College Basketball National Championship: Using KenPom to Predict NCAA Tournament (UConn Worth Monitoring)

Jan 20, 2024; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Connecticut Huskies center Donovan Clingan (32)
Jan 20, 2024; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Connecticut Huskies center Donovan Clingan (32) / Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Another week of college basketball is in the books and it's time for us to take stock of what we saw and how it's being digested in the betting market.

With the emergence of the transfer portal, college basketball is at an all-time high in terms of parity, but we can use several tools that still generate a holistic look at who can win the NCAA Tournament this spring. This is our second installment of using KenPom to create a view of how to assess a handful of contenders.

Here's a refresher from last week's column:

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 teams 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.

So, let's look at who is trending up and down with more data compiled. These numbers are updated through Sunday, January 21st.

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2024 NCAA Tournament National Championship Preview

2024 National Championship Contenders

It's a similar cast of characters inside this group as last week, and it makes sense, the teams at the top of KenPom's list are amongst the best in the country, balanced on both sides of the ball.

The team worth mentioning amongst this group is Tennessee, which is looking to be at its best in the Rick Barnes era with the emergence of Northern Colorado transfer Dalton Knecht. The senior forward has scored at least 20 points in every SEC game, and 25 or more in four straight while shooting 40% from three.

With a reliable bucket-getter, the Vols offense is at its best, playing at a top 100 tempo and able to not be singularly focused on generating stops. This is the second top-30 offense that Rick Barnes has had in Knoxville since arriving in 2016, the other being the 2019 team that went to the Sweet 16 but was outside the top 40 in terms of KenPom's adjusted defensive efficiency.

While the offense has taken a serious leap, the defense remains nails all over with Zakai Zeigler recovering nicely from a torn ACL to make an impact and Jonas Aidoo making a leap as a rim protector, posting a top 50 block rate.

Teams that Can Win NCAA Tournament

This is the group of teams that don't qualify for the top 20 on both sides of the ball, but are knocking on the metaphorical door, top 40 on both sides of the ball. It doesn't take much to move into the above group, just look at Purdue, who jumped several spots on defense with a pair of blowout wins in Big Ten play.

The team to keep an eye on here is UConn, who got big man Donovan Clingan from a foot injury this week and knocked off Creighton by double digits at home, and Villanova in a pseudo-road game in Philadelphia, boosting its defensive efficiency mark from 44 to 29 in short order.

The defending National Champions were shaping up to be a contender once again, but the loss of the 7'2" man in the middle led to a drop-off on defense. It took the Huskies less than a week to return to the good graces of KenPom.

Fraudulent NCAA Tournament Teams

This is a group of teams that are lopsided in the eyes of KenPom, top 20 on one side of the ball and outside the top 40 on the other end of the ball.

Some of these teams, especially on offense, will get a ton of shine due to their excellence on only one side of the ball, but that doesn't typically equal National Championships.

The most notable team on this list is Kentucky, who has a fantastic offense that got even stronger this week with 7'2" Croatian big man Zvonimir Ivišić being ruled eligible for the remainder of the year. The team put up 105 points at Rupp Arena in the big man's debut, who scored 13 points and blocked three shots in 16 minutes.

However, the Wildcats defense continues to slide, now outside the top 70 on defense. Will the big man's long-term impact on the lineup lift the team's defense? It remains to be seen.

St. Mary's has been on a tear in West Coast Conference play, elevating its defense to a top-10 rating. However, the offense continues to lag behind, outside the top 70 in adjusted offensive efficiency. The Gaels profile as a dangerous team come March, but the team may not be built to navigate a deep NCAA Tournament run with its prodding pace (356th in adjusted tempo) and middling offense.

With a host of games over the next week, make sure to keep an eye on styles of play developing for certain teams and if it's time to buy on teams to make a deep run come March.

Game odds refresh periodically and are subject to change.