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College basketball teams with the best chance to pick up where they left off in 2020

There will always be some never-answered what-ifs about the 2020 college basketball season, particularly for men’s basketball programs who were on a pace to reach their best NCAA tournament seed in program history and potentially embark upon a deep tournament run. As we prepare for the 2020-21 season, perhaps we can get a head start on projecting which teams will perform the best when the first games tip off Nov. 25.

To achieve this goal, I evaluated every team ranked in March Madness correspondent Andy Katz’s preseason Power 36 rankings and analyzed how each performed late last season heading into conference tournaments and the NCAA tournament — specifically in February and March 2020. We also calculated what percent of last season’s roster each team returns. It can help identify which March Madness contenders in 2021 performed the best at the end of last season, and which of those teams return the highest percentage of players that allowed them to perform so well. Who’s the best to pick up right where they left off?

Here are the key takeaways from my analysis:

Getty Images Texas's Matt Coleman III and Courtney Ramey.
  • On average, the teams ranked in the preseason Power 36 return 64 percent of their minutes from last season. On the high end, Texas returns 100 percent of its minutes, while Kentucky returns just 7.6 percent. Fourteen teams ranked in the Power 36 return at least 70 percent of their minutes.
  • Gonzaga, ranked No. 1 in the preseason Power 36, paced the group with the best offensive efficiency in February and March with a rating of 1.19 points per possession, ahead of Creighton, which was second at 1.15 points per possession. Richmond had the stingiest defense at 0.88 points per possession allowed, while LSU‘s defense was the most porous on a per-possession basis at 1.11 points per possession.
  • Speaking of Richmond, the Spiders arguably fare the best in the three metrics we calculated — February/March offensive efficiency, February/March defensive efficiency and percent of returning minutes. The important context to add is that the Atlantic 10 ranked ninth in kenpom.com‘s conference rankings last season, which means that 33 of the other 35 schools ranked in the preseason Power 36 played in a stronger conference last season. Kansas, while returning just 57 percent of its 2019-20 minutes (compared to Richmond at 94 percent), is arguably second-best positioned on the graph NCAA.com produced for this analysis, given the Jayhawks’ elite defense and strong offense last spring.
  • As referenced earlier, Texas brings back everyone of note from last season, which can cut both ways when evaluating the Longhorns. They posted an offensive efficiency of .93 points per possession in 11 games in February and March, which was the worst of any team ranked in the preseason Power 36, behind West Virginia at .96 points per possession. Will Texas’s offense improve because of its roster continuity or is its ceiling on that end of the floor limited for that same reason?
  • Three programs that stand out as having performed worse than average (compared to the rest of the Power 36) on both offense and defense in February and March are Illinois, North Carolina and Tennessee. The Tar Heels have experienced the most roster turnover among that trio with just less than 55 percent of North Carolina’s minutes returning from last season, while the rosters at Illinois (70.3 percent) and Tennessee (68.6 percent) remained more cohesive in the offseason.

Offensive and defensive efficiency calculate how many points, on average, a team scores and allows, respectively, per possession. The possession data is courtesy of kenpom.com. Efficiency is calculated by dividing a point total by the number of possessions, so offensive efficiency equals points scored divided by the number of possessions and defensive efficiency equals points allowed divided by the number of possessions. Efficiency ratings are typically calculated on a per-possession basis or per every 100 possessions. In this case, the data show efficiency per possession, which calculates how many points a team scored or allowed on average during the last two months of the 2020 season.

Below is a graph of the offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency from games played in February and March 2020 for every team ranked in the preseason Power 36.  Teams plotted to the right of the graph had a stronger offense, while teams plotted towards the bottom of the graph had a stronger defense. The size of the circle corresponds to the percent of the team’s returning minutes played during the 2019-20 season, such that a bigger circle represents a higher percentage of returning minutes.

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If you’ve heard of adjusted efficiency, which is listed on advanced analytics sites such as kenpom.com, those efficiency numbers are adjusted for “the quality of opposing defenses, the site of each game, and when each game was played (recent games get more weight),” according to kenpom.com. The numbers on the graph below have not been adjusted.

Note: Click on the name of a conference at the bottom of the graph to show only schools from that conference in the graph.

Here is a closer look at the group of schools that posted similar efficiency ratings in February and March, with an offensive efficiency between 1.02 and 1.11 points per possession. The larger the circle, the higher the percentage of returning minutes (tap or click on the image to expand it):

Andy Wittry | NCAA.com Here's how efficient teams in the preseason Power 36 were in February and March 2020. Here’s how efficient teams in the preseason Power 36 were in February and March 2020.

5 offenses to watch this season

Getty Images Gonzaga's Corey Kispert. Corey Kispert averaged 13.9 points per game last season.

The ‘Zags, who will be on the shortest of short lists for preseason March Madness contenders had the best adjusted offensive efficiency rating in the country last season at 121.3 points per 100 possessions. To simplify that metric, if a team makes a 2-point field goal on half of its possessions and doesn’t score on the other half, it will have an offensive efficiency rating of 100 points per 100 possessions (or 1.00 point per possession). Gonzaga’s offense, on average, was more than 20 percent more efficient than that.

Looking strictly at the games the Bulldogs played in February and March, and not adjusting for their opponents, game locations or weighing recent games more heavily, Gonzaga’s raw offensive efficiency was 1.19 points per possession in the last two months of the season.

Here are some other offenses to watch this fall:

Team Feb./March  offensive efficiency Percent of returning minutes
Gonzaga 1.19 points per possession 49.1 percent
Creighton 1.15 points per possession 75.2 percent
LSU 1.13 points per possession 56.2 percent
Oregon 1.10 points per possession 44.9 percent
Kentucky 1.10 points per possession 7.6 percent

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5 defenses to watch this season

Getty Images Richmond's Jacob Gilyard. Richmond’s Jacob Gilyard (middle) was named the A-10 defensive player of the year and was a semifinalist for the Naismith National Defensive Player of the Year.

Richmond finished last season with a 24-7 record, good for second place in the A-10 behind Dayton. The Spiders were projected to be a No. 11 seed in the NCAA tournament, according to a consensus of brackets on Bracket Matrix, and their final kenpom.com ranking of No. 46 was one spot behind Xavier and one spot ahead of Arkansas — two respectable teams from the Big East and SEC, respectively.

Among teams ranked in the preseason Power 36, Richmond’s defensive efficiency in February and March was the best of any team at .88 points per possession, and it’s not hard to see why. In its final 10 games, Richmond held its opponents’ point totals to: 54, 53, 47, 59, 50, 75, 70, 71, 63 and 62, going 9-1 in that stretch.

Here are some other stingy squads to keep an eye out for:

Team Feb./March defensive efficiency percent of returning minutes
Richmond 0.88 points per possession 94.0 percent
Houston 0.90 points per possession 72.9 percent
Kansas 0.91 points per possession 57.1 percent
Virginia 0.91 points per possession 68.8 percent
Providence 0.94 points per possession 41.4 percent

The 2020-21 college basketball season will be different, starting with a new start date, revised tournament fields and locations for non-conference multi-team events (MTE), and other unpredictable factors, but using the most recent data available — games from February and March — we know which teams have performed the best most recently, and which rosters will return the most key players from last season.

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