Every year, this article comes out, and with each year, it gets tweaked. The game has changed. The Curry Factor has teams shooting more threes, the tempo is getting even faster with the 30 second shot clock, and there’s an absolute premium on defense as it becomes harder and harder to play. With that in mind, here’s what we’re looking for when we fill out the brackets this year.
We’ve reviewed the last seven national champions looking for consistent threads. Here’s what we’ve found (all numbers per Kenpom.com, and thanks as always to Ken for the use of the data):
* All had top 15 defenses
* All had top 40 offenses
* All had top 35 strength of schedules
* No team lost more than four games after February 1st (including conference championship), so it doesn’t look good for Oklahoma, does it?
* The seven champions combined for just a single loss against an opponent outside of the top 100, and never lost to a team outside of the top 150.
*6 of 7 teams had a Kenpom top 10 player playing for them
* Were ranked in the top 20 in the AP Preseason Poll (yes, even UConn was the year they were a 7 seed. As Ken Pomeroy reminds us, the preseason AP Poll is more accurate than the end of regular season poll)
That’s it. Some champions handle the ball at an elite level, others rebound, others are brilliant shooting teams. That fluctuates, but the above criteria has been 100% for the last seven years.
Keeping in mind that end of year analytics are just that – they reflect the team after the tourney is over, not before, we need to leave some wiggle room as teams strength of schedule will improve during the tourney, and this years National Champion will probably end the season with better numbers than they have today largely because they are about to go 6-0. So here’s the criteria that we will look for to find this years potential champions.:
* Top 25 defense
* Top 50 offense
* Top 50 strength of schedule
* No more than four losses after February 1
* No losses to a team ranked 100 or worse
* Extra credit if a team has a kenpom top 10 player
* Preseason AP Poll top 20 team
Here’s your list of potential champions:
Duke (Team has two top 10 players) EAST
Michigan St (1 top 10 player) EAST
Kansas (1 top 10 player) MIDWEST
Michigan (They have 5 losses if you include Feb 1, which we don’t, but three of those were to Michigan State…) WEST
Virginia (Strength of Schedule 49th) SOUTH
Until I wrote that, I hadn’t noticed that Kansas, Kentucky and UNC were all in the same quadrant. That’s the blind leading the blind right there. It’s an impressive array of teams that win by recruiting so well it makes up for their coaches on the court performance. It’s an Alan Boston affair of hatred bracket. I join Alan in this, and can’t imagine the titles Tony Shaver would win with that kind of talent. Recruiting, rightly or wrongly, wins in college basketball.
Use Vegas’ help. The bookmakers aren’t there to help you, but they do. If a game looks like it should be a blowout, but has a tight spread, or a lower seed is outright favored – as a guy who once met me on the floor of Madison Square Garden will tell you – “Upset City, Baby!”
The Anteaters of UC Irvine are only giving 4 points in their 13 v 4 game against Kansas St. Of course, that game is being played in San Jose (see our final note). Wisky is only favored by 2 in a 5 vs 12 matchup. And VCU is an underdog 8 seed. That highlights a roster of matchups where the Powers That Be in Vegas thought the committee mis-seeded. Others include:
LSU is only favored by 7.5 in a 4 v 13 game against Yale, so could this be another big year for the Ivy? In the case of Kansas, that shrinks to a 6.5 favorite against the CAA’s own Northeastern in another 4 v 13 seed game. Marquette is only favored by 4 against Murray St in a 5/12 contest. And yes, Nova is only a 4.5 point favorite over a St. Mary’s team that is traveling cross country in a 6/11 matchup. These are the games where we will be looking for early round upsets, and I’d wager at least one third of them will hit outright.
Lastly, remember location, location, location! Where they play the games matter. Oregon will be a home team in San Jose. So will Minnesota in Des Moines. As would Kansas or Iowa St if they make it to Kansas City and the Sweet 16. Fans matter! So if you’re filling out a bracket that doesn’t have the location of the game on it you’re doing yourself a disservice.
Don’t overthink it. Most of all, have fun. It’s time for some madness!