NCAA Basketball Championship 2018: Who Best Fits the Blueprint of a Winner?

C.J. Moore@@CJMooreHoopsCollege Basketball National Lead WriterMarch 14, 2018

FILE - In this Jan. 6, 2018, file photo, Virginia's Jack Salt (33), Isaiah Wilkins, left, and Kyle Guy contest a shot by North Carolina's Luke Maye (32) during first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Charlottesville, Va. The Cavaliers lead the nation in scoring defense, allowing 52.7 points per game. (AP Photo/ Lee Luther Jr., File)
Lee Luther Jr./Associated Press

A year ago, I considered taking "the blueprint" behind the shed and saying bye-bye.

But it's back for a sixth year and has a bit more swagger. No, it did not predict a national champion for the first time, but doggone it, it sure got close.

A year ago, eventual champion North Carolina was behind Kansas and Gonzaga as the team most likely to win the title according to the Blueprint, and if not for a few unkind whistles to Gonzaga stud freshman big man Zach Collins, the Blueprint may have nailed it.

So it's back and ready to give you some guidance in your bracket. Remember, it doesn't always predict the champ, but I take characteristics of past champions and see how the top four seeds in each region compare. In the last 29 seasons, the national champ has come out of that grouping in all but one year (UConn in 2015). 

Here are the 10 qualifications, pulled from studying the characteristic of past champions. I've adjusted slightly through the years based on rule changes and trends: 

  • The head coach has reached an Elite Eight.
  • The team won either its regular-season conference title or conference tournament.
  • 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. (It allows for 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.
  • 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 per field-goal attempt.)
The Elite Eight and Conference Success Tests
Coached in an Elite EightConference Champ
VirginiaYesYes
VillanovaYesYes
KansasYesYes
XavierYesYes
CincinnatiNoYes
PurdueNoNo
DukeYesNo
North CarolinaYesNo
TennesseeYesNo
Texas TechNoNo
Michigan StateYesYes
MichiganYesYes
ArizonaYesYes
Wichita StateYesNo
AuburnYesYes
GonzagaYesYes
B/R

A regular-season title in your conference is usually a better indicator of a future national champ than the postseason conference tourney. Eight of the last 11 champs have won their league's regular season, and two of the three who didn't (UConn in 2014 and Duke in 2015) also failed to win their conference tourneys.

Coaches with previous Final Four experience also have an advantage than those who have just been to an Elite Eight. Since 1990, the only coaches to win 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). Gonzaga coach Mark Few was close to joining that list a year ago.

Adjusted Offensive Efficiency Test
Adj. Off. Eff.Rank
Virginia116.521
Villanova127.41
Kansas120.96
Xavier120.77
Cincinnati113.154
Purdue123.22
Duke122.63
North Carolina121.94
Tennessee114.840
Texas Tech114.046
Michigan State120.09
Michigan115.929
Arizona119.015
Wichita State121.95
Auburn118.216
Gonzaga119.812
kenpom.com

The two teams who are trending toward the top 20 and could make the leap during the tournament are Virginia and Michigan.

The Cavaliers had two of their three most efficient performances in the ACC tournament, scoring at a 1.17 points per possession clip on their way to the tournament title. Tony Bennett's program is usually considered a poor offensive team, but it's important to consider pace when judging Virginia. This is the second-best offensive team he's had in nine years in Charlottesville.

Michigan has some turnover to its rotation this year, particularly in the backcourt, and it’s taken some time for this group to figure out John Beilein's two-guard offense, which typically has his teams near the top of the country in efficiency.

Beilein has the perfect weapon in the middle in Moe Wagner, who is such a good shooter that it leaves defenses in a predicament when the junior sets middle ball screens. It took a while to adjust to life without Derrick Walton, who dominated the ball, but Michigan's guards are starting to play with confidence and this team is now scoring like Beilein's past groups.

Over the last nine games, the Wolverines have scored 116.1 points per 100 possessions, which would rank 10th-best nationally if they scored at that rate all season.

(Note: As college basketball has trended smaller, many teams employ a small-ball 4 who would typically play on the wing. Those mini-4s still qualify as big men for this test.) 

      

Offensive Footprint Test
3PT FG%ORB%3 10-Plus PPG scorersBig Man
Virginia39.027.4YesNo
Villanova39.828.8YesNo
Kansas40.329.1YesYes
Xavier36.930.0YesNo
Cincinnati35.838.1YesYes
Purdue42.027.7YesYes
Duke37.839.1YesYes
North Carolina36.438.4YesYes
Tennessee38.433.6YesYes
Texas Tech36.633.4YesNo
Michigan State41.336.1YesYes
Michigan36.326.0YesYes
Arizona37.733.3YesYes
Wichita State38.535.2YesYes
Auburn36.633.0YesYes
Gonzaga37.433.0YesYes
kenpom.com

A year ago entering the tournament, only Kansas passed in all four of these categories, with most teams falling short in either three-point shooting or offensive rebounding. This year three teams checked off each category.

More and more teams each year are falling short of the target number for offensive rebounds, but it's more a stylistic decision than a flaw. Many coaches have decided it's better to ignore the offensive glass and get back to prevent transition opportunities. That's understandable, but dominating the offensive glass can still be a huge advantage. Last year's champion, North Carolina, ranked first nationally in offensive rebounding rate.

Defensive Footprint Tests
Adj. Def. Eff.RankOpp. 2PT FG%Def. FT Rate
Virginia84.4142.426.2
Villanova96.02249.325.5
Kansas97.74648.124.8
Xavier99.05950.024.8
Cincinnati86.1240.727.4
Purdue96.62944.923.8
Duke93.5744.822.0
North Carolina96.93445.025.8
Tennessee92.7446.138.3
Texas Tech92.1345.038.0
Michigan State93.6938.429.2
Michigan92.7447.030.1
Arizona99.67047.431.8
Wichita State101.810745.833.1
Auburn97.54447.138.4
Gonzaga95.11743.629.4
kenpom.com

The fatal flaw for Duke much of this season was that Mike Krzyzewski's team was just not good enough on the defensive end. The Blue Devils ranked well outside the top 20 for much of the season, but they made a massive climb late in the year thanks to their zone defense. (In 2015, they also made a massive improvement during the NCAA tournament, jumping from 57th to 12th in adjusted defensive rank.)

Duke joins Virginia, Cincinnati, Michigan State and Gonzaga as the teams that pass each defensive test.

One surprising team not to make that list is Wichita State. The Shockers are usually one of the best defensive teams in the country, and Gregg Marshall returned his entire rotation from a group that finished 13th in adjusted defensive efficiency last year.

The other team that made a late-season push like Duke is Villanova. Jay Wright was on a four-year run of top-20 defenses coming into this season, and this team could get there. Over the last 10 games, the Wildcats held to 100.3 points per 100 possessions. That might not seem like a great mark, but the Big East was one of the best offensive leagues in the country and Nova was the league's best defense on a points-per-possession basis.

Who fits the blueprint?
Criteria fulfilled
Virginia7
Villanova6
Kansas7
Xavier5
Cincinnati7
Purdue6
Duke9
North Carolina7
Tennessee5
Texas Tech3
Michigan State10
Michigan6
Arizona7
Wichita State7
Auburn5
Gonzaga9
B/R

Before Michigan State fans pop the champagne, I have some bad news. Three teams in the history of this exercise have hit a perfect 10-of-10, and Michigan State now has been that team twice. And the last time Tom Izzo met all the criteria (warning, Sparty fans, you may want to close your eyes)...his team lost to Middle Tennessee in the first round two years ago.

Last year the Blueprint told us that the No. 1 seeds were as strong as ever. The sum of criteria checked for the ones (34) was higher than any other year I've run the numbers, with 2013 coming closest with 32. So it was no surprise that two No. 1 seeds played for the title. This year, as you can see above, the Blueprint isn't kind to the top line with those teams combining for 25.

So you might want to avoid the No. 1s—silly me picked Villanova. And if you trust the numbers, go with Duke, Gonzaga or Sparty. The Zags were one percentage point away (in offensive rebounding rate) to joining Michigan State for a perfect 10-of-10.

Last year's champ lost in the title game the year before. Maybe the Zags will repeat Carolina's feat.

And remember, don't consider the Blueprint gospel, but the champ is usually one of the teams that passes most of the tests. Now go fill out your bracket, and steer clear of Texas Tech, Auburn, Tennessee and Xavier. 

C.J. Moore covers college basketball at the national level for Bleacher Report. You can find him on Twitter, @CJMooreHoops.

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