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The two best teams in the tournament: UNC and WSU

Posted by Jeff Nusser on March 25, 2008

The two best teams in the NCAA Tournament are meeting on Thursday night at 4:27 p.m. in Charlotte, N.C.

It might be a little bit of an exaggeration. But it’s not as ridiculous as it might first seem to some outsiders: Statistics from the first two rounds suggest that, at the very least, North Carolina and WSU are the two most impressive teams of the first weekend of the tournament.

All the media pundits are talking about how great the Heels have been in this tournament, and the recognition certainly is deserved. After all, they’ve scored 100-plus points in their first two games, something nobody had done in nearly 20 years. But what if I told you the Cougs — of “they can’t possibly compete with North Carolina” fame — have been nearly as good as the Tar Heels through the first two games, and better than every other team in the tournament?

Now, our page view numbers suggest that there are a number of you that haven’t been to this site much before, so let me officially welcome you by letting you in on a little secret: We have a pretty strong aversion to raw statistical numbers, instead preferring stats based on rates and percentages. So when we’re talking about just how good both the Heels and the Cougs have been, we’re going to use our favorite measure, efficiency, which removes pace of play from the conversation.

On its face, the Heels’ combined victory margin of 70 points is quite impressive — certainly more so than the Cougs’ 41. Heck, even Louisville and Kansas have looked more impressive than WSU by outscoring their opponents by 58 and 43. But if we look at efficiency margin — which takes into account the fact that the Cougs play a much slower pace than any of those teams — rather than plain old scoring margin, we find that UNC and WSU have been the two best teams in the tournament so far. By a pretty fair amount.

Efficiency margin is the difference between a team’s offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency — the difference between what they would score in a theoretical 100-possession game and what they would allow in that same game. Here are the 16 teams left, ranked by efficiency margin in the first two rounds. (You can find a spreadsheet detailing all the calculations here.)

  1. North Carolina 48.95
  2. Washington State 44.55
  3. Louisville 37.75
  4. Kansas 34.25
  5. UCLA 34.25
  6. Wisconsin 24.65
  7. Memphis 20.20
  8. Texas 19.35
  9. Stanford 18.65
  10. Michigan State 17.75
  11. Tennessee 14.25
  12. Xavier 14.20
  13. West Virginia 12.35
  14. Villanova 12.05
  15. Western Kentucky 7.80
  16. Davidson 7.55

The most interesting thing about this to me is that if anyone around the country were to just rank the teams — one to 16 — off the top of their heads, they probably would come up with a list that looks very much like this, with one notable exception: The Cougs would be nowhere near that high.

And that’s what irritates me the most about the lack of attention the Cougs are getting right now. Just about every team figures their team doesn’t get the respect it deserves, but in this case, we have a pretty legitimate gripe — especially when you consider who the Cougs have played. The average seeding of the teams we’ve played is 9. The only other team to even remotely approach what the Cougs have done is Louisville, whose average opponent seed has been 10. And the Cardinals aren’t even really that close.

But Americans — and especially the media — are infatuated with potential. They prognosticate based off the ceiling of what they believe you can accomplish, rather than what you actually have accomplished. And the fatal flaw is that “the ceiling” is often determined by the most inaccurate of measures: Hunches and eyewitness observations. In baseball, it’s the very thing that first allowed the A’s and later the Red Sox and Indians to run circles around teams such as the Mariners.

The problem with the way people view the Cougs is twofold. First, they still primarily credit the Cougs’ pace of play for their success, believing the simplistic view that all you have to do is “impose your will” and slow down a game to make it work. News flash: If it was that simple, wouldn’t everyone be doing it? Second, they believe that offensive production is entirely up to the offense, except when it comes to steals and blocked shots, neither of which the Cougs are particularly good at. Yet, team after team continues to underperform offensively against WSU. Coincidence? Merely a byproduct of pace of play?

No way. This team is good. The second-best team in the tournament right now. And if anyone thinks Carolina is going to run — or even walk — over this team on Thursday, they’re in for a rude awakening.


13 Responses to “The two best teams in the tournament: UNC and WSU”

  1. Longball said

    Well said, Nuss. I am surprised that after we totally dismantled our first 2 appoinenants who were significantly better than UNC’s, that NOBODY is on upset alert in this one. However, while i’m surprised, i am also thirlled to still be under the radar. I never feel comfortable with high expectations and this team never has either. Interestingly enough some of the most realistic prognostications for this game that i have read were on UNC forums by tar heel fans who are no strangers to being upset in the tourney. My hope is just that when these guys take the court they dont get caught up in the Tar Heel mystique. Easier said than done, since we all grew up on a steady diet of the Heels getting the same recognition as the Lakers, or Bulls. I think Tony should go buy a UNC jousery and before the game pass it around the locker, let them touch it and tell them, “It’s just a shirt, dont get caught up in what’s printed on the front, its just a shirt.” But then again, just because I am intimidated doesnt mean our guys are. I dont know if we could ever have a better chance than this to truly shock the world. Look for Harmeling to shake off his recent slump and hit the shot heard round the world! GO COUGS!

  2. Tracy said


    Good stuff man and great site. This is my first time here and I’ve been a die hard hoop fan for the last 4 seasons (had my own site for a bit even). Keep up the good work.

  3. Nuss said

    Thanks, Tracy. And Longball, I’m going to have some thoughts on that very thing, probably tomorrow.

  4. pharmacoug said

    Nice work Nuss. As an old Coug I’ve seen lots of teams and without a doubt this is the best ever. Even with the NCAA stacking the deck in favor of North Carolina with sites, etc. we have a great chance for a huge win. The officials will have to let the big guys play without tacky PAC-10 calls. That and our guards shooting the way they can will show that you don’t need 5 McDonald All- Americans to play great basketball. Go Cougs!

  5. Longball said

    Bud Withers’ article points out an interesting subplot – apparently after Wisconsins final four run Roy Williams made some disparaging comments about the Bennet ball style of play. It was enough that he felt compelled to write a letter to Dick to apologize, but you better believe the Bennets want this one. bad.

  6. Grady said

    “The average seeding of the teams we’ve played is 9. The only other team to even remotely approach what the Cougs have done is Louisville, whose average opponent seed has been 10.”

    Davidson has beaten a 7 and 2, which equals an average of 4.5. Unless you’re just talking about the East region alone, where the Cougs have dealt with the toughest opposition.

    Great thoughts on the game. I guess I’m just numb to the lack of attention the Cougs get by now – I expect every major analyst to pick against us. If the Cougs win, the national headline will still be something along the lines of “UNC loses”.

    But I’m OK with it. People who really know college basketball know how good this team is.

  7. Nuss said

    I was talking more in terms of victory margin/seed combo. Maybe it’s to be expected that Davidson have played two such close games given the high seeds they’ve played, and you could certainly argue that what they’ve done to get to the Sweet 16 is just as impressive as what the Cougs and Heels have done.

  8. Ptowncoug said

    Good stuff Nuss, but c’mon we are seen as the third best team in the Pac and legitimately so. UNC is the best team out of the ACC. If we would have finished 3rd, but beat UCLA and Stan at least one time each, I think we would be getting more pub. We have no one to blame but ourselves. We blew big leads against Stan at home and showed up scared at UCLA.
    Let’s not forget how ugly that first UCLA game was. We played tentative and absolutely got blown out save the 3-pt barrage at the end.
    We simply need to keep playing the same way we have these last 2 games and everything will take care of itself. If we throttle back the offensive agressive and not take it to the hold like we did, we could be in for a long night.

  9. Tim said

    I found your website recently and have enjoyed it a lot. I’m a college student from Yakima but I go to school in Michigan. I will, however, be going to WSU for grad school next year and I can’t wait to actually be a Cougar and not just a fan. Working on a paper right now with my roomate and he’s trying to piss me off by playing the UW and UNC fight songs. I just play the WSU fight song even louder. GO COUGS!!

  10. Nuss said

    As for UCLA, the first time we played the Bruins was Jan. 12. The second time was Feb. 7. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say we’re a much different team now than we were then. But even if we’re not, I just think UCLA and Stanford are the two toughest matchups for our team in the country, not just in our own conference.

    And as for Stanford, well, just ask Marquette how much it sucks to lose to a team that you are better than position for position … except for one.

    My buddy Chris and I were joking as we watched the end of that game that we could have been Pac-10 point guards if all it took was executing a good entry pass on the right block. We passed a man law that all assists like that from here on out be referred to as “Mitch Johnsons.” We thought about “MJ’s” and “Mitches” but vetoed them for the obvious reasons. He racked up 16 (!) of those things by doing nothing more than dumping the ball in and watching Brook Lopez do all the work.

    I have no idea what Stanford’s recruiting class looks like next year, but Stanford is in for one heck of a drop off when Lopez leaves — like 2nd to 7th or 8th or 9th kind of drop off.

  11. Nuss said

    Thanks Tim. Sounds like you need new roommates!

  12. Ptowncoug said

    I agree about MJ. He has a horrible shot, what does he shoot from the FT line, 60% for a guard?!! I agree we have progressed, but in both UCLA games, UCLA separated from us with TOs converted into easy fast break pts. Love is one of the best outlet passers and Westbrook and Collison do a nice job defensively.
    We need to limit TOs. If I was playing WSU, I would tell my guards not to collapse to much when Low or Weaver penetrate because 90% of the time they look to kick it out. We need Low and Weaver to look for their shot more when penetrating. There were a few passes, particularly of Low, that should have been picked by ND, but ND was too slow.

  13. Peter said

    I’m not surprised by these stats at all. I am by far more impressed with WSU’s total dismantling of their opponents so far in the tourney. Yes UNC, KU, and Louisville have bigger margins of victory, but they played easier opponents.

    Tony definitely has his boys focused and ready for business. When making picks in the tournament, everyone makes a huge deal out of “coach experience” and getting “the team prepared and focused.” Tony is doing that at a level higher than Coach K was able to do this tournament already.

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