Separating the true contenders

Final Four contenders, possible exceptions and others that can't make it

Updated: March 19, 2013, 1:31 PM ET
By John Gasaway | ESPN Insider

By now, you probably know my Final Four picks, and if you don't, well, here they are: I like Louisville, Indiana, Kansas, and Ohio State to reach Atlanta, with the Cardinals winning it all. Take that for what it's worth.

If, on the other hand, you want to reach your own conclusions, I'm here to help. All season, I've been doing my best to separate the true title contenders from, well, everybody else. Fine, call them "pretenders," if you must. (Sounds so pejorative. I prefer "good competitors.")

You might remember the cut-off line I've been using. For the past seven seasons, I've tracked the per-possession performance of more than 100 teams in conference play, and in that span the "average" Final Four team has outscored its major-conference foes by 0.13 points per trip. (Mid-majors that reach the Final Four -- such as Memphis in 2008 and Butler in 2010 -- have recorded even higher numbers thanks to weaker strengths of schedule in-conference.) However, we also have the example of Connecticut in 2011, when the Huskies won a national title after outscoring the Big East by just 0.01 points per possession. Call that "the Connecticut exception," meaning college hoops can be and sometimes is totally unpredictable. And we love it that way, right? Right.

By measuring this season's top teams against the standard set by past Final Four entrants, we can get a sense of who the contenders really are in 2013. And now that we know each team's actual bracket, you can balance that information against the "degree of difficulty" presented by each team's path. Without further ado, then, here is the final short list of legitimate contenders based on performance in conference play.


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