Ed Feng

Friday, March 11, 2016 7:04 PM UTC

Friday, Mar. 11, 2016 7:04 PM UTC

It's that time of the year when we get ready to make our sharp NCAA basketball picks for our bracket. As we follow our favorite team and top seeds, they don't always make it to the end.

If you want to win your March Madness pool, you must pick the right tournament champion.

The most common scoring system awards one point for Round of 64 games, two points for Round of 32 games and so on up to 32 points for the champion. This makes your champion NCAA basketball pick by far the most important pick of your bracket.

To find a champion, you can consult various computer rankings. For example, my team rankings at The Power Rank come from margin of victory adjusted for strength of schedule.

This year, the computers will give you the same list of contenders: Kansas, Virginia, Michigan State, Villanova, etc. Most systems have these top teams bunched together. The parity in college basketball makes subjective adjustments even more important than usual in picking a champion.

However, there is one criteria that lets you eliminate some of these contenders, a topic I discuss in book on how to win your pool. It has to do with college basketball's ultimate weapon: the three point shot. Let me explain.

To understand the importance of the three point shot, consider two teams. Team Williams (as in Roy Williams) only shoots two point shots and has a one half probability to make a shot. Team Beilein (as in John Beilein) takes only three point shots and hits one third of these shots.

If Team Williams and Team Beilein 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 Williams scores 78 in some games but 62 in others.

Because of Team Beilein's inclination for three point shots, they have a bigger spread in their point totals. In two of every three games, Team Beilein 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 Williams, 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, which makes them susceptible to upsets. To see how this manifests itself, the visual shows the fraction of field goal attempts taken from three point range for the tournament champion and other Final Four teams.

In this range of years, no tournament champion had a three point shooting rate much larger than average. Only three champions (Florida in 2006, Connecticut in 2014, Duke in 2015) had a three point shooting rate higher than the 33% average rate in college basketball.

My data only goes back to the 2002 tournament. Luke Winn points out that Duke took 41.8% of their shots from three and won the 2001 tournament. However, that Duke team had five future NBA players.

Teams that shoot a high rate of three point shots tend to not win the tournament. Let's look at how this impacts your bracket.

Villanova
The Wildcats are a strange team.They shoot an insane 44% of their shots from three, a top 25 rate in the landscape of 351 college basketball teams. However, they only make 33% of those three point shots, a below average shooting percentage.

Villanova still has an efficient offense due to shots from within the arc. Led by big man Daniel Ochefu and Josh Hart, they shoot 57% on two point shots, 3rd best in the nation.

Luke Winn wrote about how Villanova started shooting more threes after a study by assistant Billy Lange showed the "value of three point attempts." While true for the average college basketball team, this "value" doesn't hold for this Villanova team. They average 1.14 points per two point shot, more than their 1.0 points per three point shot. Don't pick Villanova as champion in your bracket.

Oklahoma
The Sooners shoot almost 41% of their shots from three, which makes them another team to avoid as champion in your bracket.

There's an addition danger with Oklahoma. They have made almost 43% of their three pointers this season, a rate that has propelled their offensive efficiency.

However, both Buddy Hield and Jordan Woodard have seen significant increases in their three point shooting percentages this season over previous seasons. While some of this increase comes from improvement in their game, some of the increase might be randomness.

If Oklahoma's three point shooting regresses in the tournament, they'll find it difficult to make the Final Four much less win it all.

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