Last week, we looked at the Dangerous Outsiders, the Royal Blues, and the Title Snipers. See the box below for those links. This week, we turn to four legitimate championship contenders. So far we've examined NC State and Ohio State; today, it's the Louisville Cardinals.
Before we begin ...
Your mission, as a gambler, should you choose to accept it, is to pick a national champion from two groups. Group one comprises the top five teams in the preseason polls — Indiana, Louisville, Kentucky, Ohio State, Michigan. Group two is everyone else. Whom do you take? My initial reaction was to pick the top five and laugh all the way to the bank. But I was intrigued last week when my pal Matt, a Kentucky fan, told me he'd take the field. It's not that he thought any particular team outside the top five was better, but just that those five teams weren't strong enough to make him think they had more than a collective 50 percent chance to produce the eventual champion. Without a prohibitive favorite, he'd rather take the 20-30 teams below them that might have a shot, if only for the numerical advantage. I wasn't sure I agreed, but the idea was interesting enough that I looked back on College Poll Archive to see how often a team outside the preseason top five ended up winning the title.
I went back to 1979-80, encompassing 33 seasons. The results:
Champion in the Preseason Top Five: 19 Champion Outside the Preseason Top Five: 14
Teams ranked no. 1 won seven times, which was the most of any ranking, so it's still best to be top dog. Hurray for Indiana. But teams that were unranked in the preseason won the same number of titles — four — as teams ranked second in the country. Sorry, Louisville.
It's a small sample size, but since 1980, you'd have a 57.6 percent chance of winning the bet if you went with the top five. Then again, it's close enough that if you really feel that we're in a "wide-open year" — which is the prevailing wisdom among the experts — it's probably smarter to take the field. The last two times we had a year without any real powerhouses, in 2010 and 2011, a no. 9 team (Duke) and an unranked team (UConn) took the title. And both of them beat Butler, who started outside the top five, in the national championship game.
If you put a gun to my head — and I hope you don't — I'd take the field in 2012-13. So why can't I take my eyes off that bright white suit at the KFC Yum! Center?
Louisville: The Red Hand Gang
The Gist: Rick Pitino, whose contract was just extended through 2022, returns three starters and a significant role player from last year's Final Four squad. The Cardinals boasted the best defense in the country by adjusted efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) last season, and with a veteran corps that includes the Big East's leading shot blocker patrolling the interior, they could actually be even better in 2012-13.
Then there's Pitino, the maligned icon who persists through lechery and thinly disguised arrogance as one of the most talented coaches in America. Last week, I said that if I had to start a college program from scratch, I'd take Kansas's Bill Self as my coach. But if I needed a coach to step in for a single game and maximize the talent on the floor through a combination of strategy, experience, and charisma? There are only two choices — Tom Izzo and Rick Pitino. Slick Rick did so much amid a plague of injuries last season — peaking at exactly the right time for a Big East championship run and a Final Four berth — that it's a bit terrifying to consider what he might accomplish with a healthy roster. He's got it, at least for now, and despite a few obvious shortcomings, Louisville deserves to be at the forefront of the national title discussion.