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March Madness: Narrowing down which favorites could actually win the NCAA men's tournament

[Printable men's bracket | Women's]

The beauty of the NCAA tournament is that, theoretically, any of the 68 teams could win it. Realistically, we know not everyone can win it. And there's a way of narrowing down which teams have a shot.

Since 2002, 19 of 21 champions started the NCAA tournament ranked in the top 25 of offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency at KenPom.com. The two outliers were 2014 Connecticut, which is the outlier NCAA champion to practically every exercise like this and was 57th in offense, and 2022 Baylor, which was 44th in defense.

There are 12 teams that have a top-40 offense and defense going into this NCAA tournament: Houston, Tennessee, Duke, Auburn, North Carolina, Arizona, UConn, Marquette, Purdue, Creighton, Nebraska and Nevada. No offense to Nebraska or Nevada, but it would be a massive shock if they won a national title. Nebraska is a No. 8 seed, Nevada is a No. 10 seed and no team seeded No. 8 or higher has won a national championship since Villanova in 1985.

That means there are 10 contenders, unless we get another outlier.

BetMGM odds to win the NCAA tournament

Here are the odds at BetMGM for all teams at 30-to-1 or shorter, with our list of our 10 contenders in bold:

UConn +400

Houston +600

Purdue +600

Arizona +1200

North Carolina +1300

Tennessee +1500

Auburn +1800

Iowa State +1800

Kentucky +2500

Marquette +2500

Duke +3000

Creighton +3000

Illinois +3000

Zach Edey and the Purdue Boilermakers are looking for a long run in the NCAA tournament. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)
Zach Edey and the Purdue Boilermakers are looking for a long run in the NCAA tournament. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)

Of the 10 contenders, only three are outside of the top two seeds: No. 3 seed Creighton and No. 4 seeds Auburn and Duke. The only top two seed not on the list is Iowa State. The Cyclones offense is 55th, putting them outside the cut line for that.

Auburn is interesting. They're No. 4 overall in KenPom, which means they were underseeded. They won the SEC tournament on Sunday. They aren't just top 40 in offensive and defensive efficiency, they're top 10 in each. The Tigers are 10th in offensive efficiency and fourth in defense.

The oddsmakers are not sleeping on Auburn. The Tigers have shorter odds than any other No. 4 seed. But 18-to-1 is pretty good for a team that checks a lot of boxes and isn't getting much respect.

Only 1.58% of players in Yahoo Sports' bracket game have picked Auburn to win it all as of Monday morning. They're the 13th most popular pick. The Tigers probably should be higher than that.

Who will win the tournament?

In most NCAA tournament bracket contests, the most important thing is picking the champion. Unless it's a flat scoring system, you aren't going to win without nailing the title team.

Let's try to narrow down the list a little more. Of the last 14 champions, 12 of them ranked at least 9th in either offensive or defensive efficiency (2014 UConn, of course, and 2011 UConn are the exceptions). That knocks out Creighton and Marquette. Down to eight.

Yahoo brackets love UConn. They're the most popular pick by far, with 32.16% of brackets picking the favored Huskies to win it all. Houston is second on that list, all the way down at 11.98%.

Even though UConn is the best team and obvious No. 1 overall seed after losing just one game since Dec. 20, it's hard to win the NCAA tournament. Great teams have tripped up before winning their sixth tournament game in a row to take the title.

One team getting some skepticism is Purdue. Fewer than 10% of Yahoo brackets have Purdue winning it all (9.91%, behind the other No. 1 seeds). That's because Purdue has had some horrible tournament losses recently, including last year to No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson. They also have the best player in the sport, center Zach Edey, and they meet all the historical criteria for a national champion.

There are some good arguments for a handful of teams being your championship pick in your bracket or future bet. But we can confidently predict the group from which the champion will come from.