History shows us many things about what it takes to be a champion. I write this article every year, and every year except 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-to-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.
In 17 of the last 19 NCAA title games, the eventual champion had very specific abilities, track record and statistical profile 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 at those not among the top 16 seeds in the tournament but 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. 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.
Of the last 26 national champions, 22 have been 1 or 2 seeds. Even one I missed (UConn in 2011) was a 3 seed – a factor 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, Cincy, Dayton, Middle Tennessee State, 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 teams’ 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 4. And the best predictive evidence I’ve seen for future success in neutral or hostile environments is previous success in 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. 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 and Oregon are all in the Top 25. UCLA, despite some ugly defensive numbers earlier in the season, stands at 73 now. But West Virginia ranks 105, Notre Dame 114. Kentucky 115, Butler 198. I’ll eliminate those four teams here.
Interior play is next on the list. The statistic 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, Villanova and Kansas are all in the Top 40. Oregon is 66, good enough. At 108, Florida hits the highway here.
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 Mitchel, 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 Mason and Graham has no problems. Nova is fine with Jalen Brunson. Purdue as well with Dakota Mathias and PJ Thompson. Arizona is good 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 15, Purdue 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.