Comparing SDSU, Utah State To Past Sweet 16 Teams
Can Aztecs or Aggies make a Sweet 16 run?
What makes a Sweet 16 run?
Four Mountain West teams have made the Sweet 16 since 2011. Those teams were BYU (2011), SDSU (2011 and 2014), and Nevada (2018). So far this season, San Diego State is off to the best start in program history, clinched the Mountain West Regular season Title with 4 games left, and will likely earn a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. I thought I’d compare them to past Mountain West Sweet 16 teams to see what the chances are of making and possibly surpassing the Sweet 16, a feat that no Mountain West team has ever accomplished.
We also will be looking at Utah State, as they are currently on the bubble, and have a shot at making the tournament. If they win all their remaining games except for the Mountain West tournament title they will have a chance at an at-large bid, and I’d hope they’d get it. They would prefer to get the automatic bid, but even without it they seem to have a chance. Once a team gets in the tournament, anything can happen. Just ask Loyola Chicago or UMBC.
The stat I will use to judge the teams is POE. POE measures efficiency compared to an average player (or in this case, an average team). The number represents the number of points scored and/or prevented compared to what an average team would have done given the same number and type of opportunities. It’s an efficiency metric. Since basketball is about scoring more than your opponent in a similar amount of tries, efficiency is very important, and indicative of who should win a game. You can learn more about POE by clicking here. The accuracy of POE only goes back to the 2011 season, that is why 2011 is the cutoff as opposed to the entire Mountain West history.
For POE we will look at how this year’s teams in question (SDSU and Utah St.) fare against the sweet 16 teams of years past, on both sides of the ball, as well as overall.
With all that out of the way, let’s get started. Here are the numbers for past Sweet 16 teams and this year’s potential candidates.
How does this year’s Utah St. team compare?
Utah State looks okay using this metric. They have a better overall efficiency than the 2011 SDSU team led by Kawhi Leonard. They’re being carried by their defense, which is almost 6 points better per game than an average team’ would be. Keep in mind this is the number for the whole season. So it includes the 10 games reigning Defensive Player of the Year Neemis Queta was missing. If I could isolate the numbers of just the games where Queta played, the number would likely be better.
Their POE is about where it was last year, when they finished at 8.12 overall. Their biggest issue is their spot up possessions, where they rank in the 19th percentile, largely due to their inability to hit open catch and shoot jumpers. They are currently among the 25 worst teams in making their unguarded jump shots, per Synergy.
If they can start hitting open shots at a league-average level their offense will be much more efficient, hopefully reaching double digits in their POE score. Finishing 10 points per game better than an average team does not guarantee a sweet 16 birth, as Nevada found out last year (12.78 POE), but it puts you in a good position to make a run. With how random the Tournament can be, sometimes that’s all you can ask for.
How does this year’s SDSU team compare?
This year’s Aztecs team is almost 17 points better than an average team with 4 games remaining in the regular season. Like Utah State, the defense is a strong suit, but this Aztecs team is much more balanced. Also similar to Utah State, SDSU has been without their star defensive center Nathan Mensah for 13 games.
Coach Brian Dutcher has said he is hopeful to get Nathan back by the time the NCAA Tournament starts. If that happens the Aztecs’ defensive POE could improve. This Aztecs team might be the most overall efficient team the conference has seen in the last decade. If a Mountain West team is ever to be expected to make it past the Sweet 16, it would be this Aztecs team.
For Fun, let’s compare the numbers to last year’s Sweet 16 teams.
The Average POE of the teams last year was 10.06. Utah State is a little below that at the moment, while San Diego State clears it easily. The Average for Elite 8 teams was 11.55, and the average for Final Four teams was 12.00. This doesn’t mean having a POE greater than 12 will automatically get you to the final four, just look at Gonzaga’s efficiency last season for proof that it’s not that simple. It does however help to illustrate how teams with greater POE scores should be expected to go further in the tournament. SDSU clears that bar easily.
The one factor that could affect this is Strength of Schedule. POE doesn’t adjust for quality of competition, so does playing worse teams give you better efficiency? In this sample there was a 30% correlation between SOS and POE, meaning as one went up, the other went down, but not in a drastic way. Generally for a correlation to be considered significant it needs to be greater than 50%. So the Aztecs numbers may be a little inflated, but even if one reduced their efficiency by 25% they’d still clear a POE of 12. So SOS shouldn’t be a major factor in this regard.
In conclusion, in terms of team efficiency, Utah State could be capable of making a sweet 16 run with the right matchups, but it probably shouldn’t be expected. San Diego State should be expected to make at least the Sweet 16 and with a little luck, could be the first team in Mountain West history to play in an Elite 8 or even a Final 4 Game.