In Part 1 of this article last week, I took a basic look at the profile of the past 16 NCAA champions. I was able to make a ‘short list’ of potential champs in 2014, consisting of the following 18 teams: Cincinnati, Louisville, Virginia, Syracuse, Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, Iowa St, Creighton, Villanova, Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Arizona, UCLA, Florida and Kentucky.
However, since last week, two of those 18 teams have been bounced from consideration, including one of the co-favorites at any sports book in Vegas – John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats. Kentucky lost two straight last week; Iowa has lost three of their last four. Both teams are now above the seven loss cut-off line and can be eliminated.
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 Arlington on April 7. 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, and again, one of the co-favorites gets bounced early – Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke Blue Devils, who have lost away from home to Arizona, Notre Dame, Syracuse, Clemson, Kansas and North Carolina already – exactly the type of teams they’ll be facing away from home in March. And Iowa State has lost five times on the road in Big 12 play alone. Both squads get eliminated 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.
Kentucky was ranked in the Top 10 in this category two years ago, and Louisville was in the Top 30 last year. This year, Top 30 defensive teams include Virginia, Arizona, Cincinnati, Michigan State and Louisville. North Carolina, Florida, Villanova and Syracuse are in the next 30, with Kansas and Creighton just outside.
UCLA ranks No. 114, Wisconsin 117, and Michigan is 172. Defensive acumen is paramount in March, so we’ll toss these three teams from the ranks of contenders here.
As we continue with the statistical profile of a champion, interior play is next on the list. The statistic that I like to use here is rebounding margin. Kentucky was a Top 10 rebounding team two years ago. Louisville was Top 50 last year.
If you don’t think rebounding margin is crucial, note this fact: Arizona, Kansas, Virginia, Cincinnati, Michigan State, Villanova, Florida and North Carolina all rank in the Top 25 nationally in that department. That’s eight of the 11 teams still under consideration! The three others – Syracuse, Louisville and Creighton – are all at a competitive disadvantage. I’ll eliminate them here.
Teams with NBA first round picks in their lineup tend to do well come tournament time.
Last year, Louisville had Gorgui Dieng. Two years ago, Kentucky had Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist going 1 and 2, followed by Terrence Jones, Marquis Teague, Darius Miller and Doron Lamb among the Top 46 picks.
In 2011, UConn only had one first rounder in the draft, but he was the guy who carried the team – point guard Kemba Walker.
Kansas got three players drafted following their title, including Brandon Rush in the lottery, Darrel 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.
Kansas will lose Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid to the lottery, with Wayne Selden a likely first rounder as well. Michigan State has Gary Harris, Adreian Payne and Keith Appling all likely to be drafted in the Top 40 picks. Arizona has Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson. Florida has NBA talent with Chris Walker, Casey Prather and Patric Young.
North Carolina has no first rounders. James McAdoo and Marcus Paige have not lived up to expectations and the Brice Johnson/Joel James/Isaiah Hicks low post trio just aren’t NBA ready unless one of them has a ‘Mitch McGary’ type breakout like Michigan’s big man did last March.
Cincinnati has no draft picks. Virginia has no draft picks. Villanova has no draft picks. I’m eliminating those four teams here.
Kansas, Michigan State, Arizona, Florida are my last four teams standing, and what a great Final Four this quartet would provide if they all get there! But three of the four still have to get eliminated.
I’ll make my next cuts based on point guard play, using assist-to-turnover ratio as the key stat.
Michigan State hasn’t won back-2-back games since mid-January, but they’ve got Keith Appling at the point. And Appling, once again, is exactly what I’m looking for – a battle tested senior leader with a better than 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Arizona’s TJ McConnell redshirted last year after transferring from Duquesne. This season as a fourth year junior, he’s dished 5.6 assists with only 1.9 turnovers per game. And Kansas has battle tested junior Naadir Tharpe at the point, also with a better than 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Florida is the weak link here. Senior Scottie Wilbekin is a natural shooting guard still playing at the point, averaging fewer than four assists per game. His backup true frosh Kasey Hill, has struggled throughout the SEC campaign. The Gators are really good, but they’re not good enough!
The final stat? Free throw shooting.
Any Memphis fan will tell you how important free throw shooting actually is come tournament time – the inability to close out the national championship game from the charity stripe cost the Tigers a title at the Alamodome in San Antonio in 2008.
Kansas hits 70.7% of their foul shots, ranking 147 out of 351 D-1A teams. Michigan State is 207, hitting under 69%. But Arizona is the worst of the bunch, making less than two thirds of their tries from the charity stripe. The Wildcats are 296. At some point in this tourney, those foul shooting woes are going to bite Sean Miller’s team.
That leaves me with two teams remaining. I’ll call for a Michigan State - Kansas championship game matchup with the Spartans coming out on top.
National champs: Michigan State.
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]