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Eliminating Pretenders 2023 NCAA March Madness Tournament

John Alesia
John Alesia

The NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament has returned, and as usual, I'll provide five ways to eliminate some top seeds from your list. To simplify the process of picking potential final four teams and champions, I prefer eliminating teams from consideration to narrow down my choices. We'll be using the following criteria to accomplish this task:

1. Preseason AP Rankings vs. Current Rankings
2. 3-Point Shooting
3. Points Per Game
4. Coaches Success
5. Scoring Margin

1. Pre Season AP Rankings can predict tournament success

The following comes from a Nate Silver article in the NY Times before the 2011 tournament.

Since the tournament field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, there have been 41 cases in which a school that was unranked to start the season entered the tournament ranked in the AP top 10 (excluding a couple of cases where the team was ineligible for tournament play). These schools, as you might expect, were seeded highly: eight were No. 1 seeds and another 17 were seeded No. 2.

Absolutely none of these teams have made the Final Four, however: they are 0-for-41. Instead, they have been the victims of some notorious upsets, like the No. 2-seeded South Carolina Gamecocks losing — by 13 points! — to the No. 15 seed Coppin State in the opening Round of the 1997 tournament, and the No. 3 seed Wisconsin Badgers being one of Davidson's victims in 2008. Three of the No. 1 seeds that fit this description — Michigan in 1985, St. John's in 1986, and Cincinnati in 2002 — lost in the Round of 32.

Since this article, I have kept track of all qualifying teams.

2011 Notre Dame (2) lost in 2nd Round to Florida
2012 Florida State (3) lost in 2nd Round to Cincinnati
2013 Georgetown (2) lost in 1st Round to Florida GC
2013 Miami (2) lost in 3rd Round to Marquette
2014 Villanova (1) lost in 2nd Round to Uconn
2014 Iowa St (3) lost in 3rd Round to Uconn
2015 Maryland(4) lost in 3rd Round to Kentucky
2015 N. Iowa (5) lost in 3rd Round to Louisville
2016. Xavier (2) lost in 2nd Round to Wisconsin
2016. Oregon (1) lost in Elite 8 to Oklahoma
2016. West Virginia (3) lost in 1st Round to Stephen F. Austin
2016. Miami (3) lost in 3rd Round to Villanova
2017. Baylor (3) lost in the 3rd Round to South Carolina
2018. Virginia (1) lost to 16th seed UMBC in its first game
2018. Michigan (3) lost in the championship game
2019. Texas Tech (3) lost in the championship game
2021. Arkansas (3) lost in Elite 8
2021. Alabama (2) Lost in Sweet 16
2022. Arizona (1) Lost in Sweet 16

The record is now 2-58 for these teams to reach the Final 4!!!

Here are the preseason rankings for 2022-23

Current Teams in the top 10 not ranked in the preseason
(1E) Purdue
(2E) Marquette
- added after original post. UCONN snuck into the top 10 in the last poll.

2. 3 Point Shooting

In both the NBA and college basketball, the significance of the 3-point shot has increased significantly.

Since 2007, no team that has shot less than 30% from beyond the arc has been able to secure a victory in the tournament. Presently, two teams have a 3-point shooting percentage below 30%.

(16MW) Texas Southern 28.7%
(11MW) Mississippi St 26.6%

Mississippi State currently holds the position of the country's worst 3-point shooting team.

Since 2007, only seven teams that have shot below 33% from beyond the arc have been able to reach the Elite 8. Typically, teams that don't perform well in 3-point shooting tend to defend the 3-point line effectively. In 2012, Louisville and Ohio State advanced to the Final 4 despite having a 3-point shooting percentage under 33%, but they compensated by defending the 3-point line as well as or better than they shot it. Louisville gave up 30.3% from 3, and Ohio State conceded 32.5%. In 2015, Kentucky had a 3-point shooting percentage under 33%, but they defended the 3-point line effectively at 32.5%. In 2016, North Carolina deviated from this trend slightly with a poor 3-point shooting team that gave up 36% from 3. In 2019, Duke, a 1 seed, lost in the Elite 8 with a 3-point shooting percentage of 30.8% coming into the tournament. However, they were one of the best teams in the nation at defending the 3, conceding only 30%. Last season, Arkansas made it to the Elite 8, shooting 30.7% from beyond the arc coming into the tournament while giving up 3-pointers at a 32.4% rate.

Here's a list of teams that one should approach with caution:

(4E) Tennessee: 32.9%
(7MW) Texas A&M: 32.8%
(1E) Purdue: 32.6%
(7W) Northwestern: 32.1%
(14E) Montana State: 32%
(8W) Arkansas: 31.7%
(9MW) Auburn: 31.4%
(11W) Arizona State: 31.4%
(9W) Illinois: 30.9%
(6W) TCU: 30.6%

When compiling this list, I prefer to check if any of the teams are capable of defending the 3-point line at an elite level. Here are the teams from the aforementioned list that concede a lower percentage than they shoot:

Tennessee: 26.2% (Best in the nation)
Texas A&M: 32.2%
Purdue: 31.4%
Arkansas: 30.6%
Auburn: 28.8%
TCU: 30.4%

3. Points Per Game

While playing defense is crucial, it's also important to keep up with strong offensive teams during the tournament.

A total of 88 teams, seeded 1-4, have scored 73 or fewer points per game (PPG) coming into the tournament. Out of those, 14 teams made it to the final 4, and Virginia became the first champion from this group in 2019.

Here are the PPG stats of 1-5 seeded teams (including the 5's just for reference):

The teams coming up short are
(4E) Tennessee
(4S) Virginia

(5E) Duke
(5W) St. Mary's
(5S) San Diego St.

4. Coaches Success

When it comes to the tournament, coaches play a vital role in the success of their teams. Exceptional coaches often exceed expectations, as stated by Pete from Bracket Science.

Using tourney appearances and Elite Eight trips, I've come up with the following taxonomy of coaching types in the tourney:
Rookies – making their first trip to the tourney
Novices – 2-5 tourney trips with no Elite Eight runs
Prodigies – 2-5 tourney trips with at least one Elite Eight run
Snake-bit – more than five trips with no Elite Eight runs
Flashes – more than five trips with one Elite Eight run
Destined – 6-10 trips with more than one Elite Eight run
Veterans – more than 10 trips with 2-4 Elite Eight runs
Legends – more than 10 trips with more than four Elite Eight runs

I'm focusing this analysis on one through six seeds, the seeds most likely to advance in the dance. A standard PASE (Performance above seed expectation) analysis on the eight classes of coaches turned up these results:

According to the chart, coaches labeled as "snakebit" should be avoided if you want to pick teams that will make a deep run in the tournament. For instance, in 2022, 5th-seeded St. Mary's won its opening game but lost in the following round to UCLA, while 5th-seeded Iowa was upset by Richmond in its first game.

This year, there are two teams seeded 1-6 that has a coach labeled as "snakebit."

(5W) St. Mary's - Randy Bennett 8 trips to the tournament with no Elite 8 appearances.
(6S) Creighton - Greg McDermott 12 trips to the tournament with no Elite 8 appearances
Alabama would be under novice. Not great but not as bad as Snakebit and Rookies

Another group of coaches that tends to underperform similarly to "Snake Bit" coaches are the "Rookies," referring to coaches who are making their debut in the tournament. In the previous season, for example, 1st-seeded Arizona lost in the Sweet 16, 3rd-seeded Texas Tech lost in the Sweet 16, and 6th-seeded Colorado St. was upset in the first round. This year, there are two coaches fitting that description.

(3E) Kansas St - Jerome Tang
(5E) Duke - Jon Scheyer

The group of coaches known as "Legends" tends to exceed their seed expectations more than any other group. Last season, for instance, Kansas had a "Legend" coach and won the championship, while Villanova made it to the Final 4. This year, the teams with a "Legend" coach are:

(1MW) Kansas - Bill Self
*(1MW) Houston - Kelvin Sampson (With 4 E8 trips he is a Veteran not Legend)
*(3W) Gonzaga - Mark Few (With 4 E8 trips he is a Veteran not Legend)
(6E) Kentucky - John Calipari

*edited March 13 10:11 AM ET

5. Scoring Margin

According to the now-defunct Bracket Science's PASE (Performance Above Seed Expectations) stat, scoring margin is the number one determinant for outperforming seed expectations.

Out of 137 teams that have been a 1-4 seed and have a 15+ scoring margin going into the tournament, 55 have made the final 4 (40.1%) and 20 have won the championship (14.6%), including three of the last four champions.

This season, only one team qualifies:
(1W) Houston - 19.4

Out of 172 teams that have received a 1-4 seed and have a scoring margin under 10, only 2 have won the championship and 12 have gone to the final 4.

In the 2022 season, the following 1-4 seed teams with a scoring margin under 10 had the following results:
(2) Villanova - Final 4
(3) Wisconsin - Lost in Round of 32
(4) Arkansas - Lost in Elite 8
(4) Illinois - Lost in Round of 32
(4) Providence - Lost in Sweet 16.

Here are the 1-4 seed teams with a scoring margin under 10 this season:
(1W) Kansas - 7
(2E) Marquette - 9.4
(3E) Kansas St - 6.5
(3S) Baylor - 6.9
(3MW) Xavier - 7.4
(4S) Virginia - 7.6
(4MW) Indiana - 6.6


Since 1985, only three teams seeded higher than 4 have become champions, so it's best to exclude all teams seeded above 4 from championship consideration.

Based on this criterion, the following top 4 seeds should be eliminated from championship contention:

Region - Team, the corresponding number to the above stat that qualifies them

1 Seeds
East - Purdue, 1/2 (but they defend the 3 well)
West - Kansas, 5

2 Seeds
East - Marquette, 1/5

3 Seeds
East - Kansas St, 4/5
South - Baylor 5
Midwest - Xavier 5

4 Seeds
South - Virginia 5
Midwest - Indiana 5
East - Tennessee 2 (but they defend the 3 well)
West - UCONN 1

The Contenders

No Top 4 Seeds remain

(1) Houston
(2) Texas

(2) UCLA
(3) Gonzaga

(1) Alabama
(2) Arizona

In the next article, we will discuss game theory and how we can use this information to make the most advantageous bracket selections.

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