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Daniel Wilco | | March 13, 2019

Does having the toughest strength of schedule help in March Madness?

What's your March Madness childhood dream shot?

It doesn’t come as much surprise that teams that consistently play the strongest schedules tend to perform well in the NCAA tournament. Facing tough opponents year after year is great preparation for the grind of March Madness.

But there is a limit to how tough you want your season to be, based on the data.

Looking at the teams that entered Selection Sunday ranked in the top of strength of schedule that season shows a surprising trend: Make your schedule too tough, and you’ll likely be watching the later rounds of the NCAA tournament from home.

*Note: Strength of schedule rankings are based on official NCAA data

Here’s what we saw when we looked at the teams that finished in the top 5 SoS each year since 2010.

NCAAT result Times Percentage
Didn't make tournament 5 11%
Lost in first round 13 29%
Lost in second round 8 18%
Lost in Sweet 16 6 13%
Lost in Elite Eight 8 18%
Lost in Final Four 4 9%
Lost in championship game 1 2%
Won championship 0 0.0%

Only five of the 45 teams made the Final Four, and just one (2014 Kentucky) made the championship game. And yes, without context, five of 45 teams making the Final Four is above average, but when you consider the expectations that come with a high strength of schedule, these teams are underperforming. What’s more, five teams didn’t even make the tournament.

In total, the majority of teams (58 percent) lost before reaching the Sweet 16. Not exactly a strong showing.

Compare these teams to teams with lower-ranked strength of schedules, and a theme becomes apparent:

SoS rank Final Fours Championship games Titles
1-5 4 1 0
6-10 7 3 3
11-15 8 6 4

Yes, you want a tough schedule, but not the toughest in the country. Teams with a strength of schedule ranked 6-15 have won seven of the past nine national championships.

And when you look at the toughest of the tough, teams with the No. 1 strength of schedule, the slope gets even steeper.

Year Team SOS Record NCAAT seed NCAAT result
2010 Georgetown 1 23-10 3 Lost in first round
2011 Georgetown 1 21-10 6 Lost in first round
2012 Michigan St. 1 26-7 1 Lost in Sweet 16
2013 Duke 1 27-5 2 Lost in Elite Eight
2014 Kansas 1 24-9 2 Lost in second round
2015 Kansas 1 26-8 2 Lost in second round
2016 Oregon 1 27-6 1 Lost in Elite Eight
2017 Vanderbilt 1 19-15 9 Lost in first round
2018 Kansas 1 31-8 1 Lost in Final Four

Last year, Kansas became the first team in the past nine years to finish the regular season with the hardest of strength of schedule and make it to the Final Four. Five of the nine (56 percent) lost on the opening weekend.

So how should this affect how you fill out your bracket?

It’s easy to look at strength of schedule as a complex, telling factor in a team’s toughness, but don’t be tricked into thinking this one number can tell you everything you need to know. If recent history tells us anything, easier schedules don’t lend themselves to March Madness longevity, but the absolute toughest schedules always lead to early exits come tournament time.

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Here is how many upsets you should pick in the NCAA tournament, based on data from the the last 35 years since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

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