In Part I
of this article last week, I took a basic look at the profile of the past 16 NCAA champions. From that profile, I was able to make a short list of potential champs in 2016, consisting of the following 16 teams: Miami, North Carolina, Virginia, Kansas, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Villanova, Xavier, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan State, Purdue, Oregon, Utah, Arizona and Texas A&M.
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 Houston on April 4th. 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. I thought I might end up with Virginia as my title winner before starting the process, but the Cavs get bounced right here, with a road record that includes SU losses at George Washington, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Florida State, none of whom are Big Dance bound. Maryland went 4-6 on the highway, including a late season loss at hapless Minnesota as a double digit favorite. The Terps and Cavs get bounced from consideration here, and we’re down to 14 contenders standing
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.
Eventual champ Kentucky was ranked in the top 10 in this category four years ago, and eventual champ Louisville was in the Top 30 three years ago. The only clue that eventual champ UConn was capable of a run to the title two years ago came from this defensive category, where they finished among the Top 20 teams in the nation. Last year, Duke broke the mold with a #174 defensive FG% ranking, but that is an exception to the rule, not a new rule.
Michigan State and Purdue are both top 10 teams in this category. Kansas, Villanova and Oklahoma are all top 50 squads. But we’ve got a good handful of theoretical contenders who are ranked outside the top 100 squads in the country on defense. Miami, West Virginia and Oregon all rank at #120 or higher. Indiana ranks at #217 in defensive field goal percentage allowed. Those four teams all get bounced 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. Michigan State, Purdue, North Carolina and Arizona all rank among the top 10 teams in the country in rebounding margin, a clear indicator of how important this stat really is. Xavier, Utah and Texas A&M are all in the Top 50. So many late round NCAA Tournament games come down to one or two possessions, and teams that win the battle of the boards get those extra possessions, plain and simple. Oklahoma and Villanova are the two weakest rebounding teams still standing in my analysis, so I’ll send Lon Kruger’s squad and Jay Wright’s squad to the sidelines.
Teams with NBA first round picks in their lineup tend to do well come tournament time.
Last year, Duke sent Justice Winslow, Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones to the NBA draft. Two years ago, first round pick Shabazz Napier carried UConn to the title. Three years ago, Louisville had Gorgiu Dieng. Four years ago, Kentucky’s Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist went #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. Duke’s title team in 2010 featured future NBA-ers Kyle Singler, Miles and Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly. Following their championship in 2009, North Carolina sent Ty Lawson, Tyler Hansbrough and Wayne Ellington into the first round, followed by Danny Green in the second round. Kansas got three players drafted following their 2008 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. I think you get my point!
Utah has Jakob Poeltl as a surefire lottery pick. Michigan State has Deyonta Davis and Denzel Valentine. Kansas has Cheick Diallo, Carlton Bragg, Perry Ellis, Wayne Selden and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk. North Carolina has Brice Johnson and Justin Jackson.
Purdue has no first rounders, even though big men AJ Hammons and Isaac Haas could be second rounders. Arizona has a trio who could go in the second round in Ryan Anderson, Kaleb Tarczewski and Allonzo Trier, but there’s a decent chance that all three go undrafted. Texas A&M has only Danuel House as a potential NBA prospect and he’s not likely to be drafted. Xavier has nobody who will play in the NBA. I’ll bounce that quartet right here.
I’ll make my next cuts based on point guard play, using assist-to-turnover ratio as the key stat.
Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine stands out here, with a 3:1 assist to turnover ratio. Over his last ten games, those numbers are even better, with a 91-24 assist-to-turnover ratio down the stretch. No shock, then, that the Spartans covered the pointspread in each and every one of those last ten games! The Kansas point guard duo of Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham combine to average 8.1 assists to 3.4 turnovers. Marcus Paige has had a terrible shooting year for North Carolina, but he’s got a 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. But Utah’s point guard combo of Brandon Taylor and Lorenzo Bonam clearly come up short in this category, combining for a ratio that’s less than 2:1, so this will be where I send the Utes home.
The final stat? Free throw shooting.
North Carolina is in the Top 50 at 73.6%. Michigan State is in the Top 100 at 72.1%. Kansas is the weak link here, ranked outside the Top 150. Bill Self won his only title due to Memphis’s inability to hit free throws when it mattered most. This year, they’ll lose out on a title chance because of that same weakness.
And that leaves me with two choices, both tradition rich, blue blood, elite-level programs: Michigan State and North Carolina. If the brackets set up this way, these will be the two teams I pick to meet for the national title; a rematch of the 2009 title game that was pretty much over by the second media timeout, when the Tar Heels led 24-8; a lead that Spartans would never cut down to single digits. That was Roy Williams second title in Chapel Hill; Tom Izzo’s last title in East Lansing came with Mateen Cleaves running the show back in 2000.
But with North Carolina struggling to hit perimeter shots for extended stretches this season, in a potential rematch of that 2009 title game, I’d give Sparty the edge. Michigan State has star power, depth, experience and talent. They rebound, play defense and win games consistently away from home. Tom Izzo’s squad meets all the criteria that has been effective at predicting past championship. Plain and simple, the Michigan State Spartans have what it takes to win it all.
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