Final Four Elimination Criteria

 

When breaking down your bracket, I always find it helpful to work backwards rather than forwards. That is, by eliminating teams that you believe cannot make a deep tournament run, it becomes easier to narrow down your Final Four contenders first and fill out your bracket accordingly. This gives you the ability to weigh risk and return. What teams can you afford to take shot for an upset against, and which ones should you go ahead and pencil in to at least the Elite Eight? I’ve written at length about my Final Four elimination criteria in the past, but I wanted to create a more concise summary.

It’s always important to remember of course, that this is March, and anything can happen. These elimination criteria attempt to maximize the probability that a given team WILL NOT make a run to the Final Four. That is different than saying that such a run is impossible, as there are always exceptions to the rule. Last year, for example, Duke’s defense was ranked just outside the Top 50 in Defensive Efficiency, and their offense, being just outside the Top 2, was not theoretically good enough to compensate for it. (It was 3rd, so it was right on the cutoff line). Still, who could have predicted or expected that Duke would be able to increase their Defensive Efficiency ranking all the way up to 12th over a six game Championship run? This was a function of incredible coaching adjustments and the understanding of where the team’s problem was, and that Duke team had the personnel to make those adjustments and corrections work perfectly. Such an improvement is the exception, and not the rule.

Here are the three critieria that we will use to eliminate contenders from our Final Four selections:

TOO MUCH DEPENDENCE ON THE THREE= DEATH IN MARCH

Since 1998, only three teams with a Three Point Rate (3 Pt FGA/ Total FGA) above 40% have made the Final Four. That is only 4% of all Final Four teams over that timespan, which is beyond a two standard deviation event, and all three of them ranked in the top 10% in the nation in Three Point Field Goal Percentage, adding credence to their outlier status.

The exception to this rule, because its sample size is so rare, involves teams that do show a Three Point Rate above 40%, but that actually show a Three Point Field Goal Percentage higher than that. It is always hard for a team that is highly dependent on perimeter shooting to string together consecutive wins, but a team that is highly skilled in this department is correct to allocate their shot selection in this manner, and should not be eliminated from consideration for this reason.

So, eliminate all teams from Final Four contention with a Three Point Rate above 40%, unless their Three Point Field Goal Percentage is higher than their Three Point Rate.

OFFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS

 Since 2008, 95% of Final Four teams have had either an Offensive Efficiency rating greater than 115.0 OR a Defensive Efficiency rating below 90.0, per Ken Pomeroy. The former is much more frequent than the latter, demonstrating that a high-fueled offense with limited defensive capabilities is better suited for a deep tournament run than a top notch defense that lacks offensive punch (see Duke winning it all last year).

So, eliminate all teams from Final Four contention that show an Offensive Efficiency Rating below 115.0 AND a Defensive Efficiency rating above 90.0.

 BALANCE IS EVERYTHING

 The most significant thing that we find when researching Ken Pomeroy’s data, which is available back to 2002, is that it is incredibly rare for a team to advance to the Final Four if it is ranked outside of the Top 25 on both sides of the ball. This has happened only twice over that timespan, which means that over 96% of Final Four teams are ranked in the Top 25 on at least one side of the ball:

2010 Michigan State: #36 AdjOff, #27 AdjDef

2011 Butler: #48 AdjOff, #44 AdjDef

And, even if they are Top 25 on one side of the ball, if they happen to fall outside of the Top 50 on the other side of the ball, over 96% of Final Four teams are ranked in the top TWO on the opposite side of the ball in order to compensate for such weakness. An exception to this has also only happened twice, and these remain the two most shocking Final Four teams in history:

2006 George Mason: #58 AdjOff, #13, AdjDef

2011 VCU: #25 AdjOff, #84 AdjDef

You read that correctly. For the opposite to occur, in both instances, is beyond a two standard deviation event.

There are ways to prioritize and create a hierarchy of teams that show a specific profile as it relates to this criteria among those that are not eliminated. For example, 86% of Final Four teams rank in the Top 50 on both sides of the ball, 80% of Final Four Teams rank in the Top 10 on one side or the other, and 59% of Final Four Teams rank in the Top 25 in both. But the overriding moral of the story here is that it is highly preferable to be among the nation’s best in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

So, eliminate all teams that are ranked outside the Top 25 on both sides of the ball. Also, eliminate all teams that are ranked outside the top 50 on either side of the ball UNLESS that team ranks in the Top 2 nationally on the stronger side of the ball.

CONCLUSION

Amazingly, after applying these three simple criteria to the entire field, we are left with only 12 teams in the entire country that statistically speaking, stand a chance to make the Final Four, and roughly in this order. I will save you the work and just tell you:

Kansas

Virginia

Michigan State

North Carolina

Oklahoma

Kentucky

Oregon

Purdue

Witchita State

Miami

Xavier

Arizona

 

Happy Picking.

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