Warning signs for contenders

How Michigan State, Arizona and Syracuse don't measure up to past champs

Originally Published: February 26, 2013
By John Gasaway | ESPN Insider
Gary HarrisAP Photo/Al Goldis)Gary Harris has had a great freshman season, but Michigan State hasn't yet stood out in any one area.

The last time I measured this season's title contenders against past Final Four participants, I was offering my list of seven legitimate threats to win it all: Florida, Michigan, Indiana, Miami, Louisville, Duke and Gonzaga.

I'll be updating that short list soon based on the results of the past few weeks, but first I want to look at the highest-ranked teams that would not be included in that select company as of today. To refresh your memory, I'm basing my selections on seven seasons of per-possession data that I've tracked and archived. Based on this past history, for example, we know that the "average" major-conference team that reaches the Final Four does so after outscoring league opponents by 0.13 points per possession.

But (and this is an important qualifier) we also know that a true outlier such as Connecticut in 2010-11 can crash this evaluative dance and cut down the nets after a thoroughly mediocre (+0.01) regular season. I refer to this back door to a title as the Connecticut Exception, and I dare say part of the reason we love college basketball is because stuff like this happens. As long as the Connecticut Exception is alive and well, I can't truly "eliminate" teams from title contention. (It's true.) However, what I can do is flag teams that are getting the pollster love but that don't fit our profile.

As of today, then, here are three teams yet to justify inclusion on your short list of title contenders. Anything can happen in March, of course, but to this point in the season these teams are not hitting the mean performance standard set by past Final Four entrants. I've listed them here in the order of their AP rankings.

Michigan State Spartans

+0.08 points per possession; AP No. 9

In 2009-10, the Spartans outscored the Big Ten by 0.08 points per possession. That team, you might remember, went on to beat four tournament opponents by a combined total of 13 points to reach the Final Four. So take the Eliminator's skepticism of this season's +0.08 MSU team for what it's worth. Tom Izzo has enjoyed some measure of success in the month of March, to put it mildly, and it would be foolhardy to write off his team entirely. Then again, it's probably no mistake that Izzo had an easier time reaching a national semifinal with his 2008-09 team, the one that outscored the league by 0.13 points per trip.