The Pi-Rate Ratings

March 13, 2023

PiRate Ratings Bracketnomics 2023

The All-Encompassing Master Bracketnomics Paradigm–2023

Note: This Bracketnomics Tutorial makes past ones on our site obsolete.

One year ago, we issued our updated bracketnomics paradigm and predicted Kansas to win the National Championship.  We also selected Villanova to make the Final Four.  Yet, we decided to make considerable changes to this year’s paradigm.  Why is this, you may ask?

For the last several weeks, we have spent hours researching the changes in college basketball over the last few years.  The age of analytics has changed the game just as much as it did with baseball.  Five years ago, a small handful of coaches even recognized analytical data.  Today, almost every college team not only realizes its importance; they have staff on hand to analyze the data and use it to best implement their game plans.

In baseball, on-base percentage is the most important offensive factor, with slugging percentage in second place.  Pitchers’ fielding independent pitching stats are the true signs of their effectiveness.  In basketball, there is a tier of four different stats and how teams best implement plans to maximize these tiers.

First, let’s break the game down into its proper components.  Basketball is a continual game, where the two teams have the ball basically the same number of possessions per game and trade off on those possessions in a typical time frame of every 10 to 30 seconds (offensive rebounds can extend these possessions).

When a team has the ball, their obvious mission is to score points, and when the other team has the ball, the obvious mission is to prevent the other team from scoring points and gaining possession of the ball.

Offensively, the highest expected points per possession comes from connecting on a 3-point shot or getting a 2-point shot opportunity with the highest possible percentage chance.  Thus, 3-point shots and very close 2-point shots have taken over the game.  And, preventing 3-point shots and very close 2-point shots has become more important defensively.

But, if a team can get more opportunities to shoot these shots and conversely keep the opponent from having these opportunities to shoot these shots, the overall effect is almost as important as the ability to shoot these shots.

What all this means is that we have spent hours scrutinizing what works today in college basketball and what may be not as important as one might think.  Thus, we have thinned out our criteria this year, getting rid of old criteria that no longer portends success, while giving more weight to what does lead to success.  Here, then, is your primer for your 2023 Bracketnomics PhD.  If you already own a Bracketnomics PhD from taking this course in the past, then think of it as continuing education to keep up to date on the latest methods.

There are four major criteria to look at in each team’s resume.  The national champion will come from the teams that best meet these four criteria.

Criteria #1: Adjusted Offensive Efficiency

How many points does a team average per possession when it is adjusted to reflect the average defense?  If two teams both average 1.1 points per possession, but one team does it against teams that typically give up 1.15 points per possession, while the other does it against teams that typically give up 1.05 points per possession, these identical 1.1 points per possessions are not the same.  Efficiencies must be adjusted to an equal scale for all teams.  

What Matters: Teams with adjusted offensive efficiencies in the top 20 and especially in the top 10 tend to win the national championship most years.  Kansas was #6 last year.  Baylor was #2 in 2021.  Virginia was #2 in 2019.  Villanova was #1 in 2018.  North Carolina was #9 in 2017.  The last time a team won the national title and was not in the top 10 in adjusted offensive efficiency was Connecticut in 2014, when they were #39.

Criteria #2: Adjusted Defensive Efficiency

Many people believe in the old axiom that defense wins championships.  Defense is more important than offense in baseball, but not by a lot.  In basketball, offense is more important than defense, but also not by a lot.  An A+ offense and C defense will beat a C offense and A+ defense about 58 to 63% of the time, not a slam dunk, but definitely measurably superior.  Still, even though offense is more important, defense must be considerably better than average.  We have found that being in the top 15% of all adjusted defensive efficiency suffices for picking teams to get to the Final 4, but being in the top 20 is necessary to cut the nets down as “One Shining Moment” plays.  In the 21st Century, the weakest adjusted defensive efficiency was #22.  All the others were in the top 15.

Criteria #3 Schedule Strength (eye on specific leagues)

When was the last time that the national champion came from a conference outside the major powers?  How about UNLV in 1990?  Yes, the last 31 national champions (no tournament in 2020) have come from teams that are in the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12, or SEC.  To parse this a little more, no Pac-12 team has won the title since Arizona in 1997, and no Big Ten team has won the title since Michigan St. in 2000.

The ACC, Big East, Big 12, and SEC have dominated the last 21 national titles.  Additionally, all the title winners had schedule strengths 7 points stronger than average and greater.  

We believe that the Big Ten has had troubles, because the league stresses half-court possession control and does not emphasize fast breaking or pressure defense that forces turnovers and creates steals.  As you will see later, teams that have the ability to go on big scoring spurts have the advantage in the NCAA Tournament.  Possession basketball might work in the regular season in the Big Ten, because all the teams play it.  Gone are the days when Big Ten teams led the nation in total possessions, scoring, forced turnovers, and steals.  We have talked at length in the past about how successful former Purdue coach Gene Keady was, until March 15, when his Boilermakers made it to the Sweet 16 in their better years but couldn’t make the Final Four and only once made the Elite 8 one time, when they had the best player in the nation and a number one seed.  Keady’s top four assistant coaches that became head coaches suffered the same fate, as Steve Lavin couldn’t do it at UCLA; Cuonzo Martin couldn’t do it at multiple schools; Kevin Stallings couldn’t do it at Vanderbilt; and so far Matt Painter hasn’t done it at Purdue.

If a team is in the ACC, Big 12, Big East, or SEC and has a schedule strength at least 7 points stronger than average, they meet this criteria.  Don’t completely throw out the Pac-12 and Big Ten teams (or Gonzaga), because eventually, one of these teams will win the national championship.  Purdue, Gonzaga, UCLA, and Arizona aren’t going to be easy outs this year.  They just must buck a mighty big trend to get there.  You could have made good money betting against the Boston Red Sox in the playoffs for many years, until sabermetric patriarch Bill James and boy genius Theo Epstein realized what the Red Sox needed to win.  The Big Ten, Pac-12, and Gonzaga might eventually have their 2004.  The odds might be low this year, but there’s a chance, and getting to the Final Four is not a long shot.

Criteria #4 PiRate Ratings R+T Factor

We are big fans of CBS basketball commentator Clark Kellogg.  In the early 1990’s Kellogg coined the term, “spurtability,” where he described some teams’ ability to consistently go on scoring spurts to put games away.  One team might trail another by three to five points for a good piece of the game, and then one scoring spurt by the trailing team gives them the lead that they never relinquish.  It happens frequently, especially in tight games.  It happens in the NCAA Tournament with great regularity.

The first great example of such spurtability came in legendary coach John Wooden’s first national championship at UCLA in 1964.  The Bruins, with no starter over 6 foot 5, used an incredible zone press defense to force turnovers, gain steals that led to fast break points, limited opponents to one shot, and then got extra scoring opportunities by crashing the offensive boards.  UCLA went 30-0 that year, and they had big scoring spurts in all 30 games.  Most notably, the 1964 Championship Game presented the perfect example for spurtability.  Duke was favored to win the title.  They had two starters at 6 foot 10 plus an All-American tall guard that could shoot from outside and drive the ball to the hoop.  

The game started looking just like the experts predicted, as Duke’s extra size and muscle allowed the Blue Devils to work the ball inside for high percentage shots, while forcing UCLA to play from the perimeter.  The Bruin press was handled easily, and Duke led 30-27 with about 6 minutes to go in the first half.  UCLA then went on a 16-0 run in less than 2 minutes!  The press totally disrupted Duke’s offense, and the Bruin fast break looked like an NBA All-star game.  The game was over before halftime.

We have analyzed what leads teams to enjoy winning scoring spurts.  It almost never happens in possession basketball, where the spurting team scores on six consecutive half-court possessions, while the other team fails to score on six consecutive half-court possessions.  Rebounding and Turnovers bring on scoring spurts.  Seldom does a team take one shot per possession for multiple possessions and goes on a scoring spurt.  They need multiple shots per possession and/or they need to prevent the opponent from getting any shots and if so, just one.  

The PiRate R+T factor uses a unique set of formulas to see the spurtabilities of teams.  For years, we had one R+T that used counting stats (rebound margin, average number of steals per game, and turnover margin), and we found that the teams with the highest R+T were the one’s advancing the deepest into the tournament.  But, as we realized that rates were more important than counting, we also devised a rate formula using offensive rebounding rates, steal rates, and turnover rates.  This places a team that averages 75 possessions per game on the same playing field with a team that averages 65 possessions per game.

We have two formulas, one for old R+T and one for the new rate-generated R+T.  Both have their merits.  The formula for old R+T is quite simple: (R*2)+(0.5*S)+(6-Opponents S)+T, where R is rebounding margin, S is steals, and T is turnover margin.  When a team has a rating of 10.0 or better, they have a good chance to have a winning spurt.  When the number is 15.0 or better, opponents better watch out, because a spurt is almost assured when playing this team.  If the number is 20.0 or better, this is a team that typically goes on one winning spurt every game and only loses to teams that can do the same.  

Of course, this R+T rating must be used in step with schedule strength, because a Big Ten team can much easier go on a spurt against a Summit League team than it can against a Big 12 team.

The new Rate R+T formula is quite lengthy, so we won’t attempt to explain it.  Anything over 4.0 is considered strong.  Anything over 8.0 is considered very strong, and anything over 12.0 is considered lethal when taken in context with schedule strength.

The other important part of this is how to treat a team with a negative old R+T rating.  These teams are ripe to be upset early in the tournament.  If the team has a new R+T rating below -3, they are also in jeopardy of losing early in the tournament.  It is low R+T that has doomed so many Big Ten teams in recent years, especially Purdue and the teams coached by Keady proteges.

The remaining criteria are secondary to the four primary criteria, but they are important when looking at games between teams that are evenly matched in the primary criteria.

Criteria #5: 3-point Shooting Percentage

For years, we believed that the teams that relied on the 3-point shot didn’t win in the Sweet 16 to the Championship Game, because the larger arenas with weird sitelines and the tighter rims were not good for these teams.  However, as analytics began to change the game, and players became more 3-point shooting conscious (copying the NBA), this proved to not be the case.  

Note that this criteria makes no notice of the number of 3-point attempts taken.  Only the percentage matters.  If a team can hit better than 35% from behind the arc, defenses must widen, and thus they are weaker against the high percentage inside shot.  If a team shoots less than 33.3% from behind the arc, defenses can tighten and keep the ball away from the 65% scoring area near the basket.

Criteria #6: Offensive Rebounding Percentage

This is covered in other criteria, but it is important enough to isolate it into its own category, because there is history showing the point where offensive rebounding can lead a team to extra victories.  At 35%, a team that shoots 43% can get 10 extra points on second chance shots.  The cut-off number here is 30%.  If a team cannot average 30% offensive rebounds, they are not going to make it far in the Big Dance.  If a team has an O-Rebound rate of 37.5% or higher, they are dangerous.

Criteria #7: 2-point Percentage Defense

While we are interested in the offensive 3-point percentage, on the defensive side, it’s the ability to prevent made 2-point shots that is more important.  If a team gives up more than 52.5% inside the arc, they are going to have to drop defenders in the paint, leaving the 3-point line open, where good shooters will hurt them.

When a defense limits opponents to less than 46% from inside the arc, their defense is tough, tough enough to keep winning in the Big Dance if their offense is better than average.  The important number is 48.5%.  Most national champions have met this requirement.

Criteria #8: Free Throw Rate

We were late coming to this party.  For many years, it was our belief that teams that relied on hitting free throws to win games in the regular season did not succeed in the NCAA Tournament, because the games were officiated differently and fewer fouls were called.  The NCAA eventually made some changes in game officiating, where most games are now called the same way, and officials are graded just like players and coaches.  Now, the frequency of fouls called in the Big Dance is about the same as what is called in the regular season.

The next part of this criteria that we had to come around to supporting was how it was calculated.  The original FT Rate was simply FTA/FGA.  How many of these free throws were made did not matter, as the formula was merely a rate of how many free throw attempts a team made compared to field goal attempts.

There were two other schools of thought on this.  Some metrics experts changed it to FTM/FGA.  Others, including us, went with free throws made per 100 possessions.

But, it soon came to us in a brainstorm that the original formula or FTA/FGA is the best of the three.  There’s more to a foul than just making foul shots.  Fouls limit playing time.  If a star player commits two quick fouls in the first four minutes of a crucial game, he’s likely to miss many minutes in the first half.  Losing a star player in this situation is worth many more points than the possible foul shots.  Additionally, players in the game in foul trouble must watch how they play defense and how they drive toward the basket on offense.

A free throw rate (FTA/FGA) of 28.5% or better is important in the NCAA Tournament.  Above 32% is really good.  Above 37.5% is remarkable.

Criteria #9: Scoring Margin

Very few teams have ever won a national championship with a scoring margin below 8 points per game, and a majority of national champions have had scoring margins above 10.  When you combine a double-digit scoring margin with a schedule strength at least 7 points above average, this is a dangerous team.  Teams with scoring margins under 5 points per game rarely win four NCAA Tournament games.

Criteria #10: A Lengthy Winning Streak

To get to the Final Four, teams have to win four consecutive games against very strong competition.  To win the national title, they must win six consecutive games, four of which must be against great teams.  

Do you expect a team that hasn’t won six games in a row during the regular season, where many of those games were against subpar teams, to become capable of winning six games after March 15?

A 10-game winning streak is typical of most national champions of the past, and two streaks of six are also markers of teams capable of going deep in the tournament.

Criteria #11: Preseason Top 25

You might think that being ranked in the top 25 in the preseason means absolutely nothing, but the sports media has experts.  They know which teams have all the talent, and even though North Carolina just failed to make the field after beginning the season ranked #1, there is no reason to throw this stat aside.  It’s been many years since a national champion wasn’t ranked in the preseason.  

Criteria #12: Regular Season or Conference Tournament Champion

It’s been many years since the national champion didn’t win a major college conference regular season or tournament title.  Even the biggest outlier champion, 2011 Connecticut won the Big East Conference Tournament as a #9 seed, winning five games in five days. 

Criteria #13: Coach With NCAA Tournament Experience

Occasionally, a first year coach will direct his team to the NCAA Tournament and have some success, but it doesn’t happen often.  Bill Hodges took a team to the Championship Game in his first year as a head coach, but Indiana State with Larry Bird might have made it to the Final Four with the head coach of Terre Haute High School coaching the team.  Steve Fisher won a national championship at Michigan in 1989 when he began the tournament with a career record of 0-0.

On the other hand, a coach like Bill Self, Tom Izzo, and Mick Cronin has been there so many times, there are no unexpected variables that arise and throw their teams off sync.  They know the process and can better prepare their teams through the extra long timeouts, the pressure of being on the national stage, and even how to better negotiate the logistics of the tournament.  

Criteria #14: 3 Upperclassmen Getting 24+ Minutes Per Game

This criteria is almost null and void these days, because thanks to the NCAA giving an extra year to all players that played during the Covid season, almost every team is loaded with upperclassmen.  There are a couple of teams with youth and inexperience, but you won’t find many.  Once this waiver is gone, this will be important again.

Criteria #15: An Inside Power Game With 2 Starters Combining For 20 & 12

If a team has two starters that combine to average 20 or more points and 12 or more rebounds per game, they can bang it inside at crucial junctures of the games, when an inside power play is important.  A team can win with a great perimeter game, but eventually, they are going to need some inside points and cheap baskets.

Criteria #16: Three or More Go-to Guys

If a team relies on one or even two players to do most of their scoring, and the star has an off game, or the opponent can shut him down, they aren’t likely to win at this level.  If a team has three or more players that can carry the team on their backs, it is almost impossible to stop all three in any game.  A star like LeBron James might be able to take his team to the NBA Finals, but remember that everybody on an NBA roster is capable of scoring a bunch of points on a given night.  At the college level, stopping a one-star team is possible and happens every year in the NCAA Tournament.  Remember that the great Michael Jordan had James Worthy and Sam Perkins on his North Carolina team. Kareem Abdul Jabbar was surrounded with players like Lucius Allen, Sidney Wicks, and Curtis Rowe at UCLA, and Jabbar’s stats were lower than they could have been had UCLA not been balanced elsewhere.

Congratulations!  You have earned your PhD in Bracketnomics.  Coming tomorrow, the PiRate Ratings will present to you all the data that we use in these criteria.  We will then make our picks.

March 14, 2022

Bracketnomics 2022

The All-Encompassing Master Bracketnomics Paradigm– Updated for  2022

Note: This Bracketnomics Tutorial makes past ones on our site obsolete.

Hello PiRate Ratings fans.  We here never take for granted just how intelligent the typical reader of this site is.  The contributors to this site are all geriatric lovers of mathematics, basically statistics.  Personally, I (The Captain of the Ship) learned to love math at an early age by calculating the Earned Run Averages of Sandy Koufax, Juan Marichal, Dean Chance, and Gary Peters at a time when they were trying to stay under 2.00.  When Bob Gibson had that miraculous 1968 season, I convinced my classmates to get into baseball just for the stats.  This love for statistics led to me starting the PiRate Ratings in 1969 and becoming a Sabermetric baseball analyst in my 50’s, where I worked for a Major League team.  Additionally, it led to my designing an advanced strategy baseball game called, “Sabertooth Baseball” and an advanced strategy football game called, “PiRate Pro Football.”  If you are into tabletop baseball and want both a basic game and an advanced game, then check out our sister sites,  and , where you can  purchase the games online.  We send you a Zip file of player cards, charts, directions, ballparks, and even managerial strategies used by the team.  You print them out and use dice to play the game.  Other games might cost $75-100 to purchase as a boxed game.  Printing the games yourself saves you $$$, and you can keep the charts and rules open on a computer if you don’t want to print them.  A new quick-playing version with easy rules will debut in April.  It’s called “Saberfast Baseball.”

Back to basketball and the real meat of today’s publication.  The PiRate Ratings have been isolating technical data and back-testing our theories as far back as there are statistics for college basketball.  Over the years, we have isolated certain data that serves as a winning NCAA Tournament team “fingerprint.”  We have noticed patterns where teams that made the Final 4 and won the championship shared similar stat profiles.  As basketball analytics came to be, we found new data that made the fingerprint much more accurate.  For several years, we enjoyed incredible success picking brackets, and many of our readers commented that they won their bracket contests.  Included in our selections were crazy things like picking George Mason to sneak into the Sweet 16, possibly make it to the Elite 8, and to actually be a dark horse to make the Final 4, which they did.  It was the next year that a link from a national sports journalist mentioned the PiRate Ratings in his bracket-picking feature, and overnight, this site became 50 times more popular, going from about 50 readers a day to 2,500.  Today, we average about 6,000 readers a day during college basketball season until Bracketnomics season.  The start of the NCAA Tournament for us is like April 15 for an accountant or the Christmas shopping season to a retailer.

In the early 2000’s, we discovered negative data that told us that certain teams were early upset possibilities.  We mentioned more than once that Georgetown and Vanderbilt, two highly-seeded teams, were likely to lose in the opening games to lower-ranked teams, because of our now famous “R+T” rating.  The Hoyas and Commodores both had poor R+T ratings those years, and they both lost just like we predicted.  When the best R+T teams won the national championship three consecutive years, you noticed and began putting the pressure on us to replicate our success. We received over 100 comments on our old site’s comment box saying that you had won your office pool or your other bracket contests.  One patron said she had never come close to winning when she participated in a pool at her office building, and she won the $150 prize for the first time, when she picked Duke, West Virginia, Kansas St., and Michigan St. to make the Final Four.  Kansas State lost to Cinderella Butler in the Elite 8, while the other three made the Final Four.  By the way, Butler was one of two Mid-Major teams we had picked to make the Sweet 16 that year, as we also selected Saint Mary’s to make the Sweet 16.  We did miss on Cornell and Northern Iowa also making the Sweet 16, but very few brackets had them as well, so a large number of our followers won their bracket contests that year.

Alas, like a hot player at the horse track, our system began to weaken a little over the years.  It wasn’t the statistics that led to the swoon; it was the change in the way the game was played.  Basketball analytics began to affect the game the same way that Money Ball affected baseball.  The Four Factors became the Weighted On Base Average of basketball.  And, then the NCAA changed the shot clock from 35 to 30 seconds.  That little five second change greatly altered the way basketball was played.  As a new addition, the changing of the shot clock to 20 seconds after an offensive rebound has changed the metrics a little as well.

The last two years, we spent hour after hour re-tooling our system.  We didn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, but we altered how the data would be used.  New back-testing showed that our new data might be as accurate of a predictor as the original data.  We were three days away from releasing the tutorial in 2020, when THUD, the season came to an end four days before Selection Sunday.

Last year at the Indiana Extravaganza, we issued most of the new data and did fairly well, as it came down to Baylor and Gonzaga.  Unfortunately, the data showed Gonzaga as the top team, so we missed on the Championship Game, but once again, we received comments from you at our now discontinued second website that many of you won your bracket pool using our methods.  

It is time to reveal to you our updated Bracketnomics criteria for 2022.  After you read this, you have earned a PhD in Bracket-picking (or maybe in wasting time.)  Please enjoy this.  It is still experimental, so please do not use this information for potential financial investment purposes.  A free bracket-picking contest is okay.

Criteria #1: Offensive Efficiency, Defensive Efficiency, and True Shooting Percentage

This should be obvious.  The object of the game is to score points and prevent the other team from scoring points.  The way to score points is to put the ball in the basket, and the way to prevent points from being scored is to force the other team to not put the ball in the basket.  Because there is a way to score one point, two points, and three points, an overall all-encompassing percentage that includes points scored all three ways has been created.  It is called “True Shooting Percentage.”  Its formula is: (100 * Pts) / (2 * (FGA + (.475 * FTA)))

If a team scores 85 points and takes 65 field goal attempts and 25 free throw attempts, then plugging in the formula:  (100 * 85) / (2 * (65 + (.475 * 25))) = 55.3%

When a team has a true shooting percentage offense that is 10% or better than their defensive true shooting percentage, you are looking at a gem.

More importantly, there are offensive and defensive efficiency ratings adjusted by factoring schedule strength.  Look at the top 20 in both categories, making note of any team that appears in both offensive and defensive efficiency.  When a team appears in both top 20’s, they have Final 4 potential.  If a team appears in the top 10 in both, they have to be considered a strong contender to cut the nets down when they play “One Final Moment.”

If a team is in the top 10 in one category but not in the top 50 in the other, this team is good enough to get past the Sweet 16, and usually one Final Four team will have this characteristic, but only twice in the 21st Century (both times Connecticut) has the overall National Champion been outside the top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.  For what it’s worth, the Huskies moved into the top 20 during the tournament. Baylor was #2 in offense efficiency but #22 in defense efficiency, but their schedule strength was very high.  Gonzaga had better numbers last year at 1st in offense and 11th in defense.  Houston was 7th and 9th, while UCLA was that one outlier making the Final Four at 11 & 46.  The team they defeated for the Final Four spot, Michigan, was 9th and 4th.

If you have to give one of the two efficiency stats more weight than the other, it should be the offense and not the defense like one might think.  Basketball is an offensive game.  Baseball is a defensive game.  For our purposes, a team with an offensive efficiency in the top 10 and a defensive efficiency in the top 20 that has an above average schedule strength is pure gold.  If the team has a top 10 offensive efficiency and a top 50 defensive efficiency but has a schedule strength that is 10 points per game better than average, this team must also be considered.  

As you will see in our analysis tomorrow, four teams have both offense and defense efficiency ratings in the top 20.  Four additional teams have acceptable offense and defense efficiency ratings if additional information also shows they are worthy.  One of these eight teams is highly likely to win the National Championship, and three of these eight teams are likely to make the Final Four with one team from outside this group sneaking into the Final Four, possibly a Mid-Major.

Criteria #2: Experienced and Clutch Players

It is rare for a team loaded with freshmen and sophomores that have no key upperclassmen in their playing rotation to make it to the Final Four.  Also, there needs to be a go-to player that can put his team on his shoulders and score the ultra-high leverage points.  What we are looking for here is a roster where at least one of the top 8 players is an experienced upperclassman, preferably with past NCAA Tournament experience.  If a team has considerable experience, like 3 or more upperclassmen starters that also have past NCAA Tournament experience, watch for this team to play intelligently and not make killer mistakes.  

We are also looking for a player that wants the ball with his team down one point and 10 seconds left in the game, or it can be a trio of guys where any one of the three could hit the last-second shot, even if they don’t generate the big headlines.  Look at Kentucky in the John Calipari years.  He frequently had an all underclassmen roster with the only seniors on the roster being walk-ons.  This year’s Kentucky team has experience in the starting lineup and past NCAA Tournament experience as well.  Might the Wildcats be a team to consider advancing deep after missing the tournament last year?  Check back tomorrow.

Criteria #3: Frontcourt Hero

In recent years, hitting from downtown has been the popular way to win games in the regular season.  We used to tell you to throw out the perimeter team as one that could never advance deep into the tournament, but times have changed.  Three-point shooting is now the on-base percentage of basketball.  However, the inside force is still the slugging percentage of basketball.  For a team to win six times after the Ides of March, they must have at least one inside force that contributes a double figure scoring average and a good number average of rebounds.  We personally look for a forward or center that averages 12 or more points per game and 7 or more rebounds per game, or two inside men that combine for 20 points and 12 rebounds per game (or a team with a player named Oscar Tshiebwe.)  If the team has one player that averages 14 points and 5 rebounds per game, and another player that averages 8 points and 7 rebounds per game, this is satisfactory.  That qualifies for enough inside force to win a close game when the opponent has the outside shooting advantage.

Criteria #4: Balance

This is an alternative to the team where one player can carry them to win after win.  If a team does not have a stud NBA Lottery pick on its roster, if they have a balanced team where four or more players average double figure scoring, it can be hard to shut them all down in a game.  One of the four is likely to have a hot hand.  It may not be as immediate, but sometimes the balanced team has the advantage if the one-star team’s star has his one off night of the season in the Sweet 16.  For instance,  #1 North Carolina lost in the 1984 NCAA Tournament when The General, Robert Montgomery Knight devised an excellent defensive game plan that shut Michael Jordan down and limited him to 13 points and four turnovers in his final college game, as Indiana won. 

Criteria #5: A head coach with NCAA Tournament experience, preferably winning Tournament experience

If the coach of a tournament team has taken a past team to the Final Four, he’s in elite company.  Treat this coach like royalty.  If the coach has taken a past team to the Elite 8, he’s almost as royal.  If a coach has taken past teams to multiple Sweet 16’s, then these coaches deserve bonus points.  All the 2021 Final Four head coaches had lengthy NCAA Tournament experience.

Criteria #6: Strength of Schedule

A team from one of the bottom 10 conferences might go 28-3 in the regular season, and possess all of the above criteria above (maybe not criteria #5).  But, this team has probably played 90% of its games against Quadrant 3 and Quadrant 4 opponents, maybe all of its games against the bottom half.

Meanwhile, another team from one of the top three leagues might have stats that make you wonder why this team was invited to the Dance.  Schedule strength is the difference.  Annually, a team with a record like 19-14 from the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, or SEC gets an invitation to the tournament and wins a tournament game, while a team that went 29-4 and lost in the championship game of their low-major conference tournament is put in the NIT field, and a 30-4 low-major conference champion loses without really competing in their first round NCAA Tournament game.  

To win the NCAA Championship, a team must have defeated quality opposition and not just teams ranked lower than 250.  In the modern era, every team that has won the national championship had a schedule strength either in the top 40 or at least 8 points per game above average.  There have been multiple #1 seeds with schedule strengths below #40 or 8 points above average that did not make it to the Final 4, and every one that made it to the Final 4 failed to win the National Championship.  Butler in 2010 came within a couple inches of winning the title with a schedule strength outside the top 40.

Teams with weaker strengths of schedule can make it to the Final 4, but not very frequently.  To win four games in the Dance, a team usually has to be battle-tested.  If a mid-major has a schedule strength between 50 and 100, they have to be really strong in other criteria to pick to go to the Final 4.  In 2018, when Gonzaga advanced to the National Championship Game, their strength of schedule was in this range.  Butler’s strength of schedule was also in this range when they twice advanced to the Championship Game.  Loyola of Chicago just barely qualified. The last team not from a power conference (or top Independent in the years where there were 30 independents) to win the National Championship was UNLV in 1990, and before that, it was Texas Western in 1966.

Criteria #7: A Regular Season or Conference Tournament Champion

Rarely does a team win the national championship after not winning either their regular season or conference tournament championship.  It happens, but the conference championship and conference tournament championship teams have already proven they can win games when the money is on the line.

Criteria #8: Three-point Shooting Percentage

In the past, teams that relied on the three-point shot could be counted out after the Sweet 16.  That is no longer the case.  But, shooting three pointers is not the key; making them is the key.  It doesn’t matter how many of them a team takes, the percentage is the key.  Look for teams that hit 3 out of every 8, or to round it to a whole number, better than 37%.  3 of 8 from behind the arc is better than 5 of 9 inside in points per shot.

Criteria #9: Offensive Rebounding Percentage

One would think that a rebound is a rebound, but offensive rebounds lead to more points than defensive rebounds, obviously because an offensive rebound is made within shooting range of a team’s basket, while a defensive rebound is more than 50 feet away from a team’s basket.

The key number here is 37%.  If a team gets offensive rebounds on 37% or more of its missed shots, they are going to be tough to beat in the Big Dance.  Many times, close games are decided by key offensive rebounds in the final two minutes, even the final possession of games.  If a team has made it to the Sweet 16, if they can crash the offensive boards, they are dangerous.

Criteria #10: Defensive 2-Point Field Goal Percentage

After telling you that three-point shooting has become the rage these days, we’ve now mentioned having an inside scoring force, the ability to hit the offensive glass, and now we tell you not to look at three-point shooting percentage defense.  The ability to stop the close shots is much more important in tournament games.  About 60% of all field goal attempts are two-point attempts, and remember that an easy shot inside of five feet from the basket is still more important than an open three-point shot.  If a team has weak inside defense, and the opponent hits 10 baskets inside five feet of the basket, they are likely to consistently have a higher true shooting percentage than the team that averages eight made three-pointers per game.  Over the long haul, the three-point shooting magicians may have higher true shooting percentages, but their chances of having six consecutive higher true shooting percentages are much lower than the team that can get inside of five feet consistently and hit 12 of 18 shots in this high percentage zone.  

Look for a team with a defensive two-point shooting percentage lower than 45%.  Opponents will not be able to consistently score points against these teams.

Criteria #11: Free Throw Rate

We used to pan great free throw shooting teams, because they never won national championships.  In fact, for years, the national champion was always a sub-70% free throw shooting team.  None of the great UCLA teams during their 10-title run in 12 years shot 70% at the foul line.  We showed for years how the dominating power team that may have averaged 18 of 27 at the foul line only lost three points to the top free throw percentage team that went 21 of 27.  These sub-70% free throw shooting teams easily made up that three points and more by controlling the boards against the finesse teams.

Free Throw Rate doesn’t look at free throw percentage.  Drawing fouls on the defense is more important, and we’ve been late coming to this side of belief.  We believed for years that free throws made per 100 possessions was a more important way to measure free throw rate than the standard Free Throw Attempts divided by Field Goal Attempts.  But, the key part of this stat is getting to the foul line more than it is making the foul shots.  Obviously, it is not great to fail to score at the charity stripe, but the essence here is still the same; if a team has to make foul shots to win games, they aren’t going to do so six times in the NCAA Tournament.  But, if they get to the foul line with higher frequency, it means two things much more important than scoring free throws.  First, the opponents are likely to see key players sitting on the bench with foul trouble.  More importantly, a team that gets to the foul line frequently probably is too talented offensively for average and above average defenses to handle.  Why are most fouls committed?  They are committed when a defensive player cannot adequately guard the offensive player.  This is like in baseball when the top power hitters tend to draw the most walks, because pitchers will try to pick at the corners and keep the ball out of the sluggers’ best heat zones.  Those extra fouls are like the pitchers’ throwing four balls out of the strike zone.

The key stat to look for is a team with a FT Rate in excess of 37%.  Defensively, look for a team that has a FT Rate lower than 31%.  Those two stats tell you which offenses are dangerous and which defenses are tournament tough.

Criteria #12: The Old PiRate Data Still Matters

The old mainstay PiRate Ratings data still matters.  Those stats include:

  1. A scoring margin of 10 or more points for Final Four potential, and a scoring margin of 8 or more points for Sweet 16 and Elite 8 teams.  More than 80% of Final 4 teams across time have scoring margins of 10 points or more.  Don’t expect a team with a scoring margin of a few points to win four games in the NCAA Tournament.
  2. Field Goal % margin.  Look for teams that have a regular FG% that is 7.5% better than their Defensive FG%.  If that number is 10% or more, this is a tough team.  A team with a 48% FG% and 38% defensive FG% is a gem.
  3. Winning % away from home.  If a team won 75% of their games not played at home, they are tournament ready.  If a 25-8 team went 17-0 at home and 8-8 away from home, this team is a pretender.  A team has to win six consecutive games away from home to cut the nets, so don’t look at a .500 team away from home to beat six quality opponents.
  4. A lengthy winning streak during the season.  Do you really think a team that never won more than three consecutive games during the season will now win six in a row against better competition?  Most national champions had either a winning streak of 10 or more games or multiple winning streaks of six or more games.

Criteria #13: R+T ©

We saved this one for last.  It is our personal creation.  Way back in the early days of the career of one of our favorite college basketball analysts ever, Clark Kellogg, we heard him mention the term, “Spurtability.”  He explained that teams with spurtability tended to win more NCAA Tournament games than others.  A team that could go on a quick scoring run in a short time frequently won NCAA Tournament games.

Then, we remembered back to our youth, when the NCAA Tournament was the UCLA Invitational.  When UCLA beat Duke in the 1964 National Championship Game, they broke open a close game with a 16-0 run in just two and a half minutes!  This was before the three-point shot existed.  They scored 16 points in about 150 seconds by forcing Duke to turn the ball over against their scary 2-2-1 Zone Press, and they converted over and over with fast break baskets.  The game was over after this.  That wasn’t the only time that year that 30-0 UCLA did that.  Coach John Wooden, in a lecture given to amateur coaches in the 1980’s, said that the 1964 team had at least one run like this in all 30 games that year.

Take two teams evenly matched playing in the Elite 8.  Both are highly ranked and deserving of that ranking.  They are among the top teams in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and both played tough schedules.  With six minutes to go in the game Team A leads Team B by four points, when Team B goes on a 12-2 run in the next two minutes, forcing Team A to call timeout, as they now trail by six points with four minutes to go.  Team B holds on for the win.

Can we predict the probability that one team will enjoy a spurt like this, and the other team will not?  We think most teams can enjoy a spurt like this, but we believe we can estimate which teams have the best chance to go on a decisive game-winning spurt or more little spurts than the opponent.  That’s what the R+T rating calculates.

How does a team go on a big scoring run in a short time?  We will tell you up front that a 16 to 2 run rarely comes about from seven regular possessions by both teams, where the 16-point team scores four two-point baskets, two three-point baskets, and two free throws, while the other team scores just one basket and misses six other times down the floor, where no offensive rebounds or turnovers come into play.

The spurt almost always happens due to a combination of turnovers forced, especially steals, and controlling the boards at both ends.  Getting multiple second and third shots on offense and allowing one or no shot per possession on defense leads to these checkmate spurts.

Looking at a teams’ stats, winning the rebounding and turnover stats, or what some call the “Hustle Stats,” predicts a team’s chances of having a big spurt.  All that’s left is to come up with a formula for Spurtability, and that’s what our R+T rating is.  Our old formula, the one that is easy and quick to calculate, for years was:

(R * 2) + (S * 0.5) + (6 – Opp. S) + T

To explain: R = rebounding margin; S = average steals per game (and Opp. S = how many steals per game given up); and T = Turnover Margin.  Remember that fewer turnovers per game than committed is positive turnover margin, and more turnovers per game than forced is negative turnover margin.

Example:  Let’s Say that State U averages 38.6 rebounds per game and gives up 34.3 rebounds per game.  Their rebound margin is 4.3.  State averages 7.8 steals per game, and opponents steal the ball from State 5.1 times per game.  State averages 12.4 turnovers a game and forces 13.9 turnovers per game for a turnover margin of 1.5.  Now we have all the variables we need to calculate State’s R+T number.

(4.3 * 2) + (7.8 * 0.5) + (6 – 5.1) + 1.5  = 14.9

What this shows us is that State U has an R+T of 14.9 or an average of about 15 points per game in spurtability.

Is this good?  It is rather good but not national champion good.  In most years, a handful of teams in the NCAA Tournament will have R+T ratings above 20.  In several years, the team with the highest R+T rating among those teams from the Power Conferences has won the national championship.

One more thing about R+T ratings. Any time a team has a negative or really low positive R+T rating, throw them out immediately, even if they are a big-name team from a power conference.  Non-spurtability teams that have to win games by consistently winning more possessions in a half-court game are rarely going to make it past the Sweet 16.  One of the reasons the PiRate Ratings gained popularity was with our ability to predict higher-seed first round losers just by their having negative R+T ratings.  Two schools, Georgetown and Vanderbilt, earned three NCAA Tournament bids in an overlapping era between 2008 and 2013, and each time the Hoyas and Commodores had negative R+T ratings.  We picked against them in the first round in all six cases and went 6-0!  Georgetown lost as a #3 seed to Ohio U in 2010.  In 2011, they lost as a #6 seed to #11 VCU, in a game where the Rams R+T was 20+ points better.  In 2013, they were a 3-seed once again and lost to Florida Gulf Coast.

Vanderbilt had negative R+T ratings in 2008, 2010, and 2011.  In 2008 as a 4-seed, they lost to Siena.  In 2010, as a 4-seed, they lost to Murray St.  In 2011 as a 5-seed, they lost to Richmond.

On the other hand, in 2017, North Carolina finished the regular season ranked #6 in the nation with seven losses.  Villanova, Gonzaga, Arizona, Kentucky, and Kansas were rated ahead of the Tar Heels in the polls, and most so-called experts were going with Kentucky, Kansas, and Villanova as the favorites to win the championship.  We begged to differ.  North Carolina had one of the highest R+T ratings since we began calculating the rating.  It was almost 30.  We picked the Tar Heels to win the title, and they did that by going on frequent scoring spurts in those six games.  The difference in the championship game was the R+T rating, as Carolina enjoyed huge advantages in rebounding and turnover rates.  Gonzaga clearly had the better shooting and free throw shooting that night.

Beginning in 2020, we originated a new R+T Rating that used rate stats rather than counting stats, because it is obvious that a team that outrebounds opponents 35 to 27 is better than a team that outrebounds opponents 45 to 36, and a team that misses a lot more shots has a lot more chances to grab offensive rebounds.

The new and improved R+T Rating is a multi-step process.    Here is the formula, and then we will explain it.

((R * 8) + ((S + T) * 4)) / 3.5

This formula now refers to Rate Stats.  The “R” in the formula now stands for Rebounding Rate margin.  This is a combination of both offensive and defensive rebounding rate and it is a deviation from the norm and not just a percentage.  The norm in our formula refers to the current median of the Division 1 teams (usually in the 27 to 29% range and 28.5 in 2022).  If a team has an offensive rebounding rate above this median number, it is above average, and if it is below this number, it is below average.  Thus, the norm for defensive rebounding rate is the opposite of the above number, (usually in the 71 to 73% range and 71.5 in 2022).  We then calculate our R part of the formula by taking each team’s offensive rate minus the norm plus their defensive rate minus the norm and then add the two results and divide by 2.

The rest of this formula uses the same process as above.  Take each team’s steal rate and calculate the difference from the median (9.4% in 2022) for both offense and defense, add the two results and divide by 2. 

Now, we need Turnover rates, both offensive and defensive (16.1% median in 2022).  Obviously, the lower the offensive turnover rate is, the better, and the higher the defensive turnover rate is, the better.  Sum the offensive and defensive differences from the median turnover rate and divide by 2: 

The 3.5 as the divisor is our constant that we hope makes a usable formula telling us the potential number of points a team has in spurtability.  We came to this number by back-testing actual scoring runs and then found the mean square error of actual scoring runs by the teams.

Fret not with the R+T calculations.  We have done all the work for you.  In our big reveal tomorrow, every team’s R+T number will be shown.

Extra Credit:  If you get to a point where flipping a coin is the last step before you choose a winner of a bracket, consider one interesting tidbit that may or may not have any real weight.  Teams with red color uniforms tend to have more fouls called on their players than teams with blue color uniforms.  Overall, teams that wear red tend to get whistled maybe one time more per game than teams that wear blue.  If you look at the national champions from history, many more teams had blue uniforms than had red uniforms.  Green can be counted with the blue, while orange can be counted with the red.  Usually, if the red or orange team is wearing its white uniforms, the calls don’t go against them quite as much.   

We’ve never used this factor in picking brackets or any regular season game for that matter, but it is good for a laugh.

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