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Andy Wittry | NCAA.com | February 18, 2020

1 big-man trend to consider when picking the Final Four in your NCAA bracket

Greatest buzzer beaters in March Madness history

One of the best NCAA bracket tips is to start at the end and work your way backwards — and this year you may want to strongly consider teams with a center who's willing to shoot the three when you fill out your Final Four.

That's because we could be witnessing a transition where most of the best teams in the country have a center who's willing to take threes.

Here's some data to support that idea:

  • From the 2013 to the 2015 Final Four, seven of the 12 players who were his team's primary option at center during the NCAA tournament didn't attempt a single 3-pointer during the season and 10 of the 12 tried eight or fewer threes in their respective seasons.
  • During the 2018 and 2019 Final Four, three of the eight players who were his team's primary center during the NCAA tournament attempted at least 130 3-pointers during their respective seasons.

Two years of data doesn't make a trend but at least anecdotally, it does suggest at least one of the following, either: 1) more teams are playing with big men who are able to spread the floor with their shooting ability, or 2) the better teams are playing with centers who are able to do so.

In the 2018 Final Four, the primary bigs for national finalists Villanova and Michigan — Omari Spellman and Moritz Wagner, respectively — attempted a combined 308 3-pointers during the season (150 and 158, respectively), which were the two highest single-season totals of any player last decade whose team made the Final Four and who was responsible for the highest percentage of minutes at the "five" during his team's last five games. 

Using kenpom.com's depth-chart archives, which show how the percent of minutes played at each position (point guard through center) were divided among players on the roster over a team's final five games, and historical box scores, we were able to identify what player typically played center for recent Final Four teams in their pursuit of a national championship.

Note that this doesn't mean the player who typically started at center for a team during the regular season was necessarily the same player who spent the most time at center during the NCAA tournament.

So even though Loyola Chicago's Cameron Krutwig and Kansas' Udoka Azubuike didn't attempt a single three during the 2017-18 season, the primary centers of the eight teams that made the Final Four in the last two seasons attempted a combined 523 3-pointers during their respective seasons.

The primary centers during the NCAA tournament for the Final Four teams from 2010 through 2017 (as defined above) attempted a combined 592 3-pointers.

That means last decade, the four primary centers at the Final Four in a given season combined to attempt roughly 112 threes in a season. The 2018 season (308 combined attempts) shattered the previous record during the decade (115 3-point attempts in 2010), and the 2019 season (215 attempts) almost doubled the average number attempts for the decade.

The 2013 season marked the low-point, when the four primary centers on the Final Four teams combined to take just two 3-pointers all season. Both were taken by Wichita State's Carl Hall.

Of the 40 primary centers during the Final Four runs of last decade, 16 didn't attempt a single three all season. Twenty-five of the 40 took 10 or fewer 3-pointers.

The players who primarily played center during the 2019 NCAA Tournament for each of last season's Final Four teams — Virginia, Texas Tech, Michigan State and Auburn — took a combined 215 3-pointers and each player individually attempted at least 15 threes on the season. That's something no other group of Final Four teams (and their respective centers) in the last decade could say.

Auburn's Chuma Okeke, who suffered an unfortunate season-ending injury in the Sweet 16 against North Carolina, attempted 139 3-pointers last season and he made 38.8 percent of them. Texas Tech's Tariq Owens, who started at the "four" for the Red Raiders but played more time at center than any other player during the team's last five games, according to kenpom.com, took 32 threes.

Michigan State's Xavier Tillman attempted 27 and Virginia's Mamadi Diakite had 17 3-point tries on the year.

To varying degrees of attempts and makes from deep, they were bigs who were at the very least willing to take a three.

The complete breakdown is below, color-coded to reflect that players who attempted and made more threes were highlighted in green.

 

*Louisville's participation in the 2013 NCAA Tournament was later vacated

The last two seasons have shown an increase in the number of big men who play for the best teams in the NCAA tournament and who are willing to shoot threes. The 2018 NCAA Tournament brought high-volume 3-point shooters playing the "five" (Spellman and Wagner), while the 2019 NCAA Tournament provided a relatively high baseline for the number of 3-pointers that centers, or small-ball fives, took over the course of the season.

Two years of data doesn't make a trend – although, we could find ourselves in the middle of one if the teams that make the 2020 Final Four have 3-point-shooting centers – but at least anecdotally, the data above does suggest more teams, or at least some of the best teams, are using their centers to stretch the floor.

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