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. Here’s what I wrote about Louisville in my “Who Has What It Takes” article from 2013: “The Cardinals have star power, depth, experience and talent. They rebound, play defense and win games consistently away from home. Rick Pitino’s squad meets all the criteria that has been effective at predicting past championship. Plain and simple, Louisville has what it takes to win it all.”
Louisville, of course, was the last team standing in the 68 team field last year, winning the national championship over Michigan.
Past predictions do not necessarily indicate future success, but I’ll stand by my track record in this article. Remember, as always, this gets written before the regular season is over, before the conference tournaments and seedings are announced. Before a single tournament game has been played.
I’ve nailed the winner of the NCAA tournament four times in the last seven years, correctly predicting Florida in ’07, Kansas in ’08 and North Carolina in ’09 as well as Louisville last year. I did NOT predict Duke in 2010, and didn’t even have UConn in the discussion in 2011. In 2012, I picked Kansas to win the title, but they lost the championship game to Kentucky.
Here is a list of the last 16 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 in 2012 and Louisville over Michigan last year.
From that list of 16 champs, all but one had very specific abilities, track record and statistical profile as a team that allowed 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.
Cinderella teams have reached the championship game. Florida in 2000, Indiana in 2002 and the Butler teams from 2010 and 2011 stand out as the ones that were not among the top 16 seeds in the tournament but were still good enough to get a shot at the title.
But those Cinderellas have been unable to seal the deal – the eventual champion has been seeded no lower than No. 3 in 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 the Kansas Jayhawks to a title as a 6 seed.
Of the last 23 national champions, 20 have been 1 or 2 seeds. Even the 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.
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 thirteen 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 16 champions was from one of the six “major” conferences (now seven with the Big East/American Conference split). 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 Wichita State and VCU’s remarkable runs to the Final Four.
George Mason enjoyed an amazing run to the Final Four eight 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 made it from the WAC in 1998 (at the time), but those are clearly the exceptions, not the rule.
Basically, if a team is not from the Big East, American, 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 Wichita State – you’re not winning the title this year, despite your lofty ranking.
It’s a similar story for the likes of St Louis, San Diego St, Gonzaga, VCU, New Mexico, Harvard, Green Bay or Stephen F Austin.
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 the following group of 25: Cincinnati, Louisville, SMU, Memphis, UConn, Virginia, Syracuse, Duke, Pittsburgh, North Carolina, Kansas, Iowa St, Oklahoma, Texas, Creighton, Villanova, Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio State, Arizona, UCLA, Florida and Kentucky.
This glaring fact stands out – no team has won a national title without earning 3 seed or better since 1997. So let’s whittle down that list of 25, starting with seven teams that have virtually no shot to get seeded that high: Memphis, Oklahoma, Ohio St, Pitt, Texas, UConn and SMU.
All seven of those squads fall into the “good, not great” category. And most importantly for our purposes, those four squads are all projected to be 6 seeds or higher right now. I’ll bounce them from consideration here.
That leaves me with 18 to discuss in Part 2. I’ll wager dollars to donuts that the eventual NCAA champion will come from this list: Cincinnati, Louisville, Virginia, Syracuse, Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, Iowa St, Creighton, Villanova, Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Arizona, UCLA, Florida and Kentucky.
Ted Sevransky is one of the nation’s premier sports handicappers and analysts. Follow Teddy on Twitter @teddy_covers or visit his page at experts.covers.com. Contact Ted Sevransky at [email protected]