Predicting college basketball’s national champion is hard enough while the NCAA tournament is happening. Picking one in mid-February just sets one up for failure, but every year, Sports Illustrated gathers statistics, evaluates teams, and does just that. What is the key? Picking a pool of eight from which the champion will hopefully emerge.
The number one team usually stands out like a sore thumb on paper, but this year the Cavaliers don’t meet the usual standards of an NCAA champ. Their offense ranks 44th in adjusted efficiency, and since 2002, only one team has entered the tournament with an offense ranked lower than 21st. The 21st ranked team, UConn: 57th-most efficient in 2014, one of the least predictable and least replicable tournament runs. Yes, Virginia’s offense is lacking, but they do have the most efficient defense. While they had been scoring higher in 2014 and 2016, they have never had a defense as strong as their current one and no one else has either.
The Boilermakers probably have the most solid champion profile. They rank 3rd in offense and 14th on defense. Only 1 out of 3 of the teams in the top 20 that meet both requirements. They also have monster, Isaac Haas, a whopping 7’2”. In addition, their 4 starters besides him shoot at least a 39.9% from the three-point line. Purdue starts 4 seniors but also a sophomore who is arguably their more explosive scorer in guard, Carsen Edwards. Not really anything to complain about here.
MICHIGAN STATE (25-3)
Similar to the Boilermakers , the Spartans ranks in the top 20 in efficiency on offense (9th) and defense (5th). But far before defeating Purdue, Michigan State was already starting to look more and more like a NCAA champion team. While they did beat North Carolina and the pre-injury-plague Notre Dame, it seems they don’t carry the ball too well and don’t attack from the outsides. Their interior defender (Jaren Jackson Jr.), 2 possible NBA talents (Jackson and Miles Bridges), and the most assistive point guard (Cassius Winston). Not to mention Tom Izzo, he’s racked up quite a few wins.
The worst a national champion has been ranked pre-tournament is 37th, by North Carolina in 2009 and Duke in 2015. The current Villanova squad, coached by Jay Wright, ranks 48th. Still, no other team has the All-American candidates that can compete with the Wildcats’ Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges, along with sophomore Donte DiVincenzo, who is growing into a dangerous player. They also have the third-lowest turnover rate in the country, effective shots, and start 3 players who were part of the previous team. Their defense is no doubt the worst they have had since 2012, but their offense could be enough to make it by and score some wins in the tournament this year.
The Wildcats rank right outside of the top 15 (17th) and lead a power conference by 2 games, yet are still a risky pick. Their pre-madness defense is worse than 3 out of 4 of last year’s Final Four team and ranks 69 below the worst defense champion. However, their inside-outside combo of Junior wing, Allonzo Trier, and freshman bog man, Deandre Ayton, is undeniable. Although coach Sean Miller has a lot to work on with his defense, he has a few weeks to pull it together. While coaching his team he will also have to manage his recent scandal with freshman super star, Christian Dawkins, who he allegedly offered $100,000 to play for the Wildcats and is now under investigation from the FBI.
The Blue Devils are included in this line up due to their impressive track record and future predictions. Before the season, many fans expected them to have a strong season as they entered the scene as No.1. Yes, the defense has been an issue for the past few months; however, it is justified due to the fact that they have such a young team and such a stacked offense thanks to one of the best coaches in the game. If the defense and point guard situations improve, the Blue Devils will have a good chance.
The Zags just achieved top 20 on both ends this last weekend, and on paper, they do not appear too impressive. While last week’s win against St. Mary’s was their most recent one since September, they do have balance. They have a strong interior combo with Jonathon Williams and Killian Tillie, and talents from sophomore Rui Hachimura.
In the past, Kansas has had a full list of downfalls, including no interior depth and relying too much on jump shots. This year though, the Jayhawks have a lot of quality. They lead all teams as they have 9 Quadrant 1 wins (only 4 losses), and in the next few weeks they will pick up a few more. They were the worst team at getting to the free throw line, and now they have doubled that rate in Big 12 play. If Lagerald Vick and Malik Newman can start working together and Devonte Graham doesn’t play like he did first 3 rounds last year, the Jayhawks could really get out of the gutter and prove themselves.
Get your brackets ready, this year’s NCAA championship tournament is going to be crazy. No team really proves themselves over the other, everything is a gamble at this point. So, take some lucky guesses, fill out your brackets, sit back, and watch the madness unfold.