by Evelyn Tjoa, Elliot Chin, and Nick Lopez
As the big dance approaches, the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective is back with our annual article to prepare you for the madness. Here are 68 statistics and facts to help you fill out your bracket.
- 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 fourth year in a row, Gonzaga led the country in scoring margin (+22), but other contenders, such as Villanova, Arkansas, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Providence have average margins below 10.
- Although the Big 10 is the conference with the most teams in the tournament, a Big 10 school has not won the championship since 2000. This year, Wisconsin and Purdue, both 3 seeds, have the best opportunity to buck that trend.
- Expect variance: a team seeded 4th or worse has made the Final Four in each of the last 11 seasons. UCLA, Auburn, and Loyola-Chicago, the three most recent teams to do so, are all returning to the dance this year.
- To win your bracket pool, your strategy should depend on the pool size. If you’re competing with just a few friends, we recommend Gonzaga or Kansas. In a pool with a small double digit number of entries, we recommend a less popular pick such as Auburn or Villanova. In a huge pool? No. 3 seeds and below are on the table.
- Consider the strategy of picking conferences, not teams. Because schools play so many intra-conference games, conference teams can be under- or over-rated together. Picking same-conference teams to succeed correlates risk. Just last year, the Pac-12 dramatically overperformed with a 72.2% win percentage and Oregon State and UCLA making deep runs.
- Upsets are common, but which ones are the most likely? 538 predicts Memphis, TCU, and Michigan to all beat their higher-seeded first-round opponents.
- Another way to look at upsets is by historical frequency based on seeds. No. 11 seeds make the second round 38% of the time, No, 12 seeds 35% of the time, and No. 13 seeds 22% of the time. This steep drop off at 13 is because No. 12 seeds are usually at-large teams and still quite strong. This year, Indiana/Wyoming are the last at-large teams, while Richmond, UAB, and New Mexico State are the top auto qualifiers.
- Don’t count on an all No. 1 seed Final Four; this has only happened once in all of tournament history. That was in 2008, with Kansas, Memphis, UCLA, and UNC.
- No No. 5 seed has ever won the championship. Can Houston, Iowa, UConn, or Saint Mary’s be the first?
- Believe in momentum? South Dakota State has won 21 straight, Murray State 20, Colgate 15, Georgia State 10, and Longwood 8.
- Believe in vengeance? Duke, Arkansas, Alabama, Baylor, Auburn, Wisconsin, Providence, and Illinois are all coming off of disappointing conference-tournament upsets.
- Kansas and Kentucky are in a neck-and-neck race to be the winningest program in college basketball history: Kentucky leads Kansas 2353-2351. If Kansas makes it three rounds further than Kentucky, they’ll take the lead.
- Akron, Villanova, Virginia Tech, Texas, and Saint Mary’s play at the slowests tempos in the tournament while Gonzaga, Arizona, Alabama, Marquette, and Arkansas play at some of the fastest. These schools are mostly separated in the bracket, but be prepared for a game of patience in Texas vs Virginia Tech.
- Do seeds really mean everything? Some underseeds include Houston (No. 5 seed, No. 4 overall per KenPom), San Francisco (No. 10 seed, No. 21 overall per KenPom), Virginia Tech (No. 11 seed, No. 23 overall per KenPom), and Loyola Chicago (No. 10 seed, No. 24 overall per KenPom).
- If you’re tired of standard AP, KenPom, and NET rankings, check out the Massey and Colley methods of ranking college basketball teams. Interesting anomalies include Tennessee at 4 and Providence at 8. To understand these ranking methods, check out a recent HSAC article about how they apply to the NFL here.
- If you prefer the NBA to CBB, make sure you watch the Elite Eight games. Players are drafted approximately 12 spots higher than expected if they appear in the Final Four that year.
- Gonzaga enters the tournament as a No. 1 seed for the 3rd year in a row, and for the 5th time in 9 tournaments. The Zags are also the most well-balanced team, ranking in the top 10 for both offensive and defensive efficiency according to KenPom.
- If there’s one way that Georgia State can beat the Zags, it will involve a lot of turnovers. The Panthers force over 16 turnovers per game, good for top-15 across the sport and top-3 in the tournament.
- In Mike Krzyzewski’s final season, Duke is packed with young talent and enters as one of the best scoring offenses in the field. To do well in the dance, they must maintain a sizable lead as they have struggled in close games. Indeed, over 87% of Duke’s conference wins have been by double-digits.
- UConn has won 3 championships in its last 10 appearances, and competitors should be wary of the team’s aggressiveness and height; they rank 2nd in blocks per game and 3rd in offensive rebounds per game. New Mexico State, however, will put up a fight: they record just 2 fewer total rebounds per game.
- If Vermont can play to their strengths—first in defensive rebounds—and hold off scoring inside the arc, Arkansas may be forced to shoot beyond the arc, a weak point for the Razorbacks who shoot threes for just 30.7%.
- Texas Tech is the best defensive team in the field but should be cautious when it comes to personal fouls, especially against a team like Montana State who is the best in the field at getting to the free-throw line.
- Alabama’s 19-13 record may not look impressive, but they have the experience in tough games that will matter in the tournament. They’ve played five games against AP top-5 teams, winning two, and boast the highest KenPom strength of schedule rating.
- Teams should avoid fouling Foster Loyer of Davidson; he shoots for 93.39% at the line, the best in the nation. His first round opponent, however, is likely aware of this: Loyer is a transfer from first-round matchup Michigan State.
- Boise State hasn’t had much luck in past tournaments, going 0-7 in March. However, they enter with their highest ever seed (No. 8) and are ranked 26th overall by KenPom.
- Memphis has one of the worst turnover rates in the country, giving up the ball on 22.9% of their possessions. On the other hand, Wisconsin, UCLA, Iowa, UMiami and Vermont all boast top 10 turnover rates.
- The Scarlet Knights of Rutgers have a seemingly underwhelming record of 18-14, but six of those wins were Quadrant 1 wins against notable teams like Purdue, Iowa, and Wisconsin.
- Notre Dame has made NCAA tournament appearances at seeds 1 through 10 and now records their first 11 seed. If they’re able to beat the Scarlet Knights in the First Four, they’ll look for a rematch against Alabama, having lost to them earlier this season by just 1 point.
- Consider watching Notre Dame vs Rutgers if you want to see a clean game. They combine for, on average, just 28.7 fouls per game. That’s well below the league average of 36.
- Cal State Fullerton and E.J. Anosike barely squeezed out the conference championship win against Long Beach State to secure the tournament bid. They will need to pull out all the stops and defend behind the arc to stay in the game against Blue-Blood Duke.
- To Arizona, which the team ranks 1st in assists, sharing is caring. Ranked 5th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 3rd overall per KenPom, taking this team down will be a tall feat (an average of 6’8 to be exact).
- Villanova boasts the best free throw percentage with 82.33%, crucial in close games. On the other hand, Boise State (#330), TCU (#315), Houston (#312), and Texas Southern (#308) struggle more at the line.
- Villanova relies largely on three-pointers to get points on the board, only making an average of 15.3 two-pointers per game. Michigan, on the other hand, relies more on Hunter Dickinson and scoring inside the paint.
- Delaware has never won a March Madness game. They’ll be looking to change that against the behemoth that is Villanova’s 67 tournament game wins.
- Houston is a well-balanced team ranking 11th in adjusted defensive efficiency and 10th in adjusted offensive efficiency per KenPom. However, they may encounter trouble later in the tournament as their record against Quadrant 1 teams is only 1-4.
- Offensively efficient (top-20 per KenPom) Colorado State will pose a challenge for the Wolverines, who tend to struggle in the 2nd-half defensively. Mountain West Conference Player of the Year, David Roddy, will play a big role for the Rams because of his versatility. However, if opponents are able to get him to the line, he’ll likely falter: his free-throw percentage is just 69.6%.
- Expect a slow but efficient game between Illinois and Chattanooga. They both rank in the bottom half of KenPom tempo rating, yet consistently put up point totals in the mid-70s.
- The past three times Seton Hall has been a #8 seed, they’ve bowed out in the second round. This pattern will likely continue unless they figure out a way to improve their field-goal percentage of 42.3% against offensive powerhouse Arizona.
- Loyola Chicago and Sister Jean return, looking for another Cinderella story. They have experience in taking out higher seeded teams and have a top-20 field goal percentage, a threat for 133rd ranked defense Ohio State.
- Michigan is the first team since 2001 to make the tournament with with less than four wins over 0.500 teams, and earned an arguably high seed (#11 seed). However, they had the 5th hardest schedule and KenPom ranks them above other South region competitors such as Seton Hall (#8 seed) and TCU (#9 seed).
- Houston vs. UAB will be a battle of strengths. The Blazers are top-10 in three-point percentage while the Cougars are top-10 in three-point defense.
- Longwood and Bryant make their NCAA tournament debuts, the former ranked 8th in three point accuracy (37.92%).
- If Wright State wants to make it past the First Four, they need to put a stop to Peter Kiss of Bryant who leads the nation in points per game with 25.1.
- Kansas makes its 32nd straight tournament appearance and will be the Midwest team to beat with star Ochai Agbaji, who shoots for 40.5% behind the arc and 54.2% inside.
- Opponents should keep an eye out for Walker Kessler of Auburn. He’s the only player in the nation to put up 2 triple-doubles and is a monster defender, averaging 4.5 blocks per game. That’s over 150% of the average number of blocks by the entire Jacksonville State team.
- Big 10 champion Iowa sports a top-2 offense, led by twin brothers Keegan and Kris Murray. They look to make the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1999.
- LSU enters the tournament ranked first in forced turnovers, steals, and three-point defense, making it hard for opponents to put it away. As a result, they also commit more fouls than all but one team in the bracket.
- A new Mobley brother leads USC this year, and the Trojans are tied for best at defending within the arc. Beyond the arc is a different story, however, and is a point of weakness to look out for.
- San Diego State has the best defense score-wise in the field, allowing only 57.7 points per game. This could make for a touch matchup for Creighton, coming in as one of the weaker scoring offenses.
- While Creighton typically relies on offense, this year they’re the second most efficient on defense while simultaneously holding their personal fouls to the lowest in the field.
- Iowa State vastly outperformed this season, starting off last in the Big 12. However, according to HSAC analysis, teams that outperform their preseason rank often underperform in the tournament. Wisconsin, too, is among this group.
- Although Richmond is less experienced when it comes to playing in March, the players themselves are quite experienced, some of them in their 5th and 6th years as Spiders. Opponents should be wary of Jacob Gilyard, the fifth-year recording 3.09 steals per game.
- Colgate is 2nd in the nation at shooting threes, sinking them 40.26% of the time. If able to make it past Wisconsin’s sound defense, they’ll encounter a strength vs. strength matchup against a top-25 three-point defense in LSU or Iowa State.
- Don’t underestimate South Dakota State. They rank first in the nation in effective field-goal percentage and three-point percentage with 59.7% and 44.2% respectively.
- Texas A&M Corpus Christi is ranked 15th in most forced turnovers per game, but also commits more fouls than any other team at the Dance. This makes for an interesting First Four matchup against Texas Southern who ranks 323rd in turnovers out of 350.
- The experienced Providence team is the luckiest team in the tournament according to KenPom ratings; their 25-5 record is significantly higher than predicted by statistical measures.
- No defending champion has made it past the Sweet Sixteen since Florida in 2007. As a 1-seed, Baylor is well-situated to break this curse but will likely have to face a strong UCLA team.
- Don’t think Baylor has what it takes? You’re not alone: 538 predicts Kentucky to make it out of the East, the only non-1 seed to do so.
- Oscar Tshiebwe of Kentucky is a player to watch throughout this tournament, averaging 17 pts and 15.2 rebounds per game.
- Purdue has one of the best offenses in the country, sinking in shots on 49.3% of attempts. However, the Boilermakers have struggled on the defensive end, ranked 100th in adjusted defensive efficiency by KenPom.
- Azar Swain will be a key player for Yale, averaging 19.2 points per game and posing a threat against a wobbly Purdue defense. Yale’s going to need his help, as it ranks 147 in KenPom against Purdue’s 14.
- Johnny Juzang and UCLA return after last year’s Final Four run better than ever. Opponents should watch out for the Bruins’ ability to put it away inside the arc with its tall and efficient roster.
- Blue-Blood UNC is a #8 seed for the second year in a row but looks to make it past the first round this time with the 2nd best free-throw percentage in the tournament and 4 players averaging over 13 points per game.
- The Hokies of Virginia Tech are running hot, having just walked away with their first ACC Championship win. The Texas Longhorns, on the other hand, have failed to make it past the second round in their last 8 tournament runs.
- Murray State and University of San Francisco (seeds 7 and 10 but ranked 21 and 22 in NET) are both promising Cinderella candidates. The only problem? They have to play each other in the first round.
- The Indiana Hoosiers’ 7th ranked two-point defense against Wyoming’s 54.5% inside the arc shooting will pose an interesting matchup. The momentum, however, is with Indiana: they are coming off a strong conference-tournament run while Wyoming has lost 5 of the last 9, all against unranked opponents.
- The Saint Peter’s Peacocks started the season 3-6 but have surged back with a recent 7-0 run to capture the MAAC title. Well-balanced, with no player averaging more than 11 points a game, Saint Peter likely lacks the star power to overpower Kentucky.
- Norfolk State is at a disadvantage in practically every stat coming into its matchup against Baylor, but they’ve been known to cause an upset. Norfolk defeated No. 2 Missouri as the No. 15 seed back in 2012.
Editor’s Note: If you have any questions about this article (or March Madness in general), please reach out on Twitter @Harvard_Sports. Enjoy the tournament!