By Danny Blumenthal
March is upon us, which means that it’s time for HSAC’s annual article surveying the field of 68 to help you fill out your bracket. Here are the facts and figures that make this year’s teams unique:
1.) Be wary of choosing teams that started the season outside the Top 25, such as Texas Tech, Houston, Marquette, and Wisconsin. According to HSAC’s analysis, teams that outperform their preseason rank often underperform in the tournament.
2.) It’s critical to make free throws in close games, and over the last 10 years, every champion has been above average in free throw percentage. However, several of this year’s contenders, including Michigan (#201), Houston (#188), Kansas State (#317), and Duke (#237), struggle to knock down their free throws.
3.) Pencil in a blue blood for your Final Four. One of UNC, Kansas, Florida, Duke, or Kentucky has appeared in 29 of the last 30 Final Fours.
4.) Last year, two 9-seeds made the Sweet Sixteen. Don’t count on that happening again, especially with this year’s class of undeserving 9-seeds. Before last year, only 5 out of 132 teams seeded ninth advanced to the second weekend.
5.) 16 of the last 17 national champions ranked in the top-25 in adjusted offensive efficiency, with the only exception being #57 UCONN in 2014. Contenders who fall outside the top 25 this year include Kansas State, Florida State, Kansas, and Texas Tech.
6.) For those who believe in momentum, Wofford has won 20 straight, New Mexico State has won 19 in a row, and UC Irvine enters the tournament on a 16-game winning streak.
7.) In 29 of the last 30 years, the national champion ranked in the top 100 in points per game. Several of the top teams in the tournament don’t put up many points, including Michigan (#240), Villanova (#123), Texas Tech (#157), and Virginia (#193). They’ll need to step up their game if they want to win the title.
8.) A Big 10 team hasn’t won the national championship in 19 years. In that time, ACC schools have won 7 titles.
9.) Abilene Christian and Gardner-Webb are both making their NCAA Tournament debuts this season. There are now 42 Division I teams that have never gone dancing, and only 4 of them (Army, The Citadel, St. Francis, and William & Mary) have been eligible every single year.
10.) 28 of the last 30 champions outscored their opponents by 10 or more points per game. This year, Gonzaga had the highest margin of victory, winning by an average of more than 24 points per game. In contrast, teams like Purdue, Kansas, Florida State, and LSU only won their games by single-digits.
11.) Some pundits claim that teams that get upset early, like Virginia, Tennessee, UNC, and Michigan State last year, are due for a bounceback the following year. However, HSAC’s research has found that teams don’t play better the year after losing to Cinderella.
12.) Over the last 10 years, every first round matchup except one has averaged between 138 and 142 points. Defenses tend to dominate the 6-11 matchup, as teams combine to score only 129.8 points per game in these contests.
13.) Duke generates 55.7% of its offense from 2-point shots, the second-highest rate of any tournament team. However, they may be on upset alert should they reach the 2nd round, as both VCU and UCF have top-15 defenses inside the arc.
14.) Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, Minneapolis has hosted the Final Four twice. Both of those times, Duke emerged as the national champion.
15.) Some commentators argue that the key to pulling off an upset is shooting a lot of three-pointers. One team that does this is North Dakota State, which generates 40% of its offense from beyond the arc. However, this trend may be overrated, as there doesn’t seem to be a strong relationship between shooting a lot of threes and being a Cinderella team.
16.) UCF gets to the free throw line at the highest rate of any team in the tournament, but the Knights are the 2nd-worst team in the field at actually making their free throws. In an 8-9 matchup many expect to be close, every point will count.
17.) While many experts argue that underdogs should play at a slower tempo in order to minimize the number of possessions and increase variance, past HSAC research has found this not to be the case. Surprisingly, successful underdogs played at a higher tempo than average. That’s bad news for 12th-seeded Liberty, which plays at the 4th-slowest pace in the country.
18.) Mississippi State had the SEC’s tallest frontcourt this season. Look for the Bulldogs to exploit this height advantage against Liberty, one of the shortest teams in the field.
19.) Virginia Tech is the only team in the field to give up a higher percentage of points on threes than twos. Luckily for them, their first round opponent, Saint Louis, only generates 25% of their points from long range, good for 320th in the country.
20.) In spite of being the worst team in the tournament at forcing turnovers, Maryland still boasts a top-25 defense. Nevertheless, the strategy of settling into a half-court defense and letting teams take shots may not be effective against Belmont, which has the third best effective field goal percentage in the nation.
21.) Belmont’s Dylan Windler is the only guard in the last 25 years to average 20 points and 10 rebounds per game.
22.) While LSU has a top-10 offense, their defense is only ranked 62nd. Over the last 5 tournaments, no team ranked outside the top 50 in adjusted defensive efficiency has reached the Final Four. In addition, the Tigers may be in trouble in the opening round, as Yale’s top-tier offense could pose problems for LSU. The Bulldogs knock down 49.8% of their shots, the 6th highest rate in the country.
23.) Yale’s men’s basketball team has been around for 124 years, tied for the longest of any Division I school. Over that time, the Bulldogs have played 2,960 games and won exactly half of them.
24.) Although Louisville is the 7-seed, KenPom rates them as the fourth-best team in the East Region, ahead of #3 LSU, #5 Mississippi State, and #6 Maryland.
25.) Minnesota generates only 22% of its offense from beyond the arc, the lowest rate of any team in the tournament. That may be a problem in the 2nd round, as potential opponent Michigan State has a top-5 defense against two-pointers.
26.) Michigan State has historically been an unselfish squad, ranking in the top 10 in assist percentage in each of the last 5 seasons. This year is no different, as the Spartans have recorded assists on 68.2% of their made field goals – the top rate in the country
27.) Gonzaga’s high-flying offense, which is ranked #1 by KenPom entering the tournament, features 3 players who average at least 15 points per game. However, they may run into a speed bump in the 2nd round. Gonzaga could face Syracuse, whose famed 2-3 zone stifled the Zags in both the 2010 and 2016 tournaments.
28.) The Northeast Conference is the only conference to have never won a Round of 64 game. This year, Fairleigh Dickinson will try to break the curse.
29.) Despite being the tallest team in the nation (for the 2nd straight year), Syracuse gives up a lot of second chances. Consequently, Baylor may not be a good matchup for the Orange, as the Bears are the best offensive-rebounding team in the field.
30.) Syracuse has won NCAA Tournament games at 9 different seed lines, but has never done so as an 8 seed. Syracuse has won NCAA Tournament games at 9 different seed lines, but has never done so as an 8 seed.
31.) The tournament’s top 2 scorers, Markus Howard and Ja Morant, will be featured in the Marquette – Murray State game.
32.) In addition, Marquette vs. Murray State will be a battle of strengths. The Golden Eagles are one of the best teams in the country at knocking down long-range shots, but the Racers possess a top-5 defense against three-pointers.
33.) Vermont was tied for first place in the country in preventing opponents from grabbing offensive rebounds. That will be useful against Florida State, which has one of the tallest frontcourts in the tournament.
34.) Three brothers from Evansville, Indiana (Ernie, Everett, and Robin Duncan) all play for Vermont. They are the first trio of brothers to all play on the same team, at the same time, since 1977.
35.) Expect a fast-paced game if St. John’s advances to play Buffalo. These teams get their shots up in a hurry and both average under 15.5 seconds per possession.
36.) In each of the last 8 tournaments, one (and only one) First Four team has advanced to the 2nd round. In 7 of the last 8 years, the winner of the Wednesday night game has been the lucky team. This year’s tournament pits St. John’s against Arizona State in the Wednesday night tilt.
37.) Texas Tech ranks 4th in the country in points allowed and has the top-rated defense according to KenPom’s defensive efficiency ratings. However, their mediocre offense (157th in PPG) could do them in as the tournament progresses. They could meet their polar opposite in the 2nd round, as Buffalo ranks in the top 5 in points per game, but is only 161st in points allowed.
38.) Nevada is the most experienced team in the tournament. The Wolf Pack bring back each of their top three scorers from last season’s Sweet Sixteen team.
39.) When Nevada faces Florida, it will be interesting to see which team dictates the flow of the game. The Wolf Pack get their shots up quickly and hardly turn the ball over, while the Gators play at a much slower tempo (#346 in the country) and are excellent at forcing turnovers.
40.) Michigan relies heavily on its starting 5, as they have played more than 80% of the team’s minutes this season. If someone gets in foul trouble, the Wolverines could be on upset alert. That is especially true against a well-rounded Montana team that boasts three players who average 15 or more points per game.
41.) Virginia plays at the slowest tempo in the country, averaging only 59.3 possessions per 40 minutes. However, after adjusting for this, they rank in the top 5 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
42.) If the game between Mississippi and Oklahoma goes down to the wire, stick with the Rebels. Mississippi is the best free throw shooting team in the tournament, while the Sooners shoot almost 10% worse from the line.
43.) On March 22, 2014, Wisconsin knocked Oregon out of the NCAA Tournament. Exactly 1 year later, the Badgers eliminated the Ducks again. This year, the teams will face off for the third time. The date? March 22.
44.) Wisconsin brings back 75.4% of its minutes from last year, the highest rate of any team from the Big 10. Ethan Happ and company may be able to exploit an Oregon team that ranks outside the top 300 in experience.
45.) Don’t expect many points in the Kansas State – UC Irvine game, as both teams rank in the top 20 in the country in fewest points allowed.
46.) Villanova is the only team in the tournament that took more than half of its shots from beyond the arc. Since the Wildcats rely so heavily on the three, St. Mary’s might not be a good opening round matchup for them. The Gaels force their opponents to take lots of two-pointers and have only allowed opponents to score 25% of their points from beyond the arc.
47.) No defending champion has made it past the Sweet Sixteen since Florida in 2007. Villanova could be in trouble against St. Mary’s, the best 11-seed in the tournament, especially since 11-seeds have a winning record (21-19) against 6-seeds over the last 10 seasons. As HSAC recently explored, there does not seem to be a significant difference between the efficiency ratings of 6- and 11-seeds.
48.) Old Dominion relies heavily on Ahmad Caver, who has played 94% of available minutes this season.
49.) Be careful picking Purdue to go deep into this tournament. Head coach Matt Painter has been to 11 different tournaments and never made it past the Sweet Sixteen.
50.) A team seeded seventh or lower has made the Final Four in 6 straight seasons. One Cinderella to keep an eye on may be 7th-seeded Cincinnati, which boasts one of the top defenses in the country. In addition, if the Bearcats make it past Iowa, they would most likely face Tennessee, the lowest-ranked 2-seed in the tournament, in the next round.
51.) The selection committee did a favor for Cincinnati, giving them the opportunity to reach the Final Four without traveling far (1st weekend – Columbus, 2nd weekend – Louisville). This is especially beneficial for the Bearcats, whose 49-3 home record over the last 3 years is the best of any major conference team.
52.) According to Sports-Reference’s Simple Rating System, this is only the 2nd year since 1949 (when Sports-Reference started tracking SRS) that Colgate has had an above-average team. In addition, this is the first time in 119 years that the Raiders have won 20 games in a season.
53.) Over the last 10 years, the 2-15 matchup is the highest scoring first round matchup. In these games, the teams have combined to score 141.35 points per game. One game that could highlight this trend is Tennessee–Colgate, which features 2 of the top 20 teams in the country in effective field goal percentage.
54.) UNC coach Roy Williams has been to the NCAA Tournament 28 times in his career and has gone 28-0 in the first round. In addition, at 16-0, the Tar Heels are the only team since 2000 to have played at least 4 first round games without a loss.
55.) Mike Hopkins has brought the famous zone defense from Syracuse to Washington, and the Huskies have not disappointed. They force turnovers on almost 25% of opponents’ possessions, good for 4th in the nation.
56.) Of the teams who have played at least 25 NCAA Tournament games, Utah State has the worst all-time record, going 6-22 in the Big Dance.
57.) Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, Auburn has never lost in the opening round. In contrast, New Mexico State has been bounced in the first round in each of its last 10 March Madness appearances.
58.) The last time Kansas wasn’t a top-3 seed was 2006, when this season’s leading scorer Dedric Lawson was 8 years old. That year, they were a 4-seed and were eliminated in the first round.
59.) Kansas was a perfect 16-0 at home this season, but was only 9-9 away from Allen Fieldhouse. Luckily for the Jayhawks, their potential Sweet 16 and Elite 8 games would be in Kansas City, only 45 minutes from campus.
60.) Since the beginning of March, Kansas has ranked 63rd in adjusted efficiency. That’s more than 20 spots lower than the Jayhawks’ first round opponent, Northeastern.
61.) Northeastern hasn’t won in the NCAA Tournament since Jim Calhoun led them to a play-in game victory in 1984. However, this might be the year they end the drought, as the sharp-shooting Huskies are the only team in the field to rank in the top 20 in both 2-point and 3-point field goal percentage.
62.) Ohio State is a perfect 6-0 all-time against Iowa State, including March Madness wins in both 1985 and 2013.
63.) With their win over Kansas, the Iowa State Cyclones became the lowest-seeded team to ever win the Big 12 Tournament. Nevertheless, surprise conference tournament winners don’t always carry that momentum into March.
64.) In 2015, 14th-seeded Georgia State upset a 3-seed from Texas. As they try to replicate that Cinderella story, they are following a different formula this year. While the 2015 edition of the Panthers relied heavily on two-pointers, this year’s team is one of the best in the tournament at knocking down threes.
65.) However, that might not be the way to beat Houston, as the Cougars have the #2 three-point defense in the country.
66.) Despite having the Big East’s tallest frontcourt, Seton Hall saw nearly 12% of its two-pointers blocked, last in the conference.
67.) Wofford’s Fletcher Magee is one of only 2 players in NCAA history to make 500+ three-pointers. In addition, Storm Murphy is the only qualifying player in the tournament to knock down more than half of his three-point attempts. That could be beneficial against potential 2nd-round opponent Kentucky, which has one of the worst three-point defenses in the tournament.
68.) A year after trotting out the least-experienced team ever in KenPom’s dataset, Kentucky is again the youngest team in the field. The average Wildcat has been in college for only 0.58 years.
Thanks to kenpom.com, sports-reference.com/cbb, and ncaa.com for being such valuable resources for many of these statistics.