March Madness: How to Pick a Winner

Duke's Brandon Ingram

March Madness: How to Pick a Winner

It's that time of year, again.

Published March 15, 2016

Every team that survives March Madness is talented and well-coached, but let’s face it: There is no formula to building a national champion. Recent history is our friend here. With Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski at the helm, last year’s Duke Blue Devils won with a historically great core of freshman that included two lottery picks (Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow) and the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player (Tyus Jones, also a first round pick). So, a legendary coach and freshmen that make pro scouts salivate are essential. Not exactly.  

In 2014, second year head coach Kevin Ollie, fresh from backing up Russell Westbrook on the Oklahoma City Thunder, guided the University of Connecticut Huskies to the national championship. On the court, UConn, for the most part, was a one-man show with senior point guard Shabazz Napier dominating the ball while averaging over 21 points per game. He played 77 of 80 minutes during the Final Four. So, the superstar can be an upperclassman with limited pro potential. But you need an elite player, right?

During the regular season and prior to the Final Four, the 2013 Louisville Cardinals had a go-to guy: Russ Smith, a slashing gunner from the wing who averaged 26 points per game in the tournament until the national semifinal. But he went cold — retirement-tour Kobe cold — in the Final Four, shooting 9-33. Backup forward Luke Hancock picked up the slack, however, for Rick Pitino’s team with Peyton Siva, Gorgui Dieng and Chase Behanan also contributing. Balanced teams can also cut down the net.

With the NCAA Tournament tipping off tonight in Dayton, BET consulted a handful of experts on what they look for in a potential national championship.


Going into the 1999 NCAA Tournament, Wally Szczerbiak was relieved to get out of conference play. For four years, coaches in the MAC had game-planned for the Miami (Ohio) All-American forward and it was getting increasingly difficult for him to find his favorite spots on the floor. (That didn’t stop him from averaging 24.2 points per game during his senior season though.) “We had seen teams for four years and they were loading up on me defensively, slowing down the tempo, and trying to minimize possessions. When I got to the tournament, a lot of teams weren’t familiar with my tendencies,” said Szczerbiak, who averaged over 33 points per game during his team’s run to the Sweet Sixteen. Superstars also put tremendous pressure on opposing coaches. “It’s tougher to game plan to shut him down in one game,” Szczerbiak said, “especially when you haven’t seen them.”

Is there an elite player who can carry his team to this year’s Final Four? “The player of the year for me is Buddy Hield from Oklahoma,” Kenny Smith says. “He reminds me somewhat of Dwyane Wade with his physical size and how he goes to the rim.” Unlike Wade, who led Marquette to the 2003 Final Four, Hield is a marksman from three-point range; shooting .464 from deep, Hield averaged 25 points per game this season.


With the best players often leaving school following their freshman campaign, coaches have become a big part of college basketball’s selling point: Calipari, Pitino, Coach K, Roy, and Boeheim are all larger-than-life figures, overshadowing any one-and-done phenom who steps on campus. And they have the rings to back it up. But what makes a great tournament coach? “You need a coach who is prepared to make in-game adjustments,” Szczerbiak says. “He also has to know how to prepare for a team in one day with these quick turnarounds.”

Former Villanova head coach Steve Lappas, however, thinks it's more about the team on the floor. “I don’t think there is such a thing as a good tournament coach, I think there are teams that are built for the tournament,” he says. “A team like Michigan State that has an inside and outside game is built for the tournament. If they’re missing shots, they can kill you on the glass. They don’t have just one way to score. They have multiple ways to score. They can play slow, they can play half court and they can play fast.”


Lappas is bullish on two veteran-laden teams: Michigan State, led by senior guard Denzel Valentine, and Kansas. “Having tournament experience, not just experience, makes a big difference,” Lappas says. “Take a look at Kansas: all upper classmen who have played in big games their entire career. They are not going to be phased by any of this.”


Last season, the Kentucky Wildcats entered the National Semifinal undefeated at 38-0. With four lottery picks (Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein, Trey Lyles and Devin Booker) and depth at every position, they were the overwhelming favorites to become the first team in NCAA men’s basketball history to finish a season at 40-0. But they ran into the wrong opponent. The Wisconsin Badgers were a disciplined, rugged team that played with a chip on their shoulder. They were not intimidated by Kentucky, and scored the 71-64 upset. “When you are in a one-and-done situation it’s all about matchups,” Charles Barkley says. “This is not about who the best team is — that’s the beauty of this tournament. In the NBA, the best team is going to win a seven game series. But in a one-and-done scenario, anything can happen.”

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(Photo: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Written by Thomas Golianopoulos


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