History shows us many things about what it takes to be a champion. I write this article every year, and every year except for one, I have been able to identify the eventual NCAA national champion among my elite level teams.
Last year was no exception. I pegged Kansas as my title team, and they made it all the way to the national championship game against Kentucky before falling short.
Past predictions do not necessarily indicate future success, but I’ll stand by my track record. Remember, as always, this article is written before the regular season is over, before the conference tournaments, before the seedings are announced and before a single tournament game has been played.
I’ve nailed the winner of the NCAA tournament three times in the last six years, correctly predicting Florida in ’07, Kansas in ’08 and North Carolina in ’09. I did not predict Duke in 2010, and didn’t even have UConn in the discussion in 2011.
Here is a list of the last 15 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 and Kentucky over Kansas last year.
In all, 14 of those 15 champions had very specific abilities, track records and statistical profiles allowing them to go all the way. In Part 1 of this article, I’ll take a look at that statistical profile and make a “short list” of potential NCAA champs. In Part 2 next week, I’ll go through that short list team by team, eliminating them one by one until we reach the last team standing.
Cinderellas have reached the championship game. Florida in 2000, Indiana in 2002 and the Butler teams from 2010 and 2011 stand out as the teams not among the top 16 seeds in the tournament but good enough to get a shot at the title.
Still, those Cinderella’s were unable to seal the deal. The eventual champion has been seeded no lower than 3 every single year dating back to 1997 when Arizona won it all as a 4 seed. You’ll have to go all the way back to 1988 for a real longshot, when Larry Brown guided Kansas to the title as a 6 seed.
Nineteen of the last 22 national champions have been a 1 or 2 seed. Even the one I missed – UConn in 2011 – was a 3, 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.
To earn that type of a seed, the eventual champion must have been an elite level team all year. Prior to UConn’s title win in 2011, none of the previous 13 champions had more than seven losses. 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.
Each of the past 15 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 VCU’s remarkable run to the Final Four.
George Mason enjoyed an amazing run to the Final Four seven years ago from the Colonial Athletic Conference; a big enough shocker that we still talk about it. Memphis made the championship game from Conference USA in 2008 and Utah did it as a member of the WAC in 1998, but those are clearly the exceptions, not the rule.
Basically, 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, despite your lofty ranking. It’s a similar story for the likes of Saint Louis, VCU, Montana, Memphis, Valparaiso, Akron, Creighton, Wichita State, New Mexico, Belmont, Stephen F Austin, Middle Tennessee and St Mary’s.
Those elite mid-majors are not going to make my “potential champions” list, even though several of them have managed to crack the Top 25 and 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 19: Florida, Oregon, Arizona, UCLA, Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Georgetown, Louisville, Marquette, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Notre Dame, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Miami-FL and Duke.
Even if we extend this list to include major conference teams with up to nine losses – like UConn had in 2011 – it still doesn’t become an unwieldy list to manage. North Carolina, North Carolina State, Virginia, Maryland, Oklahoma, UConn, Cincinnati, Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, California, Colorado, Kentucky, Missouri and Ole Miss are all major conference teams with eight or nine losses so far this season.
But can any of those 15 really make a title run? I wouldn’t bet on it. We might see a longshot Final Four appearance from one of them – North Carolina, NC State, Missouri and Cal have that level of upside – but I don’t think there’s a team in the bunch that has what it takes to win it all. I’ll stick with my original list of 19.
This glaring fact stands out – no team has won a national title without earning a 3 seed or better since 1997. So let’s whittle down that list of 19, starting with Oregon, UCLA, Notre Dame and Pitt. All four of those squads fall into the “good, not great” category. Three of the four have significant depth concerns. Those four squads are all projected to be 6 seeds or higher right now. I’ll bounce them from consideration here.
That leaves 15 teams to discuss in Part 2. I’ll wager dollars to donuts that the eventual NCAA champion will come out of: Florida, Arizona, Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Georgetown, Louisville, Marquette, Syracuse, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Miami-FL and Duke.