Picking a 5-12 upset, never selecting a No. 16 seed in the first round and taking at least one No. 1 seed to the Final Four are some simple rules to follow when filling out your NCAA Tournament bracket.
However, picking a champion isn’t so easy. According to BPI, three teams have at least a 14 percent chance to win it all and eight schools have at least a 4 percent shot. Per FiveThirtyEight.com, three teams have at least a 10 percent chance and nine teams at least a 4 percent chance.
This is the NCAA tournament, so upsets and outliers are always possible (looking at you, 2014 UConn), but let’s use the last 15 years of history to figure out which team fits the profile of a recent tournament champion:
Rule No. 1: Pick a top-3 seed
In the last 15 tournaments, No. 7 Connecticut is the only team seeded outside of the top 3 to win it all. In fact, since all teams were seeded starting in 1979, 33 of the 38 champs have been a top-3 seed. That leaves us with the 12 top-3 seeds.
Eliminated: Every team seeded Nos. 4-16
Rule No. 2: Pick a team with a future lottery pick
Eleven of these 15 champions had at least one future lottery pick and eight had multiple future lotto picks (2005 North Carolina had four, and 2006 and 2007 Florida had three). Seven of these 15 champions had a top-3 pick on their roster, and 2004 UConn and 2012 Kentucky had multiple top-3 picks. The trend has not been as strong lately, though, with 2015 Duke’s Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow the only lottery picks on one of the last four champs.
Using the top 10 of Chad Ford’s NCAA Tournament Big Board as a guide for potential lottery picks, that leaves us with UCLA (No. 1 Lonzo Ball), Kansas (No. 2 Josh Jackson), Duke (No. 3 Jayson Tatum and No. 9 Harry Giles), Kentucky (No. 4 De’Aaron Fox and No. 5 Malik Monk), Arizona (No. 6 Lauri Markkanen), Florida State (No. 7 Jonathan Issac) and Gonzaga (No. 10 Zach Collins).
Eliminated: Baylor, Louisville, North Carolina, Oregon, Villanova
Rule No. 3: Pick a team with strong efficiency numbers
During the past 15 seasons, dominance throughout the regular season has been important as 12 of these 15 champions have ranked in the top six of KenPom’s adjusted net efficiency entering the NCAA tournament. The only teams that didn’t were the 2011 and 2014 UConn outliers, and Melo’s 2003 Syracuse squad. Eight of these eventual champs were in the top 3 of adjusted net efficiency.
Eliminated: Arizona, Duke, Florida St, UCLA
Rule No. 4: Pick a team that played a strong schedule
Gonzaga ranks No. 1 in KenPom’s adjusted net efficiency. The Bulldogs are BPI and KenPom’s largest favorite to win the tourney and FiveThirtyEight’s No. 2 team. But the Zags played the 128th toughest schedule, per KenPom’s strength of schedule metric, and the 100th toughest schedule by BPI. Every champion in the last 15 years has played a top-40 schedule by the end of the tournament by KenPom’s metric, so Gonzaga doesn’t fit the strength of schedule profile of these past champs.
Rule No. 5: Do not pick a team that lost its conference tournament opener
No team that lost its first conference tournament game has ever gone on to win the national championship, and the Kansas Jayhawks lost their Big 12 Tournament opener this season. In the last 15 years, every eventual champion has reached at least the semifinals of its conference tourney and seven of them have won the event.
Who is left?
That leaves just one team that checks all of the boxes:
- Seed? Check, No. 2
- Lottery pick? Check, Nos. 4 and 5 on Chad Ford’s NCAA Tournament Big Board
- Efficiency numbers? Check, No. 4 in adjusted efficiency and strong on both sides of the ball (No. 14 offense, No. 9 defense)
- Hard schedule? Check, 31st in adjusted strength of schedule. They played two No. 1 seeds, one No. 2, one No. 3, and a No. 4 twice.
- Conference tournament? Check, they won that.
That means Kentucky is the team you should pick to cut down the nets in your bracket!
Do the models agree?
According to BPI, the Wildcats have a 4.3 percent chance to win it all (seventh-best chance). FiveThirtyEight gives Kentucky the fourth-best chance to win the title and best of a non-No. 1 seed at 8 percent. KenPom also has Kentucky as the fourth-biggest favorite at 5.8 percent.