We're less than 50 days away from Selection Sunday, so it's not too early to look at what teams fit the statistical profile of past men's basketball national champions.
I'm going to do it with something I like to call the "championship arc." Here's how it works.
You'll often hear that a team needs to be ranked in the top 20, 25 or 30 teams nationally in both offense and defense in order to win a national championship.
The spirit of that statement is generally true but it's not necessarily accurate enough — for several reasons.
When you graph the pre-NCAA tournament adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency ratings of recent Final Four teams, you'll notice a pattern.
Most national champions are either historically elite on at least one end of the floor or they're very good on both offense and defense. You can win a title by simply being pretty good on both ends (Syracuse in 2003, UConn in 2011) but remember both of those teams were led by historically great college players — Carmelo Anthony and Kemba Walker — who engineered two of the most memorable NCAA tournament runs of all time.
By connecting the dots, literally, between Villanova's pre-NCAA tournament offensive and defensive efficiency in 2018, when the Wildcats had the best offensive efficiency rating of any national championship team during the kenpom.com era (which dates back to 2002) but the worst defensive efficiency rating among champions, and the pre-NCAA tournament efficiency ratings of defensively elite Louisville in 2013 (the Cardinals' national championship was later vacated), you'll notice an arc inside which the majority of the last 18 national champions fall.
This is the championship arc, which is shown below to reflect the adjusted efficiency ratings of the top 15 teams (in red) on kenpom.com through Feb. 1.
In addition to the past champions that are positioned inside or on the arc, two other champions are located just outside the arc, leaving just three of the last 18 national champions that are statistical outliers compared to their national champion peers — Syracuse in 2003 and UConn in 2011 and 2014.
Just 14 of the other 54 Final Four teams from 2002 through 2019 fall inside or touching the championship arc, while the other 40 fall outside of it. This shows that even if a team makes a Cinderella run to the Final Four a la VCU in 2011 or South Carolina in 2017, the best teams are typically the ones that ultimately cut down the nets.
So while it's not a hard-and-fast-rule that a school's pre-NCAA tournament efficiency ratings must fall inside the arc to win a national championship, you'll find that most recent national champions fit this similar profile, which we can then use to project forward for this season.
So who's the best team this season?
There's been an ongoing narrative this men's basketball season that there's not an elite team(s) and that parity has reigned supreme. But that doesn't mean there aren't teams that fit the mold of past national champions.
Through the games played on Feb. 1, there are three schools positioned inside (or on) the championship arc — Kansas, Duke and Gonzaga — with another, Dayton, that's located just outside of it.
You might notice that this year's top teams are collectively positioned more to the left on the graph than most of the recent Final Four teams we graphed.
There's a pretty simple explanation for that: the new 3-point line.
This season the 3-point line was moved back to 22 feet, 1¾ inches, which changes where current teams fall on this scatter plot relative to their historical peers because offensive efficiency across the sport has decreased while defensive efficiency has improved.
For the sake of showing how teams have progressed throughout the season, the graph below is from our first Championship Arc update of the 2019-20 season (through Dec. 15, 2019). Also, note that the average efficiency in college basketball was almost three points per 100 possessions lower during the previous update in December, which is why I had created an adjusted championship arc, dotted in red, that was at a different angle than the original one.
Tap or click on the graphic to expand.
In mid-December, Ohio State had the strongest statistical profile among the top teams in the country. But the Buckeyes are just 5-7 in their last 12 games, dating back to their first loss of the season at Minnesota on Dec. 15.
Reigning national champion Virginia was a complete outlier on the championship arc in December, when the Cavaliers' stifling defense set them apart. But so did their lethargic offense. Through Feb. 1, Virginia has the No. 1 defense, according to kenpom.com, but the nation's No. 277 offense — a pretty remarkable gap between the team's performance on the two ends of the floor that has taken Virginia off the radar of national title contention for the time being.
What this means for the rest of the season — and March Madness
This college basketball season has reached historic levels of parity with seven different teams earning the No. 1 spot in the AP Top 25 poll.
Preseason No. 1 Michigan State lost its season opener on Nov. 5 to Kentucky, which then took over the No. 1 spot in the AP poll before a home loss to Evansville on Nov. 12. Two weeks later, No. 1 Duke fell at home in overtime to Stephen F. Austin, which allowed fellow ACC member Louisville to assume the No. 1 spot, only to lose to unranked Texas Tech on Dec. 10. Kansas took over the No. 1 spot, but then ceded it to Gonzaga before Baylor claimed it from the 'Zags.
All that goes to say that a potentially historic level of parity in the 2019-20 regular season would presumably lead to a wild four weeks during the NCAA tournament. There are upsets every season during March Madness but there could be even more than usual if the revolving door at No. 1 (and beyond) in the AP poll continues.
Despite the instability at the top spot in the polls, the championship arc tells us that through the first three months of the season, two of the teams that best meet the requirements of recent national champions are regular contenders Kansas and Duke, plus one of the most consistent programs of the last decade in Gonzaga and a Dayton team that has surged onto the national scene.
However, if your favorite team isn't positioned inside, or near, the championship arc, have no fear.
Last season's national runner-up, Texas Tech, proved that being elite on one end of the floor, plus having enough time until Selection Sunday to improve on the other end, is reason enough for fans to have hope that their team can make the Final Four.
The Red Raiders' offense ranked No. 140 national in adjusted offensive efficiency on Jan. 28, according to kenpom.com, and after their run to the national championship game, they finished the season ranked No. 25 on offense.
So when you hear that your team needs to be ranked in the top whatever to win the national championship, that might be true, but there's a lot more to the story. The championship arc is here to add context and fill in the details.