Yes, the conference tournaments still need to be played, and of course, March Madness is called such because it often goes off script. However, using advanced statistical analysis, there are only five teams with a legitimate chance to win the NCAA Tournament this year, and we will explain why: balance.
A team must be well-balanced on offense and defense to win it all: Using KenPom.com’s efficiency ratings archive as far back as it goes, take a look at the last 17 years of NCAA champs in men’s basketball. Look at the stats:
- 2002: Maryland, 4th in offensive efficiency and 7th in defensive efficiency
- 2003: Syracuse, 17th and 14th
- 2004: Connecticut, 9th and 6th
- 2005: North Carolina, 2nd and 5th
- 2006: Florida, 3rd and 7th
- 2007: Florida, 1st and 13th
- 2008: Kansas, 2nd and 1st
- 2009: North Carolina, 1st and 18th
- 2010: Duke, 1st and 5th
- 2011: Connecticut, 19th and 15th
- 2012: Kentucky, 2nd and 7th
- 2013: Louisville, 7th and 1st
- 2014: Connecticut: 39th and 10th
- 2015: Duke, 3rd and 11th
- 2016: Villanova, 3rd and 5th
- 2017: North Carolina, 9th and 11th
- 2018: Villanova, 1st and 11th
Ignoring the fact that teams like North Carolina have cheated readily, what stands out here is balance between offense and defense at a very high level. Every team here except one has been ranked in the Top 20 on both offense and defense using advanced statistical analysis. There are 353 Division I men’s basketball teams, so Top 20 is pretty elite.
Nine champs have been Top 10 in both categories as well. Twelve champs—that’s 71 percent of winners—listed have been Top 11 in both categories. Let’s use that as our threshold for this year’s potential victors, always understanding outliers like 2003 Syracuse, 2011 UConn, and 2014 UConn (and the reasons for those “miracles”) as well as über-talented squads like 2007 Florida and 2009 UNC.
This year’s teams that meet our first criteria, Top 20 on both sides of the court, include Virginia (2nd and 3rd), Gonzaga (1st and 16th), Duke (6th and 7th), Michigan State (4th and 9th), North Carolina (7th and 11th), Michigan (18th and 2nd), Kentucky (13th and 8th), and Houston (19th and 15th). Those are the eight teams we refer to with the headline, although we can drill down further to demonstrate the teams with Top 11 in both categories that have the best shots.
Those teams are Virginia, Duke, Michigan State, and North Carolina. Is there a 71-percent chance that the eventual tourney winner comes from this small group? Sure. However, each have flaws: The Cavaliers are known NCAA chokers, while Duke and Michigan State have injury concerns. The Tar Heels swept Duke but got swept by Virginia. Go figure.
Chances are strong the NCAA champ will come from the aforementioned group of eight, although balance is an issue if we look even closer. Gonzaga, for example, is 1st in offense this year and 16th on defense. That does not mean the Bulldogs cannot win, although it does mean that disparity could create matchup problems if Gonzaga draws a more-balanced team in the bracket. Same with Michigan: The Wolverines are 18th in offense and 2nd on defense.
It is interesting to note that two teams with Gonzaga’s profile have won it all: 2007 Florida and 2009 UNC. Both were No. 1 in offense and still elite on defense, although not nearly as much.
We have to remember that the Gators were the defending champions in 2007, and they had the same roster basically that had won it all in 2006. In a situation like that, you can throw the numbers out the window, in essence. The 2009 Tar Heels also had an interesting mix of talent on the roster, with a 2008 Final Four appearance and 2007 Elite Eight appearance to offer.
Does that fit the Bulldogs this year? Yes, somewhat, as Gonzaga lost the title game in 2017 and made the Sweet 16 in both 2016 and 2018. The Bulldogs are a legit contender, again. And just because there are no teams listed as champs above that fit the Wolverines’ current profile does not mean that Michigan cannot use its defense for a championship run—it’s just never been done before in that way, recently.
[The 2014 UConn squad might be the closest approximation to the current Wolverines, and generally everyone agrees that Huskies run to the title was highly improbable.]
Generally, too, the stronger the offensive efficiency, the better, as it seems to win more championships in this era of the three-point shot: Eleven champs above had better offenses than defenses, and only one champ had an abnormally better defense than offense.
Who do we think will win it all? If we knew, we would go to Vegas and bet. But again, consider the eight that fit the most common statistical profile: Virginia, Gonzaga, Duke, Michigan State, North Carolina, Michigan, Kentucky, and Houston.
The Cavaliers have made the Sweet 16 just twice under current coach Tony Bennett. For whatever reason, his teams just come up short in March. Duke and MSU are not at full strength in health, and the same might be said for Michigan, in truth. Houston’s best win came over LSU in December, but overall, the schedule strength is even worse than Gonzaga’s right now.
SOS matters in the end for mid-major squads reaching the Final Four, as we have seen with Butler losing the title game twice and the Bulldogs themselves once in addition to the George Mason and Loyola-Chicago teams of recent lore.
In our group of eight, we like Gonzaga, Kentucky, and North Carolina the best right now—in no particular order. It will depend on the regional seedings to pick one of the three to cut down the nets, and since no mid-major school like Gonzaga has won the title in recent memory, perhaps the Wildcats and the Tar Heels are the best bets to win it all.
Remember that when you fill out your brackets next week. You heard it here first.