This Year's Final Four Teams: How Did They Do It?
I went onto ESPN.com this morning to take a look at the NCAA Tournament Challenge leaderboard, just to see what even the most accurate brackets looked like. This one was tied for the lead, getting nearly everything right outside of the bottom part of the South region.
Everyone’s bracket is a dumpster fire in one way or another, and even the person who put together the ESPN-leading one may be struggling this year in his or her office pool. Why? Because the one that’s in the lead – the bracket linked above – was one of 10 that the person filled out. Think he or she entered their friend’s money pool with that? Doubt it.
(Let’s give some love for this guy though. Seriously.)
It wasn’t easy picking this year’s Final Four. In fact, according to Yahoo!, of the millions of brackets filled out on their site, just 191 of them correctly predicted this Final Four.
That’ll happen when your remaining teams include an underrated two seed, a seven seed from an underappreciated conference and an eight seed that once looked like it would never reach its potential.
Each of these four teams have gone very different paths. Some, like Florida, have consistently won without much trouble. Others, like Kentucky, have been in love with late-game heroics. But outside of the game results, what have these teams done so well to get them to where they’re at?
Florida, 1 Seed, Winners of the South Region
Florida’s road to the Final Four has been the least exciting, winning each of their games by at least 10 points. And, like they’ve done all season long, the Gators are winning with defense, holding opponents in the tournament to just 55 points per game. That’s nearly three points better than their 57.6 points against average during the regular season.
In truth, our numbers didn’t get along with Florida back in February. According to our metrics, the team was just the 14th-best squad in the country back on February 27th, posting a nERD score of 17.97. In other words, against an average team on a neutral court, you’d expect Florida to win by about 18 points – that’s what nERD describes.
Since that February 27th date, Florida’s played 10 games, including their four in the tournament. They’ve won by double-digit points in all but two of them. The only contests where the Gators won by fewer than 10 points were against the Sweet 16’s Tennessee Volunteers, and the Final Four’s Kentucky Wildcats. And they won both of those games.
Along with playing spectacular defense in the tournament, Florida’s shooting well when it matters, and they’ve out-rebounded their opponents in each game. UCLA is the only squad to shoot over 40 percent from the floor against them, too.
The Gators haven’t lost since December 2nd of 2013. And, funny enough, that loss came against their Final Four opponent, Connecticut. UConn won the game 65-64, but at the time, Florida’s defense wasn’t what it is now.
Entering the tournament, the Gators were one of the top team’s in the country according to nERD. Now, by no surprise, they sit with the third-best rating behind only Arizona and Louisville. Of the teams remaining, Florida ranks highest, and are the favorites to win the National Championship.
Connecticut, 7 Seed, Winners of the East Region
UConn is probably the most surprising Final Four team this year, despite being a higher seed than Kentucky. Before the tournament started, the Huskies were 7-5 against teams in the Big Dance, but lost three games to Louisville by a combined 55 points.
That’s why they play the games though, right? While many will point to their fortunate matchup against a Georges Niang-less Iowa State squad in the Sweet 16, UConn still beat talented teams in St. Joseph’s, Villanova and Michigan State en route to the Final Four. While St. Joe’s nERD currently sits below 60th in rank, both ‘Nova and Sparty, according to our numbers, are top-10 teams in the country.
It was no walk in the park for UConn.
The Huskies have actually been a pretty good team in terms of nERD throughout the season. At the beginning of March, they ranked 20th within the metric, and could’ve been considered one of the under-seeded team’s in this year’s tournament based on metrics alone.
In the Big Dance, UConn’s used their 11th-ranked adjusted defense to stop powerful opposing offenses. Villanova, for instance, was a 20th-ranked team in terms of adjusted offensive rating, scoring 78.5 points per game. UConn held them to 65.
Iowa State – mind you, without Niang – ranked eighth in adjusted offense, and averaged 82.9 points per game. UConn held them to 76.
And finally, Michigan State. The Spartans soared into the tournament as one of the favorite non-one seeds to reach the Final Four, getting healthy and bringing it all together at the right time. They averaged over 76 points per game this season, but were only capable of posting 54 in the Elite Eight, despite outshooting UConn 39.1% to 34.7% from the floor.
We can talk about Shabazz Napier all we want, but UConn’s defense has stepped up in this tournament, and it’s the main reason their in the Final Four. Well, that and the fact that they’re 81 of 92 from the charity stripe.
Wisconsin, 2 Seed, Winners of the West Region
It’s been a different kind of year for Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan. Never making the Final Four until Saturday night, Ryan’s typically been known for his defensive ways. But this Wisconsin Badgers team, according to many, may be the best offensive team Ryan has ever coached.
Don’t get me wrong, the Badgers still play fantastic defense. In fact, the reason they were able to knock of top-seeded Arizona in the West Region’s finals was because of their fierce man-to-man defense. Wisconsin shot under 40% against Arizona’s tough D, after shooting over 48% in their three previous tournament games.
And I think that’s the scary part about this Wisconsin team. When they’re not draining their shots, they’re able to still be victorious through Bo Ryan’s classic defensive coaching.
Wisconsin’s made the biggest jump in our nERD rankings since the tournament started compared to any other team. Before the Big Dance, the Badgers ranked 12th in the country. Now, Wisconsin sits as the fifth-best team, with the Gators as the only remaining squad rated better.
Our current metrics say that, on their path to the Final Four, Wisconsin has defeated the 25th-best team in the country (Oregon), the 27th-best (Baylor) and the absolute best (Arizona). Considering their margin of victory in their games against Oregon and Baylor (8 and 17 respectively), it’s no wonder the Badgers have seen the biggest rise in the nERD rankings.
Kentucky, 8 Seed, Winners of the Midwest Region
Folks may not know this, but Kentucky was supposed to be this good entering the year. They ranked first in the AP Top 25 poll in the preseason, and were vastly under-seeded as an eight seed entering the tournament.
In what was the analytically toughest region in this year’s Big Dance, Kentucky has now successfully knocked off our 10th (Wichita State), 2nd (Louisville) and 14th (Michigan) rated teams in just a little over a week.
How have they been able to do it? Well, among many things, Kentucky’s been killing the rebounding battle. They out-rebounded Wichita State by 11, Louisville by 8 and Michigan by 11. And their work on the offensive glass has been most impressive, securing 10, 15 and 17 offensive boards in their three big wins in the tournament.
Of course they’ve been clutch, and they’ve shot better than their 45.4% average. But their second-chance points have been key to their success, and will be vital if they’re looking to upset Wisconsin to go to the finals.