Wednesday December 22nd, 2010

The Early Warnings list -- a holiday tradition around these parts -- isn't a death sentence for the teams that are included. It's just an alert as they head into conference play that, despite appearing in The Associated Press poll, they don't fit the statistical profile of a team ready to make a deep NCAA tournament run.

Last year's list featured six teams that were ranked in the AP's top 30 at the time. None of those teams truly fixed its defensive woes by season's end. Two squads, Northwestern and Texas Tech, were relegated to the NIT. The other four -- Villanova, New Mexico, Gonzaga and Texas A&M -- didn't make it out of the NCAA tournament's first weekend. 'Nova, a two-seed, and New Mexico, a three-seed, were each knocked out by double-digit seeds.

Early Warning teams are red-flagged for yielding a relatively high amount of points per possession. The reason being: In the seven years that has charted efficiency data, no team that finished ranked outside the top 30 in adjusted defensive efficiency has made the Final Four. And only two Elite Eight teams during that span ranked outside the top 50. A high defensive efficiency ranking isn't the only stat that defines an elite team -- but a team can't be elite without it.

A massive chart of the Elite Eight teams from 2004-2009 ran in last year's column, so for the sake of not clogging up the rest of the page, I'll just provide a snapshot of the 2010 Elite Eight below:

• It wasn't surprising that the two best defensive teams that reached the Final Four -- Duke and Butler -- made the title game, or that the team with the elite offense to match won it all. Michigan State, meanwhile, was the first team (since efficiency data has been kept) to reach the Final Four while ranking outside the top 25 in defensive efficiency.

Five members of the current AP top 35 qualified for the Early Warnings list by not fitting the profile of a scary NCAA tournament team and ranking outside the top 60 in adjusted defensive efficiency:

• There's certainly time for these teams to improve -- we're only a third of the way into the season -- but the point is to warn that if they stay the same, they're setting themselves up for disappointment.

• UConn is the most interesting case here: The Huskies were the surprise team of November, winning a loaded Maui Invitational, and junior guard Kemba Walker may be the frontrunner in the national player of the year race. Obscured by their 9-0 record, though, is the fact that UConn is only the 11th-best defensive team in the Big East, and could very well fall into the middle of the league pack.

• Missouri has played two of the season's most exciting games thus far (an overtime loss to Georgetown and an OT win over Vanderbilt) and is 10-1, but the Tigers have regressed defensively since last season. This was expected to some degree since they lost seasoned perimeter defenders J.T. Tiller and Zaire Taylor. With the ninth-best defense in the Big 12, though, they may have trouble giving Kansas a real challenge for the conference crown.

• Minnesota's inclusion comes with a few caveats, mainly that the Gophers haven't played much of the season at full strength. Shooting guard Devoe Joseph missed their first six games with a suspension and combo guard Al Nolen, their quickest defender, has missed the past five games with an injury. Their lone loss (at home to Virginia) occurred while Nolen was hurt.

• Northwestern, which appeared on last year's Early Warnings list, has made the jump to elite-offense status, but its defense has actually gotten worse since '09-10, ranking outside the top 100. When the Wildcats are hot from outside the arc, they'll be capable of pulling off a few Big Ten upsets. The unfortunate thing is that their defensive deficiencies -- most notably the fact that they allow opponents to make 51.1 percent of their twos, which ranks 271st nationally -- may be bad enough to keep them from ending their lifetime NCAA tournament drought.

My colleague Andy Glockner is a proponent of Adjusted Scoring Margin -- how many points a team scores and allows compared to its opponents' season averages -- as a predictive NCAA tournament stat, because 20 of the past 28 Final Four teams (71.4 percent) have finished in the top 10 in ASM. Therefore it's worthwhile, as a "Lesser Warnings" list, to look at which AP-ranked teams have the biggest gaps between their poll standing and their ASM. The public perception of these teams may be overinflated:

• San Diego State's ASM rank (35) isn't terrible, but combined with its overall efficiency rank on (No. 14) it gives off the image of a top 15 team rather than a top seven team, which is where it currently sits in the AP poll.

• Florida made Kansas State look atrocious on offense last weekend, but the Gators have a worrisome ASM. Poor three-point and free-throw shooting, as well as a high turnover rate, have kept them from looking like a deep NCAA tourney threat. Even within the SEC, Kentucky and Vanderbilt appear to have more postseason potential.

The same metrics used to red-flag suspect teams can be used to identify contenders. Statistically, this is a season with three superpowers and a group of 10-13 next-tier teams. The following chart shows the only three schools that rank in the top 10 in offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency and ASM:

• Duke has maintained a high level of efficiency even in its games without freshman point guard Kyrie Irving, who may be lost for the rest of the season with a toe injury, so the Blue Devils should still be considered a title contender.

• Josh Selby was a hero in his debut for Kansas on Dec. 18, hitting a game-winning three against USC, but the Jayhawks also posted a season-low in offensive efficiency with 1.009 points per possession. When evaluating KU as a potential national champ, it'll be important to monitor how having Selby in the lineup affects efficiency.

Only three other teams rank in the top 20 in offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency and ASM -- and they probably aren't the teams you expect:

• Pittsburgh, a team that has seemed to be Final Four-caliber upon multiple viewings, ranks in the top 10 in offensive efficiency and ASM, but not in defense. The Panthers are 47th in kenpom's defensive efficiency rankings, and they've been struggling to defend the three-point line and force turnovers at an acceptable rate.

• Washington (which has three losses) and Wisconsin (which has two) aren't ranked in the current AP poll, but need to be mentioned among the nation's best. They make up half of the final list, comprised of teams with Elite Eight profiles who are being overlooked in the polls:

Washington is UConn's polar opposite: a team that has woefully underperformed in the win-loss column thus far, but looks fantastic statistically. Attention must be paid to Vanderbilt as well; numbers-wise, it's one of the best two-loss teams in the country. These Commodores -- with Festus Ezeli controlling the paint and Jeffery Taylor using his length and athleticism everywhere else -- are the stingiest defensive unit Kevin Stallings has ever had, and they could very well sneak up and overtake Kentucky, Florida and Tennessee for the SEC title. If that happens, don't say I didn't warn you.

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