College Basketball National Title Contenders: Villanova’s Defensive Woes Raise Glaring Red Flag

Rich Schultz/Getty Images. Pictured: Villanova Wildcats head coach Jay Wright.

Early last week, I relaunched my “College Basketball National Title Contenders” and “Final Four Dark Horse Candidates” columns that originally debuted during the 2018-19 season.

Among the 10 teams that qualified as National Title Contenders in the final version of this column (published immediately following the conclusion of all conference tournaments), every single one of them made the Sweet 16 (admittedly, it was a chalky tournament) and Virginia aptly won the title.

For those interested in a deeper understanding of my statistical methods and deductive reasoning, please refer to last week’s columns (linked above) and the inaugural article that launched the series in 2019.

Now, let’s speed along to this week’s update. As in my previous columns, I analyzed all college basketball teams based on three metrics, each sourced from Ken Pomeroy:

Adjusted offensive efficiency (AdjO): Points scored per 100 possessions, adjusted for opponents

Adjusted defensive efficiency (AdjD): Points allowed per 100 possessions, adjusted for opponents

Adjusted efficiency margin (AdjEM): The difference between a team’s offensive and defensive efficiency

I then correlated each of these metrics with NCAA tournament performance and established metrical thresholds that clearly discriminate Final Four teams from the set of all tournament teams.

National Title Contenders must report an AdjO of 113.9 or higher and an AdjD of 96.0 or lower in order to qualify for championship contention. These teams must also report an AdjEM of at least 23.91 — an additional, but crucial stipulation that is waived for Final Four Dark Horse Candidates.


The 2020-21 National Title Contenders

After cross-referencing 2020-21 teams with an AdjO of 113.9 or higher, an AdjD of 96.0 or lower, and an AdjEM of 23.91 or higher, we’re left with only seven national-championship contenders as of writing:



Each of these teams is represented below based on their current AdjO and AdjD, in order to help you visualize their standing relative to previous national champions and Final Four teams:



Just How Good Are Gonzaga and Baylor?

To quote Stuckey from his Midseason College Basketball Recap:

Gonzaga and Baylor are undoubtedly the two best teams in the country.

I don’t think you’ll find any reasonable person with the most basic college basketball knowledge who would argue that point.

Just as Stuckey did in the article referenced above, I too poured through previous seasons to identify comparables for either of these two teams — and what I found was staggering.

I leafed through my personal database of NCAA tournament teams and metrics dating back to the 2001-02 season to identify the top teams of the past two decades, as defined by final pre-tournament AdjEM ratings.

If the season ended today, here’s how the current Gonzaga and Baylor teams would rank among the full set of all NCAA tournament teams since 2001-02:

  1. 2021 Gonzaga (37.50)
  2. 2015 Kentucky (37.43) | Final Four
  3. 2019 Virginia (35.65) | National Champion
  4. 2021 Baylor (34.97)
  5. 2002 Duke (34.02) | Sweet 16
  6. 2008 Kansas (33.96) | National Champion
  7. 2015 Wisconsin (33.53) | National Title Runner-Up
  8. 2005 Illinois (33.31) | National Title Runner-Up
  9. 2017 Gonzaga (33.05) | National Title Runner-Up
  10. 2019 Gonzaga (32.86) | Elite Eight

That’s right. The Zags would be the top-rated team in modern basketball history — and Baylor would be almost precisely on par with our most recent national champions: The 2018-19 Virginia Cavaliers.

Just … wow.


So … What Happened to Villanova???

The Villanova Wildcats (+1000) fell out of national championship contention this week due primarily to the team’s steady decline in defensive efficiency. The team experienced profound COVID-19-related disruptions in December, resulting in a 27-day gulf between its game at Marquette on Dec. 23 and its Jan. 19 matchup hosting Seton Hall.

Yet — that schedule disruption does not seem to be the cause for Villanova’s struggles. Instead, the team’s decline in efficiency has been fairly sustained, and it has also corresponded with a slight uptick on conference competition.


As of writing, Nova’s AdjD sits at 97.6, which is a full 1.6 points off from the requisite 96.0 mark required to be classified as a national title contender. That gap is sufficiently narrow that it’s highly plausible the Wildcats will positively regress back towards the 96.0-threshold.

However, the team’s trajectory does not bode well for its long-term NCAA tournament prospects — and at minimum, this development should serve as a glaring red flag … especially given Villanova’s exceptionally short title odds at +1000.


Notable Teams Currently Excluded From Contention

Our list of seven National Title Contenders notably excludes the following teams, each of which is ranked in the current AP Top 25 poll and boasts 65-1 odds or better to take home a championship this season:



But, we’ve still got a couple weeks of basketball left to play. So, I’ll be periodically publishing follow-ups to this piece as we approach March Madness 2021. Whenever a team ascends into championship consideration — or falls from grace — I’ll be sure to keep you updated.

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