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Who will win the 2009 NCAA Basketball Tournament

March 4th, 2009

Who will win the 2009 NCAA Basketball Tournament?
Article courtesy of Ted Sevransky, a professional college basketball handicapper featured on Touthouse.com. If you are looking for winning 2009 march madness picks, be sure to buy Teddy Covers march madness picks at Touthouse.com

History shows us many things about what it takes to be a champion. I write this essay every year, and every year, I have been able to identify the eventual champion among my elite level teams.

The last dozen NCAA champions – Arizona over Kentucky in 1997, Kentucky over Utah in ’98, UConn over Duke in ’99, Michigan St over Florida in 2000, Duke over Arizona in ’01, Maryland over Indiana in ’02, Syracuse over Kansas in ’03, UConn over Georgia Tech in ’04, North Carolina over Illinois in ’05, Florida over UCLA in ’06, Florida over Ohio State in ’07 and Kansas over Memphis last year – all had very specific abilities and a very specific statistical profile as a team that allowed them to go all the way.

Two years ago, I correctly pegged the Florida Gators as repeat champs. Here’s what I wrote, after eliminating every one of the other legit national title contenders, one by one :

“So that leaves me with the one team remaining – the boring choice. Florida cut down the nets for the national title last year, and I’m going to call for the Gators to become the first team since Duke in 1991 and 1992 to repeat. With all five starters back from last year’s team, the best shooting team in the country can withstand an off night from any one or two of their key players and still advance. Billy Donovan’s kids were the best team in the country for most of the year. When all is said and done, I expect Florida to repeat as national champions on the first Monday in April.”

Last year, I pegged Kansas and UCLA to reach the title game. Here’s what I wrote about those two squads:

“Kansas and UCLA are my final two teams standing. I think you can make a legitimate argument for either one of these two squads to cut down the nets in San Antonio. Both teams pass every reasonable test – depth, defensive acumen and intensity, rebounding and low post presence, point guard play and ball handling, the ability to win away from home, free throw shooting, rosters littered with NBA bound prospects, experience, coaching. You name it, and these two teams have it. I wouldn’t be shocked at all if the Bruins and Jayhawks, both potential (but not certain) #1 seeds, meet on April 7th with the national championship at stake.” The Jayhawks, of course, won it all, and UCLA reached the Final Four.

Past predictions do not necessarily indicate future success – any stockbroker who has lost your life savings over the past two years will admit that — but I’ll stand by my track record in this essay. Remember, as always, this article gets written at the very beginning of March, before the regular season for the major conferences are even over, before the conference tournaments, before the seedings are announced and before a single tournament game has been played.

Cinderella’s have reached the championship game. Florida in 2000 and Indiana in 2002 stand out as two teams that were not among the top 16 seeds in the tournament. But those Cinderella’s have been unable to seal the deal – the eventual champion has been seeded no lower than #3 in every single year dating back to 1997, when Arizona won it all as a #4 seed. You’ll have to go all the way back to 1988 for a real longshot, when Larry Brown guided the Kansas Jayhawks to a title as a #6 seed. 16 of the last 19 national champions have been #1 or #2 seeds.

To earn that type of a seed, the eventual champion must have been an elite level team all year. None of the last eleven champions had more than seven regular season losses. The hidden factor behind those numbers, is, of course, road success – each eventual champ was .500 or better on the road heading into the tournament season.

I would be very surprised to see a team win the whole thing this year if they enter the tournament with more than seven losses. To win the Big Dance, teams have to be better than good, or even very good. Winning six straight games over three weekends requires greatness.

Each of the past eleven champions was from one of the six ‘major’ conferences. The mid-majors measure success with Sweet 16 berths, not Final Four trips, despite George Mason’s amazing run two years ago. We’ve seen Louisville and Marquette make it to the Final Four from Conference USA (both teams are now in the Big East), while Memphis made the championship game from Conference USA and Utah made it from the WAC (at the time; now they are in the Mountain West), but those are clearly the exceptions, not the rule.

Basically, if a team is not from the Big East, ACC, Big 10, Big 12, SEC or PAC-10, they aren’t facing enough tough competition on a nightly basis to get them ready for an extended tournament run. Sorry Memphis, Butler, Xavier, Utah and Gonzaga – you’re not going to make my list. I did give serious consideration to making a ‘Memphis exception’, but I’ll let the Tigers prove me wrong before I include them as legit contenders for the second straight year.

Every champion had a top notch point guard – Mario Chalmers, Mateen Cleaves, Khalid El-Amin, Steve Blake, Taurean Green, Ray Felton, Jay Williams and Gerry McNamara just to name a few. Each had great inside/outside balance, with the ability to pound the ball down low as well as strong perimeter shooters from the outside.

One dimensional teams won’t go all the way, and rarely make it even as far as the Final Four – a champion cannot simply run and gun here in the 21st century. UNLV was the last team to win a championship that way, and that was 18 years ago (my, how time flies!).

In this era, contenders must be able to beat teams using their half court offense almost exclusively, as the level of defense that they’ll face rises with each passing game of the tournament. The past dozen champions were all rock solid defensive teams, probably the most overlooked category among bracketologists in the office pools. And their inside presence wasn’t marginal – each and every one of those champions that were positively dominant on the boards.

Depth was not a major concern for any of the champions – each was able to survive the game, or games, where key players suffered from foul trouble or cold shooting nights. Depth, rebounding, defense, balance, great play at the point and in the paint, the ability to run halfcourt sets – the criteria for a potential champion is very specific.

Using just the seven losses, and major conference criteria alone, we can narrow the list of potential NCAA tournament winners down to the following group of 21 teams: North Carolina, Duke, Wake Forest, Clemson, Florida State, Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, UConn, Louisville, Pitt, Marquette, Villanova, Michigan State, Purdue, Illinois, LSU, South Carolina, Washington, Arizona State and UCLA.

Technically, all these teams should make the list, but I’m going to eliminate the teams with seven losses already. There’s still two more games for each of these teams prior to their conference tournament, and frankly, all the seven loss teams are a notch or two behind the rest of the pack. In addition, I don’t see any of the seven loss teams earning a top three seed. So Florida State, Purdue, Illinois, Washington, Arizona State, UCLA and South Carolina get eliminated from the above group. In fact, the entire PAC-10 is gone already, before the real discussion even begins. Buh-bye!

From 21, we’re already down to 14 contenders, leading one eventual national champ. Check back later in the week, when I break down each one of those 14 teams to arrive at the one team from that group which my money will be on to cut down the nets in Detroit on April 6th.

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