Who Are the NCAA Hoop Contenders; The Nationals are Loaded


Who are the contenders in NCAA basketball?

by Ted Sevransky
Using just the 7 losses and major conference criteria alone, we can narrow the list of potential NCAA tournament winners down to the following group of 16 teams including Arizona.History shows us many things about what it takes to be a champion. I write this article every year before the regular season is over and, in every year except two, I have been able to identify the eventual NCAA national champion among my elite level teams.

Both exceptions were UConn, making miracle runs to win the title as prohibitive longshots.

Last year, the Huskies were on the ropes in their tourney opener against St. Joe’s needing a late rally just to send the game to overtime. Three weeks later, they cut down the nets as national champs at Jerry’s World in Arlington. I didn’t see it coming. Neither did the betting markets, with UConn priced in the 100/1 longshot range prior to the tournament. And if a longshot like that wins every coinflip game in the tourney this year, I’m not likely to get it right either.

I’ve nailed the winner of the NCAA tournament four times in the last eight years, correctly predicting Florida in ’07, Kansas in ’08, North Carolina in ’09 and Louisville in 2013. I did not predict Duke in 2010, and didn’t even have UConn in the discussion in 2011 or 2014. In 2012, I picked Kansas to win the title, but they lost the championship game to Kentucky.

In Part 1 of this article, I’ll take a brief look at that statistical profile and make a “short list” of potential NCAA champs. In Part 2 next week, I’ll go through that “short list” team by team, eliminating them one by one until we reach the last team standing.

Cinderella’s have reached the championship game. Florida in 2000, Indiana in 2002 and the Butler teams from 2010 and 2011 stand out as the teams that were not among the top 16 seeds in the tournament but were still good enough to get a shot at the title. But, with the exception of UConn’s miracle title last year, those Cinderella’s have been unable to seal the deal.

The eventual champion has been seeded no lower than 3 in every single year except 2014, dating back to 1997, when Arizona won it all as a 4. Before last year, you’d have to go all the way back to 1988 for a real longshot, when Larry Brown guided the Kansas Jayhawks to a title as a 6 seed.

Of the last 24 national champions, 20 have been 1 or 2 seeds. Even one I missed, UConn in 2011, was a 3 – a factor I couldn’t and didn’t predict at the end of February when the Huskies were in the midst of a 4-7 slump to close out the regular season. Last year, the Huskies were a 7 seed on their way to the title. I’m not expecting a repeat!

To earn those top seeds, the eventual champion must have been an elite level team all year. Prior to UConn’s title win in 2011, none of the previous 13 champions had more than 7 losses.

To win the Big Dance, teams have to be better than good, or even very good. Winning 6 straight games over three weekends requires greatness. Great teams don’t lose more than 7 games throughout the course of the campaign.

Each of the past 17 champions was from one of the six “major” conferences (now seven with the Big East/American Conference split). The mid-majors tend to measure success with Sweet 16 berths, not Final Four trips. We have seen several exceptions to that rule, like Butler’s string of upsets to reach the title game as a Horizon League squad or Wichita State and VCU’s remarkable runs to the Final Four.

George Mason enjoyed an amazing run to the Final Four nine years ago from the Colonial Athletic Conference; a big enough shocker that we still talk about it. Memphis made the championship game from Conference USA in 2008 and Utah got there from the WAC in 1998 (at the time). Those are clearly the exceptions, not the rule.

Basically, if a team is not from the Big East, American, ACC, Big 10, Big 12, SEC or PAC-12, they aren’t facing enough tough competition on a nightly basis to get them ready for an extended tournament run. Sorry Gonzaga – you’re not winning the title despite your lofty ranking.

It’s a similar story for the likes of VCU, Northern Iowa, Wichita State, San Diego State, Colorado St., Boise St, Murray State, Davidson, Stephen F. Austin, Louisiana Tech, Dayton, Iona or Valparaiso. Those upper tier mid-majors are not going to make my “potential champions” list, even though several of them have managed to crack the Top 25 and have legitimate Sweet 16 potential.

Using just the 7 losses and major conference criteria alone, we can narrow the list of potential NCAA tournament winners down to the following group of 16 teams: SMU, Tulsa, Virginia, Duke, Notre Dame, Louisville, Kansas, Baylor, West Virginia, Villanova, Wisconsin, Maryland, Arizona, Utah, Kentucky and Arkansas.

This glaring fact stands out – only one team has won a national title without earning a 3 seed or better since 1997. So let’s whittle down that list of 16 right here, starting with the four teams that have virtually no shot to get seeded that high: West Virginia, SMU, Tulsa and Arkansas.

That leaves me with a dozen teams to discuss in Part 2 of this article next week. I’ll wager dollars to donuts the eventual NCAA champion will come from this list of 12: Virginia, Duke, Notre Dame, Louisville, Kansas, Baylor, Villanova, Wisconsin, Maryland, Arizona, Utah and Kentucky.



A lot has been expected from the Nationals
by Mark Mayer
2014 record: 96-66 (first by 17)

Projected 2015 wins: 96

Odds to win World Series: 5-1

Odds to win NL East: 1-4

First 3 series: NY METS; at Philadelphia, at Boston.

Key Additions (2): Yunel Escobar, Max Scherzer

A lot has been expected from the Nationals, but not much to show for in postseason play. Washington is expected to equal last year’s record and if they do, rest assured another NL East will be theirs. After all, they won by 17 games.

The big addition obviously is Max Scherzer, a past Cy Young winner with Detroit. Add the Mighty Max to an already solid rotation that includes the much heralded Stephen Strasburg and it’s no wonder the Nats are a silly 1-4 to repeat as division champs.

Again the big issue is the emergence of Bryce Harper. The Las Vegas prep cover boy had the can’t miss tag labeled on him at Bishop Gorman, but forever linked to Angels’ stud Mike Trout, he has come out of that comparison second best.

Still, Bryce is only 22 though it seems he’s been around longer. He missed 62 games last year and that’s been the rub. Trout has stayed healthy and winning MVP titles. Bryce hasn’t.
Strasburg is Harper in the rotation, solid stats but not 20 wins or a Cy Young. Adding Scherzer takes the pressure off Strasburg to a degree, but the jury is waiting for that breakout season that made him the talk of baseball four years ago. The other big addition is Yunel Escobar who provides added depth at 2B with Danny Espinosa.

Offensively, the Nats need to replace Adam LaRoche, who led the team in both homers (26) and RBI (92). Harper can do that and Strasburg can certainly surpass his 14 wins from a year ago if healthy. And that’s what it really boils down to. A healthy season and the Nats should repeat as division champs at least.

Projected lineup

Manager: Matt Williams

Infield: C – Wilson Ramos; 1B – Ryan Zimmerman; 2B – Yunel Escobar; 3B – Anthony Rendon;SS – Ian Desmond.
Outfield: LF Michael Taylor; CF Denard Span (.302 BA. 184 H); RF Bryan Harper.
Rotation: P Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg (242 K), Jordan Zimmerman, Gio Gonzalez; Doug Fister (16 W, 2.41 ERA).

Setup: Craig Stammen

Closer: Drew Storen

Mark Mayer has over 35 years covering sports events and is the sports editor at GT. Reach him at MarkMayer@GamingToday.com

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