Finding the Final 4 by Process of Elimination

By | March 13, 2017

There is absolutely nothing in sports that compares to the excitement of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. There isn’t an office in the U.S. without a bracket pool of some sorts.  Let me share with you some of my thoughts on this upcoming tournament and what you should be looking for in your brackets.

In picking potential final 4 teams and champions I find it much easier to eliminate teams from consideration to narrow down the selections. Here are some of the criteria I will use

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 A.P. 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 the teams qualifying

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 Virgina (3) lost in 1st round to Stephen F. Austin
2016. Miami (3) lost in 3rd round to Villanova

Here are the preseason rankings for 2016-17

Current Teams in the top 10 not ranked in the pre season
3E. Baylor

2. 3 Point Shooting

In this day and age of college basketball the three point shot has become extremely important.

Since 2007 no team who shoots under 30% from behind the arc has won a game in the tournament.

One team qualifies this season
16. Texas Southern

Since 2007 only 5 teams shooting under 33% from 3 have made the elite 8. If you are not going to shoot the 3 well then you need to defend it well. In 2012 both Louisville and Ohio State made it to the final 4 with sub 33% 3 point shooting but both defended the 3 as good or better than they shot it. Louisville gave up 30.3% from 3 and Ohio State 32.5%. 2015 Kentucky was sub 33% but they defended it well at 32.5%.  2016 North Carolina broje this trend a bit with a poor 3pt shooting team that gave up 36% from 3.

Teams to be leery of
14. Kent St. 31.4%
16. New Orleans 31.1%
16. Texas Southern 29.6%

None of these teams figure to threaten the trend.

3. Points Per Game

Playing defense is great but you will need to keep pace with great offenses come tournament time.

80 Teams have scored 73 PPG or less coming in to the tournament and had a 1-4 seed. 11 made the final 4 with no champions.

Last season there was a change in the rules. The shot clock went from 35 to 30 seconds. This has caused more possessions and as such higher scoring. The average ppg per team since 2010 are as follows

2010-11 : 68.28
2011-12 : 67.25
2012-13 : 66.72
2013-14 : 70.10
2014-15 : 66.76
2015-16 : 72.29
2016-17 : 72.57

Scoring has increased about 6.6%. If we add 6.6% of 73 to 73 we get an average ppg of 77.8. This is now the number needed to be exceeded in order to be a contender. To be conservative we will round down to 77.5 PPG. Last season Villanova was at 77.2 ppg entering the tournament. We want to be careful if teams are really close as this stat has obviously changed over time.

Here are the 1-4 Seeds and their PPG

3 teams fall under the threshold.
Baylor 71.6
Arizona 76.3
Butler 76.3

4. Coaches Success
Coaches are very important to the success of a team come tournament time. The great coaches tend to outperform their expectations.

This is taken from Pete at 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 analysis on the eight classes of coaches turned up these results:


As the chart shows the “snakebit” coaches are ones you will want to stay away from picking to make a deep run.

This years teams with Snake Bit coaches with a 1-6 seed are:

4. Purdue
3. Florida St
6. Creighton
6. Maryland
6. Cincinatti


5. Scoring Margin

Using the PASE (Performance above seed expectations) stat from the now defunct Bracket Science the number one determinant of being able to outperform your seed expectation is scoring margin.

120 teams have been a 1-4 seed and come in to the tournament with a 15+ scoring margin. 49 have made the final 4 (41%) and 17 have won it all (14.2%).

There have been 8 teams in the tournament with a 15+ scoring margin and a strength of schedule 70 or worse. None made it to an elite 8.

1. Gonzaga 128 SOS
3. UCLA 78 SOS

Of the 151 teams to get a 1-4 seed and have a scoring margin under 10 just 2 have won a title and 11 have gone to the final 4.

Teams under the 10ppg margin are
4. Butler 8.6 ppg
3. Baylor 7.9 ppg


29 Champions since 1985 have been a 1-4 seed with just 3 seeded higher. So for a potential champion we should eliminate all teams seeded above 4.

From the above we can eliminate the following top 4 seeds from championship contention

Team (corresponding number from above that eliminated them from consideration)

1 Seeds
Gonzaga (5)

2 Seeds
Arizona (3)

3 Seeds
Baylor (1,3,5)
UCLA (5)
FSU (4)

4 Seeds
Butler (3,5)
Purdue (4)

By Region

3. Baylor (1,3,5)

1. Gonzaga (5)
2. Arizona (3)
3. FSU (4)

4. Purdue (4)

3. UCLA (5)
4. Butler (3,5)

This is probably the fewest amount of teams we were able to eliminate since doing this. This leads me to believe we see a very chalky tournament, at least with the top seeds.

In the East Baylor looks like an easy elimination but that still leaves us with the defending Champions Villanova as well as Duke and Florida.  This bracket will more than likley be chalky in the regional finals with 2 of these 3 playing each other.  Villanova is the number 2 team on Kenpom with Florida 9 and Duke 12.  538 sees Villanova with a 40% chance to get to the Final 4, Duke 24% and Florida the 6th choice at 6%.  In you brackets it may be worth taking the favorite Villanova as Duke may be taken at a greater rate than their probability says they should be.

Out West there seems to be a good chance of some upsets.  We are looking to eliminate 3 of the top 4 seeds leaving us with just West Virginia.  West Virginia does well on Kenpom with a 5 ranking.  The highest of any 4 seed.  This plays well with what we are seeing from above with the top 3 seeds in the bracket.  If you are not a West Virgina have a look at 7 seed St. Mary’s as a possible sleeper in to the final four.  St. Mary’s has a 14 rating on Kenpom and a 7% chance according to 538 of advancing to the final 4.

In the Midwest we were only able to eliminate 4 seed Purdue.  That leaves the top 3 seeds Kansas, Louisville and Oregon.  Louisville was the best of the 3 according to Kenpom at a 6 ranking.  Kansas came in 10 and Oregon 16.  Kansas has a 38% chance to get to the final 4 according to 538 with Louisville a 22% and Oregon the 5th choice at 7%.  I suspect we see either Kansas or Louisville advancing to the Final 4.

Down South we were able to knock off 2 of the top 4 seeds.  We are left with 1 seed North Carolina and 2 seed Kentucky.  These are two of the perennial powerhouses in college basketball.  They appear to be headed toward an elite 8 matchup in Memphis.  UNC ranks 3 on Kenpom with Kentucky 4.  538 sees UNC as 30% to get to the Final 4 and Kentucky is also 30%.  It does not get much tighter than that.  In your pools you will probably be better served with Kentucky as North Carolina will probably get more picks being the 1 seed.

This year is not so clear cut but we should be able to give ourselves a little edge.

Good Luck!



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