Is the NCAA Tournament Flawed or Beautiful?

All over the internet, people are complaining and debating about the NCAA tournament format. Can/does the best team really win? Sure, upsets are fun to watch, but are they good for the game? I myself was curious as to the answer to this question and took a deep dive into the data to find an answer once and for all.

More: Is the Donte Divincenzo’s nickname the best nickname in sports?

More: Penny Hardaway: The hero Memphis deserves and needs

This year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament seemed even more magical than normal. Several things took place that we will be able to tell our children about. A number 1 seed in Virginia lost in the opening round to 16 seed UMBC; a feat that we were convinced would never happen. An 11 seed in Loyola-Chicago made the Final Four, and with that the rise in popularity of Sister Jean. This was only the fourth time in history for a seed that low to still be around for the last weekend of the tournament. 

However, the championship game was home to two programs in Villanova and Michigan who are familiar with success on the basketball court. This got me thinking, is this always the case? Do two of the top teams always outlast the field to make it to the ultimate face-off?

Since 1990 there have been a grand total of 29 NCAA tournament champions. During this particular time span, 25 different schools have played in the championship game. 11 schools have played in the Championship game a singular time since 1990, but the remaining 14 schools all have multiple appearances in the title game. Duke leads the pack with 8 appearances in this 29 year span, coming away victorious in 5 of them Though Cinderella stories such as this year’s Loyola Chicago team sometimes give the less notable (at least basketball-wise) schools hope, the big bad ‘blue bloods’ survive the competition more times than not.

Data Courtesy of

Since the rankings began over at in 2002, a “deserving” team (defined by me as a team that is top 5 ranked on KenPom) has won the title 14 times. Of the 17 title games since 2002, 8 of these match ups have been between two top 5 KenPom teams. Nine times in this period, the number one ranked KenPom team came out victorious. 

Combined KenPom ranking of match up; number of times that combined ranking has occurred

The moral of the story is that going into any NCAA tournament, we can safely say that two highly ranked teams will play each other in the final game.

The combined average KenPom ranking of the two teams playing in the final game of the tournament is a shade over 10. This number would be much lower if it wasn’t for the outlier in Butler, who was ranked 36th in 2011 when they made it to the championship only to lose to the Huskies of Uconn. That particular game also represented the highest combined KenPom ranking of two championship competitors at 46.


For all it’s beauty and chaos, the NCAA tournament has proven that it is indeed a tournament where the rightful king will be crowned.
Though your bracket got trashed this year and you may have had a terrible prediction percentage, take this as food for thought for next year. March may be crazy and miracles may abound, but it is safe to say that when the smoke clears, there will be some familiar jerseys playing each other in that final game. I won’t be able to pick which of the top 5 will make it all the way, but I would put money that at least one of them will be there to compete until the very end. That gives you a twenty percent chance. Not too shabby; just don’t go to Vegas with those odds.


Check out more BarnBurner content here

Featured image courtesy of Canyon News

Leave a Reply