Why Notre Dame and Villanova May Have a Tough Time Winning This Year's NCAA Tournament
Live by the three, die by the three.
It's an old basketball cliche, but does it matter for your NCAA tournament pool?
Specifically, do teams that shoot a lot of threes win the tournament? In most pools, the choice of champion is worth 32 points, much more than the 1 point for Round of 64 games. This makes the champion the most important choice in your pool.
This visuals shows the fraction of field goal attempts taken from three-point range for the tournament champion and other Final Four teams since 2002.
In this range of years, no tournament champion had a three-point shooting rate much larger than average. Only two champions (Florida in 2006, Connecticut in 2014) had a three-point shooting rate higher than the 33% average rate for college basketball.
Teams that shoot a high rate of three-point shots can make the Final Four. In 2011, VCU took 41% of their field attempts from three before the tourney. They barely made the tourney as a 12 seed that had to play in a first four game to make the final 64 teams. Despite these obstacles, they won five games to make the Final Four.
However, teams that shoot a high rate of three-pointers don't win the entire thing. It's difficult to continue making enough long range jump shots to win games, especially against increasingly difficult competition in the later rounds of the tournament.
It's possible that a three-point shooting team wins the tourney. In 2010, Butler took 37% of their shots from 3 and came within Gordon Hayward's last second heave of beating Duke and winning the tournament.
However, the data suggest not picking teams that shoot a high rate of three-point shots as the tournament champion.
High Volume Three-Point Teams Don't Win the Tournament
To understand this, consider two teams. Team 2 only shoots two-point shots, and has a one-half probability to make a shot. Team 3 takes only three-point shots, and hits one-third of these shots.
If Team 2 and 3 play a game with 68 possessions and take one shot per possession, they will both score 68 points on average. However, over a large sample of games, they will not always score 68 points. Due to randomness, Team 2 scores 78 in some games but 62 in others.
Because of Team 3's inclination for three-point shots, they have a bigger spread in their point totals. In two of every three games, Team 3 will score between 56 and 80 points. In the math jargon, this means their point total has a standard deviation of 11.7 points. Team 2, which only shoots two-point shots, will have two of three games land within 60 and 76, a smaller spread.
Favorites that shoot a high rate of three-point shots have a larger spread in their point total. There's a higher likelihood for them to score significantly fewer points than their average, which makes them susceptible to upsets.
A high three-point shooting rate raises a red flag for two tournament hopefuls.
Villanova surged the second half of the season to claim a 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats haven't lost since January 19th, and feature a veteran team with mostly juniors and seniors. As a top-five team in most computer rankings, Villanova looks like a squad that could win the entire tournament.
However, Villanova takes an astounding 42.4% of their shots from three, way more than the college basketball average. There's a chance they shock Kentucky in the championship game, but the data suggests this is a dangerous choice.
Notre Dame also looks like a real contender. Senior Jerian Grant can get his shot on any defender and will probably be a first-round pick in the NBA Draft. This past weekend, the Irish beat Duke and North Carolina on consecutive nights to win the ACC tournament. Those seems like credentials of a team that could win the entire tournament.
However, Notre Dame also shoots a high rate of three-point shots: 38.2% of their field goal attempts, in fact. They hit 10-20 to beat North Carolina in the finals of the ACC tournament. But it's unlikely they shoot near that rate for six games in the tournament.
Avoid Villanova and Notre Dame as champion in your pool.