Using Trends to Narrow Down the Eventual NCAA Champion for 2022

Everyone has their own method for finding this year's March Madness champion, but here at numberFire, you know we're going to rely on the data.

We have detailed game-by-game projections and bracket tools, of course, but I always like to look at some benchmarks of past champions to see which types of teams actually end up winning this thing.

Do defenses really lead to championships? Or is an elite offense actually a better indicator of championship success after all?

Which trends matter, and which teams fit this year? Let's find out.

Seed and nERD Data

At numberFire, we have a metric called nERD, which is a measure of expected point differential against an average opponent on a neutral court.

We use that to rank teams from 1 through 356 and also to show the gap between one team versus another.

Since 2000, the "worst" team to win a title was the 2014 Connecticut Huskies. They were a 7 seed. However, they were also entering the tournament with a nERD of 14.06. The average 7 seed since 2000 has had a nERD score of just 11.59, and at a 14.06, UConn was more akin to a 4 seed (whose average nERD is 14.11 since 2000).

The average seed for an eventual champion is 1.67, and the average nERD is 19.50.

by Seed
(Since 2000)
Champions Frequency
1 15 71.43%
2 2 9.52%
3 3 14.29%
7 1 4.76%

If we keep in mind that the 2014 Huskies were basically a 4 seed, we should honestly have a cutoff of champions being a 4 seed or better.

nERD Ranges Teams Frequency
20.0+ 11 52.4%
17.5+ 16 76.2%
15.0+ 19 90.5%

Since 2000, more than half of the eventual champions had a nERD score of 20.00 or better, and 90.5% (19 of 21) were a 15.00 or better.

Let's call it 15.00 for a nERD score cutoff.

Offense and Defense

At numberFire, we use percentile rankings for team offense, defense, and pace.

Since 2000, the minimum percentile rank for an offensive rating from a champion was the 81st percentile. That works out to roughly a top-65 offense.

The low-water mark for a defense is the 70th percentile (roughly a top-115 unit).

The average offensive rating for a champion since 2010 is 115.4 with no mark below 108.9. Of these 11 champions, 8 were top-10 in offensive rating, and just two teams were worse than 22nd (the 2011 Huskies ranking 43rd and the 2014 Huskies ranking 87th).

The average defensive rating for a champion since 2010 is 94.2 with a high-water mark of 99.2. Of these 11 champions, 3 were top-25 in defensive rating, and 4 were outside the top 50.

As I often point out during March Madness, the mantra of "defense winning championships" isn't entirely false -- but team offense matters more for eventual NCAA Tournament champions.

So, let's call it an 80th-percentile offense and a 70th-percentile defense.

Teams That Fit

If I filter our database for teams who meet certain criteria, these teams remain.

2022 NCAA Tournament Teams With a Qualifying nERD, Offensive Rating, and Defensive Rating

These teams have a nERD of 15.00 or better, an offensive rating in the 80th percentile or better, and a defensive rating in the 70th percentile or better.

Team nERD Seed Offense
Gonzaga Bulldogs 21.20 1 1.00 0.99
Arizona Wildcats 19.10 1 0.98 0.94
Kansas Jayhawks 17.73 1 0.96 0.76
Kentucky Wildcats 17.62 2 0.98 0.86
Baylor Bears 17.30 1 0.94 0.94
Houston Cougars 17.22 5 0.98 0.98
Auburn Tigers 17.11 2 0.85 0.93
UCLA Bruins 16.70 4 0.94 0.87
Villanova Wildcats 15.88 2 0.96 0.72
Duke Blue Devils 15.59 2 0.99 0.71

Though you might want to cross off the Houston Cougars for drawing a 5 seed, they're pretty dang underrated.

You can stray as far from this list as your heart desires, but history says this list of 10 holds the eventual NCAA Champion.