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Andy Wittry | | February 12, 2021

How to pick a successful March Madness dark horse

So you want to pick a dark horse candidate to make a deep run in this year's NCAA tournament? Good idea!

A team seeded seventh or higher has made the Elite Eight in eight of the last nine tournaments — 2019 broke the streak with No. 5 seed Auburn being the lowest seed to play for a Final Four berth. In 2018, three teams seeded seventh or higher — Florida State, Loyola Chicago and Kansas State — made the Elite Eight. Since 2013, at least one team seeded seventh or higher has made the Final Four.

Correctly selecting a team that fits this profile to make a deep run - when most fans will pick that team to lose in the first weekend - could be the difference that leads you to a win in your bracket pool.

We looked at South Carolina in 2017, Syracuse in 2016 and UConn in 2014, among a large group of recent dark horse teams, to identify some common traits that might help you make a dark horse pick in this year's NCAA Bracket Challenge game.

First, let's define some parameters. We looked at teams seeded No. 7 or higher that made the Elite Eight or further in the last 17 years, bringing our sample size to 20 teams. A Cinderella can put its dancing shoes on for one night and pull off one big upset, but a dark horse is a team that can win multiple games in March against opponents that might have different styles of play.

MARCH MADNESS 2021: Complete schedule and dates for the 2021 tournament

A quick disclaimer: every team does not fit this profile perfectly but there is enough in common to draw conclusions. Here's the perfect storm of factors that goes in to creating a dark horse.

The following data comes from, using his pre-NCAA tournament data for adjusted offensive efficiency rank, adjusted defensive efficiency rank, adjusted efficiency margin rank and overall strength of schedule rank.

Elite on at least one end of the floor. We'll define "elite" at being in the top 20 nationally in offensive or defensive efficiency. If a team isn't elite on offense or defense, it must at least be respectable on both ends so that its overall efficiency margin is somewhere near the top 45. Eight of the 20 teams examined ranked in the top 20 nationally before the NCAA tournament in terms of adjusted offensive or defensive efficiency, and 18 of 20 ranked in the top 45 in adjusted efficiency margin.

A difficult strength of schedule, ideally somewhere in the top 40 nationally (at least for the major conference schools). A team probably didn't win many of its games against top competition – that's why they're a No. 7 seed or higher – but they've at least played against the same type of high-level opponents they'll face in the tournament. In 2018, Kansas State and Florida State, a pair of nine seeds that made the Elite Eight, had the 34th and 36th toughest schedules in the country, respectively.

A go-to bucket-getter. Someone who has an offensive rating well above average with a high usage rate and who is ideally a dangerous 3-point shooter. In 2018, this was Loyola Chicago's Clayton Custer, who shot 45.1 percent from beyond the arc.

A coach with NCAA tournament experience, both in terms of quantity of appearances and ideally second-/third-weekend experience. In 2018, this was Bruce Weber of Kansas State, who had been to the tournament 12 times, made three trips to the Sweet 16 and had one appearance in the national championship.

An above-average 3-point shooting team. 14 of the 20 teams examined made 3-pointers at an above-average rate compared to the national average in their respective season. The most notable examples are UConn in 2014 (38.7 percent, 4.3 percent above the average) and Michigan State in 2015 (38.5 percent, 4.2 percent above the average). Loyola Chicago shot 39.6 percent from outside in 2018, the 20th best mark in the country.

Year School Seed Tournament Finish Offensive Efficiency Defensive Efficiency Adjusted Efficiency Strength of Schedule 3-point percentage
2018 Loyola Chicago No. 11 Final Four No. 63 No. 17 No. 31 No. 99 39.6
2018 Kansas State No. 9 Elite Eight No. 78 No. 21 No. 42 No. 34 34.1
2018 Florida State No. 9 Elite Eight No. 43 No. 33 No. 27 No. 36 35.0
2017 South Carolina No. 7 Final Four No. 149 No. 3 No. 31 No. 24 33.4%
2017 Xavier No. 11 Elite Eight No. 33 No. 73 No. 40 No. 9 34.5%
2016 Syracuse No. 10 Final Four No. 65 No. 30 No. 38 No. 18 36.0%
2015 Michigan State No. 7 Final Four No. 15 No. 38 No. 18 No. 7 38.5%
2014 Dayton No. 11 Elite Eight No. 35 No. 99 No. 56 No. 63 37.7%
2014 UConn No. 7 Won national championship No. 57 No. 12 No. 25 No. 13 38.7%
2014 Kentucky No. 8 Lost in national championship No. 19 No. 32 No. 19 No. 5 33.2%
2013 Wichita State No. 9 Final Four No. 53 No. 28 No. 30 No. 51 33.9%
2012 Florida No. 7 Elite Eight No. 3 No. 123 No. 17 No. 34 38.0%
2011 VCU No. 11 Final Four No. 60 No. 126 No. 82 No. 70 37.0%
2011 Butler No. 8 Lost in national championship No. 34 No. 69 No. 44 No. 57 35.2%
2008 Davidson No. 10 Elite Eight No. 30 No. 25 No. 18 No. 102 37.2%
2006 George Mason No. 11 Final Four No. 75 No. 16 No. 25 No. 88 35.6%
2005 West Virginia No. 7 Elite Eight No. 32 No. 85 No. 42 No. 18 36.0%
2004 Xavier No. 7 Elite Eight No. 48 No. 18 No. 26 No. 36 37.6%
2004 Alabama No. 8 Elite Eight No. 22 No. 59 No. 31 No. 8 37.8%
2003 Michigan State No. 7 Elite Eight No. 65 No. 13 No. 26 No. 13 37.5%

Each team listed above had a high-scoring, highly efficient, high-usage primary option on offense. You can find these players listed below. The degree of efficiency and even the position of the player varied from team to team, but the common thread among them – in addition to their impressive numbers – is that when their team needed a basket late in a game or late in the shot clock, they were often an effective option offensively.

An offensive rating around 100 is considered average and all of the players below had offensive ratings well above that mark. The heading "% Shots" represents the percent of a team's shots a player attempted while he was on the floor.

Year Player School Points Per Game Offensive Rating % Shots 3P %
2018 Clayton Custer Loyola Chicago 13.2 117.6 21.0% 45.1%
2018 Dean Wade Kansas State 16.2 126.0 26.5% 44.0%
2018 Phil Cofer Florida State 12.8 116.6 20.3% 37.5%
2017 Sindarius Thornwell South Carolina 21.4 118.2 28.4% 39.2%
2017 Trevon Bluiett Xavier 18.5 112.1 27.2% 37.1%
2016 Michael Gbinije Syracuse 17.5 111.2 25.0% 39.1%
2015 Travis Trice Michigan State 15.3 112.9 27.6% 36.9%
2014 Jordan Sibert Dayton 12.2 118.1 24.8% 42.6%
2014 Shabazz Napier UConn 18.0 115.8 26.3% 40.5%
2014 James Young Kentucky 14.3 111.7 25.3% 34.9%
2013 Cleanthony Early Wichita State 13.9 113.7 29.7% 31.8%
2012 Kenny Boynton Florida 15.9 121.8 25.8% 40.7%
2011 Bradford Burgess VCU 14.3 118.7 20.9% 43.4%
2011 Shelvin Mack Butler 16.0 106.8 29.4% 35.4%
2008 Stephen Curry Davidson 25.9 121.2 36.0% 43.9%
2006 Jai Lewis George Mason 13.7 110.4 24.8% 34.8%
2005 Kevin Pittsnogle West Virginia 11.9 113.2 34.1% 42.6%
2004 Lionel Chalmers Xavier 16.6 108.7 25.3% 40.9%
2004 Kennedy Winston Alabama 17.0 108.5 28.2% 39.7%
2003 Chris Hill Michigan State 13.7 110.8 25.3% 40.4%

While the teams listed above were dark horses in the years they made the Elite Eight or beyond, many of the names of the programs and their respective coaches don't necessary lend themselves to the profile of a stereotypical Cinderella team – say, an upstart mid-major program with a limited history of success in March – and that may be where the value is as you make your picks for this year's tournament.

Jim Boeheim, Tom Izzo, John Calipari and Billy Donovan had each previously led their schools to at least one national championship before their "dark horse" seasons. Brad Stevens and Butler made the 2010 title game before returning there in 2011. Bruce Weber took Illinois to a national championship in 2005, then guided Kansas State to the Elite Eight in 2018.

For other coaches, their dark horse NCAA tournament runs may have marked their arrivals as some of the best in the country. Shaka Smart, Gregg Marshall, Archie Miller and Chris Mack have proven they're more than one-hit wonders, whether it's through multiple tournament runs, regular season championships, conference tournament titles, or becoming the head coach at an even bigger school.

How can you use all of this information to your advantage when filling out your bracket this March?

DON'T MISS: Why the AP No. 1 team is far from a national championship lock

Recent history has shown us that on almost an annual basis, if not multiple times per year, there will be a team seeded seventh or lower in its region that makes it to the Elite Eight, if not further. Sure, it's exhilarating to try to predict a No. 14 seed upsetting a No. 3 seed or a No. 12 seed to make the Sweet 16, but the real value arguably comes in the No. 7 seed to No. 11 seed range. That's where big-name programs or programs on the rise might be seeded after having a down year. 

If they're elite on offense or defense (or at least respectable at both), led by a high-level scorer, making 3-pointers at an above-average rate, and coached someone with NCAA tournament experience, then a team might just be worth picking to advance through the tournament's second weekend.

Because picking all chalk isn't always fun. writer Mitchell Northam contributed to this story.

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