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Adam Hermann and Zach Pekale | March 11, 2022

Can a low-scoring team win the NCAA tournament?

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

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
1985 8 Villanova 68.7
1986 2 Louisville 79.4
1987 1 Indiana 82.5
1988 6 Kansas 75.3
1989 3 Michigan 91.7
1990 1 UNLV 93.5
1991 2 Duke 87.7
1992 1 Duke 88.0
1993 1 UNC 86.1
1994 1 Arkansas 93.4
1995 1 UCLA 87.5
1996 1 Kentucky 91.4
1997 4 Arizona 83.9
1998 2 Kentucky 80.1
1999 1 UConn 77.3
2000 1 Michigan St. 74.1
2001 1 Duke 90.7
2002 1 Maryland 85
2003 3 Syracuse 79.6
2004 2 UConn 78.8
2005 1 UNC 88.0
2006 3 Florida 78.3
2007 1 Florida 79.8
2008 1 Kansas 80.5
2009 1 UNC 89.8
2010 1 Duke 77.0
2011 3 UConn 72.4
2012 1 Kentucky 77.4
2013 1 Louisville 74.5
2014 7 UConn 71.8
2015 1 Duke 79.3
2016 2 Villanova 78.0
2017 1 UNC 84.4
2018 1 Villanova 86.6
2019 1 Virginia 71.4
2021 1 Baylor  82.9

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 (-1.0) and the 2021 Virginia squad (-0.6).

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 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 champions since 1985? Under 68 per game. 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). 

March Madness: 7 signs you picked too many NCAA tournament upsets

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.

What is March Madness: The NCAA tournament explained

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.

NCAA.com writer Mitchell Northam contributed to this story.

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