March Madness’ Dirty Little Secret: There’s Actually No Madness

Everyone loves the upset, but do upsets happen when the games really matter?

The NCAA men’s basketball tournament is one of the most exciting playoffs in sports. As opposed to just about any professional sports league, it’s unique in that it's a single-elimination tournament. And that’s why it’s called March Madness –- anyone can win.

Everyone loves the Cinderella stories –- Butler making it to two straight national championship games, VCU in 2011, the Kemba Walker-led UCONN run in 2011, George Mason in 2006, Carmelo Anthony’s Syracuse team in 2003...the list goes on and on. A lot of these famous runs have a lot to do with the fact that it's a single-elimination tournament.

But here’s March Mardness’ dirty little secret: it’s not really that mad.

The Winning Numbers

Here are some statistics from on teams who have made it to the Final Four since the site started tracking data in the 2001-2002 season.

- 86.5% of Final Four teams were in the Pythagorean Rating top 10.
- All but two (96.2%) of the Final Four teams were in the Pythagorean Rating top 25.
- 80.8% of Final Four teams were either top 10 in adjusted offense or adjusted defense.

In fact, if you take out the historically bad 2011 season –- when Connecticut (Pythagorean rating rank of 9), Butler (33), Kentucky (5), and VCU (42) made the Final Four -– it’s almost always the best teams that make the Final Four and win the National Championship.

From 2002 to 2006, no teams outside of the top 10 in Pythagorean Rating made the Final Four. The 20th-rated George Mason team made it in 2006, but then no other squad outside of the top 10 made it again until the 21st-rated Michigan State team in 2010.

Who's Got the Magic?

Despite the “madness” moniker, the Final Four is usually comprised of a select group of teams each year. Here are the top-10 teams this season in terms of Pythagorean Rating and how they rank nationally in both adjusted offense and adjusted defense.

TeamPythagorean Rating RankAdj. Offense RankAdj. Defense Rank
Wichita State101314

Only Kentucky is a top-10 team on both offense and defense, and the bottom two, Baylor and Wichita State, aren’t in the top 10 in either.

Being a top-10 team in both categories is, as you’d expect, a really good recipe for winning a championship. Of recent teams to accomplish the feat –- 2013 Louisville, 2012 Kentucky, 2010 Duke, and 2008 Kansas (2012 had Ohio State too, but they were really good in the wrong year) -– all won national titles.

This year’s Kentucky squad fits right in that mold and will be sizable favorites to win it all. Our nERD metric rates them at 23.01 currently, which is tops in the nation. The difference between them and the second-rated Arizona (19.45) is about the difference between Arizona and 11th-ranked North Carolina. And the difference between 11th-rated North Carolina and 24th-rated BYU. In other words, it would be a historic shock if Kentucky did not win the title this year.

While “anything can happen” when it comes to early-round games and anytime Duke plays, history says the Final Four is typically always chalk.