March Madness 2014: Breaking Down Key Factors for a National Championship Run

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March Madness 2014: Breaking Down Key Factors for a National Championship Run
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Heading into the NCAA tournament, everyone wants to know which team will be able to win the six games necessary to take home a title. While there are plenty of upsets every year, history tells us what it takes to make a deep run in the Big Dance.

On Selection Sunday, the committee will tell us who deserves the top seeds based on regular-season success. Based on the projections of ESPN's Joe Lundardi, Florida, Arizona, Villanova and Wichita State will find themselves on the top line, while Michigan, Wisconsin, Duke and Kansas will be No. 2 seeds.

These teams and many others have the ability to win a national championship, but only one will be left standing. To figure out which squad will last the longest, it is important to examine more than just wins and losses from the season.

The eventual winner and the rest of the Final Four are likely to satisfy each of these four key factors necessary to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. 

 

Elite Go-To Scorer

Nati Harnik/Associated Press

Why It Is Important

Balance is a good thing during a college basketball season, but there comes a time in big games where you want one player to be able to take over. In the last two minutes, a perimeter player needs to be able to take the ball and get a basket when necessary. 

This requires the ability to create a look in a one-on-one matchup when everyone knows who is taking a shot.

In last year's tournament, Russ Smith made huge shots for Louisville, while Trey Burke was virtually unstoppable for Michigan. Either of these players could get the ball with everyone in the arena knowing what was going to happen, and they would still make plays.

On the other hand, a team like Florida—which had no players averaging more than 13 points per game last season—could not come through with a big shot when needed.

 

Teams That Have It

After Smith showed this ability last season, there is no reason to doubt that he could once again shine for Louisville with the spotlight on. Meanwhile, fellow AAC guards Sean Kilpatrick of Cincinnati and Shabazz Napier of Connecticut also have proved this skill all year long.

Napier especially will attempt to recreate the dramatic 2011 run of Kemba Walker, who almost single-handedly led UConn to a national title with his heroics. ESPN's Dick Vitale certainly thinks he can get it done in big moments:

Here is a look at one of Napier's biggest shots of the season:

Meanwhile, big-time scorers like Doug McDermott of Creighton, Jabari Parker of Duke, Marcus Smart of Oklahoma State and Arizona's Nick Johnson can also carry teams when necessary. Watch out for any of them to go on big-time runs this postseason.

 

Teams That Don't

Many defensive-oriented squads that utilize a balanced system tend to struggle when the game is on the line due to the lack of a go-to scorer. 

Two top contenders that could struggle in these cases are Wisconsin and Virginia. Frank Kaminsky has had a great year for the Badgers, but it is hard to imagine a team finding a way to get the ball down to him to make a play consistently at the end of a game. Meanwhile, Sam Dekker has cooled off a lot toward the end of the year.

The Cavaliers also struggled to close out contests when Joe Harris or Malcolm Brogdon were not hitting their shots. This will be even more apparent in the NCAA tournament.

Villanova and Saint Louis can score points, but a lack of a defined go-to option could slow them down as well.

 

Low-Post Presence

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Why It Is Important

Teams that showcase finesse during the regular season are often pushed around when the NCAA tournament starts. Opponents find a way to get more physical and create easy buckets in the paint while dominating on the boards.

Two years ago, an elite Missouri squad was knocked out in the first round by No. 15 Norfolk State due to the inability to defend the post.

It is not necessary to have a frontcourt scorer like Julius Randle, but it is certainly important to have someone capable of stopping him if necessary.

 

Teams That Have It

Until the recent back injury to Joel Embiid, Kansas was by far the best in the country in this area. Unfortunately, the ailment could keep him out of the start of the tournament. According to Jeff Goodman of ESPN, Jayhawks coach Bill Self explained:

Based on that, this weekend (in the Big 12 Championship) is out. Next weekend, we feel like is a longshot, but the doctors are hopeful that if Joel works hard in rehab and progresses that it is possible that he could play in the later rounds of the NCAA Tournament if our team is fortunate enough to advance.

As a result, Kansas can be in trouble in this area. Tarik Black will try to fill in alongside Perry Ellis, but this is a big drop on the defensive end.

Still, there are plenty of teams who can still get it done on the inside. Arizona has the athletic duo of Aaron Gordon and Kaleb Tarczewski, while Cincinnati is also tough in the frontcourt with Justin Jackson. Louisville and Florida might not have big-time shot-blockers, but they both have strong forwards who keep opponents out of the paint and rebound well.

As far as sleepers go, watch out for Arizona State, Baylor, Kentucky and Texas, which all excel in this area.

 

Teams That Don't

There are a number of top squads that could be in trouble against a tough big man, but Wichita State and Duke are the ones that could really struggle. 

The Shockers have been outstanding in their undefeated season, but there are not too many athletic big men in the Missouri Valley Conference. Meanwhile, Duke's Amile Jefferson is undersized and it has allowed opposing teams to get an advantage with offensive rebounds.

Michigan could also falter due to its poor interior defense since Mitch McGary went down with a back injury. It will be up to Jon Horford and Jordan Morgan to pick up the slack in this area.

 

Composed Point Guard

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Why It Is Important

There was a time where it was important to have a veteran point guard that knew how to perform under pressure. However, the recent youth movement has proved that a young player can get it done, as long as he is composed.

A championship team needs someone who can handle the ball under pressure, whether he is facing the tough full-court press of VCU or the tight on-ball defense of Duke or Virginia. Turnovers are deadly in March, and it can send even the best teams home early if they are not prepared.

 

Teams That Have It

Although Tyler Ennis is just a freshman, he has proved throughout the season that he is willing and able to make plays in the biggest situations. He received high praise for this attribute from his head coach during the season:

While Syracuse has struggled down the stretch, do not count out Ennis' ability to bring his team back from the dead.

On the other hand, Wichita State has had no such poor stretches and will enter the tournament undefeated thanks a lot to the play of Fred VanVleet at point guard. The sophomore has made few mistakes this year and almost always makes the right play.

Additionally, Florida remains a top contender thanks to Scottie Wilbekin, who has been excellent on both ends of the court. Arizona, Iowa State and Iowa also should feel confident in this area heading into the postseason.

 

Teams That Don't

It is important to note that this category is not just based on having a talented point guard, but also a composed one. For this reason, Kentucky is near the bottom of the list, as Andrew Harrison cannot be consistently trusted to make the right decision with the ball.

Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart also has question marks in this area after losing his composure multiple times during the season, once taking it out on a chair and another time on a fan

Villanova and Ohio State could also have problems due to a lack of a true point guard helping create opportunities on the offensive end. A little bit of defensive pressure could cause either team to lose control.

 

Secondary Scorers

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Why It Is Important

It was previously noted that a top team needs one big-time scorer who can take over late in games when needed. However, any college player has the ability to struggle at least a little bit over the course of six rounds.

A true championship team will be able to find a way to win when its best player is not having a strong day. In order to do this, a squad needs quality secondary scorers to contribute when needed. This might not necessarily be important against the top teams but instead in the first few rounds.

Last season, Georgetown gave Otto Porter little help offensively and it led to a first-round exit at the hands of No. 15-seeded Florida Gulf Coast.

 

Teams That Have It

Critics love to point out that Wichita State has not competed against the toughest schedule, but the Shockers have some serious talent on the perimeter. Cleanthony Early and Ron Baker can each be go-to options, while VanVleet and Tekele Cotton have both shown the ability to score 20 points when needed.

Florida also has a great deal of balance as five players are capable of putting up big numbers on a given night. Jeff Goodman of ESPN made a parallel to the squad that won two national championships a few years back:

Villanova has one of the top offenses in the nation thanks to the trio of James Bell, Darrun Hilliard and JayVaughn Pinkston. In the event that one of the three struggle, the other two will be able to pick up the slack.

Top squads like Louisville, Iowa State and Arizona can also count on scoring coming from different places depending on the game. 

 

Teams That Don't

According to KenPom.com, Creighton is the nation's most efficient offense. Of course, a lot of this has to do with the nation's leading scorer Doug McDermott. If he struggles (admittedly, this does not happen often) the Bluejays have few options to pick up the slack.

Ethan Wragge has had a solid year and there are a number of other players capable of hitting an open shot, but McDermott has taken the highest percentage of his team's field-goal attempts of anyone in college basketball. A poor shooting night could lead to an early exit.

Biggest Gap Between Top Scorers (Top 16 Teams in Bracketology)
School Leading Scorer 2nd-Leading Scorer Difference
Creighton Doug McDermott (26.5 ppg) Ethan Wragge (10.7 ppg) 15.8 ppg
Cincinnati Sean Kilpatrick (20.9 ppg) Justin Jackson (11.0 ppg) 9.9 ppg
San Diego State Xavier Thames (16.9 ppg) Winston Shepard (12.3 ppg) 4.6 ppg
Syracuse C.J. Fair (16.9 ppg) Trevor Cooney (12.5 ppg) 4.4 ppg
Michigan Nik Stauskas (17.4 ppg) Caris LeVert (13.4 ppg) 4.0 ppg

via ESPN

Michigan and Duke remain in a similar situation as the secondary scorers have been completely inconsistent this year. Nik Stauskas and Parker have been excellent for their respective teams, but guys like Glenn Robinson III and Rodney Hood must also have efficient games.

Cincinnati and Ohio State also have to be concerned about these situations.

 

Conclusion

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In order to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament, it is important to have a balanced offensive attack, but still have one person capable of winning a game on his own. You also need a floor leader capable of avoiding mistakes as well as a strong frontcourt that can ensure that an opponent does not get easy layups all day.

With this criteria, top teams like Villanova (point guard play), Duke (low-post defense), Wisconsin (go-to scorer) and Cincinnati (secondary options) could end up struggling and losing early.

On the other hand, watch out for a few sleepers that fit this system to make a deep run, including Arizona State, Connecticut and Baylor.

As far as picking a national champion, there are certainly good choices like Florida, Kansas (with a healthy Embiid) and even Iowa State. However, the most complete team at this point is Arizona.

The Wildcats have a steady point guard in T.J. McConnell leading a balanced attack with Johnson, Gordon and Tarczewski. In big games, Johnson is the one who has taken over and made the important baskets.

Most importantly, the squad has the toughest defense in the country and are incredibly tough to score on in the post. Seth Davis of CBS Sports made this assessment earlier in the season:

The team has all the tools to win the NCAA tournament and it is the best possible pick in your brackets next week.

 

Follow Rob Goldberg on Twitter for the latest breaking news and analysis.

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