The idea that this NCAA tournament is wide open is backed up by the numbers.
Ken Pomeroy's Pythagorean rating, which he uses to compile his rankings, allows us to compare teams from different seasons dating back to 2001-02. Kansas, the current No. 1 on the site, has the lowest rating of any top-ranked team of the last 15 years.
The difference between No. 1 and No. 20 is also as small as it has ever been.
"Whoever the favorite is this year is probably going to have less of a chance to win than any other year in the past decade or so," Pomeroy told Bleacher Report earlier this month.
This is the fourth edition of the blueprint for a champ, and here's a quick reminder of how it works: By studying past champions, I came up with 10 qualities most title teams share. I run the numbers on the contenders each year to see who has that sexy look of a champion.
(Disclaimer: I'm 0-for-3, and it better work this year, or I'm probably getting sent to the minors to see if I can figure out who will win the D-League title. In my defense, the 2013 and 2015 champs—Louisville and Duke—had good numbers. Just not the best.)
The pool of teams in consideration every year includes the Nos. 1-4 seeds. That hasn't worked perfectly lately. In 2014, seventh-seeded Connecticut defied logic by cutting down the nets. The Huskies are the only team with a sub-No. 4 seed to win the title in the last 27 tournaments.
It's important to note the blueprint does not recognize the Huskies as champs. Their numbers just don't fit, and they cloud the data. So it never happened. Got it?
But I'm making an exception to the rules this year: fifth-seeded teams are in the discussion. Considering the tiny gap between Nos. 1 and 20 based on the numbers and the eye test—is there really that much of a difference between Oregon and Indiana?—it only seemed fair to deepen the pool.
Here are the 10 qualifications, which I've adjusted slightly through the years based on rule changes and trends:
- Head coach has reached an Elite Eight.
- Team won either its regular-season conference title or conference tournament. (This rule could get replaced next season. Before UConn in 2014, every champ since 1990 except Arizona in 1997 had won a league title. Then last year's champ failed to do so as well, making this qualifier moot for two straight years. But since UConn in '14 never happened, the blueprint is currently chalking Duke up as an outlier.)
- Ranks in the top 20 in kenpom.com's adjusted offensive efficiency ratings.
- Ranks in the top 20 in kenpom.com's adjusted defensive efficiency ratings.
- Shoots better than 37 percent from beyond the arc.
- Has at least three double-digit scorers. (Allow rounding, so 9.5-plus qualifies.)
- Has a frontcourt scorer who averages more than 12 points per game or will get picked in the first round of the NBA draft.
- Rebounds better than 34 percent of its misses on the offensive end. (The cutoff was 37 percent, but because offensive rebounding is less of a priority, the number has dropped. More on this later.)
- Holds opponents to less than 45 percent shooting inside the arc.
- Has a defensive free-throw rate better than 34 percent. (Free-throw rate is the number of free throws attempted divided by field-goal attempts.)
|The Elite Eight and Conference Success Tests|
|Coached in Elite Eight||Conference Champ|
|B/R<br>Note: All charts list teams in order of overall seed.|
The most surprising non-qualifier is Virginia. This is the third straight year the 'Hoos have been a top-two seed, and Tony Bennett has yet to get past the Sweet 16 Mendoza Line. And it just so happens Michigan State, the team UVA could meet in the Elite Eight, has knocked out the 'Hoos each of the last two years.
I would, however, make an exception for Bennett because the dude took Washington State to the Sweet 16. Washington (bleeping) State. That's like winning a title without a guy over 6'6" on your roster. The poor Cougars are 102-126 since Bennett left town. He is one of the best in the game, and it's only a matter of time before he reaches a regional final.
And while a regional final is the qualifier, a previous Final Four is usually helpful. Since 1990, the only coaches to win the title on their first trip to the Final Four are Jim Harrick (UCLA, 1995), Tubby Smith (Kentucky, 1998), Jim Calhoun (UConn, 1999), Bill Self (Kansas, 2008) and Kevin Ollie (UConn, 2014).
First, let's start with the biggie: adjusted offensive efficiency. Every champ minus those pesky 2014 Huskies has finished in the top 20, and most of the contenders pass the test this year.
|Adjusted Offensive Efficiency Test|
|Adj. Off. Eff.||Rank|
Offensive efficiency is what matters most, but a majority of the past champs have also been accurate from deep, crashed the offensive glass, had balance and had a big man who can score.
(Note: I'm liberal with the term "big man." Anyone who starts at the 4 or 5 qualifies, so that means Oregon's Dillon Brooks, a wing who starts as a small-ball 4, is considered a big man.)
|Offensive Footprint Tests|
|3PT FG%||ORB%||3 10-Point Scorers||Big Man|
North Carolina fails miserably when it comes to the three-point test, and it's one reason to question its chances. If the season ended today and the Tar Heels were champs, they'd be tied with the 1988 Kansas Jayhawks as the worst three-point shooting team ever to win the title. Only three champs since 1999 (Syracuse in 2003, UConn in 2011 and Louisville in 2013) have shot below 37 percent from deep.
The Heels do make up for their lack of three-point shooting by crushing it on the offensive glass.
This is a quality that is becoming less and less common, which is why I lowered the threshold from 37 percent to 34 percent. The trend in both college and the NBA is to send fewer guys to the offensive glass in an effort to take away transition opportunities. In 2001-02, there were 72 teams that rebounded better than 37 percent of their misses. This season, only 19 teams reached that mark.
One final thing to note about the results above: Kentucky passes the big-man test for the second straight year without having a 12-points-per-game-plus scorer on the blocks.
Last year, no one questioned the legitimacy of UK's bigs—Karl Anthony-Towns was a stud who would've averaged more than 12 points per game for any other team in the country. But this year, it would be easy to argue giving the Wildcats a "yes" in that department is without merit.
Skal Labissiere is projected to be a first-round NBA draft pick, but that's based entirely on potential. That being said, Labissiere has started to play better, and if UK gets to Houston, I would bet he plays an actual role.
Entering the tournament last year, the biggest red flag for Duke was its defense. The Blue Devils ranked 63rd in adjusted defensive efficiency, and thus, they passed only seven of the blueprint tests. But last year was a reminder that a team can morph into a champion in the tournament.
Almost like head coach Mike Krzyzewski had sprinkled defensive pixie dust on his boys, the Blue Devils were elite on the defensive end throughout the NCAAs. They held opponents to 90.1 points per 100 possessions, which would have ranked fifth in raw defensive efficiency had the Devils carried that number the entire season. And by doing so, Duke finished with the 12th-best defense in the country—and therefore met the efficiency standard.
North Carolina in 2009 is the only team since 2002 to land outside the top 20, and the Heels just barely missed the cut, finishing 21st.
This year, most of the contenders either passed the test or, based on what Duke did last year, are within range.
|Defensive Footprint Tests|
|Adj. Def. Eff.||Rank||Opp. 2PT FG%||Def. FT Rate|
The number that pops out of that data set is West Virginia's 54.8 free-throw rate. That ranks dead last in the country. The Mountaineers make up it for by forcing a ton of turnovers and then also getting extra possessions with the best offensive rebounding rate in the country.
Louisville, the 2013 champ, played a similar style, but Rick Pitino's team was far less foul-prone. The Cardinals had a defensive free-throw rate of 34.9. If the Mountaineers were to win the title, they would be a huge outlier in that category.
|Who Fits the Blueprint?|
In the four years I've run these numbers, this year's Spartans are only the second team to check all 10 boxes.
I'll give Michigan State fans a few moments to revel in this glory...
OK, Sparty, here's the bad news: The other team to get perfect marks on the blueprint was Indiana in 2013. Yes, the same Hoosiers who lost in the Sweet 16 and are still trying to figure out that darn Syracuse zone.
Is it a bad omen that Michigan State could meet the Orange in the second round?
I think Denzel Valentine will be able to figure out the zone, but beware, Spartans.
North Carolina checked nine boxes but failed miserably in the other (three-point shooting). Kansas only failed the categories I consider least important (offensive rebounding percentage and defensive free-throw rate).
If I were filling out a bracket based on these results, I would only consider the teams that check at least seven boxes. So Oklahoma, Duke, Kentucky, Indiana and Villanova are all worthy title picks. And I agree with UK and IU fans who are screaming that it's an injustice those two teams could play in the second round. It is. But, man, I'm excited for that game.
Last year, the numbers liked Kentucky, and if each round were a best-of-five or best-of-seven series, I'm guessing UK would have won the title. That's not to say Duke was not a worthy champ. Duke, Wisconsin and Kentucky were three of the best teams in the modern era of college basketball.
The top teams this year aren't on that level, but Michigan State, North Carolina and Kansas are all trending in the direction of elite. So while it may seem like a lot of teams have a chance to cut down the nets in Houston, the smart pick would be one of those three.
Says the guy who's 0-for-3.
All stats from kenpom.com unless otherwise noted and accurate through games played on March 13.
C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @CJMooreBR.