"I believe that."
In this wildly unpredictable college basketball season, one thing that I have been able to say with reasonable certainty is ... I believe San Diego State will win.
The Aztecs are still perfect at 23-0, ranked fourth in the latest AP poll and a No. 1 seed in Joe Lunardi's latest Bracketology. However, there are still some who aren't buying them as a legit national title threat.
There are certainly reasons to believe they are worthy of being in the discussion. The Aztecs are one of three teams in the top 15 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency, according to KenPom (Duke and Kansas are the others). They also have 11 road/neutral court wins, tied with Hofstra and Liberty for the most in Division I. They even fill the narrative bucket by limiting turnovers and forcing them, and by having a trustworthy veteran point guard, Malachi Flynn, who can score (16.5 points per game, 39.1 3-point percentage) and take care of the ball (3.44 assist-to-turnover rate, fourth best in D-I).
Despite all of these positives, history leans strongly against San Diego State hoisting the trophy on April 6 in Atlanta. Here is what the Aztecs are up against:
San Diego State has never advanced past the Sweet 16
The Aztecs are 6-12 all time in the NCAA tournament, never having won more than two games in a single tourney.
That means they will have to win as many games in one tournament as they have in their entire school history to win the championship. The last team to do that was Michigan State in 1979, led by Magic Johnson and Greg Kelser.
If you're wondering about teams reaching the Final Four with as few NCAA tournament wins in school history as SDSU, there have been six in the past 30 years, the latest being South Carolina in 2017. The Gamecocks had won just four NCAA tourney games until reeling off four to get to the national semis.
Mountain West Conference teams have struggled mightily in March
Since the formation of the conference in the 1999-2000 season, Mountain West schools are 22-49 in the NCAA tournament (.310 win percentage) and none of them have advanced past the Sweet 16. To put that into perspective, 16 other conferences have had at least one team reach the Elite Eight in the past 20 years.
Getting a favorable seed won't hurt, though, and it's unfamiliar territory for the league. The Mountain West has never had a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. In fact, the Aztecs are the only team in conference history to earn a No. 2 seed (2011).
In all, only five MW teams have earned a top-four seed (San Diego State in 2011 and 2014; New Mexico in 2010 and 2013; BYU in 2011). Neither of those New Mexico teams -- both No. 3 seeds -- survived the first weekend.
Is this Aztecs squad the one to put an end to two decades of ineptitude?
The list of champions from non-Power 6 conferences is small
UConn in 2014.
UNLV in 1990.
That's the list.
In the past 30 years, those are the only two schools outside of the traditional Power 6 conferences to win the national championship, and even UConn was in its first season in the American Athletic Conference after the Big East's football and basketball schools went their separate ways.
In all, 15 schools from non-Power 6 conferences have made the Final Four in this span, with seven advancing to the championship game.
Aztecs coach Brian Dutcher is looking for his first NCAA tournament victory as a head coach, but he does know what it's like to win a national championship, although it has been a while. He was an assistant to then-interim head coach Steve Fisher at Michigan for the surprising 1989 championship run and stayed with Fisher after that, including losses in the title game with the Fab Five in 1992 and 1993.
Undefeateds have been unable to finish the job
If San Diego State is able to survive the remainder of the regular season and the Mountain West tournament without losing, it would become the 20th team to enter the NCAA tournament with a perfect record. Seven of the previous 19 went on to win the championship, but it has been 44 years since the last undefeated season (Indiana in 1976).
Since the Hoosiers pulled it off, all four teams that entered the Big Dance without a blemish fell short of championship glory, although three of them did reach the Final Four.
Even if the Aztecs enter the NCAA tournament with one loss, recent history still doesn't bode well for their championship aspirations. Dating back to the 1977 tournament, all 25 teams with zero losses or one loss failed to win a title. The most recent examples are Gonzaga (32-1 in 2017, lost in title game), Kentucky (34-0 in 2015, lost in national semis) and Wichita State (34-0 in 2014, lost in second round), all of which were No. 1 seeds.
It's extremely rare for a champion to have a pair of newcomers as its top two scorers
How rare, you ask? (Well, maybe you didn't ask, but I'm gonna tell you anyway.)
Dating back to 1952 (which is as far back as sports-reference.com has scoring leaders for every Final Four team), only once were the top two scorers for a national champion not active members of the team the season before. That team was the 1967 UCLA Bruins, led by Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, of course) and Lucius Allen, who were sophomores but first-year varsity members back when players were not eligible to play as freshmen.
Only five teams in this span have reached the Final Four when their top two scorers (in terms of PPG) were new to the program. Each of the teams, aside from that UCLA juggernaut, were led by freshmen.
UNLV in 1990 is the only national champion in that span whose leading scorer was a newcomer who wasn't playing his first year of college basketball. You may remember the Runnin' Rebels were paced by transfer Larry Johnson, who had played the previous two seasons at Odessa College.
It has been a fun ride for San Diego State thus far, so it'll be interesting to see whether the Aztecs can overcome these historical hurdles and cut down the nets two months from now.