With two and a half weeks of men’s college basketball under our belts, we’re all ready to sit down for Thanksgiving dinner, argue with extended family about how our favorite team is handling the opening roster of games — and, regardless of fanbase, take a look the Quarterfinals of the Phil Knight Invitational to see who emerges with a tournament championship early in the season.
Among the contestants, North Carolina stands out as the clear favorite with odds of +150, which equals a 40% chance of winning. After finishing second at the NCAA tournament last season, the Tar Heels held the top spot in ESPN’s Way Too Early Top 25 from April last year throughout preseason and were the No. 1 team on the AP poll for three straight weeks Line.
And why shouldn’t they? Four of their five starters returned, Northwestern transfer Pete Nance replaced the late Brady Manek, and three 4-star recruits come off the bench. The consensus seems to be that North Carolina’s unexpected entry into the Final Four last season tells us all we need to know about this powerhouse: a similarly strong tournament run is in store for this year.
Despite the narrative, ESPN Analytics’ College Basketball Power Index (BPI) is unconvinced.
The blue-bloods began the season at number 15 in the model and since then have only fallen to their current position of number 23. At a season level, BPI sees the Tar Heels with only a 2% chance of returning to the championship game in April. As for this weekend’s Invitational, BPI favors Alabama, which gives them a nearly 32% chance of winning compared to the Tar Heels’ 20%.
Before we explore why, here’s a quick refresher on what goes into BPI. In pre-season, the model takes into account four factors to determine team strength: the amount of experience in the roster (including transfers); the quality of those players; freshman recruitment rankings (focusing on 5-star prospects); and the past performance of the coach. After matches start, ratings will be updated daily based on team performance (click here for more info).
Taking these factors into account, what does BPI see that we might not see? The first is the return of production. For each returning player, the model takes the highest percentage of team minutes played in a previous season. These are then added together for each team, creating a best case for returning minutes. North Carolina only slips to 122nd place in this measurement.
Despite losing only one starter, Manek was a big part of the Tar Heels’ starting production. Nance is asked to play more minutes than last season against weaker competition (Nance was 19th in strength on the schedule last season while Northwestern was 42nd). Already this season, North Carolina’s starting five, the second-highest in Division I, accounted for 86% of minutes played.
Beyond the minutes, these players rank only 41st on offense and 21st on defense based on individual player ratings from previous seasons. That might not agree with our view of the March Madness finalists, but BPI is not affected by recency bias.
Even after being just two minutes from a national title, North Carolina finished last season in 18th place in BPI. Coupled with missing a top-notch recruit class, ranked 16th by ESPN, the data adds up to a BPI that falls short of national expectations for this team.
Alabama’s odds, meanwhile, are +600, a 14% implied probability that places the Crimson Tide behind Michigan State and Oregon and North Carolina. The Crimson Tide begins the season at No. 20 in the polls and is then surpassed by Michigan State, despite moving up two spots. They don’t get as positive reviews as the Tar Heels. In contrast, BPI Alabama started the season in eighth place and has since moved up to seventh place.
Compared to North Carolina, Alabama actually ranked slightly lower in return production at 143, but its returns and transfer players ranked more similarly than most would expect, finishing 31st on defense and 42nd on offense . These teams’ 2021-22 BPIs are close, with Alabama finishing the season in 24th place and even Nate Oats and Hubert Davis surprisingly similar track records.
Given that the model thinks North Carolina is overrated, why does it prefer Alabama? It all comes down to recruitment.
Alabama had the third best recruit rating in the country, including signing two 5-star recruits. Brandon Miller (#9 in ESPN 100) and Noah Clowney (#67) are currently starting, while Jaden Bradley (#19) and Rylan Griffen (#53) are the team’s top-5 in MPG. This new talent makes the Tide the deeper team, significant enough for BPI to place them seven spots higher than North Carolina early in the season, and their early performance (3-1 against the spread by an average of 13.1 points per game) was enough to keep her up while North Carolina slides.
Ultimately, should we trust North Carolina’s #1 poll ranking or its #23 BPI ranking? Here are the pre-season results:
Now, when your dinner guests turn on the TV at 1:00 p.m. ET and turn on ESPN to watch North Carolina begin the invitation tournament, you know that North Carolina’s 20 percent chance of winning a tournament doesn’t guarantee it. Instead, the evidence suggests that the Crimson Tide has the best chance of coming out on top.
The odds are provided by Caesars Sportsbook from the morning of November 23rd.