There are two particular statistics that have stuck with Chris Holtmann in the aftermath of the 2019-20 college basketball season.
Without an NCAA Tournament, we’ll never know what Ohio State might have done or how far the Buckeyes could have advanced. But in multiple interviews in recent weeks, Holtmann has emphasized the belief that his team was poised for a deep run by referencing a pair of numbers.
“We had the best collection of offensive and defensive efficiency,” Holtmann said during a mid-April teleconference. “Those numbers certainly don’t guarantee anything but when you’re one of six teams to be top-20 in those numbers, it certainly says you have a real chance to advance. I’m not here to make any crazy claims, but I certainly did feel confident about our ability to perform well and give ourselves a chance to advance in the NCAA Tournament.”
As a measuring stick, Holtmann was citing the advanced analytics of KenPom.com. The Buckeyes closed the season – albeit an abbreviated one – rated No. 13 in adjusted offensive efficiency and No. 19 in adjusted defensive efficiency. That made them one of six teams to place among the nation’s top 20 teams in both categories.
Here are the other five, with their offensive and defensive rankings listed:
Kansas – 8, 2
Duke – 9, 12
Michigan State – 10, 13
San Diego State – 11, 10
Baylor – 17, 4
Averaging out the two rankings, Kansas had the best mark at 5.0, ahead of Baylor, Duke and San Diego at 10.5, Michigan State at 11.5 and finally Ohio State at 16.0.
The question is, what would those numbers forecast for the NCAA Tournament?
During the previous five seasons, 29 teams finished among the top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency according to KenPom. All five national champions – Virginia in 2019, Villanova in 2018 and 2016, North Carolina in 2017 and Duke in 2015 – were included in that group.
NCAA Tournament matchups are notoriously tricky to anticipate, as any coach will tell you, and some of advancing is tied to random chance in who falls in your bracket. However, teams that finished in the top 20 in both categories comprised half of the Final Four teams during the previous five seasons.
In addition to the five champions, teams in the top 20 in both categories had their seasons end in the title game once and the Final Four four times.
In each of Holtmann’s first two seasons at Ohio State, the Buckeyes won their first-round NCAA Tournament game before bowing out in the second round. The Buckeyes have not advanced to the second round of the tournament since the 2012-13 season, then they fell to Wichita State in the Elite Eight. That also happened to be the last season Ohio State was a top 20 team in both categories: No. 14 on offense and No. 9 on defense.
During the last five seasons, 24 of the 29 such teams reached at least the Sweet Sixteen. Just one fell in its first-round game, and that was Purdue in 2016 when the Boilermakers dropped an 85-83 double-overtime loss to Arkansas Little Rock. That Purdue team was 19th and 11th, respectively in offense and defense.
The numbers aren’t an exact science. In the 2016-17 season, Oregon finished No. 17 in both categories but reached the Final Four. That average of 17.0 between the two rankings is tied for the highest during the five-year span. That same season, Villanova finished No. 3 in offense and No. 12 in defense but didn’t advance past the second round.
Does any of this guarantee that Ohio State was going to march toward Atlanta, site of this year’s Final Four? No, but it does hint that such a run was on the table.