7 teams that can win the NCAA title (and 5 almosts)

It’s March. Everyone is trying to figure out the formula to pick an NCAA Champ. Well, look no further. While I will not dissolve all of my tricks, they lie in KenPom’s Four Factors (subscription required). It takes a high effective field goal percentage, combined with the ability to rebound your misses, along with taking care of ball and not fouling opponents. This season, as we head into championship week, we have 7 teams that fit the criteria of being able to win a title, while 5 are oh-so-itty-bitty close. At this time last season, Gonzaga was fit the criteria while North Carolina was an almost, so the 5 teams that aren’t quite there yet, there is still time.

Five Almosts

  1. Purdue (28-6) – The Boilermakers have been consistently one of the best teams in the country all season long. They finished tied for 2nd in the Big Ten regular season and were runner-up in the conference tournament. While they post one of the best effective field-goal percentages in the country, there biggest concern is their inability to grab offensive rebounds. In their four conference losses, they totaled just 24 offensive rebound, or 6 per game, and 10 of those came to Michigan on Sunday.  Their offensive rebounding percentage in those games comes out to 5.4%. To put that into perspective, their offensive rebounding rate on the season is over 27%. Purdue must rebound better on the offensive side of the ball to win the title.
  2. Michigan St (29-4) – Another Big Ten club comes in as a near-miss, as the Spartans do three of the four things teams need to do, but struggle in one crucial area. They don’t take care of the basketball. They sit in the 230s in turnover percentage and it must get better if they want to cut down the nets in April. In their four losses this season, Michigan St turned the ball over 55 times (47 in their 3 regular season losses). Turning the ball over almost 14 times a game is a good way to get beat by an inferior opponent. For a team that turns the ball over at that rate, they must force turnovers, right? No, actually the Spartans are one of the ten worst teams in forcing turnovers.
  3. Wichita St (24-6) – The Shockers are once again going to find themselves with a chance to make it past the first weekend and beyond. However, this team is not as good as some of the ones they have had in the past. Landry Shamet and Shaq Morris are all-league players, but the can’t take over a game quite like Fred Van-Vleet, Ron Baker, or Cleanthony Early. This isn’t what is going to keep them out though. While they defend pretty well, they often find themselves watching their opponent shoot too many free throws. This gets them in foul trouble and giving up easy points. They can make a run, but without an adjustment, will not be cutting down the nets.
  4. Virginia (28-2) – It seems unusual that the consensus number one team, both in polls and on computers, in the country would barely make the “Almosts” here. They defend better than anyone since KenPom started tallying stats in 2002. Teams have to work for not just every bucket, but every pass. They’ve lost just two games, both to in-state rivals, both by single digits. They don’t turn in over, they hardly ever foul, but they have some holes on offense. They aren’t overly efficient offensively and they don’t rebound all that well. This leaves them susceptible to upsets in the tournament when the best teams can get hot at any time, like we’ve seen teams in the past against the Cavaliers. Virginia can make a deep run, but I just don’t they are balanced enough to win it all.
  5. St. Mary’s (28-4) – Don’t get confused by the seed that St. Mary’s get come Selection Sunday. They will probably end up in the 7-10 range and will be an absolute nightmare for a 1 or 2 seed to play on the first weekend. Led by Jock Landale and Emmett Naar, the Gaels have the best chance of any seed lower than 5 to crash the party in San Antonio. Don’t let their scores fool you, they slow the game down and grind out victories. They are top-20 in the country in EFG%, TO%, and defensive FTR%. Other than their lack of marquee wins, their inability to grab their own misses will be their achilles heel. You can’t expect to shoot well every night and when you don’t grab a ton of offensive rebounds, the points are hard to come by.

Now, for the 7 teams that can cut down the nets…

  1. Duke (25-6) – Not only are the Blue Devils the favorite to win it all, our model has a bigger differential between 1 and 2 than 2 and 12. There is no one in the country better at grabbing missed shots and contesting without fouling than Duke. This is magnified with their high EFG%, meaning that they score at one of the highest clips in the country. This has been the case all year long, but recently, it has been the other side of the ball that has impressed. Coach K has started using zone and it has allowed them to keep more size on the floor. They are the most talented and can cause more problems than any team in the nation.
  2. North Carolina (22-9) – One of the biggest surprises of this whole thing was seeing the Tar Heels come in as the 2nd favorite to win it all. A big part of this is the same reasons that Duke is so favorable. They crash the class and don’t give opponents easy points. Their nine losses are more than any other team on either list, but eight of them are to tournament teams and played the hardest schedule of any team in the country. National titles are often won with great guard play and it doesn’t get much better than Joel Berry and Theo Pinson. These two can lead a deep run as the Tar Heels look to repeat as Champions. They are also 11-1 in the tournament the last two seasons.
  3. Villanova (27-4) – The only team to beat North Carolina in the tournament since 2016 comes in next on our list. Villanova is by far the most explosive team in the country. They shoot over 60% from 2 and hit on almost 40% from behind the arc. This gives them a nation-leading 59.7 EFG%. Not only do they score at will, they take care of the ball as well as anyone. Jalen Brunson will probably be holding the National Player of the Year trophy at season’s end, and he may get his second title as well.
  4. Cincinnati (27-4) – Known for his defensive-minded teams, Mick Cronin came into the season boasting about how potent his offense could be. Once conference play came around, Cronin got back to his old ways and the Bearcats have the most frightening defensive club outside of Virginia. Gary Clark and Kyle Washington control the paint, while Jacob Evans and Jarron Cumberland take the perimeter. If they can be half-way decent on the offensive end, Mick Cronin could bring Cincinnati its first title since the early 60s.
  5. Kansas (24-7) – A month ago, the Big 12 title streak looked to be in doubt for the Jayhawks. They had lost to TCU to fall to 8-4 in the league. That seems like a long time compared to what we see from them now. Devonte Graham has taken over and Kansas cruised to another league crown. They aren’t just the best team in the Big 12, they are one of the best in the country. Barring some unforeseen circumstances, they should be once again a top seed. The way that they win a second for Bill Self is through their highly efficient offense. They score the ball from anywhere on the floor and do it at a high rate.
  6. Gonzaga (29-4) – The Zags are back. Even though they lost Przemek Karnowski, Nigel Williams-Goss, and Zach Collins, they are still good enough to get back to a 2nd straight title, and this time get their revenge. Johnathan Williams and Rui Hachimura lead the charge on one of the most balanced teams in the nation. They’ve lost just once since Christmas and they play for another league title tonight.
  7. Xavier (27-4) – The last team that our model believes has what it takes to win a championship are the Xavier Musketeers. Coming off the shocking Elite 8 run a year ago, Chris Mack knew this was going to be his best shot. 3-time all league player Trevon Bluiett is special, a 2,300+ point scorer in his career. J.P. Macura is one of the most hated players in college basketball, and one of the most beloved by his coach and teammates. While Xavier has had some great teams in their history, this one is their best. They have guard play, they have scorers, they have size, they have depth. They have a guy that can take over a tournament. Their biggest question mark is whether or not they can get enough stops. If they improve one possession each half, Chris Mack may be cutting down the nets in San Antonio.

Other teams that are close to being an almost…

TCU, West Virginia, Michigan, Arizona, Clemson and Kentucky

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