History shows us many things about what it takes to be a champion. I write this article every year, and in every year except for two, I have been able to identify the eventual NCAA National Champion among my elite level teams. Both exceptions were the same team – UConn – making miracle runs to win the title as prohibitive longshots.
Three years ago, Kevin Ollie’s Huskies were on the ropes in their tourney opener against St Joe’s, needing a late rally just to send the game to overtime. Three weeks later, they cut down the nets as national champs at Jerry’s World in Arlington. I didn’t see it coming. Neither did the betting markets, with UConn priced in the 100:1 longshot range prior to the tournament. And if a longshot like that wins every coinflip game in the tourney this year, I’m not likely to get it right either.
Here is a list of the last 19 NCAA champions and the teams they beat in the title game: Kentucky over Utah in ’98, UConn over Duke in ’99, Michigan St over Florida in 2000, Duke over Arizona in ’01, Maryland over Indiana in ’02, Syracuse over Kansas in ’03, UConn over Georgia Tech in ’04, North Carolina over Illinois in ’05, Florida over UCLA in ’06, Florida over Ohio State in ’07, Kansas over Memphis in ’08, North Carolina over Michigan State in ’09, Duke over Butler in 2010, UConn over Butler in 2011, Kentucky over Kansas in 2012, Louisville over Michigan in 2013, UConn over Kentucky in 2014, Duke over Wisconsin in 2015 and Villanova over North Carolina last year.
Seventeen of those 19 champions had very specific abilities, a very specific track record and a very specific statistical profile as a team that allowed them to go all the way. Cinderella’s have reached the championship game. Florida in 2000, Indiana in 2002 and the Butler teams from 2010 and 2011 stand out as the teams that were not among the top 16 seeds in the tournament but were still good enough to get a shot at the title. But, with the exception of UConn, those Cinderella’s have been unable to seal the deal.
The eventual champion has been seeded no lower than #3 in every single year except 2014, dating back to 1997, when Arizona won it all as a #4 seed. Before UConn’s 2014 title, you’d have to go all the way back to 1988 for a real longshot, when Larry Brown guided the Kansas Jayhawks to a championship as a #6 seed.
Twenty-two of the last 26 national champions have been #1 or #2 seeds. Even one I missed -- UConn in 2011 -- was a #3 seed, a factor that I couldn’t and didn’t predict at the end of February when the Huskies were in the midst of a 4-7 slump to close out the regular season. In 2014, the Huskies were a #7 seed on their way to the title. I’m not expecting a longshot repeat!
To earn those top seeds, the eventual champion must have been an elite level team all year. With the exception of those two UConn title runs, 17 of the last 19 champs have finished the season with seven losses or less. To win the Big Dance, teams have to be better than good, or even very good. Winning six straight games over three weekends requires greatness, and great teams don’t lose more than seven games throughout the course of the campaign. Every year I think about raising the ‘losses’ criteria to eight or less – teams play more games now than they did a decade or two ago, but I haven’t needed to – the seven loss cutoff continues to produce dividends.
Each of the past 19 champions was from one of the six major conferences. The mid-majors tend to measure success with Sweet 16 berths, not Final Four trips. We have seen several exceptions to that rule, like Butler’s string of upsets to reach the title game as a Horizon League squad or George Mason, Wichita State and VCU’s remarkable runs to the Final Four.
But let’s be real. If a team is not from the Big East, ACC, Big 10, Big 12, SEC or PAC-12, they aren’t facing enough tough competition on a nightly basis to get them ready for an extended tournament run. Sorry Gonzaga – you’re not winning the title this year. It’s the same story for SMU, Cinci, Dayton, Middle Tennessee St, Illinois State, Wichita State, or St Mary’s in what has most assuredly NOT been a banner year for mid-majors. Those upper tier mid-majors are not going to make my ‘potential champions’ list, even though several of them have legitimate Sweet 16 potential.
Using just the seven losses and major conference criteria alone, we can narrow the list of potential NCAA tournament winners down to the following group of 21 teams: North Carolina, Duke, Louisville, Notre Dame, Florida State, Kansas, West Virginia, Baylor, Villanova, Butler, Creighton, Purdue, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Maryland, Oregon, Arizona, UCLA, Kentucky, Florida and Arkansas.
This glaring fact stands out – only one team has won a national title without earning a #3 seed or better since 1997. So let’s whittle down that list of 21 right here, starting with teams that have virtually no shot to get seeded that high: Minnesota, Maryland, Creighton and Arkansas.
The next step in the elimination process is to look at the team’s records away from home. The NCAA championship is not won on a team’s home floor. Even with a favorable location one weekend, a team is still going to have to win four ‘neutral site’ games in order to cut down the nets in Houston on April 4th. And the best predictive evidence that I’ve seen for future success in neutral or hostile environments is previous success is neutral or hostile environments.
In most years, we’ll find a sub .500 road record or two among the list of potential champs, an instant elimination. This year is no exception, as we lose a pair of ACC teams right from the get-go. Duke and Florida State are both sub .500 SU squads on the highway. I’ll bounce them here.
Next, we move to defensive acumen, based on defensive field goal percentage allowed.
Louisville, Baylor & Oregon are all in Top 25. UCLA, despite some ugly defensive numbers earlier in the season, stands at #73 now. But West Virginia ranks #105. Notre Dame is as #114. Kentucky is #115. Butler is at #198. I’ll eliminate those four teams here
Interior play is next on the list. The statistic that I like to use here is rebounding margin.
North Carolina ranks #1 in the country, with Baylor and Wisconsin also in the Top 10. Purdue ranks #13, Louisville #19, Zona #23. UCLA, Nova & Kansas are all in the Top 40. Oregon is #66, good enough. At #108, Florida hits the highway here. Buh-bye SEC.
Teams with potential NBA first round picks in their lineup tend to do well come tournament time.
Kansas has Josh Jackson, Frank Mason III and Devonte Graham as potential first rounders. UCLA has Lonzo Ball, TJ Leaf and Bryce Alford. Arizona has Lauri Markkanen, Allonzo Trier and Kobi Simmons. Baylor has Johnathan Motley. North Carolina has Justin Jackson, Joel Berry II and Tony Bradley. Villanova has Josh Hart and Mikal Bridges. Purdue has Caleb Swanigan. Oregon has Dillon Brooks and Jordan Bell. Louisville’s top prospect is Donovan Mitchell who may not get drafted. Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ is in a similar spot. I’ll bounce those two teams here.
I’ll make my next cuts based on point guard play, using assist-to-turnover ratio as the key stat. North Carolina’s Joel Berry is not elite, but he’s a steady, veteran hand at the point. Kansas with Frank Mason and Devonte Graham has no problems. ‘Nova has no problem with Jalen Brunson. Purdue is fine with Dakota Mathias and PJ Thompson. Arizona is just fine with Parker Jackson Cartwright.
But I’m not sold on Manu Lecomte for Baylor and the stats back me up. It’s a similar story with Dylan Ennis and Payton Pritchard for Oregon. Those two teams go packing here, as a result.
The final stat? Free throw shooting. Nova ranks #2. Zona is #15. Purdue is #17. UCLA at 74% is also in the Top 50. But North Carolina is under 70%. And Kansas is the worst of the remaining bunch. Let’s say goodbye to two blue bloods!
That leaves me with just a Final Four: Arizona, UCLA, Villanova, Purdue
. And when I get last year’s defending champ with just about everybody back in my Final Four, I’m picking them to win it all. The last repeat champ: the ’06 and ’07 Florida Gators had exactly this type of situation. The Villanova Wildcats have what it takes to be repeat champs, cutting down the nets on the first Monday in April.
Find Teddy at Sportsmemo.com and follow him on Twitter @teddy_covers.