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  • The Final Four has seen some pretty strong trends emerge, including the ten detailed below.
  • Just how difficult is to win your first championship?
  • What’s a bigger impediment to winning a national title, a bad offense or a bad defense?

The Final Four is the crux of any good bracket. Whether you’re setting up your perfect, gonna-win-it-all dream sheet or just betting the Final Four, there’s some trends to look out for. Some are weird, some are wonderful, and we’ve put them all together here for your convenience.

Villanova coach Jay Wright
Trying to win your bracket contest? Villanova coach Jay Wright can’t help you, but we can. Photo by David Hahn/Icon Sportswire.

1. Nineteen of the last 20 NCAA champs have come from the Eastern time zone

This is just a weird one. There’s something to be said for the travel schedule favoring teams furthest east, and also for UNC, Duke, Kentucky and Connecticut all being in the same time zone. It’s not a huge diversity of teams that are winning the national title.

2. (Don’t) throw the rankings out

A big sports media thing is that it’s the Final Four, so anything can happen. Where we’re going you don’t need tournament seeds, bucko. There’s also the idea that those rankings are only within the four regions, so once you reach the Final Four those rankings are meaningless. If they’re not comparing the teams in relation to one another, they don’t matter.

Except they do matter, inasmuch as they correlate with success. Sixteen of the 40 teams to make the Final Four in a ten year period (2008-2017) were #1 seeds, and eleven of them made the championship game. Seven of those won the title. That’s well above what you’d expect from chance.

Even though seeds and rankings don’t strictly apply to the Final Four, they still correlate with success.

Ten of the teams were #5 or lower, and just four of them made championship games. Only one (2014 UConn, which was #7 in the East), won the title. Five were #8 or lower, of which just two progressed and none won it all.

It’s not a big enough sample size to draw any ironclad conclusions, but don’t go thinking that, past a certain point, tournament seeds stop mattering. Higher ranked teams win at a higher rate than you’d expect from chance, even if those rankings aren’t strictly relevant.

3. The #1 seeds beat the spread, slightly

From 2005 to 2017, #1 seeds making the Final Four went 18-15 against the spread, a slightly profitable trend that’s picked up a bit in the past few years.

4. The favorites have been on a tear in the semi-final

In the last three years, just one underdog (2015 Wisconsin) has won a semi-final game.

Former Wisconsin center Frank Kaminsky
Frank Kaminsky (44) led Wisconsin to a semi-final upset in 2015. Photo by Kirby Wright (Wikipedia) [CC License].
5. But the underdogs have been punching above their weight in the final

There’s a reason UNC winning in 2017 had an air of order being restored to the universe. They’d famously suffered heartbreak against Villanova in 2016, Wisconsin had suffered even worse heartbreak as the slight favorite in 2015, and Kentucky lost to UConn in 2014. Louisville obviously won as the slight favorite in 2013, but this trend came back around to take that win away, too.

6. Winners win, champions cover

An old saw that turns out to be surprisingly accurate. We’ve assembled ten years of Final Four results (from the 2008 tournament to the 2017 tournament) with each team’s ATS record for that season. Before you get mad: you’ll notice that we’ve let Louisville’s championship stand, because our bookie sure did.

(Championship teams are in bold. Runners-up are in italics.)

Team ATS Percentage Year
UNC 55.6% 2017
Gonzaga 67%
Oregon 59.5%
South Carolina 50%
Villanova 55.3% 2016
UNC 51.3%
Oklahoma 40%
Syracuse 55.6%
Duke 63.2% 2015
Wisconsin 53.8%
Michigan State 56.4%
Kentucky 51.3%
Connecticut 60.5% 2014
Kentucky 54.3%
Florida 52.9%
Wisconsin 56.8%
Louisville 60% 2013
Michigan 54%
Syracuse 55.6%
Wichita State 58.8%
Kentucky 42.1% 2012
Kansas 51.3%
Ohio State 57.1%
Louisville 63.9%
Connecticut 65.7% 2011
Butler 58.8%
Kentucky 50%
VCU 46.2%
Duke 62.2% 2010
Butler 47.4%
Michigan State 41.7%
West Virginia 46.6%
UNC 47.2% 2009
Michigan State 61.8%
Conneticutt 50%
Villanova 55.9%
Kansas 60.5% 2008
Memphis 47.4%
UCLA 58.3%
UNC 66.7%

From this we can see a few things: the vast majority of Final Four teams have a winning record against the spread. Just eight of the 40 teams listed here finished the year with an ATS record below 50%, three of which came in 2010. Of those, two won championships, for a winning percentage of 25%, or what you’d expect for a playoff of four evenly matched teams.

Ten teams in this group finished with ATS records over 60%. Of those ten, there were six champions, two runners up, and only two teams to miss the championship game. That’s more than you’d expect with chance, a lot more.

7. Winning the first one is tough

Since 2000, ten teams have made the championship game and had the opportunity to win their first championship. Of those, just three have been successful. Of those, 2003 Syracuse was on its third try, 2006 Florida was on its second, and only 2002 Maryland was able to win on its first try.

Duke vs Virginia tip-off
The Blue Devils and a handful of other schools combine for the bulk of the championships ever won. Photo by D. Myles Cullen [CC License].
8. First-time coaches cover

From 2005 to 2017, 13 coaches reached their first Final Four. Their teams went 8-5 straight up, which is impressive considering the circumstances, and 8-4-1 against the spread, which is deeply impressive any way you look at it.

9. Good offenses win championships

In the KenPom era (since 2002), ten national champions have ranked in the top three in offensive efficiency, nationally. Only three have ranked outside the top ten, and only one has fallen outside the top 20 (UConn, 2014).

[Since 2002] ten national champions have ranked in the top three in offensive efficiency.

Virginia, Cincinnati, and Texas Tech are all well outside the top 20 in 2017.

10. Bad defenses lose championships

As important as a great offense is, a respectable defense may be even more crucial. Since 2002, no team has won the national championship with a defense that ranked lower than 18th in the nation in efficiency (2009 Tar Heels). Heading into the 2017 tournament, Villanova, UNC, and Kansas are between 25th and 50th, while Arizona, Wichita State, and Xavier are between 50th and 100th.