Kansas Basketball: Why Jayhawks are the “elite team” we’ve been searching for

Many believe there isn’t a “great” college basketball team this season, but the evidence suggests one team might fit the bill: Kansas Basketball.

Is there a single “great” college basketball team this season? Ask a group of college basketball fans and the majority likely answers “No.” With all the changes atop the AP Poll this season, it’d be hard to blame them.

(Credit to KenPom for statistics)

But sitting at #3 in the most recent poll, there’s a team that may very well be the “great” squad everyone is searching for: the Kansas Jayhawks. Bill Self’s group might not be on par with the elite of past seasons, but there’s evidence that suggests they’re at least in the ballpark.

And even if Kansas would fall short against last season’s Virginia for example, there’s evidence the Jayhawks have an even bigger gap between them and the rest of college basketball.

The 30-Plus Club

When one looks at KenPom’s adjusted efficiency metrics, the best teams tend to hover in the high twenties, at times eclipsing the 30.0 mark. This season, Kansas is currently the only team with membership in the “30-Plus Club” (Virginia, Gonzaga, Duke, Michigan State last season). Only one team, Duke, is relatively close behind them, residing in the 27.5-30.0 range.

(Note: In what was rather poor timing for this article, Kansas fell JUST below 30.0 following their 69-58 win over Texas (29.96). For the purposes of this piece, we’ll operate as if Kansas is a 30-plus team).

The below chart illustrates the number of teams in each KenPom efficiency range over the last 11 seasons. If the season ended today, it would be the only year with 1) only one 30-plus team AND 2) only one team in the 27.5-30.0 range. This suggests there is a significant gap between Kansas and the rest of the top tier of college basketball.

kansas1

The chart also supports the idea that college basketball as a whole is “down” this season. The number of teams with an efficiency greater than 20.0 (14), is fewer than any of the past ten seasons.

When one looks at the specific efficiency gap between Kansas and the #3 team (Baylor) and #5 team (Gonzaga), the Jayhawks hold up with top teams of seasons past (gap between #1 and #3 below-average, gap between #1 and #5 above-average).

kansas2

But is Kansas really that good in a vacuum, or are they simply benefiting from playing in a “down season.” Its 30+ club membership suggests they are that good. Over the last 18 seasons, there have only been 29 “30-plus” teams (1.61 per season). 72% have made the Elite Eight, with 45% making the Final Four (not a bad track record).

It’s worth noting that Kansas would currently have the worst efficiency among the 29 teams, but the fact it’s even passed this threshold is impressive in itself.

Preseason AP Poll

There’s no perfect strategy when it comes to filling out a tournament bracket, but the preseason AP Poll has proven to have predictive value. (see here, here, here). Perhaps not surprisingly, faring well in both the preseason AND final regular-season AP Poll has produced especially strong tournament results.

First, consider the 85 teams that finished in the top 5 of the final regular-season AP Poll (going back to 2002-03). 58.9% of these squads advanced to at least the Elite 8, while 32.9% reached at least the Final 4 (including 7 of last 17 national champions).

Next, consider the 60 teams over the same period that finished with an “average preseason-final regular season” ranking of <=5. For example, a team ranked 4th in the preseason and 5th in the final regular-season poll would have an “average ranking” of 4.5 (thus qualifying).

Among these teams, 78.3% advanced to at least the Elite 8, while 41.7% reached at least the Final 4 (including 11 of last 17 national champions). Not bad, eh?

If one uses the preseason and most recent AP Polls, there are currently three teams with a <=5 average: Kansas (3), Gonzaga (5) and Louisville (5). This serves as another feather in the Jayhawks’ cap.

As the only team in the country with both a top ten offense and defense per KenPom, Kansas may very well be the best team in the country. As discussed, the “30-Plus” and preseason poll factors help their cause as well.

But what about the “eye test”? Does Kansas really look like some super-elite team? Perhaps not, but when it comes to discussing whether there is a “great” team in college basketball, the Jayhawks definitely deserve a lot more consideration.