How to pick a March Madness dark horse in your NCAA bracket
So you want to pick a dark horse candidate to make a deep run in this year's NCAA Tournament? Good idea! A team seeded seventh or higher has made the Elite Eight each of the last seven tournaments. Since 2013, at least one team seeded seventh or higher has made the Final Four. Correctly selecting a team that fits this profile to make a deep run - when most fans will pick that team to lose in the first weekend - could be the difference that lets you win your bracket pool.
We looked at South Carolina in 2017, Syracuse in 2016 and UConn in 2014, among a large group of recent dark horse teams, to identify some common traits that might help you make a dark horse pick in this year's NCAA Bracket Challenge game.
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A quick disclaimer: every team does not fit this profile perfectly but there is enough in common to draw conclusions. Here's the perfect storm of factors that goes in to creating a dark horse.
Elite on at least one end of the floor. We'll define "elite" at being in the top 20 nationally in offensive or defensive efficiency. If a team isn't elite on offense or defense, it must at least be respectable on both ends so that its overall efficiency margin is somewhere near the top 45. Eight of the 17 teams examined ranked in the top 20 nationally in terms of offensive or defensive efficiency. Fifteen ranked in the top 45 in adjusted efficiency margin.
A difficult strength of schedule, ideally somewhere in the top 40 nationally (at least for the major conference schools). A team probably didn't win many of its games against top competition – that's why they're a No. 7 seed or higher – but they've at least played against the same type of high-level opponents they'll face in the tournament.
A go-to bucket-getter. Someone who has an offensive rating well above average with a high usage rate and who is ideally a dangerous 3-point shooter.
A coach with NCAA tournament experience, both in terms of quantity of appearances and ideally second-/third-weekend experience.
An above-average 3-point shooting team. Thirteen of the 17 teams examined made 3-pointers at an above-average rate compared to the national average in their respective season. The most notable examples are UConn in 2014 (38.7 percent, 4.3 percent above the average) and Michigan State in 2015 (38.5 percent, 4.2 percent above the average).
The following data comes from KenPom.com, using his pre-NCAA tournament data for adjusted offensive efficiency rank, adjusted defensive efficiency rank, adjusted efficiency margin rank and overall strength of schedule rank.
|Year||School||Seed||Tournament Finish||Offensive Efficiency||Defensive Efficiency||Adjusted Efficiency||Strength of Schedule||3-point percentage|
|2017||South Carolina||No. 7||Final Four||No. 149||No. 3||No. 31||No. 24||33.4%|
|2017||Xavier||No. 11||Elite Eight||No. 33||No. 73||No. 40||No. 9||34.5%|
|2016||Syracuse||No. 10||Final Four||No. 65||No. 30||No. 38||No. 18||36.0%|
|2015||Michigan State||No. 7||Final Four||No. 15||No. 38||No. 18||No. 7||38.5%|
|2014||Dayton||No. 11||Elite Eight||No. 35||No. 99||No. 56||No. 63||37.7%|
|2014||UConn||No. 7||Won national championship||No. 57||No. 12||No. 25||No. 13||38.7%|
|2014||Kentucky||No. 8||Lost in national championship||No. 19||No. 32||No. 19||No. 5||33.2%|
|2013||Wichita State||No. 9||Final Four||No. 53||No. 28||No. 30||No. 51||33.9%|
|2012||Florida||No. 7||Elite Eight||No. 3||No. 123||No. 17||No. 34||38.0%|
|2011||VCU||No. 11||Final Four||No. 60||No. 126||No. 82||No. 70||37.0%|
|2011||Butler||No. 8||Lost in national championship||No. 34||No. 69||No. 44||No. 57||35.2%|
|2008||Davidson||No. 10||Elite Eight||No. 30||No. 25||No. 18||No. 102||37.2%|
|2006||George Mason||No. 11||Final Four||No. 75||No. 16||No. 25||No. 88||35.6%|
|2005||West Virginia||No. 7||Elite Eight||No. 32||No. 85||No. 42||No. 18||36.0%|
|2004||Xavier||No. 7||Elite Eight||No. 48||No. 18||No. 26||No. 36||37.6%|
|2004||Alabama||No. 8||Elite Eight||No. 22||No. 59||No. 31||No. 8||37.8%|
|2003||Michigan State||No. 7||Elite Eight||No. 65||No. 13||No. 26||No. 13||37.5%|
Each team listed above had a high-scoring, highly efficient, high-usage primary option on offense. You can find these players listed below. The degree of efficiency and even the position of the player varied from team to team, but the common thread among them – in addition to their impressive numbers – is that when their team needed a basket late in a game or late in the shot clock, they were often an effective option offensively.
An offensive rating around 100 is considered average and all of the players below had offensive ratings well above that mark. The heading "% Shots" represents the percent of a team's shots a player attempted while he was on the floor.
|Year||Player||School||Points Per Game||Offensive Rating||% Shots||3P %|
|2017||Sindarius Thornwell||South Carolina||21.4||118.2||28.4%||39.2%|
|2015||Travis Trice||Michigan State||15.3||112.9||27.6%||36.9%|
|2013||Cleanthony Early||Wichita State||13.9||113.7||29.7%||31.8%|
|2006||Jai Lewis||George Mason||13.7||110.4||24.8%||34.8%|
|2005||Kevin Pittsnogle||West Virginia||11.9||113.2||34.1%||42.6%|
|2003||Chris Hill||Michigan State||13.7||110.8||25.3%||40.4%|
While the teams listed above were dark horses in the years they made the Elite Eight or beyond, many of the names of the programs and their respective coaches don't necessary lend themselves to the profile of a stereotypical Cinderella team – say, an upstart mid-major program with a limited history of success in March – and that may be where the value is as you make your picks for this year's tournament.
Jim Boeheim, Tom Izzo, John Calipari and Billy Donovan had each previously led their schools to at least one national championship before their "dark horse" seasons. Brad Stevens and Butler made the 2010 title game before returning there in 2011.
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How can you use all of this information to your advantage when filling out your bracket this March?
Recent history has shown us that on almost an annual basis, if not multiple times per year, there will be a team seeded seventh or lower in its region that makes it to the Elite Eight, if not further. Sure, it's exhilirating to try to predict a No. 14 seed upsetting a No. 3 seed or a No. 12 seed to make the Sweet 16, but the real value arguably comes in the No. 7 seed to No. 11 seed range. That's where big-name programs or programs on the rise might be seeded after having a down year.
If they're elite on offense or defense (or at least respectable at both), led by a high-level scorer, making 3-pointers at an above-average rate, and coached someone with NCAA tournament experience, then a team might just be worth picking to advance through the tournament's second weekend.
Because picking all chalk isn't always fun.
Let's take a look at a few potential dark horse candidates for this year. Using the site BracketMatrix.com, which aggregates nearly 100 updated bracket projections from across the Internet, here are some teams that are currently projected to be seeded in the No. 7 to No. 11 seed range, so they could potentially fit the profile of a dark horse. Of course, there is still basketball to be played and a week until the selection committee unveils the official tournament bracket.
|School||Adjusted Efficiency Margin||Offensive Efficiency||Defensive Efficiency||3P%||Strength of Schedule|
|Arkansas||No. 36||No. 18||No. 83||40.4%||No. 34|
|Creighton||No. 27||No. 17||No. 68||38.0%||No. 32|
|Virginia Tech||No. 31||No. 33||No. 52||39.0%||No. 49|
|Oklahoma||No. 44||No. 28||No. 87||36.4%||No. 2|
Arkansas: The Razorbacks have a top-20 offense and a top-40 overall adjusted efficiency margin ranking. They make more than 40 percent of their 3-point tries, which is well above the national average. Coach Mike Anderson has eight NCAA tournament appearances under his belt, including an Elite Eight appearance with Missouri in 2009, and Arkansas has a pair of high-level scorers in Jaylen Barford (18.1 points per game, 114.7 offensive rating, 29.2 percent of his team's shots while he's on the floor, 43.7 percent from 3) and Daryl Macon (17.3 ppg, 125.0 offensive rating, 24.4 percent of shots, 44.3 percent from 3).
Creighton: Like Arkansas, Creighton has a top-20 offense, in terms of efficiency, but an even better defense. The Bluejays hit 38 percent of their 3-point attempts and senior Marcus Foster (20.0 ppg, 112.5 offensive rating, 32.3 percent of shots, 42.9 percent from 3) can take over a game offensively.
Virginia Tech: Virginia Tech fits the criteria of a team that isn't elite at either end of the floor but is respectable at both. The Hokies rank just outside of the top 30 in adjusted efficiency margin, they're a strong 3-point shooting team and they spread the wealth on offense. Five players average at least 10 points per game but none more than 14 a game. Their top four scorers – Justin Robinson, Justin Bibbs, Kerry Blackshear Jr., and Ahmed Hill – each has an offensive rating of at least 113. Three of the four shoot at least 39 percent from 3.
Oklahoma: The Sooners have fallen upon hard times, losing seven of their final nine regular season games, but part of that is due to running the gauntlet that is the Big 12's regular season schedule. They have a top-30 offense, a national player of the year candidate in Trae Young and a coach in Lon Kruger who has coach in 17 NCAA tournaments and made two Final Four appearances.