In Part 1 last week, I took a basic look at the profile of the past 13 NCAA champions and made a ‘short list’ of 14 potential champs in 2011.
They were: Duke, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Syracuse, Louisville, Ohio State, Purdue, Wisconsin, Kansas, Texas, Texas A&M, Arizona and Florida.
I’ll wager dollars to donuts the 2011 champion is one of these teams. The next step, of course, is to eliminate teams one by one, slowly but surely working our way toward the eventual national champ.
Our first 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 the first Monday in April.
And the best predictive evidence 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.
Louisville played only one road game (at Western Kentucky) prior to the start of Big East play. In the Big East, Rick Pitino’s squad has lost six times on the highway, including an agonizing two point defeat at West Virginia this past weekend. That’s a track record of failure. We’ll eliminate the Cardinals here.
Wisconsin isn’t a team I was seriously considering for the title anyway, even though they fit the initial statistical profile we discussed last week. The Badgers are consistently among the Big 10’s top teams, but they’ve shown no ‘national championship’ type of ability throughout the decade that Bo Ryan has been on the job.
The Badgers lost their very first road game this year, at UNLV. They got annihilated in their last road, game, a 28 point loss at Ohio State. In between, the Badgers came up short on the highway more often than not.
Texas A&M: At no point this year has Mark Turgeon’s Aggies passed the ‘eyeball test’ – they just haven’t looked good enough to win it all. The Aggies have a winning road record for one reason only – weak opponents. The Aggies have a grand total of zero road wins against NCAA tournament type teams.
The Aggies five road wins have come against A&M Corpus Christi, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Colorado and Oklahoma. That’s not exactly a who’s who of elite teams. Without a single high quality road win all year, I’ll eliminate Texas A&M here.
Next, we move to defensive acumen, based on one of the more under-rated stats in all of college basketball – defensive field goal percentage allowed.
Texas, Kansas, Syracuse and Pitt all rank in the Top 20 nationally in this key stat. Duke and North Carolina both rank in the Top 50.
Playing in March against opposing teams that handle the ball well, three defenses stand out as not being good enough in halfcourt sets to win a title.
Florida ranks 131 nationally in defensive field goal percentage allowed. Ohio State ranks 149 in that same category. Arizona is the weakest of the bunch with its half court defense, ranked 202 in the country in the regular season. The Gators, Buckeyes and Wildcats all get the boot right here, right now. Voila, we’re already down to 8.
Interior play is next on the list. The statistic that I like to use here is rebounding margin.
Pitt, Kansas, North Carolina and Texas all rank in the Top 20 nationally in this key stat. Notre Dame ranks 25. Duke and Syracuse both rank in the Top 70.
Purdue ranks 110 in rebounding margin, ample reason to give Matt Painter’s Boilermakers the boot right here, right now.
The Big 10, the SEC, and the PAC-10 are out of the equation already. This year’s national champion will come from one of the three best conferences all year: the Big East, the ACC or the Big 12.
Teams with at least two NBA first round picks in their lineup tend to do well come tournament time. Last year, Duke was the exception to the rule – the Blue Devils didn’t have a single NBA player selected in the NBA draft, in large part because their best players decided to stay in school – much like Florida five years ago.
Two years ago North Carolina sent Ty Lawson, Tyler Hansbrough and Wayne Ellington into the first round, followed by Danny Green in the second round.
Three years ago, we saw Kansas get three players drafted, including Brandon Rush in the lottery, Darrell Arthur later in the first round and Mario Chalmers at the beginning of the second round.
The year before Florida had three lottery picks – Al Horford, Corey Brewer and Joakim Noah.
When we look at NBA caliber talent, Duke has forward Mason Plumlee, guard Nolan Smith and forward Kyle Singler, even without Kyrie Irving (a potential NBA top overall pick) in the lineup due to his turf toe injury.
Texas has forwards Jordan Hamilton and Tristan Thompson. North Carolina has forward John Henson, wing Harrison Barnes and center Tyler Zeller. Kansas has forward Marcus Morris, his twin brother Markieff, guard Josh Selby and wing Tyshawn Taylor. Syracuse has forwards Kris Joseph and Rick Jackson.
Pittsburgh and Notre Dame have no projected NBA draft picks. I’ll bounce them from consideration here as a result.
Next, I’ll examine point guard play, using assist-to-turnover ratio as the key stat.
North Carolina’s frosh point guard Kendall Marshall stepped up admirably after Larry Drew II quit the team mid-season, with an assist-to-turnover ratio of better than 2.5:1 since taking over the starting job. That being said, I’m not willing to pick a team with a true frosh starting at the point to win the national title. I’ll bounce the Tar Heels here.
Texas is the weakest link among this quintet. None of their combo guard threesome (Cory Joseph, J’Covan Brown and Dogus Balbay) averages more than three assists per game, which helps explain the Longhorns late season slump. The Longhorns, too, get the bounce here.
Duke’s Nolan Smith shifted over to the point after Kyrie Irving’s early injury. Smith’s ball handling hasn’t been as quite as good, but he still dished more than five assists per game as the starter.
Syracuse has Scoop Jardine, who dished more than six assists per game this year, while averaging less than three turnovers.
Kansas is noticeably weaker in this department when we look at their season long stats with their combo guard trio of Tyshawn Taylor, Josh Selby and Brady Morningstar.
Morningstar is the only one of the three with a strong assist-to-turnover ratio, but head coach Bill Self has realized that fact, putting the senior into the starting lineup. Selby and Taylor are coming off the bench these days, minimizing their time running the point and making the Jayhawks that much more dangerous.
The final stat? Free throw shooting
At 66.1 percent, Syracuse is the No. 269 free throw shooting team in the country. Kansas ranks No. 222, connecting at a 67.5 percent clip. Duke is the only good foul shooting team of the remaining trio, ranked No. 32 in the country with a 74.8 conversion percentage. If you don’t think this stat is key, remember what happened to Memphis against Kansas three years ago.
That final stat tips the scales in favor of the defending NCAA champions. I could make a case for Kansas or Syracuse here, but the defending national champs, with every key piece except Jon Scheyer returning, deserve to be the favorites to win it all on the first Monday of April in Houston.
My pick is the boring one, DUKE. The Blue Devils has what it takes to win it all.