It takes a magical run to win the NCAA Tournament (once you make it that far), but what are some key qualities a team needs to have to make that run? This week's edition of Toby's Time takes a look at the essentials....
How exactly as fans and writers do we know how good a team is? We can watch them, for one. We can look at their record for another. Yes, but are there any predictors that will help determine if my team is going to be in the Final Four? Just maybe.
Around this time of year, the American sports fan starts paying attention to college basketball, now that the Super Bowl has been played and the NFL season has been put to bed. Bracketologists, discuss terms like the RPI, marquee wins, and neutral+road records as means to evaluate whether a team will make the NCAA Tournament. Today I'm not interested in whether a team will make the Tournament but what factors predict whether or not they willll be playing on the first weekend in April. (Since the NCAA tournament drags into April, perhaps March Madness should be followed by April Asylum). I firmly believe that the best teams can win on the road in hostile environments. So to check this, I looked at last season's final four participants' road/home splits on the eve of the NCAA Tournament. Did the champion have the best road/neutral record?
How about the two other Final Four participants, Texas and Marquette? Texas' conference road record was identical to the champion 'Cuse at 5-3. On neutral floors, Texas went 3-2, good enough for a solid 8-5 record. Marquette was even better going 8-1 away from campus in CUSA and 9-3 for the year. The lesson is that all of the final four teams had over .500 records on the road, although some were better than others, and some went out of their way to play stiff competition either in the preseason NIT like Kansas, or scheduled out-of-conference powers, like Texas who traveled to Arizona.
What these elite teams really shared last year was home-court dominance. Syracuse went 17-0. Kansas 18-1. Texas 13-1. Marquette brings up the rear at 14-2. The home losses these teams suffered were to other elite squads: Marquette lost to Louisville, Kansas to Arizona, and Texas to a #4 ranked Oklahoma team. Now lets put these three attributes together, home court excellence, and a greater than .500 road record, both overall and in conference, to winnow down this year's list of Final Four contenders.
Based on this criteria, we can divide teams into three camps: 1. playing like champions, 2. give 'em some time, 3. uh oh. You should already know about Stanford and St. Joes who still haven't lost, and Duke, which has only a neutral court loss to Purdue in Alaska in November. How about Gonzaga, which is 18-2, overall, 9-2 on the road, and 9-0 in the Kennel? Mississippi St. at 9-1 is a Kentucky tip-in away from perfection at home, and is a perfect 9-0 on the road. How about those Kentucky Wildcats? Their 8-1 road record is impressive, but at only 6-2 at home, they've already matched Marquette's home loss total from all of last season.
I'm not yet sold on those who don't have much of a road record at all. Pitt is already an absurd 18-0 at home, and 3-1 on the road. However, with five more road conference games on the schedule, they don't have much room for error when it comes to falling below .500 on the road. Pitt's Big East breathren UConn is in a similar situation at 14-1 at home, but only 4-2 away from Gampel and Hartford. UConn has five conference road games left. Of course, both UConn and Pitt have the Big East Tournament to boost their road/neutral records. Over in the Big Ten, Wisconsin, 12-0 at home is just .500 on the road at 3-3. There are six winnable road contests left for the Badgers, and how they fare will tell us whether we see them in April. North Carolina at 1-4 needs some road victories if it wants to be taken seriously. Syracuse, last year's champ, is 3-2 on the road, but one of those is at St. Bonaventure, so it barely counts. In conference play, they're in the danger zone at 1-2.
So what did we learn? To be considered a championship contender, a team must be nearly perfect at home, and be over .500 overall and in conference. Remember this come April. Did I slight your team? Drop me an email and tell me about it.
There's absolutely no comparison between watching a game on TV and actually being there. The electricity in the arena makes the TV experience seem sooo hollow.