NCAA Tournament 2014: Who Best Fits the Blueprint of a Champion?

C.J. MooreCollege Basketball National Lead WriterMarch 18, 2014

AP Images

When predicting the NCAA champ, it's not bad to go with what Vegas is thinking. Florida opened as the favorite at 4-1. Groupthink also likes the Gators. Over one-fourth of the submitted Bleacher Report brackets have Billy Donovan's team cutting down the nets.

But what if there was a way to predict the champion based on the history of past title teams? No bias. No "eye test." Just strictly facts and numbers.

Last year, I came up with a formula by studying past champs—particularly, the last 10—and the characteristics they share.

These are the 10 traits that almost all of them had in common:

  1. Head coach has made it to an Elite Eight in the past.
  2. Has either won its regular season conference title or conference tournament. (Every champ since 1990 except for Arizona in 1997 has won either one of the two or both.)
  3. Ranks in the top 20 in kenpom.com's adjusted offensive efficiency ratings.
  4. Ranks in the top 20 in kenpom.com's adjusted defensive efficiency ratings.
  5. Shoots better than 37 percent from beyond the arc.
  6. Has at least three double-digit scorers.
  7. Has a front-court scorer who averages better than 12 points per game and will eventually get drafted in the first round of the NBA draft.
  8. Rebound better than 37 percent of their misses on the offensive end.
  9. Holds opponents to less than 45 percent shooting inside the arc.
  10. Has a defensive free-throw rate better than 31 percent. (Free-throw rate is the number of free throws attempted divided by field-goal attempts.)

Not every champ has passed every test. Louisville in 2013, for instance, shot worse than 37 percent from deep, did not have a frontcourt scorer with more than 12 points per game—Gorgui Dieng was a first-round draft pick—and fouled more often than the average champ.

With that in mind, let's start by eliminating every team that is worse than a No. 4 seed. The last team to win the title that wasn't a top-four seed was Kansas in 1988.

Now that we have our 16 eligible teams, let's see who can put a check mark next to each of the 10 categories.

Note: Highlighted teams in each chart pass that particular test. And if numbers make your head hurt, skip to the end for the spark-notes version of this story.

 

Head Coach Success and Conference Dominance

The Elite Eight rule, surprisingly, has applied to every national-champion coach since Tubby Smith won at Kentucky in 1997. Smith had been to a Sweet 16 previously and had the luxury of coaching a team that had been to the title game the year before. 

Mar 8, 2014; San Diego, CA, USA; San Diego State Aztecs head coach Steve Fisher during the second half against the New Mexico Lobos at Viejas Arena. The Aztecs won 51-48 to claim the regular season Mountain West championship. Mandatory Credit: Christopher
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

The last coach to win the title without coaching in at least a Sweet 16 previously was Steve Fisher, who took over Michigan in 1988-89 midseason. That Michigan team had been to the Sweet 16 the year before. 

Other than Arizona in 1997, you also have to go back to Michigan in 1989 to find a national champion that did not either finish first (or tied for first) in its conference or win its conference tournament.

This year, four of the 16 coaches have not made an Elite Eight; however, two of those coaches (Virginia's Tony Bennett and UCLA's Steve Alford) have been to a Sweet 16.

Only four of the 16 failed to finish first in their conference or win their conference tournament.

Tournament Experience and Conference Success
Been to an Elite EightConference Champ
FloridaYesYes
ArizonaYesYes
Wichita StateYesYes
VirginiaNoYes
KansasYesYes
WisconsinYesNo
MichiganYesYes
VillanovaYesYes
SyracuseYesNo
CreightonNoNo
DukeYesNo
Iowa StateNoYes
UCLANoYes
San Diego StateYesYes
LouisvilleYesYes
Michigan StateYesYes
B/R

Sorry Creighton fans, you're starting off with two strikes against you.

 

The Efficiency Test

Efficiency on both ends, in my opinion, is more important than any other category. The game comes down to making buckets and getting stops. It's pretty simple. 

Here's one caveat to this rule: The 11 teams to win the title in the kenpom.com era (since 2003) have all ended up in the top 20 for both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency, but that doesn't mean they started the tournament there. 

That should give hope to several teams on the cusp. 

Adjusted Efficiency Ratings
Adj. OERankAdj. DERank
Florida115.81790.55
Arizona113.13586.91
Wichita State117.7892.710
Virginia114.02589.53
Kansas118.6696.945
Wisconsin119.5598.759
Michigan122.33101.6104
Villanova115.8693.714
Syracuse113.23494.214
Creighton125.71102.5126
Duke124.42101.4102
Iowa State115.91597.854
UCLA116.81497.549
San Diego State108.010390.97
Louisville117.41090.66
Michigan State117.31196.539
kenpom.com

 

Offensive Footprint: Threes, Rebounding, Balance and a Scoring Big Man

Let's establish, once again, that efficiency is the key. It helps to shoot well from outside the arc, rebound your misses, have balance and a good big man, but not every champ has been able to satisfy all four criteria. 

Three of the last 11 champs (Syracuse in 2003, Connecticut in 2011 and Louisville in 2013) have shot worse than 37 percent from deep, although Syracuse did heat up to shoot 42.5 percent in the tournament. 

ATLANTA - APRIL 02:  Head coach Billy Donovan of the Florida Gators grabs Joakim Noah #13 during their game against the Ohio State Buckeyes during the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship game at the Georgia Dome on April 2, 2007 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Phot
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Billy Donovan's first title team in 2006 was the only one of the last 11 not to grab at least 37 percent of its misses, but the Gators were close at 35.5 percent. 

The Huskies in 2011 are the only ones without three double-digit scorers, but they were close—Alex Oriakhi averaged 9.6 points per game. 

The big-man test is the one that I've considered dumping altogether. Only eight of the last 11 champs pass, although Duke in 2006 was close—if you consider Kyle Singler, who was drafted in the second round, a frontcourt scorer—and Louisville's Dieng didn't average 12 points, but he was a first-round pick. So I'm changing it to either/or.

If you have a frontcourt scorer at 12 points per game or one who is a future first-rounder, you pass the test. 

To determine whether these teams have a big man who will likely go in the first round, I used DraftExpress.com's 2014 and 2015 mock drafts. 

Offensive Footprint
3-point %Off. Reb. %Double-Digit ScorersFrontcourt Test
Florida36.835.8YesYes
Arizona35.637.2YesYes
Wichita State34.835.4YesYes
Virginia36.534.8NoNo
Kansas34.637.1YesYes
Wisconsin37.327.9YesYes
*Michigan39.428.9YesYes
Villanova36.133.1YesYes
Syracuse33.538.1YesYes
Creighton42.228.1NoYes
*Duke39.435.1YesYes
Iowa State35.128.1YesYes
UCLA39.130.2YesNo
San Diego State33.936.1NoNo
Louisville37.137.3YesYes
Michigan State39.133.5YesYes
kenpom.com

*Michigan's Glenn Robinson III and Duke's Jabari Parker could both be considered wings, but they are starting at the power-forward spots for their respective teams.

 

Defensive Footprint: Preventing Easy Twos and Not Fouling

Solid defense inside the arc is a must. Only the Gators in 2006 won allowing opponents to make better than 45 percent of their twos—they were close at 46.3 percent. Those Gators were a bit of an anomaly in that they had great talent and turned it on in the postseason. 

Forcing turnovers and defensive rebounding hardly matter, and here's why... 

From my story last year: 

Kentucky won in 2012, 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. (You can now add Louisville, which ranked second last year.)

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. (Louisville ranked 242nd last season.)

The foul requirement is another I've considered dropping, especially this season with the rule changes. Plus, Louisville wasn't even close last season but dominated defensively in every other statistic. 

Since the average free-throw rate (FTA/FGA) has gone up nearly five percentage points from 35.9 percent last year to 40.6 percent this year, I've added five percentage points to the free-throw-rate rule, going from a 31-percent target to 36 percent. 

Only five of the 16 teams pass both tests. 

Defensive Footprint
2-point FG% Def.FT Rate
Florida42.932.6
Arizona40.534.5
Wichita State43.735.0
Virginia41.832.3
Kansas44.145.7
Wisconsin46.225.9
Michigan50.427.6
Villanova43.438.7
Syracuse45.836.5
Creighton46.832.9
Duke50.040.2
Iowa State45.431.1
UCLA48.836.4
San Diego State43.631.8
Louisville43.938.2
Michigan State44.039.1
kenpom.com

 

Who Will Be the Champ? 

That was a lot to take in, I know. 

Let's review which teams best fit the blueprint in the 10 categories. 

Who fits the blueprint?
Categories Checked
Florida7
Arizona8
Wichita State8
Virginia4
Kansas7
Wisconsin5
Michigan7
Villanova7
Syracuse5
Creighton4
Duke5
Iowa State5
UCLA4
San Diego State5
Louisville9
Michigan State7
B/R

There you have it. These numbers suggest that Louisville has the best shot at winning the title, and Wichita State and Arizona are next up.

ATLANTA, GA - APRIL 08:  (L-R) Tim Henderson #15, Russ Smith #2, Wayne Blackshear #20 and Peyton Siva #3 of the Louisville Cardinals celebrate with teammates after they defeated the Michigan Wolverines during the 2013 NCAA Men's Final Four Championship at
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Nice job, selection committee, giving the Cardinals a No. 4 seed. 

If your favorite team checked off more than seven of the categories, you should be feeling good. Chances are the champ will come from Michigan State, Michigan, Villanova, Kansas, Arizona, Florida, Wichita State or Louisville.

If not, I'll go back to the drawing board next year. 

 

C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.