The second day of awards are NCAA tournament-specific, all based on efficiency data rather than, say, how well a certain coach performed in comparison to the expectations of the average office-pool bracket. Thanks go out to Andy Cox of Crashing the Dance, who provided Net Efficiency Margin data that determined a few of the categories. (Net Efficiency Margin is the difference between a team's performance and the expected performance of a D-I average team, and is a great quality-of-play indicator on a game-by-game basis.)
1. Best Defensive Tournament: Bill Self, Kansas
Over their six-game run to the finals, Self's Jayhawks posted a tournament-best average defensive NEM of 23.5, which meant they yielded 23.5 fewer points per 100 possessions than a D-I average team would have against the same competition. In the title game, they held Kentucky to its lowest PPP (1.014) of the tournament. I imagine that stat doesn't provide consolation for not, you know, winning the championship, but it's something.
Self famously used a triangle-and-two defense for key stretches against North Carolina (the final six-and-a-half minutes) in the Elite Eight and Purdue in the third round, but Kansas' success was based on more than junk-scheming. According to Synergy Sports Technology, KU played the best overall half-court defense of any Final Four team, allowing 0.724 PPP in its six games, compared to 0.778 for Louisville, 0.811 for Ohio State and 0.819 for Kentucky. Even more impressive were some of the numbers within Synergy's half-court numbers:
• In the 51 isolations KU faced in the NCAAs, it allowed just 19 points, or 0.373 PPP. This was, by a massive margin, the best of any NCAA tournament team that saw at least 20 iso possessions. Louisville was the second-best Final Four team at defending iso possessions, and it allowed 0.607 PPP.
• In the 45 post possessions KU faced, it gave just 27 points, or 0.600 PPP. This was the best of any Final Four team, and the best of any tourney team that saw at least 30 post possessions. The Jeff Withey Effect was strong during the dance.
2. Best Offensive Tournament: John Calipari, Kentucky
Would you believe that Wisconsin actually had the best average offensive NEM (25.6) in the NCAAs, just ahead of the Wildcats (25.4)? The Badgers did, but their run ended at three games, which falls below the Data-Based Awards' minimum for official recognition ... so yet another honor goes to Mr. Calipari. He earned it, in large part, by orchestrating an absurd offensive performance against Indiana in the Sweet 16 -- a game in which Kentucky posted tourney bests in PPP (1.401) and offensive NEM (44.8). In back-to-back games in the NCAAs, the Wildcats handed Iowa State and Indiana their worst PPP-allowed figures of the season.
According to Synergy, of teams that played at least four tourney games, Kentucky had the best half-court offense (0.975 PPP) and the second-best After-Timeout Efficiency (0.975). Neither of those facts are surprising, but this one is: Of the Wildcats' six rotation players, it was senior reserve Darius Miller who had the best individual offensive efficiency rating in the tournament, averaging 1.273 PPP. Kentucky players, in order of tourney efficiency: Miller, Doron Lamb, Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones, Marquis Teague. Miller was almost forgotten amid all the one-and-done mania, but he had a phenomenal postseason.
3. Best Tourney Game Plan: Rick Pitino, Louisville (vs. Michigan State, Sweet 16)
The Cardinals had a strong defensive rep coming into the Sweet 16, but no one expected them to hold Tom Izzo's Spartans to 0.728 PPP and just 44 points, the lowest scoring total by a No. 1 seed in the shot-clock era. According to NEM, Louisville allowed 42.4 fewer points per 100 possessions than a D-I average team would have in this game. Although Pitino alternated between zone and man-to-man during the tournament, it stuck almost exclusively to its matchup 2-3 against State, using it on 45 of 48 possessions, during which State shot just 22.2 percent, according to ESPN's research.
I was at this game in Phoenix, and the Spartans' frustration was palpable from press row, for a few reasons. Louisville's transition defense was excellent; watching it live as well as on film, you saw State's running opportunities get thwarted time and again by sprinting-back Cardinals. The Spartans were the nation's best rebounding team in 2011-12, but Louisville put such a huge emphasis on controlling the defensive glass that it held State's offensive rebounding percentage to just 22.2 -- 14.2 points below its average. Their active post defense kept Draymond Green from doing damage on the blocks, and center Gorgui Dieng was a dominant primary and help defender, blocking seven shots, which according to StatSheet, accounted for 25.0 percent of the two-point attempts taken while he was on the floor.
The Cardinals put on their signature press after most makes, but more in an effort to tire out the Spartans than create turnovers. Pitino opted against trying to create havoc with traps, instead focusing on playing stellar, one-shot-and-done half-court D in a low-possession game. It was a strategic masterpiece, especially given that it came against the sport's most renowned tournament game-planner.
4. Tournament After-Timeout King: Thad Matta, Ohio State
Iowa State's Fred Hoiberg won the full-season ATO Efficiency award, but among teams that played at least four tournament games, no one beat Matta's Buckeyes, who averaged 1.058 PPP, scoring 73 points on their 69 ATO possessions. It helps, obviously, to have Jared Sullinger as a dump-it-into-the-post option, but Matta deserves credit for devising effective ways to get Sullinger the ball on set plays.
(If all game minimums were lifted, then Georgetown's John Thompson III would take this prize. His Hoyas scored 34 points on 26 ATO possessions in two tourney games ... but one of those was a very disappointing loss to 11th-seeded N.C. State in the third round.)
5. Most Improbable Upset: Anthony Evans, Norfolk State (vs. Missouri)
Norfolk State probably should have been a No. 16 seed, not a 15. It was the least efficient team in the entire tournament field, ranking 212th nationally. Kenpom.com's win-probability chart of the Spartans' second-round game against Mizzou gave the Tigers initial victory odds of 94.6 percent -- whereas Duke, in the game it lost to fellow No. 15 Lehigh, only started with odds of 78.6 percent. The efficiency numbers gave Evans' team just a 5.4 percent chance of winning ... and they somehow pulled out an 86-84 upset.
They exploited Mizzou's suspect, undersized defense with a barrage of threes, shooting an effective field-goal percentage of 62.7, and dominated the offensive glass, grabbing 43.8 percent of their misses. Tigers coach Frank Haith was not especially gracious in the post-game press conference -- he praised Norfolk's center, Kyle O'Quinn, but brought up the Spartans' "banked threes" and "airball rebounds" twice each, while never name-checking Evans, who deserved to be commended for pulling off the upset of the tournament. Here, he gets his due.
6. Most Improbable Tournament Run, Sweet 16 & Beyond: Rick Pitino, Louisville
Before looking at the numbers, I assumed this would go to Ohio's John Groce, who took the Bobcats to the Sweet 16 as a No. 13 seed. But this is based off of kenpom.com's pre-tournament Log5 analysis, which gave Ohio a 10.8 percent chance of reaching the Sweet 16, because it faced the least-efficient No. 4 seed (Michigan) and was paired with the least-efficient 5-12 game in the bracket (Temple-South Florida). The Bobcats' run was still quite an achievement, but according to Log5, the odds of Louisville reaching the Elite Eight (10.5 percent) and the Final Four (just 4.7 percent!) were even lower, so Pitino takes the award.
Even though we saw a 4.7-percent-chance team make it to New Orleans, this year's tournament was significantly chalkier than 2011's. Log5 gave Butler just a 1.0 percent chance of reaching the Final Four, and gave VCU just a 0.03 percent chance. UConn was assigned a 1.0 percent chance of winning it all -- compared to 19.7 percent for Kentucky in 2012. The Wildcats made history with their precociousness, but they were a very predictable champ.