College Basketball National Championship Preview: Using KenPom to Predict NCAA Tournament

BetSided's Reed Wallach uses KenPom to analyze the landscape of college basketball this season.

Jan 13, 2024; Pullman, Washington, USA; Arizona Wildcats guard Caleb Love (2) shoots the ball
Jan 13, 2024; Pullman, Washington, USA; Arizona Wildcats guard Caleb Love (2) shoots the ball / James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

With conference play in full swing, we are starting to build a stronger data set on who the contenders are in college basketball.

It may not be an 100% success rate, but we can use college basketball's most popular advanced metrics site, KenPom, to help frame the National Championship race.

No, KenPom isn't used solely for this, but the site generates its unique rating system by weighing different factors to create its adjusted efficiency metric for all 364 Division I teams. Using both its adjusted offensive and defensive marks, we can get a good idea of who is strong on one side of the ball or the other.

KenPom has been generating these metrics since 1999, which you can find on the website here, and over the past 20-plus years, it has been insanely predictive of pinpointing the National Champion. If you look back at the team's that cut down the nets at the end of the season, most have a similar statistical profile.

Dating back to 2002, all but two teams have been inside KenPom's adjusted offensive and defensive metrics top 20. The teams that win it all are not only elite, but they are balanced and able to win in different ways.

The only team that deviates from this trend is the 2014 UConn Huskies, who were sparked by guard Shabazz Napier to a surprising NCAA Championship run.

We have plenty of time to get to the finish line of the season, and we will continue to build on our data in a weekly rundown of three categories: bona fide contenders, outside looking in and one trick ponies; this will help us frame how to look at certain teams and see who is building up or slowing down over the stretch run of the season.

For now, here's how to look at the National Championship race with stats current of Tuesday morning, Jan. 16.

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2024 NCAA Tournament National Championship Preview

Bona Fide National Championship Contenders

We still have a limited sample, but it's a short list of teams that profile like National Championship contenders at the moment.

Houston is buoyed by the best defense in the nation, and has the offense to back it up with the 18th best adjusted offensive efficiency mark. Meanwhile, teams like Auburn and Tennessee, who have been known for its defense in past years, have been posting elite offensive marks in SEC play to look like a team poised for a March run.

North Carolina and Arizona are both high powered offenses, but may have the defense to complement a deep NCAA Tournament run as conference play picks up.

Outside Looking In

This list doesn't include No. 16 Michigan State, who is 21st in KenPom's AO and 24th in AD.

Given there's so much basketball to be played, this is probably the most intriguing group of teams to discuss as there are plenty of teams that are near the 20/20 threshold, and with a string of good games can improve its analytical profile to look more like a title contender.

It's worth noting Purdue is the National Championship favorite, but actually in this group due to its 22nd ranked defense. Of course, one good game can lift it into the top 20, but it shows how fragile the team may be yet again come March on that side of the ball.

Another team that sticks out, in my opinion, of a loaded group, is another Big Ten team in Illinois, who is 11th on offense and 32nd on defense.

Sure, the team lost to a sub-par Maryland group at home over the weekend, but outside of that it has three losses to three KenPom top 20 teams, all by single digits. The Fighting Illini don't generate turnovers, but have an elite interior defense with length to run teams off the perimeter while also posting a sub-24% free throw rate, 10th in the country.

The other team I'll note is Marquette, who I played to win the National Championship before the season at 33/1, which is right around its market price right now. The Golden Eagles have lost two rotation players to season ending injuries in Sean Jones and Chase Ross, but this team is still primed for a strong NCAA Tournament run.

The Golden Eagles rank sixth in ShotQuality's ratings, due a two percent rise in three-point shooting, which has been what has plagued them through two losses in Big East play to inferior competition. Marquette's motion offense generates plenty of looks inside, but the team is outside the top 250 in three-point percentage.

With a slight up-tick from beyond the arc, this team will look like a National Championship contender. If the team can withstand a road trip to St. John's on Saturday, the team should see a noticeable drop in odds with a favorable schedule through the rest of January against only one team inside KenPom's top 60.

One Trick Ponies

This list is long as I filter this by team's that are top 20 on one side of the ball, but outside the top 40 on the other side. While some of these teams have different compositions, the idea is the same, they are reliant on either a high octane offense to offset a poor defense, or an elite defense to hold up a shaky offense.

These teams are likely ripe for an upset given the wrong matchup come the NCAA Tournament and ones to be wary of. Again, it's Jan. 16 so it's not over for these teams, but keep an eye on if some of these projected contenders can improve it's overall body of work.

Two worth mentioning are Alabama and Kentucky.

The Crimson Tide have the best offense in the nation, per KenPom, but the defense continues to lag behind. What happens when an elite defense pops up in the team's NCAA Tournament run and the offense lags, can Nate Oats bunch lean on his defense to get a win?

The same can be said for another SEC group in Kentucky, who has impressed many this season. However, the defense continues to be a concern at the moment, outside the top 50 in adjusted defensive efficiency with some warts on offense as well, including ranking outside the top 200 in terms of offensive rebounding percentage and free throw rate.

There is plenty of more basketball to build out a more rock solid view on these teams, but it's nice to start training your eyes to view the teams through this prism with this proven method of predicting the National Championship winner.

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