Earlier this season we had a brief discussion about whether being "elite" should be defined relative to the field of competition or by some free-floating universal statistical standard.
I've always felt the former is sort of pointless because someone has to be crowned champion regardless of how they stack up with the all-time elite and the latter reminds me of a rather painful discussion from an undergraduate Western Philosophy class that I'd rather not revisit.
So instead I'm going to strike a sort of middle ground here: I usually define "elite" teams as those that are best able to minimize their weaknesses on a consistent basis. In other words, rather than look at who a team lost to focusing on bad losses, good wins and RPI, I'd rather determine the quality of a team by looking at why they lost games and what that might say about how they manage their weaknesses or common themes in how opponents exploit them. Following that logic, I'd suggest that the teams best at managing their weaknesses will go further in a tournament setting and are thus more deserving of higher seeds.
When I looked over the teams in the conversation for second and third seeds, that's what I began to wonder: based on the evidence in front of us, which of these candidate teams are actually the "best" at managing their weaknesses? Or, more abstractly, if we were to hold a round robin tournament of all the teams in the discussion for a second or third seed, what would the final standings look like?
The latter question was something we discussed with the in our roundtable with SB Nation bloggers earlier this year and we're essentially updating that discussion with conference play in the rear view mirror and supplementing it with a full set of statistics. But a few additional teams have clearly played their way into that discussion based on RPI and other ratings so let's begin there.
A summary of ratings for teams that might have a shot at a two or three seed in the 2013 NCAA Tournament.
Click the links for full lists.
A few notes:
- You might wonder why I bothered to list Iowa State, Nebraska, or Syracuse. If you were to take these ratings as gospel (Babel?), both ISU and Syracuse were in the top 12 in one of these rating systems so I threw them into them into the mix. ESPN's Charlie Creme has Nebraska with a 3 seed as of March 11 so I added them in as well.
Nebraska doesn't have many bad losses, per se, but has lost to a number of teams that would also be considered in this range - Maryland, Penn State (twice), Purdue (twice) - which will make it difficult for them to mount an argument for a 3 seed. Iowa State also has a few rough losses and depth could be an issue for them in a tournament situation: they regularly only play seven since Emiah Bingley elected to transfer. Since Creme has Nebraska as a #3 and the S-Factor - which has done pretty well in predicting things over the years - has them close, I'm keeping them in this analysis, but ultimately leaving the other two out.
- Kentucky: Based on the ratings above, there's only one team that should be considered a lock for a 2 seed and that's the Wildcats who finish in the top eight across the board.
- Texas A&M: Similarly, there's probably only one team that we should definitely pencil in as a 3 seed and that's the Aggies.
If we accept the statistical "crowd sourcing", that leaves us with seven teams to fill two 2-seeds (with Duke or Stanford taking one and Kentucky the other) and three 3-seeds (with Texas A&M taking one).
So now let's take a closer look at these teams by looking at the offensive and defensive efficiencies.
Efficiency numbers for NCAA tournament 2 & 3 seed candidates.
What stands out among these numbers is that despite Maryland getting somewhat mixed reviews in the previous table's ratings - albeit still worthy of consideration for a 2 or 3 seed - they clearly have the most efficient offense and the biggest efficiency differential of any of this set of teams. So if they've been so good this season, why aren't they rated more highly by the various rating systems?
The answer lies not so much in a critique of the use of basketball statistics as much as the need for a closer look at Maryland's strengths and weaknesses. For that, we'll turn to the Four Factors - or "tempo-free" - statistics.
Four Factors for offense and defense for nine teams in the mix for 2 & 3 seeds.
Here Maryland's offensive efficiency is explained quite well: they have by far the best shooting efficiency differential of any of the teams above, which translates into having the most efficient offense of any of these teams. That shooting efficiency is bolstered by an outstanding offensive rebounding percentage that helps them extend possessions, if not get high percentage second chance scoring opportunities. And if there's anything that bodes well for a NCAA tournament run, it's scoring efficiency - teams that can manufacture points against a variety of opponents that they may not be familiar with have a distinct advantage over one dimensional teams or teams that struggle to score efficiently.
However, Maryland's downfall is their turnover percentage: not only is it the third highest on this list, but they pretty much turn the ball over as often as their opponents. And if you look back at Maryland's losses - particularly the two losses to Duke, first with Blue Devils point guard Chelsea Gray healthy and then without - turnovers are what most frequently short circuit their otherwise efficient offense.
That reflects two truths about Maryland: first, both forward Tianna Hawkins and wing Alyssa Thomas are turnover prone players for their position, which is a problem because Maryland relies heavily on both of them for scoring. Second, the turnover rate reflects their depth issues at point guard: having lost a pair of point guards to injury prior to the season, ball handling and depth has been an issue for Maryland all year.
So what does that mean for Maryland's seed in the NCAA tournament? Let's take stock of their competition.
- Only three of the teams above hold negative differentials relative to their opponents thus far this season (Kentucky, Penn State and UCLA), but all of those are in free throw rate which is a weakness that even elite teams frequently overcome to make deep tournament runs. So any one of these teams could claim to be potentially "elite".
- Nebraska's low free throw rate stands out as well. Here's where looking closely at why a team won or lost is more important than the fact of a result. Nebraska is a team that has shown a tendency to drift out to the perimeter and the problem is that they only shoot 31.2% from the 3-point line - in each of their losses a combination of cold shooting and an inability to get to the line did them in. It happened often enough that it makes you wonder how far this team can go in the tournament compared to the other candidates - even a 3 seed would be a fortunate outcome for Nebraska.
- Kentucky's low free throw rate reflects a flaw in their offense that Greg Alan Edwards of SB Nation's A Sea of Blue has alluded to previously: the Wildcats have a bad habit of settling for jumpers instead of attacking the basket. When the shots - and especially the threes - are falling, that's fine; when the 33.23% 3-point shooting team has an off day, they can struggle a bit. Should that knock them out of the second seed that looked like a lock at the beginning of this piece? Probably not.
- But how much does 3-point shooting even matter for a potential tournament run? Both Cal and Penn State might hope for opposing answers to that question. Sticking to the theme of free throw rates first, PSU's negative differential is the result of them sending opponents to the line more often than they get there. But that doesn't change the fact that offensively Alex Bentley slashing to the hole and Maggie Lucas shooting threes is an extremely difficult combination to stop. And the 3-point shooting stands out as a particularly major strength for Penn State: their 39.51% 3-point percentage is the highest of any of these teams.
Cal is on the other end of the spectrum and that known weakness was exposed no more clearly than in their loss to UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament: they have the second-lowest 3-point percentage of any team in this group (30.34%) and when they go cold things can get ugly fast. Still, the fact is that Cal has managed to overcome that very obvious weakness all season to win games against all but Duke, Stanford, and ranked UCLA (who had an inspired performance across the board against both Bay Area teams). So sure they've got a weakness, but they've proven the ability to overcome it with second chance points on an extremely consistent basis. Between Cal's ability to overcome their shooting struggles with second chance scoring opportunities and PSU's ability to keep opponents on their toes both have certainly earned 2 seeds.
- So what about UCLA? No team had a wider range of rankings in the various rating systems than UCLA which makes figuring out their place in all of this somewhat difficult. Like Maryland, they're a turnover-prone team with a very slim turnover percentage differential. Also like Maryland, they get some of that back with offensive rebounds. Unlike Maryland, they don't score nearly as well and they give opponents more free throw attempts than they get. It's really a mixed bag with UCLA. Then you see what they did in the Pac-12 tournament and it's obvious that their size and athleticism would allow them to play with almost anyone. So what should happen for a team with a profile like this?
The thing is that we could easily dissect UCLA's style of play and penalize them for a loss to Northridge back in December, but when it comes down to it their only other losses are a pair to Cal - which they obviously avenged - three to Stanford, and one to Notre Dame (by 12 in November). There's good reason to question how good this team is, but in general they've managed to get the job done over the course of 32 games.
- North Carolina is similar to UCLA in that they're not the most efficient offense and lean heavily on their defense. But they have two additional advantages: they push the tempo a bit more and force opponents into more turnovers than they commit. And the other big strength is that they're a team that can manufacture points when they need it: though they don't score terribly efficiently, they get to the free throw line at a high rate and hit the offensive boards hard. That's not the prettiest basketball, but it makes sense as a profile of a team that lost all six of its games to ranked opponents, including three games to Duke. When you compare what they've done to Nebraska and consider that they beat Maryland in two of three contests by turning Alyssa Thomas into an inefficient volume scorer - they held her to 12-for-35 shooting in both losses - it's hard not to give them a 3 seed.
- What are Texas A&M's chances of moving up into a 2 seed? Yes, all the ratings had TAMU as a definite 3 seed, but should they actually get consideration as a 2 seed after winning the SEC by beating Kentucky and Tennessee? To be fair to the Aggies, three of their losses came in November to a trio of teams that were mainstays in the top 20 of the national polls throughout the season (Louisville, Penn State, and UConn, in that order) so in addition to an argument that they've improved since then they weren't terrible losses. Then you have a Notre Dame loss, a pair of regular season losses to UK, and a loss to Tennessee.
The problem, of course, is those losses to LSU and Vanderbilt. What do we make of those? In those two games, star center Kelsey Bone was a combined 12-for-37 from the field. She was held without an offensive rebound against Vanderbilt. In the second loss to UK, she had only 8 shots and 7 turnovers in a game that the Wildcats scored 29 points off turnovers. In the first loss to UK she had 5 turnovers in a three point game.
You never want to see that a basketball game is won or loss as the result of one player, but teams that find a way to bother Bone can beat TAMU.
Ultimately, the toughest part of this seems to be deciding between Penn State, Texas A&M, and Tennessee for that last 2 seed. Depth almost always catches up to teams in the NCAA tournament and with the uncertainty about Tennessee having Isabelle Harrison back that could really hurt the Lady Vols. Penn State's bad losses reveal a pair of weaknesses: in addition to putting teams on the free throw line quite a bit when they face attacking guards (partially explaining losses to Minnesota and Wisconsin), they also struggled to defend the paint in losses (Miami, which scored 44 points in the paint, and Michigan State). Add to that their tendency to drift to the perimeter with Maggie Lucas being their only consistent 3-point shooter and there are a few weaknesses that teams can exploit. Then you have TAMU and teams figuring out how to limit Bone's effectiveness in various ways.
Ultimately, this is what I've come up with as teams that would be able to most consistently win
- Duke/Stanford (the S-Factor already has a discussion on that, which I'll defer to)
- Tenn (assuming Harrison returns)
That leaves Maryland and Nebraska - two teams whose weaknesses caught up to them a bit too often - to fight for positioning among the four seeds and an earlier than hoped for meeting against this season's dominant top seeds.