In Part I
of this article last week, I took a basic look at the profile of the past 14 NCAA champions. From that profile, I was able to make a short list of potential champs in 2012, consisting of the following 14 teams: Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, Marquette, Georgetown, Louisville, Michigan State, Ohio State, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Baylor, Kentucky and Florida.
I’ll wager dollars to donuts that the 2012 champion is one of these teams. The next step, of course, is to eliminate teams one by one, slowly but surely working our way towards the eventual national champ.
The first 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 New Orleans 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.
Florida opened up their road slate with a pair of truly tough games – at Ohio State and at Syracuse, both losses. Billy Donovan’s squad never quite got back on track on the highway, losing at Rutgers, Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia and Vanderbilt. That’s a track record of failure. We’ll eliminate the Gators here.
Indiana isn’t a team that I was seriously considering for the title anyway, even though they fit the initial statistical profile discussed last week. The Hoosiers opened up the season with impressive road wins at Evansville and NC State, but they were not able to gain any season long momentum with those victories. Since that 2-0 start on the highway, we’ve seen Tom Crean’s squad lose at Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan, Nebraska and Iowa. Without a winning record on the highway, Indiana gets the boot here.
Like Indiana, Georgetown got off to a strong start on the road in non-conference play, winning tight games in outright fashion at Louisville and Alabama. But the Hoyas were not able to build on that early success. They collapsed down the stretch on the road in the Big East, losing at Pitt, Syracuse, Seton Hall, Marquette and West Virginia, while their only 2012 road wins came at bottom feeders DePaul, St John’s and Providence; arguably the three worst teams in the Big East. That’s not the type of road success that I’m looking for out of my potential champs.
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, Michigan State, Syracuse, Louisville and Kansas all rank in the Top 10 nationally in this key stat. North Carolina, Marquette and Ohio State all rank in the Top 50, while Baylor comes in at 60th.
Playing in March against opposing teams that handle the ball well, two defenses stand out as not being good enough in halfcourt sets to win a title. Duke ranks 192nd nationally in defensive field goal percentage allowed, with defensive weaknesses clearly evident in their blowout loss at home to North Carolina this past weekend. Missouri forces lots of turnovers, but their halfcourt defense has holes, ranked 224th in that same category. The Blue Devils and Tigers get the boot right here, right now. Voila, we’re already down to just nine serious contenders.
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
. North Carolina, Michigan State, Ohio State and Kentucky all rank in the Top 10 nationally in this key stat. Kansas and Baylor both rank in the Top 50 and Louisville is 78th.
But Syracuse ranks 163rd, outrebounding its foes by less than half a board per game for the full season – no strong low post presence behind Fab Melo. Marquette ranks 195th in rebounding margin – outboarded for the season and still feeling the impact of center Chris Otule’s season ending injury. That margin could improve with second leading rebounder Davante Gardner back on the floor following a five week injury absence, but I’ll still eliminate the Orange and the Eagles from contention here.
Teams with at least two NBA first round picks in their lineup tend to do well come tournament time.
Last year, UConn only had one first rounder in the draft, but he was the guy who carried the team – point guard Kemba Walker. But we shouldn’t forget the impact of Jeremy Lamb, who decided to return to school following his freshman year, but is projected as a lottery pick in this year’s draft.
Three years ago North Carolina sent Ty Lawson, Tyler Hansbrough and Wayne Ellington into the first round, followed by Danny Green in the second round. Four years ago, we saw Kansas get three players drafted, 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.
When we look at NBA caliber talent, Kentucky certainly stands out. Anthony Davis is the projected No. 1 overall pick. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Doron Lamb, Terrence Jones and Marquis Teague are all projected first rounders, if they come out. North Carolina stands out as well, with Tyler Zeller, Kendall Marshall, John Henson and Harrison Barnes could all go in the lottery!
Kansas has NBA picks Thomas Robinson, Jeff Withey and Tyshawn Taylor on the roster. Baylor has Perry Jones III, Quincy Acy and Quincy Miller. Ohio State has Jared Sullinger and William Buford.
Michigan State’s best player, forward Draymond Green, is not a projected first rounder. Louisville doesn’t have a projected NBA draft pick at all. I’ll bounce them from consideration here as a result, leaving us with only five remaining contenders.
Next, I’ll examine point guard play, using assist-to-turnover ratio as the key stat.
North Carolina’s sophomore sensation Kendall Marshall has dished 9.6 assists per game this year (2nd nationally) while committing a modest 2.7 turnovers on average. Kansas has senior Tyshawn Taylor manning the point, with help from Elijah Johnson. That duo has an assist-to-turnover ratio of 8.7-5.3. Ohio State’s Aaron Craft dishes 4.5 assists with only 2.1 turnovers per game.
Baylor clearly has the weak link in this category. Their point guard is leading scorer Pierre Jackson; a JuCo transfer who has suffered turnover problems all year, especially during crunch time of tight games. Jackson’s assist-to-turnover ratio of 5.6-3.7 is clearly problematic. We’ll bounce the Bears here.
Kentucky is loaded with NBA talent, and they’ve been as good as any team in the country all year. But the play of true frosh point guard Marquis Teague is concerning, with a modest 4.7-2.8 assist-to-turnover ratio. I’m looking for a veteran hand at the point, not a mistake prone frosh with questionable distribution skills. John Calipari’s team might come awfully close, but I don’t expect them to cut down the nets in New Orleans
The final stat? Free throw shooting.
Kansas connects from the charity stripe at a 69.4% clip. Ohio State hits their free throws at a 69.8% clip. But North Carolina is at 67.7%, ranked outside the top 200 best foul shooting teams in the country. A missed free throw (or two, or three) could easily be the difference maker for the Tar Heels if they fall short of a championship run.
That leaves me with two teams remaining. I’ll call for Ohio State to face Kansas for the national title; and a good case can be made for either squad to bring home the championship trophy. I’m going to make my case for the Jayhawks; the deeper of these two squads, more likely to be able to withstand any injury concerns. The Jayhawks have star power, depth, experience and talent. They rebound, play defense and win games consistently away from home. Bill Self’s squad meets all the criteria that has been effective at predicting past championship. Plain and simple, Kansas has what it takes to win it all.