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Andy Wittry | NCAA.com | December 28, 2020

Here's how March Madness contenders are playing compared to last spring

College basketball rankings: Northwestern is legit, plus more Power 36 notes

In the offseason, NCAA.com analyzed the teams ranked in March Madness correspondent Andy Katz's preseason Power 36 rankings based upon their performances in February and March in terms of offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency and efficiency margin. Which teams, we asked, were best positioned to pick up this fall where they left off in the spring?

Now that we have more than a month of data to analyze from this season, we calculated how this season's top March Madness contenders — the teams in Katz's latest Power 36 rankings from Dec. 21 — are performing compared to the end of last season.

Which teams were good at the end of last season but are even better this year? Which schools were elite down the stretch and have maintained that trajectory through November and December? Which teams weren't on the radar as Final Four contenders last season but could be this season?

We tried to answer those questions, and more.

First, here are some important definitions to know.

  • Offensive efficiency: How many points a team scores per possession, on average.
  • Defensive efficiency: How many points a team allows per possession, on average.
  • Net efficiency margin: Calculated: Offensive efficiency – defensive efficiency.

Our analysis featured raw efficiency ratings. The advanced analytics site kenpom.com adjusts for the quality of competition, the location of each game and how recently a game was played, so keep in mind that the efficiency ratings and margins used in this story were not adjusted for those factors.

For perspective, the national average for points per possessions is roughly 1.00. A single-game offensive efficiency rating north of 1.30 points per possession is incredibly impressive, while the best offenses in the country in a given season will have an offensive efficiency around 1.20.

All stats are current through Dec. 26. Possession data courtesy of kenpom.com.

Biggest improvements in efficiency margin

Among the teams ranked in Andy Katz's latest Power 36 rankings, there are seven schools that have improved their net efficiency margin from February/March to November/December by at least 0.20 points per possession. That might seem like a minor improvement but when you extrapolate an improvement of 0.20 points per possession (in this case, meaning one offensive possession and one defensive possession), that means that a team is outscoring its opponents by an average of one point for every five possessions.

There are roughly 70 offensive possessions per team per game this season, according to kenpom.com, so over the course of an entire game, an average improvement of 0.2 points per possession is roughly a 14-point improvement for those 40 minutes.

Scroll to the right to view the entire table.

School Feb./March Efficiency Margin Nov./Dec. Efficiency Margin Difference
Tennessee -0.048 points
per possession
+0.414 points
per possession
+0.46 points
per possession
Arkansas -0.009 points
per possession
+0.378 points
per possession
+0.39 points
per possession
Baylor +0.086 points
per possession
+0.452 points
per possession
+0.37 points
per possession
Iowa -0.022 points
per possession
+0.278 points
per possession
+0.30 points
per possession
Illinois -0.017 points
per possession
+0.233 points
per possession
+0.25 points
per possession
USC 0.000 points
per possession
+0.227 points
per possession
+0.23 points
per possession
Texas -0.033 points
per possession
+0.177 points
 per possession
+0.21 points
per possession

Five of the schools in the table above were actually getting outscored by their opponents, on average, on a per-possession basis in February and March. A sixth school, USC, played its opponents to a draw. In fact, only Baylor, which had a 23-game winning streak last season that ended in mid-February, outscored its opponents in the final two months of last season on a per-possession basis.

With the No. 3 offensive efficiency and No. 8 defensive efficiency (through Dec. 26), Baylor is one of two schools that rank in the top 10 in both categories, along with Wisconsin, which is why the Bears' raw efficiency margin in the first month of the season is +0.45 points per possession. That translates to Baylor outscoring its opponents by roughly 31 points per game, on average — a margin that the Bears actually won by in consecutive games against Stephen F. Austin and Kansas State.

Biggest drop-offs in efficiency margin

This category warrants a reminder that this story analyzes raw efficiency ratings and margins, which means they're not adjusted for quality of opponent or location. That means if a school has played a non-conference schedule this season that was more challenging than its conference schedule in February and March, the school's ratings and margin might be worse, even if that's not reflective of the team's actual quality.

With that being said, only two schools in Katz's latest Power 36 rankings have a raw, net efficiency margin through the first month of this season that's lower than their raw, net efficiency margin from the final two months of last season. Those teams are Richmond and BYU, both of which have really challenged themselves with their non-conference slates this season.

The Spiders visited Kentucky, West Virginia and Vanderbilt, they played Loyola Chicago on a neutral floor, and hosted Northern Iowa, Wofford and Hofstra, all of whom rank in the top 150 nationally through Dec. 26. For an A-10 squad coming off of a 24-win campaign, that's about as challenging of a non-conference schedule as you'll find, so one would expect the Spiders's per-possession stats to take a dive when playing such a schedule.

Through its first eight games, Richmond is outscoring its opponents by an average of 0.06 points per possession, which translates to roughly four points over the course of an average game. But in February and March last season, the Spiders were outscoring their A-10 foes by an average of 0.20 points per possession (reminder: look at the table above to see the type of teams that have done that in the first month this season), so the difference in Richmond's net efficiency margins from the end of last season and the start of this season is roughly 0.14 points per possession worse. Once again, with the proper context, this isn't necessarily surprising nor worrisome for Spiders fans.

Then there's BYU, which has seen its net efficiency margin from February and March (+0.17 points per possession) take a small dip of roughly 0.02 points per possession. Like Richmond, BYU has challenged itself in non-conference play, as the Cougars took on USC (No. 34 on kenpom.com through Dec. 26), St. John's (No. 93), Utah State (No. 81), Boise State (No. 73), Utah (No. 61) and San Diego State (No. 25) in consecutive games and they went 4-2 in that stretch.

As it stands right now, there are only two times during West Coast Conference play that BYU will play teams ranked in the top 100 on kenpom.com in back-to-back games during conference play, and the Cougars just played six top-100 opponents in a row, so a very minor drop-off in efficiency margin is to be expected.

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Offensive improvements

Five schools ranked in Andy Katz's latest Power 36 rankings have a raw offensive efficiency rating that's at least 0.15 points per possession better than their rating through the last two months of last season. For a typical game, that translates to roughly 10.5 more points scored per game, which is significant!

Those teams are listed below.

School Feb./March Off. efficiency Nov./Dec. Off. Efficiency difference
Baylor 0.952 points
per possession
1.298 points
per possession
+0.26 points
per possession
Virginia 0.965 points
per possession
1.183 points
per possession
+0.22 points
per possession
Iowa 1.078 points
per possession
1.261 points
per possession
+0.18 points
per possession
USC 0.953 points
per possession
1.130 points
per possession

+0.18 points
per  possession

Illinois 1.031 points
per possession
1.131 points
per possession
+0.15 points
per possession

Last season, the average adjusted efficiency rating in men's basketball was 1.024 points per possession, per kenpom.com, so on the whole, the five teams listed above were roughly average on offense during the last two months of the season, when you factor in the level of competition in the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12. Iowa and Illinois were above-average offensively, while Virginia, Baylor and USC — depending on how much of an adjustment kenpom.com gave them — performed at a lower level in the last two months of the season.

Through Dec. 26, those teams are currently ranked No. 2 (Iowa), No. 3 (Baylor), No. 5 (Illinois), No. 44 (USC) and No. 48 (Virginia) in adjusted offensive efficiency as the Hawkeyes and Bears, especially, are already well-oiled machines on that end of the floor. That shouldn't be a surprise, however, as Iowa returned preseason National Player of the Year Luka Garza and it has a minutes continuity percentage of 64.7 percent (the national average is 45.7 percent), while Baylor brought back a Big 12 Player of the Year candidate in Jared Butler and the Bears's minutes continuity percentage is 62.3 percent. Baylor also added transfers Adam Flagler (Presbyterian) and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua (UNLV), who currently rank fifth and 43rd nationally, respectively, in terms of offensive rating.

Virginia's leading scorer (Sam Hauser) and its most efficient player (Trey Murphy) are also transfers. Meanwhile, USC added one of the most talented freshmen in the country, 7-footer Evan Mobley, who has made 64 percent of his 2-point attempts this season.

Illinois has also dipped its toes into all three of those waters — bringing back its most important players, adding at least one player who's a transfer and enrolling talented freshmen.

Defensive dominance

Four teams among the 36 examined have seen an improvement of at least 0.15 points per possession in November/December compared to February/March. For context, that translates to a defense that allows roughly 10.5 fewer points in an average game (70 possessions). Those four teams are listed below.

School Feb./March Def. Efficiency Nov./Dec. Def. efficiency Difference
Tennessee 1.090 points allowed
per possession
0.775 points allowed
per possession
+0.32 points
per possession
Arkansas 1.093 points allowed
per possession
0.822 points allowed
per possession
+0.27 points
per possession
Texas Tech 0.964 points allowed
per possession
0.789 points allowed
per possession
+0.18 points
per possession
Clemson 0.953 points allowed
per possession
0.797 points allowed
per possession
+0.16 points
per possession

Through Dec. 26, Texas Tech ranks first nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, per kenpom.com. The Red Raiders finished the 2019 season, when they finished national runners-up, first in that metric, so Chris Beard's squad is once again playing defense better than any other team in the country. They weren't bad defensively last season by any means, but they were only the fourth-best defense in the stingy Big 12.

Meanwhile, Clemson currently ranks second in adjusted defensive efficiency (after finishing 33rd last season) and Tennessee is third (62nd last season). Arkansas checks in at No. 33, which is up 24 spots from last season. For those first three teams especially, whatever their ceiling is this season will be determined by their play on that end of the floor, which is a credit to the  improvements they've made since the spring.

 
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