Trietley: Using NCAA Tournament patterns to predict a champion

By Greg Trietley

Last year, Connecticut men’s basketball bucked a trend. With nine losses in the regular… Last year, Connecticut men’s basketball bucked a trend. With nine losses in the regular season, the Huskies became the first team in the new century to win the NCAA Tournament with such a poor record.

In the 10 years before Connecticut’s victory in 2011, every champion suffered no more than six losses en route to the title. Postseason success always stemmed from regular-season dominance.

Not with the Huskies.

Still, March Madness has its patterns, as unpredictable as it might seem. Many of the 68 teams can be ruled out. In fact, you can pit history against every last one of them until a single team remains — the champion.

A No. 16 seed has never defeated a No. 1, going 0-108. The odds of UNC-Asheville defeating Syracuse? Miniscule. The odds of the Bulldogs winning five more games after that? Impossible. Cross them and their No. 16 brethren off the list of potential champions. We’re down to 62.

But back to Kemba Walker and the Huskies, who set a new standard last season. Had a more dominant program won it all, history would nix this year’s tournament chances of Indiana (eight losses), Baylor (seven), Ohio State (seven) and 26 other schools. But Connecticut shattered the mold, and teams with fewer than 10 losses remain in the hunt for now.

A double-digit loss total still eliminates 18 programs, including Notre Dame, Xavier, Florida, Cincinnati and, yes, Connecticut, which went 20-13 this season. Over one-third of the tournament’s teams are now out of contention.

With 44 schools still battling, geography leads to another round of cuts. Thirty-six states haven’t produced a champion in the last 30 years. Nearly half of the competition, burdened by states winless since the 1980s, drops out here, including Baylor, Memphis, New Mexico, Missouri, Wisconsin, Gonzaga, Ohio State and Creighton.

Some underdogs remain in the last 23 alive for the championship. No. 13 seed Davidson, No. 15 seed Lehigh and No. 15 seed Loyola (Md.) all have survived this far, as has California of the mediocre Pac-12.

Last year’s surprise Final Four, with No. 8 seed Butler and No. 11 seed Virginia Commonwealth, hurt the heads of analysts, but it wasn’t groundbreaking in terms of the seeds that made it. No. 11 seeds had reached the Final Four in 2006 (George Mason) and 1986 (LSU). And since 2000, No. 8 seeds had made it as often as No. 4 seeds did, with three appearances each.

But no team ranked a No. 12 seed — or worse — has ever reached the Final Four. That eliminates all of our remaining darlings: California, Iona, Lehigh, Long Beach State, Davidson and Loyola.

Whereas No. 8 and No. 11 seeds do well historically, No. 7, No. 9 and No. 10 seeds, strangely, don’t. These seeds have been unsuccessful in reaching the Final Four since the tournament grew to 64 teams.

This eliminates a single team that made it this far: Saint Mary’s.

We’re down to the Sweet Sixteen. Some regions fared better than others. Only Syracuse and Florida State remain in the East, while the top six seeds survived in the Midwest.

No one style of basketball has a historical advantage in the tournament. As long as a program executes well, it can win the championship, whether it relies on 3-point shooting (Kansas in 2008) or strong rebounding and inside play (North Carolina in 2009).

But one statistic foreshadows a tumble in March: steals. For possibly no reason at all, a school in the top 15 in steals per game in the regular season has never won the championship that year, as far back as easy-access Internet statistics go. This correlation does in Syracuse and Louisville. It also doesn’t bode well for Virginia Commonwealth, Ohio, Marquette or Mississippi Valley State, which all dominate the steals category but were eliminated in previous steps.

You do have to score though. Teams outside the nation’s top 65 in scoring haven’t won the championship in recent years regardless of the strength of their conferences. Goodbye, Michigan State (70th), San Diego State (95th), Florida State (124th), Georgetown (143rd) and Michigan (202nd).

Teams that finish hot receive March buzz, but the season’s start is equally as important. The last six champions went undefeated against unranked opponents in the first month of the season.

That means overall No. 1 Kentucky, which lost at then-unranked Indiana on Dec. 10, is out, as are Wichita State, UNLV, Temple and North Carolina. Four schools remain: Duke, Kansas, Murray State and the Hoosiers.

Conference tournament results will help discover the champion in the bunch, as five of the past six national champions won their conference tournament the week before March Madness began.

The only one of the four to do so this year? The 30-1 Murray State Racers, who won the Ohio Valley tournament. If history holds, the No. 6 seed Racers, of all teams, will win the 2012 NCAA Tournament.

Of course, last year these patterns said Duke would defeat Kansas for the championship. Neither made the Final Four, so maybe take this with a grain of salt.