If history is any indication, there's a good chance the 2013 national champion will come from a group of only seven teams.
How can I be so certain? That's where the Eliminator comes in -- my recurring column where I assess the relative merits of the national title contenders. There are two key pieces of information that I'll be working from here at Eliminator HQ:
1. Over the past seven seasons, the average per-possession scoring margin of a major-conference team that reaches the Final Four has been +0.13 in league play.
2. Someone forgot to share that information with Connecticut in 2010-11, because the Huskies reached the Final Four and won the national championship after outscoring the Big East by just 0.01 points per possession.
You'll see me referring to this second piece of information as the Connecticut Exception. It's my intention to flag teams that fit the profile of a national title contender. UConn that season did not fit the profile, but they won it all anyway.
That's college hoops for you. If that happened every season, you'd hear complaints that the tournament is just one big roulette wheel. If it never happened, you'd hear complaints that the tournament is too boring and predictable. Instead, it happens once in a great while, and I think that's just about perfect.
Setting our threshold at plus-0.13 for major-conference teams (I'll get to mid-majors momentarily) would have correctly endorsed seven of the last nine national champions in advance (the ones that didn't meet the threshold are italicized):
Kentucky 2011-12 (+0.26)
Connecticut 2010-11 (+0.01)
Duke 2009-10 (+0.18)
North Carolina 2008-09 (+0.15)
Kansas 2007-08: (+0.24)
Florida 2006-07: (+0.13)
Florida 2005-06: (+0.10)
North Carolina 2004-05: (+0.23)
Connecticut 2003-04: (+0.14)
In other words, all the No. 1 seeds, plus a token champion from the 2-line (the Huskies in 2004). Big deal, right?
Actually, that national title in 2004 for UConn points to a feature I like about the Eliminator's benchmark. There can be only four No. 1 seeds, of course, but there's no hard limit to the number of teams that can meet our threshold. If you'd been using this screen, you would have been in on the ground floor of non-No. 1 seeds like Kansas and Ohio State last season, both of whom made the Final Four. For that matter, you also would have seen trouble written all over a No. 1 seed like Villanova in 2006 (+0.08), and you may even have taken another look at top-seeded Syracuse in 2010 (+0.12).
Enough history. Let's take a look at the seven teams that are playing at a national championship-caliber level right now, as well as the highly ranked teams that are falling short of our title threshold.
1. Florida Gators (+0.42)
The Gators have been as dominant in conference play as any team in recent years, a fact that has some observers busily trying to explain this rather surprising fact away. So be it. The mere fact that Billy Donovan's team is outscoring an admittedly weak SEC by an admittedly absurd four-tenths of a point per trip is sufficient information for the Eliminator. UF is a legitimate threat to win it all.
2. Michigan Wolverines (+0.21)
With possibly the best offense in Division I, the Wolverines are scoring an incredible 1.19 points per possession in the nation's strongest conference. Michigan's in-conference scoring margin is the best recorded by any Big Ten team since Illinois in 2004-05 (+0.24), and the league is stronger now than in the Illini's day.
3. Indiana Hoosiers (+0.18)
It may be the case that the Big Ten currently has two of its best teams from the past five seasons in the league at the same time. The Hoosiers are nearly as good as Michigan on offense, and slightly better than the Wolverines on D.
4. Miami (FL) Hurricanes (+0.17)
The Hurricanes might be the biggest surprise on this list since they haven't even made the tournament since 2008, but the Hurricanes team you're seeing right now is performing at a level that has marked past NCAA teams as national championship material. Jim Larranaga has the best defense in the ACC.
5. Louisville Cardinals (+0.14)
People were a little too quick to discount the Cardinals when they lost three straight. Even with the losses, this is still the Big East's best defense. Besides, Rick Pitino's team wisely took my advice and is doing a much better job of hanging on to the ball.
6. Duke Blue Devils (+0.13)
Like everyone else who follows college hoops, I have my doubts about how far the Blue Devils can go without a healthy Ryan Kelly. But it's important to note that the Blue Devils' current plus-0.13 points per possession advantage in league play has come with Kelly missing six of eight conference games. So there's a case to be made that this is a title-contending team even without Kelly.
7. Gonzaga Bulldogs (+0.26)
Before we get into the Zags, this is as good a time as any to get into how we evaluate teams from outside the high-major conferences in terms of their national championship candidacy. Marking out an Eliminator-style line for mid-majors is difficult, but based on past Final Four teams like George Mason in 2005-06 (+0.19 in the CAA), Memphis in 2007-08 (+0.29 in C-USA) and Butler in 2009-10 (+0.20 in the Horizon League), I think we can reach something of an evaluative handshake agreement. Once a "high" mid-major outscores its league by something in the neighborhood of 0.20 points per trip, it's definitely on my radar. (Meaning, no, Butler and VCU were not on my radar in 2010-11. That's what made them such great stories.)
Gonzaga clears the 0.20 threshold as it is currently outscoring league opponents by 0.26 points per trip. Mark Few may have the best team of his career in Spokane this season, and given his remarkable run of success, that's saying something. You may hear some fretting about this team if they don't (gasp) run the table in West Coast play, but keep in mind that Saint Mary's and Brigham Young are tougher than most observers realize. Even with a loss or two, the Zags will likely reach Selection Sunday with one of the nation's most efficient and dangerous offenses.
Kansas Jayhawks (+0.11)
Aren't the Jayhawks 19-2? Yes, and the Eliminator isn't proclaiming irrevocable doom on Bill Self's team -- there's still basketball left to be played -- but the fact that KU (+0.11) is screened out by our rule as of early February does flag a teachable point. On a per-possession basis, this has not been your garden-variety dominant Kansas team. In the past five seasons, the Jayhawks' offense has posted the following ranks in Big 12 play: 1, 2, 1, 1 and 2. (That really was a great offense Missouri had last season.) Defense? Looks pretty similar: 1, 1, 1, 2 and 1.
This season, however, Self's men rank No. 4 in the Big 12 on offense in conference play, and No. 2 on D. Again, the season is young, and the Jayhawks' numbers will certainly improve after a couple of upcoming games against hapless and stat-inflating TCU. But until now KU's record is better than its per-possession performance has been, a point that I assure you is not lost on Self and his staff.
Arizona Wildcats (+0.10)
Arizona has wins over both Florida (in Tucson) and Miami (in Honolulu) to its credit. This suggests the Wildcats will likely improve upon their performance to date in Pac-12 play, where thus far Sean Miller's team has ranked No. 7 in the league in accuracy from the field.
Syracuse Orange (+0.10)
Syracuse is showing very poor results on the defensive glass for a second consecutive season, and this time it actually appears to be having some effect on the Orange's defense. That and some recent struggles with shooting from the field have pushed Syracuse's scoring margin down from where it was in Big East play last season (+0.16).
Butler is perhaps the best example of disconnect between what's happening on the floor in league play and where a team is ranked in the polls. To this point in the season, the Bulldogs have been merely the Atlantic 10's third-best team in per-possession terms, after Saint Louis (+0.13) and VCU (+0.09).
What about differences in strength between major conferences?
The Eliminator will gladly take such differences into account. Obviously, a team that outscores opponents by, say, 0.12 points per trip in the brutal Big Ten deserves notice and consideration alongside a team posting a plus-0.13 in a more congenial major-conference setting. But right now the Big Ten doesn't have any of those teams. Ohio State (+0.10), Minnesota (+0.08), Michigan State (+0.06) and Wisconsin (+0.06) are all well short of the mark. (Also keep in mind that the 0.13 figure is an average created by a fairly large pool of teams, a substantial portion of which played in tough conferences themselves.)
And on the flip side of this discussion, teams like Louisville (+0.14) and Duke (+0.13) that just barely meet our threshold are representing the nation's No. 2 and 3 ranked conferences, respectively. The Cardinals and Blue Devils have come by their scoring margins honestly.
In future installments of the Eliminator, I'll continue to separate the contenders from the pretenders, in addition to looking at major-conference teams that fall just shy of our benchmark and mid-majors that are putting up gaudy near-Gonzaga numbers in leagues as good as or weaker than the WCC (direct your gaze toward Omaha). But for now, I'll leave you with this:
Florida, Michigan, Indiana, Miami, Louisville, Duke, Gonzaga. That's a good group.