HSAC’s 68 Facts: March Madness 2021

by Danny Blumenthal

After a year without March Madness, the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective is excited to bring back our highly-anticipated 68 March Madness Facts article for the 2021 edition of the tournament. Here are some insights on every team in the field to help you build an even stronger bracket.

Overall Trends

  1. Champions typically dominate the regular season, as 28 of the last 30 tournament winners had an average margin of victory of 10 or more. For the third year in a row, Gonzaga led the country in margin of victory (+23), but other contenders, such as Ohio State, Virginia, Villanova, and Alabama, only won their games by single-digits.
  2. The best teams have ice in their veins and can knock down free throws under pressure. Five of the past 10 NCAA champions ranked in the top 20 in free throw percentage, and none of them fell outside the top 200. That’s a problem for top seeds Baylor (#226 in free throw percentage) and Illinois (#235), which struggled at the line this year.
  3. Teams that were outside of the Top 25 to start the season typically underperform in the tournament. Be wary of picking Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma State, and Purdue to go deep in your bracket. 
  4. A team seeded 4th or worse has made the Final Four in each of the last 10 seasons. Potential 2021 Cinderellas include Loyola Chicago (#8 seed, but #9 overall per KenPom), Wisconsin (#9 seed, but #10 overall per KenPom), and USC (#6 seed, but #14 per KenPom).
  5. First round matchups are remarkably consistent in terms of scoring, with 7 of the 8 averaging between 138 and 141 total points over the last 10 years. The one exception? Matchups pitting 6-seeds vs. 11-seeds are much lower scoring, with the two teams combining to put up 131.4 points per game.

West Region

  1. Give Gonzaga a pass to the second weekend. The Zags are the only team to make the Sweet Sixteen in each of the last five NCAA tournaments.
  2. Both Norfolk State and Appalachian State play at some of the slowest tempos in the country, which is quite different from Gonzaga – the nation’s 4th fastest team.
  3. No team in the SEC committed more fouls this year than Missouri. The Tigers could be in trouble against Austin Reaves and Oklahoma, as only one player (LSU‘s Cameron Thomas) has matched Reaves’ efficiency and volume at the free throw line.
  4. Oklahoma has won NCAA Tournament games at nine different seeds, but has never done so as an 8-seed.
  5. Over the last ten years, no team has shot better from beyond the arc than the Creighton Blue Jays (38.5%). Unfortunately though, UC Santa Barbara may be their kryptonite. The Gauchos concede the lowest share of three-pointers of any team in the field.
  6. No defending champion has made it past the Sweet Sixteen since Florida in 2007. In order to break the curse this year, Virginia would likely need to knock off #1 overall seed Gonzaga, which could be a tall task.
  7. The last time Ohio made the tournament, they were a #13 seed and they knocked off Michigan and South Florida on their way to the Sweet Sixteen. This year’s squad is also seeded 13th, and it boasts an even better KenPom efficiency margin than last time.
  8. USC‘s Evan Mobley is averaging 16.8 points per game, 8.6 rebounds per game, and 3.0 blocks per game. Over the last 25 years, only two other freshmen (Greg Oden and Eddie Griffin) have put up those numbers.
  9. While Drake wowed fans in reeling off 18 straight wins to open up the season, it may have been too good to be true. No team in the tournament played an easier non-conference schedule this year than the Bulldogs.
  10. Wichita State struggles to keep teams off the offensive glass, allowing 12.4 offensive rebounds per game. Should the Shockers advance out of the First Four, they could be in trouble against USC, which led the Pac-12 in offensive rebounding.
  11. Check yourself before picking Kansas to make a deep run this year. The Jayhawks have underperformed their seed in 6 of the last 7 tournaments. 
  12. Eastern Washington is much more of a 1st-half team (#6 in 1st half PPG) than a 2nd-half team (#96 in 2nd half PPG). They’ll need a fast start if they want to upset Kansas.
  13. In contrast to Bill Self’s struggles against expectations, only two active coaches have out-performed their seeds more than Dana Altman since he arrived at Oregon.
  14. VCU blocks just under 10% of opponents’ shots, the 2nd-highest rate in the tournament. That could be a problem for Oregon, as the Ducks rank only 281st in effective height.
  15. Few teams are as unselfish as Iowa, which led the country in assists this year. While those extra passes can cause trouble against an intense defense (like potential 2nd-round opponent VCU), the Hawkeyes should be okay against a Grand Canyon team which ranks only 320th in turnovers forced.

East Region

  1. Michigan is quite balanced, ranking 6th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 7th in adjusted defensive efficiency. They join Gonzaga and Illinois as the only teams to rank in the top 10 in both metrics.
  2. No team scores a lower share of its points from beyond the arc than Texas Southern. That’s bad news for the Tigers, as even if they win their First Four matchup, they will face Michigan and the Wolverines’ 3rd-ranked two-point defense.
  3. The Northeast Conference (0-31) is the only conference to never have a team win in the Round of 64. This year, Mount St. Mary’s will try to snap the streak.
  4. LSU vs. St. Bonaventure is a match-up of strength vs. strength. LSU ranks #6 in the country in points per game, while the Bonnies have the nation’s 3rd-best scoring defense.
  5. Georgetown led the Big East in rebounding this year, grabbing more than 40 rebounds per game. This talent on the glass could cause trouble for Colorado, as the Buffaloes only rank 191st this year.
  6. Per Sports-Reference’s Simple Rating System (SRS) rankings, this has been the best season in the 118-year history of Colorado Buffaloes men’s basketball.
  7. While Florida State is the tallest team in the field, they struggle to keep teams off the offensive glass. The team ranked 320th in the nation in offensive rebounds allowed.
  8. Wes Miller has guided UNC Greensboro to five straight seasons of over 20 wins. Before his arrival, the Spartans had only done this once at the Division I level.
  9. While 6-seeds would seem to have an advantage over 11-seeds, HSAC has found that there is no significant difference in the average efficiency ratings of these teams. This year, BYU (#24) is KenPom’s lowest-rated 6-seed. 
  10. Look for a lot of bricked jumpers in the First Four game between UCLA and Michigan State. Per barttorvik.com, no two teams in the tournament relied more on mid-range shots than these squads.
  11. No matter which team advances to face BYU, they will have fallen right into the Cougars’ trap. No team in the entire country forced opposing offenses to take a higher share of their shots from mid-range than BYU.
  12. No team has won more games as a 5-seed or lower (24) than Michigan State.
  13. Look for Texas to rock the rim early and often in the opening round. No team dunked more than the Longhorns this year, and they will be facing the shortest team in the field in Abilene Christian.  
  14. Although Texas is the 3-seed in the East, advanced metrics don’t rate them as highly. In fact, KenPom only placed Texas as the ninth-best team in the region, behind teams like #6 BYU, #7 UCONN, and #9 St. Bonaventure.
  15. Abilene Christian excels at disrupting opposing offenses, forcing 19.1 turnovers per game – the most in the nation. That could come in handy against a sloppy Texas Longhorns team which ranked only 246th in the country in avoiding turnovers. 
  16. UCONN is the only  #7 seed to ever make (and win) the national championship. And just like they were for their 2014 title run, the Huskies are a 7-seed in the East region this year.
  17. UCONN and Maryland are quite different in terms of offensive rebounding. While the Huskies rank in the top 10 in this category, Maryland sits 327th in the country.
  18. No team has played more Round of 64 games without a win than Iona (10). This might not be the year for Iona though, since they are the sloppiest team in the tournament and Alabama led the SEC in steals.
  19. Alabama struggled at the rim this season, and no tournament team saw more shots blocked than the Crimson Tide. If both Alabama and UCONN win their opening games, Alabama could be on upset alert against the Huskies – the best blocking team in the field.

South Region

  1. Baylor forces turnovers at the 3rd-highest rate of any team in the field. However, if Wisconsin advances to the 2nd round, they could be well-prepared for the Bears. No team turns the ball over less than the Badgers. 
  2. Hartford is one of two teams (along with Grand Canyon) to be making its NCAA Tournament debut this year. According to Sports-Reference’s SRS, the Hawks have never been an above-average team in school history.
  3. UNC is the least experienced team in the field. Of all the teams with which to be paired, the Tar Heels probably did not want to get Wisconsin, whose five leading scorers are all seniors.
  4. In spite of Virginia’s incredible turnaround between 2018 disappointment and 2019 success, teams that fall to Cinderella don’t always learn their lesson the following year. Therefore, be wary of choosing a team like Wisconsin just because they’re “due” to bounce back from an upset. 
  5. Villanova is limping into the tournament. Star Collin Gillespie has been knocked out of commission, and the team’s adjusted offensive efficiency has fallen by 14 points over the last month — dead last in the country. 
  6. On average, Winthrop has lost its NCAA Tournament games by 17.3 points per game, the widest average margin of any team with at least 10 games played.
  7. One common claim is that the best way for an underdog to boost their odds of winning is to play slow and minimize the number of possessions in the game. However, HSAC research has found that the opposite is actually true. Surprisingly, successful underdogs typically play faster than others. This is good news for Winthrop, which boasts the 3rd-fastest adjusted tempo in the tournament. 
  8. While fans marvel at Roy Williams’ incredible 29-0 record in the first round, Purdue‘s Matt Painter has put together a strong first round resume as well. He is 13-2 in the Round of 64, and his only two losses came in overtime.
  9. Don’t expect much scoring when Purdue plays North Texas. Both of these teams rank in the bottom 25 in the nation in terms of tempo.
  10. Texas Tech has the shortest frontcourt of any team in the field. As the tournament’s leader in blocks and the only tournament player to average a double-double this year, Utah State‘s Neemias Queta could feast on the Red Raiders’ front line.
  11. Utah State is 6-23 all-time in the tournament, the worst record of any team which has played at least 25 games.
  12. Arkansas could be on upset alert in a loaded South region. The Razorbacks are only the 6th-best team in the South according to KenPom, and the team faces the best 14-seed in Colgate.
  13. Colgate excels around the three-point line. They rank #3 in the country in three-point percentage and #1 overall in three-point defense.
  14. While Florida turns the ball over at one of the highest rates in the tournament, Gator fans shouldn’t be too worried about being drawn with Virginia Tech. The Hokies rank only 320th in steals per game.
  15. No team has ever made the national title game while finishing outside the top 75 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency, so be careful choosing Ohio State (#79) to go all the way.
  16. Some experts argue that adopting high-variance strategies, such as shooting often from three, can be valuable in March. No team epitomizes this more than Oral Roberts, which scores a higher percentage of its points from beyond the arc than any other team in the tournament. Nevertheless, previous HSAC research has found no major effect of three point volume or accuracy on upset probability.

Midwest Region

  1. The only games this year to open with a spread of at least 20 points were 1 vs. 16 matchups, such as Illinois vs. Drexel. In each of the last 10 years, there have been at least three 20+ point wins by non-1-seeds, so look out for more blowouts than predicted.
  2. Georgia Tech is the most experienced team in the field, with 4 seniors among their top 5 scorers. However, experience in the postseason can be even more valuable, and Georgia Tech’s opponent, Loyola Chicago, features a pair of seniors who went to the Final Four as freshmen. 
  3. Georgia Tech is much more of a 2nd half team than a 1st half team. The Yellow Jackets increase their scoring by nearly 20% after the break — the largest increase of any team in the field.
  4. While Tennessee boasts the #4 adjusted defensive efficiency, they are only 71st on offense. Be careful choosing the Volunteers to advance far in the tournament, since compared to their seed expectation, teams which are balanced tend to do better than those which are unbalanced.
  5. Oregon State shocked everyone by winning the Pac-12 tournament as a 5-seed. Nevertheless, fans shouldn’t fall for the Beavers’ momentum, since HSAC has found that surprise conference tournament winners don’t outperform expectations at the national level. 
  6. Oklahoma State generated 45.7% of its offense at the rim, the highest in the Big 12. That could pose a problem for Liberty, one of the shortest teams in the field.
  7. Liberty ranked 345th in the nation in steals this year.
  8. While Jim Boeheim has a reputation as a master of March, fans should hesitate to assume that his vast experience advantage over San Diego State‘s Brian Dutcher (60 NCAA Tournament wins to 0) will mean that Syracuse can skate by the Aztecs. HSAC has found that experienced coaches don’t elevate their teams’ performance in the tournament any more than in the regular season
  9. West Virginia is the best team in the tournament at getting to the free throw line. However, few teams are better fit to slow them down than Morehead State. The Eagles average the fourth-fewest personal fouls of any tournament team. 
  10. While almost everyone is thankful to put 2020 in the past, few teams were as happy to turn the page as Morehead State. In 2021, the Eagles won 19 of 20 games, elevated their three-point percentage by almost 10%, and dropped their turnover percentage by more than 8% — the largest changes in the field.
  11. Should the ClemsonRutgers game come down to the wire, look for Clemson to pull out the win. No team made a lower percentage of its free throws this year (63%) than Rutgers. 
  12. Cleveland State has been quite lucky this year, going 6-1 in games decided by five or fewer points, and outperforming expectations by nearly 20%. For context, no team has ended a season as lucky as the Vikings have been since 2008.
  13. Houston‘s 8th-rated offense is driven by their ability on the offensive glass. Only UNC grabbed more offensive rebounds than the Cougars this year.

Thank you to Sports-Reference, KenPom, TeamRankings, and Barttorvik.com for being such valuable resources for many of these facts and figures.

Editor’s Note: If you have any questions about this article (or March Madness in general), please feel free to reach out to HSAC by email – harvardsportsanalysis@gmail.com – or on Twitter @Harvard_Sports. Enjoy the tournament!

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