There’s a hack for national-title game picks most years, but not for 2017


In each of the last 13 national championship games, the team with the better per-possession scoring margin in the five previous tournament games has won:

Tournament games only, through national semifinal
EM: efficiency margin
2016  Villanova         +0.38
      North Carolina    +0.25
2015  Duke              +0.28
      Wisconsin         +0.12
2014  Connecticut       +0.12
      Kentucky          +0.06
2013  Louisville        +0.27
      Michigan          +0.20
2012  Kentucky          +0.17
      Kansas            +0.11
2011  Connecticut       +0.17
      Butler            +0.07
2010  Duke              +0.28
      Butler            +0.11
2009  North Carolina    +0.28
      Michigan State    +0.11
2008  Kansas            +0.24
      Memphis           +0.23
2007  Florida           +0.22
      Ohio State        +0.16
2006  Florida           +0.25
      UCLA              +0.19
2005  North Carolina    +0.21
      Illinois          +0.17
2004  Connecticut       +0.21
      Georgia Tech      +0.07         

There are three things you should know about this streak.

One, luck is involved. Kansas beat Memphis in overtime, Kris Jenkins happened, Sean May was allowed to use his posterior as a foul-free battering ram, etc.

Two, it’s skewed by the numbers that top seeds often record against No. 16 seeds in the round of 64. That skew is canceled out when two No. 1 seeds meet in a national final, but when a No. 1 plays a lower seed for the championship this “hack” is indistinguishable from simply saying top seeds that win five games tend to be the better teams.

Lastly, our hack is no help at all for tonight.

Tournament games only, through national semifinal
EM: efficiency margin
2017  Gonzaga           +0.16
      North Carolina    +0.16

So, absent an Easy National Title Solver, here are a couple thoughts offered in the service of informed viewing this evening:

One thing that strikes me before the game is just how crazy Villanova’s numbers really were on offense one year ago today. Conversely if you look at North Carolina and Gonzaga right now, they present the far more traditional paradox wherein teams reach the national championship game despite the fact that some of their key players are struggling. The idea of “playing your best basketball at the right time” fit the Wildcats last year like a glove (and, remarkably, across the board), but it’s not always applicable.

Joel Berry and Isaiah Hicks, for example, are both having extremely rocky tournaments in terms of getting the ball in the basket. For Berry this may be related to a recurrently rolled ankle.

As for the Bulldogs, Nigel Williams-Goss is coming off his best two games of the tournament, but he’s still shooting just 37 percent on his twos since the opening tip against South Dakota State. The Zags have reached this point just the same thanks to a defense that’s held every tournament opponent to 1.07 points per trip or less, usually much less. South Dakota State, Northwestern, West Virginia, Xavier and South Carolina have shot a combined 39 percent on their twos.

On the topic of Gonzaga defense, it will be said Mark Few’s guys simply must control the defensive glass against North Carolina. Obviously that would be great for the Bulldogs, but I guess I’m no longer sure that North Carolina’s excellent offensive rebounding is most productively viewed as a variable factor in winning versus losing. It seems more like a character trait.

Put more simply, UNC’s scoring has arguably varied more than its offensive rebound percentage in the tournament. Against Arkansas, for example, the Tar Heels characteristically pulled down 43 percent of their missed shots but still scored just 0.97 points per trip on the way to an unsightly win. If the Heels’ offensive rebound rate is lower than 35 percent or higher than 43, prepare to be very surprised. That’s the range Roy Williams’ team has been working within against every tournament opponent that’s not a No. 16 seed thus far.

And, for the record, Gonzaga’s Fallacy of Misplaced Specificity-version tournament efficiency margin is +0.1638. North Carolina’s is +0.1645. In case it comes up.