For anyone looking to start their bracket-busting research early, the UPS Team Performance Index has highlighted a team to keep your eyes on once the madness begins come March.
Hoping to follow the blueprint of lower-profile schools like George Mason and VCU - which came into the NCAA tournament under the mainstream radar and ended up with stunning appearances in the Final Four in 2006 and '11, respectively - little Stephen F. Austin from the Southland Conference finds itself in the index's top spot.
"Being from the Southland Conference, we still are likely going to have to go win our league tournament to get a bid," coach Danny Kaspar said. "But if we are fortunate enough to make it to the NCAA tournament again, then I like our chances depending on the draw we get."
Few would argue the Lumberjacks are in the same class as college basketball heavyweights like Indiana, Florida, Michigan and Syracuse - the four teams that round out the index's top five. But it's vital to keep in mind that the UPS rankings are not a traditional power poll. Instead, they measure overall team efficiency.
In conjunction with STATS LLC, UPS has created a proprietary algorithm that gauges six major statistics which cover the spectrum of a team's on-court performance: effective field goal percentage, effective field goal percentage against, rebounding percentage, ball-handling efficiency, miscues and winning percentage.
From there, an overall index score is created for all 345 NCAA Division I teams. And lo and behold, an upstart bunch out of Nacogdoches, Texas, is currently at the head of the class.
"It's always nice to be mentioned with some of the more traditionally elite teams around the country, but we have been in similar situations before," Kaspar said. "We have been ranked in the top 10 in the nation in scoring defense each of the past five years, and over my first 12 years here we were the second-most winning program in the state of Texas, only behind the University of Texas."
SFA is in the midst of an 11-game win streak and, at 16-1, off to its best start since joining Division I in 1987. It has held opponents to fewer than 70 points for 49 straight games and is ranked No. 1 in the country defensively, allowing 49.4 points per contest.
Those marks will be put to the test in the team's next game. On Saturday, it visits Northwestern State, the highest-scoring squad in the nation at 85.0 points per game.
"The team has really bought into what I have been selling this year, especially defensively," Kaspar added. "Our level of play has been very consistent up to this point and hopefully we are able to maintain such a level of play."
While Southland Conference matchups will never be confused for the AP Top 25 land mines that litter the schedules of leagues like the Big Ten, SEC and Big East, the fact is SFA has thus far gotten it done against the competition it's faced in a manner both highly efficient and balanced.
The Lumberjacks' lone blemish on the season: a hard-fought 62-54 road defeat to Texas A&M - the same Aggies team that went into Lexington and beat AP preseason No. 3 Kentucky 83-71 just over a week ago.
After Stephen F. Austin, the UPS rankings generally revert to the types of programs college basketball fans would expect to see, with the exception of Weber State checking in at No. 10. Nine of the top 10 teams in this week's AP poll fall within the top 12 of the UPS index.
Just behind the Lumberjacks is Indiana, another group that knows the importance of defense and, in particular, rebounding. For all their offensive pop, the Hoosiers had the second-highest rebounding microindex among D-I schools, a particularly impressive stat coming in the rugged Big Ten.
"We're in the top 10 in field-goal percentage offense, I think would most people wouldn't be shocked by that," coach Tom Crean said. "But we've been in the top 10 in field-goal percentage defense for some time. A lot of times when the naysayers start kicking it out and bringing up all of the negatives, they forget to mention that.
"It's important for our guys to understand that and it's important for our guys to understand that they are pretty good when they really lock into what they need to do."
The No. 1 team in the AP poll, Duke, advanced two spots to No. 7 in the index following a 73-57 win over Georgia Tech this week, but the big movers were Elon and Western Michigan, which each jumped 49 spots. Mississippi State, on the other hand, fell 47.
Not surprisingly, trailing the index at No. 347 is Division I's only winless team, Grambling State (0-16).

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