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Adam Hermann | NCAA.com | March 9, 2018

Can a low-scoring team (like Virginia) win the NCAA tournament?

This season Virginia hasn’t scored very much. Virginia has also been arguably the best basketball team in the country. Do those two sentences make sense together?

And should you ever pick a low-scoring team win it all in March?

MARCH MADNESS SHOP
To figure out whether a low-scoring team like Virginia 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.

An 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 70.9 0.9
2015 1 Duke 79.3 67.5 11.8
2016 2 Villanova 78.0 72.9 5.1
2017 1 UNC 84.4 73.3 11.1

Virginia currently averages 67.3 points per game, 314th in the country. No champion has ranked lower than 150th in the country since the 80s. 

Virginia's PPG is also 6.5 points lower than the national average of 73.8. The only team to win the the national championship in its current format  scoring fewer PPG than the national average? Yep, that 1985 Villanova team.

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. In 2014, the 7-seed Huskies averaged just 71.8 points per game (142nd in the country, and 0.9 points higher than the national average), but Shabazz Napier did his thing, and so UConn won again.

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 33 champions since 1985? 67.58. All three of these outlier teams defended a good bit better than that mark:

1985 Villanova: 63.9 PAPG
2011 UConn: 64.9 PAPG
2014 UConn: 63.2 PAPG

The lowest PAPG by a champion since 1985 is 58.5, when Louisville put the clamps on its opponents all year long. The only time the Cardinals allowed more than 80 points that season was a five-overtime loss to Notre Dame, and more opponents were held under 50 (8) than reached 70 (7). 

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What about 2018 Virginia? 52.8 PAPG, top in the nation.

Another good sign for Virginia: PAPG as a whole is trending downward among NCAA tournament champions; on average, champions in the 2010s have allowed 8.01 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 18.0 points per game. 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

So what about Virginia?

Team 15.0+ PPG 10.0+ PPG 5.0+ PPG
2018 Virginia 0 3 6

They lack a key reliable scorer — Kyle Guy (13.9 PPG) is their highest contributor — but they have more depth than either UConn squad, and Villanova to boot. The Cavaliers have six players averaging at least 5.0 points per game and three averaging double-digits, obviously a good sign in case Guy goes cold or a team keys in on stopping him.

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 — that mark would be middle-of-the-pack this season. 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, Virginia ranks 40th in the country with a .756 mark from the charity stripe, which is always a crucial skill in March if games come down to one or two free throws.

So… can Virginia do it?

Maybe! Tony Bennett’s a great coach, Virginia has proven all year this formula can work, and as a 1-seed the Cavaliers should have one of the easiest paths to the final.

But also, the NCAA tournament hasn’t seen an offense like Virginia’s win the whole thing in quite some time. The closest thing to this offense to win the NCAA tournament in the past 33 years was one of the most unlikely tournament runs the entire event has ever seen; it happened in the first year of this current format and hasn’t happened again.

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While Virginia shares plenty in common with those UConn teams and that Villanova team from years before, it’s far from a safe bet to pick the Cavaliers’ plodding offense to run the table. But if they did, they'd break a streak of above-average scoring teams that's 32 years old and join some pretty elite company.