Stop worrying about “top 25 in both offense and defense at KenPom”

How did this happen? (Tim Nwachukwu/Getty)

As conference tournaments take over the calendar, a different rite of March entirely is with us once again. All during Champ Week and especially next week when brackets are being completed, you may hear this team praised or that one doubted because it does or does not “rank in the top 25 at KenPom for adjusted efficiency in both offense and defense.”

Being one of the nation’s best teams on both sides of the ball is surely a good thing. All of us would like our team to make this list. Furthermore, teams meeting this specific top-25 definition of performance ambidexterity have indeed won a flock of national titles over the past two decades.

Nevertheless, there’s a curious quality of wheel-reinvention at work here. In fact, the first sentence on the warning label for this evaluative rule is that it’s 0-for-1 over the past 12 months. The dual-top-25 thing ruled out Baylor as a potential national champion last year.

Here is where a stubborn bit of bookkeeping confusion begins. Today when you click on 2021 at KenPom and look at the Bears’ numbers, you see Scott Drew’s group listed as No. 2 in Division I for adjusted offense and No. 22 for adjusted defense. So BU qualifies for our dual top-25 honor, right?

Not really. The numbers you see today were earned by a team that won six games in the NCAA tournament against some of the strongest opponents in D-I. A run like that will help your stats.

We have the luxury of looking back at Baylor’s march to a title now, but we didn’t have that option when we were filling out our 2021 brackets. In order to make meaningful and non-circular “every national champion since X has done performance thing Y” statements, we should look at team profiles as they existed on the morning after Selection Sunday.

Baylor woke up that morning a year ago with the nation’s No. 3-ranked adjusted offense and the No. 44 adjusted defense. Throttling six opponents — including the highly efficient offenses of Villanova, Houston, and especially Gonzaga — boosted the Bears 22 spots on defense in just 240 minutes.

Maybe you’re saying, yeah, fine, but last year was weird. No fans in the stands, long pauses (including for Baylor in particular), and a smaller number of games. It all added up to a season where we shouldn’t draw any lessons for a (hopefully) normal future.

Last year was weird. But 2015 wasn’t. That was the year when Duke won it all despite having the nation’s No. 37-ranked adjusted defense on Selection Sunday. Or consider 2009, when North Carolina cut down the nets after checking in at, coincidentally, No. 37 on Selection Sunday for adjusted defense.

It’s possible all these teams are trying to tell us something about picking winners. Despite rather diffident 30- and 40-something rankings on defense, all three were in fact outstanding where it really counts at KenPom, even on Selection Sunday.

Baylor was No. 4 in the country in adjusted efficiency margin at the close of Selection Sunday 2021. In other words, the Bears’ overall performance already rated out as excellent. Even with an 83-74 loss to Oklahoma State in the Big 12 tournament supplying the most recent bit of information, BU’s profile looked fantastic despite not qualifying for the dual-25-club.

Teams ranking in the top 25 for adjusted efficiency on both offense and defense on Selection Sunday have captured 13 of the last 19 national titles. That’s an impressive hit rate, but there’s an even better predictive rule that takes less digging.

Just go to Ken’s site this Monday and scoop up the top six teams, period. Doing so the morning after every Selection Sunday since 2002 would have spotted 16 of the last 19 national champions in advance. Not bad, especially considering the top-six club is a markedly smaller group (114 teams from tournament years since 2002) than the dual-top-25 lodge (151 teams).

Why six teams instead of the socially mandated number divisible by five? History.

Florida went on to win the title in 2006 after clocking in at No. 6 at KenPom at the close of Selection Sunday. The same scenario played out with Duke in 2015. Taking the top six teams has worked pretty well over the past two decades.

Which brings us to boxed cake mixes. An urban legend states that manufacturers of such products learned that consumers very much prefer being instructed that they must add an egg to the prepackaged ingredients. Cake mixes can easily be made so all that needs to be added is water, the legend goes, but consumers don’t feel like they’re really cooking unless they crack an egg.

Ken is like cake mix that way, and the dual-top-25 thing is the egg. If it makes you feel better to add an egg, by all means, have at it. But you don’t really need to.