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Peyton Siva NCAA Tournament trophy
Peyton Siva hoists Louisville’s NCAA championship trophy. Photo by Adam Glanzman (Michigan Daily via via Wikimedia Commons) CC License
  • NCAA Tournament champions are a lot like cousins: they may not be identical, but they do have a lot in common.
  • Understanding these similarities can help bettors accurately identify who will win future NCAA Tournaments.
  • Bettors can gain all the information they need by looking closely at the last ten March Madness champs.
  • Certain 2018 teams stand out as lacking in one or more key attributes. 

Anyone who has ever filled out a March Madness bracket knows just how fickle the NCAA Tournament can be. Every year some tiny college from a town you’ve never heard of becomes the belle of the ball by knocking off a powerhouse. These Cinderella squads break up brackets, costs bettors millions, and make TV talking heads look foolish.

Although picking a perfect bracket is notoriously tough, picking the eventual champ is not. We’ve analyzed every Division I Men’s NCAA championship team from 2008 to 2017 and have found they have far more in common than you may think. This article details their many similarities and gives you a checklist for picking future tournament winners. It also IDs several 2017-18 teams to approach with caution.

1. March Madness Champions Rely on Upperclassmen  

It’s nice having five-star freshman, but you can’t expect them to do all the heavy lifting on their own. Every NCAA championship team from the past decade has had multiple upperclassmen who have been vital to their team’s success. Just look at the 2016-17 UNC Tar Heels, who were lead by juniors Joel Berry and Justin Jackson, and seniors Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, and Tony Bradley. Meeks and Jackson combined for 47 points against Oregon in the semi-final, and Berry won the NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player award after scoring 22 against Gonzaga in the title game. Without their contributions, North Carolina never would have made it to the Final Four.

Or how about the 2015-16 Villanova Wildcats, who were led by Tournament MOP Ryan Arcidiacono, and leaned heavily on juniors Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins? Jenkins, in particular, proved his worth when he nailed an incredible buzzer-beater against North Carolina to earn Nova its second championship in school history.

Upperclassmen know the system, are less likely to get rattled by the bright lights of March Madness, and are generally more physically and emotionally mature than freshman. That counts for a lot when you’re playing against 18-year-olds.

Be wary of:

  • Duke (five of top-six scorers are freshmen; the other is Grayson Allen, who has his own issues)
  • Kentucky (top-six scorers are all freshman, if you include Hamidou Diallo; only one non-freshman, Wenyen Gabriel, plays more than 20 minutes/game)

 

2. March Madness Champions Are Guided by Proven Coaches

The last ten NCAA championships have been won by eight different coaches and all but one of them had a Hall of Fame-calibre resume at the time they won. The exception is Kevin Ollie, who was promoted to head coach at UConn in 2012 following the retirement of Jim Calhoun, and won a championship two years later. Ollie did an exceptional job guiding his team, but Calhoun deserves plenty of credit for assembling the talented roster he inherited.

Taking Ollie out of the equation for a moment, the remaining seven coaches all had at least 24 years of head-coaching experience, over 500 career victories, and a lifetime winning percentage above .640 at the time they won. No one was surprised when their teams got to cut down the mesh at the end of the tournament because they had the experience and pedigree required to win it all. It’s worth noting that all seven coaches had also been to the Big Dance multiple times before and were unfazed by the added media scrutiny and the increased weight of expectations.

Be wary of:

 

3. March Madness Champions Have Great Point Guards

It’s hardly a coincidence that seven of the last ten Tournament MOPs have been guards. Guards – and point guards in particular – are the engines that drive college teams. They spearhead the defense, facilitate the offense, and set the pace of play. In many cases, they’re also the most gifted offensive players on their team. Kemba Walker led UConn in scoring when the Huskies won it all in 2011, as did Shabazz Napier in 2014. Mario Chalmers (Kansas), Ty Lawson (North Carolina), Russ Smith (Louisville), Josh Hart (Villanova), and Joel Berry (North Carolina) were also all among the top-two scorers on their respective NCAA championship teams.

Point guards have always been important in college, but their role has expanded exponentially over the last 20 years with the rise of three-point shooting and a deliberate move away from hand-checking. These floor generals now have more space to operate and are putting up the kinds of numbers that would make Pete Maravich blush. More often than not, their production is an excellent barometer of just how far their team will advance.

Be wary of:

  • Michigan State (Cassius Winston is improving, but still not what you’d call a championship-level PG)

MSU Spartans forward Miles Bridges

4. March Madness Champions Finish in the Top 4 of the BPI

Eight of the last ten NCAA champions have ranked third or better in ESPN’s College Basketball Power Index, a handy ranking tool designed to predict a team’s future performance. The lone exception is UConn, which ranked 25th in its championship seasons of 2011 and 2014. The Huskies were largely overlooked in 2011 because they were mired in NCAA investigations and finished 9-9 in the Big East. Experts again dismissed them in 2014 because they finished third in the ACC and struggled against top-flight programs.

Another similarly prescient ranking system is the USA Today Coaches Poll, which is conducted throughout the season using a panel of head coaches at Division I schools. Over the past ten years, UConn is the only tournament champion to finish outside the top six in the poll during the final week of the regular season. They finished 19th in 2011 and 2014. The lesson here is simple: unless you’re picking a school from Storrs, make sure your bracket’s champion is a top-six team in the Coaches Poll, and strongly consider picking one of the top three.

Be wary of:

  • West Virginia (currently 12th)
  • Arizona (currently 20th)

 

5. March Madness Champions Come from Schools with Large Student Bodies

In order to dominate March Madness, you need a large student body full of large student bodies. Every single NCAA Tournament champion from the past ten years has come from a school with an enrollment of at least 10,000 students. Duke and Villanova are the two smallest schools — with enrollments of 10,000 and 14,000 respectively — while Kansas, UNC, UConn, Kentucky, and Louisville are all home to at least 22,000 students. That doesn’t guarantee a school with 25,000 students will win (just ask the University of Central Florida), but it certainly weeds out smaller schools with less money and less infrastructure.

Be wary of:

  • Gonzaga (7,421 students)
  • Xavier (6,522 students)
  • Seton Hall (9,627 students)

 

6. March Madness Champions Can Light It Up from Deep

Every NCAA Tournament champion from the past ten years has been an above-average three-point shooting squad. The 2010-11 Huskies and 2012-13 Cardinals finished on the low end of the spectrum at 33-percent, while the 2007-08 Jayhawks outclassed everyone by nailing 39-percent of their treys. Kansas was led that year by point guard Mario Chalmers, who shot 46-percent from behind the arc, and forward Brandon Rush, who shot 42-percent. Before you etch your NCAA Tournament winner in stone, make sure they can light it up from downtown.

Be wary of:

  • West Virginia (32.6% from three, 279th in the nation)
  • Miami (34.7% from three; 195th in the nation)

 

7. March Madness Champions Have Elite Defenses

It turns out that old chestnut about defense winning championships is actually true. Every single NCAA Tournament champion from the past ten years has ranked in the top 20 in adjusted defensive efficiency ratings according to KenPom.com, the definitive source for college basketball analytics.

Digging a little deeper, every one of those teams finished in the top ten in defensive rebounds, eight finished in the top ten in total rebounds, and seven finished in the top ten in blocks. Championship teams apply pressure, block out, swat shots, and get stops when they need them most.

Be wary of:

  • Duke (98th-ranked defense on KenPom)
  • Kansas (30th-ranked defense on KenPom)
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Ryan Murphy began his love affair with sports journalism at the age of nine when he wrote his first article about his little league baseball team. He has since authored his own column for Fox Sports, and now serves as SBD’s resident NBA and MLB expert.