The college basketball season is down to four teams and three games. As we wait for the start of the Final Four, here’s a look back at the 64 games of March Madness we’ve endured, and what we’ve learned—or validated—from what’s happened so far.
In the first two weekends of the tournament, we’ve seen upsets, wild games, dramatic finishes, and, in the end, traditional blue bloods surviving for the final push to the title. In the heat of it, everything seemed unpredictable and random, but there are plenty of lessons available to help us in future Marches as we try to figure out what’s going to happen.
As we wait for the start of the Final Four, here’s a look back at the 64 games of March Madness that we’ve endured, and what we’ve learned—or what validated things we knew before—from what’s happened so far.
Cinderella Has an Expiration Date
Saint Peter’s captured everyone’s hearts with its run to the Elite Eight. The Peacocks entered as a No. 15 seed, then knocked off higher-seeded teams Kentucky (No. 2), Murray State (No. 7), and Purdue (No. 3).
Facing the worst-seeded team of its run—No. 8 North Carolina—Saint Peter’s coach turned back into a pumpkin. After not trailing by more than six points in the tournament, the Peacocks fell behind 7-0, and the Tar Heels never looked back, leading by close to 30 and winning by 20.
That’s nothing new for Cinderella teams in the tournament. Once they get into the deep water of later rounds, teams sink to the bottom, often losing by wide margins to more tournament-experienced teams.
Florida Gulf Coast was, like the Peacocks, a 15-seed and won its first two games. With University of Florida fans chanting “Almost midnight,” FGCU fell to the Gators by 12 in the Sweet 16.
Florida also spoiled George Mason’s 2006 run to the Final Four, beating the No. 11 Cinderella team 73-58. No. 10 Kent State made the Elite Eight in 2002 before losing to Indiana by 12.
Florida, UNC, and Indiana all have something in common—they’re perennial tournament teams with large support staff who know what it’s like to win titles. When a Cinderella advances to later rounds, it gives a team like that several games worth of film to break down and find a solution to the magic the underdog has been using.
Momentum is an Illusion
Recency bias is a dangerous thing in the NCAA Tournament. As brackets are released, the teams that have won conference tournaments are freshest in everyone’s mind. They enter March Madness on a winning streak, while every large team is coming off of a loss.
There’s a temptation to expect that run to continue, but you make your own momentum in the NCAA’s, and it’s always 40 minutes away from changing. Two of the four teams in the Final Four—Villanova and Kansas —won their conference tournaments. Carolina and Duke were both knocked out by ACC champion Virginia Tech, who promptly became the first ACC team knocked out of the Big Dance, in the first round.
Last year, Gonzaga was the only member of the Final Four to win its conference tournament. In 2019 two of the four did. Of the last 40 Final Four teams, only 16 entered the tournament on a winning streak after winning their conference tourney.
Truths We’ve Seen Validated
One of the unsung ways of predicting March success is, counter-intuitively, the preseason AP poll. Teams that were expected to be good back in October often get their acts together in March. Sure enough, in this season’s preseason poll, Final Four teams Kansas and Villanova were ranked 3 and 4, respectively. Duke was also in the top 10, and North Carolina, which was ranked one week in the past three months, started the year at No. 19.
Experienced guards are also a must for tournament success. Villanova and Kansas are loaded with them, and Miami had a pair of sixth-year guards, which helped push the Hurricanes to the Elite Eight. Saint Peter’s was also loaded with juniors and seniors, which helped their fearless run to the Elite Eight.
There’s a path to future success that is visible in what seems like NCAA Tournament chaos.