A thorough analysis of past national championship teams has shown that they have certain traits and characteristics in common; trends that like the “Democratic Peace Theory” may not be classified as academic law, but as of yet, the theory hasn’t been broken. Put the common characteristics together and we have the DNA of a championship team. Scroll all the way to the bottom of this post if you just want to see a list of this year’s contenders.
Caution: All championship teams fit this description and have these championship characteristics, but not all teams that fit this description win the championship. Every year there are between 3 and 10 contenders with the right DNA that don’t win it all and might even suffer an early exit from the tournament (for example, 2016 Michigan State losing in the First Round or Kentucky’s second round exit in 2004).
Out of hundreds of statistical categories and characteristics, the data has shown so far that there are five traits to look for in a potential national champion: conference affiliation, AP rank trend, conference tournament performance, certain stat thresholds, and tournament seeding.
Since 1991, all but one champion came from one of the following conferences:
- Big 12
- Big East
- Big Ten
- PAC 12
The lone exception is when Connecticut won the title in 2014. That was their first season in the AAC after leaving the Big East. The data seems to indicate that there is strong correlation between success in the NCAA Tournament format and a season long schedule that is formidable day in and day out. Whether that is a hardening of the competitor’s mental fortitude, financial resources to better condition and prepare athletes, or a myriad of other possibilities is up for debate in the comments section below. The data does not demonstrably elucidate the reason behind this correlation, just that there is one.
AP Rank Trend
All but two of the past 28 champs were ranked no worse than 12th in the AP Poll seven weeks before the tournament began. Just like in football, attempting to accurately rank a team at the beginning of the season is a futile exercise–that early fall darling can turn out to be as ugly as your first prom date. However, give them a bit of time to play and produce some data to be analyzed and we can form a much better conclusion as to the quality of that team and their opponents. In 2017, those teams are:
- Florida State
- North Carolina
For teams like Kentucky, Baylor, Florida State, Butler, and Virginia, who have dropped a bit in the poll since then, read on. They aren’t dead but they have some extra work to do.
Conference Tournament Performance
There are three significant points to consider from conference tournament results: the Quarterfinal Rule, how contenders slipping in the polls perform, and contenders that fail to reach their conference tournament final.
The Quarterfinal Rule
There is a pretty fascinating trend I call the Quarterfinal Rule that helps eliminate teams from the candidate pool. The Quarterfinal Rule states that if a team fails to advance past the quarterfinals in their conference tournament, they will not win the national title. So far, so-called contenders that have found themselves on the wrong side of the Quarterfinal Rule are:
Performance of contenders slipping in the polls
There have been 3 national champs that were ranked in the top 12 (as explained above), but dropped a bit in the polls leading up to the tournament. They each won their conference tournament (UConn in ’04 and ’11, and Florida in ’06). In 2017, the teams that need to win their conference tournaments are:
- Baylor (already lost)
- Florida State (already lost)
- Butler (already lost)
- Virginia (already lost)
Contenders not reaching the conference tournament final
Even if a team loses in their conference semifinal, they might still be okay. Since 1986, only 6 national champions failed to reach their conference tournament finals. Five of the 6 were ranked in the top 4 of the AP poll, and still received 1-seeds (Arkansas in ’94, Maryland in ’02, North Carolina in ’05 and ’09, and Duke in ’15). The other team, Syracuse in ’03, rose in the AP poll from 24th to 13th in the weeks leading up to the NCAA Tournament. In 2017, teams that are not eliminated from contention even though they lost in their conference semifinals are:
- North Carolina
Okay, this one uses some customized analytics I developed. Long story short, I took key team stats, adjusted them to account for opponent strength, and normalized them to create a score for each statistical category. So far, I only have all the regular season data I need back to the 2002-2003 season. However, this has still allowed for some interesting and fairly solid conclusions. Since 2003, every champion scored well in 4 statistical categories: A) Overall team rating (according to my model), B) Field goal percentage, C) Total rebounds, and D) Points per game. Here are this year’s teams that meet the champion thresholds for these stats (in alphabetical order):
- Florida State
- North Carolina
- West Virginia
- Wichita State
The good-natured folks on the selection committee invariably make seeding mistakes and overlook valid resumés. However, don’t dismiss their ability to determine the very best teams. 28 of the past 32 champions have been a 1-, 2-, or 3-seed. Since 1998, only one champ wasn’t a 1-, 2-, or 3-seed (7-seeded Connecticut in 2014). This year’s 1-, 2-, and 3-seeds:
- Villanova, Kansas, North Carolina, Gonzaga
- Duke, Arizona, Kentucky, Louisville
- Baylor, UCLA, Oregon, Florida State
So…This Year’s Contenders Are…
I’ll remind everyone that these conclusions aren’t meant to be debated like the old hat baseball experts in Moneyball, “Yah, he he’s got a baseball body, he looks real good!” That is emotion speaking. This is the result of an analysis of thousands of data points to identify trends and historical precedence that give confidence in the probability of an event happening in the future. Something crazy could happen, but the numbers say it most likely won’t.
Taking all of these elements into consideration there are only six teams that have championship DNA this year:
- North Carolina
- Duke (see below)
…’cause there’s always a but… I included Duke even though they weren’t ranked in the top 12 in the right week, which is the weakest requirement of the five. Duke compares favorably with the only two champs that also didn’t meet the AP rank threshold -2003 Syracuse and 2014 Connecticut. Given Duke played a significant stretch of their season without their Hall-of-Fame head coach AND they killed it in the ACC tournament, I’ve included Duke as one of the teams that has what it takes to win it all.
The only thing keeping Gonzaga off the list is their conference affiliation. It sure is tempting to include Gonzaga in the list of contenders, as their impressive resume has been discussed ad nauseam. Statistically, they are an elite team. They have maintained an elite position in the polls, won their conference tournament, and were awarded a 1-seed. Perhaps they have what it takes, but their win would be historic. The 2006-2009 Memphis teams were remarkably similar – very talented, well ranked, measured up statistically, won their conference tournaments, and received 1- or 2-seeds. In 2008, they even reached the Championship game, but still were unable to pull it off. In 2013, we saw Gonzaga in this exact scenario. Besides their conference affiliation, they had all the other characteristics of a championship team. The 1-seeded Zags lost in the second round.
So, those are the numbers. Now the debate begins in the comments section below.