Breaking Down the Biggest Myths of the 2016-17 College Basketball Season

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystFebruary 7, 2017

Never mind Gonzaga history; these Bulldogs are making college basketball history.
Never mind Gonzaga history; these Bulldogs are making college basketball history.William Mancebo/Getty Images

If you watch enough college basketball, you'll eventually notice the same lazy analysis thrown around night after nightthings that might sound right but are never statistically verified.

Rather than let those narratives continue to flow uncorroborated, we dug into the numbers in an attempt to either prove or disprove that this is the weakest bubble ever, that it's tougher to beat a team for a third time in one season and, to answer the most overused question of all...

"Might This Be Mark Few's Best Gonzaga Team Ever?"

Though the Zags have yet to make a Final Four, they've had some great teams over the past two decades.

They were No. 1 in the final AP poll of the 2012-13 season, earning a No. 1 seed in that year's NCAA tournament. In fact, Gonzaga has finished in the Top 10 of the AP poll seven times in the past 15 years. Even after the NCAA tournaments were held each year, Gonzaga has been one of the nation's eight most efficient teams four times since 2004, according to KenPom.com.

Because of that level of success, it almost felt blasphemous when people suggested in October and November that this could be Mark Few's best team yet. After all, the Bulldogs lost their three top scorers from last year, and there was no telling what type of impact Przemek Karnowski would make after missing most of last season due to back surgery.

At this point, though, it's ridiculous to use "might" or "could" when weighing whether this is the best Gonzaga team ever. Move over, Adam Morrison, Ronny Turiaf, Robert Sacre, Kelly Olynyk, Kevin Pangos, Kyle Wiltjer, Domantas Sabonis and every other Zag during Few's tenure. This is hands down the best Gonzaga team ever.

Heck, it's one of the best teams any school has produced in the past 15 years.

Best Adjusted Efficiency Margins Entering NCAA Tournament
SeasonTeamAdjEMNCAA Tourney
2014-15Kentucky37.26Final Four
2014-15Wisconsin33.32Title Game
2007-08Kansas33.21National Champions
2001-02Duke32.97Sweet 16
2004-05Illinois32.40Title Game
2014-15Arizona32.36Elite Eight
2012-13Florida31.97Elite Eight
2009-10Kansas31.89Second Round
2003-04Duke31.84Final Four
2011-12Kentucky31.68National Champions
2010-11Ohio State31.58Sweet 16
2004-05North Carolina31.45National Champions

No one's holding a candle to that 38-1 Kentucky team from a few years ago, but this Gonzaga team currently has the third-best pre-tournament adjusted efficiency margin since 2002. That AdjEM might drop over the final few weeks of the season, but it also might increase. Stay tuned to find out where the Zags finish.

As far as KenPom is concerned, these Bulldogs are better than the Luther Head, Dee Brown and Deron Williams three-headed Illinois monster in 2005. They're better than the 2008 Kansas team that won the national championship before sending five players to the NBA draft. They're better than Anthony Davis' Kentucky team in 2012. And they're better than any team Duke or North Carolina has ever assembled.

Cry foul because of the strength of schedule if you so choose, but the 2013-14 Wichita State Shockers didn't even come close to making it onto the above chart with their 25.19 adjusted efficiency margin. Before this year, the most efficient season Gonzaga ever had was a 27.79 adjusted efficiency margin in 2012-13. Consistently winning against a weak schedule only goes so far.

What sets Gonzaga apart from the crowd is that it doesn't play with its food. The Bulldogs did have some close calls early in the season against Iowa State, Florida and Arizona. However, against teams outside the KenPom Top 75, they have won every game by a margin of at least 15 points and have an average margin of victory of 28.4 points per game against those teams.

If they can continue destroying inferior competition for the next few weeks, this will go down as the second-most impressive regular season of the KenPom era.

Whether that means this is finally the year Gonzaga reaches the Final Four remains to be seen, but don't let this year's tournament (or previous failures, for that matter) cloud your judgment of how great this team is. It took a while for Gonzaga to climb to No. 1 in the AP poll. Now that most of the doubters have been converted, let's appreciate this team's dominance.

'The Bubble Is Weaker Than Ever'

Indiana is on the bubble with wins over Kansas and North Carolina. How weak can the bubble really be?
Indiana is on the bubble with wins over Kansas and North Carolina. How weak can the bubble really be?Andy Lyons/Getty Images

I've been doing bracketology for the better part of a decade, and every single year, people start whining about one-third of the way through conference play that this is the weakest bubble in the history of bubbles. But as far as I can find, no one has bothered to establish a baseline for bubble strength.

This much is certain: If you've been saying the bubble is weaker this year than ever before, you need a history lesson on how bad things were in 2011. That was the first year of the expansion to 68 teams, and the teams that went to Dayton to play in the First Four had some of the worst tournament resumes ever.

USC (19-14, RPI: 67) got in despite six losses to teams outside the RPI Top 100, three of which came against teams outside the RPI Top 175. And the Trojans only had two RPI Top 25 winsboth at homeso it's not like they did much to help erase those bad losses. VCU (23-11, RPI: 49) eventually made the Final Four, but it had only one RPI Top 25 win during the regular season and had hideous losses to South Florida, Georgia State and Northeastern.

2012 wasn't pretty, either. California (24-9, RPI: 37) got in without any RPI Top 50 wins, and all four at-large First Four teams that year had multiple losses to teams outside the RPI Top 100.

The selection committee changes every year, so there are ever-changing nuances regarding which data points are more important than others. But now that we have five years' worth of bubble data with 68 tournament teams*, here's a look back on what the average resume looks like on the bubblewhere "bubble" is defined as the last four teams in and the four No. 1 seeds in the NIT:

*For some reason, ESPN's RPI data for the 2010-11 appears to have stopped accumulating details in late February, so we're excluding it from the chart.

Strength of the Bubble by Season
SeasonRPISOSWinsTop 50 WsSub-100 Ls
All Last Four In45.877.
All First Four Out54.794.421.82.12.9

Without question, 2013-14 was the strongest year for the bubble. Though seven of the eight teams suffered at least a dozen losses, all eight had multiple RPI Top 50 wins and had at least as many Top 50 wins as losses to teams outside of the RPI Top 100. That was the year 23-9 SMU had a pathetic nonconference strength of schedule and was snubbed from the tournament with a resume that likely would have been good enough for a No. 9 seed in most years.

Equally self-evident is that 2011-12 was the worst bubble in the past five years. That was the season the Pac-12 was an unmitigated disaster, and its 14-4 regular-season champion (Washington) didn't even make the tournament. As previously mentioned, Cal got in without a single quality win. Add in South Florida and BYU, and the entire "First Four" group had four RPI Top 50 wins and 11 losses to teams outside of the RPI Top 100.

It's way too early to know who this year's last four in and first four out will be, but the bubble is currently populated by teams such as Clemson, TCU, Georgia Tech, Marquette, Georgetown, Indiana and Syracuse, each of which already has three RPI Top 50 wins. Most of those teams have a lot of losses, bad losses or both, but in terms of ability to beat quality opponents, this should end up being one of the strongest bubbles of the 68-team era.

The reason it hasn't felt that way over the past few weeks is because the bubble in late January primarily consists of good teams that suffered too many losses against a difficult nonconference schedule (i.e. Michigan State, Tennessee and Wake Forest) and possibly good teams that got too many wins against a pathetic nonconference schedule (i.e. Texas Tech, Kansas State, Utah and Virginia Tech).

As we approach Selection Sunday, though, the bubble is inevitably refined as major-conference teams repeatedly have opportunities for quality wins. Plenty will suffer too many losses and fall by the wayside, but that's why the bubble seems to consist of 80 teams in late January and only eight to 10 teams by early March.

Give it another two weeks or so, and this bubble won't even feel as weak as last year'slet alone the weakest ever.

'It's Tough to Beat a Team Three Times in One Year'

Syracuse went a combined 0-6 against North Carolina and Pittsburgh last season.
Syracuse went a combined 0-6 against North Carolina and Pittsburgh last season.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

It's unclear when this talking point first originated, but it's one the NFL peddles when division rivals square off for a third time in the playoffs. Over the past few years, college basketball commentators and analysts have also adopted it as their own during conference tournamentsor on rare occasions, like North Carolina vs. Syracuse in the 2016 Final Four, during the NCAA tournament.

But is this just something commentators flippantly say, or is there evidence to support it?

Over the past five years, there were 109 instances where one team swept an opponent during the regular season before meeting for a third time in either the conference tournament or the NCAA tournament.

In many of those cases, the teams weren't evenly matched. For instance, when KenPom No. 8 Kansas played KenPom No. 239 Texas Tech for a third time in the 2013 Big 12 tournament, it made sense that the Jayhawks won by 28 points. There were a handful of surprising losses, but in the 52 times the 2-0 team was at least 50 ranks better than its opponent on KenPom, it won the third battle by a double-digit margin 32 times.

Overall, those favorites went 44-8, winning by an average margin of 12.7 points. This is about what you would expect, considering we're talking about a lot of No. 2 vs. No. 7 or No. 1 vs. No. 8 conference tournament pairings.

At the other end of the spectrum, there were 17 games in which the team that started 2-0 in the series had a worse KenPom ranking than its opponentincluding 2014 Virginia Tech, which went 2-16 in ACC play, sweeping Miami before losing to the 'Canes in the conference tournament. In those games, the team that was 2-0 went 5-12 in the third game, with a few blowout losses scattered in.

Again, this is to be expected, as the better team should win more often than not on a neutral court, regardless of what happened in the first two meetings.

The subset of the data we're most interested in, though, is the 40 games where the 2-0 team is better than its opponent by a margin of fewer than 50 rungs on the KenPom ladder. Those are the times whereif it is actually more difficult to beat an opponent three timesone would expect to see the underdog win on a somewhat regular basis. Maybe not 50 percent of the time, but at least 25 percent, right?

Well, that's not what the numbers show.

In those 40 games, the 2-0 team won the third game 85 percent of the time. In fact, the 2-0 team was almost twice as likely to win the third game by a larger margin than its first two wins (11 times) than lose the third game (six times)including North Carolina's 17-point win over Syracuse in last year's national semifinals.

It's already a small sample size, but if we cut out 2012 and 2013 and just focus on the last three years, the 2-0 teams in those "evenly matched" battles went 21-2, winning by an average margin of 10.8 points.

Maybe it's more balanced in the NFL, but when college basketball teams beat an opponent twice in one season, they're also going to win the third game about nine out of 10 times. Keep that in mind when filling out those conference tournament brackets next month. 

Stats are courtesy of WarrenNolan.comKenPom.com, ESPN.com and Sports-Reference.com.

Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.


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