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Around College Basketball: Where analytics and bracketology clash

Looking around at some tournament resumes.

NCAA Basketball: Gonzaga at St. Mary’s Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

It happens every year. The KenPom’s and Bart Torvik’s of the world will have a handful of teams that they simply don’t line up with where bracketologists place them. Let’s look at some of those teams this year, and why there’s such a chasm.

The Analytical Darlings

The analytical darlings are essentially teams who are ranked highly on KenPom who aren’t getting the same love by bracket makers for a multitude of reasons. We’ll start this off with perhaps the most glaring example of this in Columbus, Ohio.

Ohio State Buckeyes | KenPom: 35 | Bracket Matrix: N/A | Lunardi: N/A

Ohio State is in an absolute calamity of a free fall as they’ve lost nine of their last ten games. They’re a team that had a ton of success early on in the season, a Chris Holtmann staple in Columbus. They dominated Cincinnati and beat Texas Tech in Maui, beat Rutgers at home in overtime, and lost competitive games to San Diego State, Duke and North Carolina. However, as that calendar turned to 2023, the Buckeyes crumbled.

This has become an ominous precedent in the Holtmann era as he is 59-14 all-time at OSU in November and December but 59-54 in January, February, and March combined. This team is just ill-equipped to compete amongst the land of the trees in the Big Ten offensively, and defensively, they just don’t look bought in. In this month-long skid, their once prolific offense has fallen off a cliff from a top 10 unit to 109.1 adjusted offensive efficiency mark, 85th in the country in that span per Bart Torvik.

Projected tournament teams ranked below Ohio State on KenPom include: North Carolina (36), Duke (37), Memphis (41), Michigan State (43), NC State (47), Liberty (49), Clemson (68)

Saint Mary’s Gaels | KenPom: 7 | Bracket Matrix: 5 seed | Lunardi: 6 seed

Late 2000s Gonzaga vibes, anyone? This team is undoubtedly one of the 10 best teams in America, but because they’re getting hit with that WCC stigma that Mark Few’s Gonzaga teams took a decade to shake off, they currently sit anywhere between a four and six seed. The Gaels are coming off their biggest win of the season, coming from behind to topple the Zags in overtime at home.

Overall, Saint Mary’s’ résumé is sparkling, and their dominant conference wins on top of a close game against Houston that they almost won, wins over Oral Roberts, San Diego State, and now Gonzaga have shot them way up the rankings on KenPom, but it’s not without two big hiccups. Losses to Washington (108 on KenPom) on a neutral court and Colorado State (125) at home certainly dampen what is otherwise a very good season and are what keep them from being a potential three seed in March. They’re destroying league competition en route to a two-game lead in the WCC, and their defense and emergence of freshman guard Aidan Mahaney are perhaps the biggest reasons this team could be so dangerous in March.

Mahaney is averaging 15 points per game while shooting 41.6% from three this season and was the main reason the Gaels beat Gonzaga. Since Mahaney cracked the starting lineup on December 7th, Saint Mary’s is 15-1. Pretty good.

Creighton Blue Jays | KenPom: 13 | Bracket Matrix: 7 seed | Lunardi: 7 seed

When talking about Creighton, it’s important to note that they’ve essentially played with two different teams this season: with Ryan Kalkbrenner and without. Kalkbrenner dealt with an illness similar to mono, and it took him a bit to get back into game shape, and Creighton sorely missed him. The 7-foot-1 big man leads all of college basketball in effective field goal percentage at a ridiculous 74.1% and is top 100 in block rate.

With him, Creighton is 15-5 with only one bad loss, inexplicably to Nebraska at home, but without him, Creighton lost to BYU, Arizona State, and Marquette consecutively at the tail end of a six-game losing streak back in late November and into December. They’re 9-2 since Kalkbrenner returned to the lineup.

Creighton is one of the best teams in the country that got struck by an illness bug at the worst time. When healthy as they are now, they’re as dangerous as anyone in the country with one of the best starting lineups you’ll find.

West Virginia Mountaineers | KenPom: 14 | Bracket Matrix: 10 seed | Lunardi: Last Four In

West Virginia has seen the biggest disadvantage of the Big 12 being as great as its been this season. The Mountaineers beat Pitt by 25 on the road and Florida by 29 on a neutral court in non-con as they got off to a 10-2 start. However, they dropped their first five games in conference play, only one being by double digits. Since that skid, it’s been much better. Huggins and co. are 4-2 since, with wins over ranked TCU and Auburn at home and a big bubble busting 32 point win over Oklahoma this past Saturday.

This is a very capable offense, and they’re also quite good defensively. South Carolina transfer Erik Stevenson has played the biggest part in transforming one of Huggins’ worst teams a season ago into one of his stronger ones in recent years. After a cold spell that nearly lasted all of January, Stevenson has since broken out of the slump, scoring 30+ in two of his last three games on 51.9% from three. Do not sleep on this group as a double-digit Sweet Sixteen team.

The Bracket Favorites

The ‘Bracket Favorites’ are the opposite of the ‘Analytical Darlings’. These are the teams, entirely from power conferences, who are overvalued by bracketologists compared to their ranking on KenPom and their other advanced metrics.

Clemson Tigers | KenPom: 68 | Bracket Matrix: 11 | Lunardi: 9

Clemson perfectly sums up what the ACC has been the past few seasons. While Virginia has reasserted themselves as the class of the conference once again, it’s actually Clemson who leads the conference at 10-3. Clemson beat Penn State in OT and a very bad California team, and those stand as their only wins against non-ACC power conference teams this season. They have losses at South Carolina (243) and against Loyola Chicago (235) outside of the ACC, and in conference, they recently lost to Boston College. All very bad losses.

So how are they somehow still a tournament contender? They swept their meetings with Virginia Tech by a combined four points, they beat Pitt on the road by one, and won home games against NC State comfortably and Duke. Despite leading the ACC right now, this team has to go to Chapel Hill on Saturday to keep that top spot.

Kansas State Wildcats | KenPom: 26 | Bracket Matrix: 4 | Lunardi: 3

There’s a couple teams we’re going to touch on who have profiles like this, and it comes from strong wins in conference play with struggles in non-con to start the season. First up is Kansas State. The Wildcats did not play a particularly strong non-conference schedule, and though their win against Nevada continues to get stronger, that 12-point loss to Butler at Hinkle Fieldhouse does not.

Outside of that loss, however, this team has racked up big time Big 12 wins. They beat West Virginia at home, and Texas and Baylor on the road consecutively. They beat Kansas in OT at home and Florida. That Butler loss is their only loss against a team not in the KenPom top 20. This is one of the more fun teams to watch in the country, and you’d have to be heartless not to pull for Keyontae Johnson.

Xavier Musketeers | KenPom: 21 | Bracket Matrix: 3 seed | Lunardi: 4 seed

Xavier’s defense is largely why they aren’t higher on ratings lists. They’re kind of the antithesis to Tennessee. Lights out offense, Swiss cheese defense. They went 2-3 in their power conference non-con schedule with wins over Florida and West Virginia. The losses to Indiana, Duke, and Gonzaga were all close games.

Xavier’s worst loss is at DePaul, but they boast conference wins against UConn twice and Creighton, Marquette, and Providence at home. The worry right now about Xavier is how they’ll fare without Zach Freemantle for possibly the rest of the regular season. Freemantle has been a blisteringly efficient scorer, making 63.6% of his 22 attempted threes to go with his 61.5 effective field goal percentage.

Utah Watch

If you’re new, Utah Watch is a tracker I came up with that essentially watches the worst of power conference teams to see if anyone is on pace to break 2012 Utah’s worst KenPom finish of any power team ever at 302. As of now, Louisville is back down to DEFCON 3 after picking up a conference win over Georgia Tech this past weekend to improve to 3-20. They still are within arm’s length, however, sitting at 294 as of this writing.