We’ll watch watch several national championship contenders play this week – and in the case of the Champions Classic, the schools will be facing each other.
So what criteria does a team need to meet in order to win it all? First, a look at the squads who’ve recently won it:
|2017||North Carolina (33-7)||Roy Williams||71-65||Gonzaga||Phoenix, Ariz.|
|2016||Villanova (35-5)||Jay Wright||77-74||North Carolina||Houston, Texas|
|2015||Duke (35-4)||Mike Krzyzewski||68-63||Wisconsin||Indianapolis, Ind.|
|2014||Connecticut (32-8)||Kevin Ollie||60-54||Kentucky||Arlington, Texas|
|2013||Louisville (35-5)||Rick Pitino||82-76||Michigan||Atlanta, Ga.|
|2012||Kentucky (38-2)||John Calipari||67-59||Kansas||New Orleans, La.|
|2011||Connecticut (32-9)||Jim Calhoun||53-41||Butler||Houston, Texas|
|2010||Duke (35-5)||Mike Krzyzewski||61-59||Butler||Indianapolis, Ind.|
|2009||North Carolina (34-4)||Roy Williams||89-72||Michigan State||Detroit, Mich.|
|2008||Kansas (37-3)||Bill Self||75-68 (OT)||Memphis||San Antonio, Texas|
Here’s what the last 10 national champions have had in common.
*They’ve had top-seven offenses…. Or their name is Connecticut
Seven of the last 10 national champions have finished with a top-five offense, per KenPom. Louisville finished seventh in 2013.
Connecticut is the only outlier. In 2011, it finished 19th in offense. In 2014, 39th. Of course, those UConn teams had two of the best crunch-time scorers we’ve seen in recent college basketball history (Kemba Walker in 2011; Shabazz Napier in 2014. Napier was on the 2011 team too, but that was Kemba’s show). Anyway, having clutch shot-makers is key – and it’s a factor we’ll touch on soon.
But in general, it’s good to have a high-flying offense. It doesn’t guarantee anything, but for most champions, it’s a prerequisite to success – except Connecticut, of course.
You probably knew that having a good offense is necessary in order to win a national title. Duh. But you may not have known that, based on the last 10 years, it’s more important to have a great offense than a great defense.
*They've had a top-20 defense
It’s important to be good on defense. But you don’t necessarily have to be great. Take North Carolina for example: the Tar Heels have won two of the last 10 titles. In 2009, they finished 18th on defense; in 2017 they finished 11th. Duke also finished outside of the top 10 when it won in 2015.
If you think about it, the logic makes sense. Defense is a crucial part of the game, but the offense controls flow. It’s more common to see a player make a tough shot over an extended hand than it is to see someone miss a wide-open layup because of terrible defense. A stout D can expose a mediocre offense, and it can make life harder for a great one. But if the other team is hitting shots, what can you really do?
That top-20 benchmark is key, though. If you’ll recall, UCLA had the second-best offense last year, but the Bruins finished 85th on defense. UCLA gave up 86 points to Kentucky in the Sweet 16 and lost. It had the offense of a national title team, but it wasn’t complete.
Keep all of this in mind when you’re watching a team that’s significantly better on one side of the floor than the other this season.
*They've had at least one senior who was a valuable contributor (but usually more)
We’ve seen how important experience is in recent years. North Carolina started all juniors and seniors in 2017. Villanova started four upperclassmen in 2016. Go down the list of champions, and there are generally multiple juniors and seniors that played a major role.
There are two notable exceptions in the last 10 years, though: 2012 Kentucky and 2015 Duke. Duke started three freshmen against Wisconsin in the championship game (Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and Jahlil Okafor), a sophomore (Matt Jones), and a senior (Quinn Cook). Kentucky was even younger – it started three freshmen and two sophomores in its win over Kansas.
Two things here, though: each team had at least one senior who played a vital role. Cook was huge for Duke that year, while Darius Miller played 25 minutes for the Wildcats in the title game. Second: if you’re going to play that many freshmen, they better be transcendent. Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Okafor were all top-three NBA draft picks. Good freshmen won’t cut it; great freshmen might.
This primarily applies to the same two schools this year: Duke and Kentucky. The Blue Devils start four rookies, but they have a valuable senior in Grayson Allen. Kentucky starts five freshmen and has no notable upperclassmen. History doesn’t bode in its favor.
*They had a really good point guard
The worst starting point guard on this list is probably a freshman Jalen Brunson for Villanova. Brunson is a Naismith candidate as a junior – he had a breakout year as a sophomore, but the Wildcats wouldn’t have won the title without him as a freshman.
That shows you how great these point guards were.
Ironically, because Villanova has Brunson, it has to be considered a contender this year. Same with North Carolina (Berry), Kansas (Devonte’ Graham), Duke (Trevon Duval), and Wichita State (Landry Shamet).
You’re generally going to play at least a few tight games in the tournament. That’s when the point guard position matters most.
*They had an awesome crunch-time scorer
This is often the same guy as the point guard, but there are exceptions — like Josh Hart for Villanova and Tyler Hansbrough for North Carolina.
But this particularly applies to two guys: Walker and Napier, who won titles without as much help as the other point guards on this list. When your star player’s game elevates during the most stressful times, it’s the ultimate trump card. Walker topped 33 points twice in the 2011 NCAA tournament and never scored less than 16. Napier scored 22 points or more in four of UConn’s six games in the 2014 dance.
When the most confident player on the floor is wearing your jersey in a tight NCAA tournament game, you have an automatic edge.