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But let’s not get carried away with developing a connection with these players or programs: you’re here to win the bracket challenge and I’m here to help. Picking early round upsets is exciting, but in most standard scoring formats, it is more important to control the wreckage through the first weekend and put yourself in a position to be competitive come that third wave of games. In order to do this, you’ll need safe options that you feel good about in your Elite 8 and beyond. The question is: what does a “safe” team look like?
Here’s a hint … it’s not always the team with the lowest number on the left hand side, and it’s not always the team with the best player. In an effort to unearth what teams are set to play through March and into April (FREE ADVICE: if you need a hand in explaining to a significant other why this tournament runs into April, explain that he/she signed up for “March” Madness but that this tournament actually only runs for three weeks, so you’re actually doing him/her a favor), I took at look at successful teams from the past and put them through a statistical gauntlet.
We know the games are going to be hotly contested, so why not target teams that are positioned well to succeed in such contests? In order to do so, I charted the following season stats (pre-March Madness) for all 40 teams that advanced to the Final Four over the last decade: rebound percentage, assist-to-turnover ratio, free throw percentage, free throw makes, points per possession, blocks per personal foul, and number of possessions per 40 minutes (“pace”). In short, I chose these statistics based on my opinion that teams that succeed perform well in the paint, get easy points, and play an efficient brand of basketball. My train of thought was that it would be possible to win without being elite in all of these categories, but multiple flaws is going to make a deep run statistically unlikely, and winning a bracket challenge is all about playing the percentages … what is most likely to occur. Here are my findings, with the last 10 champions listed first.
14 UCONN 48.7 1.07 77.7 644 1.09 0.34 65.9
13 Louisville 52.5 1.18 70.9 652 1.10 0.24 67.5
12 Kentucky 53.3 1.17 72.3 678 1.17 0.62 66.3
11 UCONN 52.3 1.15 76.3 627 1.09 0.35 66.2
10 Duke 54.0 1.27 75.9 682 1.16 0.23 66.5
09 UNC 53.5 1.42 75.2 739 1.18 0.34 75.9
08 Kansas 54.2 1.36 70.2 598 1.17 0.36 69.0
07 Florida 54.5 1.09 69.0 646 1.18 0.31 67.4
06 Florida 51.0 1.16 74.4 641 1.14 0.31 68.7
05 UNC 54.1 1.19 72.5 724 1.16 0.21 76.1
AVG CHAMP 52.8 1.21 73.4 663 1.14 0.33 68.95
14 Florida 53.5 1.18 66.8 582 1.11 0.18 64.6
14 Kentucky 56.1 0.93 68.2 781 1.12 0.33 66.6
14 Wisconsin 50.4 1.52 74.6 642 1.16 0.24 63.5
13 Wichita State 55.8 1.08 69.9 553 1.08 0.25 64.8
13 Syracuse 52.2 1.14 67.5 569 1.07 0.38 65.6
13 Michigan 51.7 1.54 70.1 450 1.16 0.22 64.7
12 Kansas 52.9 1.16 69.2 597 1.09 0.32 67.5
12 Ohio State 55.4 1.24 70.9 600 1.12 0.19 66.8
12 Louisville 50.9 0.95 68.8 568 1.01 0.27 67.8
11 Kentucky 51.8 1.19 71.0 560 1.13 0.39 66.4
11 Butler 55.4 1.09 72.6 580 1.09 0.08 65.3
11 VCU 50.9 1.29 71.5 589 1.08 0.20 66.1
10 Butler 51.5 1.02 73.8 661 1.07 0.13 64.3
10 West Virginia 54.9 1.31 70.4 611 1.11 0.22 65.0
10 Michigan State 55.7 1.18 68.5 523 1.09 0.18 66.1
09 UCONN 54.5 1.24 67.8 662 1.12 0.62 70.0
09 Michigan State 56.8 1.15 69.8 612 1.08 0.15 68.6
09 Villanova 53.0 1.09 75.3 692 1.10 0.17 70.1
08 Memphis 54.1 1.36 61.4 608 1.13 0.35 70.6
08 UNC 56.8 1.17 75.7 738 1.16 0.27 76.4
08 UCLA 53.0 1.14 73.2 595 1.12 0.26 65.7
07 Ohio State 51.4 1.32 70.3 560 1.13 0.44 65.7
07 Georgetown 52.8 1.10 71.1 474 1.15 0.30 60.3
07 UCLA 52.1 1.17 66.6 428 1.10 0.21 65.1
06 UCLA 53.0 0.96 69.1 528 1.07 0.17 63.5
06 LSU 54.6 0.99 69.0 542 1.05 0.40 69.9
06 George Mason 50.2 1.13 66.4 429 1.07 0.23 64.9
05 Illinois 51.7 1.70 72.8 474 1.17 0.22 65.8
05 Louisville 53.2 1.10 72.3 683 1.15 0.21 70.1
05 Michigan State 54.5 1.25 77.7 543 1.15 0.14 68.3
AVG TEAM 53.2 1.19 71.2 602 1.12 0.28 67.2
Statistics can tell you which teams are talented, but they really don’t tell you much about the mental makeup of a roster. Maybe a team’s statistics are inflated due to playing inferior competition, and while I’m not asking them to apologize, I do understand that simply looking at numbers can be dangerous. The statistics are still the most accurate evaluator or March success, but the tournament games often come down to the final five minutes, so I decided to chart the record of every Final Four team in games decided by five or fewer points. You can put up impressive numbers when everything is going right, but how effective can you be when the game is on the line? Are you trending in the right direction? Does it even matter?
2014 Florida 6-1 Yes 10 2009 UCONN 2-0 No 7
2014 Kentucky 2-8 No 5 2009 Michigan State 1-2 No 8
2014 Wisconsin 5-2 No 8 2009 Villanova 6-2 No 7
2014 UCONN 7-3 No 8 2009 UNC 3-3 No 8
2013 Wichita State 5-5 No 7 2008 Memphis 2-1 Yes 9
2013 Syracuse 4-3 No 5 2008 UNC 6-1 Yes 10
2013 Michigan 4-3 No 5 2008 UCLA 6-1 Yes 10
2013 Louisville 5-4 Yes 10 2008 Kansas 3-2 Yes 8
2012 Kansas 3-1 No 9 2007 Ohio State 5-1 Yes 10
2012 Ohio State 3-5 No 6 2007 Georgetown 2-2 Yes 9
2012 Louisville 4-4 Yes 6 2007 UCLA 6-2 No 7
2012 Kentucky 3-1 No 9 2007 Florida 3-2 Yes 7
2011 Kentucky 1-6 Yes 8 2006 UCLA 4-4 Yes 8
2011 Butler 4-4 Yes 9 2006 LSU 7-6 No 8
2011 VCU 8-6 No 5 2006 George Mason 4-3 No 8
2011 UCONN 8-3 Yes 6 2006 Florida 3-5 Yes 7
2010 Butler 7-1 Yes 10 2005 Illinois 1-1 Yes 9
2010 West Virginia 7-3 Yes 8 2005 Louisville 6-3 Yes 9
2010 Michigan State 4-3 No 5 2005 Michigan State 0-3 No 8
2010 Duke 3-2 Yes 9 2005 UNC 2-2 No 8
One stop shopping for how each Final Four teams did in games decided by five or fewer points (“Close”), their conference tournament (“Tourney”), and their final 10 games before March Madness. As you can see, the ability to win close games is more of a public perception than a reality. Over the last decade, Final Four teams are winning just 59.1 percent of close games, a number that isn’t that much different for the tournament champion (59.7 percent). In fact, one could argue that simply being in tight games is more important than the final result, as the average Final Four team since 2011 has average more than eight “close” games per season. What does appear to be a bit more correlated to bracket success is how a team is playing down the stretch. Half of the Final Four teams studied won their conference tournament (“yes” in the tourney column), including six of the last nine champions. Furthermore, 65 percent of the Final Four teams had won at least 8 of their last 10 games prior to March Madness, adding credibility to the statement that “it’s not how you start, rather how you finish”.
Final Four Notes
Last season marked the EIGHTH STRAIGHT Final Four in which the four participating teams combined to average at least 1.10 points per possession.
Last season marked the FOURTH STRAIGHT Final Four in which at least one participating team averaged at least 0.34 blocks per personal foul.
Only FOUR Final Four teams recorded more turnovers than assists. After having both UCLA and LSU reach the Final Four in 2006 with such a stat line, only two teams have done so since.
Only THREE Final Four teams have made less than 600 free throws and converted less than 67 percent of their freebies.
Only TWO Final Four teams (UCONN last season and VCU in 2011) over the last decade were outrebounded during the season.
Only ONE Final Four team (the Roy Hibbert and Jeff Green led Hoyas of 2007) had a pace under 63.5.
ZERO teams have advanced to a Final Four over the last five years while averaging 68 or more possessions per 40 minutes. In fact, over that stretch, 85 percent of Final Four teams have averaged 64.5-67.5 possessions and the average pace of play has dropped by 3.94 percent from the previous five seasons.
The average sum of the seeds to advance to a Final Four since 2005 is 13.2.
Enough with the foreplay: who is going to emerge from each region?
MIDWEST WINNER: Kentucky Wildcats
Listen, I said this was a formula to pick winners, not shock the nation. It is no secret that the fightin’ Calipari’s are about as good as it gets (34 wins, not a laundry list of statistics could have told you that) and they nearly mirror the ideal Final Four team based on the past decade. The only two spots where they failed to meet the standards (FTM and Pace), they scored well within the acceptable range of totals and look as good on paper as they have on television all season. You can write UK in pen through the first two rounds, and by playing in a region with 4-5 seeds that don’t at all resemble a historic Final Four team, Kentucky is a safe pick to advance at least three rounds. So, if you’re going to get cute, don’t do it too early.
Sleeper: Wichita State Shockers
There is much less clarity in the bottom half of this bracket, as this simply isn’t the Kansas team of year’s past and Notre Dame isn’t exactly flawless. My formula does like the offensive efficiency of the Irish, but their struggles on the glass. I don’t see Northeastern pulling off the monumental upset, but a weekend date with an elite rebounding squad is worrisome for me. Look for the winner of Butler/Texas to give Notre Dame all they can handle, making them as unappealing of a three-seed as there is in this tournament. Wichita State also stands to make some noise, as they have plenty of experience and own the fifth best assist-to-turnover rate in the field. Their efficiency on the offensive end should allow them to compete with Kansas, and if they can get past the Jayhawks, they could make the run that they didn’t last season.
EAST WINNER: Virginia Cavaliers
The will be a fun region to watch. I take that back: the last five minutes of these games should be fun to watch. The top two seeds play high-level defense, something that should be viewed as a major plus, but it can also lead to some low-scoring games that allow lesser teams to hang around. Villanova (Jay Wright has struggled as a front-runner) is good enough in the paint to advance through the bracket, but NC State is strong on the interior and will likely be a trendy upset pick. I’m not picking it, but that does make ‘Nova a bit of a risk if you’re advancing them to the Final Four, thus making Virginia a slightly better percentage play. Should chalk hold, the Cavaliers interior advantage and ability to dictate tempo should allow them to prevail. I mentioned the Hibbert/Green led Georgetown team that was the exception to the Pace rule and the Cavaliers are that sort of good (in Justin Anderson I trust).
Sleeper: Northern Iowa Panthers
I’m not sure that the Panthers can win a track meet, but they could make a run to the Final Four without facing a single elite offense. Assuming they win their first game, Northern Iowa will be one of only two teams remaining in this region that qualifies in the Points Per Possession portion of this study. They aren’t flashy, but they are efficient and they are playing with confidence. They’ve scored more than 70 points just twice in 2015 and they may not need to do so to bust some brackets and crash the part in Indianapolis.
SOUTH WINNER: SMU Mustangs
This is my pick for the most entertaining region to watch, four of the Top 5 teams average plus-points per possession and six of the Top 7 own an impressive assist-to-turnover ratio. Is it possible to have two statistical resumes that look more alike than Duke and Gonzaga? For that matter, SMU looks similar on paper. If you’re looking to get upset aggressive, this is where you need to spend your time. Larry Brown might have crunched these numbers before I did, as he has built an upstart team that functions very much like what we’ve seen succeed over the last decade. They lost to Gonzaga early this season, but this isn’t the same team. They’ve grown and appear to be peaking as the season progresses: not to mention they figure to hold some solid value in your bracket and could benefit from upsets elsewhere. I’ve been high on Iowa State all season long, but with two fatal flaws (rebound percentage and pace), they hardly resemble a squad that can be counted on for a deep run. Given the projected pace of play in this region, give me Gonzaga to survive the first four games if you’re risk adversed, as their region-best assist-to-turnover ratio and points per possession figure to reign supreme. But for those looking to make a splash, SMU mirrors former Final Four teams and appear to be peaking.
Sleeper: Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks
Watch out. The Wildcats from Davidson join the Lumberjacks as two of my favorite double-digit seeds in the entire bracket. The ability to make free throws and score efficiently are even greater assets given their potential foes, two strengths that make giant-slayers. The Lumberjacks not only make free throws, they get there plenty, a skill that allows them to keep a game from getting away and should make them a force in tight games (something we didn’t get to see much of this season). It’s very possible we see three double digit seeds advance at least one round and it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if one made a magical run and represented the South Region in the Final Four. For the record, I’ll stick with the numbers and say Stephen F. Austin is the most likely of underdogs to make such a run.
WEST WINNER: Wisconsin Badgers
The reason so few slow-paced offenses have made it into the final weekend is because they tend to own prototypical plodding offenses that cannot keep up if the defense falters even a little bit: that’s not the case for the 2015 Badgers. This is an efficient offense refuses to beat itself and has explosive offensive upside. Arizona is a very good team, but occasional struggles at the stripe are a concern and the experience is an advantage for Wisconsin. I think it is possible these are two of the top four or five teams in the tournament, so it’s a darn shame we can’t see this matchup in a later round than the Elite 8. That said, there is one spot to get very funky if that’s more your style …
Sleeper: BYU Cougars
The upside here is that most brackets do not make you pick the “first round” games on Tuesday/Wednesday, so you can wait to see if BYU advances to the Field of 64 before making any bold statements. But … if BYU does in fact advance past Ole Miss, they are a team that no one wants to see. Besides having nothing short of an elite first name, Kyle Collinsworth is the type of player worth gambling on. He can do a bit of everything and is a great catalyst for one of the most difficult offenses to contain. The hyper-speed would typically scare me, but if they get rolling, you’re potentially looking at matchups with teams that want that same pace (Arizona, North Carolina, and Arkansas). Calling them a “safe pick” or a “percentage play” isn’t accurate, but they have the statistical makeup of a slipper wearer.
OK, so now you have your Final Four. Nail this and you’re in good shape, but getting the winner correct is crucial given the scoring structure for most brackets. Here are some notes from the table above when it comes to commonalities of the last team standing, as well as another set of data that can help you identify what a champion’s season box score should look like.
EVERY champion over the past decade has averaged at least 1.09 points per possession.
FIVE STRAIGHT champions were the best free throw shooting team in the Final Four and four of the last six champs converted free throws at better than a 75 percent clip (those six champions are making free throws at a 74.7 percent rate).
Only TWO champions have averaged fewer than 1.15 assists per turnover.
Only ONE champion made fewer than 627 free throws during the season.
Only ONE champion pulled down less than 51 percent of rebounds.
UCONN (2014) 18.0 Sr 6.0 Jr 4.9 Sr
Louisville (2013) 18.7 Jr 9.4 Jr 5.7 Sr
Kentucky (2012) 14.2 F 10.4 F 4.8 F
UCONN (2011) 23.5 Sr 8.7 So 4.5 Jr
Duke (2010) 18.2 Sr 7.7 Sr 4.9 Sr
UNC (2009) 20.7 Sr 8.1 Sr 6.6 Sr
Kansas (2008) 13.3 Jr 6.7 Sr 4.3 Jr
Florida (2007) 13.3 Jr 9.5 Jr 3.7 Jr
Florida (2006) 14.2 So 7.6 So 4.7 So
UNC (2005) 17.5 Jr 10.7 Jr 6.9 Jr
AVERAGE 17.2 8.5 5.1
Since basketball, for the most part, is a star driven sport, why not look at the average production of the studs on last team standing? Above is a list of how many points the champion’s leading scored poured in on a nightly basis, how many boards their leading rebounded snatched, and how many assists their top playmaker handed out. Interestingly enough, five of the last six winners have had one player lead the way in multiple categories, further solidifying the train of thought that basketball, not only at the professional level, is a team game that can be dominated by individuals. Furthermore, it is important to note that upperclassmen lead the team in scoring and rebounding in eight of the last 10 years. Another trend worth watching is the increasing importance of a player who can “get his” without much help from his supporting cast. Over the past six years, we’ve seen the leading scorer average 29.5 percent more points per game than during the four previous seasons, but those points haven’t been the result of entire offenses functioning at a higher level, rather a single player. From 2009-2014, the leading assist player actually saw his dime rate drop by 5.3 percent from 2005-2008. Finally, it should also be noted that after three straight champions failed to have their leaders in each category sum to a PRA total of 28.9, we’ve had five straight champions reach or exceed that plateau. Now let’s take a look at the remaining resumes and allow them one final chance to state their case as the team of destiny in 2015.
Rebound percentage (average champion – 52.8%): 54.4%
Assist-to-turnover (1.21): 1.39
Free Throw percentage (73.4%): 72.2
Free Throws made (663): 596
Points Per Possession (1.14): 1.16
Blocks per foul (0.33):0.41
Pace (69.0): 64.5
Leading scorer (17.2): 11.3
Leading rebounder (8.5): 6.8
Leading passer (5.1): 3.8
Last 10 games (8 wins): 10
Rebound percentage (average champion – 52.8%):54.8
Assist-to-turnover (1.21): 1.36
Free Throw percentage (73.4%): 72.3
Free Throws made (663): 407
Points Per Possession (1.14): 1.11
Blocks per foul (0.33):0.30
Pace (69.0): 58.9
Leading scorer (17.2): 13.9
Leading rebounder (8.5): 6.6
Leading passer (5.1): 4.8
Last 10 games (8 wins): 8
Rebound percentage (average champion – 52.8%): 53.9
Assist-to-turnover (1.21): 1.23
Free Throw percentage (73.4%): 70.5
Free Throws made (663): 529
Points Per Possession (1.14): 1.09
Blocks per foul (0.33): .26
Pace (69.0): 63.5
Leading scorer (17.2): 14.3
Leading rebounder (8.5): 6.4
Leading passer (5.1): 5.3
Last 10 games (8 wins): 9
Rebound percentage (average champion – 52.8%): 54.1
Assist-to-turnover (1.21): 1.71
Free Throw percentage (73.4%): 76.3
Free Throws made (663): 487
Points Per Possession (1.14): 1.21
Blocks per foul (0.33): 0.29
Pace (69.0): 59.6
Leading scorer (17.2): 18.2
Leading rebounder (8.5): 8.1
Leading passer (5.1): 2.9
Last 10 games (8 wins): 9
Over the last nine seasons, eight teams have advanced to the Final Four while ranking among the Top 25 highest scoring offenses in college basketball and six of them ended the season with a victory. The elite scoring offenses have fared well in the Final Four, but don’t confuse that with the highest scoring team in the field. In those three seasons (2011, 2013, and 2014) in which a Top 25 scoring offense was not represented in the Final Four, the highest scoring team left did NOT win the title.
Scoring is seen as the “sexy” end of the floor, but the winner has allowed fewer than 60 points in the title game four of the last five seasons. Over that span the winning team has averaged 64.6 points, nearly a 15 point drop off from the previous decade. In fact, the winning team over the last five seasons is averaging 6.1 percent fewer points per championship game than the losing team did in the previous five seasons. Your winner better be able to win a slugfest (or you better be willing to hedge your bracket bet with an “under” bet for the final game of the college hoops season.
We’ve had just six teams advance to the Final Four over the last nine seasons (16.7 percent of teams) that entered the tournament ranked inside the Top 40 in 3PM. A cat may have nine lives, but few college basketball teams can live six times without dying once when they are reliant on the triple.
Fewer upsets? Over the last six seasons, the sum of the seeds defeated by the winning team has been 38, down from 42.4 over the previous five seasons. That’s a considerable difference, but dig a bit deeper and the lack of sustained upsets becomes clearer. Subtract the outlier season of 2013, and the average champion has a defeated seed average of 35.4 since 2009. Furthermore, consider that three of those champions were one seeds. So if you subtract those three victories over 16 seeds (a foregone conclusion at this point), the average win for a champion over that span is 4.8 … and that includes a second-round game for those one seeds that cannot be any better than an eight seed. In other words, you don’t need to pick a winner in a bracket that you believe will be filled with chaos.
And the winner is …
Star power and stretch big men are all the rage in basketball (at all levels) and Frank Kaminsky checks off both of those boxes in a big way. You’ll notice from the table above that the majority of victors have been paced by an upperclassman, and while Kentucky has the talent to buck that trend, Wisconsin has the talent to extend the streak. The slow pace is a major concern, but given their consistent efficiency, the deliberate pace of play becomes less of a worry, as it forces the opponent to match their extreme efficiency, something few (if any) teams can do. For me, they join Kentucky as the only two teams in the nation that can beat strong teams in a defensive battle or a shootout, and at the end of the day, I like their offensive efficiency and ability to compete on the backboards with the Wildcats.
For those who think all these numbers are overrated and want an odd trend to chase …
The last 29 champions (and 50 of the last 51) have had a coach whose first name (the one he goes by that is) measures fewer than six letters.
When looking at how a team is commonly labeled (Example: North Carolina, LSU, UCLA, Kentucky), at least one team has had a “t” in their name in eight consecutive, and 11 of the last 12, Final Fours.
Over the last three seasons, the winner has come out of a different region. The South, Midwest, and East have all won … is 2015 the year of the West (a region that hasn’t even reached the final game in any of those seasons)?
In four of the last five seasons, one of the semi-final games have been played by teams with a double digit seed sum.
Number 2 seeds won the first two March Madness tournaments, but only three have done so in the 33 tourneys since. We are currently in the longest drought for second seeded champions in the 35 year history of this event (10 straight seasons).
At the end of the day, these are college kids and kids are unpredictable. But why not learn from the past and fill your bracket the same way you’d build a Fantasy roster? That is, load it with options that are most likely to succeed. You put yourself at a statistical advantage, and that’s really all you can ask for. Looking for the rest of my picks? Tune into the FNTSY Sports Network or contact me via Twitter.
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