The New Year is here, and for college basketball fans, that means the NCAA tournament is just a few months away. In order to see which men's basketball teams are in the best position to cut down the nets, NCAA.com analyzed recent national champions to see where they were on Jan. 1 of their respective championship season.
Using kenpom.com's daily rating archives, which date back to the 2011-12 season, and old editions of the AP Top 25 poll, we were able to contextualize where recent national champions stood nationally, when the clocks turned from 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 31 to 12:00 a.m. on Jan. 1. It's also worth noting that kenpom.com, whose adjusted efficiency margin is a predictive metric, factors its preseason ratings into a team's current rating until Jan. 23, when preseason ratings are phased out. As the season progresses prior to Jan. 23, the preseason ratings have less of an influence as a team plays more games.
Note: Louisville had its 2013 national championship later vacated by the Committee on Infractions.
AP Top 25 poll vs. kenpom.com ranking
It's the age-old question: humans or computers?
In this conversation, the two groups are actually very consistent, on the aggregate, for where eventual national champions stood on Jan. 1. The last nine men's basketball national champions had an average AP poll ranking of 6.7 on Jan. 1, compared to an average kenpom.com ranking of 7.0.
Three of those teams — Louisville in 2013, Duke in 2015 and Baylor in 2021 — had the exact same ranking in both the AP poll and on kenpom.com — No. 4, No. 2 and No. 2, respectively. Two others (Kentucky in 2012 and North Carolina and 2017) were only off by one spot, and two more had a difference of just two spots in the rankings.
The only two champions among the last nine that had a difference greater than two spots were UConn in 2014, which was ranked No. 17 in the AP poll on Jan. 1 but No. 40 on kenpom.com, and Villanova two years later, when it was No. 16 in the AP poll but No. 2 on kenpom.com.
A major reason why the Wildcats were ranked 14 spots lower in the AP poll compared to its kenpom.com ranking is because Villanova lost to Oklahoma by 23 points, only for the Wildcats to beat the Sooners by 44 (!) in the Final Four, months later.
Seven of the last nine national champions were ranked in the top five (actually the top four) of kenpom.com on Jan. 1, and eight out of nine were in the top 10, with UConn being the lone exception in 2014. Through Dec. 30, 2021, the top five teams on kenpom.com are Gonzaga, Baylor, Houston, Kansas and Purdue. Recent history says the national champion will likely come from that group, although two of Houston's best players – Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark – suffered season-ending injuries before the turn of the calendar, so it remains to be seen how the Cougars will perform in the future.
Meanwhile, the top five teams in the final AP poll before Jan. 1, 2022 are Baylor, Duke, Purdue, Gonzaga and UCLA.
Here's the complete breakdown between recent national champions' AP poll and kenpom.com rankings on Jan. 1.
|season||champion||AP Poll rank||kenpom.com rank||Difference|
*Louisville's championship was later vacated.
How well were national champions playing on offense?
On average, the last nine national champions had an adjusted offensive efficiency rating of 116.9 on Jan. 1, which means that on average, they score 116.9 points for every 100 possessions against an average opponent on a neutral floor. The "adjusted" part of adjusted offensive efficiency factors in the quality of a team's opponents, as well as the location of where games were played.
The average game this season features roughly 68 possessions, per kenpom.com, which means that a team with an adjusted offensive efficiency rating of 116.9 would be expected to score an average of 80 points in a game against an average opponent on a neutral court.
Through Dec. 30, there are only five teams that have an adjusted offensive efficiency rating greater than 116.9. Those schools are Purdue, Gonzaga, Kansas, Iowa and Baylor.
The worst offensive efficiency rating on Jan. 1 for a national champion since 2012 was UConn in 2014, when the Huskies had a rating of 109.9, which would be tied for 34th nationally this season, through Dec. 26.
Here's the complete breakdown of the last eight national champions' offensive efficiency on New Year's Day, listed in descending order by adjusted offensive efficiency rating on Jan. 1 of their respective national championship seasons. Also listed is each team's efficiency ranking nationally on Jan. 1.
|champion||season||adj. Offensive Efficiency||Rank|
What about defense?
As the table above shows, the last nine national champions had an adjusted offensive efficiency rating that ranked, on average, just better than 13th nationally on Jan. 1, which is similar to the average of their adjusted defensive efficiency ratings on Jan. 1.
Their defenses had an average adjusted efficiency rating of 89.9 and an average national ranking of 13 on Jan. 1. Through Dec. 30, there are 15 schools with an adjusted defensive efficiency rating on par with, or better than, that average — LSU, Tennessee, VCU, Baylor, Houston, Auburn, Texas Tech, Iowa State, Arizona, San Diego State, Texas, Saint Mary's, Indiana, Gonzaga and USC. Of those schools, only Baylor and Gonzaga also has an adjusted offensive efficiency rating that's better than the average of the last eight national champions on Jan. 1.
Here's a breakdown of the defensive prowess of the last nine title-winners when the calendar turned.
|champion||season||adj. defensive efficiency||rank|
There are still roughly two months between now and the start of March, so teams have rooms to make adjustments, tinker with their starting lineups and rotations, and improve, but recent history says that one of the teams that's currently near the top of the AP poll and efficiency rankings will likely be the one that wins the NCAA tournament.