Common characteristics of NCAA basketball champions

John Calipari knows one key to NCAA success is to recruit big men who block shots and crash the offensive glass. - Andy Lyons

When looking at the last ten NCAA champions, some common threads emerge.

What does it take to win an NCAA championship? This is an important question for college basketball fans, as it is necessary to know the answer to this question in order to answer the question "what shot does my team have?" This post looks at the last ten NCAA champions, highlighting some of the common characteristics of these teams.

To have a reasonable shot at a national championship, you usually have to be one of the best four or five teams in a given season. Dating back to 1991, there are only three NCAA champions who didn't finish the season as one of the top four teams as measured by the simple rating system. In general, most of the top teams are great at both ends of the court. We can see this by looking at the team offense and team defense rankings from Kenpom.com for all of the national champions going back to 2003.

Year Team Offensive Rank Defensive Rank
2003 Syracuse #11 #19
2004 Connecticut #4 #5
2005 North Carolina #1 #5
2006 Florida #2 #5
2007 Florida #1 #12
2008 Kansas #2 #1
2009 North Carolina #1 #16
2010 Duke #1 #4
2011 Connecticut #16 #14
2012 Kentucky #2 #9

Only two national champions in the last ten seasons had offenses that were not ranked in the top ten. Only four champions had defenses ranked outside of the top ten. No team is outside of the top 20 at either end of the floor.

If you accept the premise that championship teams require both great offense and great defense the next obvious question is, how do you get a great offense and a great defense? This is a rather complicated topic. There are a lot of ways to have a good offense, and many ways to build a good defense. Rather than looking at all of the possible ways that a team could create a great offense or a great defense, it is far easier to simply look at the offenses and defenses of NCAA champions.

Looking at the last ten NCAA champions

In his influential book Basketball on Paper, Dean Oliver presented the concept known in basketball analytics circles as the four factors. These factors are effective field goal percentage (eFG%), turnover percentage (TO%), offensive rebounding percentage (ORB%), and free throw shooting rates (measured as the ratio of free throw attempts to field goal attempts, FTA/FGA). Basically, being good at these four things are what makes for a good offense, and making your opponent's bad at these things are what makes for a good defense. Ken Pomeroy's site provides rankings for each team's offense and defense in terms of these four factors. This information is useful when it comes to understanding what a team does well, and what it does not do well.

Offense

The table below contains each of the last ten NCAA champions' four factor offensive ratings. Rankings in the top 25 are in bold. We see that six teams had a top 25 eFG%, three had a top 25 TO%, seven had a top 25 ORB%, and one a top 25 FTA/FGA.

Four Factor rankings -- Offense (Top 25 or better in bold)

Year Team eFG% rank TO% rank ORB% rank FTA/FGA rank
2003 Syracuse 69 48 31 130
2004 Connecticut 25 56 3 233
2005 North Carolina 4 149 18 20
2006 Florida 2 139 105 58
2007 Florida 1 132 42 34
2008 Kansas 5 61 24 178
2009 North Carolina 45 10 21 75
2010 Duke 92 15 7 158
2011 Connecticut 213 26 7 268
2012 Kentucky 14 21 21 47

Some comments:

1. Syracuse managed to win the NCAA tournament without being in the top 25 in any of these offensive categories. Syracuse was quite well balanced across the categories. Its offensive rebounding rate fell just outside the top 25.

2. Seven of ten champions were ranked in the top 25 in offensive rebounding. The median offensive rebounding ranking among these ten teams was #21. When looking at games, I am always struck by how much of a role extra shots play in who wins and who loses. It turns out that many championship teams help themselves by earning extra shots on the offensive glass. Florida is absent from this list. They made up for not getting extra shots on the glass by absolutely shooting the hell out of the ball. The 2007 Florida team had a higher eFG% than all but one team in the ten seasons covered by kenpom.com.

3. eFG% is really important for an offense. The median eFG% ranking among the last ten national champions was #19. Three championship teams were able to compensate for less than great eFG% by protecting the basketball and crashing the glass.

4. Only one of the last ten champions was ranked in the top 25 in FTA/FGA.

5. Only three champions had top 25 turnover rates, but no team on the list has a disastrous ranking. Only three champions had a turnover percentage ranking outside of the top 100.

Generalizing these results, the last ten national champions have typically been good on the offensive glass, and at eFG%. The championship teams that didn't get a lot of offensive rebounds had to shoot for a very high eFG% in order to compensate. The national championship teams that didn't shoot as well had very good offensive rebounding rates and turnover rates.

Defense

The table below contains each of the last ten NCAA champions' four factor defensive ratings. eight of the defenses were ranked in the top 25 for eFG%, two were ranked in the top 25 in opponents' ORB%, and five were ranked in the top 25 in FTA/FGA. No championship team was particularly adept at forcing turnovers.

Four Factor rankings -- Defense (Top 25 or better in bold)

Year Team eFG% rank TO% rank ORB% rank FTA/FGA rank
2003 Syracuse 10
221
274
37
2004 Connecticut 1
321 71
5
2005 North Carolina 36
56
64
49
2006 Florida 16
92
126
42
2007 Florida 18
290
8
13
2008 Kansas 9
114
23
64
2009 North Carolina 62
156
121
7
2010 Duke 7
116
149
97
2011 Connecticut 13
314
236
10
2012 Kentucky 1
301
113
8

Comments:

1. North Carolina is the only school to win a national championship in the last ten years without finishing in the top 25 in opponents' eFG%.

2. You can certainly win it all with a defense that forces a lot of turnovers. Nolan Richardson, Rick Pitino, and Tubby Smith all have national championships. But none of the last ten champions finished in the top 25 in opponents' TO%, and only two finished in the top 100.

3. While seven of the last ten national champions excelled at offensive rebounding, only two finished in the top 25 in defensive rebounding. Five out of ten were ranked in the top 25 in opponents' FTA/FGA.

Finishing in the top 25 in opponents' eFG% was important for almost all of the recent national champions. The table below gives us more insight on how these teams can accomplished this. It lists the shot blocking percentage ranking for each of the last ten national champions. Shot block percentage is an estimate of opponent two point shot attempts that a team blocks. The table below illustrates that six of the last ten national champions ranked in the top 25 in block percentage. Three of the last ten NCAA champions have been the best shot blocking team in all of division one.

Shot blocking % rankings (Top 25 or better in bold)

Year Team eFG% rank Block% rank
2003 Syracuse 10 1
2004 Connecticut 1 1
2005 North Carolina 36 104
2006 Florida 16 24
2007 Florida 18 44
2008 Kansas 9 5
2009 North Carolina 62 44
2010 Duke 7 131
2011 Connecticut 13 19
2012 Kentucky 1 1

What can we learn from this?

It is important to note that just because many recent champions share a few characteristics, it does not mean that there are not other ways to build a championship team. But recent history does provide a handful of team characteristics that seem to help.

On offense, you can either take the Billy Donovan approach, or you can do what everyone else has done. Donovan's two champions were won by a group of players who formed one of the greatest shooting teams in recent history. Most other recent champions combined being really good on the offensive glass with a high eFG%. Several teams did not do as well in eFG%, but made up for it with offensive rebounding and by protecting the basketball.

On defense, the most common feature is that champions hold down their opponents' eFG%. This is most easily done by blocking a lot of shots, although Duke's 2010 championship was won without the benefit of a great shot blocker. Many recent champions were also fairly good at not putting their opponent at the free throw line. Forcing a bunch of turnovers is not necessary to have a championship level defense.

If we accept the premise that defending the rim and crashing the offensive glass are critical components of most championship teams, it puts a premium on having size. Kentucky obviously had this with consensus player of the year Anthony Davis. But it isn't necessary that the big guys be All-Americans, they simply have to crash the glass on offense, and block a few shots. In 2011, Connecticut got this contribution from a platoon of Alex Oriakhi, Roscoe Smith, and Charles Okwandu. These three guys weren't primary offensive options, but all three blocked shots and earned extra chances for the Huskies through offensive rebounding. In 2010, the Duke Blue Devils had Brian Zoubek -- a limited offensive player who grabbed over 20 percent of the available offensive rebounds while he was on the floor. Kansas in 2008 had Darrell Arthur (an excellent all around player), and also received major shot blocking and offensive rebounding contributions from Sasha Kaun and promising freshman Cole Aldrich.

Recruiting players with size should be a priority for any program. Having players who block shots and rebound is probably every bit as important as having guys who can score. It seems obvious, but basketball favors the tall. It is probably a good idea to have at least one or two really big guys in every class. Jim Calhoun coached very few teams that didn't have at least six or seven guys 6-7 or taller and a few guys taller than 6-10. Calhoun also won three NCAA championships.

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