Blueprint of an NCAA Basketball Champion

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Blueprint of an NCAA Basketball Champion

The regular season ended a week ago for the Indiana Hoosiers, with the Michigan Wolverines' Jordan Morgan nearly tipping in a Trey Burke missed layup in the final seconds. The ball went off the glass, teased Michigan fans with two bounces on the rim and eventually fell off to make Indiana the outright Big Ten champs. 

The Hoosiers came into the year preordained as the national title favorite, and they enter the NCAA tournament as the best in the best league —yet they certainly don't look like a sure thing.

Kentucky 2012, they are not. 

But what exactly is a champion supposed to look like? How do we know who is worthy? And in a year where parity seems to be so in vogue, can just anyone win it? 

The answer to the final question is as close to an unequivocal "no" as March allows. History tells us that not just anyone can win it. 

As for the look of a champion, well, there's an answer there too. But it's complicated. 

 

Quantifying a Champ in Its Simplest Form

Ken Pomeroy, the weatherman-turned-stats guru, told me last week that there is no road map to winning a championship. 

But if you study Pomeroy's numbers, which date back to 2003, there is a trend. 

Basketball comes down to making baskets and preventing the other team from doing so, and it's no shocker that NCAA champions always do both really well. Pomeroy's rankings are based mostly on offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency, which measure points per possession. He then adjusts those numbers based on the strength of the opponent. 

In the last 10 years, every national champion has ranked in the top 20 in both of these categories. 

Champ Adj. Off. Eff. Rank Adj. Def. Eff. Rank
Kentucky 122.9 2 88.2 9
Connecticut 115.7 16 90.3 14
Duke 123.5 1 85.9 4
North Carolina 124.2 1 89.6 4
Kansas 125.3 2 82.8 1
Florida 125.4 1 87.4 12
Florida 119.4 2 87.2 5
North Carolina 126.6 1 86.7 5
Connecticut 119.9 4 85.5 5
Syracuse 116.0 11 90.2 19

 

Here are the six teams that currently rank in the top 20 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency this season (going into Saturday's games). 


Adj. Off. Eff. Rank Adj. Def. Eff. Rank
Indiana 124.0 1 88.4 16
Gonzaga 119.9  88.3 14
Florida 119.0  5 82.7 
Louisville 113.6 18  80.9 
Ohio State 114.5 15  86.9 
Pittsburgh 116.6  88.7  18 

 

Offensively and defensively, each champion resembles one another in several ways. It almost is a road map. Each has a similar footprint, and it also takes a certain pedigree to win the title. 

This is a look at what it takes and which contenders meet the standards.  

Note: Since every champion dating back to 1989 has had a No. 4 seed or better—Kansas won in 1988 as a No. 6—only teams that are currently considered top-four seeds were taken into consideration. Those teams were determined by looking at the predicted brackets of ESPN.com's Joe Lunardi and CBSSports.com's Jerry Palm, which eliminates Pittsburgh. 

 

Offensive Footprint

1. Shoot Better Than 37 Percent From Three

A year ago, no one would have claimed Kentucky was a great three-point shooting team, but a closer look reveals John Calipari's bunch was good enough. 

The Wildcats made 37.8 percent of their threes, which put them over the threshold mark that most champions top: 37 percent. 

How often you shoot the three hardly matters—just that you make them. 

Champ 3PA/FGA 3-point %
Kentucky 26.5 37.8
Connecticut 29.3 32.9
Duke 33.0 38.5
North Carolina 27.2 38.5
Kansas 29.3 39.7
Florida 34.0 40.9
Florida 34.8 39.2
North Carolina 30.4 40.3
Connecticut 25.8 40.2
Syracuse 25.2 34.4

 

The 2011 Huskies were the worst shooting team in this group, but they at least had a semi-warm stretch to start the NCAA tournament, making 38 percent of their threes in the first four games.

Connecticut cooled off at the Final Four, making 2-of-23 in Houston, but it must have been something about Reliant Stadium that made it impossible to drain a three. The four teams combined to shoot 28.1 percent from deep. 

Syracuse, the other sub-37-percent team in the group, also heated up in the NCAA tournament, shooting 42.5 percent from distance. 

To be champ, accuracy from the arc matters. 

Qualifiers (37 percent-plus three-point shooting): Duke, Indiana, Gonzaga, Florida, Michigan

Non-qualifiers: Louisville, Kansas, Georgetown, Ohio State, Michigan State, Miami, New Mexico, Kansas State, Arizona, Syracuse, Wisconsin

 

2. Frontcourt Scorer

The guards seem to get all the love in March, but it's tough to win without a scoring big man. 

Eight of the last 10 champions have had a frontcourt player average better than 12 points per game, and all eight of those bigs were first-round picks in the NBA draft. 

Connecticut in 2011 is an outlier here once again. The Huskies got most of their scoring from Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb. The other team that doesn't exactly fit the mold was Duke in 2010. 

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Blue Devils, if you consider Kyle Singler at 6'8" an inside player, would qualify (Singler started at the 3-spot). He averaged 17.7 points per game and occasionally slid to the frontcourt as a stretch-4 man. 

This category could also be correlated to good three-point shooting. All of these big men were helped by the threat of the three, giving them room to work. 

Only three teams this year (Duke, Indiana and Gonzaga) have both. 

Qualifiers (frontcourt scorer averaging 12-plus points per game): Duke, Indiana, Gonzaga, Kansas, Ohio State, New Mexico, Miami, Arizona

Non-qualifiers: Louisville, Georgetown, Michigan State, Michigan, Kansas State, Marquette, Syracuse, Wisconsin

 

3. Balance

Champions share the rock. 

A look at the last 10 champs shows that only two teams have had a trigger-happy player: Syracuse in 2003 (Carmelo Anthony), and Connecticut in 2011 (Walker). Both Anthony and Walker attempted more than 30 percent of the team's shots when they were on the floor. 

Craig Jones/Getty Images

Even with Anthony dominating the ball, the Orange still had balance, with four players averaging better than 11 points per game. 

The Huskies are the only one of the last 10 champs without three players averaging in double figures, and they were close. Alex Oriakhi averaged 9.6 points per game. 

Seven of the last 10 champs had four players average in double figures. Both Connecticut champs fell short, and Duke had only three double-digit scorers. Those three Blue Devils did average better than 17 points per game, so their offense was not lacking in options.  

Qualifiers (three double-digit scorers): Indiana, Duke, Gonzaga, Florida, Louisville, Kansas, Michigan State, New Mexico, Miami, Michigan, Wisconsin, Syracuse

Non-qualifiers: Ohio State, Georgetown, Kansas State, Marquette

 

4. Pound the Offensive Glass

Offensive rebounding has gradually fallen across the country as teams sacrifice second shots for attempting to slow transition opportunities. That's one reason scoring is down, which can be read about here

If coaches would study history, they would know that most champions hit the offensive glass. In the last 10 seasons, nine champs have grabbed better than 37 percent of their misses. 

Champ Off. Reb. % Rank
Kentucky 37.5 21
Connecticut 38.2 7
Duke 40.3 7
North Carolina 38.9 21
Kansas 37.8 24
Florida 37.6 42
Florida 35.5 105
North Carolina 39.7 18
Connecticut 41.6 3
Syracuse 38.5 31

 

The one outlier here is Florida in 2006. Billy Donovan's team saw the error of its ways by the tourney, and the Gators grabbed 37.6 percent of their misses in the NCAA tournament. 

With fewer teams sending their players to the glass, this is one category where most are lacking. 

Qualifiers: Indiana, Gonzaga, Louisville, Kansas State, Syracuse

Non-qualifiers: Florida, Duke, Kansas, Georgetown, Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan, New Mexico, Arizona, Miami, Wisconsin

 

Defensive Footprint

1. Don't Give Up Easy Twos

The old saying goes that there is more than one way to skin a cat. When it comes to championship defense, that's not really the case. 

In an ideal world, you want your defense to either force a turnover or a miss and then rebound. But a defense that focuses on the first usually does so by sacrificing too many easy baskets. That's why most champions have thrived at forcing misses, particularly inside the arc.

Forcing turnovers are simply a bonus. 

The key, as history shows, is defending inside the three-point line. Nine of the last 10 champs have held opponents to less than 45 percent on two-point attempts. Florida in 2006 was the one exception (46.3 percent). Before 2006, you have to go back to Arizona in 1997 to find a champion that allowed opponents to make better than 45 percent of their twos. 

Champ 2-point FG %
Kentucky 40.8
Connecticut 42.4
Duke 44.0
North Carolina 44.7
Kansas 41.2
Florida 46.3
Florida 43.7
North Carolina 43.7
Connecticut 38.7
Syracuse 43.6

 

As for turnovers, they hardly matter. Kentucky won last season, forcing turnovers on only 17.6 percent of opponents possessions, which ranked 301st nationally. The only one of the last 10 NCAA champs to rank in the top 60 in turnover percentage was North Carolina in 2005, at 56th. 

Defensive rebounding, surprisingly, is not all that important either. Only two of the last 10 champs (Kansas 2008, North Carolina 2009) ranked in the top 60 in defensive rebounding percentage. 

The lesson: Force tough twos, and you have a chance. 

Qualifiers: Indiana, Gonzaga, Florida, Louisville, Kansas, Georgetown, Ohio State, Michigan State, New Mexico, Miami, Syracuse, Wisconsin

Non-qualifiers: Duke, Michigan, Kansas State, Marquette, Arizona

 

2. Don't Foul

What team this season is playing championship-level defense inside the arc and still managing to gamble on D?

Answer: Louisville. 

USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals rank second in the nation at forcing turnovers, doing so on 27.5 percent of possessions, and yet they've been able to hold opponents to 42.7 percent inside the arc. 

It's obvious it helps to have a 6'11" eraser at the back of your defense in Gorgui Dieng. It also helps to have two lightning-quick guards in Russ Smith and Peyton Siva, who can gamble and usually recover. 

That combination has made Louisville the best defense by Pomeroy's measure of adjusted defensive efficiency since he started tracking the stat in 2003. But there is one defensive category where the Cards fall short, and that's sending opponents to the free-throw line. 

The trend for championship defenses has been that they limit those opportunities. The target number is a free-throw rate (free-throw attempts/field-goal attempts) below 31 percent. 

Champ FT Rate
Kentucky 25.8
Connecticut 26.8
Duke 34.0
North Carolina 25.4
Kansas 31.0
Florida 27.7
Florida 29.2
North Carolina 30.3
Connecticut 24.8
Syracuse 30.0

 

Obviously, nearly every champ falls short in at least one of these categories. Taking a big-picture look, it's fair to say that Louisville may not be championship-worthy. But it would be silly to suggest fouling too often for a defense that dominates in almost every statistical realm is not good enough to win a title. 

So for this one, the Cardinals should probably get a pass. 

Qualifiers: Duke, Indiana, Gonzaga, Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin

Non-qualifiers: Louisville, Kansas, Georgetown, Ohio State, Michigan State, Miami, New Mexico, Kansas State, Marquette, Syracuse

 

Pedigree

1. Conference Champs

The beauty of the tournament comes with the upsets and the Cinderellas. Yet when we get to the final weekend, typically teams that have dominated their conferences in some form or another end up as the champ. 

Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

The "some form or another" can come in the regular season or postseason. Arizona (1997) is the only national champion in the last 20 years that has not either finished first (or tied for first) in its conference's regular season or won its conference tournament. 

For the regular-season champs, the postseason conference tournament hardly matters. Out of the last 15 regular-season champs that went on to win the national championship, only seven also won their conference tourney. 

Regular-season success does matter—unless you're the 2011 Connecticut Huskies. They joined Florida in 2006 and Arizona in 1997 as the only champs of the last 20 years to finish outside of second place in their conference's regular season. 

The Huskies, obviously, are the exception to almost every rule. But they did go on a magical run to win the Big East tourney—five wins in five days—which suggested they were capable of going on a prolonged run in the NCAA tournament. 

Qualifiers: Indiana, Gonzaga, Florida, Louisville, Kansas, Georgetown, New Mexico, Miami, Kansas State

Non-qualifiers: Duke, Michigan State, Michigan, Arizona, Syracuse

TBD: Ohio State, Wisconsin

 

2. A Coach with Postseason Success

They don't call Butler coach Brad Stevens the "Wonder Boy" for no reason. 

What Stevens nearly accomplished in 2010 when he was a buzzer-beater away from knocking off Duke would have been close to unprecedented. 

To win a title, it helps to have tourney experience and previous tourney success. Stevens had only been to two tournaments, and the farthest he had led the Bulldogs was the round of 32.

USA TODAY Sports

Every national champion's coach dating back to 1990 has been to at least a Sweet 16. Tubby Smith is the only coach out of the bunch who had not been to at least an Elite Eight. Smith did have the luxury of taking over a Kentucky team in 1997 that had been to two straight national championship games. 

In 1989, Steve Fisher won the title as a first-year coach, but like Smith, he took over a successful team. Michigan had played in the Sweet 16 the year before.

Since Fisher won it, only Smith, Jim Harrick (UCLA 1995) and Bill Self (Kansas 2008) won the title without previously making a Final Four. 

As much as we want to believe almost anyone can win the title, it sure helps if you've been there before. 

Qualifiers (coach who has been to at least an Elite Eight): Duke, Indiana, Florida, Louisville, Kansas, Georgetown, Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan, Miami, Kansas State, Arizona, Wisconsin, Syracuse

Non-qualifiers: Gonzaga, New Mexico, Marquette

 

Who Will Be the 2013 Champ?

The narrative has been established that there is no dominant team. Yet by these measurements, there is one team that meets all the qualifications: Indiana. 

The Hoosiers were the preseason No. 1, and the perception is that they haven't quite lived up to what we want out of the title favorite.

Yes, it's a team with some flaws, but it's not unusual that a champ is imperfect or stumbles somewhere along the way. 

In fact, the last 10 champions had losses in late February or early March. Even Kentucky last season lost in the SEC tournament. 

Indiana may have its flaws, but every champion does. 

David Becker/Getty Images

If it's not Indiana, the other team that fits the blueprint best is Gonzaga. The only thing the Zags are missing is a coach with an Elite Eight appearance, and Mark Few has at least made a Sweet 16.

Other than that, the Zags appear to have what it takes on both ends of the court. If anything is holding them back, it's their conference and a stigma that has followed them around in recent weeks like one of those annoying trolls on Twitter. 

Were the Zags to win, they would become the first team from outside a power-six conference to win the title since UNLV in 1990. Jerry Tarkanian had the luxury of playing in a troll-less society—unless you count the NCAA. 

Florida is the third team that comes closest to meeting the criteria. Billy Donovan has two rings and has been to three Final Fours. He has a team that is the second best defensively in the nation and is only lacking in the offensive rebounding department.

Who will win the 2013 national championship?

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Louisville is also close. The Cardinals lack the big man, as Russ Smith shoots at a Kemba Walker-like rate, and they foul too often. But that defense and that pedigree are hard to ignore.

And if you're looking for one last team that could eventually play its way into fitting most of the criteria, it's Duke. The Blue Devils failed to pass the conference test and are not close when it comes to offensive rebounding (29.4 percent).

But they pass every other offensive test and just barely fall short defensively. Opponents are making 46.3 percent of their twos, and Duke is only six spots from the top 20 in defensive efficiency. 

With Ryan Kelly in the lineup, the Blue Devils likely meet both those marks. Opponents have made just 42.3 percent of their twos. 

Could the eventual champion not fit in the championship box that has been outlined? 

Yes, every so often Connecticut in 2011 happens. But even the Huskies fit all but three of the criteria. They were not too far off the map. 

The next three weeks will be crazy. Some of the top teams will get knocked off, and new Butlers and VCUs will emerge. 

But in the end, it's a good bet that either Indiana, Gonzaga, Florida, Louisville or Duke will be able to navigate its way to a championship. 

Indiana, the preseason favorite, should still be the favorite. The Hoosiers have earned that tag. The numbers tell us that they have what it takes. 

 

All advanced stats used in this piece come from KenPom.com.

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