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Men's college basketball BPI projections for 2020-21 season

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Zags defend No. 1 ranking in decisive win over No. 6 Kansas (2:07)

Gonzaga gets out to an early lead and never surrenders it, holding off Kansas for a 102-90 win. (2:07)

Gonzaga is good, but the Basketball Power Index thinks Villanova is the best team in college basketball.

The top rating in BPI translates to a 12% chance (through Monday's games) for Villanova to win it all in Indianapolis. Baylor, No. 2 in BPI, is right behind at 11%. Iowa, Virginia, Gonzaga and Texas Tech are the only other teams with a more than 5% chance to win the title.

Why should you care? Teams in the top four in preseason BPI have won the national championship in 10 of the past 12 complete seasons, with both UConn titles being the exceptions. (This includes seasons that were back-tested in the model's creation.)

For the unfamiliar, BPI is our quantitative model that rates every Division I basketball team and projects the entire season from November through the Final Four.

A breakdown of the machinations of BPI can be found here, but the abridged version is that in the preseason, ratings are built on four factors:

  • Quantity of experience on roster (including transfers)

  • Quality of that experience

  • Recruiting rankings for incoming freshmen, with extra emphasis on five-star players

  • Coach's past performance

Then we use that rating to simulate the remainder of the season. It is important to note that BPI considers only regular-season games that are currently scheduled, announced conference tournaments and NCAA tournament formats.

Once games are played, ratings are updated based on team performance, adjusted for opponent, pace, home court, travel distance, rest and high altitude. For this season, the home-court advantage is reduced by 50% because of limited in-arena fan attendance.

BPI does not factor in gambling information such as game lines or futures and, as such, is independent of public opinion. BPI favorites have won 73% of the time since 2017 in Division I vs. Division I games. Although not meant to "beat" the odds, BPI has done well against the spread in early-season game predictions. Since we started tracking in 2017, BPI is better than 60% against the spread in games in November and December. In that same period, it is a little lower than 50% the remainder of the college basketball season.

Preseason top five

The top five this season before tip-off was Villanova, Iowa, Baylor, Gonzaga and Virginia. Despite Gonzaga's strong start and the Cavaliers' loss to San Francisco, Virginia has crept ahead of Gonzaga thanks to its better-than-expected performance against Towson to start the season.

What did BPI see in these teams before the season started?

For each returning player, BPI looks at the highest percentage of team minutes played in a previous season. It then adds these up for each team, which I call the "best-case returning minutes." Each of the top five, minus Gonzaga, is above 95% in best-case returning minutes, and Gonzaga is at 86%. Those same four teams are also top-10 in average opponent-adjusted player efficiency for returning players, and Gonzaga is 15th. Even though Gonzaga is a little behind in experience and returning player efficiency, the addition of Jalen Suggs, the second-ranked PG in the ESPN 100 and the highest-regarded recruit among these teams, elevates Gonzaga into the top five.

Why does the model prefer Baylor and Villanova, despite its loss to Virginia Tech and Gonzaga's hot start?

Villanova was No. 1 in BPI going into the season, and one eight-point loss to a top-50 BPI Virginia Tech team is not enough for the model to be convinced otherwise. The weighting of preseason expectations and in-season results is chosen to minimize the difference between predicted and observed point margins in future games.

Baylor, on the other hand, was third in BPI to start the season, but its 34-point win over Washington, a team BPI currently considers NIT-quality, moved it ahead of Iowa.

Gonzaga has won at least a share of the West Coast Conference title in 19 of the past 20 years and has a 75% chance to do so again this season. Only Winthrop of the Big South and Vermont of the America East are heavier favorites in their respective conferences.

Down year for Hall of Fame coaches

Jim Boeheim, John Calipari, Tom Izzo, Mike Krzyzewski, Bill Self and Roy Williams are all Hall of Famers, but none of them shows up in the BPI top five. Preseason BPI goes back to the 2007-08 season, and each year, at least one of these coaches had a team ranked first or second in BPI going into the season.

North Carolina had a historic 2019-20 season for all the wrong reasons, finishing 14-19. It is a safe bet that if one year is an outlier, then a program will regress to its mean. Under Roy Williams, that means a tournament team. BPI gives North Carolina an 87% chance to make the NCAA tournament, with an average seed of 5.9. The projections are bearish on UNC's ACC chances, giving the Tar Heels only a 9% chance to win at least a share of the ACC title.

BPI was not that surprised that Richmond beat Kentucky, as it ranked higher in the metric, but it gave Kentucky a slight edge in the game because of home-court advantage. BPI is much less impressed by the Wildcats than AP poll voters seem to be, ranking them 56th, only slightly off from the preseason ranking of 55th. Kentucky hasn't missed the NCAA tournament since 2013, but BPI gives Kentucky only a 19% chance to make the NCAA tournament this season. This Kentucky team boasts great incoming talent, such as five-star recruits Brandon Boston Jr. and Terrence Clarke, but is 323rd in best-case returning minutes.

The model has found that predictively, no level of recruiting class can make up for little returning production. Duke is in a similar boat to Kentucky, as it is 315th in best-case returning minutes. BPI views Duke as barely a top-10, thanks to a perceived stronger recruiting class than Kentucky's, most notably by having three 5-star recruits, one better than Kentucky's two. Duke's returning players have an average opponent-adjusted net player efficiency rating of 29, better than Kentucky's 22.

Teams that could surprise

The following teams are not ranked in the latest AP poll but are viewed as top-25 teams, per BPI:

Syracuse (BPI No. 14)
The Orange are +10000 to win the title, per William Hill, an implied odds of 1%. BPI has them at 2.6%.

Florida (BPI No. 16)
Florida has a 34% chance to win at least a share of the SEC, per BPI, second only to Tennessee's chance.

NC State (BPI No. 17)
BPI gives NC State a 13% chance to win a share of the ACC. The Wolfpack have to play Duke only once and at home.

Oklahoma (BPI No. 22)
It has been a few years since the high-powered offenses of Trae Young and Buddy Hield. The Sooners return just about everyone and need guards Austin Reaves and Brady Manek to take the next step.

BYU (BPI No. 23)
BYU was never fully healthy until late in the year, when it showed its capability in beating Gonzaga in its home finale. Mark Pope's team lost most of its core but brought in Purdue transfer Matt Haarms, who hopes to return to his 2018-19 form.

Michigan (BPI No. 24)
It will be hard to keep up with Luka Garza and Iowa in the Big Ten, but BPI projects a 6.2 seed on average for Michigan in the NCAA tournament.

Conference tiers

Comparing conference strength can take many forms. Average team strength? Top team strength? Chance to win the title? Projected number of tournament teams?

The Big 12 once again has the highest average BPI, thanks to its having only 10 members and no weak teams to drag the average down. The ACC, on the other hand, projects to have the most teams in the NCAA tournament.

Each conferences average BPI rating and its projected number of teams to make the NCAA tournament.

Paul Sabin, ESPN Analytics3d ago

It helps to think of conferences' strength in tiers. BPI would break them into the following tiers:

Tier 1: ACC, Big East, Big 12, Big Ten

Each of these conferences projects to have at least six NCAA tournament teams, per BPI, and has at least 10 teams that could beat any other team in the conference on a good day.

Tier 2: SEC & Pac-12

Last year, BPI projected more teams to make the tournament from the Atlantic-10 than the Pac-12. That trend is reversed this year, as the Pac-12 has four teams, Oregon, Colorado, Arizona State and UCLA, with at least a 50% chance of making the tournament.

Tier 3: American, Atlantic-10, C-USA, West Coast

Each of these conferences is likely a multiple-bid league, with an outside chance to have three or more teams in the tournament. There are great teams (hello, Gonzaga) and some very bad teams (hello, Portland) in each of these conferences.

Tier 4: Mountain West, SoCon, Missouri Valley

These are the true mid-majors and likely one-bid leagues. But do not count them out of getting two teams in the tournament and seeing one of them make a run at the Sweet 16. These conferences typically do not have top-50 BPI teams, but they have one-to-three teams in the BPI top 100.

Tier 5: The rest

For a chance to play in the tournament, winning the conference tournament will be everything to teams in these leagues.