Today I'm introducing "The Eliminator," a feature I'll be trotting out from time to time this season. The idea is simple: I'll look at Division I's top contenders to see how their performance metrics stack up against those recorded by past national champions and Final Four entrants.
Now, I know what you're thinking. To have performance metrics, there needs to be some performance, and this is early November. Teams haven't done anything yet.
Excellent point. So in this first installment of the series, I'll consider how Final Four teams in the recent past have performed one season before their run to the final weekend. It turns out that "the season before the Final Four season" holds a good deal of analytic value. You may have thought teams like Butler in 2010 or Virginia Commonwealth in 2011 came out of nowhere, but a closer look reveals that even shock-the-world underdogs have to come from somewhere. The Bulldogs were actually pretty good in 2008-09, and the Rams were no pushovers in 2009-10.
Here's one general rule of thumb I'll be using: The 16 major-conference teams that have made a national semifinal over the past five seasons (four mid-majors made the final weekend in that span) outscored their leagues by an average of 0.11 points per possession the season before their Final Four season. (For what it's worth, if you're a mid-major, you'll want to outscore your league by a whopping 0.19 points per trip the season before your Final Four season.)
Of course, that's a "rule of thumb" as opposed to "absolute dead-certain requirement." There are exceptions to this rule, as we'll see, and that's the way it should be in a sport in which 68 teams settle this thing on the court. But reading up on the tendencies and historical precedents left behind by previous successful teams can help us distinguish genuine surprises from under-hyped contenders.
As for this season's contenders, I'm skimming the top seven teams off the preseason AP poll. These are the teams that our nation's basketball writers believe have the best chance of winning the 2013 national title.
The following breaks down how well the top seven preseason teams stack up against previous Final Four entrants, and outlines the key challenge facing each squad in its quest for a national championship.
1. Indiana Hoosiers: Too weak on defense?
Outscored Big Ten by 0.05 points per possession
It's no secret that defense isn't the Hoosiers' strong suit. They're No. 1 in the polls right now, but the last time we saw Tom Crean's team on an actual basketball court, they allowed an opponent to score 102 points in 40 minutes. True, there are mitigating factors in that particular factoid. Their opponent was Kentucky, and the game had 72 possessions. Still, allowing 1.42 points per trip, even to the best team in the nation, is surely cause for concern.