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Adam Hermann and Zach Pekale | March 11, 2020

Can a low-scoring team win the NCAA tournament?

Tracing the NCAA bracket from 1851 London, through 1977 Staten Island, to today

As of March 3, there were four teams ranked in the AP Top 25 Poll that average less than or within a point of 71 points per-game — the national scoring average. They are Virginia (57.4), Wisconsin (67.5), Baylor (71.4), and Maryland (71.6).

It's likely that these teams will make the NCAA tournament. Some would pick them to win their first game.

But can a low-scoring team go all the way and lift a national championship in April?

To figure out whether a low-scoring team can win a championship, we looked back at every tournament since the field expanded to 64 teams and found the lowest-scoring team to win a title (so far): Rollie Massimino's magical 1985 Villanova team.

A No. 8 seed that caught fire in the first 64-team NCAA tournament ever, that year’s Villanova team is the lowest seed to win a title since 1985 and the only championship team to average fewer than 70 points per-game and win the tournament in its current format.

Here’s a look at the scoring habits of every team since 1985:

Year Seed Champion PPG National PPG Diff.
1985 8 Villanova 68.7 69.7 -1.0
1986 2 Louisville 79.4 69.9 9.5
1987 1 Indiana 82.5 73.2 9.3
1988 6 Kansas 75.3 74.2 1.1
1989 3 Michigan 91.7 75.9 15.8
1990 1 UNLV 93.5 75.1 18.4
1991 2 Duke 87.7 76.5 11.1
1992 1 Duke 88.0 74.0 14.0
1993 1 UNC 86.1 73.3 12.8
1994 1 Arkansas 93.4 75.2 18.2
1995 1 UCLA 87.5 73.1 14.4
1996 1 Kentucky 91.4 72.4 19.0
1997 4 Arizona 83.9 70.4 13.5
1998 2 Kentucky 80.1 71.2 8.9
1999 1 UConn 77.3 70.1 7.2
2000 1 Michigan St. 74.1 70.4 3.7
2001 1 Duke 90.7 71.3 19.4
2002 1 Maryland 85 71.1 13.9
2003 3 Syracuse 79.6 70.1 8.5
2004 2 UConn 78.8 69.4 9.4
2005 1 UNC 88.0 69.0 19.0
2006 3 Florida 78.3 69.1 9.2
2007 1 Florida 79.8 69.3 10.5
2008 1 Kansas 80.5 69.4 11.1
2009 1 UNC 89.8 68.6 21.2
2010 1 Duke 77.0 69.1 7.9
2011 3 UConn 72.4 68.9 3.5
2012 1 Kentucky 77.4 67.8 9.6
2013 1 Louisville 74.5 67.3 7.2
2014 7 UConn 71.8 71.0 0.8
2015 1 Duke 79.3 67.5 11.8
2016 2 Villanova 78.0 73.0 5
2017 1 UNC 84.4 73.4 11
2018 1 Villanova 86.6 73.7 13.9
2019 1 Virginia 71.4 72.0 -0.6

The only teams to win the the national championship in its current format scoring fewer points per-game than the national average?  That 1985 Villanova team and last season's Virginia squad.

Although UConn's 2014 team came close, averaging just 0.8 points per-game more than the national average. Interestingly, the two lowest-scoring teams since that Villanova run in 1985 have both been UConn squads. In 2011, the 3-seed Huskies averaged 72.4 points per game (75th in the country, and just 3.5 points higher than the national average) but rode Kemba Walker’s glorious month to a title.

Let’s take a look at these three seeming outliers and try to figure out what they did right:

1. They were all really good at defense

The average points allowed per game (PAPG) from the 35 champions since 1985? 67.66. All four of these outlier teams defended a good bit better than that mark:

  • 2019 Virginia 56.1 PAPG
  • 1985 Villanova: 63.9 PAPG
  • 2011 UConn: 64.9 PAPG
  • 2014 UConn: 63.2 PAPG

The lowest PAPG by a champion since 1985 was 58.5, when Louisville put the clamps on its opponents all year long. But the 2018-19 champion Cavaliers shattered that record by 2.5 points. The only time the 'Hoos allowed more than 80 points last season was a road loss to Duke, but the number of opponents held under 50 points (10) was double those who reached 70 (5). 

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How about 2020? Where do our seven low-scoring contenders rank in PAPG?

  • Virginia: 52.6 (1st)
  • Baylor 59.6 (6th)
  • Wisconsin 62.9 (25th)
  • Maryland 63.8 (35th)

PAPG as a whole is trending downward among NCAA tournament champions; on average, champions in the 2010s have allowed about eight fewer points per-game than champions did in the 1990s.

2. They all had scoring depth

It’s good to have a star in March, and it’s good to have a deep cast of scorers in March, but it’s especially nice to have both.

Villanova in 1985 had tournament MOP Ed Pinckney averaging 15.6 points per game, UConn in 2011 had Kemba Walker getting buckets to the tune of 23.5 points per game, and UConn in 2014 had Shabazz Napier dropping 18 points per game. Virginia had Kyle Guy and De'Andre Hunter both scoring above 15 points nightly. They also had good supporting casts:

Team 15.0+ PPG 10.0+ PPG 5.0+ PPG
1985 Villanova 1 3 5
2011 Uconn 1 2 6
2014 Uconn 1 3 5
2019 Virginia 2 3 5

Villanova had three players on its team that went on to play in the NBA. UConn had three in 2011 and just one in 2014. Virginia currently has three rookies at the next level.

3. They all shot free throws pretty well

Okay, so the Villanova team wasn’t great at free throws. Its .715 mark was good, but not world-beating. Virginia was a little bit better, finishing top 50 after knocking down over 74 percent at the stripe. The UConn teams, however, were great at free throws, ranking in the Top 15 both years, including leading the entire nation in 2014 at .770.

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The important thing is, free throws weren't sore spots for any of these teams. They didn't score a lot of points, so they couldn't afford to give up free buckets when they arrived.

This season, Wisconsin is the top free throw shooting team of the aforementioned bunch. The Badgers rank 21st, hitting over 76 percent. But the drop off is pretty steep from there. Maryland is the next closest at 57th.

So… can one of these teams do it?

Maybe, but the chances are unlikely. Virginia's 2018 team had a similar makeup to the 1985 Villanova and 2011 and 2014 UConn teams, but Tony Bennett’s side were historically upset in the first round by No. 16 UMBC. The Retrievers beat the Cavaliers by 20 points.

MORE: Complete coverage to help you pick a better bracket

It’s far from a safe bet to pick the offenses of Virginia, Wisconsin, Baylor or Maryland to run the table. But if one of them did, they'd have a chance to potentially join some pretty elite company.

NCAA.com writer Mitchell Northam contributed to this story.

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