Should you avoid picking picking 3 point shooting teams as NCAA tournament champion?

You want to win your March Madness pool, and the most important decision is the choice of champion. In the standard scoring, the correct choice of champion earns 32 points, a enormous total compared to the 1 point for a Round of 64 game.

Yes, this is your invitation to avoid all of those 12 over 5 seed articles on the internet this week.

Picking a champion requires analytics. At The Power Rank, I’ve developed methods to calculate the win probability for each team, and the top two teams by my numbers have won 8 of the past 16 tournaments.

But in addition to analytics, winning your pool requires knowing which teams not to pick as champion. My previous research suggested avoiding three point shooting teams, or teams that take a large fraction of field goal attempts from three. Before the 2014 tournament, my Grantland article showed that these teams don’t win the tournament.

However, college basketball changes. Villanova, a team that typically takes over 40% of their field goal attempts from three, won the tournament in 2016. This seemed like a fluke though. The Wildcats reduced their three point rate in the tournament while making over half of their three pointers.

Then I also notice that the year before my data set starts, Duke won the tournament in 2001. They did so by taking a high rate of three pointers both in the regular season and in the tournament. But maybe three point rate doesn’t matter when a team has 5 future NBA players.

Should you still avoid picking three point shooting teams as champion? Let’s examine the argument why you should avoid these teams and then look at the data.

Team Beilein versus Team Williams

First, let’s go over the argument why three point shooting teams shouldn’t win the tournament. It has to do with variance.

Team Williams, as in Roy Williams, only takes two point shots, making half of these attempts on average. In contrast, Team Beilein, as in John Beilein, only takes three point shots. They make a third of these shots from behind the arc on average.

In a typical game with 68 possessions, let’s assume that Team Williams and Team Beilein get one shot per possession. Both teams will score 68 points on average.

However, Team Williams doesn’t score 68 points in each game. In one game, they might score 74, while on another night they only get 58.

If you work out the math, you can show that two thirds of the games of Team Williams land within 8 points of the 68 point average. This 8 points is called the standard deviation of the point distribution.

By shooting only three pointers, Team Beilein has a standard deviation of 12 points. They are more likely to deviate from the mean of 68 points. This increased variance in points makes it more difficult to win the tournament. One off night makes Team Beilein suspectible to an upset.

Live by three, die by the three.

Data on variance in offensive performance

Let’s examine the data on how three point rate affects the variance in offensive production.

To do this, we need to move beyond points per game. The tempo of the game plays a large role in this quantity, as Team Williams might fast break often while Team Beilein prefers the half court game.

To account for tempo, the basketball analytics community has defined points per possession as an efficiency metric. The box score doesn’t track possessions, but one can estimate this quantity from field goal attempts, turnovers, offensive rebounds and assumptions about free throw attempts.

Teams that shoot a high rate of threes should have a high variance in their offensive efficiency. The following plot shows this relationship for the 2016-17 season.

Surprisingly, there’s no statistical relationship between the two quantities. There is almost no correlation between three point rate and the variance in offensive efficiency. The plot looks similar every year in college basketball.

So what’s going on here? The original Williams versus Beilein argument still holds. If you shoot threes, you increase the variance in your point production since each made shot gives 3 points instead of 2.

To explain the results, other factors must dominate the variance in offensive efficiency. These sources could include the following:

This data suggests you shouldn’t avoid three point shooting teams as champion in your bracket. Three point shooting rate doesn’t affect the variance in offensive efficiency.

So why didn’t we see many tournament champions that shoot a high rate of three pointers?

Expected number of three point shooting champions

In 2014, I first looked at 12 years of data and found no tournament champions that took a significant fraction of their field goal attempts from three. But maybe the numbers suggest none of these teams should have won.

To study this, I isolated teams that took over 40% of their shots from behind the arc and added up their win probability by my pre-tournament numbers. This sum gives the expected number of three point shooting teams to win.

From 2002 through 2013, you would expect 0.584 teams to win the tournament on average. With such a low average, it’s quite possible that no three point shooting teams won the tourney over this 12 year stretch.

Performing the same analysis over the past 4 years, you find an additional 0.60 high three point shooting teams to win the tournament. It was about equally likely to find a champion in the past 4 years as the previous 12. Villanova won in 2016, and college basketball produced the expected one three point shooting team as champion over 16 years.

Looking towards the future

To understand the emergence of more three point shooting teams to win the tournament, let’s look at overall college basketball trends.

In the 2013-14 season, 32.9% of field goal attempts came from behind the three point arc. Since that season, the three point shooting rate has increased by about one percent every season. In the current 2017-18 season, three pointers make up 37.4% of field goal attempts across college basketball.

Perhaps the analytics revolution has convinced coaches of the efficiency of the three point shots. In this current season, college basketball teams averaged 1.05 points on three pointers compared to 1.00 for two pointers.

Or perhaps kids idolize Steph Curry and want to imitate his exact shooting motion on three pointers. Whatever the reason, college basketball has featured an explosion in three pointers, and this makes for more contenders with high three point rates.

Breaking down three point shooting contenders in 2018

In this season’s list of contenders to win the tournament, Villanova shoots the highest rate of three pointers at 46.5% of their field goal attempts. This isn’t a surprise, as the Wildcats have topped 40% for each of the past 5 seasons.

Villanova has the highest tourney win probability at 29.2%, a calculation based on my college basketball team rankings. However, they play a 6’8″ stretch four as their center. This might have caused their drop off in defense, as they rank 20th in my defense rankings by adjusted efficiency. Villanova hasn’t ranked worst than 11th the previous 4 years.

While Villanova always shoots a ton of threes, Kansas usually does not. However, the Jayhawks have attempted three pointers on 41.5% of field attempts this season. Bill Self has opted for a four guard line up to optimize personnel.

These choices have consequences on defense, as the Jayhawks have struggled with defensive rebounding. By my adjusted numbers, Kansas ranks 214th in defensive rebounding rate. This contributes to their rank of 26th in my defense rankings.

Purdue is a third contender that shoots a high rate of three point shots. With players like Carson Edward and Dakota Mathias, the Boilermakers have made 42% of their three pointers. They also play defense, as they rank 16th in my adjusted efficiency. Expect them to play Villanova in the East Region’s Elite Eight game.

The data suggests not avoiding three point shooting teams to win the tournament. And with the changes in college basketball, it’s getting more difficult to avoid these teams.

Podcast: Should you avoid picking 3 point shooting teams to win the tournament?

Live by the three, die by the three.

The conventional wisdom says that teams that shoot a lot of three point shots have high variability in their performance. This makes it difficult to win the NCAA tournament.

In 2014, I did some research that suggested 3 point shooting teams do not win the tournament. However, college basketball has changed in the last 4 years, and we revisit this advice.

To listen to this episode on iTunes, click here.

To listen here on the site, click on the right pointing triangle.

Finally!! Win probabilities for the 2018 NCAA tournament

You want to know which team might win March Madness. This kind of information helps when it comes to winning your pool.

Analytics are useful in assigning a win probability for each team. These calculations start with my college basketball team rankings, which take margin of victory and adjust for opponent.

Each team gets a rating, and the difference in the ratings of two teams gives a predicted point spread at a neutral site like those of the tournament. This spread also implies a win probability for each game.

From these game win probabilities, I work out the likelihood that each team makes it to each round. This interactive visual shows these results.

Note that the predictions right now come a field set by ESPN’s bracketology predictions. I’ll post updated win probabilities when the actual field of 68 gets announced on Sunday night.

But even before we see the field, I’m going to argue that this will be a difficult March Madness to predict.

More Madness in 2018

To understand the difficulty of this year, let’s look at the top 3 teams in win probability.

Villanova has the top win probability at 22.6%, and Jay Wright’s team excels on offense. They top my offensive efficiency rankings by points per possession adjusted for schedule.

However, Villanova doesn’t have the size, as their tallest player stands at 6’8″ and likes to shoot three pointers. They have serious match up problems against teams like Duke and Michigan State that have size.

Virginia has the second highest win probability at 21.0%, and Tony Bennett’s team brings the defense as usual. They have the best defense by my adjusted points per possession by quite a margin over second ranked Cincinnati.

However, Virginia doesn’t scare you with any NBA level talent. They didn’t even crack the top 25 in the preseason AP poll, a surprisingly good predictor of tournament success.

Duke has the third highest win probability at 14.6%, and Coach K’s team is stacked with NBA talent again. But this team has struggled on defense. For the first time in recent memory, Coach K employs a zone defense on most possessions.

Switching defenses in late February? Not exactly what you want to see in the team you’re picking to win the tournament.


Michigan won the Big Ten tournament and has played well recently. So why do they have a small, 1.2% win probability?

Michigan gets an incredibly tough region from ESPN’s bracket, as they are the 3 seed in region with Villanova and Duke.

While this may happen in the actual field, Michigan could also get a much easier draw. Their win probability would increase in a region that had a 1 seed like Xavier, a team ranked 12th by my college basketball team rankings.

Get my free March Madness cheat sheet

The top or second top teams by my win probabilities have won 9 of the past 16 tournaments. You can get the results of these calculations to fill out your bracket.

Before the tournament starts, I offer a cheat sheet that lets you fill out your bracket in minutes. It’s ideal for the busy person who still wants to rock his/her pool.

To get this free service, enter your best email and click on “Sign up now!”

Special podcast: How to predict the NCAA tournament

In this special episode of the podcast, we tell the story behind predicting March Madness. The tournament might seem random, but there is a good reason for this public perception.

In reality, the tournament is predictable in key ways, and this can help you win your March Madness pool.

In this episode, I worked with audio producer extraordinaire Lizzie Peabody to tell the story about making March Madness predictions. We talk with:

  • a guy who won his first pool but never again
  • the financial analyst who is no longer welcome in the office pool
  • a first year graduate student with her doubts about numbers
  • a professional gambler

Here’s what Jerod Morris, founder of Assembly Call podcast and site, said about the episode:

Join us on this journey from skeptic to winner. To listen on iTunes, click here.

To listen on the site, click on the right pointing triangle.

Free download of March Madness book

You want to win your March Madness pool.

You get that analytics help. And for small pools, the numbers that will be posted on the predictions page are ideal.

However, for larger pools, you have to think contrarian.

I explain all of this in my book How to Win Your NCAA Tournament Pool. And until midnight Pacific on Tuesday, you can download it for free from the Kindle Store.

To get my March Madness book, click here.

Don’t have a Kindle? No worries, as you can read a Kindle ebook on just about any device. I do a bunch of my reading on the iPhone app.

To learn more, click here.