Picking March Madness Champions: 7 Perennial Attributes
- 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 (March Madness!)
- Bettors can gain all the information they need by looking closely at the last ten March Madness champs.
- Certain 2019 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, cost bettors millions, and make TV talking heads look foolish.
Although picking a perfect bracket is nigh impossible, picking the eventual champ is not. We’ve analyzed every Division I Men’s NCAA championship team from 2008 to 2018 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 2018-19 teams to approach with caution.
1. March Madness Champions Rely on Upperclassmen
It’s nice having five-star freshmen, but you can’t expect them to do all the heavy lifting on their own. Every NCAA championship team from the past 11 years 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 most recent champs, the 2017-18 Villanova Wildcats? Jay Wright’s team was led by the National Player of the Year Jalen Brunson, who was a junior with well over 100 college games under his belt by the time the tournament rolled around. Even surprise Final Four Most Outstanding Player Donte DiVincenzo was a redshirt sophomore with about 80 games of experience. Only one freshman (Omari Spellman) played more than 15 minutes per game for Nova, and he was a redshirt as well.
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 freshmen. That counts for a lot when you’re playing against 18-year-olds.
2. March Madness Champions Are Guided by Proven Coaches
The last 11 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.
3. March Madness Champions Have Great Point Guards
It’s hardly a coincidence that eight of the last 11 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.
4. March Madness Champions Finish in the Top 4 of the BPI
Nine of the last 11 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.
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 11 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.
6. March Madness Champions Can Light It Up from Deep
Every NCAA Tournament champion from the past 11 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.
Last year’s Villanova team took this trend to a new level, hitting just at just a shade under 40-percent (T20th in the country) while attempting the fifth-most treys in the nation.
Before you etch your NCAA Tournament winner in stone, make sure they can light it up from downtown.
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 11 years has ranked in the top 20 in adjusted defensive efficiency at KenPom.com, the definitive source for college basketball analytics.
Digging a little deeper, ten 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.
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