The five best bets to win the 2021 NCAA tournament

WTEff is shorthand for Winner’s Total Efficiency. Simply, WTEff is a team’s offensive efficiency minus its defensive efficiency per 100 possessions, adjusted for strength of schedule by celebrated stats guru Ken Pomeroy, and compared against that of past NCAA tournament winners. Through this method, you have one clean number to see how teams in this year’s field compare to past champions to better gauge their odds of winning it all. In order for a pick to make sense as the last team standing, it needs to clear a minimum threshold. Here’s how the tiers break down:

The low bar: 20.4 This is the lowest efficiency margin for any tournament champion since 2002, when Pomeroy’s efficiency data begins. The honor is held by the 2014 Connecticut Huskies, a No. 7 seed that was pretty meh statistically (particularly on offense) but still had enough firepower to win it all. If your title pick clears 20.4, it’s not completely insane, but most rational picks look a little more like …

The “average” champs: 27.9 The 2017 UNC Tar Heels best embody what a typical NCAA tournament champion looks like in the efficiency department. If a team enters the tournament above this margin, it’s a very sound choice to be your champ.

The best of the best: 35.7 The (still) reigning national champion Virginia Cavaliers raised the bar with their 2019 title run, becoming the most efficient team to cut down the nets. Considering the team they overtook for the honor was the 2008 Kansas Jayhawks, who prevailed in a Final Four of all No. 1 seeds, that’s quite the notable achievement.

Since we started this project some six years ago, what’s been fascinating is how the “short list” of potential champions has gotten longer each year, suggesting that teams are truly embracing advanced metrics and crafting their playing styles to optimize their scoring chances and minimize those of their opponents. This season, a whopping 29 teams clear our low bar. But remember, most title winners clear that bar with plenty of room to spare. Shrink the list to only include squads surpassing the average of 27.9 and you come away with six solid choices to consider for the crown: Gonzaga, Michigan, Illinois, Baylor, Iowa and Houston.

Before we break down the best bets: let’s carve out a Lake Superior-sized caveat for Michigan, specifically the health of 6-foot-7 senior Isaiah Livers, who went down with a foot injury in the Big Ten tournament. Livers is Michigan’s top three-point threat and his status is unclear for the tournament. Add to that the fact that Michigan has a doozy of a bracket, with a potential second-round matchup against LSU, and there’s ample reason to be a little wary of the Wolverines’ title chances. While their season-long efficiency showcases Michigan as a worthy title pick, Livers’s potential absence keeps the Wolverines off this best bets list.

A national championship continues to elude Mark Few’s crew, but this is, by far, the strongest squad he’s brought to the dance yet. Should the Zags win it all, they’d become the most efficient champ since 2002, taking the title from Virginia. The Bulldogs are one of just three teams in the nation to rank in the top 10 for both offensive and defensive efficiency, and they boast the top offense in the nation. While some pool pickers may be scared off by Gonzaga playing in the West Coast Conference, you’d be wise to heed the Bulldogs’ nonconference results. Few and Co. toppled Kansas, Auburn, West Virginia, Iowa and Virginia, all on neutral courts. Only West Virginia got within single digits. This is the best team in the field and the safest choice to win it all.

The Big Ten champions are as well-rounded as the orange rubber orb they so adeptly drop through the hoop. The Illini rank seventh in adjusted offensive efficiency and fifth in adjusted defensive efficiency. The man in the mask is Ayo Donsumu and he has about as many tools as Batman, capable of passing and scoring with ease. Donsumu’s chief sidekick is moving mountain Kofi Cockburn, a 7-foot center with one of the top offensive rebounding rates in the nation. A potential Sweet 16 showdown against No. 4 Oklahoma State is a formidable obstacle, but you’re likely to see Illinois as a popular, and deserving, title pick.

The Bears are an offensive juggernaut and also excel at generating turnovers, a potent combination Baylor rode to a 22-2 record this season. Baylor is a worthy contender for the crown, but it also has a lot of worthy adversaries in its bracket. That includes one of the most under-seeded teams in the tournament based on efficiency metrics, the Wisconsin Badgers, whom Baylor could face in the second round.

Additionally, the Bears sport a classic flaw that has doomed tournament Goliaths in the past: giving up a lot of offensive rebounds. The Bears are deserving of title consideration for sure, but between the rebounding red flag and the difficulty of their region, there are good reasons to consider other contenders.

The Hawkeyes can flat out move the basketball, assisting on 64.3 percent of their made field goals, the fourth-best rate in the nation. What’s equally notable is that Iowa almost never turns the ball over, leading the nation in offensive turnover percentage. That factor, combined with their overall offensive efficiency, makes Iowa tough for underdogs to topple. While they did lose by 11 in an early season meeting with Gonzaga, the Hawkeyes represent an intriguing value pick as your title choice, given Gonzaga figures to be the most popular selection in most pools. It might be wise to zig when others in your pool, ahem, zag.

The Cougars are another team worth scrutinizing closely, given the presence of some statistical markers that suggest a favored seed is ripe for an upset. On the whole, however, Houston’s profile is a strong one, with a suffocating defense and a more than capable offense (No. 6 in adjusted offensive efficiency). The Cougars could be a good contrarian play, as Illinois figures to be a popular title pick and others in your pool may question Houston’s resume given they came out of the American Athletic Conference, which ranked seventh in efficiency margin this season, well back from the Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, Big East, ACC and Pac-12. It would be a bold pick to back the Cougars, but the numbers suggest it could pay off.

Source: WP