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Two (more) factors to help predict the Final Four teams

It’s not you, it’s us.

OK, so that’s not exactly the phrase George Costanza tried to take credit for, but it’s close enough. It’s us as a basketball community that is the problem. Scoring is sexy. Scoring leads highlight shows. Scoring wins awards. And scoring gets you paid. It’s as if we have adopted a new slogan to live by: Those that can, score, and those that can’t, pass.

That’s just wrong. Very wrong. I’m happy to spearhead this battle. It’ll be a long war, but for now, I’m just trying to help you win your bracket. Over the past decade, the average Final Four team is recording assists on 21.1% of its buckets. During that same stretch, just three Final Four teams out of those 40 have had a player average 19 points per game. There are 16 teams in the AP Top 25 that have an assist percentage north of 21% with a leading scorer averaging less than 19 points per game, and I’m comfortable if you want to consider them all viable options. But you’re not reading a March Madness article in the middle of the winter because you want a ton of teams to watch. You’re reading with the hope of getting a handful of championship contenders that you want to track prior to picking them to make a serious run.

Don’t worry, I got you. Over that same stretch, the past decade, the average champion has seen its leading scorer average 17.8 points a night, and I’m not in the business of shying away from data. Here are the four teams that have an assist percentage over 21%, as well as a leading scorer averaging under 19 points per game but have their leader averaging closest to 17.8 points per game:

Now, that’s obviously a cherry-picked example to help support my agenda, but they are facts. Facts that are trending even more in my favor. The past five champions have assisted on 23.1% of their baskets for the season, a significant spike in the 19.7% assist rate the five previous champions averaged. This is a team sport, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that when everyone is working together at a high level toward a common goal, success follows. I’ll always encourage you to shoot your shot when it comes to filling in your bracket … just make sure it’s a high percentage shot that I helped you get!

Prefer this set of finalists or the Final Four we worked through during Christmas week? Or a mix? It’s never too early to start thinking about the bracket. There’s not much time between the bracket release and when they need to be submitted, so those who get their studying in ahead of time will be in position to succeed.

Most newscasters have some sort of sign-off phrase that you recognize. Writers often wrap up a piece with a witty one-liner. Researchers? We are a different breed, and I’m not the least bit sorry about it. Here is some data to take with you, to store, to bring up in a few short months when the bracket is released and you have the year’s best puzzle at your fingertips waiting to be solved.

  • Over the past decade, 57.5% of Final Four teams were a top-10 team in the first AP poll of the new year.

  • Over the past decade, 75% of Final Four teams were a top-15 team in the first AP poll of the new year.

  • The past 11 non-UConn champions ranked inside the AP’s top 15 in both the preseason poll and the first poll of the new year.

As a reminder, here are the preseason rankings (*indicates the teams with the best chance to be ranked when the first 2020 poll is released Monday).

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