What’s Behind All the Chaos in College Basketball This Year?

Offensive efficiency is down, leaving top teams more vulnerable to getting knocked off.
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If you like predictability, the 2019-20 men’s college basketball season isn’t for you.

Six weeks in, there have already been four different AP No. 1 teams in the country, with a fifth coming on Monday. It’s the first time ever that four No. 1 teams have lost before January, and we’ve still got nearly three weeks to go in December.

We’ve seen Duke lose to Stephen F. Austin and Kentucky to Evansville—both at home. As of Dec. 12, only five teams out of 353 are still undefeated. Preseason No. 1 Michigan State already has three losses. So does North Carolina, and so does last year’s runner-up, Texas Tech.

And this week alone, three top-five teams have fallen to unranked Power 5 opponents in a two-night span: No. 1 Louisville to the Red Raiders, No. 4 Maryland to Penn State and No. 5 Michigan to Illinois—though Vegas smartly didn’t consider either of the latter two upsets. In all, seven different AP top-five teams have already lost to a then-unranked opponent. This time last season, none had. In fact, there were only six such instances in all of 2018-19.

It’s been that kind of a year in college hoops.

What should we make of this? Are this season’s top teams truly a step down from years past? Is parity just that deep in 2019-20? Is it the new, expanded three-point line?

One thing we can say with confidence: three-point shooting is slightly down from 2018-19’s season-long average, sitting at 33% after ending last year at 34.4%. That doesn’t mean things can’t tick up before all is said and done, however. Two-point shooting is down a bit too, sitting at 49.0% after ending 2018-19 at 50.1%. Effective field goal percentage, which accounts for threes, is down 1.5%.

But what about when we compare the first six weeks of this season to the first six weeks of last season? Using Bart Torvik’s handy date filtering tool, we can do just that.

First, let’s look at the overall strength of teams, using Torvik’s Power Rating (which measures the chance of beating an average Division I team). Overall, the D-I average in the same time period is narrowly up in 2019-20, sitting at 0.4987 as compared to 0.4960 at the same point in 2018-19. But when you break it out into how, say, the 25th or 100th ranked team this year compares to the 25th or 100th ranked team last year, it looks a little different.

T-Rank Power Rating Comparison

RANK2018 (as of Dec. 12)2019 (as of Dec. 11)

1st

.9873

.9860

10th

.9398

.9298

25th

.9005

.8990

50th

.8383

.8268

100th

.6867

.6981

150th

.5719

.5697

200th

.4052

.4421

300th

.2068

.1808

As you can see, the teams in the current Top 50 have a Power Rating that's a tad weaker than the Top 50 teams at this point in 2018-19, but by the time you get down to the team ranked No. 200, it’s notably stronger. Put together, that's one reason there could be a narrative of chaos so far.

What gets interesting, though, is when you break things down to just adjusted offensive efficiency. The three-point line moving back to 22 feet, 1 ¾ inches was a topic of conversation all offseason, and while the Division I shooting average is down, it’s not the only culprit. Two-point and free-throw shooting are also lower, while turnover rate is up compared to the 2018-19 season average.

If you isolate just the first six weeks of last season, however, the offensive efficiency dip among teams so far in 2019-20 becomes especially obvious.

Adjusted Offensive Efficiency Comparison

RANK2018 (as of Dec. 12)2019 (as of Dec. 11)

1st

127.0

122.5

10th

118.2

113.3

25th

113.8

110.5

50th

109.8

107.5

100th

107.4

103.2

150th

104.4

101.0

200th

101.6

98.4

300th

95.0

91.7

Across the board, adjusted offensive efficiency is down this season. And again, that’s just comparing it to where things were at this exact point in 2018-19—stretch it out to the whole season, adding the rigor of conference play and the NCAA tournament, and you still get a similar disparity.

Remember the stat about seven top-five teams having already lost this season? In all but one instance (Duke vs. SFA, which went to overtime) the top-five team failed to break 70 points, and Michigan State was the lone one to break 1.0 points per possession.

Lower offensive efficiency generally favors the underdog, because less scoring often means more of an opportunity in a game to keep things close. Last season, 230 teams averaged at least 70 points per game. This year, only 177 teams currently are. Last season, 322 teams averaged at least 65 points. This year, only 266 are. Overall, the average tempo is actually up, but teams are scoring less because they’re being less efficient, caused by a dip in shooting and an increase in turnover rate.

Will this hold up for the entire season? It's impossible to tell, but odds are that a majority of teams won't suddenly flip a switch overnight. The change in shooting percentages may seem marginal, but it can add up. And if a top team isn't having an efficient day from the field—whether it's because of the opposing defense or just a bad night—it can be vulnerable to just about anyone.