Saturday, March 23, 2019

Stats and the NCAA Tournament: an efficiency analysis

Anriel Howard drives past Oti Gildon while Maite Cazorla looks on. Zach Wilkinson photo.
Anriel Howard drives past Oti Gildon while Maite Cazorla looks on. Zach Wilkinson photo.
Anriel Howard drives past Oti Gildon, while Maite Cazorla looks on. Zach Wilkinson photo.

The NCAA and it’s broadcast partners do not exactly treat the men’s and women’s basketball tournament equally. The most obvious difference is that the men’s tournament is often referred to as the “NCAA Tournament” while the women’s tournament is the “Women’s NCAA Tournament.”

The difference, though, goes beyond names. Much has been made of NET rankings now employed by the men’s tournament selection committee. The NCAA’s NET rankings begin with traditional factors, such as winning percentage and the quality of the team’s wins. But in addition to these measures, it also considers each team’s net efficiency.  Meanwhile, the women’s tournament appears to rely more on just watching games and rudimentary stats, like won-loss records and RPI.

Although such information is useful, net efficiency tends to tell us a bit more. Net efficiency is the difference between each team’s offensive and defensive efficiency. More specifically, net efficiency – or what I refer to as efficiency differential – is the difference between how many points a team scores per possession (offensive efficiency) and how many points a team surrenders per possession (defensive efficiency).

For example, this season Oregon scored at a rate of 123.8 points per 100 possessions. Of the 349 teams that played Division I women’s college basketball, the Ducks’ mark ranked first. On the defensive side, though, they were not quite as good. Per 100 possessions, Oregon allowed 90.5 points, ranking 151st. Consequently, despite have college basketball’s best offense, the efficiency differential of the Ducks, at 33.3, only ranked fourth in college basketball.

Thus, the best offensive team in the game may not be the best one. Fourth-best suggests Oregon might be a favorite to land in the Final Four, but unfortunately, the Tournament seeding indicates there is a significant roadblock to the team earning a trip to Tampa Bay in April.

Specifically, the following three teams topped the Ducks in efficiency differential:

  • Mississippi State: 39.8 efficiency differential (121.0 offensive efficiency, 81.2 defensive efficiency)
  • Connecticut: 39.7 efficiency differential (117.1 offensive efficiency, 77.4 defensive efficiency)
  • Baylor: 36.2 efficiency differential (112.2 offensive efficiency, 76.0 defensive efficiency)

The current 2019 title odds do not quite match up with the story told by efficiency differential.  Currently, Baylor and Notre Dame are the favorites to capture the title.  But Baylor only ranks third in efficiency differential, while Notre Dame, with a differential of 33.1, ranks fifth.

For consideration, nine of the top 25 teams:

  • Baylor: 9/5
  • Notre Dame: 2/1
  • UConn: 7/2
  • Mississippi State: 10/1
  • Oregon: 14/1
  • Louisville: 18/1
  • Stanford: 30/1
  • Iowa: 100/1
  • Maryland: 100/1
  • Field (all others): 100/1

The top team in efficiency differential, Mississippi State, is only listed as a 10/1 favorite.  So the betting market doesn’t quite match what we see when we consider offensive and defensive efficiency. And because Oregon is in the same region as Mississippi State, the Ducks’ path to the Final Four appears to be blocked.

Because of where Oregon is placed in the Tournament, the betting odds and efficiency differential end up predicting the same Final Four. Both approaches suggest the Final Four will be Mississippi State, Connecticut, Baylor, and Notre Dame. This also means that Louisville – the number one seed in the Midwest – is not a favorite to reach the Final Four. The Cardinal’s efficiency differential 26.4 only ranks eighth in college basketball.

What follows is the offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency, and efficiency differential of each team in the tournament.

East Region Seeding Efficiency






Baylor 1 36.2 112.2 76.0
Iowa 2 17.4 113.5 96.0
NC State 3 15.9 104.4 88.6
South Carolina 4 12.8 104.8 92.0
Florida St. 5 11.5 99.5 88.0
Kentucky 6 19.1 100.9 81.8
Missouri 7 12.3 101.3 89.0
California 8 5.1 105.3 100.2
North Carolina 9 5.8 102.5 96.7
Drake 10 20.4 107.7 87.3
Princeton 11 9.9 99.1 89.2
Bucknell 12 22.0 105.0 83.0
Belmont 13 23.7 111.5 87.8
Maine 14 15.3 104.5 89.1
Mercer 15 9.6 99.9 90.3
Abilene Christian 16 16.3 104.9 88.5


North Region Seeding Efficiency






Louisville 1 26.4 112.3 85.9
UConn 2 39.7 117.1 77.4
Maryland 3 20.0 105.6 85.6
Oregon St. 4 22.7 111.8 89.2
Gonzaga 5 21.7 106.2 84.6
UCLA 6 7.3 104.1 96.8
Rutgers 7 9.8 96.3 86.5
Michigan 8 11.6 100.7 89.1
Kansas St. 9 1.4 93.4 91.9
Buffalo 10 12.6 103.0 90.4
Tennessee 11 8.3 101.4 93.1
Little Rock 12 8.0 95.0 87.0
Boise St. 13 16.2 104.0 87.8
Radford 14 13.4 92.9 79.5
Towson 15 2.0 92.0 89.9
Robert Morris 16 11.6 91.9 80.2


South Region Seeding Efficiency






Notre Dame 1 33.1 117.8 84.7
Stanford 2 20.0 107.1 87.0
Iowa St. 3 20.3 106.9 86.6
Texas A&M 4 14.0 99.0 85.0
Marquette 5 29.0 112.9 83.9
DePaul 6 11.6 108.0 96.3
BYU 7 9.3 100.2 90.8
Central Mich. 8 20.7 113.4 92.7
Michigan St. 9 10.7 103.5 92.8
Auburn 10 12.1 101.6 89.5
Missouri St. 11 13.1 99.1 86.0
Rice 12 21.1 103.7 82.6
Wright St. 13 12.6 98.8 86.2
New Mexico St. 14 12.8 95.9 83.1
UC Davis 15 22.8 104.5 81.8
Bethune-Cookman 16 3.3 88.6 85.3


West Region Seeding Efficiency






Mississippi St. 1 39.8 121.0 81.2
Oregon 2 33.3 123.8 90.5
Syracuse 3 13.8 104.4 90.5
Miami (FL) 4 14.8 105.0 90.1
Arizona St. 5 12.5 102.0 89.6
South Dakota St. 6 25.0 113.9 89.0
Texas 7 12.8 101.3 88.5
South Dakota 8 26.0 110.1 84.1
Clemson 9 3.4 90.1 86.7
Indiana 10 6.1 96.4 90.3
Quinnipiac 11 21.8 96.8 75.0
UCF 12 8.9 91.1 82.2
FGCU 13 26.5 106.3 79.8
Fordham 14 10.7 98.2 87.5
Portland St. 15 16.7 100.1 83.4
Southern U. 16 0.2 86.3 86.1


It is important to remember that efficiency differential is but one element to consider when evaluating a team. Each program plays different schedules in college basketball. So a very high-efficiency differential from a team from a weak conference may not be as impressive as a lesser differential from a team in a stronger conference.

That being said, it is useful to think about the quality of each team’s offense and defense. Across all teams in Division I, the average is 92.9 points scored and allowed per 100 possessions. Almost every team in the Tournament is better than the average college team in offensive efficiency. But teams like Iowa, California, North Carolina, UCLA, and Tennessee are all below average in terms of defensive efficiency. So although Iowa has the best offense in the East Region (yes, better than Baylor), their relatively weak defense suggests they might have trouble working their way through the field of 64.

Of course, all this analysis is just a “suggestion”  This is a single-elimination tournament.  On any given day a player or team can do better, or worse, than their historical averages.  So the stats can’t tell us with certainty who is going to win or lose. But they can tell us which teams were better or worse in the games played before the Tournament started.

One more sleep to go

The NCAA Tournament begins tomorrow!!!!

So many intriguing match ups, including:

No. 12 Rice vs. No. 5 Marquette

No. 9 Kansas State vs. No. 8 Michigan

No. 10 Drake vs. No. 7 Missouri

No. 10 Buffalo vs. No. 7 Rutgers

No. 12 UCF vs. No. 5 Arizona State

No. 10 Indiana vs. No. 7 Texas

Plus, plenty of WNIT action on deck.

Tournament news:

What to look for in the first round.

Portland regional preview.

Greensboro regional preview.

WNIT results from 21 games today:

On this page.

Naismith coach of the year finalists:

Finalists are: Lisa Bluder, Iowa; Wes Moore, North Carolina State; Kim Mulkey, Baylor; Vic Schaefer, Mississippi State.

WBCA regional finalists for All-America team:

An impressive group.

Team news:

Iowa “didn’t come this far to only come this far.”

The Hawkeyes are embracing the pressure and giving respect.

Mississippi State aims for a title after two close calls.

Culture carries UCLA into their fourth straight Dance.

Oregon opens the Tourney at home.

New year, different attitude for Drake entering the Tourney.

UCF’s zone and press will challenge Arizona State.

Which team has the backcourt edge: Baylor or Mississippi State?

South Dakota and South Dakota State open the Tournament on different coasts.

South Carolina looks to ease their SEC disappointment in the NCAA Tourney.

Towson is preparing to play.

Iowa State will enjoy home court advantage in the first round.

FGCU looks to turn the tables on Miami.

It’s NCAA Tournament eve for Texas.

The Hoosiers are excited to be dancing.

UConn is using their No. 2 seed as motivation.

Can a two-week break stop the Beaver’s three-point shooting slide?

Villanova, Penn and Drexel are ready for their own postseason in the WNIT.

Player news:

Jackie Young is coming out of her shell at Notre Dame.

Coach news:

No. 1 Louisville begins minus coach Jeff Walz.

Diane Richardson was a bank executive, and now leads Towson into the Tournament.

Susie Gardner is building a legacy at Mercer.

Baylor is still among the nation’s best under Kim Mulkey.

Missouri coach Robin Pingeton’s child has Downs Syndrome, so her athletes surprised her today with mismatched socks.

MaChelle Joseph’s attorney is expecting to hear from Georgia Tech soon.


For the love of the game.

Kobe Bryant is the wrong spokesperson for the NCAA Tournament.

WNBA news:

Lynx offseason podcast with Fever VP Tamika Catchings.

Q&A with Sue Bird.

NBA 2K20 could feature WNBA players.

Teresa Edwards continues to give back to the game.

From unknown to star, Northwestern’s Kunaiyi-Akpanah leaving a legacy

Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah powers up two points. Photo courtesy of Northwestern Athletics.
Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah powers up two points. Photo courtesy of Northwestern Athletics.
Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah powers up two points. Photo courtesy of Northwestern Athletics.

She began playing basketball at 14 and has had the men’s basketball coach at Northwestern naming drills after her. She’s a quiet leader who does stand up comedy – an instinctive athlete who wants to outwork everyone.

Her journey might not be typical, but Wildcat senior post Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah always seems to be in the right places at the right times.

Kunaiyi-Akpanah finished her career as one of the best rebounders in Big Ten history. Her 381 boards last season ranked fourth all-time in league history. She continued that pace this year, finishing third in the conference in rebounds and 13th in the nation, and she will have a chance to add to her totals tonight, as Northwestern hosts Dayton in the first round of the WNIT.

Teammate Lindsey Pulliam said Kunaiyi-Akpanah dominates under the basket because she is singularly-focused.

“The only thing that goes through her mind is ‘get the orange thing,’” Pulliam said with a laugh. “It doesn’t matter who’s around her, it doesn’t matter if they’re on the same team. She has the mindset that she is going to get every rebound.”

Wildcat coach Joe McKeown said Kunaiyi-Akpanah’s skills come naturally to her.

“Pallas is relentless, just going after every ball. And that’s something you can’t teach, whether you’re Dennis Rodman, or whoever,” he said. “The fundamentals of rebounding, the ability to block out and the timing, there’s repetition that helps. But with Pallas, you just want her to go get the ball. Don’t make it harder than it is.”

As an ESPN top-100 recruit coming out of a college preparatory and boarding school about two hours outside of Atlanta, it’s no surprise that Kunaiyi-Akpanah has performed so well in college. But becoming a top prospect was quite the journey.

She was born in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, and attended a boarding school a few hours away from her hometown. This limited her time with her family and forced her to grow up quickly.

I usually only saw my family during the visiting days, so I probably saw them once or twice a month,” Kunaiyi-Akpanah said. “But it was still hard. When my mom would take me to the airport to go back to my boarding school, I’d be standing on one side of the boarding line and she would be on the other, and I’d just be crying.”

She was 14 when she began playing basketball, and received her break that same year. She was playing at an outdoor court when Hope 4 Girls Africa founder Mobolaji Akiode discovered her.

Akiode created the basketball camp in West Africa to increase participation and empowerment of women in Africa through sports, and he often placed them into U.S. schools.

While Kunaiyi-Akpanah was still new to basketball, her upside was obvious.

I was a skinny, 6-1 girl, so I think she saw that,” she said of Akiode.

Kunaiyi-Akpanah joined the program, and Akiode, who played basketball at Fordham University, quickly looked for a place in the United States for the teenager to improve her game.

There were two options for which high school in America to go to,” Kunaiyi-Akpanah said. “One was a day school somewhere in the States where I would live with a foster family, the other was a boarding school. I was already at a boarding school, so I chose that one.”

She enrolled as a sophomore at Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School, a college preparatory and boarding school in Georgia in early Oct. 2012, as more of an athlete than a basketball player. She quickly made her mark on the school, joining the tennis, track and field and volleyball teams, in addition to the basketball team.

Although she was raw, her skills improved every year. Through her performances for both her high school and summer teams, she eventually began receiving interest from major college basketball programs.

“I didn’t even know I was getting attention until I got back to school and had two trash bags of letters from colleges,” she said.

ESPN ranked her at the 100th best recruit in the nation her senior year, describing her as a “quick-leaper, aggressive on glass” with “off-the-charts potential.”

When McKeown came to Rabun Gap to scout Kunaiyi-Akpanah, he found her on the court – but it wasn’t the one he expected.

“We just went to visit with her that day, and she was out there messing around playing tennis,” he said with a laugh. “She was coming to the net, which would be scary, and she was just dinking the ball over the net. It cracked me up.”

When McKeown finally saw her on the basketball court, he saw a player with a high ceiling who needed a lot of work.

“She could do some things that not many people could do,” he said. “And she was playing basketball for her high school and even for her summer program, she was really raw. She was still learning how to play. She hadn’t played a lot in Nigeria, but she was tremendously gifted. That’s what we saw. The potential more than anything else.”

Kunaiyi-Akpanah eventually committed to Northwestern, focusing on both its basketball team and great academics.

“You can have okay academics and a great team and I respect that, but having great academics too is really cool,” she said.

Despite still being relatively new to the game, it was clear Kunaiyi-Akpanah could play. She averaged almost eight rebounds her freshman year in Evanston, including a span from Jan. 28- Feb. 6 of her freshman year, where she grabbed 16 rebounds against Ohio State, 13 rebounds one week later against Illinois, then 16 more two days later.

The game against the Buckeyes stood out to McKeown as a breakthrough for the young player.

“We were playing Ohio State, who was ranked fifth in the country at the time. Big game, TV game,” McKeown said. “She was a freshman, and we decided to start her. That’s when we first realized – I think she had 16 points and 16 rebounds – and I was like, ‘whoa.’ She was playing against some really good teams and some really good players, and it really didn’t faze her. That game kind of spurred her career, confidence-wise.”

After a down sophomore year, Kunaiyi-Akpanah had a historic junior year. She was second in the Big Ten with 11.9 rebounds per game, and her 18 double-doubles were eighth in the nation.

Her games became that of legend, and that brought extra fans to watch the Wildcats.

“She had one game – I can’t remember which – she had 20 or 21 rebounds,” McKeown said. “And our president, Morton Schapiro, he comes to most of our games, he was in his own mind keeping count. He was like, ‘that’s wrong, she had 23.’”

“She became known. People started watching her stats. She had 20-rebound games like they were routine, which they are not.”

After the record year, Kunaiyi-Akpanah didn’t let raised expectations bother her. She was named a captain, winning the consensus of both the players and the staff not through her words, but her actions, according to McKeown.

“She does it in a very quiet way, with her practice habits and her personality. She tries to do the right thing every day, on and off the court,” he said.

“And then more importantly, [you] have to want it. I think that’s what separated Pallas from a lot of players in college basketball. She wanted to invest the time, and just has this great learning curve, she just wants to be really good and puts the work in.”

Kunaiyi-Akpanah was excellent throughout the year, being named First Team All-Big Ten by the media alongside her teammate Pulliam, after finishing third in the conference in rebounds and 13th in the nation with 11 rebounds, while increasing her scoring to 11.1 points.

She’s been so impactful during her career that Northwestern’s men’s head coach Chris Collins took notice.

“Chris Collins, he loves her,” McKeown said. “He’s trying to name drills after her. His dad [Doug Collins] played with Moses Malone and some great players. Chris is always telling his guys, ‘I wish you guys would rebound like Pallas.’”

She is particularly effective on the offensive glass, grabbing 4.9 offensive rebounds a game – fourth in the nation – and does such a good job keeping possessions alive that some of her teammates joke she misses shots on purpose, just to get the rebound.

“We’ll feed her in the post, she’ll miss the layup and go get like four more rebounds,” Pulliam said, laughing. “And I swear every time she misses she’s trying to pad her stats and get more rebounds!”

Pulliam, the third0-highest scorer in the conference, added that Kunaiyi-Akpanah’s rebounding skills do more than just grab boards; they help the psyche of her teammates.

“You know any time you put up a shot and if it comes off, there is a chance Pallas is knocking her hands on it, so for sure it makes it a lot easier to take the shots that I do,” she said.

Off the court, Kunaiyi-Akpanah has made sure to get involved with the Northwestern campus, including, Pulliam said, performing stand up comedy this year during a talent show.

“We had the whole team in the front row, and her jokes were so funny,” Pulliam said. “We were screaming, people were looking at us crazy, but it was awesome to watch her do that.”

Kunaiyi-Akpanah finished the regular season with 318 rebounds, which was enough to put her at 1,021 career rebounds – the 19th most in Big Ten history. She became the 23rd player in conference history to record 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. As the Wildcats prepare for tonight’s game, Kunaiyi-Akpanah will have a chance to add more rebounds and potentially even a championship to an already-illustrious career.

Yet to her, the numbers will never be how she is defined.

“I’m most proud of the image of myself I have been able to put forward to people,” she said.

Kunaiyi-Akpanah is set to graduate this year, and is hoping to continue playing basketball, whether in the WNBA or Europe. It’s a long way from the basketball court in Abuja, Nigeria, where she picked up the sport about seven years ago. While Kunaiyi-Akpanah is unclear what the future hold, her past proves she’s in the right position.

“Every time I talk to my mom she tells me that they were just praying for me,” she said. “It’s busy here, especially in season, so I don’t always have time to go to church, but it’s incredible to know that I have these people praying for me.”

WNIT has begun

WNIT first-day results:

Morehead State 71, Ohio State 61

Pepperdine 91, Cal Baptist 79

NCAA Tournament news:

Tournament TV times, maps and channels.

Tourney to Tampa.

Chicago regional preview.

Albany regional preview.

An Illinois professor has created an NCAA Tournament simulator.

Team news:

Breaking down Mississippi State’s road to their third straight Final Four.

No. 6 UCLA is ready for No. 11 Tennessee in the first round.

Oregon’s NCAA opener is a chance for them to re-establish momentum.

Indiana looks to take down Texas Friday.

Towson is ready for their first NCAA Tourney.

Louisville wins more than Kentucky but spends much less to recruit.

Michigan’s second straight bid shows progress.

Is this the best season for women’s basketball ever in Iowa?

One fun fact for each of the DII Elite Eight teams.

Player news:

Rice standout Erica Ogwumike is eager to begin her Tourney experience.

Cierra Dillard’s impact at Buffalo extends beyond the winnings.

Stanford’s DiJonai Carrington is having a breakout season.

The Strautmane sisters of Quinnipiac and Syracuse are reunited at the Tournament.

Katie Lou Samuelson’s road to recovery for UConn.

An injury hampered Kentucky’s Maci Morris throughout the season. Is she good to go for the Tournament?

The handles of Chennedy Carter.

Hometown hero Sophie Cunningham’s last hurrah.

Coach news:

Oregon has extended coach Kelly Graves’ contract through 2025-2026.

Bob Boldon reacts to Ohio’s Tournament snub.

Becky Martin will retire from McDaniel College to fight cancer.


Sue Bird is a legend on the court, and her influence is only growing.

After the dust settles

Tournament news:

A wide-open field gives the NCAA Tourney a new look.

How one small-town Iowa factory is the engine behind March Madness.

Team news:

Stanford is ready to play.

Six things to know as UConn heads into the Tournament.

Last year’s “crushing blow” fueled Kentucky, and now they’re back in the Dance.

Central Michigan views their match up with Michigan State like any other opponent.

Oregon is rested and ready to make another Tourney run.

A trip and a title started Iowa State on a special season.

Louisville celebrates their top seed, but knows there’s work to do.

Home success has Iowa confident.

After their SEC tourney upset, South Carolina plans to be a different team in NCAA play.

Indiana is on to bigger and better things.

BYU looks to keep it rolling against Auburn.

DePaul heads to NCAA Tournament for the 17th straight year.

Florida State has a tough Tourney road.

Oregon State is regrouping after a grueling end to the season.

Player news:

Teaira McCowan is the center of attention in the Tournament.

Arike Ogunbowale is looking for more March magic.

Maryland’s Kaila Charles has found her niche on the basketball court.

Kristine Anigwe has remained dominant for Cal.

A trip to the Dance completes Towson senior Maia Lee’s journey.

These 17 Wisconsin players are going to the Tourney.

Coach news:

Jeff Walz wants a good brunch spot to watch his team’s March Madness opener.

Does Vic Schaefer believe in miracles? Yes.

Q&A with Quinnipiac coach Tricia Fabbri.

WNIT news:

Arizona will host a WNIT game for the first time in 18 years.

College team news:

Late-season wins fuel hope for Wisconsin.

College coach news:

Mike Morris will retire after 25 years at Samford.


Women’s basketball continues to outpace men’s academically.

If academics ruled the NCAA Tournament.

WNBA news:

The 2019 draft will be April 10.

Draft order.

The Sparks will be sponsored by a coalition of veterans groups and county and state mental health agencies.

‘Twas the night before the Selection Show…..

Final Dance tickets punched today:

Big upset in the MVC: Missouri State over Drake, 94-79.

The Ivy League Championship belongs to Princeton, after they downed Penn, 65-54.

FGCU routed Liberty, 72-49, for the ASUN title.

Radford overcame Liberty, 57-45, for their first Tourney appearance in 23 years for the Big South Conference.

Bucknell ran by American, 66-54, for the Patriot League ‘Chip.

Abilene Christian held off Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, 69-68, for the Southland crown and their first trip to the Tournament.

Robert Morris defeated St. Francis, 65-54, for their first NEC Championship.

NCAA Tournament news:

The seven Tournament bubble teams are: Arkansas, Auburn, Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee, TCU and UCF.

Longest active Tournament appearances streaks.

Best Tournament performances.

Thomas More beat Bowdoin last night to claim the DIII Championship.

College team news:

Iowa is likely to get a two seed in the Tourney.

Will Louisville get a one seed?

Maryland is headed into the Dance motivated by one loss.

Big performance fluctuations make Michigan State a mid-seed in the Tournament.

Kansas State appears finally to be in the NCAA Tournament.

Will Ohio still make it to the bracket?

College player news:

No one rattles Asia Durr – not even her mom.

For UC Davis senior forward Morgan Bertsch, anything is possible.


Some of the game’s greats reflect on Title IX author Birch Bayh.

Ohio State great Katie Smith is now calling the shots.

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