What can KenPom’s efficiency rankings tell us about this year’s title contenders?

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Yesterday, we took a look at whether or not Duke’s issues on the defense end of the floor will affect whether or not they can win a national title, and barring a dramatic turnaround over the final three months of the season, the answer appears to be yes.

No one with a defense that ranks lower than Duke’s currently does has ever reached the national title game, and only two that are in the same vicinity have even played on the final Monday of the season.

That’s concerning.

But Duke is far from the only good team with major red flags this season, so today we are going to take a look which of the other national title contenders compare favorably with past Final Four teams.

(All the data in these charts come from KenPom.com. They are the adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency rankings for each team, from prior to the start of the NCAA tournament as well as from the end of the season. We cannot use the adjusted efficiency margin because that data does not translate across seasons. KenPom’s database only goes back to the 2001-2002 season.)

Since 2002, just 13 of the 64 Final Four teams have had an offensive efficiency ranking outside the top 30 when the NCAA tournament began. Only four of those teams reached the national title game, while 2014 UConn is the only one to win a ring with an offense that wasn’t among the best in the country:

This season, there are a handful of top ten teams – teams that are largely considered among the best in the country – that are ranked outside the top 30 in adjusted offensive efficiency, including a pair of Big 12 title challengers.

Some of these teams you would expect to be on here. Virginia hasn’t lost a step defensively this year, but without a killer like Joe Harris or Malcolm Brogdon, they aren’t among the elite on the offensive side of the ball. The same can be said for Cincinnati, Texas Tech and West Virginia. We know they win with their defense.

The surprise is Michigan.

John Beilein is widely regarded as one of college basketball’s best offensive tacticians, and to see him put together a team that is winning with their defense is … well, it is weird. He and Brad Stevens are the only two coaches to take teams to a title game with a defense that ranked outside of the top 40.

I know that the saying is “defense wins championships,” but that doesn’t hold water in the college basketball realm. While there have only been 11 Final Four teams that ranked outside the top 30 in defensive efficiency prior to the start of the tournament, three of them won the national title and three more reached the title game.

Put another way, it’s easier to win in March with a great offense and future NBA players than it is to win with a great defense that can sometimes struggle to score.

The one difference here is that the floor is not as low.

North Carolina’s 2009 team is the lowest-rated defense at 39th to win a title and they had four players still in NBA rotations today and two more than saw time on an NBA roster as some point.

Where this discussion gets really interesting is when looking at the teams that do not have great defenses this season.

Duke, who currently ranks 72nd in adjusted defensive efficiency, is the team that we always talk about, but there are nine teams that have been ranked in the top five of the AP Poll at some point this season are currently outside the top 25 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric: Wichita State, Kansas, Kentucky, Villanova, Oklahoma, Xavier, Duke, Arizona and Arizona State:

So who can actually win a title this season?

Of the last 16 national champs, 12 have ranked in the top ten of either offensive or defensive efficiency and 15 of the 16 have ranked in the top 20. The only team to win a national title while entering the NCAA tournament ranked outside the top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency was Kemba Walker’s 2011 UConn team, and they ranked 22nd and 25th, respectively.

Remember, this can all change rather quickly. If you look at the difference in the pre-tournament ratings vs. the post-tournament ratings below, you can see how much getting hot for a six-game stretch can change things, especially on the defensive end of the floor.

So this is a snapshot of how things stand today. In a two week’s time, these numbers could end up being irrelevant.

With that in mind, here are the six teams that – as of today – ranks in the top 25 of both offensive and defensive efficiency.

 

For reference, here are the rankings for every national champion of the last 16 years.

Tennessee center Tamari Key out for season with blood clots

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee senior center Tamari Key will miss the rest of this season because of blood clots in her lungs, coach Kellie Harper said.

Doctors found the issue during testing. Key is expected to make a full recovery after treatment from University of Tennessee doctors, Harper said, adding that her sole concern is Key getting the medical care she needs to heal and return to full strength.

Key missed the first game of her career in a win Tuesday night over Chattanooga after playing her first 99.

“This is much bigger than basketball. We are so grateful that this medical condition was caught,” Harper said in a statement. “Our entire program will be right beside Tamari during this process and welcomes prayers and positive thoughts from Lady Vol Nation and beyond.”

The Lady Vols opened the season ranked fifth but currently are 5-5.

The 6-foot-6 Key from Cary, North Carolina, currently is Tennessee’s third-leading scorer averaging 8.4 points a game and averaged 4.2 rebounds per game. She started all 34 games as the Lady Vols reached their first Sweet 16 since 2016 last season and set the school record with 119 blocked shots.

Key had 18 blocks this season and 295 for her career, five away from becoming the eighth woman to reach that mark in Southeastern Conference history.

No. 7 Tennessee beats Eastern Kentucky, win streak hits 7

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tyreke Key scored 10 of the first 12 points of the second half and finished with 17, and No. 7 Tennessee overcame a sluggish first half and beat Eastern Kentucky 84-49 on Wednesday night.

“Tyreke is handling the ball now,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “That’s all new to him. He keeps getting better.”

The Volunteers (8-1) struggled in the first half but still built an 11-point lead over Eastern Kentucky (4-5) on the way to their seventh straight victory.

Key led Tennessee in scoring before leaving with a cramp in his right leg with 6:15 left in the game. Julian Phillips had 16 points and 10 rebounds, and Zakai Zeigler and Uros Plavsic added 13 points apiece. Olivier Nkamhoua scored 10.

“I’m still settling in,” said Key, a transfer from Indiana State who didn’t play last year while recovering from an injury. “This is a new role. I’m taking steps every day and keep learning.”

Eastern Kentucky, which came into the game averaging 83.5 points, was held well below that total due to 17% (6 for 35) shooting from long range and 22% (15 for 68) overall. Leland Walker led the Colonels with 13 points.

It was the seventh time this season Tennessee has held its opponent to 50 or fewer points.

“(Tennessee) is the best defensive team in the country,” Eastern Kentucky coach A.W. Hamilton said. “I think they’re the best team in the country.”

At one point in the first half, Tennessee was shooting 20% and still leading by 10 points. The teams combined to shoot 4 of 32 from 3-point range in the first 20 minutes. The Vols, who shot 24% (8 of 34), led 32-21 at the break.

“If we can’t make shots, can you find a way to win the game?” Barnes said. “When the shot’s not going in, find a way to play. The first thing we talk about is our defense.”

Tennessee shot 41 free throws. Phillips, a true freshman, was 7 of 10.

“(Phillips) has learned the pace of the game,” Barnes said. “I’m not sure there’s been a more effective freshman in the country (this season).”

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Since its early season slip against Colorado, Tennessee has had a steady ascent in the rankings. The Vols’ next two games – neutral site (Brooklyn) against No, 13 Maryland (Dec. 11) and at No. 10 Arizona (Dec. 17) – will go a long way toward justifying the No. 7 ranking.

BIG PICTURE

Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels’ run-and-gun style of offense had them averaging 83.5 points through their first eight games. They ran into a defensive buzz saw in Tennessee, which was yielding just over 51 points.

Tennessee: Santiago Vescovi sat out his second straight game with a shoulder problem. He is expected to be ready to play Sunday against Maryland. . The Vols have won seven in a row since their loss to Colorado.

UP NEXT

Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels host Boyce College on Saturday.

Tennessee: Take on No. 13 Maryland on Sunday at the Hall of Fame Invitational in New York.

Hoggard scores career-high 23, Michigan State snaps 2-game skid

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A.J. Hoggard scored a career-high 23 points, Joey Hauser had 12 points and 15 rebounds and Michigan State beat Penn State 67-58 on Wednesday night to snap a two-game losing streak.

Michigan State (6-4, 1-1 Big Ten) avoided going .500 or worse after 10 games for the first time in 18 seasons.

Hoggard blocked an open layup with less than a minute to play and Hauser grabbed the rebound before being fouled and making two free throws at the other end for a 66-58 lead.

Hoggard, Hauser and Tyson Walker combined for 31 of Michigan State’s 32 second-half points.

The Michigan State defense allowed only one made field goal in the final five minutes. Penn State was just 1 of 9 from 3-point range in the second half after 7 of 18 before halftime.

Walker scored 10 of his 14 points in the second half for Michigan State. Hoggard, who entered third in the conference in assists at 6.3, had six rebounds, two assists and one key block.

Hoggard gave Michigan State 35-33 lead – its first since 4-2 – after back-to-back three-point plays with 59.3 seconds left in the first half. It was tied at 35-all at the break.

Seth Lundy scored 16 points and Jalen Pickett had 13 points, 17 rebounds and eight assists for Penn State (6-3, 0-1)

Michigan State hosts Brown on Saturday. Penn State, which hadn’t played since a double-overtime loss to Clemson on Nov. 29, plays at No. 17 Illinois on Saturday.

No. 7 Virginia Tech posts 9th straight win, beats Boston College 73-58

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BOSTON — Reigning Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year Elizabeth Kitley had 22 points and 12 rebounds, and Cayla King scored 16 on Wednesday night to lead No. 7 Virginia Tech to a 73-58 victory over Boston College, the Hokies’ ninth straight win.

Taylor Soule, one of two BC transfers on the roster for Virginia Tech (9-0, 1-0 ACC), added nine points and five rebounds. Soule scored more than 1,500 points and grabbed almost 700 rebounds in four seasons at BC, earning All-ACC honors three times.

Andrea Daley scored 15 points and Maria Gakdeng scored 14 for BC (7-4, 0-1). They each grabbed six rebounds.

Virginia Tech scored 17 of the game’s first 21 points and led by as many as 19 in the third quarter before BC cut the deficit to 10 in the fourth. Leading 64-54 with under three minutes left and the shot clock expiring, Kayana Traylor hit a 3-pointer for the Hokies.

Gakdeng missed two free throws for BC, and then Kitley scored from inside to make it a 15-point game.

Clara Ford, who also played four years in Chestnut Hill, pitched in 2 points in 2 minutes against her former team.

BIG PICTURE

At No. 7, the Hokies have the highest ranking in the program’s history. With the victory over BC, a 10th straight win against North Carolina-Asheville on Sunday would leave Virginia Tech in position to move up even higher should a top five team falter.

UP NEXT

Virginia Tech: Hosts North Carolina-Asheville on Sunday.

Boston College: Hosts Albany on Saturday.

Michigan’s Jaelin Llewellyn out for season with knee injury

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan point guard Jaelin Llewellyn is out for the rest of the season with an injured left knee and is expected to have surgery next month.

Wolverines coach Juwan Howard made the announcement three days after Llewellyn was hurt in a loss to Kentucky in London.

Llewellyn transferred to Michigan from Princeton last spring and that seemed to lead to Frankie Collins transferring to Arizona State after a solid freshman season for the Wolverines.

Llewellyn averaged seven points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists in eight games at Michigan. He was an All-Ivy League player last season and averaged nearly 16 points over three seasons at Princeton.