Here it is, Thanksgiving week 2012, just a week or so after the season’s tip off, and I’m thinking, “Why not pick my tourney champ now?”
Sure, Selection Sunday might be four months away, but that doesn’t mean you can’t start narrowing in on your choice for the tourney’s ultimate champ. By monitoring a few key factors throughout the course of the regular season, you can reduce your list of champion candidates to three or four teams—and be reasonably sure that the ultimate victor will be among them.
Every one of the last 12 champs have owned these eight characteristics:
- Earned a one, two or three seed
- Come from a Power conference (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 or SEC)
- Been led by a coach with more than five tourney trips and at least one Elite Eight run
- Either went to the previous year’s dance or had an All-American
- Averaged more than 73 points per game
- Allowed fewer than 73 points per game
- Owned an average scoring margin of at least seven points per game.
- Played a schedule among the 75 strongest in the country
(Michigan State was the last champion not to meet all these criteria. And that’s because Izzo had been to the dance just three times, though he did own an Elite Eight run.)
Consider last year. Only six teams were on the champ list for the entire season. Five of them reached the Elite Eight, three made the Final Four—and two vied for the championship. The six teams were: Kentucky, Kansas, Syracuse, North Carolina, Duke and Ohio State. Only Duke significantly underperformed. If you had used these champ credentials in your bracket building, you probably would’ve done well. Interestingly, the one region that was the most unpredictable was the West, where none of the teams had the statistical chops to be champs. Top seed MSU wasn’t high scoring enough, and Missouri and Marquette didn’t have the coaching qualifications to cut down the nets. So that left a void with the high seeds in the region…and an opening for Louisville, whose only shortcoming was a low 68.8 point scoring average .
You can use the first four statistics right now to narrow your list of potential champions. Since 2001, 76 teams have met the top four criteria above (seeding, conference affiliation, coaching success and tourney experience or star power). That’s about six teams per dance—and all 12 champions are among them. In fact, these teams own a +.346 PASE, winning 236 games when their seeding suggested they should only win 210. They also account for 27 of the 48 Final Four combatants.
So which teams this season have the four basic stats to be champs? If you look at today’s AP Top 25—the squads most likely to be among the top three seeds—and filter them by the conference, coach and experience/All-American criteria, only 14 teams make the champ list. Here are the top 25, with the teams that don’t have all four credentials crossed out:
- Ohio State
- North Carolina State
- North Carolina
- Arizona (Lacks coach credentials)
- Missouri (Lacks coach credentials)
- Creighton (Mid-Major)
- Baylor (Lacks coach credentials)
- Memphis (Mid-Major)
- UNLV (Mid-Major)
- Gonzaga (Mid-Major)
- Notre Dame (Lacks coach credentials)
- Michigan State
- Connecticut (Lacks coach credentials)
- Cincinnati (Lacks coach credentials)
- San Diego State (Mid-Major)
Once these teams get through their early powder-puff schedules and start playing tougher nonconference opponents, we’ll know more about whether they’re champ-worthy. And we’ll be able to evaluate them against the last four champ stats: 1) scoring more than 73 points, allowing fewer than 73 points and winning by at least 7 points per game while playing one of the 75th toughest schedules in the country.
Since 2001, about five teams per tourney (61) have met both the four previous requirements and these game-play thresholds. They built up a collective +.427 PASE, won 26 more games than their PASE-projected total of 172, reached the Final Four 23 times—and won all 12 of the tourneys.
Once the 2012-13 season is over and the field of 64 is set, we’ll be able to narrow the list of potential champions even further. In addition to the eight attributes already mentioned, the last 12 champs have also:
- Had at least one junior or senior starter
- Counted on starters for at least 73 percent of their points
- Relied on their frontcourt for more than 35 percent of their points
- Posted at least a .667 road winning percentage
- Won at least six of their last 10 pre-tourney games without a losing streak of two or more.
Only 39 teams in the last dozen dances have met all 13 champ qualifications. Seventeen semi-finalists and all 12 tourney winners are among them. By seeding, the 39 teams should’ve won about 112 games; they actually notched 140 wins, posting a strong overachieving PASE of +.708.
As the season progresses, some of the 14 squads I’ve tabbed as potential champs will play their way out of tourney contention. Others will show themselves to be unworthy of a top three seed. More will fail to meet one of the other key champion conditions (scoring output is always a tough hurdle for slow-paced squads). On the other hand, there could be a few teams we haven’t listed that manage to fulfill all the requirements.
By Selection Sunday, you should be looking at three or four teams that have the numbers it takes to win the tourney. And there will be a strong chance that the ultimate champ will be among them. If you’re a skeptic like me, you’ll cast a cold eye on these potential champs—but you can’t argue with success. Twelve straight tourney champs have owned these qualities.