Trietley: Follow patterns to bracket success

By Greg Trietley

What makes a champion?

We say the Big Dance is unpredictable. With 68 teams in the darn thing,… What makes a champion?

We say the Big Dance is unpredictable. With 68 teams in the darn thing, picking a winner seems best left to a hat and folded up Post-it notes.

But the tournament has given us a few patterns.

A No. 16 seed has never beaten a No. 1, going 0-104. With that statistic, the bottom-feeders are out. Boston has a slim chance of hanging with Kansas in its second-round battle of the bands, but make whatever hyperbolic bet you’d like that the Terriers won’t win five more.

For that matter, certain conferences have goose eggs when it comes to Final Four appearances since the tournament expanded in 1985. Only a handful of the 31 conferences — or their prior incarnations — have earned trip to the Final Four: the six major conferences, the Colonial, the Western, the Big West, the Horizon, the Atlantic 10 and Conference USA. UNLV made the Final Four in the Big West but then moved to the Mountain West, so that conference remains in it with transfer credits.

That eliminates 12 teams from championship discussion. Among them: Princeton and Gonzaga. The Mountain West technicality keeps Brigham Young and San Diego State in.

Seeding whittles down the thicket of contenders further. A team ranked No. 12 or worse has never made the Final Four, and neither has a No. 7, a No. 9 or a No. 10 since the tournament grew to 64 teams.

That jettisons another 22 programs. Villanova, Tennessee, Michigan State and UCLA all bow out here. Better luck in 2012.

Thirty-six states haven’t produced a champion in the last 30 years. Ohio State, Brigham Young, Wisconsin, Texas, West Virginia and Vanderbilt all say goodbye thanks to that fact. Villanova’s 1985 championship keeps Pitt alive.

Where to go from here? The stats show that all kinds of teams can win. Champions have trusted 3-point shooting in some cases, like Kansas in 2008, and strong rebounding in others, such as North Carolina in 2009.

One useless statistic, though, is steals. As far back as easy-access Internet statistics go, a member of the top-15 teams in terms of steals per game has never won that year’s tournament. Perhaps it reflects a reckless style of defense, I don’t know, but I do know that Louisville and Syracuse are somehow doomed by this positive quality.

In the last 10 years, more than six losses entering the NCAA Tournament also signals doom. Sadly, some more Big East programs bid adieu here, perhaps for the best. Connecticut, Georgetown and St. John’s all finally get some rest.

Eight other teams are out thanks to the Rule of Six or Less, including Purdue, Kentucky, Arizona and Michigan — who I’m shocked lasted this far.

We’re down to eight contenders from our original 68: Duke, San Diego State, Pitt, Florida, Notre Dame, Kansas, North Carolina and George Mason. Funny enough, that’s two teams from each region, and four possible Elite Eight matchups. We’re on the right track.

Duke and San Diego State square off in a battle of conference tournament winners. Only the Blue Devils, though, are among the top-25 scoring teams in the nation — a status each of the past five champions has held. The Aztecs are 81st. This mid-major falls.

But what about the other mid-major, George Mason? Somehow the Patriots made it this far despite a different seed and record from the famous 2006 Final Four club, whose 27-8 record, oddly, would have accurately predicted that they wouldn’t win it all.

Unfortunately, they fall short again, but so does North Carolina, their Elite Eight opponent. Both teams lost too many games in November. The past five champions lost zero games to unranked opponents in the first month of the season. The Patriots and Tar Heels both dropped a pair.

Duke, meanwhile, was perfect until Jan. 12. It earns a second-consecutive title game appearance.

Contrary to the belief that rest before the NCAA Tournament does a team good, four of the last five champions won their conference tournament the year they won the national tournament. The lone exception, the 2009 Tar Heels, didn’t play a conference tournament winner in the final three rounds. Basically, they weren’t given the chance to lose.

That means that Pitt, Notre Dame and Florida — also-rans in their conference tournaments — are out once they run into Kansas. Only the Jayhawks endure with Duke.

So who wins? Both led their conference in scoring. Both wear blue. Defensively, they are within a point per game of each other.

It comes down to free-throw shooting, that rarely discussed but crucial aspect of the game. Although the teams are mirror images in everything else, Kansas shoots 68 percent from the charity stripe. Duke makes 75 percent.

This year, that’s what makes a champion. Congratulations to the Duke Blue Devils, the last team standing in the 2011 NCAA Tournament.