Evaluating Regular Season Indicators of Final Four Success

Virginia celebrates after winning the 2019 NCAA Basketball Tournament. Credit: Getty Images

The Final Four is college basketball’s greatest stage. Every year, hundreds of teams compete for the chance to reach it. It’s where the national spotlight finally shines bright after months of regular season and postseason play. Ask any player, coach, or fan and they’ll tell you that reaching that vaunted perch atop the college basketball world is their ultimate dream. So, what baseline factors indicate deep tournament runs? Let’s try to answer that question using basic thresholds.

For this article, I will be evaluating teams using statistics from statistician Bart Torvik and his website. His methods have merit, and to further look into how he calculates T-Rank (his method of evaluating how efficient teams are), please check out this blog post. To base my claims, I’ll be looking at Final Four teams from 2008 to 2019. This gives us 48 teams to observe, which is a pretty solid sample size and recent enough that our observations should have credit going forward. Additionally, I am looking at the regular season sample. Postseason statistics are irrelevant because we are trying to predict potential Final Four teams based on the information we have.

Indicator #1: A Top-50 Rating in Overall Efficiency

This is a fairly simple factor to understand. If a team is good at outscoring its opponents in the regular season, then it is more likely to outscore opponents in the postseason. 46 of the last 48 Final Four teams have met this mark. The teams that didn’t were 2018 Loyola-Chicago (61st) and 2011 VCU (89th). That’s understandable, as each of those teams were considered underdogs even in their Round of 32 games. Even then, other unlikely Final Four teams met this requirement. 2011 Butler (8 seed), 2017 South Carolina (7 seed), 2013 Wichita State (9 seed), 2016 Syracuse (10 seed), 2015 Michigan State (7 seed), 2014 UConn (7 seed), and 2014 Kentucky (8 seed) all could be considered upsets to win their respective regions, and yet they all met this indicator.

Indicator #2: A Top-75 Rating in Defensive Efficiency

Once again, this indicator is fairly straightforward but it also speaks to the importance of a well-balanced team. Simply put, your team just isn’t going to win four straight games in March if the team struggles defensively. Very few college offenses can maintain success for four straight games against high-level defenses, so a competent defense is needed just for the team to have a chance at a Final Four run. 47 of the last 48 Final Four teams have met this requirement. 2011 VCU remains the lone outlier, as they were ranked 137th heading into the tournament. It’s still a mystery as to how they advanced so deep that year.

Indicator #3: A Top-175 Rank in Effective Field Goal Percentage

Teams that make shots generally do better than teams that don’t. That’s what this indicator means, essentially. 45 of the last 48 Final Four teams have met this expectation. 2011 UConn (211th), 2013 Louisville (222nd), and 2017 South Carolina (314th) fell bellow that line. Louisville and South Carolina both had top-3 defenses in their respective seasons, which explains why they were able to maintain success. Generally, a top-3 defense will bail you out of most offensive shortcomings. The UConn team simply was an outlier.

Additionally, the team must actually qualify for the NCAA Tournament. Although it sounds implied, there have been several teams over the last decade that have met all of these requirements yet have not been selected to play in the Tournament for a variety of reasons (postseason ban, too many losses, weak strength of schedule, etc). In a future article, I’ll dive into more indicators of Final Four success.

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