Once the 2019 NCAA Tournament bracket is revealed on Selection Sunday, we’ll be able to break down which matchups and potential paths to Minneapolis are conducive to the latest batch of national title contenders.
But until then, we took another approach at examining this year’s national title contenders: karma.
There’s no stat for karma but in a 68-team, single-elimination tournament where madness ensues on an annual basis, can you really be sure karma isn’t sometimes at play?
Inspired by Bill Simmons’ NBA Draft lottery karma power rankings, we’re applying the same concept to the NCAA Tournament.
We examined teams’ karma based upon their seasons thus far, their injury situations and their recent and extended histories in the NCAA Tournament. Developing under-recruited players into stars, unselfish play, strong shooting and lockdown defense can lead to a team having a lot of karma in the bank.
So can the presence of season-altering injuries in past seasons when a school may have had a team that could have contended for a national title had it not been for an injury.
Teams with recent high-level NCAA Tournament success might have spent most of their karma on recent tournament runs.
We ranked the 18 teams that have 50/1 odds or better to win the 2019 national championship, according to Vegas Insider.
If you want to see which schools made the cut for the back half of our rankings, check out Part 1 here.
With all that out of the way, it’s time for the conclusion of Stadium’s 2019 National Championship Karma Power Rankings.
9. Michigan State
The Spartans have been forced to play without three injured starters for parts of this season. Junior guard Joshua Langford played 13 games before suffering a season-ending ankle injury and junior forward Nick Ward last played on February 17, when he suffered a fractured hand. Matt McQuaid missed time in November and December with a thigh bruise. Now Kyle Ahrens is dealing with a back issue.
They’re 19-4 without Langford and 4-1 without Ward (if you include the Ohio State game in which he suffered the injury).
Injuries aren’t a Michigan State-specific issue but the Spartans team that started the season ranked No. 10 in the preseason AP Top 25 poll hasn’t dropped lower than No. 11 despite their limited roster. Michigan State is ranked fourth on kenpom.com as of Wednesday afternoon and its efficiency numbers are really impressive.
That’s because of the All-America-caliber play from point guard Cassius Winston, who has an assist rate of 44.4 percent (the third-best nationally) and a 42.2 percent 3-point percentage. Forwards Xavier Tillman and Kenny Goins have been monsters on the glass, rim protectors and the 6-7, 230-pound Goins has been able to spread the floor at power forward as a 38.3 percent 3-point shooter.
Even though Michigan State is a No. 2 seed in Stadium’s latest NCAA Tournament projections, the Spartans as they’re currently constructed with their injury situation aren’t one of the school’s most talented teams under Izzo. Michigan State has a history of making runs as a lower seed, like its Final Four runs a No. 5 seed (2005, 2010) and No. 7 seed (2015), Elite Eights as a No. 4 seed (2014) and No. 7 seed (2003).
There would be something fitting about a limited Michigan State roster making a run fueled by one star (Winston) and a cast of players who accept their roles, following three consecutive years of first-weekend exits for the Spartans in the NCAA Tournament.
8. Texas Tech
There’s an old adage that defense wins championships and while we found that having the No. 1 defense in the country doesn’t guarantee NCAA Tournament success, there’s a lot to like about Texas Tech, which has a national-best 85.4 adjusted defensive efficiency and is tied for first place in the Big 12.
The Red Raiders rank No. 38 in adjusted offensive efficiency, which is a tremendous improvement from February 7, when they ranked No. 112 nationally in that metric.
Texas Tech is led by sophomore guard Jarrett Culver, who was ranked No. 312 nationally in the 247Sports Composite rankings for the 2017 recruiting class and has since blossomed into an All-America candidate who’s averaging 17.9 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game. The Red Raiders dipped into the international recruiting pool to land Italian point guard Davide Morretti and they hit the transfer market to get Matt Mooney (South Dakota), Tariq Owens (St. John’s) and Brandone Francis (Florida).
Texas Tech Coach Chris Beard led Arkansas Little Rock to 30 wins and an NCAA Tournament upset over Purdue in his one season with the Trojans in 2016 and he led the Red Raiders to 27 wins and the Elite Eight in Year 2 in Lubbock. He’s one of the 10 best coaching hires in the last decade.
The Red Raiders have a limited history of postseason success with just 16 NCAA Tournament appearances, one Elite Eight and five Sweet 16s, and this year’s group is one of the two best teams in program history, along with the 1996 Red Raiders that went 30-2. However, the ’96 season (and the team’s NCAA Tournament appearance and Sweet 16 run) was later vacated.
There hasn’t been a first-time national champion in college basketball since Florida in 2006 and if the Red Raiders continue their hot 3-point shooting from February, they have the strong defense and a future NBA guard (Culver) that are often prerequisites for winning a national title.
You could make the case this is the best Houston team since the 1983 and 1984 Cougars, which lost back-to-back national championship games. That alone is worth some basketball karma as a once-proud basketball school has journeyed from the Southwest Conference to Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference and re-emerged in the top 10 for the first time in 25 years.
Houston Coach Kelvin Sampson has been a terrific hire that is really paying dividends in Year 5.
Houston has made the Final Four three other times, plus six Sweet 16s – all of which came from 1956 to 1984.
While this year’s Houston team doesn’t have the star potential of those 1983 and ’84 Houston teams – which included six future NBA players, headlined by Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon – the 2018-19 Cougars start four upperclassmen, they’re balanced with a top-35 offense and a top-15 defense and they have an incredible 27-2 record.
The Wolf Pack’s top three scorers from last season – Caleb Martin, Jordan Caroline and Cody Martin – withdrew their names from the 2018 NBA Draft last offseason and returned to Nevada for their fifth and final year of college. Nevada’s top six scorers are transfers – five of whom are in their final season of eligibility – which means the Wolf Pack need to capitalize on the potential of its current roster because the team look completely different next season.
Nevada lost 69-68 to Loyola Chicago in the Sweet 16 last season while playing a rotation of essentially six players. The Wolf Pack have better size and depth this season, which makes this year’s Nevada team potentially the best in school history.
Between Nevada’s senior-laden core, its NCAA Tournament experience and heartbreak last season and the interest Nevada Coach Eric Musselman could receive in the offseason due to his success in Reno, it would be fitting if the stars aligned this March for the Wolf Pack.
As Stadium College Basketball Insider Jeff Goodman wrote in his Goody Bag on February 14, “The former NBA head coach has completely reinvented himself in Reno, turning Nevada into a top 10 team this season … he’ll in the mix for high-major gigs and it’ll be hard for him to pass on them since he loses the Martin Twins and Jordan Caroline off this year’s team.”
Nevada has one month left to maximize the college careers of the Martin twins and Jordan Caroline.
Did you know that Tennessee doesn’t have any former top-100 recruits on its roster?
If you’re a devoted college basketball fan, that was a rhetorical question.
The composition of Tennessee’s roster – from a recruiting ranking perspective – has been an often-cited bullet point over the course of the last two seasons, since the Volunteers took a mega-leap from their 16-16 record in 2017 to a 26-9 record and shared SEC regular season title last year.
Reigning SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams was ranked No. 191 nationally coming out of high school in the 2016 recruiting class, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings. Fellow All-SEC performer Admiral Schofield was ranked No. 251 the year prior.
Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes has done a great job of finding and developing talent, plus the Vols are unselfish (their 61.9 percent assist rate ranks ninth nationally) and unselfish teams are always good for basketball karma.
This is arguably the best team in program history and it could be the first group of Volunteers to make the Final Four. Tennessee has made one Elite Eight and six Sweet 16s.
The rise of Michigan basketball this decade has been impressive, especially for a football school that shares a state and a conference with Michigan State, which has one of the best coaches in the sport and has been one of the strongest programs this century. The Wolverines have played for (and lost) two national championships in the last six seasons and Louisville’s 2013 national championship that was cliched with a win over Michigan has since been vacated.
Finishing as the national runner-up only to have the title-winning team later vacate its championship doesn’t automatically make the runner-up the de facto national champion but in terms of basketball karma, it can’t hurt.
Michigan has won with elite offense (its 2013 team ranked No. 1 in adjusted defensive efficiency) and elite defense (it ranked No. 3 in adjusted defensive efficiency last season and it does again this season).
The Wolverines lost three of their top four scorers from last season’s team that lost to Villanova in the national championship, including leading scorer Moritz Wagner, and they managed to get even better. They’re outscoring their opponents by an average of roughly four more points per 100 possessions compared to last season.
Michigan has done a great job of player development. Here are just a few notable examples:
- 2013 Naismith College Player of the Year Trey Burke was ranked No. 93 in the 247Sports Composite rankings in the 2011 recruiting class
- Nik Stauskas (No. 110) was the 2014 Big Ten Player of the Year and a consensus Second Team All-American and Caris LeVert (No. 239) was a Second Team All-Big Ten selection after being members of Michigan’s 2012 recruiting class
- Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman was ranked No. 434 nationally in the 2014 recruiting class and he started every game for Michigan last season and averaged 12.9 points per game
The latest examples are freshman Ignas Brazdeikis, who was ranked No. 40 nationally in the 2018 recruiting class but has arguably played at level beyond what you would typically expect for even a recruit of his stature, sophomores Jordan Poole (No. 93; 12.9 ppg) and Isaiah Livers (No. 133), and juniors Zavier Simpson (No. 67; 9.2 ppg, 6.3 apg, 5.1 rpg) and Jon Teske (No. 142; 9.8 ppg, 6.8 rpg).
The Wolverines won the 1989 national championship game and they’ve lost in the national championship on six other occasions, so you could say Michigan is due to win another title if it makes the final weekend.
You could make the case that the three best Purdue teams during Coach Matt Painter’s tenure (or this century, even) had their wings clipped due to injures. Former Purdue forward Robbie Hummel, a 1,700-point scorer and three-time First Team All-Big Ten selection in college, suffered a torn ACL in February 2010 and then again in October 2010.
The Boilermakers were 24-3, ranked No. 3 in the AP poll and in the midst of a 10-game winning streak when Hummel tore his ACL the first time.
He was a preseason second-team All-American when he re-tore his ACL in the fall and Purdue still managed to enter the 2011 NCAA Tournament as a No. 3 seed and ranked No. 9 in the AP poll.
Purdue lost in the Sweet 16 in 2010 and in the second round in 2011.
Last season, Purdue center Isaac Haas suffered a season-ending fractured elbow in the Boilermakers’ first round win over Cal State Fullerton. They ultimately lost in the Sweet 16 to Texas Tech.
As of Saturday morning, this year’s Purdue team has a slightly better adjusted efficiency margin (meaning by how many points Purdue outscores its opponents per 100 possessions, on average) than its 2010, 2011 and 2018 teams.
Here they are, courtesy of kenpom.com:
After starting the season 6-5 against a challenging schedule, Purdue is in position to earn a share of the Big Ten title thanks to the efficient, high-usage offense of Carsen Edwards, supplemental 40 percent 3-point shooting of Ryan Cline, Grady Eifert and Sasha Stefanovic, and rim protection and rebounding from bigs Matt Haarms and Trevion Williams.
Two years ago, the ‘Zags nearly removed their name from the list of best college basketball programs that have never won a national championship. They entered Selection Sunday with a 32-1 record, earned a No. 1 seed for the second time in program history and finished as national runners-up after losing 71-65 to North Carolina in the national championship game.
As Bulldog fans and college basketball diehards with a Twitter account and the ability to rewind their TV will remember, Gonzaga was on the wrong side of a missed call in the final minute of the 2017 national championship, when North Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks wrestled with Gonzaga’s Silas Melson for the ball and while possessing the ball, Meeks’ right arm clearly touched the floor out of bounds. North Carolina led 66-65 at the time and the Tar Heels were awarded a jump ball with 50 seconds left in the game.
Isaiah Hicks scored on the ensuing possession, giving North Carolina a 68-65 lead, Nigel Williams-Goss had his shot blocked on the other end, which led to a dunk for Justin Jackson with 12 seconds left and the rest is history.
That’s not to say the officials cost Gonzaga a national title. The Bulldogs still had the chance to tie the game in the final minute of regulation and their shot was blocked.
But a program that has long fought to overcome national skepticism due to a combination of its conference affiliation, late-night West Coast tip-off times and perceived past NCAA Tournament shortcomings, missed out on the chance to take the lead in the final minute of the national championship game due to a missed call.
That Gonzaga team finished the season ranked No. 1 on kenpom.com and it had two players – Zach Collins and Johnathan Williams – who played in the NBA this season.
So regardless of how you measure the success of a college basketball team, whether it’s wins and losses, NCAA Tournament seeding, a deep NCAA Tournament run, advanced analytics or future pros, 2017 Gonzaga should’ve dispelled any remaining skepticism towards the Bulldogs.
This year’s Gonzaga team is even better, even though its top five scorers and four starters from the 2017 team are no longer in the program.
Gonzaga outscores its opponents by an average of three more points per 100 possessions compared to the ’17 Bulldogs and it has the third-most efficient offense since 2002, according to kenpom.com. Only 2015 Wisconsin (adjusted offensive efficiency of 129.0) and 2018 Villanova (127.8) had a more efficient offense than Gonzaga this season (127.7).
Since Gonzaga’s active 20-year NCAA Tournament streak started in 1999, the Bulldogs have made one Final Four, two Elite Eights and six Sweet 16s. All that’s missing is a national championship.
Outside of Villanova when it was completely healthy, Virginia was the best team in the country last season but the Wahoos’ 2017-18 season will forever be remembered by the most infamous upset in the history of the NCAA Tournament after they lost 74-54 to No. 16 seed UMBC in the first round.
The Cavaliers have since been a punching bag for Twitter trolls, even though they continue to pile up wins and are on pace to win at least a share of their fourth ACC regular season title in six years.
De’Andre Hunter, now a redshirt sophomore guard, suffered a broken wrist last season and missed the NCAA Tournament. The next person who makes a case that Virginia would’ve beaten UMBC with a healthy Hunter won’t be the first. Regardless, it’s fair to say former UMBC guard Jairus Lyles, 6-2, would’ve had a difficult time scoring 28 points on 9-of-11 shooting if he was defended by the 6-7 Hunter.
The reigning ACC Sixth Man of the Year has since blossomed into a future NBA draft lottery pick and one of the 35 most efficient players in college basketball thanks to a 48.6 percent three-point percentage and a minuscule 11.7 percent turnover rate.
Imagine if Virginia won its first national championship one year after losing to UMBC, after returning three starters and a very similar core – one that includes a now-healthy Hunter and a healthy Jay Huff, the latter of whom a rim-protecting, efficient-in-small-doses three-point shooting sophomore center who tore his labrum the day before Virginia played UMBC.
The Cavaliers have arguably been the best program in arguably college basketball’s best conference since the start of the 2013-14 season. They’re on pace to earn their fourth No. 1 seed in the last six seasons.
Virginia’s tempo might be its Achilles heel, especially if the ‘Hoos find themselves trailing by double digits like they did early in the second half against UMBC, but they’re just as strong defensively this season as they were last year and they’re averaging roughly eight more points per 100 possessions offensively.
The Cavaliers rank No. 2 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. No other team, not even Duke, ranks in the top five in both.
Speaking of the Blue Devils, Virginia is undefeated this season against non-Duke opponents. The Cavaliers rank No. 1 on kenpom.com and No. 2 in the NET.
They’re arguably one of the two best teams in the country (again) and they’ve played at that level all season. After last season’s historic loss, karma is on Virginia’s side for the Cavaliers realizing their national championship potential.