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Daniel Wilco | | February 12, 2021

What having the toughest schedule means for NCAA tournament success

Here are the top March Madness moments of the decade (2010-2019)

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.

NCAAT result Times Percentage
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%
Won championship 0 0.0%

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
1-5 4 1 0
6-10 7 3 3
11-15 9 6 4

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.

College basketball rankings: Even unranked teams find success in the NCAA tournament

Since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 — its modern format — only four of 35 national champions were unranked to start the season. That’s about one in every nine years.

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Here is how many brackets predicted each seed to win the national championship, from Gonzaga and the No. 1 seeds through Drexel and the rest of the No. 16 seeds.
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