency of 82.7, best in the nation and the lowest since KenPom started tracking statistics in 2002. If you’re noticing a trend among these teams, you may guess that Virginia’s offense isn’t very good. It’s currently putting up an adjusted offensive efficiency of 114.9, 41st in the nation, but that low number doesn’t really matter when you can win games after you score only 59 points by holding the opponent to 44, as was the case with my hometown squad Syracuse University on Feb. 3. Virginia’s issue comes back to shooting. Virginia’s Ty Jerome is 11-of-39 (.282) from behind the three-point line in Virginia’s last 10 games. Virginia’s current leading scorer Kyle Guy is not much better from three, with a percentage of .321 in his last 10 games. If your team has two great guards who suddenly forget how to shoot, that doesn’t bode well come March if they can’t improve.

At this point, I don’t have a definitive prediction of the top NCAA tournament seeds or the NCAA champion. I suppose that out of the four teams I discussed, Virginia is probably the best, but the team still has issues. When the top teams in the nation all have pretty noticeable flaws, it’ll make for an interesting bracket season for sure.