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Who Has What It Takes to Win the NCAA Tournament in 2013

Who Has What It Takes to Win the NCAA Tournament in 2013

Who Has What It Takes to Win the NCAA Tournament in 2013 Part I
By Teddy Covers

History shows us many things about what it takes to be a champion.  I write this article every year, and every year except for one, I have been able to identify the eventual NCAA National Champion among my elite level teams.  Last year was no exception.  I pegged Kansas as my title team, and they made it all the way to the national championship game against Kentucky before falling short.

Past predictions do not necessarily indicate future success, but I’ll stand by my track record in this article.  Remember, as always, this gets written before the regular season is over, before the conference tournaments, before the seedings are announced and before a single tournament game has been played.

I’ve nailed the winner of the NCAA tournament three times in the last six years, correctly predicting Florida in ’07, Kansas in ’08 and North Carolina in ’09.  I did NOT predict Duke in 2010, and didn’t even have UConn in the discussion in 2011. 

Here is a list of the last 15 NCAA champions and the teams they beat in the title game: Kentucky over Utah in ’98, UConn over Duke in ’99, Michigan State over Florida in 2000, Duke over Arizona in ’01, Maryland over Indiana in ’02, Syracuse over Kansas in ’03, UConn over Georgia Tech in ’04, North Carolina over Illinois in ’05, Florida over UCLA in ’06,  Florida over Ohio State in ’07, Kansas over Memphis in ’08, North Carolina over Michigan State in ’09, Duke over Butler in 2010, UConn over Butler in 2011 and Kentucky over Kansas last year.

14 of those 15 champions had very specific abilities, a very specific track record and a very specific statistical profile as a team that allowed them to go all the way.  In Part 1 of this article, I’ll take a look at that statistical profile and make a ‘short list’ of potential NCAA champs.  In Part 2 next week, I’ll go through that ‘short list’ team by team, eliminating them one by one until we reach the last team standing.

Cinderellas have reached the championship game.  Florida in 2000, Indiana in 2002 and the Butler teams from 2010 and 2011 stand out as the teams that were not among the top 16 seeds in the tournament but were still good enough to get a shot at the title.

But those Cinderellas have been unable to seal the deal – the eventual champion has been seeded no lower than #3 in every single year dating back to 1997, when Arizona won it all as a #4 seed.  You’ll have to go all the way back to 1988 for a real longshot, when Larry Brown guided the Kansas Jayhawks to a title as a #6 seed.  19 of the last 22 national champions have been #1 or #2 seeds.  Even the one I missed – UConn in 2011 – was a #3 seed, a factor that I couldn’t and didn’t predict at the end of February when the Huskies were in the midst of a 4-7 slump to close out the regular season.

To earn that type of a seed, the eventual champion must have been an elite level team all year.  Prior to UConn’s title win in 2011, none of the previous 13 champions had more than seven losses.  To win the Big Dance, teams have to be better than good, or even very good.  Winning six straight games over three weekends requires greatness, and great teams don’t lose more than seven games throughout the course of the campaign.

Each of the past 15 champions was from one of the six ‘major’ conferences.  The mid-majors tend to measure success with Sweet 16 berths, not Final Four trips. We have seen several exceptions to that rule, like Butler’s string of upsets to reach the title game as a Horizon League squad or VCU’s remarkable run to the Final Four.

George Mason enjoyed an amazing run to the Final Four seven years ago from the Colonial Athletic Conference; a big enough shocker that we still talk about it. Memphis made the championship game from Conference USA in 2008 and Utah made it from the WAC in 1998 (at the time), but those are clearly the exceptions, not the rule.

Basically, if a team is not from the Big East, ACC, Big Ten, Big XII, SEC or PAC-12, they aren’t facing enough tough competition on a nightly basis to get them ready for an extended tournament run.  Sorry Gonzaga – you’re not winning the title this year, despite your lofty ranking.  It’s a similar story for the likes of Saint Louis, VCU, Montana, Memphis, Valparaiso, Akron, Creighton, Wichita State, New Mexico, Belmont, Stephen F. Austin, Middle Tennessee or St Mary’s.  Those elite mid-majors are not going to make my ‘potential champions’ list, even though several of them have managed to crack the Top 25 and have legitimate Sweet 16 potential.

Using just the seven losses and major conference criteria alone, we can narrow the list of potential NCAA tournament winners down to the following group of 19 teams: Florida, Oregon, Arizona, UCLA, Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Georgetown, Louisville, Marquette, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Notre Dame, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Miami-FL and Duke.   
Even if we extend this list to include major conference teams with up to nine losses – like UConn had in 2011 – it still doesn’t become an unwieldy list to manage.  North Carolina, North Carolina State, Virginia, Maryland, Oklahoma, UConn, Cincinnati, Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, California, Colorado, Kentucky, Missouri and Ole Miss are all major conference teams with eight or nine losses so far this season.

But can any of those 15 eight or nine loss squads really make a title run?  I wouldn’t bet on it.  Based on my perception having watched them play on multiple occasions this season, we might see a longshot Final Four appearance from one of them – North Carolina, NC State, Missouri and Cal have that level of upside – but I don’t think there’s a team in the bunch that has what it takes to win it all.  I’ll stick with my original list of 19.

This glaring fact stands out – no team has won a national title without earning a #3 seed or better since 1997.  So let’s whittle down that list of 19 right here, starting with Oregon, UCLA, Notre Dame and Pitt.  All four of those squads fall into the ‘good, not great’ category.  Three of the four have significant depth concerns.  And most importantly for our purposes, those four squads are all projected to be #6 seeds or higher right now.  I’ll bounce them from consideration here.

That leaves me with 15 teams to discuss in Part 2 of this article.  I’ll wager dollars to donuts that the eventual NCAA champion will come from this list of 15:  Florida, Arizona, Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Georgetown, Louisville, Marquette, Syracuse, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Miami-FL and Duke.

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Re: Who Has What It Takes to Win the NCAA Tournament in 2013

Who Has What It Takes to Win the NCAA Tournament in 2013 Part II
By Teddy Covers

In Part I of this article last week, I took a basic look at the profile of the past 15 NCAA champions. From that profile, I was able to make a ‘short list’ of potential champs in 2013, consisting of the following 15 teams: Florida, Arizona, Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Georgetown, Louisville, Marquette, Syracuse, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Miami-FL and Duke.

However, since last week, one of those 15 teams has been bounced from consideration.  Syracuse’s late season meltdown – four losses in their last five ballgames – has left them above the seven loss cut-off line.

I’d still call the Orange a ‘live’ longshot – let’s not forget that fellow Big East member UConn in 2011 also lost four of their last five regular season games before reeling off 11 consecutive wins in the Big East and Big Dance tournaments to win the title.  Then again, that 2011 UConn team is clearly the ‘exception to the rule’ type of squad when we examine the last 15 title winners.
The next step in the elimination process is to look at the team’s records away from home. The NCAA championship is not won on a team’s home floor.  Even with a favorable location one weekend, a team is still going to have to win four ‘neutral site’ games in order to cut down the nets in Atlanta on April 8th.  And the best predictive evidence for future success in neutral or hostile environments is previous success is neutral or hostile environments.

In most years, we’ll find a sub .500 road record or two among the list of potential champs, an instant elimination.  This year is no exception. Marquette lost just about every tough road game they played all year.  They got waxed at Florida, hammered at Louisville and came up short at Georgetown, Villanova, Cincinnati and even Green Bay.

Michigan deserved their #1 ranking in January, winning 20 of their first 21 games.  But frankly, my alma mater did not play as well down the stretch of the campaign, and their results away from home clearly left a lot to be desired.  The Wolverines lost at Ohio State, Indiana, Michigan State, Wisconsin and even lowly Penn State down the stretch.  Their 1-8 ATS mark in their final nine regular season games clearly tells us that the Wolverines are not as good as advertised right now.

I’ll send the Wolverines and Golden Eagles packing.  Voila, we’re down to a dirty dozen!

Next, we move to defensive acumen, based on one of the more under-rated stats in all of college basketball – defensive field goal percentage allowed.  Kentucky was ranked in the Top 10 in this category last year.

Kansas ranks #1 in the nation, allowing opponent to hit less than 36% of their shots from the floor.  Florida and Georgetown are in the Top 10 in this category.  Indiana, Louisville, Oklahoma State and Miami-FL all rank in the Top 30, with Ohio State and Michigan State just behind.

Duke’s biggest weakness in recent years has been in this category, and 2013 is no exception.  The Blue Devils didn’t even crack the top 100 teams in the nation defensively this year.  Neither did Arizona.  And Kansas State was the outlier of the bunch, ranked #180 out of the 347 Division 1A teams in defensive field goal percentage allowed.  I’ll eliminate those three teams from contention here.

As we continue with the statistical profile of a champion, interior play is next on the list.   The statistic that I like to use here is rebounding margin.  Kentucky was a top 10 rebounding team last year.

Indiana is the only team from the group ranked in the top 10 nationally in this statistical category.  Kansas, Michigan State, Ohio State, Florida and Louisville rank among the Top 40.

Miami-FL and Oklahoma State both finished the regular season ranked outside the Top 75.  And Georgetown was the real outlier, ranked in the #120’s in rebounding margin.  I’ll bounce those three teams here.

Teams with NBA first round picks in their lineup tend to do well come tournament time.

Last year, Kentucky certainly had their fair share of first round NBA talent – Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist went #1 and #2, followed by Terrence Jones, Marquis Teague, Darius Miller and Doron Lamb among the Top 46 picks.  Now that’s a lot of NBA ready talent!

In 2011, UConn only had one first rounder in the draft, but he was the guy who carried the team – point guard Kemba Walker.  But we shouldn’t forget the impact of Jeremy Lamb, who decided to return to school following his freshman year, but went in the lottery the following season.

Four years ago North Carolina sent Ty Lawson, Tyler Hansbrough and Wayne Ellington into the first round, followed by Danny Green in the second round.  Five years ago, we saw Kansas get three players drafted, including Brandon Rush in the lottery, Darrel Arthur later in the first round and Mario Chalmers at the beginning of the second round.  The year before Florida had three lottery picks – Al Horford, Corey Brewer and Joakim Noah.

Kansas will lose projected #1 overall pick Ben McLemore to the draft this spring, and Jeff Withey is a likely first rounder.  Indiana has Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo both projected to go in the lottery, and Christian Watford could get drafted as well.  Ohio State has Deshawn Thomas; Florida has Patrick Young and Louisville has Gorgui Dieng. Michigan State doesn’t have a projected NBA draft pick, so we’ll say goodbye to Tom Izzo’s squad here.

Next, I’ll examine point guard play, using assist-to-turnover ratio as the key stat.

Louisville’s Peyton Siva is exactly what I’m looking for – a battle tested senior leader with a better than 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio.  Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell is a freshman (4.3-2.0) although senior Jordan Hulls (3.0 -1.3) is very involved in running the offense.  Ohio State junior Aaron Craft (4.5-1.8) and his backup Shannon Scott (3.8-1.3) both fare well statistically.  So do Florida junior Scottie Wilbekin (5.1-2.1) and his backcourt mate senior Kenny Boynton (2.9-1.3).

This is where Kansas gets the boot.  Point guard play has arguably been their biggest weakness all year.  Senior Elijah Johnson (4.8-3.0) has struggled to fill Tyshawn Taylor’s shoes from last year.  Three other Jayhawk backcourt mates also average more than two assists per game – Ben McLemore, Travis Releford and Naadir Tharpe.  Between them their 7.4 assists get offset by their combined 4.9 turnovers, nowhere near the 2:1 ratio that I’m looking for.

The final stat?  Free throw shooting.
Any Memphis fan will tell you how important free throw shooting actually is come tournament time – the inability to close out the national championship game from the charity stripe cost the Tigers a title at the Alamodome in San Antonio in 2008.

Indiana fares well in this category, connecting at a 74% clip from the charity stripe.  Louisville is at 71%.  But both Ohio State and Florida finished the season under 70%.

That leaves me with two teams remaining. I’ll call for a Louisville vs. Indiana championship game matchup with Louisville coming out on top.  The Cardinals have star power, depth, experience and talent.  They rebound, play defense and win games consistently away from home.  Rick Pitino’s squad meets all the criteria that has been effective at predicting past championship.  Plain and simple, Louisville has what it takes to win it all.

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