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Daniel Wilco | | November 5, 2018

The lesson learned from 34 Final Four teams: Experience matters in March

Dove Moments: VCU's Final Four run

Does experience really matter in March, or can you get to the Final Four solely with freshmen? 

We looked at the 34 Final Four teams since 2010 (not counting Louisville’s vacated appearances in 2012 or 2013) to find out.

Before we get into the details, here are the three things we learned:

  • Experience will help you get to the Final Four, but it won’t help you win it.
  • No Final Four team this decade has a roster whose average experience level is higher than a junior. The closest was UNC in 2016, at an average of 2.94 years.
  • One of the biggest Cinderellas ever — VCU in 2011 — happens to have been the most experienced Final Four team this decade. (Kentucky is the least.)

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Here's how we did it:

For the 34 Final Four teams we looked at, the average experience for the full roster of each is 2.4 years (with freshmen counting as one year, sophomores as two, etc.). But that number isn’t a great representative of how much experience matters. Instead, let’s look at how each team used their experience.

For that, we created a quick metric we’ll call the Age Index. The basic idea is to weight minutes-per-game for each team by experience.

To do that, we took the minutes-per-game played by each player, multiplied it by the years of experience he has (1 for freshmen, 2 for sophomores, etc.), then totaled those numbers for every team. Because some teams played more minutes than others (thanks to overtime games), we adjusted the scores to represent the team’s average over 200 minutes — a full regulation game for five players — so that every team was on an even playing field.

The final Age Index for each team sits on a range from 200 to 800. A team that only played freshman would have a score of 200. A team of all seniors would score 800.

That gave us the average score for a Final Four team this decade: 518.5.

That’s equivalent to five players with an average of 2.6 years of experience each, decently higher than the average experience of full rosters that we looked at earlier.

Here’s where all of the 34 Final Four teams rank:

Rank Year Team ROSTER'S AvG exp Age index Result
1 2011 VCU 2.58 625.14 Lost in Final Four
2 2012 Kansas 2.57 625.06 Runner up
3 2015 Wisconsin 2.54 616.10 Lost in Final Four
4 2016 Oklahoma 2.53 614.28 Lost in Final Four
5 2014 Connecticut 2.73 605.82 Champion
6 2011 Butler 2.71 592.29 Runner up
7 2010 Duke 2.69 591.17 Champion
8 2014 Florida 2.64 582.93 Lost in Final Four
9 2016 North Carolina 2.94 575.86 Runner up
10 2017 North Carolina 2.67 573.99 Champion
11 2013 Wichita State 2.75 565.68 Lost in Final Four
12 2018 Loyola-Chicago 2.60 565.56 Lost in Final Four
13 2017 Oregon 2.92 563.39 Lost in Final Four
14 2015 Michigan State 2.54 551.68 Lost in Final Four
15 2017 Gonzaga 2.57 548.99 Runner up
16 2013 Syracuse 2.73 548.48 Lost in Final Four
17 2018 Kansas 2.33 546.26 Lost in Final Four
18 2016 Villanova 2.83 537.79 Champion
19 2016 Syracuse 2.13 534.77 Lost in Final Four
20 2010 West Virginia 2.33 533.03 Lost in Final Four
21 2018 Michigan 2.12 531.95 Runner up
22 2010 Michigan State 2.53 530.59 Lost in Final Four
23 2010 Butler 2.53 528.32 Runner up
24 2014 Wisconsin 2.38 524.94 Runner up
25 2017 South Carolina 2.06 499.39 Lost in Final Four
26 2018 Villanova 2.50 464.95 Champion
27 2012 Ohio State 1.85 440.06 Lost in Final Four
28 2011 Kentucky 2.00 426.37 Lost in Final Four
29 2015 Duke 2.25 419.61 Champion
30 2011 Connecticut 2.15 388.28 Champion
31 2013 Michigan 2.40 373.84 Runner up
32 2015 Kentucky 2.25 369.64 Lost in Final Four
33 2012 Kentucky 1.92 358.01 Champion
34 2014 Kentucky 1.80 274.61 Runner up

The most experienced team actually came from the highest seed to ever reach the Final Four — VCU in 2011.

The Rams’ five players with the most minutes consisted of three seniors, one junior, and one sophomore, enough experience to make them the only team to ever make the Final Four from the First Four.

Look to the bottom of the rankings and you won’t be surprised.

Kentucky has been to four Final Fours since 2010. In 2011, they scored a 426.4, ranking 28th out of the 34. The 2015, 2012, and 2014 Final Four teams from Kentucky rank 32, 33, 34, respectively. 

Getty Images Kentucky 2014Kentucky's 2014 team was the least-experienced team to make the Final Four this decade.

The five players who played the most on that 2014 team were four freshmen (Aaron Harrison, James Young, Andrew Harrison, Julius Randle) and a sophomore (Willie Cauley-Stein). The team received an 8 seed in the NCAA tournament, and beat 2-seed Wisconsin 74-73 to advance to the title matchup, but lost 60-54 against 7-seed Connecticut.

But let’s narrow the focus a bit. Does age help once you get to the Final Four? Interestingly enough, no. The average score for a team that made the Final Four but lost is 536.1. Teams that advanced to the championship game averaged 501. Move to the next round, and the trend continues. Runners-up averaged 508.4, while champions were at 492.5. Keep in mind, those last two differences are very small — as is this sample size — but it’s still worth noting.

So, is there a message in all this? Absolutely. No one has won the title this decade with five freshman leading the way. Experience is still king in March. 

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