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5 Key Statistical Factors to Consider When Betting the NCAA Tournament

5 Key Statistical Factors to Consider When Betting the NCAA Tournament article feature image
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Michael Hickey/Getty Images. Pictured: Jermaine Samuels.

As I’ve done the past few NCAA Tournaments, I wanted to share five fairly basic factors that I use to identify key mismatches and potential upsets in either the first round or further down the line. Those include:

  • Unique schemes
  • Rebounding splits
  • Free throw percentages
  • 3-point shooting splits
  • Turnovers rates

My power rating is my starting point and most important factor, but understanding each team’s statistical profile and how they match up with their opponent is what I spend the most time on leading up to the tournament.

With a lack of familiarity outside of conference play, matchups and coaching mean even more, in my opinion.

Let’s take a look at which teams zone and press the most to get things started.

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In The Zone

For the season, 19 teams played zone defense in more than 30% of their possessions. Believe it or not, 18 of those didn’t make the tournament field with the most infamous zone of Syracuse leading that list of names.

The only team to make it from that list was the Bryant Bulldogs, who rank in the 72nd percentile in points per possession allowed when in zone. That could cause trouble for a Wright State post-heavy offense that ranks in the 22nd percentile against zones, facing them at a top-three rate nationally.

This is one of the lowest representations of zone defenses in the field that I can remember. Now, that doesn’t mean we won’t have any zone defenses. Here are the other teams that you can expect it from at times:

  • Norfolk State (86th percentile)
  • Iowa (40th percentile)
  • Notre Dame (58th percentile)
  • UAB (71st percentile)
  • Providence (74th percentile)

The above teams each played zone on at least 15% of possessions. We also could see some others go zone as a surprise wrinkle in a tournament setting based on the matchup.

There are other teams like Jacksonville State that you can anticipate playing more zone based on its matchup. In the Gamecocks’ case, expect the 3-2 matchup zone we’ve seen in the past against Auburn. The same applies to LSU against Iowa State’s pitiful zone offense.

Zone defenses can be especially problematic for offenses that struggle to shoot from the outside and/or lack the personnel or scheme to break these zones down. For example, Rutgers profiles as a really poor zone offense, which the analytics back up, so I’d expect Mike Brey to use a heavy dose in the play-in game.

Per Synergy, these five tournament teams had the highest points per zone possession among the 319 teams in the country that saw zone on a minimum of 75 possessions:

  • Liberty
  • Purdue
  • UC Santa Barbara
  • North Texas
  • Ohio

And these are the worst:

  • Iowa State
  • Georgia State
  • Wright State
  • Villanova
  • Arkansas
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Press U

We didn’t get some of the usual pressing tourney teams in the field this year, but there are some fresh faces on the list below.

These are the eight tourney teams that have pressed on more than 15% of possessions this season:

  • LSU, 27.5% (97th percentile)
  • Georgia State, 26.1% (75th percentile)
  • Memphis, 24% (94th percentile)
  • Bryant, 21.5% (92nd percentile)
  • St. Peter’s, 20.2% (80th percentile)
  • UAB, 18.9% (93rd percentile)
  • Texas, 16.6% (61st percentile)
  • Marquette, 15.8% (70th percentile)

The press can obviously be very problematic against teams that don’t have multiple reliable ball-handlers. Here are the five best in the tourney field in terms of points per possession:

  • Duke
  • Memphis
  • North Carolina
  • Longwood
  • Fullerton
  •  Bryant

And the five worst:

  • Kentucky
  • Texas Tech
  • Alabama
  • Seton Hall
  • Indiana

Kentucky popping up on that list is a bit surprising and something to note ahead of its matchup against a Saint Peter’s team that extends pressure constantly.

Also, don’t be surprised to see UAB use an even heavier dose of press than usual considering we saw Houston — which also lacks depth — struggle with pressure against Memphis.


Sloppy Joes

On a related note, understanding who can and can’t take care of the ball in a tournament setting is vital (especially on the second game of the weekend after only one day of prep for a quick turnaround).

Here are the best and worst tournament teams in regard to turnover rate on both offense and defense. Please note that some of these could be by design based on scheme.

  • Creighton is the only team to pop up in both “worst” columns. The Bluejays could really struggle with San Diego State’s defense, especially considering they recently lost point guard Ryan Nembhard.
  • LSU and Iowa State face each other in the first round as two teams that show up in both “worst” columns. We could see a turnover fest.
  • In one of the first four games, Texas Southern may have its turnover issues exposed against Corpus Christi’s pressure.
  • Norfolk State also has a troubling matchup in the turnover department against Baylor.
  • While Virginia Tech doesn’t show up in the “worst” column, the Hokies guards can be susceptible to pressure. That could spell trouble against Texas.
  • Memphis’ extreme turnover issues could become very problematic against a very athletic and excellent Boise State defense.

Charity Work

Death, taxes and free throw misses leading to bad beats in the tournament. Get ready for them to come as they do every season when fouls go up by over 20% in the final two minutes.

It’s valuable to at least know which favorites can and can’t shoot free throws. This could also make a difference in your bracket. One off-shooting night from the charity stripe could send a team packing.

Here are the 12 tournament teams that shot over 75.5% from the line and the 12 that finished under 69.5%.

We only have one matchup that pits one of the top 12 teams vs. one of the bottom 12 in Seton Hall vs. TCU.

Boise State’s abysmal free-throw shooting could also become a major issue against a Memphis team that fouls at a very high frequency.


From the Parking Lot

Three-point variance will decide a lot of outcomes in addition to wagers, especially as lines continue to get more efficient.

You should at least have some familiarity with which teams can shoot and which ones can’t when evaluating specific matchups.

The chart below shows the 10 best and worst 3P shooting offenses and defenses. This is just a starting point for any analysis, as there can be drastic scheme differences that lead to a significantly higher or lower percentage of 3-pointers taken or allowed. Some teams also just might have had a lucky season and the regression monster looms.

  • Gonzaga is one of the top-10 3P shooting teams in the field and will get to face a Georgia State defense that has allowed the highest 3P percentage of any team that made the tournament.
  • South Dakota State has the highest single-season 3P percentage since 2015, leading the second-best team by over four percentage points. However, the Jackrabbits are the third-worst 3P defensive team in the field.
  • Led by Jelly Walker, UAB is one of the 10 best 3P shooting teams in the field, but the Blazers will have to figure it out from deep against a Houston defense that ranks fourth in the field.

For reference, the five tournament teams that shoot the highest percentage of 3-pointers per field goal attempt include:

  • Alabama (48.0%)
  • Villanova (46.0%)
  • San Francisco (44.4%)
  • Bryant (43.7%)
  • Loyola Chicago (43.1%)

Bryant and San Francisco also rank in the top five among tourney teams in limiting opponent 3P attempts. Meanwhile, Villanova is on the opposite end of the spectrum on the defensive end.

And the least 3-point reliant teams include:

  • Kentucky (28.0%)
  • Fullerton (30.0%)
  • Saint Peters (30.3%)
  • Memphis (30.8%)
  • San Diego St. (30.8%)
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Eating Glass

If the shots aren’t falling from the outside, offensive rebounds can really bail a team out in a sudden death tournament.

Take a look at the best offensive rebounding teams (by rate) in the tournament and the worst defensive-rebounding ones. Keep in mind that some of these statistics can simply be a result of a specific scheme by design.

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