March Madness is all about upsets and uncertainty. But while schools from smaller conferences like Wichita State, VCU, Butler and George Mason have all made dramatic and unexpected Final Four runs over the past decade, the NCAA champion is rarely much of a surprise. Since 1988, only one team seeded lower than No. 3 has won the national title (No. 4 Arizona in 1997). But what makes a true title contender? We’ve analyzed the past 10 NCAA champions and then weeded through this year’s crop of top squads to find which one best fits the championship mold.
Three leagues — the ACC, the Big East and the SEC — have won 12 of the past 13 titles, and realignment has only made the major conferences stronger. The Big East, for example, lost Syracuse and Pittsburgh to the ACC this year, and in turn it stole mid-major powerhouses Creighton, Xavier and Butler. This is drastically affecting the competitiveness of the smaller conferences. Just look at the CAA. After having two Final Four teams in a six-year span, George Mason, VCU and Old Dominion left the league and last year’s CAA champion was a No. 16 seed.
Top teams that don’t fit the mold: Wichita State and San Diego State. While mid-majors have made surprising Final Four runs, the last team from a non-major conference to win a championship was UNLV in 1990. The Shockers haven’t played a ranked team all season.
Of the past 10 NCAA champions, only the 2011 UConn team ended the season with more than six losses (including tournaments); the Huskies finished 32-9. The 2012 Kentucky squad had the best overall record of the past 10 champs, 38-2. Teams are going to lose games — the last team to complete an undefeated season was Indiana in 1976 — but it’s how teams bounce back that shows if they have championship pedigree. UConn entered the 2011 Big East tournament having lost four of five, but the Huskies responded by beating four ranked teams on their way to the conference title.
Top teams that don’t fit the mold: Duke and Kansas. The Blue Devils and the Jayhawks top a list of marquee teams with at least eight losses that also includes Michigan, Kentucky, Michigan State and North Carolina.
3. Points scored
Of the past 10 champions, nine ranked in the top 30 in the country in points per game. The 2011 champion Huskies — you might have noticed they’re the biggest anomaly in this group — had the lowest scoring average at 72.4 points per game. UConn ranked 74th in the country that year. Defensive-minded teams have dominated the top of the rankings most of this season. Three top four seeds rank in the top 10 in scoring — Iowa State, Louisville and UCLA.
Top teams that don’t fit the mold: Syracuse and Virginia. The Orange’s 2-3 zone has held opponents to just 59.5 points a game — ninth in the country. The Cavaliers — who use a pressure man-to-man defense — hold teams to an NCAA-low 55.3 points a game. But both ACC squads go through lulls on offense and average well under 70 points a game. They each rank outside the top 250 in scoring offense.
4. Point differential
Every champion over the past 10 seasons — except, of course, that 2011 UConn team — was ranked in the top five in the country in scoring margin. The Huskies were 40th in the NCAA after their title run. This season, Louisville, Arizona and Wichita State are among the top five in the NCAA in scoring margin, with the Cardinals leading the way substantially. Louisville is the only team in the country to rank in the top 15 in both scoring offense and scoring defense.
Top teams that don’t fit the mold: Iowa State and Michigan. SMU, a team that didn’t even make the field of 68, had a better scoring margin than the Wolverines and Cyclones. Michigan and Iowa State each have four double-digit losses this season. Other teams outside the top 30 in scoring margin include Kansas, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Syracuse.
5. Future first-round draft picks
From 2004 to 2010, at least three players on each title-winning roster went on to be selected in the first round of the NBA draft. Some of those players, like Cole Aldrich on the 2008 Kansas team, developed later in their college career and had minimal impact on their team’s title run. Championship teams are, as expected, loaded with talent and rarely dependent on just one NBA-caliber player. Even UConn had two future pros — Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb — for its unexpected 2011 title run. Kansas, Duke, Kentucky, Syracuse, UCLA, Michigan State and Arizona have at least two players who are projected as possible first-round picks.
Top team that doesn’t fit the mold: Creighton. No team in the country relies as much on one player as the Bluejays do on Doug McDermott — the nation’s leading scorer. McDermott is a future pro, but no one else on his team will likely ever be on an NBA roster.
6. Rebounding margin
No team with a negative rebounding margin has gone on to win a title in the past 10 years, with every championship squad ranking in the top 70 in that category. Last year’s Louisville squad had the worst rebounding margin, at plus-3.6, but the team made up for it by being third in the country in turnover margin. Some of the most dominant frontcourts in recent years have gone on to cut down the nets. This year, Kentucky and Arizona are in the top five in rebounding margin.
Top teams that don’t fit the mold: Wisconsin and UConn. Both teams rank outside the top 150 in rebounding margin, while also ranking outside the top 50 in turnover margin.
The team that will win this year’s title … Arizona
The Wildcats fit the mold of an NCAA champion. They come from a big conference (although the Pac-12 hasn’t won a title since Arizona last did it in 1997). They have just four losses this season — three were by a combined nine points. They average just over 73 points a game — comparable to what Louisville averaged last season. They are the only team in the country that ranks in the top five in both scoring margin and rebounding margin. And they have at least two future pros in Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson. Florida, Michigan State and Louisville also hold most of the credentials of the past 10 champions, but the Wildcats are the best fit. So when you fill out those NCAA brackets this week, go with Arizona all the way and don’t think twice. If something goes wrong, blame the numbers.