You cannot go wrong choosing a dark-horse. By its very nature, the pick should be unexpected. But if I am going to choose a dark-horse, it is usually going to be a team like Miami (FL) that was good last year, but could not quite win the close games. That’s because big jumps in efficiency are rare. Despite this rarity, I decided to check which teams have had the biggest one year jumps in offensive and defensive efficiency in the tempo-free era. Here is the list:

Biggest Improvements in Adjusted Offense

Change – Team – Year

18.4 – Nebraska – 2004
17.3 – Washington St. – 2007
16.0 – Oklahoma St. – 2004
15.4 – Georgia – 2010
15.3 – Georgetown – 2005
13.8 – Louisville – 2005
13.4 – Cincinnati – 2004
13.2 – Texas A&M – 2007
13.1 – Georgia Tech – 2007
13.0 – Connecticut – 2008
12.9 – Vanderbilt – 2004
12.7 – Colorado – 2010

Biggest Improvements in Adjusted Defense

Change – Team – Year

13.3 – Ohio St. – 2005
12.0 – Purdue – 2007
11.9 – Auburn – 2009
11.1 – Minnesota – 2005
10.9 – Texas A&M – 2005
10.9 – Louisiana St. – 2006
10.5 – Boston College – 2004
10.5 – Washington St. – 2005
9.6 – Michigan St. – 2007
9.2 – Wisconsin – 2007
8.9 – UCLA – 2006
8.9 – Iowa St. – 2005 

(Note that I limited my list to teams that were in BCS leagues last year.)

I was curious about the two biggest outliers on the list, Nebraska and Ohio St. But they seemed to stumble upon the expected formula: 

1) Bring a lot of players back

In 2004, Nebraska lost Brennon Clemmons, but every other rotation player returned. And with time, the players developed more chemistry with one another. Nate Johnson improved his shot selection and saw his efficiency jump from 88.4 to 115.0. And everyone else in the rotation saw their efficiency jump by at least 10 points. 

2) Bring in a new coach 

Thad Matta’s first season in Columbus was in 2005. He improved the Buckeye’s eFG% defense from 52.1% to 47.0% as Ohio St. jumped from 282nd to 61st in the nation in that category. Ohio St.’s block and steal totals were not significantly better, but by forcing more misses, the overall defensive improvement is still at the top of this list.

3) Struggle because of adversity, not because of coaching mismanagement 

In 2003, Nebraska’s Jake Muhleisen was injured half-way through the season. He had been one of the team’s top passers prior to the injury, and the team struggled to adjust halfway through the season. When Muhleisen returned in 2004, the offense started clicking again.

4) Be actively terrible 

Both Nebraska and Ohio St. improved dramatically because both were horrible the previous season. Nebraska’s National Pomeroy Rank went from 144 to 34, and Ohio St.’s Pomeroy Rank went from 117 to 31. Duke and Kansas are never going to show up on the most improved list, because even at their worst, they are not that bad. 

5) Have a player have a career year

John Turek was never a great player for Nebraska, but his 104 ORtg as a junior was a 14 point improvement from the previous season, and a career best. He slumped again his senior year, but because he was at his best in 2004, the offense was able to jump up substantially.

6) Have a player rebound from a major slump

If you want to pick a team to turn around, it helps if some of the players are good, but just happened to struggle the previous year. Brian Conklin was a great three point shooter as a sophomore for Nebraska. But in 2003, as a junior, he could not make a shot from beyond the arc, posting an 89.4 ORtg. In 2004, he regained his shooting touch, posting an ORtg of 136.3.  And Nebraska’s offensive efficiency took off. 

Both Nebraska and Ohio St. had their moments in the spotlight in these turnaround seasons. Nebraska beat Kansas by 19 at home that year, and Ohio St. ended the 2005 Illinois team’s undefeated regular season in the final game. But surprisingly neither team saw a dramatic improvement in their win total. Nebraska won 7 more games on the year, and 3 more in Big 12 play. And Ohio St. won 6 more games on the year, and 2 more in Big 10 play. But I was surprised that two of the biggest turnarounds in the last decade did not result in 4 or 5 extra wins in the conference standings. Dramatic turnarounds are difficult.

Now we can also use these criteria to evaluate possible surprise teams this year.  Here are some candidates:

1) Bring a lot of players back: Iowa 

The Hawkeyes lose only one rotation player from last year, Jarryd Cole. With Matt Gatens and Melsahn Basabe, and a number of other players returning, the Hawkeyes hope that experience and chemistry will lead to better play.

2) Bring in a new coach: Oklahoma 

There were a lot of bad teams that hired new coaches this off-season, but to most closely match the Thad Matta experience listed above, I wanted to choose a team with a poor eFG% defense last year. Oklahoma comes closest to fitting the bill. Not only were the Sooners a bad defensive team, Lon Kruger has been a solid defensive coach at times in his career. If Kruger can implement a defensive turnaround, Oklahoma can become competitive again.

3) Struggle because of adversity, not because of coaching mismanagement: Minnesota 

Minnesota lost both its point guards in the middle of the year last year, and had trouble running a consistent offense. I have questions about who will step into the point guard role this year, but with an off-season of additional practices, I trust the offense will return to some semblance of competence.

4) Be actively terrible: Auburn 

The Tigers were so horrifyingly undermanned last year, I’m sure they will be better this year. But I’m not sure if that will be enough to get them out of the bottom of the SEC.

5) Have a player have a career year: ??? 

This is presumably unpredictable.

6) Have a player rebound from a major slump: West Virginia 

West Virginia does not qualify as a dark horse by any of the normal criteria. They were not bad last season. But the team loses a number of players to graduation this off-season, and I think people will be hesitant to pick them near the top of the Big East. But consider how well they can do this year if Kevin Jones has a bounce-back season. Two years ago Kevin Jones was one of the most efficient big men in the country. He made 42 threes and shot 40% from deep while also making 57% of his inside baskets. But last year Jones shot only 30% from deep and only 50% on the interior. If he returns to his sophomore year form, West Virginia can remain among the Big East elite.