So you want to pick a dark horse candidate to make a deep run in this year’s NCAA tournament? Good idea!
A team seeded seventh or higher has made the Elite Eight in eight of the last nine tournaments — 2019 broke the streak with No. 5 seed Auburn being the lowest seed to play for a Final Four berth. In 2018, three teams seeded seventh or higher — Florida State, Loyola Chicago and Kansas State — made the Elite Eight. Since 2013, at least one team seeded seventh or higher has made the Final Four.
Correctly selecting a team that fits this profile to make a deep run – when most fans will pick that team to lose in the first weekend – could be the difference that leads you to a win in your bracket pool.
We looked at South Carolina in 2017, Syracuse in 2016 and UConn in 2014, among a large group of recent dark horse teams, to identify some common traits that might help you make a dark horse pick in this year’s NCAA Bracket Challenge game.
First, let’s define some parameters. We looked at teams seeded No. 7 or higher that made the Elite Eight or further in the last 17 years, bringing our sample size to 20 teams. A Cinderella can put its dancing shoes on for one night and pull off one big upset, but a dark horse is a team that can win multiple games in March against opponents that might have different styles of play.
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A quick disclaimer: every team does not fit this profile perfectly but there is enough in common to draw conclusions. Here’s the perfect storm of factors that goes in to creating a dark horse.
The following data comes from KenPom.com, using his pre-NCAA tournament data for adjusted offensive efficiency rank, adjusted defensive efficiency rank, adjusted efficiency margin rank and overall strength of schedule rank.
Elite on at least one end of the floor. We’ll define “elite” at being in the top 20 nationally in offensive or defensive efficiency. If a team isn’t elite on offense or defense, it must at least be respectable on both ends so that its overall efficiency margin is somewhere near the top 45. Eight of the 20 teams examined ranked in the top 20 nationally before the NCAA tournament in terms of adjusted offensive or defensive efficiency, and 18 of 20 ranked in the top 45 in adjusted efficiency margin.
A difficult strength of schedule, ideally somewhere in the top 40 nationally (at least for the major conference schools). A team probably didn’t win many of its games against top competition – that’s why they’re a No. 7 seed or higher – but they’ve at least played against the same type of high-level opponents they’ll face in the tournament. In 2018, Kansas State and Florida State, a pair of nine seeds that made the Elite Eight, had the 34th and 36th toughest schedules in the country, respectively.
A go-to bucket-getter. Someone who has an offensive rating well above average with a high usage rate and who is ideally a dangerous 3-point shooter. In 2018, this was Loyola Chicago’s Clayton Custer, who shot 45.1 percent from beyond the arc.
A coach with NCAA tournament experience, both in terms of quantity of appearances and ideally second-/third-weekend experience. In 2018, this was Bruce Weber of Kansas State, who had been to the tournament 12 times, made three trips to the Sweet 16 and had one appearance in the national championship.
An above-average 3-point shooting team. 14 of the 20 teams examined made 3-pointers at an above-average rate compared to the national average in their respective season. The most notable examples are UConn in 2014 (38.7 percent, 4.3 percent above the average) and Michigan State in 2015 (38.5 percent, 4.2 percent above the average). Loyola Chicago shot 39.6 percent from outside in 2018, the 20th best mark in the country.
|Year||School||Seed||Tournament Finish||Offensive Efficiency||Defensive Efficiency||Adjusted Efficiency||Strength of Schedule||3-point percentage|
|2018||Loyola Chicago||No. 11||Final Four||No. 63||No. 17||No. 31||No. 99||39.6|
|2018||Kansas State||No. 9||Elite Eight||No. 78||No. 21||No. 42||No. 34||34.1|
|2018||Florida State||No. 9||Elite Eight||No. 43||No. 33||No. 27||No. 36||35.0|
|2017||South Carolina||No. 7||Final Four||No. 149||No. 3||No. 31||No. 24||33.4%|
|2017||Xavier||No. 11||Elite Eight||No. 33||No. 73||No. 40||No. 9||34.5%|
|2016||Syracuse||No. 10||Final Four||No. 65||No. 30||No. 38||No. 18||36.0%|
|2015||Michigan State||No. 7||Final Four||No. 15||No. 38||No. 18||No. 7||38.5%|
|2014||Dayton||No. 11||Elite Eight||No. 35||No. 99||No. 56||No. 63||37.7%|
|2014||UConn||No. 7||Won national championship||No. 57||No. 12||No. 25||No. 13||38.7%|
|2014||Kentucky||No. 8||Lost in national championship||No. 19||No. 32||No. 19||No. 5||33.2%|
|2013||Wichita State||No. 9||Final Four||No. 53||No. 28||No. 30||No. 51||33.9%|
|2012||Florida||No. 7||Elite Eight||No. 3||No. 123||No. 17||No. 34||38.0%|
|2011||VCU||No. 11||Final Four||No. 60||No. 126||No. 82||No. 70||37.0%|
|2011||Butler||No. 8||Lost in national championship||No. 34||No. 69||No. 44||No. 57||35.2%|
|2008||Davidson||No. 10||Elite Eight||No. 30||No. 25||No. 18||No. 102||37.2%|
|2006||George Mason||No. 11||Final Four||No. 75||No. 16||No. 25||No. 88||35.6%|
|2005||West Virginia||No. 7||Elite Eight||No. 32||No. 85||No. 42||No. 18||36.0%|
|2004||Xavier||No. 7||Elite Eight||No. 48||No. 18||No. 26||No. 36||37.6%|
|2004||Alabama||No. 8||Elite Eight||No. 22||No. 59||No. 31||No. 8||37.8%|
|2003||Michigan State||No. 7||Elite Eight||No. 65||No. 13||No. 26||No. 13||37.5%|
Each team listed above had a high-scoring, highly efficient, high-usage primary option on offense. You can find these players listed below. The degree of efficiency and even the position of the player varied from team to team, but the common thread among them – in addition to their impressive numbers – is that when their team needed a basket late in a game or late in the shot clock, they were often an effective option offensively.
An offensive rating around 100 is considered average and all of the players below had offensive ratings well above that mark. The heading “% Shots” represents the percent of a team’s shots a player attempted while he was on the floor.
|Year||Player||School||Points Per Game||Offensive Rating||% Shots||3P %|
|2018||Clayton Custer||Loyola Chicago||13.2||117.6||21.0%||45.1%|
|2018||Dean Wade||Kansas State||16.2||126.0||26.5%||44.0%|
|2018||Phil Cofer||Florida State||12.8||116.6||20.3%||37.5%|
|2017||Sindarius Thornwell||South Carolina||21.4||118.2||28.4%||39.2%|
|2015||Travis Trice||Michigan State||15.3||112.9||27.6%||36.9%|
|2013||Cleanthony Early||Wichita State||13.9||113.7||29.7%||31.8%|
|2006||Jai Lewis||George Mason||13.7||110.4||24.8%||34.8%|
|2005||Kevin Pittsnogle||West Virginia||11.9||113.2||34.1%||42.6%|
|2003||Chris Hill||Michigan State||13.7||110.8||25.3%||40.4%|
While the teams listed above were dark horses in the years they made the Elite Eight or beyond, many of the names of the programs and their respective coaches don’t necessary lend themselves to the profile of a stereotypical Cinderella team – say, an upstart mid-major program with a limited history of success in March – and that may be where the value is as you make your picks for this year’s tournament.
Jim Boeheim, Tom Izzo, John Calipari and Billy Donovan had each previously led their schools to at least one national championship before their “dark horse” seasons. Brad Stevens and Butler made the 2010 title game before returning there in 2011. Bruce Weber took Illinois to a national championship in 2005, then guided Kansas State to the Elite Eight in 2018.
For other coaches, their dark horse NCAA tournament runs may have marked their arrivals as some of the best in the country. Shaka Smart, Gregg Marshall, Archie Miller and Chris Mack have proven they’re more than one-hit wonders, whether it’s through multiple tournament runs, regular season championships, conference tournament titles, or becoming the head coach at an even bigger school.
How can you use all of this information to your advantage when filling out your bracket this March?
Recent history has shown us that on almost an annual basis, if not multiple times per year, there will be a team seeded seventh or lower in its region that makes it to the Elite Eight, if not further. Sure, it’s exhilarating to try to predict a No. 14 seed upsetting a No. 3 seed or a No. 12 seed to make the Sweet 16, but the real value arguably comes in the No. 7 seed to No. 11 seed range. That’s where big-name programs or programs on the rise might be seeded after having a down year.
If they’re elite on offense or defense (or at least respectable at both), led by a high-level scorer, making 3-pointers at an above-average rate, and coached someone with NCAA tournament experience, then a team might just be worth picking to advance through the tournament’s second weekend.
Because picking all chalk isn’t always fun.
NCAA.com writer Mitchell Northam contributed to this story.