Let's do something stupid. Let's extrapolate from a very, very small sample size! With the NCAA tournament field whittled down to the final fourth, let's take a look back at the first two rounds and see who's played the best so far, and what this might mean as we move on to the next batch of games.
What's the best way to assess who had the most impressive performances last week? Counting stats like points scored/allowed are distorted by a team's pace, so simply looking at these traditional measures can miss the real story. Fast-breaking teams have more opportunities to rack up points and rebounds, but that doesn't mean they're necessarily better than their more deliberate counterparts. What was more remarkable: Kentucky dropping 90 points on Wake Forest or Cornell scoring 78 on Temple?
Tempo-free stats (popularized by Ken Pomeroy of kenpom.com fame) seek to answer these types of questions by looking at how efficient a team is: how many points they score and allow per possession. But this is only part of the picture. How do we compare blowing out an inferior opponent to a tighter game over a more formidable foe? In this case, we take the raw efficiency numbers and adjust them, based on the (in)efficiency of their opponent. Thus, we can arrive at an apple-to-apple comparison between a fast team (Kentucky) and a slower one (Cornell), regardless of who they played.
We compiled the efficiency numbers for all 16 surviving teams from their first two tournament games, adjusted them for the level of competition, took that information and then ranked them based on what their expected winning percentage would be from these adjusted efficiencies.
A few (huge) caveats: yes, past results do not predict future ones. A team like Baylor had a ragged opening game, but survived and more or less got back on track in the second round. They're punished in these rankings, but some potentially favorable matchups down the line mean they could very well find themselves booking tickets for Indianapolis. And while this is a ludicrously small sample size, we're just trying to get a snapshot of who's peaking. As Kansas found out, in the NCAA tournament, you only have a sample size of one and a hot team can unseat a putative sure-thing before you can say Farokhmanesh.
With all that being said, on to the rankings (first number is offensive efficiency ranking, second is defensive):
1. Kentucky (2nd, 9th) - If I told you that a team chock full of soon-to-be NBA lottery picks had won its first two tournament games by 30 points each, is that something you might be interested in? Of course it is, which is why the Wildcats are the odds-on favorites to cut down the nets in Indianapolis after Kansas' shockingly early exit.
While John Calipari is an easy (and deserving) target for his (not so) underhanded recruiting tactics, there's one thing he does deserve credit for: getting his teams to consistently defend. Indeed, even if Eric Bledsoe cools off considerably and the Wildcats' offensive efficiency takes a hit, they should still be considered the prohibitive favorites due to their enviable balance and just pure athletic talent (not to mention their penchant for coming through in crunch time).
Of course, the best part about a potential Kentucky championship would be three years from now, when they have to vacate all of their wins and a slightly bemused/chagrined Jim Boeheim accepts a belated championship banner. Just kidding!
2. Duke (8th, 2nd) - It bears repeating: Duke is not this good. For whatever reason, Pomeroy's efficiency stats have systematically overrated the Dookies all season. Part of that likely has to do with a relatively weak ACC, and the rest due to the fact that the Blue Devils rarely lose to teams they shouldn't, and quite often beat up on lesser opponents. But does a team that has a single top-25 RPI win all year really seem like a tournament favorite?
While they impressively shut down a potent Cal squad last week, the Blue Devils employ a hyper-aggressive man-to-man scheme that top teams can exploit. Duke overplays the passing lanes so strongly that they make it difficult for teams to even initiate their offenses with guard-to-guard passes. This leaves the Dookies especially vulnerable to backdoor cuts and dribble penetration, which is why they rely so heavily on their bigs rotating over to
flop take charges.
A team like Baylor certainly has the guard-play to take advantage of Duke's defense. At least we hope.
3. Cornell (1st, 16th) - Defense wins championships and all that jazz...and what?!? Despite playing the worst defense of any of the remaining teams, the Big Red were the third-best squad of the opening weekend? Yes, yes they were. That's how otherworldly they were at putting the ball in the bucket. There isn't a verb in the English language that properly encapsulates what Cornell did to Temple and Wisconsin. Eviscerate comes to mind, but it doesn't quite capture the aplomb with which Cornell dismantled what were two vaunted defenses.
And that's the scary part: Temple and Wisconsin ranked fifth and twentieth, respectively, in adjusted defensive efficiency. Accounting for their that fact, Cornell had an adjusted offensive efficiency of 158.6 points per 100 possessions through the first two rounds. To give you an idea of how absurd that is, the gap between Cornell and the second-best team (Kentucky) was larger than the difference between the second and eleventh teams.
It's almost unfathomable that Cornell could maintain this legitimately insane level of play...but they'll have the benefit of playing in nearby Syracuse, and they've amply demonstrated that they will rain threes with blatant disregard for who they play. Expect a classic matchup of contrasts that comes down to the very end. Too bad Gus Johnson will not be prominently involved.
4. Syracuse (6th, 5th) - While Wes Johnson stole all the headlines after his epic shooting display propelled Syracuse past Gonzaga, and the status of Arinze Onuaku's gimpy leg has worried the Orange faithful, Andy Rautins remains the key for Syracuse. When Rautins is on, hitting an often ridiculous assortment of high-degree-of-difficulty three-pointers, Syracuse is borderline unguardable. Not only does Rautins provide soul-crashing daggers from distance into opponent's hearts, but he stretches defenses, opening up driving lines and post-up opportunities for his teammates. In short, he's the engine of the Syracuse attack.
On the other side of the ball, teams that haven't seen Syracuse's uniquely aggressive 2-3 zone typically struggle to get the ball inside versus the Orange, and fall into the trap of launching shots from deep themselves. This blueprint has worked for Syracuse all season, and we expect it to continue to do so all the way to the title game.
5. West Virginia (9th, 3rd) - Bullies.That's the best description for West Virginia. There's usually not anything pretty about the way they play, but it's brutally effective. Bob Huggins boasts a squad of versatile 6'7''-6'9'' bruisers who can not only guard multiple positions, but also attack the offensive glass with unmatched fury. There's simply not much that teams can do against the Mountaineers unless they match up physically.
But the thing about bullies is that if you hit them in the mouth, they usually back down. And that's the only question shadowing West Virginia: whether they'll be able to make enough shots against a team tough enough to keep them off the boards (like Kentucky). It's the same question that's hounded a very similar Pittsburgh team the past few years.
If Da'Sean Butler can keep up his Mr. Big Shot act, the Mountaineers will have more than a puncher's chance in the regional final (and yes, losing starting point guard Darryl Bryant is certainly a blow, but backup Joe Mazzula is by all accounts recovered from his shoulder injury, and has more than enough experience to seamlessly step into West Virginia's first five).
6. Kansas State (5th, 11th) - Frank Martin's squad has flown under the radar as much as a top-five team possibly could. Overshadowed by their in-state rivals and overlooked due to their not-always-aesthetically-pleasing style of physical defense, these Wildcats are a serious threat to make it the Final Four.
If they are going to make it out of the West Region, it will likely come down to how junior guard Jacob Pullen plays in a hypothetical Elite Eight matchup against Syracuse. As BYU found out, Pullen is a deadly three-point shooter, which should be especially handy against the Orange's 2-3 zone. Pullen and backcourt mate Denis Clemente are also the type of pesky man-to-man defenders who could give Andy Rautins fits. Don't be surprised if Frank Martin and his team get ready for their national close-up next week in Indianapolis.
7. Butler (12th, 6th) - Outside of Southern Illinois circa 2007, most successful mid-majors are known for their offense rather than defense. It's simply a matter of size. There are only so many talented bigs, and most major conference teams snatch them up. That's why most mid-majors run guard-centric offenses, and also why mid-majors typically struggle on defense, particularly rebounding the ball.
Butler, however, has quietly won 22 straight games thanks to an extremely stingy defense. But thanks to a favorable draw that saw the Bulldogs face a 12 and 13-seed, all 22 of those wins have come against fellow mid-majors. UTEP certainly had a fair amount of size inside with Derrick Caracter, but it remains to be seen how Butler handles an imposing front line like Syracuse's (assuming Onuaku returns). Expect Butler to hang around for a half against the Orange, before fading during the second stanza.
8. Ohio State (14th, 4th) - The Buckeyes have been one of the more consistent teams through the Sweet 16, with very little deviation between their first and second-round performances. The good news? In the suddenly diluted Midwest Region, this should be enough to get them through. The bad news? Unless Evan Turner and Co. can eliminate the turnovers and start scoring at a higher rate, their trip to Indianapolis will likely be a short one.
9. Xavier (10th, 8th) - Guard Jordan Crawford became internet-famous this summer after dunking on Lebron James in a pick-up game, prompting the Global Icon's reps to unsuccessfully try to suppress the video evidence of the King's embarrassment. Turns out getting posterized by Crawford shouldn't be so discomfiting. He's averaged 20 points a game for the Musketeers, and paced their prolific offense.
Ultimately, whether Crawford crosses over into becoming regular-famous will likely depend not on his offensive skills, but whether he and his teammates can slow down their opponents enough. Our magic eight-ball says no (then again, our magic eight-ball also had Kansas winning it all...).
10. Washington (7th, 12th) - Don't let their seed fool you, this is where the Huskies should have been all season. After returning the core of a team that lost a hard-fought second-round game to Purdue last season, Washington was tabbed as a top-20 team heading into the year. Dogged by inconsistent play throughout the season, they've finally rediscovered their mojo as of late (i.e get Quincy Pondexter the ball), and are peaking at a most opportune time.
The Huskies likely don't have the defensive wherewithal to hang with West Virginia, but let's take a moment to consider their place in the grander scheme of things. Washington is the latest example of a lower-seeded major conference teams "surprisingly" making a run in the tournament. Two years ago Villanova did so as a 12-seed, and Arizona followed suit last year, again as a 12-seed.
This trend more or less began when the NCAA tournament committee began seeding teams according to a strict S-curve. It used to be that the last major conference at-large teams wouldn't receive anything less than 8-10-seeds. Jim Harrick's 2001 Georgia team squeaked in as an 8-seed despite their 16-14 record due to their top strength of schedule. The committee put those last at-large teams into the 8-9 matchup because the winner of that game is nearly always just fodder for the 1-seeds in the second round. But with the move to a real S-curve where all of the 8-9 seeds are considered better than 10-seeds and lower, teams like Washington have snuck into lower seeds that have ironically given them a better chance to advance past the first round. Unintended consequences and all that.
11. St. Mary's (3rd, 14th) - Omar Samhan is, in fact, a beast. The Gaels' loquacious big man was a veritable one-man wrecking crew against Richmond and Villanova, exploding for a combined 61 points on 24 of 32 shooting. Just let that sink in for a moment. Combine that type of efficient, dominant post play with a host of capable outside shooters, and you have a devastating offensive attack.
Unfortunately for the Gaels, they're about to play another team with quality bigs. In retrospect, Richmond and Villanova were ideal matchups for St. Mary's. Both lacked any real interior size, and (inexplicably) refused to double Samhan. Result: 75% shooting for the "Sandman". But Baylor's Ekpe Udoh has both the length and athleticism* to bother Samhan, which should allow Baylor's guards to close down on St. Mary's shooters. Midnight is likely about to ring on this Cinderella.
*With the NBA Draft hype season about to begin in full force, we are obliged to preface any description of Ekpe Udoh with the adjectives "long and/or athletic"
12. Northern Iowa (4th, 13th) - Can the Farokhmanesh Magical Mystery Tour continue? Why not? The Panthers have been remarkably consistent offensively thus far, and if they can score against Kansas, they can do so on anyone. A banged up Michigan State team is just about the best matchup they could've hoped for at this stage. Could Northern Iowa do its part to make the Final Four an all mid-major affair? After last week, the question, once again, is why not?
13. Baylor (15th, 7th) - The Bears are the most obvious example of the limits of using such a ridiculously small sample size. Baylor struggled mightily against Sam Houston State in the first round, particularly on offense, submarining their spot in these rankings. But make no mistake: Baylor has the NBA talent and firepower to make the Final Four.
Especially heartening for Baylor fans should be that their defense -- their ostensible weakness -- has picked up the past few games. If this newfound commitment on the defensive end continues, and they get back to their usual scoreboard-lighting ways, watch out.
14. Purdue (16th, 1st) -The Boilermakers are the bizarro version of Cornell: scary defensively and often cringe-worthy at the other end. To be fair, the absence of sharpshooting forward Robbie Hummel explains a good deal of Purdue's offensive struggles, but so far the Boilermakers have been able to eke out just enough shot-making to get by.
The reports of Purdue's demise have proven to be wildly premature because Hummel's absence hasn't hurt what has been their calling card under Matt Painter: tough man-to-man defense. The Boilermakers figure to unleash defensive dynamo Chris Kramer on either Jon Scheyer or Kyle Singler in the Sweet 16, and should be able to ugly-up the game enough to keep it close, but not much else.
15. Tennessee (13th, 10th) - Bruce Pearl's diamond press can be a great equalizer, but the Vols simply lack the scoring punch to likely advance any further. Considering all the turmoil surrounding this program after Tyler Smith was dismissed earlier in the season, it's quite remarkable that they've regrouped to advance this far. The run ends against Ohio State, however.
16. Michigan State (11th, 15th) - Tom Izzo has his formula, and it works: hit the boards and lock down on defense. And it makes sense. Rebounding and defense are both about effort, so even when shots aren't falling, Michigan State remains consistent in what it does.
Unfortunately for the Spartans, they haven't been quite as steady as in years past, and were lucky to escape both of their first two tournament games. Add to that the loss of point guard Kalin Lucas to an Achilles injury, and the Spartans' look unlikely to continue their run. Still, betting against Tom Izzo come tournament time is a terrifying prospect. Do so at your own peril.