Who Has What It Takes to Win the Big Dance
Who Has What It Takes to Win the Big Dance in 2012?
History shows us many things about what it takes to be a champion. I write this article every year, and just about every year, I have been able to identify the eventual NCAA national champion among my elite level teams. Last year, however, was an exception, with UConn coming from the middle of the pack to win the Big East title, followed by an impressive run to the national championship.
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 at the tail end of February. That’s before the regular season is over for the major conferences, before the conference tournaments, before the seedings are announced and before a single tournament game has been played.
So as I pen this article for the 2012 campaign, I do have some concerns about whether my long term statistical model still holds juice in the modern era. Not to brag, but I’ve nailed the winner of the NCAA tournament three times in the last five years, correctly predicting Florida in ’07, Kansas in ’08 and North Carolina in ’09. I did NOT predict Duke in 2010, and didn’t even have UConn in the discussion last year. If the eventual champion in 2012 is not among my elite teams, it’s time to change the model. But, if as I expect, the eventual champion comes from one of my elite level teams, I’ll hold off on tweaking what has been a very successful model over the past decade plus.
The last 14 NCAA champions and the team’s they beat in the title game are listed here: 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 and UConn over Butler last year.
13 of those 14 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 look at that statistical profile and make a ‘short list’ of potential NCAA champs. In Part 2, 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 each of the last two years stand out as the teams that were not among the top 16 seeds in the tournament but were still good or lucky enough to make it all the way to the championship game.
But those Cinderella’s have been unable to seal the deal – the eventual champion has been seeded no lower than #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. 18 of the last 21 national champions have been #1 or #2 seeds. Even UConn last year 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 last year, 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 14 champions was from one of the six ‘major’ conferences. 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 in each of the last two seasons, or VCU’s remarkable run to the Final Four last year.
George Mason enjoyed an amazing run to the Final Four six years ago from the Colonial Athletic Conference; a big enough shocker that we still talk about it more than half a decade later. 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, 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 Murray St, New Mexico, UNLV, Temple, St Mary’s, San Diego State, Wichita State, Creighton, St Louis, BYU, Gonzaga, Drexel, Long Beach State, Middle Tennessee, Harvard, Iona, Nevada, Memphis or Southern Miss. Those elite mid-majors are not going to make my ‘potential champions’ list, even though many 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 16 teams: Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, Syracuse, Marquette, Georgetown, Louisville, Michigan St, Ohio St, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Baylor, Kentucky, Florida and Cal.
Even if we extend this list to include major conference teams with up to nine losses – like UConn had last year – it still doesn’t become an unwieldy list to manage. Florida State, Notre Dame, Cincinnati, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa State, Kansas State, Washington, Arizona, Oregon, Colorado, Vanderbilt and Alabama are all major conference teams with eight or nine losses so far this season.
But can any of that baker’s dozen really make a title run? I wouldn’t bet on it. Based on my perception having watched those 13 teams play on multiple occasions this season, we might see a longshot Final Four appearance from one of them, but I don’t think there’s a team in the bunch that has what it takes to win it all. I’ll stick with my original list of 16.
Last year, I talked myself out of Connecticut right here, in the ‘projected seeding’ section of the discussion. Here’s what I wrote about UConn: “The Huskies lost at home to Marquette last week. They’ve still got regular season games against Big Dance locks West Virginian and Notre Dame, plus the always brutal Big East tournament next week. The loss to Marquette probably ended their hopes for a #3 seed or higher, which means I’ll give UConn the boot right here, right now.”
That doesn’t mean I’m not going to consider probable seeding in this year’s tournament. Remember, even though I got UConn’s projected seeding wrong prior to their Big East tourney run, the fact remains – no team has won a national title without earning a #3 seed or better since 1997. So let’s whittle down that list of 16 right here, starting with Virginia.
Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers are 21-7 overall, 8-6 in ACC play. But they’ve lost every ‘step-up’ game in conference action; 0-fer the season against Duke, North Carolina and Florida State. Currently, Virginia is projected in the range of a #7 or #8 seed. I’ll bounce them here.
Cal is another team ready to get the boot right here. It’s been a very down year for the PAC-12; a conference that hasn’t enjoyed a national title winner since Arizona’s back in 1997. Only two PAC-12 teams – Arizona and UCLA – have even made a Final Four appearance since the Wildcats title 15 years ago. Cal got waxed in all three of their non-conference ‘step-up’ games, losing to Missouri, San Diego St and UNLV by a combined margin of 57 points. They haven’t been able to make up any ‘RPI’ ground in conference action, currently projected as a #8 or #9 seed. That’s too low; eliminating the Bears from future discussion.
That leaves me with 14 teams to discuss in Part 2 of this article. I’ll wager dollars to donuts that the eventual NCAA champion will come from this list of 14: Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, Marquette, Georgetown, Louisville, Michigan St, Ohio St, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Baylor, Kentucky and Florida.