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Adam Hermann | NCAA.com | February 21, 2019

Can a low-scoring team win the NCAA tournament?

Get ready for Selection Sunday!

As of Feb. 21, there were five teams ranked in the AP Top 25 Poll that averaged less than 72 points per-game. They are Virginia (71.8), Texas Tech (71.5), Michigan (70.4), Wisconsin (69.9) and Kansas State (65.8).

It's likely that these teams will make the NCAA tournament. Many 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?

MARCH MADNESS SHOP
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

The only team to win the the national championship in its current format scoring fewer points per-game than the national average? Yes, it's that 1985 Villanova team.

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 33 champions since 1985? 67.83. 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). 

In 2018, Villanova won with PAPG average of 70.2, just 114th in the nation.

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How about 2019? Where do our five low-scoring contenders rank in PAPG?

Virginia: 54.6 (1st)
Texas Tech: 57.2 (2nd)
Michigan: 57.6 (3rd)
Wisconsin: 61.2 (9th)
Kansas State: 59.8 (4th)

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. 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

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.

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 74.9 percent mark from the charity stripe. Neither Texas Tech, Michigan, Wisconsin or Kansas State rank in the top 50 in free throw shooting this year.

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 plodding offenses of Virginia, Texas Tech, Michigan, Wisconsin or Kansas State to run the table. But if one of them did, they'd break a streak of above-average scoring teams that's 33 years old and join some pretty elite company.

NCAA.com writer Mitchell Northam contributed to this story.

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