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.
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 30 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.
For teams that drop 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.
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).
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.
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 necessary regular season data back to the 2002-2003 season. However, this has still allowed for some interesting and fairly solid conclusions. Since 2003, every champion scored above certain thresholds in 5 statistical categories:
- Overall team rating (according to my model)
- Field goal percentage
- Total rebounds
- Points per game
- Proprietary combined offensive and defensive scoring metric
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. 30 of the past 34 champions have been a 1-, 2-, or 3-seed. Since 1998, only one champ wasn’t a 1-, 2-, or 3-seed. In 2014, 7-seeded Connecticut made history. Perhaps, they benefited from the lack of contenders that year. There were only two teams that had champ DNA , and Connecticut beat one of them – 1-seed Florida – in the Final Four. Then they beat 8-seed Kentucky in the Final. The other contender that year, 1-seed Arizona, lost by one point in an overtime thriller against 2-seed Wisconsin in the Elite Eight.
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 Stanford’s second round exit in 2004).
Historical Contenders 2003-2017
The following table shows the teams that had the DNA of champions each year. Only twice in the last 15 years has the champion not met all of the contender qualifications.
*2003 champion, Syracuse, was ranked 23rd in the key AP Poll. Syracuse rose to the 11th spot in the poll before their post-season conference tournament. Syracuse possessed all other attributes of a contender.
**2014 champion, Connecticut, shocked everyone that wasn’t a Connecticut fan by winning the tournament as a 7-seed. They were unranked in the key AP Poll and rose to 21st in the poll before their post-season conference tournament. Connecticut’s team stats still met all of the necessary thresholds of a championship team.