It doesn’t come as much surprise that teams that consistently play the strongest schedules tend to perform well in the NCAA tournament. Facing tough opponents year after year is great preparation for the grind of March Madness.
But there is a limit to how tough you want your season to be, based on the data.
Looking at the teams that entered Selection Sunday ranked in the top of strength of schedule that season shows a surprising trend: Make your schedule too tough, and you’ll likely be watching the later rounds of the NCAA tournament from home.
Strength of schedule rankings are based on official NCAA data
MARCH MADNESS 2021: Complete schedule and dates for the 2021 tournament
Here’s what we saw when we looked at the teams that finished in the top 5 SoS each year since 2010.
|Didn't make tournament||6||12%|
|Lost in first round||14||28%|
|Lost in second round||9||18%|
|Lost in Sweet 16||7||14%|
|Lost in Elite Eight||9||18%|
|Lost in Final Four||4||8%|
|Lost in championship game||1||1%|
Only five of the 50 teams made the Final Four, and just one (2014 Kentucky) made the championship game. And yes, without context, five of 45 teams making the Final Four is above average, but when you consider the expectations that come with a high strength of schedule, these teams are underperforming. What’s more, six teams didn’t even make the tournament.
In total, the majority of teams (58 percent) lost before reaching the Sweet 16. Not exactly a strong showing.
Compare these teams to teams with lower-ranked strength of schedules, and a theme becomes apparent:
|SoS rank||Final Fours||Championship games||Titles|
Yes, you want a tough schedule, but not the toughest in the country. Teams with a strength of schedule ranked 6-15 have won seven of the past 10 national championships.
And when you look at the toughest of the tough, teams with the No. 1 strength of schedule, the slope gets even steeper.
|Year||Team||SOS||Record||NCAAT seed||NCAAT result|
|2010||Georgetown||1||23-10||3||Lost in first round|
|2011||Georgetown||1||21-10||6||Lost in first round|
|2012||Michigan St.||1||26-7||1||Lost in Sweet 16|
|2013||Duke||1||27-5||2||Lost in Elite Eight|
|2014||Kansas||1||24-9||2||Lost in second round|
|2015||Kansas||1||26-8||2||Lost in second round|
|2016||Oregon||1||27-6||1||Lost in Elite Eight|
|2017||Vanderbilt||1||19-15||9||Lost in first round|
|2018||North Carolina||1||26-11||2||Lost in Sweet 16|
|2019||Kansas||1||26-10||4||Lost in second round|
Kansas and North Carolina reached the Final Four in 2018 and 2017, with the Tar Heels winning it all that season. But when both teams played the toughest strength of schedule in Division I the following year, neither reached the Elite Eight. In the past decade, six teams with the hardest strength of schedule (60 percent) lost on the opening weekend.
So how should this affect how you fill out your bracket?
It’s easy to look at strength of schedule as a complex, telling factor in a team’s toughness, but don’t be tricked into thinking this one number can tell you everything you need to know. If recent history tells us anything, easier schedules don’t lend themselves to March Madness longevity, but the absolute toughest schedules always lead to early exits come tournament time.