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A Fool's Errand: Who is the King of March Madness?

A pseudo-mathematical attempt to discern what programs historically shine in the NCAA Tournament

Chris Chambers

There was a point many moons ago when I was trying to get an objective sense of how Rick Barnes' post-season record should be viewed from outside the bubble of Texas sports fans. Rick Barnes is a bit of an ambigram, people see what they want when they look at him. So I tried to quantify his success(or lack thereof) with a system that samples generously from Bob Sturm's NFL Franchise Rankings. It didn't take long until my boredom while traveling for work ballooned into a system to measure the post-season success of NCAA programs overall.


(News flash: I'm a nerd)

It was left in the dustbin for a couple of years, but now that I've been locked into a lifetime of indebted servitude to create content for Scipio & Sailor it seems a good time to bring it back to the forefront. (Honestly, I'll do whatever it takes to get them to stop blaring North Korean folk music over the loudspeakers for an hour. Whatever. It. Takes.) For those who aren't familiar with the rules - which, judging by the traffic stats on my old blog, is everyone - here's how the system works.

  1. The NIT is great for bad programs that are looking for signs of progress or good programs that need a consolation prize for a disappointing season, but let's be honest: nobody at a school the level of the top 25 in this list cares about anything other than NCAA appearances, so I'm not giving points for NIT/CBI/etc. appearances.
  2. NCAA coaches & programs at the upper tiers are generally judged(fairly or not) on how many Final Fours & National Championships they achieve. Hell, even in 'Survivor' they make a big deal about making it to the Final Four. Reaching either/both of those markers got a bonus.
  3. The data goes from 1985 - 2013, the time in which the tournament has been a 64/68-team bracket.
  4. To account for the change from 64 to 68 teams, I bumped every category by a point & made it retroactive to 1985. In other words, making the field of 64 used to be 1 point, now it's 2 and that's applied to all the scores regardless of year. Considering that 88% of the teams every year play their first game in the round of 64, it seemed the fairest method. I'm sure I just made Steven Levitt cry with my Pavlovian desire for whole numbers.
  5. I am only looking at programs that have made it to at least one Final Four in that time frame, with one exception(Gonzaga). I could have delved deeper, but when you see the list you'll notice that there's pretty much no way a team could crack the top 25 without making a run to the final weekend at least once(#26 on the list made it three times & won the whole thing once). If you can come up with a team I missed, by all means post it in the comments & I'll amend the list.
  6. The point system:
    1 point for making the field of 68
    2 points for making the field of 64
    3 points for making the field of 32
    4 points for making the Sweet Sixteen
    5 points for making the Elite Eight
    7 points for making the Final Four
    8 points for making the National Championship
    10 points for winning the National Championship
  7. To be absolutely clear, the points are not cumulative in a given year. In other words, you don't get 10 points(1+2+3+4) for making the Sweet Sixteen, you get 4 points total. The maximum points a program can get in a given year is 10 points, and only if they win the title game.

I'm sure there's a statistical weakness to this system that will probably drive Jeff Haley nuts, but I think it gives a reasonable approximation of how well the best programs fare in the NCAA Tournament. Onto the results*:

Rank Program Points NCs Final Fours
1 Duke 153 4 11
2(tie) UNC 138 3 9
2(tie) Kansas 138 2 8
4 Kentucky 122 3 6
5 Arizona 105 1 4
6 Syracuse 100 1 4
7 Michigan St. 99 1 6
8 Louisville 93 2 4
9 Connecticut 91 3 4
10 UCLA 89 1 4
11 Indiana 83 1 3
12 Florida 80 2 4
13 Georgetown 76 0 2
14 Illinois 74 0 2
15(tie) Oklahoma 73 0 2
15(tie) Texas 73 0 1
17 Michigan 70 1 4
18(tie) Arkansas 66 1 3
18(tie) Maryland 66 1 2
18(tie) Ohio State 66 0 3
21 Villanova 62 1 2
22 Memphis 60 0 2
23 Cincinnati 58 0 1
24 Oklahoma St. 57 0 2
25 Wisconsin 56 0 1

There's a lot to chew on in the data, depending on who your favorite team is. One thing that becomes abundantly clear is the dominance of Duke under Mike Krzyzewski(yes, I have to Google his name every time too). In this system, they average an Elite Eight appearance(5.28 points) every year since 1985. Duke is half a point per year better than the 2nd place teams, they're the only program with double-digit Final Four appearances, and the only program with 20+ Sweet Sixteen appearances in the list. Coach K is the king of March, and unless the team bus careens off a cliff each year for the next 3, that's not changing. In many ways, the data confirms who the 'blue bloods' of college basketball are; it's not surprising that Duke, Kansas, North Carolina, & Kentucky are at the top of this list(Kentucky is lagging the other 3 by a significant margin, but still significantly ahead of #5, Arizona). They are almost literally the 1%-ers, being the top 4 teams(1.14%) in a division sporting 351 entrants. They are in their own league, and it will take other programs a significant amount of time to catch them.

There are a total of 45 programs in my spreadsheet & outside of the above-acknowledged basketball royalty, many of them seem to follow one of two paths. The first path is what I'll call the 'Lightning in a Bottle' group: they had a handful of really good years(many culminating in a title game appearance/victory), but they also miss the tournament entirely fairly regularly. UConn is a prime example; they have 3 NCs & rank 9th on this list, but they also miss the tournament more than 1/3 of the time(37.93%). Florida is another team in this path with 2 NCs & the same percentage of absent years(37.93%). The other path is one I'll call the 'Attendance Champions'; they are programs that have a regular presence in the tournament, but don't advance to the final weekend often. Arizona under Lute Olson is the most notable example; from 1985 to 2008 Arizona made the tournament every single year...and were bounced in their opening game 10 times. No other program in the top 10 of this list has lost their first game more than 6 times(Michigan State, Louisville, UCLA). In all fairness to Lute, he did have 4 Final Fours in this time period so there were years when they made a deep run, however Arizona making an early exit was one of the safer bets in March more often than not. The only teams to make the tournament more often from '85-'13 are Duke & Kansas, yet Arizona is 30+ points behind them. Texas, Illinois, & Oklahoma are lesser examples of the Attendance Champions, but none fit the bill quite like Arizona under Lute. Gonzaga under Mark Few seems to be his spiritual successor; that guy's teams get knocked out in the first weekend like clockwork(66.67%).

Random other notes:

  • UNLV dropped out of the top 25 this year, which reminds me just how long it's been since they were really good and consequently makes me feel older than Hades. For the under 30 crowd, take a few minutes and watch the 1990 UNLV squad dismantle a Duke team that was in the midst of a run of 5 straight Final Four appearances & 2 consecutive National Championships. That was an ass-beating the likes of which Coach K hasn't endured many times in his life.

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UNLV vs Duke 1990 Championship game NCAA Basketball Tournament Highlights (via jtross34)

  • Of those in the top 25, the program that's been absent from the NCAAs longest is Arkansas. Their last appearance was 2008.
  • In case you're wondering, here are the next 5 programs in the rankings. Gonzaga seems like the only program out of the group to vie for a top 25 spot any time soon, though any of them could make a leap if they make a deep run in an individual year.
Rank Program Points NCs Final Fours
26 UNLV 55 1 3
27 Georgia Tech 54 0 2
28 Gonzaga 50 0 0
29(tie) Stanford 49 0 1
29(tie) Utah 49 0 1

*I will add a disclaimer to these stats: as much as I've checked & re-checked my calculations, I entered 1260(and counting) results by hand so there's the possibility I made an error somewhere. If you run across numbers that don't seem to add up, let me know & I'll look into it.