It seems that every season most of the “talking heads” of the college basketball world will gravitate to a common theme. If one team has zero losses, it becomes all about when/if they’ll lose. If a bunch of teams keep losing, then there’s too much “parity” around the league. And this season has seen a little bit of both.
This year the Villanova Wildcats, Virginia Cavaliers, and Purdue Boilermakers have separated themselves from the pack. Villanova has been the most efficient scoring team in the country. Virginia has simply shut teams down with their top ranked defense. And Purdue has used a combination of both to run all over the Big Ten. While all of these teams have dropped at least one game this season, they’re all playing at a level above the “parity” of college basketball.
But despite the dominance that these three teams have shown, those who talk about the sport for a living keep coming back to this season’s theme: There are no “great” teams. Some people will cop out by saying that the teams aren’t great yet, but no one seems willing to put Villanova, Virginia, or Purdue among the elite teams of the last 20 years. According to one expert I saw, they just don’t belong with great teams like 2002 Duke, 2008 Kansas, 2009 UNC, 2012 Kentucky, 2015 Kentucky, or 2015 Duke.
I’m not arguing that those teams aren’t great, they clearly are. But I also don’t get how this current crop can’t be in that class. Sure, they may not measure up by the time April rolls around, but these teams are great now. If only there was some sort of numerical evidence that could be used specifically to compare team’s efficiency and “greatness” across seasons.
Ok, stats aren’t a perfect measure of greatness, but they’re a pretty good indicator. And according to these same experts, KenPom.com is one of the most respected sources of advanced college basketball statistics. So in an effort to prove that this season actually does feature great teams, I’ve turned to the master of stats to prove my point.
Understanding The Measuring Stick
As I stated already, no one says that this is a perfect method of looking at teams. However, a lot of people point to KenPom as being one of the front runners in using statistics to figure out who the best teams in college basketball are. The site ranks teams based on a complicated formula, but here’s the basics:
- Adjusted Offense = Offensive efficiency over 100 possesions
- Adjusted Defense = Defensive efficiency over 100 possesions
- Adjusted Efficiency Margin = Adjusted Offense - Adjusted Defense
With this equation, a team with a high scoring offense and great defense would have the biggest AdjEM, and therefore be ranked the best. A team that allows more points than they score would actually generate a negative AdjEM. For an example, let’s take a look at the Villanova teams of the KenPom Era (2002-Today).
Villanova KenPom Rankings
Not that you needed numbers to tell you this, but the last four years have been pretty great for Villanova. This current season has been the best yet, and it features the most efficient offense of the Jay Wright era. The 2005 team, along with the Final Four and Championship squads, have been the Villanova’s best defenses over the last 17 years.
Personally, I’d probably be making these same arguments even if I didn’t have the numbers to back it up. So I feel pretty confident that using this as a method to judge all teams in the KenPom era will at least be an indicator of “greatness”, even if it’s not an exact science.
With 5,804 teams to evaluate over the last 17 years, including the current season, I’d say using the Top 25 cut off is a fair assessment of if a team should be considered for greatness. But as you’ll see when looking at the offense, defense, and the Top 25 teams of the KenPom era, we’re not going to need more than the Top 10.
The Most Efficient Offenses Of The Century
The Century may be less than two decades old, but we’ve already seen some crazy efficient teams. According to KenPom, the best offense of the past 17 years was the 2015 Wisconsin team that derailed undefeated Kentucky before losing in the Championship to Duke. But you’ll never guess who’s right behind them.
Top 25 Offenses Of The KenPom Era
Well would you look at that! Not only is 2018 Villanova currently the second best offense of the KenPom era, there are two teams from this season in the Top 5. 2018 Purdue also makes the list at #15, so I think it’s safe to say that there are some pretty great offenses this season.
But to play devil’s advocate, lets acknowledge that a great offense doesn’t make a great team. At the end of last season, Oklahoma State was the second best offense on this list and they finished with 13 losses and were bounced in their first games of both the Big 12 and NCAA Tournaments. Even this season, Duke is considered one of the better teams but wouldn’t be called great because they’re lacking on the defensive side of the ball.
It’s clear that to be a great team, it can’t be all about the offense. But it is a part of it, and it’s a part that Villanova and Purdue both have. So what about defense? Is that a stronger indicator of greatness?
Defense (Clap-Clap) Defense!
Any conversation about defense this season has to include Virginia. It’s their calling card, and they’ve been strangling teams’ ability to score on their way to the #2 ranking this season. But how would that compare to the best defenses of the past 17 seasons?
Top 25 Defenses Of The KenPom Era
2018 Virginia doesn’t just have a great defense, right now they have the greatest defense. And it’s not close. Not only is it a full 3 points better than the next team, the next team is another 2018 team! Cincinnati is currently ranked #8 in the AP Poll, and the only reason we’re not talking about how great they are is because Virginia’s been playing at another level.
It’s a little harder to find fault with calling this group great. Just looking at the Top 5, 2013 Louisville won a National Championship and 2015 Kentucky was loaded with NBA talent and undefeated until the Final Four. 2009 Memphis only made it to the Sweet 16, so they probably don’t reach great status. But heading into the NCAA Tournament they were a Top 5 team that had the opportunity to cement that “great” moniker with a run at the title.
That’s where I think Villanova, Virginia, and Purdue are right now. They are playing great. They are great teams. But part of being great is how you finish. It doesn’t always have to be with a National Championship, but all of the “great” teams the experts have pointed to made the Final Four. So the question becomes, can one or more of these three reach San Antonio?
The KenPom “Greats”
The Wildcats, Cavaliers, and Boilermakers are currently ranked in that order in KenPom, and there’s a significant gap between that group and #4 Duke. So if we say that these are the three teams that are great right now (until proven otherwise), how are they stacking up against the greatest teams of the KenPom era? Guess what, they’re doing “great”.
Top 25 Teams Of The KenPom Era
This year’s Villanova squad ranks in the Top 10 greatest teams of the KenPom era. All three of the top tier 2018 teams rank in the Top 20. These aren’t teams that are good and could become great. These are GREAT teams until proven otherwise.
I’m not saying they couldn’t stumble along the way. Number 25 on this list is 2015 Villanova. That was one of the best teams I had ever seen, but they failed to make it out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, and that alone knocks you out of the conversation for greatness.
But that’s where my biggest problem with this year’s narrative lies. These teams shouldn’t be barred from greatness until they prove themselves in the tournament, they’re great right now! Not only do I expect at least one if not all three to go on to prove that, but I don’t understand why their current resume wouldn’t be enough for people to admit the truth in front of their eyes.
So it seems we have just one question left to answer: Why aren’t these teams already considered great? Get ready conspiracy fans, because in my opinion there’s a pretty obvious answer why this year’s top teams are being held to a different standard.
The Blue Blood Bias
Did you notice anything about that list of schools I said I kept hearing this year’s elite teams being compared to as evidence that they’re not yet great? That’s right, there were only four schools on the list: Duke, UNC, Kansas, Kentucky. For those of you not familiar with the lore of college basketball, they’re the four “Blue Blood” schools of the modern era. Yes Indiana and UCLA fans, you were also in that category back in the day, but neither of you have won a championship in the last 20 year, so welcome back to the pack.
The blue bloods, whether intentionally or not, are often given the benefit of the doubt where other schools are not. To their credit, they have combined to win seven championships in the KenPom era. But these are teams that are often anointed as the “team to beat” before the season even starts. And when they’re having a down season, it seems every excuse is made for them.
Duke this year had people talking about an undefeated season before they were exposed for having no defense to speak of. Kentucky was a Top 5 team preseason before finally falling out of the AP Poll last week. UNC has yet to drop out of the Top 20 despite being the only team in that group with six losses, one of which came at home to Wofford who KenPom currently ranks 168th. Kansas has bounced back recently, but even they didn’t fall out of the Top 15 after back to back home losses.
Meanwhile, Purdue had two bad games on a neutral court and was immediately dropped from the rankings. It would take them six weeks of undefeated basketball just to make it into to the Top 10. Virginia wasn’t even ranked to start the season, and they didn’t make it to the Top 5 until Week 10. Villanova is the lone member of the group that has been highly ranked all season, and I don’t think it’s just because they were being recognized for being the winningest team in D1 college basketball the past 5 seasons. It’s because they finally had the other thing that the blue bloods usually have: NBA Lottery Talent.
It probably doesn’t come as a shock to you that Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, and UNC have produced more lottery picks (first 13-14 picks of the NBA draft depending on the season) than any other team in the KenPom era. The lone exception is UConn, who’s tied for fourth with UNC at ten a piece. That means that these four blue blood schools account for almost 25% of the top NBA draft picks in the last 16 years. When you take international and high school players out of the mix, that number jumps up to almost 30%.
Teams with prospective NBA talent have almost always been favored over teams without it in college basketball analysis. The logic is there at the next level, the team with the best players is almost always the team that will win it all. But that’s not necessarily the case at the college level. With 18-22 year olds, experience and team cohesiveness play almost just as big a role. In the era of one-and-dones, only twice (2012 Kentucky and 2015 Duke) has a team that started mostly freshman won a Championship. And in both of those cases, those teams had senior leaders playing key roles.
But when talking about how great a team is in college, often times NBA talent is factored heavily into the conversation. It’s not just that the team’s great, but the individual players also have to be great. When a team that isn’t a blue blood and is without presumed NBA talent is playing at an elite level, we hear phrases like “greater than the sum of their parts” or “playing above their heads”. The lack of NBA talent is often seen as a reason these teams couldn’t be considered great.
Now stay with me here, but what if those non-blue blood teams were actually great AND had NBA talent? Lets take 2016 Villanova, currently ranked the 17th best team in the last 17 years by KenPom. Time after time, even throughout their tournament run, that team was knocked for not having the level of talent that other teams had and the year was labeled a “season of parity”. Well not only did that team win a National Championship, but it also had three players that have gone on to play in the NBA, another in the G-League, and NBA Draft Boards have Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson predicted to be drafted this year with Bridges as a lottery pick. So if that was a great team and it did have NBA talent, why wasn’t Villanova considered a great team?
The answer is simple: there wasn’t a great blue blood team that year. In 2016, UNC, Kentucky, Kansas, and Duke were all ranked in the Top 5 during the preseason. But by the first week in February (aka right about this time of year) when eventual Champion Villanova grabbed the #1 ranking, all four of the blue bloods had fallen out of the Top 5, with Duke falling out of the polls entirely. It had become the year of “parity” and no one was really great. But when Kansas worked their way into the NCAA Tournament’s #1 seed, all the talk was about how great that team was and that they would be the favorites to win.
I’m not saying that everyone is intentionally trying to put down the rest of college basketball, but the blue blood bias is real, and it’s evident this season. Duke, Kansas, and Kentucky were all in the Top 5 to start this season, and if they were now the Top 3 teams and two of them had just one loss, they would be considered “great” teams. But instead, Villanova, Virginia, and Purdue are told they have to earn greatness.
Well guess what, they have. Sure, the season is not over, but to this point these are three of the greatest teams we’ve seen in almost two decades. They don’t have guys that will be picked #1 overall in this year’s NBA draft. It’s not widely covered when their coaches get in a pissing match over who’s the best recruiter (also, that doesn’t happen with these schools). But if you gave me these three vs the field to win the 2018 NCAA Tournament, I’d be just fine with that.
These are three great teams, and anyone who says otherwise is just trying to prop up a team that isn’t.