What would you say if someone told you that there are only 15 college basketball teams that currently fit the statistical profile of recent national champions?
Because as of Monday morning, that’s the number of schools that have comparable adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency marks to the last 17 national champions whose data is available on kenpom.com, which dates back to the 2001-02 season.
Using pre-NCAA Tournament data, recent history tells us that a team with national championship aspirations better have an adjusted offensive efficiency of at least 113 points per 100 possessions and an adjusted defensive efficiency that’s better than 96 points allowed per 100 possessions.
Gonzaga, Virginia, Tennessee, Purdue, Duke, Virginia Tech, Michigan State, Iowa State, North Carolina, Louisville, Maryland, Nebraska, Kentucky, Nevada and Buffalo are the only schools who fit that profile after Sunday.
We’re roughly two-thirds of the way through the regular season, then there’s conference tournament action, so there’s still significant room for improvement or regression. Most schools have 10 to 15 games left, depending on how far they advance in their conference tournaments.
That means Michigan, Kansas, Villanova, Marquette and LSU all have work to do in order to join the group listed above, if we’re strict about the 113.0 and 96.0 baseline cut-offs for adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency, respectively.
Since 2002, the worst adjusted offensive efficiency of an eventual national champion entering the NCAA Tournament was UConn’s 111.3 adjusted offensive efficiency in 2014. The Huskies are the only exception to the 113.0 cut-off and even that points-per-possession mark is relatively generous.
Eight of the last 17 national champions have entered Selection Sunday with an adjusted offensive efficiency of at least 120.0 and 11 have had one of 118.0 or better.
The worst pre-NCAA Tournament adjusted defensive efficiency of an eventual national champion since 2002 was 95.9 by Villanova last season. Eleven of the last 17 national champions have entered the tournament with an adjusted defensive efficiency better than 93.0.
Generally speaking, that means legitimate national title contenders need to have a top-20 offense and top-30 defense when the NCAA Tournament bracket is revealed. Of course there are exceptions, like UConn’s 57th-ranked offense in 2014 or the 37th-ranked defensive units of Duke in 2015 or North Carolina in 2009.
But the Huskies also had the No. 12 defense in their most recent championship season, while the Blue Devils and Tar Heels both had a top-three offense.
Here’s a look at the pre-NCAA Tournament adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency for every national champion since 2002.
Now here’s a look at how current teams compare to past national champions. Schools that currently have an adjusted offensive efficiency of at least 113.0 and an adjusted defensive efficiency that’s better than 96.0 are graphed with a green dot. That means they’ve met both of the baseline requirements established above.
Schools that meet one of the two efficiency criteria outlined above – but not both – are graphed with a red dot, indicating they likely need to improve on one end of the floor to fit the general mold of past national champions.
If we take a closer look at our initial parameters – an adjusted offensive efficiency of at least 113.0 and an adjusted defensive efficiency better than 96.0 – we find that those are more of a baseline, meaning it’s really hard to win a national championship with a worse efficiency on those ends of the floor.
When examining the last 17 national champions, many have been significantly more efficient than a 113 offensive efficiency and a 96 defensive efficiency.
Or a team has just met the baseline efficiency on one end of the floor, while being absolutely elite on the other.
Just look at Villanova last season, when it had an adjusted offensive efficiency of 127.3 entering the NCAA Tournament, even though its adjusted defensive efficiency of 95.9 was one full point per 100 possessions worse than the next-worst, pre-NCAA Tournament defensive efficiency of a national champion since 2002. Duke entered the 2015 NCAA Tournament with a 94.9 adjusted defensive efficiency.
On the other end of the spectrum, Louisville’s adjusted offensive efficiency entering the 2013 NCAA Tournament was 114.3. For reference, that would rank 22nd nationally at this point in the 2019 college basketball season. But the Cardinals had an adjusted defensive efficiency of 83.1, which was more than 4.5 points per 100 possessions better than the next-best adjusted defensive efficiency of a national champion entering the NCAA Tournament since 2002.
If we use 2018 Villanova and 2013 Louisville as the goal posts, graphically, for a true national championship contender, then there are only five teams currently that fit the mold of a typical national champion.
We’ll refer to the gold arc below, which connects Villanova and Louisville, as the Championship Arc. If we include 2004 UConn, which lies just outside of the Championship Arc, then 13 of the last 17 national champions fall inside the arc.
Virginia, Duke, Michigan State, Tennessee and Gonzaga are the only teams this season that also fall inside the Championship Arc, based on their adjusted efficiency through January 27.
Once again, we’re roughly two-thirds of the way through the regular season, so there’s time for teams to improve. Michigan, North Carolina and Purdue are among the teams that lie just outside of the Championship Arc and they could potentially resemble – statistically speaking – 2013 Louisville, 2016 Villanova and 2017 North Carolina, respectively, with a strong close to the regular season.
But as February approaches, Virginia, Duke, Michigan State, Tennessee and Gonzaga have separated themselves from the rest of the sport as the top tier of national championship contenders.