This is probably a fairly useless exercise, but it’s still fun to look at a bunch of data points and try to come up with conclusions. Plus it’s a Tuesday and we all need something to read while we wait for Gonzaga to play again, so here we are.
Everyone has come to the conclusion that college basketball as a whole is down this season, and, primarily offensively, this is certainly true. But there a number of very good teams, just not the elite teams we have seen in the past. For the sake of simplicity, an elite KenPom team has an adjusted efficiency margin above 30.
Case in point: This is only the second time in the near 20-year history of KenPom that the top team in the country (Kansas, 29.96) has an adjusted efficiency margin below 30 on February 4th of a given season. The only other time was 2016 when Oklahoma and eventual champions Villanova were a tick above 29. That current Kansas mark of 29.96 would rank fifth on Feb. 4th of last season.
Let’s extend this to Gonzaga now, since of course this is a Gonzaga blog. Mark Few’s team currently sits in the number five slot on KenPom with a AdjEM of 26.13. In last year’s landscape, that would land them at 10 at this point in the season. On February 4, 2019, the Zags were at 32.54 and third in the nation behind Duke and Virginia. However, like last season, the Bulldogs have the nation’s top-ranked offense. Their offensive efficiency is at 120.2 currently, but would have ranked sixth at the same point last year. Which is to say: offenses this year are worse for a variety of reasons (talent, three-point line shift, etc.)
Here is a full breakdown of where Gonzaga teams have stood on February 4th in each of the last eight seasons.
2013 - AdjEM: 26.03 (8th), AdjO: 120.7 (5th), AdjD: 94.7 (56th)
2014 - AdjEM: 20.17 (22nd), AdjO: 115.6 (25th), AdjD: 95.5 (33rd)
2015 - AdjEM: 30.77 (4th), AdjO: 122.2 (3rd), AdjD: 91.4 (14th)
2016 - AdjEM: 17.22 (32nd), AdjO: 113.4 (39th), AdjD: 96.2 (40th)
2017 - AdjEM: 32.69 (1st), AdjO: 121.3 (7th), AdjD: 88.6 (4th)
2018 - AdjEM: 23.49 (9th), AdjO: 119.7 (7th), AdjD: 96.2 (35th)
2019 - AdjEM: 32.54 (3rd), AdjO: 127.5 (1st), AdjD: 94.9 (37th)
2020 - AdjEM: 26.13 (5th), AdjO: 120.2 (1st), AdjD: 94.1 (44th)
And so now we must ask: what the heck does this all mean? Well, on a larger scale, this team is most similar to the 2013 Kelly Olynyk team in terms of sheer numbers. On a more micro level, each season is different. The landscape of college basketball changes drastically on a year-to-year basis. It just so happens that this season, it’s really wide open with the typical blue blood powers having ordinary campaigns (much like 2013). Having Baylor, Gonzaga, San Diego State and Dayton all in the AP Top Six tells you all you need to know.
In seven of those eight seasons above, a KenPom team ranked in the top three on February 4th has made the National Championship game. UConn is the exception to every rule ever created and you can basically throw out the 2014 season for that reason alone.
Gonzaga has had three elite teams at this point in time. In 2015, they lost three points in the final month of the season and ran into the eventual champions in the Elite Eight. In 2017, they were the best team in basketball pretty much the whole season before losing in the Title game. Last season, they were elite all year in a season with a whopping FIVE elite teams, the second most in KenPom history (2015). In another year, they may run the table with relative ease.
And now that leads us to this year, where nobody is elite, but Gonzaga is top five. After losing the National Championship in 2017 and falling to the two heaviest Elite-Seasons in history in 2015 and 2019, perhaps this is the year the Zags get all the luck on their side. It’s bound to happen eventually. Perhaps this is the year their Sweet 16 and Elite Eight opponents finally go cold from beyond the arc and Gonzaga rides their top-rated offense to a National Championship in a season nobody saw coming.
.... But then again, there’s only been one non-UConn team in the last 13 years to win the title with a worse February 4th efficiency rating than Gonzaga currently owns. Guesses on who that is? ...... That would be 2017 North Carolina, of course.