college basketball

College basketball National Champions tend to fit a mold, so who are this year’s contenders, pretenders, and hopefuls?

After a long and much-needed NCAA tournament, Selection Sunday is only two weeks away. Four weeks until the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight and just a measly five weeks away from crowning an NCAA National Champion since Virginia won it all in 2019. It has been a long hard and challenging year, but having hope that there will be a 2021 NCAA Champion makes this time of the year all the better. 

It’s hard to believe that this time last year I was coming off of the death of my father, preparing for the Horizon League Tournament, all with my hopes and dreams in hand as my credentials for every round of the NCAA tournament had been approved. That dream came crashing down quickly. Along with hundreds of student-athletes whose dreams of playing in an NCAA tournament and competing for an NCAA National Championship were stripped away. 

But I digress.

This is 2021 and as of this moment, the NCAA tournament IS happening.

With the NCAA tournament in grasp, it’s never too early to look at the top contenders who can cut down the nets on that first Monday in April. There are the obvious choices of Gonzaga, Baylor, and Michigan who we will talk about shortly, but just ask Virginia in 2018 or Kentucky in 2015. The best team doesn’t always win. In fact, in the last ten NCAA tournaments, the number one overall seed has only won the whole tournament twice, Kentucky in 2012 and Louisville in 2013. Although when placing your bets on a winner, it is still wise to pick a No. 1 seed to win it all. Seven of the last 10 NCAA National Champions have been seeded as a No. 1 seed. In the last 20 years, 14 No. 1 seeds have won it all. And since the NCAA started seeding every team in 1979, 60.9% of the NCAA tournaments have been won by a number one seed.

SAN ANTONIO, TX – MARCH 31: Udoka Azubuike #35 of the Kansas Jayhawks wins the tipoff against Omari Spellman #14 of the Villanova Wildcats during the 2018 NCAA Photos via Getty Images Men’s Final Four Semifinal at the Alamodome on March 31, 2018 in San Antonio, Texas. The Villanova Wildcats defeated the Kansas Jayhawks 95-79. (Photo by Josh Duplechian/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

In order to determine who are the most likely candidates without any bias from myself, I had to look at facts. What did past NCAA National Champions have in common?

Let’s start with KenPom rankings.

In the KenPom era (since 2002) every NCAA National championship team except for two has been ranked in the top 15 at KenPom entering the NCAA tournament. The two exceptions are 2003 Syracuse (20) and 2014 UConn (25), so it seems pretty safe to say that a team ranked outside of the top 25 at KenPom on Selection Sunday may not be a good team to pick in your bracket.

It’s said that defense wins championships, but that isn’t always accurate. All but one NCAA National Champion during the KenPom era has been ranked in the top 30 (really the top 21) in adjusted offensive efficiency. The exception yet again was UConn in 2014 who was ranked a remarkable 57.

Then there is the adjusted defensive efficiency. The lowest a team has been ranked was 37 when North Carolina won in 2009 and Duke in 2015. All but three teams have been ranked in the top 30. Looking at all these combined every NCAA National Champion since 2002 has met two of three of these categories and 14 of the 18 met all three criteria (15 Rk., 25 AdjO, 30 AdjD).

So it seems pretty safe to say that Ken Pomeroy does a pretty decent job of determining who can contend for an NCAA National Championship. Yet there are always outliers. With the exception of 2019, every Final Four since 2011 has had at least one team that didn’t meet these criteria.

Let’s dive deeper!

MINNEAPOLIS, MN – APRIL 08: (EDITORS NOTES: This is a panoramic stitched from separate photos) The Virginia Cavaliers celebrate their teams 85-77 win over the Texas Tech Red Raiders to win the 2019 NCAA men’s Final Four National Championship game at U.S. Bank Stadium on April 8, 2019. (Photo by Chris Gjevre/Blakeway World Panoramas/Getty Images)

Here is a look at a few stats that past champions have had in common since 2011, entering the NCAA tournament.

  • Every NCAA National Champion has had a scoring offense of a minimum of 70 PPG.
  • Every NCAA National Champion has held opponents to under 35%  from the 3-point line.
  • Eight of the nine champions had a minimum 1.1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
  • Eight of the nine champions held a minimum +7.5 scoring margin.
  • Eight of the nine champions shot better than 44% from the field.
  • Eight of the nine averaged less than 12 turnovers per game. All nine averaged less than 13 turnovers per game.
  • Seven of the nine champions allowed fewer than 70 PPG. All nine allowed fewer than 71 PPG. Every Final Four team since 2011 has allowed fewer than 71 PPG.
  • Seven of the eight held opponents to under 42% from the field. All nine held opponents to under 44%.
  • Six of the nine, shot better than 35% from the 3-point line. All nine champions shot better than 33%.
  • Six of the nine (and the most recent six) made a minimum of seven 3-point field goals a game.
  • Six of the nine averaged a minimum of 14.5 assists per game. All nine averaged a minimum of 12.5. 

With still two weeks left there is plenty of movement that can still occur within KenPom rankings and a team’s season statistics. With that in mind, for the purpose of this article, I am giving a +10 on the benchmark KenPom rankings to better allow for a more inclusive field of contenders at this point.

With all of this in mind, here are your best contenders to win the NCAA National Championship.

***Note: This is based on where these teams statistically stand today if the NCAA tournament started tomorrow.

Tier One: NCAA National Champion Contenders

Baylor Bears

Baylor was one of three teams who are ranked in the top ten in all three major KenPom rankings heading into Saturday’s games. The Bears are third overall, fourth in adjusted offense, and 16th in adjusted defense. Baylor also passes every other statistical test past champions have set before them with no major concern moving forward. Baylor is led by a plethora of guards that includes Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell, MaCio Teague, Adam Flagler, and Matthew Mayer. Baylor plays six upperclassmen prominently and is top 10 in the nation in scoring margin, scoring offense, steals per game, turnover margin, and 3-point field goal percentage.

Gonzaga Bulldogs

The Bulldogs are ranked No. 1 overall at KenPom. They are first in adjusted offense and tenth in adjusted defense. They match every other statistical criterion with the exception of averaging 12.3 turnovers per game. So just like Baylor, there is no major cause for concern. The Bulldogs rank top 10 nationally in assists per game, assist-turnover ratio, field goal percentage, scoring margin, and scoring offense. Gonzaga is led by four prominent upperclassmen in Corey Kispert, Joel Ayayi, Andrew Nembhard, and Aaron Cook. Jalen Suggs, Ayayi, and Nembhard are quality guards who can lead this team to an NCAA National Championship.

Houston Cougars

Houston falls just short of being ranked in the top 10 in the three KenPom categories and could easily be there by the time the NCAA tournament starts. They are currently fourth overall, 11th in offensive efficiency, and fifth in defensive efficiency. Like the rest of tier one, Houston has no major cause for concern. If anything, the Cougar’s offense could be a bit more consistent. They only shoot 43.3% from the field, and UConn in 2011 is the only team that has won an NCAA National Championship shooting below 44% since 2011. Houston is however much stronger in every other statistical category to give them a leg up on those Huskies. The Cougars are also led by a solid core of upperclassmen and have solid guards in Quentin Grimes, Marcus Sasser, Dejon Jarreau, and Tramon Mark

CHAMPAIGN, IL – FEBRUARY 25: Illinois Fighting Illini center Kofi Cockburn (21) gets into position for a rebound as Nebraska Corn Huskers forward Derrick Walker (13) and Nebraska Corn Huskers guard Kobe Webster (10) attempt to box out during the Big Ten Conference college basketball game between the Nebraska Corn Huskers and the Illinois Fighting Illini on February 25, 2021, at the State Farm Center in Champaign, Illinois. (Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Illinois Fighting Illini

Illinois is sixth overall at KenPom. They are ninth in offensive efficiency and 17th in defensive efficiency. Those numbers, along with the dynamic duo of Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn are good enough to contend for an NCAA National Championship. The Illini can check off every statistical category as well with no major cause for concern. Illinois does average 13.5 turnovers a game which could be a red flag. An NCAA National Champion has not averaged more than 13 turnovers since Kansas in 2008 who turned the ball over 13.2 times a game. If Illinois can clean up that area of their game up they are a true contender with a core of Juniors and Seniors. Dosunmu mans the guards and is joined by Trent Frazier, Andre Curbelo, and Adam Miller.

Michigan Wolverines

Michigan is the only other team besides Gonzaga that can claim a top ten ranking in all of the three previously mentioned KenPom categories. The Wolverines are second overall and fifth in offensive efficiency and fourth in defensive efficiency. Even better than Gonzaga and Baylor, Michigan can place a checkmark in front of every statistical category mentioned above including turnovers per game where the Wolverines are averaging only nine a game. Michigan plays six upperclassmen prominently that includes Isaiah Livers, Mike Smith, Eli Brooks, and Chaundee Brown all alongside freshman Hunter Dickinson. Smith, Brooks, Brown, and Franz Wagner have the guard position locked down making Michigan a true contender.

  A/T A/G FG% FG%
Def.
Scoring Defense Scoring Margin Scoring Offense 3FG%
Def.
3FG/G 3FG% TO’s/G KenPom Rank KenPom Off. Eff. KenPom Def. Eff.
Benchmark min. 1.1 min.
14.5
min. 44% max 42% max
70 ppg
min.
7.5 ppg
min.
70 ppg
max
35%
min.
7
min
35%
min.
12
min
15
min
25
min
30
Baylor 1.46 17.3 49.5 42.3 63.7 21.2 84.9 32.1 10.3 42.1 11.8 3 4 16
Gonzaga 1.52 18.7 55.3 41.9 69.3 23.5 92.9 33 7.2 36.1 12.3 1 1 10
Houston 1.16 13.2 43.3 36.6 57.5 19.1 76.7 26.4 9 35.4 11.4 4 11 5
Illinois 1.23 16.6 50.1 41.1 69.2 12 81.2 33.2 7.1 38.1 13.5 6 9 17
Michigan 1.37 16.1 49.7 38.4 65.2 13.5 78.7 32.7 7.8 39 11.7 2 5 4
Stats from NCAA and KenPom. Data for games played through 2/27/2021. Numbers in yellow means potential cause for worry. Numbers in red are a major cause for worry.

Tier Two: NCAA National Champion Hopefuls

Alabama Crimson Tide

Alabama could easily find a way to win six straight games to win an NCAA National Championship. The Crimson Tide are top ten in the nation in 3-point field goals per game. They have a dynamic lineup with a good mixture of upperclassmen and talented freshmen. Jahvon Quinerly, John Petty, and Joshua Primo are all nationally ranked at KenPOm in 3-point field goal percentage. Alex Reese, Jordan Bruner, and Herbert Jones add exceptional play. The one red flag for Alabama is their 38th rank in KenPom offensive efficiency. Only UConn in 2011 has won an NCAA National Championship with an offensive efficiency rating lower than 20 heading into the NCAA tournament.

Arkansas Razorbacks

Arkansas has slowly been climbing the ranks and has now put its name in a position to potentially play for an NCAA National Championship. There are no major concerns for the Razorbacks but their statistical resume would not be one to pick if the tournament started today. Arkansas is top ten in the nation in blocked shots per game and rebounds per game. Moses Moody, Jalen Tate, Justin Smith, JD Notae, and Desi Sills lead a talented a deep lineup. If Arkansas can continue the upward trajectory they are currently on this team has the potential to position themselves nicely for an NCAA National Championship.

Creighton Bluejays

Creighton may have a few questionable losses this year, which may make them a possible upset pick, but the Bluejays have what it takes to win it all. By the numbers, Creighton is similar to a team like Duke in 2015 and North Carolina in 2009. A very talented team offensively but not overly exceptional defensively. However, they have what it takes to be that defensive team. Marcus Zegarowski is the engine that makes this dynamic offense run. Zegarowski is joined by a talented mix of mostly Juniors and Seniors including Denzel Mahoney, Christian Bishop, Damien Jefferson, and Mitchell Ballock.

Florida State Seminoles

Just like Creighton, Florida State is a talented and explosive offensive team who can be questionable defensively but has what it takes to bring the defensive to the next level and sustain it for six straight games. The Seminoles have a deep and talented roster with a mixture of upperclassmen and talented freshmen. Scottie Barnes, Raiquan Gray, MJ Walker and so many more who can do damage in the tournament.

ATLANTA, GA – JANUARY 30: RaiQuan Gray #1 of the Florida State Seminoles moves the ball during the ACC basketball game between the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and the Florida State Seminoles on Saturday, January 30, 2021 at the Hank McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Iowa Hawkeyes

The Hawkeyes certainly have an offense that can win an NCAA National Championship, but once again defense is what is in question. Luka Garza, Jordan Bohannon, Joe Wieskamp, CJ Fredrick, and Connor McCaffery lead the Hawkeyes who are top ten nationally in assists per game, assists-turnover ratio, scoring offense, 3-point field goal percentage, rebounds per game, and turnovers per game. Iowa is however 81st at KenPom in defensive efficiency and allows opponents to shoot better than 35% from the 3-point line, both of which are major red flags.

Kansas Jayhawks

With a less talented roster than they are used to, Kansas has found a way to develop a team that could possibly win six games in March. Teams have shown that they can compete for an NCAA National Championship when their defense is not elite but haven’t been able to do the same with an offense that is not elite. Kansas falls into that category which throws up a red flag. They are ranked 50th in offensive efficiency which has proven hard to win an NCAA National Championship with. The experience roster the Jayhawks have will be helpful with Marcus Garrett, David McCormack, Ochai Agbaji, Jalen Wilson, and Christian Braun. It’s not impossible but a heavy uphill battle for Kansas.

Loyola-Chicago Ramblers

A mid-major program hasn’t won since UNLV in 1990 so this certainly will not be easy if Loyola can find a way to make a run in the tournament. The Ramblers are top 10 in the nation in field goal percentage, scoring defense, scoring margin, and fouls committed per game. Like Kansas however, Loyola’s path to an NCAA National Championship will be an uphill battle as they are ranked 68th in offensive efficiency. It’s doable but a challenge and a red flag. Cameron Krutwig, Lucas Williamson, Keith Clemons, and Braden Norris lead the way on this exceptionally talented program out of the Missouri Valley.

Ohio State Buckeyes

When we think of talented offensive teams with a questionable defense, Ohio State isn’t a team that comes to mind, however, this season that is exactly what the Buckeyes are. Ohio State is actually ranked lower than Iowa which should make their path to an NCAA National Championship more challenging. The Buckeyes have a talented roster with a mixture of experience who can all score the basketball. Duane Washington and EJ Liddell lead the way with help from Justice Sueing, Kyle Young, and CJ Walker.

EAST LANSING, MI – FEBRUARY 25: The Buckeyes take the court after a time out during a college basketball game between the Michigan State Spartans and the Ohio State Buckeyes on February 25, 2021 at the Breslin Student Events Center in East Lansing, MI. (Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Purdue Boilermakers

Purdue is one of the few teams on this list that rely heavily on freshmen. The Boilermakers do have upperclassmen however to mix in. Purdue isn’t overly exceptional in anything but they are good in multiple areas. They are one of seven teams who meet the benchmarks for KenPom rankings. They only have a few minor concerns moving forward. Purdue certainly the first team you think of to win an NCAA National Championship, but it is certainly possible. Trevion Williams and Zach Edey will cause trouble for anybody. Jaden Ivey, Eric Hunter, Brandon Newman, Sasha Stefanovic, and the rest of the roster are all well-coached and might be more dangerous next year.

Villanova Wildcats

Villanova was a favorite heading into the year and is certainly still one of the favorites in the betting world, but Villanova has work to do. The Wildcats offense is great but like a few others in this tier, the defense is a potential red flag. Villanova is 66th at KenPom in defensive efficiency and allows opponents to shoot 35.5% from the 3-point line. They are top 10 nationally in assist-turnover ratio and turnovers per game. Collin Gillespie, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Jermaine Samuels, and Justin Moore have the talent and experience to put Villanova in contention for an NCAA National Championship.

Virginia Cavaliers Despite losing three straight, Virginia checks the boxes statistically. The Cavaliers are 13th overall, 15th in offensive efficiency, and 30th in defensive efficiency at KenPom. It’s crazy to think that a Tony Bennett Virginia team may actually be better offensively than they are on defense. They make the cut according to KenPom’s numbers but statistically overall. Virginia is right at the cut line allowing opponents to shoot 42% from the field. But, the bigger concern, and red flag, is that they only score 68.8 points per game. Looking at NCAA statistics and Sports Reference there has not been an NCAA National Champion crowned who averaged less than 70 points since the 3-point line was introduced. In fact, it hasn’t happened since Villanova won in 1985. The Cavaliers could change this around with the experienced team they have by the tournament and Kihei Clark leading at the point is helpful. But, Virginia does rely heavily on forwards over their guards in Jay Huff and Sam Hauser.

West Virginia Mountaineers

A talented Bob Huggins offensive team is scary. It’s exactly what West Virginia is this season and yet the surprising thing is the red flag for this team is actually on the defensive side of the ball. West Virginia falls into that same category with the previously mentioned talented offensive teams who have a low ranking in KenPom defensive efficiency. West Virginia could find a way to make things happen in March but it could be challenging. The Mountaineers are led by Miles McBride and Derek Culver. Taz Sherman, Sean McNeil, Emmitt Matthews, and Jordan McCabe provide a talented a fearful roster in March.

Wisconsin Badgers

The experienced team seems to have stayed just as good as they were last year. Can Wisconsin take that next step? I think all of the Big Ten and the entirety of the college basketball community has been waiting for it and if they do watch out. Wisconsin has the numbers to win an NCAA National Championship with its only red flag coming in by currently scoring only 69.8 points per game. That could easily change and if this team can make it happen it wouldn’t be a total surprise. D’Mitrik Trice, Micah Potter, Nate Reuvers, Brad Davison, Aleem Ford, Jonathan Davis, and Tyler Wahl is a frightening combination who could make a run at an NCAA National Championship.

  A/T A/G FG% FG%
Def.
Scoring Defense Scoring Margin Scoring Offense 3FG%
Def.
3FG/G 3FG% TO’s/G KenPom Rank KenPom Off. Eff. KenPom Def. Eff.
Benchmark min. 1.1 min.
14.5
min. 44% max 42% max
70 ppg
min.
7.5 ppg
min.
70 ppg
max
35%
min.
7
min
35%
min.
12
min
15
min
25
min
30
Alabama 0.99 14.2 43 40.7 70.4 9.2 79.6 28.7 10.7 35.5 14.3 9 38 3
Arkansas 1.17 15 45 41.2 70.2 12.2 82.4 31.9 7.7 33.6 12.8 17 32 14
Creighton 1.42 16 48.4 40.5 68.8 9.8 78.6 32.8 9.7 36.7 11.3 15 12 47
Florida State 1.12 15.1 47.1 40.1 69.7 9.6 79.2 33.6 8.3 38.7 13.4 10 8 52
Iowa 1.95 18.9 47.1 41.2 73 12.1 85.2 35.1 10 40.1 9.7 5 2 81
Kansas 1.11 13.8 44 40.5 66 7.5 73.5 32.1 7.5 34.3 12.4 19 50 9
Loyola-Chicago 1.3 15.5 50.4 40.7 55.7 15.9 71.6 32.6 6.9 35.4 11.9 11 68 1
Ohio State 1.25 13 46.4 42.3 69.7 8.4 78 34.1 8.2 36.6 10.4 7 3 87
Purdue 1.11 14.1 45 41.3 65.6 5.3 70.9 32 7.2 33.6 12.7 14 25 15
Villanova 1.71 16 46 45.2 67.7 10.4 78.1 35.5 9.9 37.7 9.3 8 6 66
Virginia 1.47 14 48.4 42 60.6 8.2 68.8 34 8.7 39.3 9.6 13 15 30
West Virginia 1.18 14 43.1 43.5 70.8 6.3 77.1 32.1 7.3 36.5 11.8 18 10 55
Wisconsin 1.47 13.2 41.9 41.5 63.2 6.6 69.8 33.9 8.5 35.7 9 12 35 7
Stats from NCAA and KenPom. Data for games played through 2/27/2021. Numbers in yellow means potential cause for worry. Numbers in red are a major cause for worry.

Tier Three: NCAA National Champion Pretenders

BYU Cougars

BYU may be in this position because they are much stronger than most of their conference, but the Cougars still have a chance. No major concerns statistically for BYU.

Colorado Buffaloes

Colorado is a team with no major concerns and a talented experienced roster, but they have found a way to lose games they should have won. Colorado sits in the last tier simply because they are not top 15 in either KenPom ranking and every NCAA National Champion has had that except Syracuse in 2003.

Oklahoma Sooners

Oklahoma is similar to Colorado by the numbers with a little more concern. Their red flag is their struggles to defend the 3-point line. As their opponents shoot 35.4% from behind the arc.

San Diego State Aztecs

We know they can defend, but can the Aztecs score enough to compete for an NCAA National Championship?

NASHVILLE, TN – FEBRUARY 24: Tennessee Volunteers forward John Fulkerson (10) dunks during pregame warmups of a game between the Vanderbilt Commodores and Tennessee Volunteers, February 24, 2021, at Memorial Gym in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Tennessee Volunteers

Just like San Diego State, Tennessee can defend but their offense is questionable. Tennessee was a preseason favorite so if that holds up and they figure out how to score the basketball they may be able to make a run for an NCAA National Championship.

Texas Longhorns

Texas, like Oklahoma, falls out of the top 15 in all three KenPom rankings. They are good but may not be great enough at one thing to win it all. They were in NCAA National Championship form earlier this season so it’s possible.

Texas Tech Red Raiders

Texas Tech is like Oklahoma and Texas just outside the top 15 in the three KenPom rankings. The question is, is this because of the strength of the Big 12, or are the three just good teams and not outstanding teams?

USC Trojans

Evan Mobley. Will USC allow Mobley to lead them through March? He may be their only chance to win the NCAA National Championship.

  A/T A/G FG% FG%
Def.
Scoring Defense Scoring Margin Scoring Offense 3FG%
Def.
3FG/G 3FG% TO’s/G KenPom Rank KenPom Off. Eff. KenPom Def. Eff.
Benchmark min. 1.1 min.
14.5
min. 44% max 42% max
70 ppg
min.
7.5 ppg
min.
70 ppg
max
35%
min.
7
min
35%
min.
12
min
15
min
25
min
30
BYU 1.28 16.9 48.6 40.5 67.3 11.3 78.6 32.7 9 37.9 13.2 22 21 26
Colorado 1.23 13.7 45.7 41.7 63.1 10.6 73.7 32.6 7.6 36.8 11.2 16 17 29
Oklahoma 1.24 13.6 44.3 41.2 68.6 7 75.6 35.4 7.9 33.2 10.9 33 34 40
San Diego State 1.21 14.3 45.7 38.6 60 14.6 74.6 32.3 8.8 38 11.8 20 52 8
Tennessee 1.23 15 44.4 40.1 63.1 9.7 72.8 32 6.7 34.6 12.2 24 74 6
Texas 0.95 13 44.5 40.8 68.6 6.2 74.9 32.3 8.5 34 13.7 25 23 34
Texas Tech 1.15 12.7 43.5 40.9 63.2 10 73.2 33.8 6.2 33.6 11 23 33 19
USC 1.1 13.8 46.2 39.3 65 9.5 74.6 33.7 6.2 34.5 12.6 21 27 21
Stats from NCAA and KenPom. Data for games played through 2/27/2021. Numbers in yellow means potential cause for worry. Numbers in red are a major cause for worry.

 

Feature Image Photos by Robert Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images, George Walker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images, and Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

By Matt Karner

Big East hoops writer for NCAAM Review Bracketologist for Busted Bracketology (www.bustedbracketology.wordpress.com) Twitter: @karner44 Instagram: @karner44

3 thoughts on “College Basketball National Champion Contenders and Pretenders”
  1. […] Three weeks ago, we took a deep dive into the statistics of a college basketball National Champion. Baylor, Gonzaga, Houston, Illinois, and Michigan all stood out from the rest of the field. Their season performances, up to that point replicated what a past college basketball National Championship team accomplished before heading into the NCAA tournament. […]

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