March 6, 2008

Title traits: Who has numbers on their side?

MORE: Drive for 65: Forecasting the NCAA field | Daily Bubble Watch

If the NCAA Tournament started today, there would be only three teams with a shot at winning the title.

OK, really there would be 65 teams with a chance to win, but we've come up with a formula that reveals a few teams have a better shot than the rest.

We don't mean to insult anyone, but top-ranked North Carolina is not among them. Neither is Duke nor Tennessee nor UCLA.

If you were profiling what it takes to win the national championship, the past eight winners shared 13 traits. The only teams right now that meet the criteria are Kansas, Georgetown and surprise Xavier.

There are nine requirements that are measurable right now. Four more requirements will be known at the end of the regular season.

One more team, Gonzaga, meets the first nine requirements but looks a little shaky in regard to the final four (requirements, that is). The Bulldogs are 30th in the RPI and will need to climb into the top 15 before the start of the NCAA Tournament to reach all the criteria.

It's hardly a fool-proof theory. But is it worth keeping an eye on in March? You be the judge.

Here are the first nine criteria:
1. At least two returning starters.
2. Won at least 19 games the previous season (going to the NCAA Tournament is not a requirement).
3. Rank in the top 25 in scoring and/or field-goal percentage.
4. Rank in the top 20 in scoring margin.
5. Rank in the top 50 in field-goal percentage and force opponents to shoot less than 42 percent.
6. Allow fewer than 71 points per game.
7. Shoot at least 34.4 percent from 3-point range.
8. Shoot at least 62.3 percent from the free-throw line.
9. Need a post player who stands at least 6 feet 8 and averages double figures in scoring.

Here are the final four criteria
10. Seven or fewer losses.
11. Finish first or second in conference or division.
12. Reach at least semifinals of conference tournament.
13. RPI no worse than No. 15.

Here's why some other teams fell short:

Fits: Nos. 1, 2, 6-9
Falls short: Nos. 3-5
Comment: The addition of 6-8 freshman power forward Matt Howard (12.6 ppg) has made the undersized Bulldogs look respectable on the inside. But their defense they allow opponents to shoot 43.6 percent (ranking 167th nationally) is far too soft. Shooting 45.1 percent (128th nationally) from the field is another major issue.
Fits: Nos. 1, 2, 5-9
Falls short: Nos. 3, 4
Comment: The Huskies are great on defense, holding opponents to 38.3 percent shooting - which ranks seventh nationally. Last season, they ranked first in that statistic but still missed the NCAA Tournament. However, the Huskies' offense isn't particularly sharp or explosive. They rank 70th in field-goal percentage (46.2 percent) and 34th in scoring (77.3 ppg). Enduring too many close games is another concern. The Huskies rank 42nd in scoring margin (+9.0 ppg).
Fits: Nos. 1, 2, 4, 6-9
Falls short: Nos. 3, 5
Comment: Don't count on Drake being this season's Cinderella. The Bulldogs don't shoot the ball well enough or play stingy enough defense to have national-title aspirations. They rank 140th nationally in field-goal percentage (44.8 percent) and 174th in field-goal percentage defense (43.7 percent). Their biggest strength is at the line, where they shoot 75.3 percent (17th in the nation).
Fits: Nos. 1-4, 6-9
Falls short: No. 5
Comment: You don't need to be great defensively to win it all, but you can't be average. That's the problem for the Blue Devils. Their opponents shoot 43.3 percent from the field, which ranks 146th in the nation.
Fits: Nos. 1, 2, 6-9
Falls short: Nos. 3, 4, 5
Comment: The Hoosiers were on the verge of filling all the criteria until coach Kelvin Sampson's exit. Now they fall short in offensive and defensive requirements, ranking 36th nationally in field-goal percentage (47.7 percent) and 63rd in field-goal percentage defense (41.3 percent).
Fits: Nos. 2, 4-6, 8, 9
Falls short: Nos. 1, 3, 7
Comment: One of the bigger surprises while compiling all this data was how good the Wildcats look. In fact, if first-year coach Frank Martin's squad had just a little more experience and was a little more accurate from 3-point range, it would have met eight of the first nine criteria. Senior point guard Clent Stewart is the only returning starter and the team is shooting just 32.4 percent from beyond the arc.
Fits: Nos. 1, 2, 4-9
Falls short: No. 3
Comment: The surging Cardinals have won 15 of their past 17, but critics can point to a rather average offense as why they won't win it all. The Cardinals rank well outside the top 25 nationally in scoring and field-goal percentage, averaging 72.7 points (109th) and shooting 45.8 percent from the floor (90th). They also are shooting 34.9 percent from 3-point range, which is close to the 34.3 percent minimum.
Fits: Nos. 1-3, 5-9
Falls short: No. 4
Comment: The Spartans haven't been blowing opponents out with the same kind of regularity as other title contenders. They rank 32nd nationally in scoring margin - outscoring their opponents by an average of 10.4 points per game. But moving up the league standings is a much bigger concern. The Spartans sit in fourth place in the Big Ten. None of the past eight national champs have finished lower than second in their league or division.
Fits: Nos. 1, 2, 5-9
Falls short: Nos. 3, 4
Comment: The Bulldogs, led by the nation's leading shot-blocker Jarvis Varnado (4.8 blocks per game), play tremendous defense. MSU holds opponents to 36.7 percent shooting from the field, which ranks second in the nation. But Mississippi State's offense ranks 56th in field-goal percentage (46.7 percent) and 100th in scoring (72.9 ppg). They also are shooting 34.4 percent from 3-point range, right above the minimum.
Fits: Nos. 1-7, 9
Falls short: No. 8
Comment: The criteria says free-throw shooting is overrated (none of the past eight title winners have ranked in the top 30 in free throw percentage), but can the worst free-throw shooting team in the nation win the national title? We may find out soon. The Tigers are shooting 58.5 percent from the free-throw line, ranking 326th out of 328 teams in Division I. Three-point shooting also is a concern; the Tigers are shooting 34.7 percent from beyond the arc.
Fits: Nos. 1-4, 7-9.
Falls short: Nos. 5, 6
Comment: Tar Heels coach Roy Williams despises hearing about how his teams never rank well in scoring defense, but that may be the stat that holds the fast-paced Tar Heels back this season. Opponents are scoring 72.8 points per game, which ranks 258th in the nation. The Tar Heels are much better in field-goal percentage defense, but still far from great. Opponents are shooting 42.4 percent from the floor (106th nationally).
Fits: Nos. 1-3, 6-9
Falls short: Nos. 4, 5
Comment: By the end of the regular season, the well-balanced Irish could meet all criteria. Their last two regular-season games come against opponents from the bottom third of the Big East (St. John's and USF). Victories in both likely will boost the Irish into the top 20 in scoring margin (they rank 29th nationally at plus-10.9 ppg). A slight improvement on defense is also needed. The Irish are holding opponents to 41.0 percent from the field, which ranks 48th.
Fits: Nos. 1, 2, 6-8
Falls short: Nos. 3-5, 9
Comment: The "Baby Boilers" appear to be one of the biggest pretenders on this list. Their offense is subpar they rank 185th nationally in scoring (68.4 ppg) and 234th in field-goal percentage (42.5 percent) and their defense is slightly above average. Purdue ranks just 128th in field-goal percentage defense (42.9 percent). The lack of a reliable scoring threat on the inside is another concern. Junior Nemanja Calasan is their leading scorer among post players at 6.7 points per game.
Fits: Nos. 1, 4-9
Falls short: Nos. 2, 3
Comment: Saint Mary's meets more of the criteria than many of the top high-major teams, perhaps a sign the small school could engineer some big upsets in the NCAA Tournament. Offense is the only area where the Gaels don't excel. They're averaging 76.7 points (46th nationally) and shooting 46.6 percent from the floor (ranks 58th).
Fits: Nos. 1-2, 4-9
Falls short: No. 3
Comment: The Cardinal do everything well except score. They're averaging 71.0 points (134th nationally) and shooting 45.4 percent from the field (114th). Those numbers will leave too many opponents within striking distance.
Fits: Nos. 1-4, 6-8
Falls short: Nos. 5, 9
Comment: The Volunteers may have a big man averaging in double figures by the time the NCAA Tournament begins 6-9 power forward Wayne Chism is averaging 9.1 points. But the Vols have bigger strides to make on defense. Opponents are shooting 42.5 percent, which ranks 112th in the nation. Free-throw shooting also could become an issue. The Vols are shooting 64.9 percent from the charity stripe.
Fits: Nos. 1-2, 4-9
Falls short: No. 3
Comment: Texas has improved in just about every area without Kevin Durant, except offensively. With Durant, they were sixth in the nation in scoring offense, averaging 81.7 points. Without Durant, they have fallen to 49th, averaging 76.6. They also are significantly worse in field-goal percentage, ranking 108th at 45.5 percent.
Fits: Nos. 1-4, 6, 8, 9
Falls short: Nos. 5, 7
Comment: A slight improvement on defense and in 3-point shooting would have the Bruins meeting all criteria. Their offense has gotten a big boost with the addition of freshman center Kevin Love (17.1 ppg), but their defense long a strength under coach Ben Howland has slipped some. Opponents are shooting 42.2 percent from the floor, which ranks 95th in the nation. The Bruins rank 205th in 3-point field goal percentage (34.0 percent).
Fits: Nos. 1-3, 7-9
Falls short: Nos. 4-6
Comment: The Commodores fall well shy of the defensive requirements, ranking 138th nationally in field-goal percentage defense (43.1 percent) and allowing 73.4 points a game (ranks 271st). They also play too many close games, ranking 63rd in scoring margin (+7.0 ppg).
Fits: Nos. 1-2, 4-9
Falls short: No. 3
Comment: Ranking 196th in scoring offense (68.0 ppg) won't concern Badgers fans, who know their team fares better with a slow pace. But ranking 126th in field-goal percentage (45.1 percent) should. The Badgers are prone to sub-par shooting nights, a problem that becomes magnified when you don't score many baskets in transition.

Andrew Skwara is a national writer for He can be reached at

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