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December 18, 2012
Judging the Early Contenders
Looking Back to Look Ahead

by John Gasaway

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Mark this date on your calendar: December, 2012. For one week at least, a very rare evaluative consensus has been attained. The same nine teams are at the top of the AP top 25, our own ESPN Power Rankings, and indeed my own personal top 25. While we differ slightly on the exact sequencing, all three of these august sources agree that the best nine teams in the country are as follows: Duke, Michigan, Louisville, Florida, Syracuse, Indiana, Arizona, Ohio State, and Kansas.

Let's go ahead and call this group of nine teams "contenders," meaning various observers seem to agree there's a good chance that any one of these teams could win the national championship. I wondered how this season's crop of contenders compares with past national champions. Specifically, I looked at the first nine games played by each of the last five national champions (nine games merely being the average number of contests played thus far by this season's contenders).

Prepare to be shocked. It turns out the last five national champions were really good in November and December! In the first nine games of their respective national championship seasons, those five teams went 43-2: Duke lost at Wisconsin in the 2009 ACC-Big Ten Challenge, and you may possibly remember what happened to Kentucky when they played at Indiana last season.

On average, those five national champions outscored their early-season opponents by 0.31 points per possession. Ordinarily we'd hasten to adjust that number for strength of schedule, but apparently nascent national champions all have the same philosophy when it comes to scheduling. With the notable exception of Connecticut in 2010-11, all of these past teams played very similar opponents in terms of quality. (For what it's worth, the Huskies' early-season schedule, even with a trip to the 2010 Maui Classic, was softer than customary for eventual national champs. Go figure.)

So that's our benchmark. Teams on-track to win the national championship tend to outscore their early-season opponents by nearly a third of a point per trip. How do this season's contenders measure up to that mark? Let's take a look. (I've listed the contenders in the order in which they appear in this week's ESPN Power Rankings.)

Duke (9-0)
+0.23 points per possession, No. 1 SOS
The Blue Devils sport the lowest per-possession scoring margin of any team seen here, but Mike Krzyzewski's team has played far and away the toughest schedule. (Make that "one historically tough" schedule. In the data set comprised of these nine teams plus the last five national champions, no team's played an early-season schedule that comes anywhere near what Duke has faced over their first nine games.) That, plus the fact that five of their nine games have been played away from Cameron Indoor Stadium, makes the undefeated Devils a legitimate choice for No. 1 in the nation in December.

If you want a reason to fear Duke besides the fact that they're ranked No. 1 in the country, consider that the Blue Devils have played a murderous schedule and yet still managed to make 40 percent of their threes and well over half their twos. Mason Plumlee is likely to be in the mix for National Player of the Year before it's all said and done, and Seth Curry, Ryan Kelly, and Rasheed Sulaimon are all right there with Plumlee in terms of offensive efficiency. You best believe the hype.

Michigan (11-0)
+0.30 points per possession, No. 4 SOS
To me the most impressive thing about the Wolverines' very impressive numbers is that half of their games against D-I opponents have been played away from home. John Beilein's team has made shots inside the arc at a rate that can only be called torrid. Michigan's high-volume scorers on the interior are Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway, and Glenn Robinson, and all of those guys are north of 57 percent on their two-point shooting. Rejoice and be glad, Wolverine fans. The early-season numbers say your team is on a Final Four trajectory.

Syracuse (10-0)
+0.35 points per possession, No. 8 SOS
Congratulations, Jim Boeheim, on winning No. 900. What an incredible feat, one that's the equivalent of having won 30 games a season every season since 1982.

Watch for this latest Syracuse team to play outstanding defense in 2013, because thus far the Orange have held opponents to just 0.78 points per possession. (Give Rakeem Christmas some minutes, Coach! He's brought his foul rate down -- you can have his incredible shot blocking for 30 minutes, not just 20!) And clearly James Southerland is off to an amazing start on offense. That being said, the early-season numbers are suggesting Syracuse may be a bit overrated at the moment. This team's a contender, make no mistake, but among their peer contenders, the Orange have recorded a "normal" per-possession scoring margin (ha -- keep in mind all these scoring margins are incredible), and have done so against this group's second-weakest schedule. Florida, to take one example, has posted the same margin against a significantly tougher set of opponents.

Louisville (9-1)
+0.32 points per possession, No. 5 SOS
The Cardinals, one could suggest, are pretty much what we expected them to be. Even with Gorgui Dieng having missed half their games, this is either the nation's best defense statistically or very close to it. Meanwhile, Peyton Siva has continued his multi-season evolution and is now an elite point guard on offense (and the same old menace he's always been on D). What you might not have expected, however, is that Russ Smith would improve dramatically in just about every facet on offense. Rick Pitino's team is clearly a contender.

Arizona (8-0)
+0.28 points per possession, No. 6 SOS
When you're undefeated and you have a win over an opponent as good as Florida in your back pocket, you're going to be this highly rated in the polls. And any offense that puts Nick Johnson, Solomon Hill, and Mark Lyons on the floor is going to score some points. (Johnson in particular has been tremendous in the early going.) But among this group of the nation's nine best teams, you can make a case that Arizona rates out lower than where they are now. Now the good news for Wildcat fans. Opponents have shot unusually well against Sean Miller's team from the perimeter, and it's likely that percentage will come down as the season progresses. Besides, this team is giving quality minutes to talented freshmen like Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski, and talented freshmen have a way of going from great to incredible very fast. That's what makes UA a contender.

Indiana (9-1)
+0.40 points per possession, No. 7 SOS
The Hoosiers are no longer unbeaten, but this is still arguably the best offense you'll find anywhere. (In losing by two points to Butler, IU scored 1.13 points per possession. That kind of scoring will win you a lot of games.) And don't be fooled by the No. 7 rating I've given Tom Crean's strength of schedule -- Nos. 4 through 8 among these teams' schedules are all roughly comparable. If I'm Indiana, I take heart from the fact that the national champion last season also lost a game played in the state of Indiana in December. Maybe that's the approved sequence now. Anyway, IU is a rock-solid bona fide contender, and if Cody Zeller starts hitting free throws like he did last season the Hoosiers could well cross over from contender to clear favorite.

Florida (7-1)
+0.35 points per possession, No. 2 SOS
The more I look at the Gators, the more I'm impressed. Billy Donovan's men have played what is clearly the second toughest schedule of the teams considered here -- in other words, UF's opponents have been significantly tougher than what Kansas, with a No. 3 SOS, has faced to this point. Not to mention three of the Gators' eight games have been played away from home, including Saturday night's one-point loss at Arizona. And yet Florida has still outscored opponents by 0.35 points per trip. This defense has been good enough to be mentioned in the same breath as the ones from Louisville and Syracuse, and Erik Murphy has continued to post numbers on offense that defy gravity well into the holiday season. The ESPN Power Rankings have the Gators at No. 7 right now, and the AP says No. 8. I say those rankings are too low.

Ohio State (8-1)
+0.33 points per possession, No. 9 SOS
The Buckeyes are a very tough read right now. Their most impressive outing was a loss, their 73-68 defeat at Duke in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Outside that game, Thad Matta's team is yet to play an opponent on-track for an NCAA tournament at-large bid. Certainly OSU's scoring margin looks contender-worthy (and Deshaun Thomas is doing his level best to give Cody Zeller and Trey Burke some company in the Big Ten POY discussion), but we will learn so much more about this team in just a couple weeks when Big Ten play starts. I say it's too soon to tell whether Ohio State's really a contender.

Kansas (8-1)
+0.26 points per possession, No. 3 SOS
Come what may in terms of personnel at KU, I make it a habit never to worry too much about a Bill Self defense. And once again that's looking like a wise choice, as Jeff Withey continues to swat shots and opponents continue to miss more than 60 percent of their twos. My only question with this edition of the Jayhawks is on offense. Ben McLemore is obviously as good as advertised, but can this team really score enough points to hang with the offenses they'll see come March? To this point in the season, Self's team has scored 1.10 points per trip, the lowest number posted by any of these contenders (albeit against a pretty tough schedule). I can be persuaded, but right now I'm holding off on declaring Kansas a full-fledged contender on the level of Duke, Indiana, et al.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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