NCAA Tournament: Using Trends to Narrow Down the Eventual Champion in 2024

Brandon Gdula
Brandon Gdula@gdula13
NCAA Tournament: Using Trends to Narrow Down the Eventual Champion in 2024

Anything can happen in the NCAA Tournament, right?

In theory, yes.

In practice, it's more complicated.

And it's only complicated because it's really quite simple.

While upsets will live forever, the chalk tends to outlast the Cinderellas, and that's what historical benchmarks of eventual NCAA Tournament champions tell us.

Using Trends to Find the Eventual Champion in 2024

Seeds and nERD Data

nERD is a numberFire metric that works to tell us how good (or bad) a team is when compared to an average opponent on a neutral court. It's basically an adjusted efficiency margin.

You'll find similar numbers at KenPom and BartTorvik.

But nERD by itself has been a great indicator for eventual champions.

Since 2000, we have had 23 NCAA men's tournament champions (with no winner crowned in 2020).

Among those 23 champs, 16 were 1 seeds in the bracket, which accounts for 69.6% of the champs. Further, 21 of these 23 champions were a 3 seed or better (91.3%).

The only two teams to win it all while worse than a 3 seed were the UConn Huskies in both 2014 (7 seed) and in 2023 (4 seed).

But there's a bit more to that story for the Huskies in both seasons.

Historically, 7 seeds have an average nERD score of 11.49. UConn's in 2014 was 14.06 (a 2.57-point gap).

Last year, their nERD of 18.19 was 4.42 points better than an average 4 seed (14.07).

Basically, the 2014 Huskies were as good as a traditional 4 seed despite earning a 7 seed. Last year's team was about as good as a 1 seed, historically.

What this basically means is that 4 seeds and better should win it all.

And that cuts out, well, all but 16 teams from the start.

But wait. There's more.

Among these 23 champions, 9 were numberFire's top-rated team for the season, and none were outside the top 20. In fact, 20 of the 23 were a top-four team by numberFire's power ratings.


It's not just numberFire's data that loves the chalk, either.

Via BartTorvik's Barthag metric (expected win percentage after opponent adjustments), 13 of the past 15 champs were a top-three team, and all were top-15 by the end of the season.

KenPom's adjusted efficiency margin has dubbed 11 of the past 21 champions to be the best team by adjusted efficiency with all 21 as top-15 teams.

No champion in this span has had an average overall efficiency rank worse than 16.3 across the three sources (with numberFire data dating back to 2000, KenPom back to 2002, and BartTorvik back to 2008).

Because you can't argue against the chalk after all that, let's initially have a cutoff of a top-20 squad by average nERD, KenPom, and BartTorvik rank as the first key cutoff for eventual champions in 2024.

Offense and Defense

Based on numberFire's percentile rankings for team offense, defense, and pace, each of the NCAA Tournament champions since 2000 had an offense that ranked them in the 81st percentile or better.

If using both KenPom and BartTorvik, too, only the 2014 Huskies had an average offensive rank worse than 18.5 (their average rank was 44.0).

That roughly means a top-50 offense (at worst) is what it takes to win it all -- but that a top-25 unit is typically the key.

Despite the motto that defense wins championships, teams with weaker defenses are more likely to navigate the bracket successfully than teams that struggle to score.

Two champs had defenses below the 80th percentile, and the champion sample's average is an 89th-percentile defense. (It's 96th for offenses, by comparison.)

Let's put a bow on this: a top-25 offense and a top-50 defense -- if history holds -- will be what it takes.

Teams That Fit the Championship Mold

Let's look for teams with a top-20 average rank by nERD, KenPom, and BartTorvik plus a top-25 average offense and a top-50 average defense by KenPom and BartTorvik's adjusted efficiency numbers.

Here are those contenders as well as their odds to win the NCAA men's basketball championship, per FanDuel Sportsbook.

Championship Odds
Avg Overall
Avg Offense
Avg Defense
North Carolina+20008.325.07.0
View Full Table

Only 11 teams fit the cutoffs this year. (And while Wisconsin and Gonzaga are 5 seeds, they do fit as top-20 overall teams by the models.)

Before digging deeper, let's make a few notes of teams not on this list.

Notable Top-20 Teams Missing (and Why)

Five top-20 teams have offenses that don't reach the cutoff:

  • Tennessee (31.0 average offensive rank)
  • Saint Mary's (37.5)
  • Iowa State (53.0)
  • Michigan State (58.0)
  • Kansas (58.5)

Four top-20 teams have defenses that don't reach the cutoff:

  • BYU (53.5 average defensive rank)
  • Baylor (71.0)
  • Illinois (91.5)
  • Alabama (115.5)

So, history says that one of the following teams will be this year's men's NCAA champion.

  • Houston: +550
  • Connecticut: +420
  • Purdue: +700
  • Auburn: +1700
  • Arizona: +1500
  • North Carolina: +2000
  • Duke: +4000
  • Marquette: +2000
  • Creighton: +2000
  • Gonzaga: +5500
  • Wisconsin: +5500

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The above author is a FanDuel employee and is not eligible to compete in public daily fantasy contests or place sports betting wagers on FanDuel. The advice provided by the author does not necessarily represent the views of FanDuel. Taking the author's advice will not guarantee a successful outcome. You should use your own judgment when participating in daily fantasy contests or placing sports wagers.