What does a college basketball national champion look like?
Recent history reveals it probably has several future NBA players on the court and a Hall of Fame coach on the sideline. The program plays in a venerable arena perhaps, is considered a perennial powerhouse and has nurtured future superstars for at least one season. Underdogs entertain on the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, but heavyweights lift the hardware on the first Monday in April. Seven programs have accounted for the last 12 championships.
When peering through the lens of advanced statistics, however, recent champions share other traits. For starters, they’re elite on offense and defense. This might seem obvious, but it’s refreshing to realize that offense wins championships too because although it’s cliche to trumpet the gritty defenders, good offense is why most people enjoy watching basketball.
With the exception of Connecticut’s two recent title teams, every national champion of the last decade ranked in the top eight nationally in the adjusted offensive efficiency ratings at KenPom.com. Florida (2006-07), North Carolina (2008-09) and Duke (2009-10) led the nation in points scored per possession, adjusted for quality of opponent, site of game, and when the game was played with recent games receiving more weight.
Duke had the third best offense in the nation last season when it won the final against Wisconsin, whose 127.9 offensive rating was easily the highest in the Pomeroy database which dates to 2002.
No offense to those 2013-14 Huskies, who rode a hot tournament run by point guard Shabazz Napier and a stiff rim-protecting defense to their fourth national title since 1999. They were the least impressive recent champion, by the numbers across the board. But the trophy glistens and the banner hangs, just the same.
Just like one cannot forget clutch contributions from a star guard like Kemba Walker (UConn '11), one cannot discount the value of tipped passes, contested shots and timely double teams. Every champion dating back to Florida’s 2005-06 squad, the first of its consecutive titles, also finished the season ranked 21st or better in adjusted defensive efficiency.
Kentucky in 2011-12 featured the top two picks in the upcoming draft, Anthony Davis, who projects as an NBA MVP candidate for the next decade, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, pegged as the Charlotte Hornets starting small forward prior to a season-ending shoulder injury. Both were excellent defenders. Scoring inside against the Wildcats’ long, athletic frontcourt was tough as a diner ribeye. They led the nation in effective field goal percentage defense (42.0 pct.), 2-point field goal defense (39.6) and block percentage (20.2).
The 2007-08 Kansas team, with future NBA pros Darrell Arthur, Brandon Rush and Mario Chalmers, led the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency and did not have a statistical weakness. More on those Jayhawks later.
So, if a team envisions standing on a ladder and clipping nets on April 4 in Houston it must be elite on both ends of the court.
Digging deeper, which aspect of basketball has a weaker correlation to a team’s success? Defensive rebounding.
This defies what we hear and see. Listen to any postgame press conference and coaches will speak of ‘protecting the defensive backboard.’ It seems important enough, however eight of the last 10 champions only met or slightly exceeded the Division I average, ranking outside the top 100 in defensive rebounding percentage. The last elite squad on the defensive glass was that 2007-08 Kansas team, which finished 23rd in the nation.
Offensive rebounding is a different matter. Over the past eight years, every national champion except the 2013-14 UConn team ranked in the top 35 in offensive rebounding percentage. Whether teams turn those second chances into point blank 2-pointers (08-09 North Carolina) or pass the ball out for open 3-pointers (09-10 Duke) is a matter of choice. Regardless, giving exceptionally skilled players second and third chances to score is a dangerous deal for the defense.
Effective field goal percentage - which takes into account 2-pointers and 3-pointers - is another area that defies assumption. While the Blue Devils were models of efficiency last season, shooting a high percentage behind-the-arc and inside-the-lane to rank fourth in the nation in effective field goal percentage, four of the past six champions were 83rd or worse.
Louisville’s 2012-13 championship team is an interesting case. The Cards had a 50.5 eFG pct. (88th in the nation), yet still had the fourth most efficient offense, scoring an adjusted 1.17 points per possession. They pulled this off by forcing turnovers at the nation’s 2nd highest rate - often by stealing the ball (also 2nd) to create easy baskets. They also generated more opportunities through solid offensive rebounding (32nd in the nation).
Looking back to compare the champions, it’s hard to argue against that 2007-08 Kansas team as the strongest all-around. But it’s fun to try. The 2006-07 Florida team not only became the most recent to defend its championship, it can still claim four members in the NBA, with a combined 31 years experience. The 2008-09 UNC squad may have been Roy Williams’ finest. They had the best offense of any recent champion, and still have five players on NBA rosters, with 29 years between them. The Davis & Kidd-Gilchrist team that finally brought John Calipari his title was strong. At the time, Duke’s 2010 champion was perceived as one of Mike Krzyzewski’s ‘least talented teams.’ Hard to make that statement today, considering five of those Devils are NBA veterans.
Those discussions are best settled on a message board. And luck is always a factor. In the 2008 final, had Memphis’ best two players made any of the four free throws they missed in the final 75 seconds of regulation, Bill Self and Kansas with the best defense and second best offense anywhere might have been denied the title.
Still, before attempting to predict a champion once the brackets are revealed next March, take a close look at each team’s advanced statistics and confirm that the choice meets the criteria.
Past 10 national champions:
|Off. Eff.||Rk||Def. Eff.||Rk||Eff. FG%||Rk||Eff. FG% D||Rk||Off. Reb. %||Rk||Def. Reb. %||Rk|
*The D1 national average for offensive rebounding ranges from 31 to 33 percent over the last decade.
% The D1 national average for effective field goal percentage ranges from 48 to 50 percent over the last decade.