(Photo illustration by Peyton Gallaher)

Making a Champion: Figuring out who would’ve won this years national championship

Since the cancelation of the NCAA tournament, we’ve been bombarded by debates surrounding which team would have strung together six straight wins to take home the national title. Without the tournament, different teams, players and coaches have vocalized their belief in it being their year.

In a year where seven different teams spent time at No. 1 in the AP poll, Florida State was never one of them. Still, the Seminoles were declared “national champions by default” in a 37–2 vote in the Florida state senate March 14.

Kentucky head coach John Calipari released a statement expressing belief in what the Wildcats might have done had the postseason happened.

“I don’t say this lightly,” Calipari said in a statement. “I think I had the national championship team, and this group should go down as one of the most loved teams in my tenure here.

Calipari took it further.

“As I’ve said with my other teams that were Final Four teams and the national championship group, we never had a bad practice. Some of them may have been a little better than the others, but not once did I walk out and say, ‘That was awful.’ Not once this year.”

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to make statements like these. Nothing Calipari said in that statement will be refuted by the general public. Most Kentucky fans will go about their lives believing the Wildcats were destined for another deep run in March.

But I spent the majority of this year examining the flaws of each team in the country, hoping to pop each teams championship bubble.

This whole process began in November. It actually began out of my curiosity for the widespread national support for Michigan State as the preseason No. 1 team in the AP poll. I understood that preseason national player of the year Cassius Winston was returning to a team that upset Zion Williamson and the Duke Blue Devils en route to the Final Four in 2019, but I didn’t think the roster — which received 60 of 65 first-place votes in the preseason AP poll — surrounding the senior point guard was good enough to cut down the nets in Atlanta in 2020.

During the first week of November, I vocalized my doubts about Tom Izzo’s squad during an appearance on the Nerd Sesh podcast, with hosts Logan Camden and Carson Breber.

“I’m not big on Michigan State,” I said. “They don’t have any elite NBA talent on this team.”

That full conversation can be found here at around the 25:30 mark.

Elite talent is obviously subjective, but I left the show wanting to dive deeper into the investigation of what criteria each season’s NCAA champion had. A segment was born: Making a Champion.

Each week on Heat Check, Logan Camden and I presented the rest of the cast with a requirement every national champion — either since the implementation of the 3-point line (1987) or beginning of the KenPom era (2002) — met, which eliminated a team or teams from contention this season. Starting with all 353 Division 1 teams — although Georgia Tech, California Baptist, North Alabama and Merrimack were all ineligible for the tournament — we wound ourselves down to one true champion. As I’ll explain further below, the criteria also provided explanation’s as to why some elite teams in years past failed to claim the title. It also gives us parameters to know if, or when, a statistically unprecedented national champion ever happens again.

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Without further ado, here are the 10 requirements — ordered in the way they were released weekly on Heat Check — that helped crown a champion this season.

No. 1: Every national champion since 1988 has had a first round pick in the NBA draft on its roster.

Teams still eligible (26): Georgia, Memphis, Dayton, North Carolina, Washington, Arizona, Minnesota, Duke, USC, Iowa State, Villanova, Oregon, Vanderbilt, Kansas, Louisville, Kentucky, Florida State, Auburn, DePaul, Washington State, Florida, LSU, Ohio State, Maryland, Texas Tech, Gonzaga

Right off the bat, we must make clear that the first round pick does not have to be someone who gets picked in the first round of the NBA Draft following the season in which their school wins the national championship. Even in Indiana in 1987, the last team to win the national championship without a first round pick, had Steve Alford.

The Indiana guard who averaged 22.0 points per game as a senior, was selected with the third pick in the second round of the 1987 NBA Draft. However, that third pick was actually 26th overall, as the NBA had yet to expand to 30 teams and 30 first round picks.

Most national champions have a clear-cut first round pick on the roster, even though high-lottery picks like Anthony Davis (2012) and Carmelo Anthony (2003) are really the only major one-and-done success stories for title winners.

Of course, a key NCAA tournament run could impact a player’s draft stock. In 2018, Donte DiVincenzo’s performance in the Final Four, where he was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player after a 31-point performance in the national championship game, helped the Villanova guard get drafted 17th overall to the Milwaukee Bucks.

Michigan State and Baylor are the two biggest casualties from this requirement. I am not among the few people who believe Cassius Winston and Jared Butler are first round picks, although a Kemba Walker-esque run in the NCAA tournament from Winston wouldn’t have been out of the realm of possibility.

No. 2: Every national champion since 1986–87 (the first year of the 3-point line) shot 32.9% or better from 3-point range.

Teams eliminated by this requirement (8): Georgia, North Carolina, Iowa State, Auburn, DePaul, Washington State, LSU, Maryland

Teams still eligible (18): Memphis, Dayton, Washington, Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Texas Tech, Arizona, Minnesota, Duke, USC, Villanova, Oregon, Kansas, Louisville, Florida, Ohio State, Gonzaga, Florida State

This requirement eliminates a few major pretenders like Washington State and DePaul while helping give reason for the struggles of Georgia, North Carolina, and Iowa State; teams that had future high-lottery picks in Anthony Edwards, Cole Anthony and Tyrese Haliburton.

What we really learn in this requirement is that you can be a good team without shooting the 3 well, but you can’t be a great one.

I was vocally anti-Auburn this year, largely due to the volatility of their 3-point shooting. The Tigers shot 30.6 percent from beyond the arc this season, and it showed during their struggles in SEC play this year. Maryland was able to win a share of the Big Ten regular season crown, despite struggles from deep which caused problems at times.

If you’re still wondering why Zion Williamson and the 2018–19 Duke squad failed to even reach the Final Four, let alone win the whole thing, poor 3-point shooting could be the reason. The Blue Devils shot 30.8 percent from 3 last year, markedly worse than the 32.9 percent bar set by Kemba Walker and the 2011 UConn Huskies.

No. 3: Every national champion since 1987 has shot 43.4 percent or better from the floor.

Teams eliminated by this requirement (2): Vanderbilt, Minnesota

Teams still eligible (16): Memphis, Dayton, Washington, Kentucky, Arizona, Duke, USC, Villanova, Oregon, Kansas, Louisville, Texas Tech, Florida, Ohio State, Gonzaga, Florida State

Aaron Nesmith and Daniel Oturu were good enough to keep the Commodores and Golden Gophers around this long but eliminating Vanderbilt (42.8 percent) and Minnesota (42.5 percent) was necessary in the pursuit of our true champion.

A few other schools managed to squeak by this requirement, but any team even hovering around the 43.4 mark was one that struggled to score the ball consistently.

No. 4: Every national champion since 1987 has at least a 7.4 point differential between points per game and points allowed per game (average margin of victory).

Teams eliminated by this requirement (4): USC (4.3), Florida (5.9), Washington (4.2), Villanova (6.8)

Teams still eligible (12): Ohio State, Memphis, Dayton, Kentucky, Arizona, Duke, Oregon, Kansas, Louisville, Gonzaga, Texas Tech, Florida State

In order to be a great team, or a team capable of winning a national championship, beating teams by a wide margin is important. Average margin of victory is a great indicator of the great teams, as most dominate the inferior opponents in non-conference, and separate themselves against their conference foes.

The bar for this requirement would be higher if not for a few historic individual performances. The only three national champions since 1987 with an average margin of victory lower than 10 points per game were 2014 UConn (8.6), 2011 UConn (7.5), and 1988 Kansas (7.4). The six-game stretch of elite individual performances from Kemba Walker, Shabazz Napier and Danny Manning allowed the two Husky teams and one Jayhawk squad to make up for their regular season struggles.

No. 5: Every national champion since 1987 must have at least one player averaging (3.1) assists per game.

Teams eliminated by this requirement (1): Louisville

Teams still eligible (11): Ohio State, Memphis, Dayton, Arizona, Duke, Oregon, Kansas, Gonzaga, Texas Tech, Florida State, Kentucky

Without easy baskets to come by, offensive production can be tougher to produce. That was one of Louisville’s struggles this year, after entering as one of the top teams in the country.

Junior forward Jordan Nwora was expected to carry the Cardinals to success, but without a primary ball-handler to help Nwora — freshman guard David Johnson averaged 2.8 assists per game — the preseason first team All-American pick failed to flourish for Louisville. The Cardinals still had success, but the failure of Chris Mack’s team to have someone average 3.1 assists per game — a mark set by Kansas’ Kevin Pritchard in 1988 — was one of the reasons they could not have won a national championship this season.

No. 6: Every national champion since 1987 has had its leading scorer average more than 13.3 points per game.

Teams eliminated by this stat (1): Florida State

Teams still eligible (10): Ohio State, Memphis, Dayton, Arizona, Duke, Oregon, Kansas, Gonzaga, Texas Tech, Kentucky

If you’re still wondering how the 2014–15 Kentucky Wildcats failed to win a national championship, look no further. This requirement eliminates that Kentucky squad from contention, after sophomore guard Aaron Harrison led the Wildcats in scoring with 11.0 points per game on a Kentucky team that brought Devin Booker off the bench.

Booker averaged 10.0 points per game, but could’ve averaged more if he’d been given more than 21.5(!) minutes per game during his lone season for the Wildcats.

While not boasting the same type of elite NBA-level depth, this year’s Florida State team failed to meet the 13.3 points-per-game-or-more-leading-scorer requirement, as sophomore guard Devin Vassell averaged 12.7 points per game for the Seminoles.

No. 7: No national champion has had its top three scorers all be freshmen.

Teams eliminated by this requirement (1): Arizona

Teams still eligible (9): Ohio State, Memphis, Dayton, Duke, Oregon, Kansas, Gonzaga, Texas Tech, Kentucky

The curious case of the 2019–20 Arizona Wildcats will never have a normal ending, as the Wildcats finished their season with a win over Washington in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament before coronavirus concerns canceled the remainder of the conference and NCAA tournament. But, after signing the No. 1 recruiting class in the country according to ESPN, Sean Miller and co. struggled to live up to expectations.

Arizona’s three leading scorers this year were all freshmen, as Zeke Nnaji, Nico Mannion and Josh Green were the only Wildcats who averaged double figures in Tucson. This requirement is not to say that a team can’t win with one-and-done talent, or with a youthful core. However, one of the team’s top three scorers must be someone who’s spent more than a year on campus.

In 2015, Duke’s strong freshmen class was led by Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones. Still, senior guard Quinn Cook was second on the Blue Devils in scoring with 15.3 points per game en route to the fifth national championship in program history.

In 2012, Kentucky had the №1 and №2 picks in the NBA Draft, as Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist led the Wildcats to a 38–2 record. But, sophomore guard Doron Lamb was second in scorers for Kentucky, averaging 13.7 points per game.

A 21–11 record this season for Arizona was indicative of the program’s struggles, but their profile and resumé helped them stick around the top 10 of the NCAA’s NET ranking system all season long. Still, after failed seasons with top seeds and top talent, this was not going to be Sean Miller’s first Final Four team in Tucson, let alone the program’s first national championship since 1997.

No. 8: Every national champion has finished in first place in their conference in the regular season, had a 1st or 2nd Team All-American, or won their conference tournament championship.

Teams eliminated by this requirement (3): Ohio State, Memphis, Texas Tech

Teams still eligible *parentheses indicates finish in conference regular season standings (6): Kentucky (1st), Dayton (1st), Duke (T-2nd, Vernon Carey was a second team All-American), Oregon (1st), Kansas (1st), Gonzaga (1st)

Shout out to Ohio State, Memphis and Texas Tech for hanging around until this point. This requirement eliminates the stragglers. Instead of diving into the up-and-down nature of the Buckeyes, Tigers and Red Raiders, let’s instead take a look at what this requirement really entails.

Since 1987, 24 of the 33 national champions have won at least a share of their conference’s regular season title. The other nine title winners represent just how hard it is to win a national championship, as they either ran off an impressive winning streak at their conference tournament or had an All-American capable of carrying them through the tournament.

Here is the breakdown of national champions since 1987 under this requirement:

o 2019: Virginia — 1st

o 2018: Villanova — 2nd (won conference tournament)

o 2017: North Carolina — 1st

o 2016: Villanova — 1st

o 2015: Duke — 2nd (Jahlil Okafor was a 1st Team All-American)

o 2014: UConn — 3rd (Shabazz Napier was a 1st Team All-American)

o 2013: Louisville — 1st

o 2012: Kentucky — 1st

o 2011: UConn — 9th (won conf. tournament/Kemba Walker was a 1st Team All-American)

o 2010: Duke — 1st

o 2009: North Carolina — 1st

o 2008: Kansas — 1st

o 2007: Florida — 1st

o 2006: Florida — 2nd (won conference tournament)

o 2005: North Carolina — 1st

o 2004: UConn — 2nd (won conference tournament)

o 2003: Syracuse — 1st

o 2002: Maryland — 1st

o 2001: Duke — 1st

o 2000: Michigan State — 1st

o 1999: UConn — 1st

o 1998: Kentucky — 1st

o 1997: Arizona — 5th (Mike Bibby & Miles Simon were 1st Team All-Americans)

o 1996: Kentucky — 1st

o 1995: UCLA — 1st

o 1994: Arkansas — 1st

o 1993: North Carolina — 1st

o 1992: Duke — 1st

o 1991: Duke — 1st

o 1990: UNLV — 1st

o 1989: Michigan — 3rd (Glen Rice was a 2nd Team All-American)

o 1988: Kansas — 3rd (Danny Manning was a 1st Team All-American)

o 1987: Indiana — 1st

No. 9: Every national champion since 2002 (KenPom era) has been no worse than 18th in adjusted defensive efficiency. Side Note: Every national champion since 2002 except for 2014 UConn (39) finished with a top-19 offensive efficiency.

Teams eliminated by this requirement (4): Dayton, Oregon, Gonzaga, Kentucky,

Teams still eligible (2): Kansas, Duke

After exhausting all the easy to reference stats from College Basketball Reference (other requirements like steals per game and free throw shooting may be included next year), I knew we would probably need to delve into the world of Ken Pomeroy at some point. That point happened to be here, once we’d reached the cream of this year’s crop in college basketball.

“Defense wins championships,” is a frequently used remark in the football world, but it applies in college basketball, too. In order to win a national championship, a team has to be able to get stops when necessary.

That means the adjusted defensive efficiency rankings of Dayton (38), Gonzaga (43), Kentucky (52), and Oregon (76) eliminates each team due to sub-par defensive numbers in comparison to past champions.

No. 10: Since 2002 (KenPom era) no national champion’s opponents adjusted efficiency margin ranks lower than 33rd in the country.

Teams eliminated by this stat (1): Duke

Teams still eligible (1): Kansas

Differentiating between Duke and Kansas required a deep look into each teams’ flaws. And while the Jayhawks were 304th in the nation in free throw shooting, due to a 66.7 percent mark at the line, Bill Self’s squad was still nearly four percent better than a 2004 UConn team which won the national championship despite shooting 62.3 percent at the free throw line.

The true difference maker was the schedule. A down year for the ACC certainly cost Duke here, as the Blue Devils only played four ranked opponents all season long, and only two in ACC action.

In a year where many thought college basketball had no elite team, Kansas finished No. 1 in the AP poll, Coaches Poll, KenPom, ESPN’s BPI, KPI and Sagarin. By the metrics Kansas was the best team in the 2019–20 season by a wide margin. And according to our requirements, the Jayhawks were the only team in the nation capable of being up to the task.

Hang a banner Kansas. You earned it.

Sports Journalism at Arizona State University | Cronkite 2022 | Staff Writer DevilsDigest.com | President WCSN | Former Editor-in-Chief of BVNWnews

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