There are certain constants in the NCAA Tournament: Nets will be cut, “One Shining Moment” will play and someone who hasn’t watched one full game this season will win your office pool.
In search of the eventual national champion, and a perfect bracket, we try to make sense of an event defined by chaos. We seek answers to the unpredictable.
Over time, certain theories have formed as keys to NCAA Tournament success, but not all are created equal. So, let’s separate fact from aberration:
A big-time coach is important to winning a title
Fact: Since 1990, the only coaches to win a national championship who aren’t in — or are headed to — the Hall of Fame are Jim Harrick (UCLA, 1995), Tubby Smith (Kentucky, 1998) and Kevin Ollie (Connecticut, 2011). A top-shelf program with elite talent can make up for the absence of an established leader, as Harrick, Smith and Ollie demonstrated, but it doesn’t happen often.
A conference tournament title leads to an NCAA Tournament title
Fiction: From 1998 to 2011, it seemed that way, with 10 national champions winning their conference tournaments first. Since then, four of the past five NCAA Tournament winners lost right before the brackets were released. Louisville was the most recent team to accomplish the double feat, claiming the 2013 Big East Tournament title. North Carolina, Kansas, Louisville and UCLA remain as dangerous as they seemed one week ago.
Fiction: Last year’s national championship game featured two teams led by seniors — Ryan Arcidiacono’s and Daniel Ochefu’s Villanova topping Brice Johnson’s and Marcus Paige’s North Carolina — but the proliferation of college stars turning pro after a year or two has made veteran leadership a bonus, not a necessity. In 2015, Duke won the national title behind freshmen Tyus Jones, Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow, and Grayson Allen’s breakout performance in the title game. In 2014, Kentucky started five freshmen and reached the national title game. In 2012, Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist became champions at Kentucky. Ultimately, talent — like that of UCLA’s Lonzo Ball or Duke’s Jayson Tatum — matters most.
Good guards are more valuable than good big men
Fact: The slow death of post players, and a series of new rules implemented to increase scoring and decrease physical play against ball-handlers, has certainly helped backcourt stars lead the charge. In the past decade, Anthony Davis is the only true big man to win the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, while seven guards have captured the award.
Defense wins championships
Fiction: Defense is essential, but not as much as an even stronger offense. The average national adjusted offensive efficiency ranking of the past 15 national champions is 7.5 — 10 title winners since 2002, and eight of the past 10 champions, have been ranked in the top-four in the country — while the average adjusted defensive efficiency is 8.9. None of those national championship defenses has been ranked worse than 21st (North Carolina, 2009), though several contenders this year could make that moot — North Carolina (fourth-ranked offense, 25th-ranked defense), Duke (sixth-ranked offense, 39th-ranked defense), Kansas (ninth-ranked offense, 30th-ranked defense) and UCLA (third-ranked offense, 78th-ranked defense).
The First Four matters
Fact: Since the final at-large teams started being sent to Dayton in 2011, at least one team has won two games in the NCAA Tournament each year. Three teams have advanced as far as the Sweet 16, with VCU going from the First Four to the Final Four in 2011.
Always pick at least one 12-seed over a five-seed
Fact: Well, you should because your bracket would be pretty boring otherwise, but 12-seeds also have won 10 first-round games in the past five tournaments, winning at least one game in 28 of the past 32 years. Pay just as much attention to 11-seeds, which are 15-13 against six-seeds in the past seven tournaments, while a 14-seed has won in four straight tournaments.
The top seeds won’t all reach the Final Four
Fact: It has only happened once before (2008), two fewer times than when no No. 1 overall seed has been at the Final Four. They will all advance to the second round, though, holding a 128-0 record against 16-seeds.
… Unless the most adhered-to advice finally reveals its first crack, too.