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How Often Do Unbalanced Teams Make A Deep Tournament Run?

The AE Podcast sent up a Bat-Signal and it was answered before you even came back from your lunch break.

Notre Dame v Kentucky
Look, kids: Pat Connaughton.
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

I’m just going to say right away that if you ever read an article by someone saying that claims to know exactly what teams are going to the Final Four, it was written by a crazy person and you should make like the phoenix in Kanye West’s short film Runaway and run away as fast as you can. Single elimination tournaments with 68 participants are no way to determine who the best team is because there is a massive amount of luck involved in each individual game. As such, a team’s success should never be bound to the tournament round that they make, unless you would like to seriously argue that the 2011 VCU squad was truly one of the 4 best teams in the country even though they lost to Georgia State, Northeastern, South Florida, and James Madison that year.

[Stephen A Smith voice] HOWEVA, [/Stephen A Smith voice] that does not mean there aren’t certain trends that we can find among some of the teams. We now know that upsets are more likely to happen when lower seeded teams play at a slower pace, force turnovers, and/or jack up a bunch of threes. I’m not going to do some intense stat-diving here, but I am going to answer the bat-signal that Sam Newberry gave on the World Famous Anonymous Eagle podcast and tweaking it slightly to make for better #content.

Sam wondered about the worst defensive team to make the Elite Eight in the KenPom era while talking about Villanova. He mentioned other rounds, but I’m only going to do the Elite Eight because life is full is disappointments. I’m also not going to use KenPom, because T-Rank has the tournament round that every team made it to listed nicely on the homepage. It made the work much easier. There are some differences between their methodologies, but they are not that important for the purposes of what we’re trying to figure out here.

I’m also not just going to just name the team that was the worst and be done with it. That’s boring. Instead, for your entertainment and enjoyment, I listed out each participating team’s final offensive ranking vs their defensive ranking and sorted them by the difference between those rankings. In doing so I’ll try and find out if there’s a skew towards certain unbalanced teams that advance far in the tournament.

Here’s a graph.

Can you read that? It’s kinda tiny. Oh well, who cares. I sorted every Elite Eight team since 2008 by the differential between their offensive rank and their defensive rank, put them in buckets of 10 (20 to 30, -50 to -40, and so on and so forth like that), and graphed the frequency of those differences. That’s what you’re looking at.

The team with the biggest positive difference (Great offense, bad defense. Way over on the right side) is the 2016 Notre Dame Fighting Irish. They had the 13th ranked offense and the 168th ranked defense. That’s dangerously close to last year’s Marquette team, if you want more context. That was a weird team that got to the Elite Eight as a #6 seed.

The second biggest positive difference? The 2015 Notre Dame team. They beat my beloved Wichita State Shockers in the Sweet Sixteen with the second ranked offense in the country backed up by their 110th ranked defense. That team holds a special place in my heart for playing Pat Connaughton, a 6’5” three point specialist, at power forward. He would so consistently get mauled by anyone that posted him up. It was beautiful.

Onto the negative side. The 2012 Louisville team had the best defense and the 113th ranked offense. They made the Final Four, but every win was vacated. Haha. Dorks. The second biggest difference was the 2017 South Carolina team, which may ring a bell for you. They boasted the 4th ranked defense with the 80th ranked offense, which came in spite of the team scoring 60 points in the second half of TWO CONSECUTIVE tournament games. Sindarius Thornwell just took his game to another level that tournament.

Alright, that’s anecdotal evidence. Nobody cares. Let’s look at the graph as a whole. There’s quite a bit of skew to the left side of the graph, based on my eyes and also the SKEW Excel function. If you’re going to be an unbalanced team going into the tournament, you might as well load up on offense. Ken Pomeroy came to a similar conclusion in a series of studies that he did a couple offseasons ago. A good offense is normally going to beat a good defense, despite the trope from old grumps that says defense wins championships.

To swing things back to Marquette, this is good news for the team. While the defense has certainly improved well beyond our expectations, they’re still not good from a top seeded perspective. They’re going to be overseeded based on their KenPom/T-Rank/Haslametrics numbers. There’s a heavy bias in the Final Four towards teams with a good offense AND defense since those teams are, you know, good overall, but games will generally lie in the hands of both offenses. This isn’t some breakthrough study or anything, but it gave me something to do on my lunch break and it could come in handy for your office pools.