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Daniel Wilco | | October 12, 2018

How performance in close games affects national championship hopes

USA Today Sports Images Kris Jenkins Villanova 2016

Does a team need to be clutch to win the NCAA tournament? From what we can tell, no, not really. But nearly every national champion we looked at was. Here’s how we got there.

We took the past 25 years of NCAA tournament and examined how each champion performed in close games. For the purposes of the story, we classified a close game as any that ended with a point differential achievable in one possession. And while it is possible to score four points in a possession, doing so at the end of a game is extremely rare, so we simplified even further to only consider games that ended with a margin of three points or fewer. 

This obviously is not a perfect, all-encompassing criteria. A game could go to overtime and then end with a 15-point margin. Or a team could have a chance to win the game on the last possession, miss its shot, foul its opponent, and watch the free throws push it to a five-point game. But with the information available to us, we have a pretty solid picture.

The 24 champions in the past 25 years (Louisville’s 2013 championship was vacated) played a total of 913 games. Of those, 110 (12 percent) ended within three points or fewer.
In those 110 games, the eventual national champions were 79-31, a win percentage of .718. Individually, only four teams were under .500 in close games.

Year National champion Close game win Close game losses Close game W/L %
2018 Villanova 2 0 1.000
2017 UNC 5 1 0.833
2016 Villanova 2 1 0.667
2015 Duke 2 0 1.000
2014 UConn 5 1 0.833
2012 Kentucky 3 1 0.750
2011 UConn 8 3 0.727
2010 Duke 3 0 1.000
2009 UNC 2 3 0.400
2008 Kansas 1 2 0.333
2007 Florida 2 1 0.667
2006 Florida 2 0 1.000
2005 UNC 3 2 0.600
2004 UConn 5 1 0.833
2003 Syracuse 5 1 0.833
2002 Maryland 1 0 1.000
2001 Duke 5 3 0.625
2000 Michigan State 1 3 0.250
1999 UConn 4 1 0.800
1998 Kentucky 7 1 0.875
1997 Arizona 3 4 0.429
1995 UCLA 4 0 1.000
1994 Arkansas 4 2 0.667

Two arguments can be made for the championship team that was the best in close games. In 1995, UCLA went 4-0 in games decided by three points or fewer. All four came against ranked opponents.

In 1998, Kentucky was 7-1. Only three of those were against ranked teams, but two came back to back late in the tournament — an 86-84 win over Duke in the Elite Eight, and an 86-85 overtime victory against Stanford in the Final Four.

No team played more close games than UConn in 2011. The Huskies had 11 games decided by one possession, which is just absurd. That’s more than a quarter of their games that year. UConn was 8-3 in those, with two of the wins coming in the NCAA tournament. In the Elite Eight, UConn faced Arizona in a game where Kemba Walker dropped 20 points and Jeremy Lamb had 19. But the game came down to a wide-open 3-point attempt by Arizona at the buzzer that missed off the back rim. The very next game, in the Final Four against Kentucky, the Huskies survived another 3-point attempt at the buzzer to advance to the title game, where they beat Butler 53-41.

But does this matter in the NCAA tournament? 

From when the NCAA tournament was expanded to 64 teams in 1985 through the 2018 tournament, there have been 2,142 games played. Of those, 391 ended within three points. That’s just 18.3 percent, for an average of 11.5 close games per tournament (out of 63). Games are almost twice as likely to end with a margin of 15 points or greater (30.1 percent of all games) than within three points. So skill or luck, or whatever helps you win close games won’t be used very often in the tournament.

But what about the title games themselves?

The average margin of an NCAA championship game since 1985 is 8.3 points. In the past 25 years, only four championship matchups (16 percent) have been within three points.

Year Team Championship score Close game record
2010 Duke 61-59 3-0
2016 Villanova 77-74 2-1
2003 Syracuse 81-78 5-1
1999 UConn 77-74 4-1

So in reality, any one team is statistically very unlikely to play in a one-possession game during the NCAA tournament, and slightly less so in the championship game itself. But a little luck never hurt.