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Joe Boozell | | January 26, 2020

What the last 12 college basketball national champions have in common

2018 One Shining Moment

The 2020 national championship game is approaching, and the field of potential title contenders feels wide open.

But 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:

Year Champion (Record) Coach Score Runner-Up Site
2019 Virginia (35-3) Tony Bennett 85-77 (OT) Texas Tech Minneapolis, MN
2018 Villanova (36-4) Jay Wright 79-62 Michigan San Antonio, Texas
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 12 national champions have had in common. 

*They’ve had top-seven offenses…. Or their name is Connecticut

Nine of the last 12 national champions have finished with a top-five offense, per 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 an efficient 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 11 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 12 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?

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That top-20 benchmark is key, though. If you’ll recall, UCLA had the second-best offense in 2017, 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, or several upperclassmen who were valuable contributors

We’ve seen how important experience is in recent years. In 2019, Virginia had seven players who averaged at least 15 minutes per game, including a senior, four juniors and a redshirt sophomore.

Villanova started four juniors in 2018. 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 12 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.

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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.

*They typically had a really good point guard

Virginia freshman guard Kihei Clark started 20 games for the Cavaliers last season, including the team's final 12 games, and he played alongside talented veterans Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome in Virginia's backcourt – two players who were selected in the NBA Draft last summer.

So even though Clark averaged just 4.5 points per game last season, he made one of the biggest plays in the tournament when he found teammate Mamadi Diakite for a game-tying jumper in the final seconds against Purdue in the Elite Eight (Clark had 12 assists to just two turnovers in the final three games of the 2019 NCAA Tournament), and he had experienced teammates who could also initiate the offense, so it's not as if the freshman was the team's only primary ball-handler.

But Clark, if we focus on him over Jerome, is arguably an outlier compared to the other point guards on the 11 previous national championship teams.

The rest of the names: Mario Chalmers, Ty Lawson, Jon Scheyer, Walker, Marquis Teague, Peyton Siva, Napier, Jones, Jalen Brunson and Joel Berry.

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 (or three)

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. Just look at Virginia's trio of Kyle Guy, who scored 25 points in the Elite Eight and 24 points in the national championship game, plus three game-winning free throws against Auburn in the Final Four; Ty Jerome, who scored 24 points, 21 and 16 in the Cavaliers' final three tournament games; and De'Andre Hunter, who scored a career-high 27 points and had nine rebounds (the second-highest total of his career) in the national championship game against Texas Tech.

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