Making Sense of the Madness: The Statistical Trends of the Past 40 Final Four Teams

Final Four: Meet the South Carolina Gamecocks
Photo: Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports

I wish I could help all of you make as much money as possible. But there isn’t one singular trait that identifies how exactly you can get a perfect bracket. If that were the case, Warren Buffet would have a much lower net worth right now. For the most part, it’s about the matchups set forth for each team vying for a national title as even the best team can run into a group that simply isn’t a good matchup for them. A clear example of this is the 2017 Villanova team, the number overall seed going into that year’s tournament. As the defending champions from that 2016 classic with North Carolina, the Wildcats were primed to repeat but fell in the second round to Wisconsin.

While Villanova was definitely the better team over the year, they only had one guy over 6’7 in their starting lineup whereas Wisconsin had three of those players as well as the athleticism to contain the Wildcats on the perimeter. In short, matchups matter and it takes a little bit of luck to make the Final Four. Still, there are a number of similarities between the Final Four teams from the past ten big dances that point to not only who may and may not fare well in this year’s NCAA Tournament, but also the evolution of the game itself. Let’s take a look at some of these trends.

Here’s a list of all the Final Four teams from the past 10 NCAA Tournaments starting with the champion and the runner-up.

2021: Baylor (c), Gonzaga, UCLA, Houston

Schmor: A Big-Picture Preview of the 2021 Final Four | SportsPac12
Photo: ncaa.com

2019: Virginia (c), Texas Tech, Auburn, Michigan State

Final Four 2019 schedule: Tipoff times, betting lines
Photo: @MarchMadnessTV

2018: Villanova (c), Michigan, Loyola Chicago, Kansas

Final Four Set – The State Times
Photo: WBAY

2017: North Carolina (c), Gonzaga, Oregon, South Carolina

2017 NCAA Tournament Logo Court Bracket – Final Four – SportsLogos.Net News
Photo: https://news.sportslogos.net/

2016: Villanova (c), North Carolina, Syracuse, Oklahoma

Drops of Ink | 2016 Final Four preview
Photo: MCT Campus

2015: Duke (c), Wisconsin, Kentucky, Michigan State

Final Four 2015: Inside the Numbers of the NCAA Tournament's Final Weekend  | Bleacher Report | Latest News, Videos and Highlights
Photo: Bleacher Report via Getty Images, AP Images

2014: UConn (c), Kentucky, Wisconsin, Florida

The Most Interesting Tidbits about the Final Four Teams - AthlonSports.com  | Expert Predictions, Picks, and Previews
Photo: David Fox

2013: Louisville (c), Michigan, Wichita State, Syracuse

2013 NCAA Final Four Social Media Roundtable: Exclusive Interviews with the  Digital Strategists From Each School
Photo: NH Designs

2012: Kentucky (c), Kansas, Ohio State, Louisville

2012 Final Four Program
Photo: ncaa.com

2011: UConn (c), Butler, Kentucky, VCU

March Madness 2011 Predictions: Power Ranking the Final Four Teams |  Bleacher Report | Latest News, Videos and Highlights
Photo: Bleacher Report

Elite experienced guards: 18 of the 40 teams had guards or forwards with guard-like skills that were All-Americans that year as upperclassmen

NBA Draft Day dreams materializing for Baylor's Butler, Mitchell | Baylor |  wacotrib.com
Photo: Michale Conroy/AP

With the positionless basketball that is gradually becoming more prevalent in today’s game, it’s fair to put forwards that are consistently relied upon to create for themselves on the perimeter on this list. And in this case, the only forwards that are added to this list are Mikal Bridges and Justin Jackson for Villanova and North Carolina respectively. It’s important to also note that two of the more dominant recent national champions in Baylor in 2021 (Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell) and Villanova (Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges) in 2018 both had two upperclassmen guards that received All-American honors

They’re additionally some other metrics to consider when it comes to how important elite guard play is for teams navigating this chaotic tournament. 19-20 (if we want to include Cleathony Early’s two All-American years in NJCAA) out of 40 teams from this list had guards or forwards with guard-like skills that either were upperclassmen at the time of their team’s Final Four appearances or were All-Americans at some point in earlier their careers. This list includes Marcus Paige who was second-team All-American two years prior to North Carolina’s 2016 runner-up finish. Overall, in including underclassmen, 22 out of the 40 Final Four teams had guards or forwards with guard-like skills that were All-Americans the year their team made the Final Four. Establishing this skillset on the perimeter as essential.

In addition, 31 out of these 40 teams had upperclassmen guards that were all-conference and 38 out of these 40 teams had guards that were all-conference. Elite, experienced guard-play matters. Baylor’s three upperclassmen on the perimeter (Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell, and MaCio Teague) last year had between the three of them three All-American selections and six all-conference selections total. When picking your bracket, look closely at the teams with the best backcourts, that’s usually a safe bet.

Conference tournaments: 17 out the 40 teams won their conference tournaments

Tickets on sale for Michigan basketball postseason banquet - mlive.com
Photo: Julie Jacobson/AP

Probably one of the oldest lessons ever since people were filling out their brackets is to not overreact to the conference tournaments. There are countless situations where teams overachieve in their conference tournament just to flame out early in the first-week earthquake of March Madness. Looking strictly at the Power-6 (ACC, Big East, Big 10, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC) the conference champions last year were Georgia Tech, Illinois, Texas, Oregon State, Georgetown, and Alabama. Only two of those six teams made the second weekend.

Still, conference tournaments should not be ignored and can still be a decent gauge for momentum for the top teams. 26 out of 40 of these teams did make at least the final of their conference tournament, with only VCU (2011), UConn (2011), Louisville (2012), Syracuse (2013), Michigan State (2015), and Michigan (2018) seemingly not expected to make it that far in those respective competitions. But, overall, if a team significantly overachieves in their conference tournament, it can be fair to assume that it’s too good to be true. Because, in many cases, it is.

Difficulties of getting back: 5 out of the 40 teams made the Final Four the following year

Wisconsin, Florida earn Final Four berths in NCAA Tournament - CNN
Photo: Harry How/Getty Images

Success in the tournament is hard to replicate. This isn’t a situation where you’re going to get Clemson-Alabama or Cavs-Warriors four years in a row and while there are always top programs that are continuously in contention, making the Final Four in consecutive years is a rarely achieved feat. Even Kansas, led by a hall-of-fame coach and constantly finishing the regular season in the top 5 has only made one Final Four since 2013. They’ve been a 1 seed four times since then. The only teams to get back to the Final Four after reaching at least that stage the previous year in the past ten NCAA tournaments were Kentucky in 2011 and 2014, Wisconsin in 2014, Louisville in 2012, and North Carolina in 2017.

The two Kentucky teams for the most part relied on freshman from number 1 recruiting classes whereas North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Louisville returned their cores from the previous year’s team. Florida in 2007 was the last team to actually win the national title and return to the Final Four the following year. Of course, that team is the last one to actually win back to back national championships. It will be interesting going into this year’s tournament as the four programs that made it to national semifinal all are top four seeds other than Houston and still definite contenders. Especially, the finalists as Gonzaga is poised to be the number one overall seed and Baylor at worst should be a second seed in the field of 64. It will be interesting to see if any of these programs can go against the general grain.

Offensive and defensive efficiency: 27 out of 40 teams had an offensive or defensive efficiency in the top 15

Gorgui Dieng Powers Louisville's Defense, and Its Big Comeback - The New  York Times
Photo: Frank Franklin II/ AP Photo

Balance still matters in college basketball, but teams having specialities that they can lean on are also essential going into the tournament. Villanova was able to lean on its elite offensive efficiency, which was first in the nation, to dominate the 2018 NCAA Tournament. The same year Loyola Chicago used it’s #6 rated defensive efficiency to keep themselves in games late so that they could pull off some of the various miracle finishes they had throughout that run. Keeping this metric in mind, the teams in the AP Top 25 that don’t reach this standard of elite offensive or defensive efficiency include Kansas, Villanova, UCLA, Providence, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Saint Mary’s, Illinois, UConn, USC, Boise State, and Colorado State.

Possibly an even more alarming trend for some contenders is that 34 out of 40 teams that made the Final Four in the past ten years had an offensive and defensive efficiency that were both ranked in the top 100. If that trend were to continue teams like Purdue, Texas Tech, Providence, Wisconsin, Iowa, Boise State, and Colorado State would not make it to New Orleans this year. Many of these teams will be projected to make deep runs such as Purdue. But the Boilermakers currently rank 176 in defensive efficiency, meaning that an off shooting night or Zach Edey getting into foul trouble can make this contender extremely vulnerable.

Shooting becoming more of a priority

Villanova Wins N.C.A.A. Championship on Last-Second Shot - The New York  Times
Photo: Bob Donnan/USA Today Sports

As the NBA has prioritized shooting efficiency and the three point shot has taken on more and more importannce, college basketball has taken on a similar, yet not as extreme arc. Elite defensive programs such as Virginia never really went on a deep run until they built up their halfcourt offenses into models of efficiency. In the first five big dances of our ten tournament study, 13 out of the 20 teams that made the Final Four shot above 45% from the field. Whereas, 17 out of 20 teams that qualified for the national semifinals shot above 45% in the five most recent NCAA Tournaments. Teams in the AP Top 25 that are currently not hitting this metric include Tennessee, Villanova, Auburn, Providence, Wisconsin, Arkansas, UConn, Boise State, and Texas.

Further proof of this trend is that 12 out of the 20 teams in the first five Final Fours of the past ten tournaments ranked in the top 100 in field percentage. Compared to 16 in the most recent five NCAA Tournaments. Eliminating, in this case, Tennessee, Villanova, Auburn, UCLA, Providence, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Illinois, UConn, Boise State, and Texas from Final Four contention in this case. From the three point arc, the 11 out of 20 of the first five teams shot above 35% from distance and half of these teams ranked in the top 100. Compared to the 18 out of 20 teams that hit more than 35% of their attempts and 14 out of 20 that ranked in the top 100 in three-point field goal percentage. Eliminating teams like Baylor, Kentucky, Auburn, Texas Tech, Providence, Wisconsin, Houston, Arkansas, Boise State, and Texas in the first case and all those teams and Saint Mary’s in the second case.

The consistency of the high seeds….just not all of them

1 Duke (32-4, 15-3) vs #2 Gonzaga (35-2, 17-1) Preview
Photo: Rob Kinnan/USA TODAY Sports

This could certainly be an outlier year as February 27th showed with the top 6 all losing on the same day for the first time in college basketball history. But still over the time period of focus, 14 of these teams have been 1 seeds, seven of them were 2 seeds, four were 3 seeds, four were 4 seeds, one was a 5 seed, two were 7 seeds, two were 8 seeds, one was a 9 seed, one was a 10 seed, and, surprisingly, three were 11 seeds. With two of those 11 seeded programs coming out of the first four. 10 out of the past 20 tournaments has seen at least two number 1 seeds reach this stage of the tournament, however, only two of those instances have resulted in more than two of the top four teams reaching this stage. With the unevenness at the top, this is certainly one of those years to not pick all four number one seeds for New Orleans. Just make sure you don’t pick this year’s Illinois like I did to win it all!

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