History shows us many things about what it takes to be a champion. I write this article every year, and in every year except for two, I have been able to identify the eventual NCAA national champion among my elite level teams. Both exceptions were the same team – UConn – making miracle runs to win the title as prohibitive longshots.
Two years ago, Kevin Ollie’s Huskies were on the ropes in their tourney opener against St Joe’s, needing a late rally just to send the game to overtime. Three weeks later, they cut down the nets as national champs at Jerry’s World in Arlington. I didn’t see it coming. Neither did the betting markets, with UConn priced in the 100:1 longshot range prior to the tournament. And if a longshot like that wins every coinflip game in the tourney this year, I’m not likely to get it right either.
I write this article every year before the regular season is over, before the conference tournaments, before the tourney seedings are announced and before a single March Madness game has been played. Obviously, there is room for a lot to change between now and the first Monday of April, when somebody will be cutting down the nets in Houston. That being said, I’ll stand by my track record, picking four tourney winners in the last nine years, and having the eventual champ on my short list in every year except those two Huskies longshot runs.
Here is a list of the last 18 NCAA champions and the teams they beat in the title game: Kentucky over Utah in ’98, UConn over Duke in ’99, Michigan State 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, Kentucky over Kansas in 2012, Louisville over Michigan in 2013, UConn over Kentucky in 2014 and Duke over Wisconsin in 2015.
Sixteen of those 18 champions had very specific abilities, a very specific track record and a very specific statistical profile as a team that allowed them to go all the way. In Part 1 of this article, I’ll take a brief 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’s have reached the championship game. Florida in 2000, Indiana in 2002 and the Butler teams from 2010 and 2011 stand out as the teams that were not among the top 16 seeds in the tournament but were still good enough to get a shot at the title. But, with the exception of UConn, those Cinderella’s have been unable to seal the deal.
The eventual champion has been seeded no lower than #3 in every single year except 2014, dating back to 1997, when Arizona won it all as a #4 seed. Before UConn’s 2014 title, you’d have to go all the way back to 1988 for a real longshot, when Larry Brown guided the Kansas Jayhawks to a championship as a #6 seed.
Twenty-one of the last 25 national champions have been #1 or #2 seeds. Even 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. In 2014, the Huskies were a #7 seed on their way to the title. I’m not expecting a longshot repeat!
To earn those top seeds, the eventual champion must have been an elite level team all year. With the exception of those two UConn title runs, 16 of the last 18 champs have finished the season with seven losses or less. 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. Every year I think about raising the ‘losses’ criteria to eight or less – teams play more games now than they did a decade or two ago, but I haven’t needed to – the seven loss cutoff continues to produce dividends.
Each of the past 18 champions was from one of the six major conferences (now seven with the Big East/American Athletic 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 ten 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 Ten, Big XII, 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. It’s a similar story for the likes of St Joe’s, San Diego State, Arkansas-Little Rock, Monmouth, St Mary’s or Wichita State in what has most assuredly NOT been a banner year for mid-majors. Those upper tier mid-majors are not going to make my ‘potential champions’ list, even though several of them 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 18 teams: Miami, North Carolina, Virginia, Kansas, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Villanova, Xavier, Seton Hall, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan State, Purdue, Oregon, Utah, Arizona, Texas A&M and South Carolina.
SMU and Louisville both would be on this list, but both are ineligible for postseason play due to NCAA sanctions. Note the fact that Duke’s eighth loss of the season at Pitt this past Sunday eliminates the defending champs from the discussion!
This glaring fact stands out – only one team has won a national title without earning a #3 seed or better since 1997. So let’s whittle down that list of 18 right here, starting with the two teams that have virtually no shot to get seeded that high: Seton Hall and South Carolina, squads with strong SU records but with very suspect strength of schedule numbers. I’ll bounce them from consideration here.
That leaves me with 16 teams to discuss in Part 2 of this article next week. I’ll wager dollars to donuts that the eventual NCAA champion will come from this list: Miami, North Carolina, Virginia, Kansas, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Villanova, Xavier, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan State, Purdue, Oregon, Utah, Arizona and Texas A&M
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