The Arizona Wildcats’ basketball team (23-4), ranked No. 11 in both the AP Top 25 and USA Today Coaches Polls, look like a contender to reach their first Final Four since 2001. Though, ESPN.com’s John Gasaway seems to think otherwise.
Over the course of seven seasons, Gasaway has gathered statistical data of every team that has reached the Final Four. Points per possession is a statistic he relies heavily on in deciphering who will make it and who won’t.
Arizona is averaging +0.09 PPP this season.
Based on this past history, for example, we know that the “average” major-conference team that reaches the Final Four does so after outscoring league opponents by +0.13 points per possession.
Relying heavily on the three-pointer this year, the Wildcats have made 204 of 563 attempted shots from deep. Compared to previous Final Four teams, Gasaway doesn’t think UA is efficient enough from long-range to be a menace deep in the tourney.
To this point, Arizona has been a perimeter-oriented team that is not reaping the full benefits of a perimeter orientation. For example, although the Wildcats attempt a high number of shots from beyond the arc (37 percent of their attempts in Pac-12 play), they’ve connected from out there at just a 34 percent rate — fair, but not especially harmful to opposing defenses.
Although UA has topped the Pac-12 in PPP, the ESPN insider doesn’t think there is anything that the Wildcats do well enough to propel them to the big stage.
The best offense the Pac-12 can show us this season is one that’s scoring just 1.06 points per possession in conference play. Meanwhile, the Arizona defense has performed at a similar level: solid, but not exceptional. That’s fine, but those aren’t the words that best describe the vast majority of teams that have reached the Final Four in recent seasons.
However, Gasaway said there are teams that can slip between the cracks and UA could be it this year. He calls it the “Connecticut Exception”.
But (and this is an important qualifier) we also know that a true outlier such as Connecticut in 2010-11 can crash this evaluative dance and cut down the nets after a thoroughly mediocre (+0.01) regular season. I refer to this back door to a title as the Connecticut Exception, and I dare say part of the reason we love college basketball is because stuff like this happens. As long as the Connecticut Exception is alive and well, I can’t truly “eliminate” teams from title contention. (It’s true.) However, what I can do is flag teams that are getting the pollster love but that don’t fit our profile.