The Analytics of the Madness

2021 March Madness Bracket
2021 March Madness Bracket

The 2021 NCAA Tournament may turn out to be the craziest ever.  According to the NCAA, the first two rounds featured a record number of upsets (12), based on the organization’s definition of being at least five seeds apart.  In all, 16 lower seeds defeated higher seeds — 10 in the first round and six in the second, which equates to exactly one third of all games resulting in the lower seed winning. 

Below, I take a look at the patterns with these upsets, if no other reason to help you with your bracket in future years.  I also note the players who are climbing up the Hoops Prospects Draft Board, and make my predictions for the remainder of the tourney.

COVID-19 was a factor:

Four teams entered the tourney with COVID-19 issues — Kansas (3 seed), Virginia (4), Oklahoma (8), and Georgia Tech (9).  All four squads had limited practice time leading up to their first game, and three of the four had key players who were unable to play or played at less than 100 percent; the one exception was Virginia.  Oklahoma fared the best among this group, beating Missouri fairly easily and then losing to Gonzaga, as expected.  Without its star center Moses Wright, Georgia Tech was clearly overmatched against Loyola-Chicago in an eight-nine matchup.  Kansas nearly lost in the first round to Eastern Washington before suffering a historical defeat to USC (85-51), while Virginia was out of sorts in a close loss to 13-seed Ohio. 

Key injuries have yet to be a factor:

Two teams entered the tourney with star players out due to recent injuries — Michigan (Isaiah Livers) and Villanova (Collin Gillespie).  Neither team has been dramatically affected in the tourney — yet — but both are clearly not playing as well as they did with their respective senior leaders.  I expected both teams to go down in the second round, but the Wolverines survived against LSU, thanks to unexpected heroics from Eli Brooks and Chaundee Brown, while Nova avoided a precarious second-round matchup with a very talented but young Purdue squad in its home state, thanks to 13-seed North Texas. 

Tennessee and Iowa fans may argue that injuries have already had an impact. The Volunteers lost to Oregon State without starting forward John Fulkerson (concussion), while the banged-up Hawkeyes were blown out by Oregon in the Round of 32. Iowa entered the tourney minus backup center Jack Nunge (knee), while starters Connor McCaffery (hips), C.J. Fredrick (knee), and Joe Wieskamp (ankle) were all less than 100 percent.

What the numbers say:

Looking at significant differences in the basic stats of the 16 games in which the lower seed was victorious, a pattern emerges.  In the table below, you’ll see that the lower seeds had a clear advantage in shooting percentages, especially from deep.  Rebounds and turnovers didn’t seem to be much of a collective factor, though in some of the biggest upsets, turnovers clearly made a difference.  The main thing that this chart doesn’t tell us is:  did the lower seeds shoot well because of good offense or bad defense?

16 UpsetsFG%3P%FT%REBASTTOBLKPF
Lower Seed Advantage1214877785
Higher Seed Advantage32563640

The next chart shows how many of the teams still alive ranked in the top and bottom 15 among tournament teams (before the tourney started) for margin of victory, offensive efficiency in terms of points per possession, defensive efficiency in terms of points per possession, three-point percentage, free-throw percentage, turnover margin, and rebounding margin.  This data shows that offensive efficiency, three-point shooting, and turnover margin (in that order) have been the best indicators of survival in this year’s tournament.   At the same time, defensive efficiency and rebounding margin were the least predicative stats. 

Teams AliveTop 15 for StatBottom 15 for StatDifference
Margin of Victory52+3
OFF Efficiency60+6
DEF Efficiency440
3P%50+5
FT%53+2
TO Margin51+4
REB Margin43+1

You will see a similar pattern among the teams that ranked among the bottom 20 for the same stats entering the tourney (see below).  Few teams that ranked poorly in these categories survived, and this was especially true for both offensive efficiency and 3-point percentage.  Once again, defensive efficiency and rebounding margin were the least predictive stats.  The lowest ranked team in terms of offensive efficiency still alive is Alabama, which ranked 23rd among the 68 tourney teams (130th nationally).  The lowest ranked school for 3-point shooting to survive is Arkansas, which ranked 21st among the tourney teams (33.9%, 164th nationally).

Bottom 20SurvivedEliminated
Margin of Victory317
OFF Efficiency020
DEF Efficiency515
3P%020
FT%416
TO Margin317
REB Margin515

I have always thought that the saying “defense wins championships” is a bunch of hogwash when it comes to basketball, and the numbers above seem to prove it.  If you picked many teams who were poor in terms of offensive efficiency and/or 3-point shooting this year, your bracket is likely a mess.  On the other hand, if you picked schools such as Loyola-Chicago, Oral Roberts, Oregon, UCLA, and/or Villanova to pull off upsets based on those teams’ high offensive efficiency or 3-point percentage, you’re likely smiling. 

Top 20 for OFF EfficiencyTop 20 for 3P%Bottom 20 for OFF EfficiencyBottom 20 for 3P%
GonzagaBaylorMount St. Mary’sTexas Southern
LibertyColgateTexas SouthernWichita State
ColgateLibertyNorth CarolinaUNC Greensboro
VirginiaOral RobertsMichigan StateRutgers
IowaFlorida StateGeorgetownNorth Carolina
BaylorMichiganUNC GreensboroCleveland State
Loyola-ChicagoIowaMorehead StateMichigan State
DrakeVirginiaHartfordMissouri
Oral RobertsOregonClemsonAppalachian State
Ohio StateBYURutgersHartford
MichiganNorth TexasIonaVCU
VillanovaIllinoisWichita StateGrand Canyon
OhioSan Diego StateAppalachian StatePurdue
IllinoisDrexelCleveland StateUtah State
CreightonDrakeUtah StateConnecticut
Eastern WashingtonLoyola-ChicagoVCUMount St. Mary’s
UC Santa BarbaraCreightonWest VirginiaNorfolk State
LSUColoradoOklahoma StateOklahoma State
Georgia TechUCLANorfolk StateTennessee
BYUGeorgetownKansasOklahoma

Draft Stock Rising

We’ll detail a number of these players in the coming weeks, but here’s a quick look at whose stock has risen since the NCAA Tourney began.  In my opinion, it’s easier for a prospect to rise than fall during March Madness.  For example, Oral Roberts guard Max Abmas, the nation’s leading scorer, was stellar during the regular season; we were not going to drop him in the rankings if he didn’t have an outstanding tourney, but once we saw him perform at a high level against top competition, he had to be bumped up.  See the HP Draft Board for the latest rankings of these players and the rest of the top 200 prospects for the 2021 NBA Draft.

Miles McBridePGWest Virginia
Jeremiah Robinson-EarlPFVillanova
Neemias QuetaCUtah State
Ja’vonte SmartCGLSU
Aaron WigginsSFMaryland
Buddy BoeheimWSyracuse
Max AbmasPGOral Roberts
Avery AndersonPGOklahoma State
Jaden IveyCGPurdue
Jabari WalkerFColorado
Jaime JaquezFUCLA
JaQuori McLaughlinPGUCSB
Johnny JuzangWUCLA
Isaiah MillerPGUNC Greensboro
Dejon JarreauPGHouston

Final Four Predictions

I am basically sticking with my original Final Four (Gonzaga, Florida State, Baylor, and Illinois), minus Illinois, of course.  I will replace the Fighting Illini with Loyola-Chicago, who I originally predicted would lose to Illinois in the second round.  Under normal circumstances, I would go with Houston in the Midwest Region, but point guard Dejon Jarreau is not close to 100 percent due to a hip pointer, and he is the key to the Cougars’ offense. I also do not have a ton of confidence in the Seminoles because of their precarious path in the East, which will include a matchup with top-seeded Michigan and then likely vs. high-powered Alabama.  I am fairly confident that Gonzaga and Baylor will meet in the final, though Villanova and likely Arkansas will test the Bears.  Ultimately, I see the Zags defeating Baylor in a high-scorning, close contest, 88-85.   

About the Author(s)

  • Richard has worked as a sports writer/editor/analyst since 1998. He is the former CEO of FantasyFootballExperts.com and a former member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA). He has contributed to various magazines, radio shows, and a number of other sites, including ESPN.com, SI.com, and USAToday.com. Follow on Twitter @HoopsProspects.