It’s late enough in the season to know a lot about the teams and early enough to get great value on future picks. So let’s bet on the next national champion.
Anatomy Of A National Champion
In looking at the past decade-plus of national champions, they’ve had some things in common.
One, they were great offensively. Nine of the past 12 champs ranked top-5 in KenPom offensive efficiency. The other three ranked close behind.
Two, they were very good defensively. Nine of the last 12 champs ranked top-10 in KenPom defensive efficiency. The three exceptions ranked top-20 in the category.
Three, they relied on experience. Even Duke’s freshman-led squad in 2015 couldn’t have won without senior Quinn Cook. The 2012 Kentucky squad also included a senior role player in Darius Miller.
Anyhow, the freshmen on Duke in 2015 and on Kentucky in 2012 were exceptionally skilled and talented players that are also big names in today’s NBA like Jahlil Okafor and Anthony Davis.
Four, champions tend to have a solid point guard. In four of the past five years, the champ’s starting floor general had a KenPom offensive rating in the top 200.
The one exception is Villanova in 2016, which was loaded with experience, scoring ability, and had a top-five defense.
Five, champions also tend to have a go-to scorer and a clutch one in close games.
And six and seven: In 17 of the last 18 years, the champion ranked top-172 in free throw percentage. In the last 18 years, the title winner ranked top-135 in three-point defense.
So to summarize, we can predict a national champion to be great on both offense and defense, to have either significant experience or wildly talented freshmen, to have a solid point guard, to have a clutch scorer, to shoot free throws well, and to defend the perimeter well.
Ruling Out Some Popular Candidates
Duke barely relies on any upperclassmen. Whereas it featured generational talent Zion Williamson plus fellow top draft pick R.J. Barrett in last year’s tournament run, this year’s freshmen class doesn’t seem to compare remotely.
Louisville is held back by lackluster point guard play. Darius Perry annually owns a low KenPom offensive rating against top-50 opponents. The same holds true of Saint Joseph’s transfer Lamarr Kimble.
Kansas is a turnover machine and abysmal from the free throw line.
While a national champ doesn’t need to be elite at preventing turnovers, it needs to not be as bad as Kansas is. Like last year, the Jayhawks rank in the bottom half in turnover rate.
The same holds true of three-point shooting, which is one of my main issues with Kentucky.
Michigan State lacks support for point guard Cassius Winston. Before i even consider the Spartans, I need Aaron Henry to become a more consistent producer.
I’m going with the Maryland Terrapins and here’s why:
They’re solid on both sides of the ball. Currently, they rank top-15 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
They will rank better in offensive efficiency when they improve in three-point shooting, which I know they will because they have some major underachievers.
Aaron Wiggins, currently, is making 31.6 percent of his threes, 10 percent less than he did last year. Eric Ayala made 40 percent of his threes last year, but is hitting 25 percent from deep so far. Anthony Cowan is already a good shooter. He’s hitting 38.8 percent from deep, which is just above his career average that includes a lackluster freshman campaign.
Anthony Cowan is absolutely one of the top point guards in the nation. An All-Big Ten second-teamer last year, he has stepped up his scoring prowess this year even against stronger competition.
He shows basically unlimited range. He also creates shooting opportunities for himself off the dribble, making use of a nice crossover and otherwise solid dribbling and using his quickness to make up for his lack of size.
Cowan also has great burst to the rim where he draws fouls at a high rate. Plus, his annual top-200 assist rate attests to his great vision and crisp passing.
He also benefits from being a senior with tournament experience. He’s an x-factor, for example draining a deep game-tying three in a comeback win that he led against Illinois.
Maryland checks all the boxes except three-point defense, which is close and which is almost always good enough under Mark Turgeon.
Best Bet: Terrapins To Win National Championship +1600