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Ranking the NCAA Tournament Champions

Well, with the close of that monstrous version of "One Shining Moment," (seriously, is the NCAA determined to ruin everything about the Tournament?) Duke is the new National Champion. The crowning of a new champion always spurs a desire to rank them against their predecessors; this desire is even stronger when the new champ is perceived to be significantly better or worse than the norm, which is absolutely the case this year. Ranking champions based on scoring margins or efficiency margins can be interesting, but because of variances in speed and style of play, it does not really provide a true measure of how teams from different years would stack up against each other. However, a measurement of a team's talent, and more specifically its NBA-ready talent, should provide a better (albeit not perfect) metric by which we can rank past champions. The following is a presentation of of a new scoring system (Talent Score) that ranks individual teams based on the amount of draftable NBA talent they had on their roster.

Simply ranking teams based on the total number of eventual NBA players they had on their rosters, or what those players became in the NBA, does not accurately reflect the level of talent that the team had at the time of the championship because it does not account for the player development (or digression) that occurs after the players leave college.  At the same time, a scoring system based on drafted players must also be weighted to account for when (in relation to a championship) a given player is drafted, as a 1st Round pick in the draft following the championship almost always provided more value to the championship team than a player on the roster who is drafted in the 1st Round two years after the fact.  As such, the Talent Score was developed to provide a weighted measurement of the draftable NBA talent on a team's roster. The values assigned to each draft pick on a teams roster are described in Table 1:

Table 1.  Talent Score Breakdown

[table id=31 /]

Players drafted in the 1st round two or more years after the championship was won are assigned 2 points.  Based on this scoring system, I have calculated the TS for all 25 champions since the Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.  The predicted draft positions of Cole Aldrich (1st round; 2 points), Sherron Collins (2nd round; 0 points), and Ed Davis (Top-10; 6 points) were used to calculate the scores of the previous two champions.  It is still to early to accurately calculate the TS for Duke, but I will provide a projection at the end of this post.  Listed in Table 2 are the four teams with the highest Talent Scores in the 64-team Tournament Era.

Table 2. Highest Champion Talent Scores

[table id=33 /]

There are four teams tied for the 5th position (including last year's UNC team) with 23 points.  At the opposite end of the talent spectrum, Table 3 lists the four championship teams with the least amount of draftable NBA talent on their rosters since 1985.

Table 3. Lowest Champion Talent Scores

[table id=34 /]

While the Talent Scores of individual teams provides a good starting point for discussing which championship team was the best (or worst), a more accurate ranking can be had when both the talent of the champion and the talent of the other members of its Final 4 are considered.  To provide this measurement, the TS of every Final 4 team since 1985 were calculated and then the TS of the champion was multiplied by the sum of the TS of the other three teams to provide a new metric: the Champion's Index Score (CIS).  The principle behind the CIS is that the best teams are the ones that had the most talent and beat the most talent. Listed in Table 4 are the Champion's Index Scores for each of the last 25 NCAA Tournament Champions.

Table 4. Champion's Index Scores

[table id=32 /]

The combination of Florida's top TS, along with the incredible amount of talent at the 2007 Final Four (the combined TS of th 2007 Final 4 (90) is 31 points higher than the next highest for a Final 4, 2008) produce a CIS for the 2007 Florida team that might not be approached for a long, long, time.  As far as the weakest champion, despite having a slightly larger TS than the 1994 Arkansas team, the extreme lack of draftable talent at the 1987 Final 4 is enough to clinch the cellar position for the 1987 Hoosiers.

An obvious criticism of these calculations will center on the fact that players leave college far earlier than they did 15-20 years ago, and the idea that the level of talent that is drafted is lower now, than it was in 1990.  While I will concede that the seasoning of the players that are drafted today is less than it was 20 years ago, the overall talent is not.  Since 1990, the population of the United States has increased by approximately 24%.  However, the number of NBA draft picks in the first and second round has only increased by approximately 11% over that same period of time.  If you accept that the number of people who possess elite basketball talent is proportional to the population (and I do not know any geneticists who would take issue with this), then when you take into account the disproportionate growth in number of draft picks and the influx of international players, then a very strong argument can be made that the talent level of the players drafted out of college today is significantly higher than it was in 1990.

A few other observations:

  • From 1985 to 1999, the team with the highest TS at the Final 4 won the Title 3 out of 15 times (20%).  From 2000 to 2009, the team with the highest TS has won the Title 7 out of 10 times (70%).  This dramatic shift points to the idea that today's college players are much less seasoned and talent is more spread out, thus putting an added emphasis on the accumulation of talent, while lessening (slightly) the importance of an individual system.  A perfect example of this is Michigan State.  Tom Izzo runs a terrific system that produces fantastic results; however, when his team is faced with superior talent (i.e. North Carolina), they struggle.
  • The TS of the 2007 Final Four was fueled by the presence of a record 6 top-10 picks in the next NBA Draft: Greg Oden, Al Horford, Mike Conley Jr., Jeff Green, Corey Brewer, and Joakim Noah.
  • Since 1985, two champions had Talent Scores that were larger than the combined TS of the other 3 three teams in the Final Four:  Kentucky (1996) and UNC (2009).  This corresponds well with the fact that these two teams have the largest total Tournament scoring margins and are generally considered the two most "dominant" teams of the last 25 years.
  • The 1987 Indiana team is the only champion in the 64-team Tournament Era to not have a single 1st round draft pick on its roster.
  • The highest combined TS of the non-champions in a Final 4: 54 (1991).
  • The lowest combined TS of the non-champions in a Final 4: 19 (2009).
  • The highest TS of a Final 4 team team not to win a Title: 30 (UNLV in 1991)
  • There have been 4 teams make the Final 4 with a TS of 0: Providence (1987), Wisconsin (2000), Oklahoma (2002), and George Mason (2006).
  • Only once has the Final 4 team with the lowest TS at the Final 4 won the Title: 1997 Arizona

So, where does this Duke team rank?  At this time, it is still way too early to make any definitive statement, but it is possible to use the Mock Drafts for 2010 and 2011 on Draft Express to make a first-order estimation.  Based on these predictions, Duke will have a TS of 14 and a CIS of  238, which would ranked it as the 3rd worst Title team since 1985.  The combined TS of Butler, West Virginia, and Michigan State projects to be 17, which would rank as the lowest ever.  Of course, should Singler, Ebanks and Hayward return for the 2011 season, all of these numbers will drop significantly.

Lastly, as an aside, I really hope that when I update this data after next season, it will still be valid to use the 64-team NCAA Tournament as a cut off...