SAN ANTONIO – Predicting games in the unpredictable NCAA Tournament is as much luck as anything. It’s the little ball landing on the right slot of the roulette wheel. It’s throwing darts blindfolded. Even the folks who are paid (yes, some of us really do earn compensation) to make predictions based on their knowledge have the same accuracy as the average fan.
Of the 59 “experts” who made Final Four predictions for ESPN, CBSSports, Sports Illustrated, NBC Sports, Yahoo Sports and The Athletic, only two predicted No. 1 seed Kansas would make it to the Alamodome. Had Your Veteran Scribe been asked to select a Final Four on Selection Sunday, he would have gone with Duke or Michigan State to advance out of the Midwest Region.
And while there a couple of hundred folks who accurately nailed all four teams to reach the end of the road, that percentage of success can be chalked up to diehard fandom and/or pure luck.
Saturday in the Alamodome, most of the “experts” expect that No. 3 seed Michigan will end the ride for No. 11 Loyola Chicago and that Villanova will defeat Kansas in a battle of No.1 seeds. Each game is a fascinating match of similar teams. The Wolverines and the Ramblers are known more for their defense than their scoring ability (even though both are efficient with the basketball).
A shootout is expected in the second semifinal as the Wildcats and the Jayhawks are both frighteningly efficient on offense.
While common sense tells YVS that Monday’s championship game will match Michigan against Villanova, there would be no shock that the semifinals produce any of the possible title game possibilities.
By the KenPom numbers, 1
All four teams have various celebratory history with NCAA Tournament 3-pointers.
Loyola won its first-round game and its regional semifinal thanks to a game-winning three and a beat-the-shot-clock late three. Two years ago, Villanova won its first title thanks to Kris Jenkins’ game-ending 3-pointer.
In 2013, Michigan advanced to the Final Four after Trey Burke forced overtime with a 3-pointer in a Sweet 16 upset of top-seeded Kansas. And the Jayhawks’ national championship a decade ago here in San Antonio was made possible when Mario Chalmers earned eternal Rock Chalk fame with a game-tying three that led to an overtime victory.
Those of us who rely on Ken Pomeroy’s next-level analytics to help us make sense of an insensible sport now have the numbers what our eyes tell us. This is the 31st NCAA Tournament with the 3-point shot and the evolution over three decades has led to this Final Four featuring teams that have weaponized the shot.
Villanova, Kansas and Michigan rank in the top 100 in KenPom’s 3-point rate, which is the percentage of field-goal attempts that come from three. Since KenPom.com started its statistical analysis in 2002, Villanova is the only national champion to rank in the top 100 in 3-point rate.
Loyola is the outlier at the Final Four. The Ramblers rank 217th in 3-point rate. But in four NCAA victories, they’re averaging 7.5 made threes per game which matches their season average. For Loyola, the 3-pointer is applied mostly at opportune times.
When Kansas won the title in 2008, just 29.3 percent of its shots were threes. This year, it’s 41.4 percent. Part of that increase is out of necessity as Bill Self’s limited roster has forced KU to live by the three. In Self’s 15 seasons, this is his most efficient offensive team based on KenPom’s numbers. Even math-challenged folks like YVS understand that 3 is more than 2.
And with more coaches cleaving to analytics in an effort to improve their teams, more teams are shooting the three and more players are becoming proficient. In Division I this season, teams attempted 37.5 percent of their shots from three, an increase of 1.1 percent from 2016-17.
After Kansas made 72 percent of its shots in the second half against his team to win the Big 12 championship game in Kansas City, West Virginia Coach Bob Huggins summed up the simplicity that defines winning and losing during March Madness.
“If you’re going to advance to the NCAA tournament you’ve got to make open shots, he said. “You can’t miss open shots, because you don’t get very many.”
Basketball is, after all, a game of makes and misses.
By the (KenPom) numbers, 2
Based on KenPom’s number crunching, let’s just go ahead and send the trophy to …
YVS isn’t much for high-level arithmetic (freshman Algebra I in high school resulted in “passing” with a D-minus) so he decided to keep it simple. Researching KenPom’s adjusted offense and adjusted defense rankings for the last 16 champions analyzed by Mr. Pomeroy yielded the following info:
• Seven teams had combined rankings in single digits.
• The two lowest combined rankings totaled seven. North Carolina in 2009 was No. 1 in adjusted offense and No. 6 in adjusted defense while the 2005 Tar Heels were No. 2 in offense, No. 5 in defense.
• The highest combined ranking is 49 by Connecticut in 2014.
• The worst offensive team was Connecticut in 2014. The Huskies were 39th in adjusted offense.
• The worst defense team was also Connecticut. In 2011, the Huskies’ adjusted defense was 15th.
The average combined ranking for the previous 16 champions is 16. And that’s why Villanova heads to San Antonio as the favorite. The Wildcats are No. 1 in KenPom.com in adjusted offense and No. 13 in adjusted defense.
Villanova will face Kansas in Saturday’s second semifinal. The Jayhawks are five and 42 in the offensive and defensive categories. Michigan is 31 and four while Loyola is 60 and 18. Only UConn’s two championships were won by teams with higher combined numbers compared to the “other” three teams in San Antonio.
If the analytics mean anything – and once the ball is tipped, they don’t – then Villanova is the favorite to cut down the nets for the second time in the last three seasons.