Is it fun to root for an upset that you picked correctly in the Tournament Challenge? Of course, but which do you value more: the excitement of those 40 minutes or the thrill that comes with winning your entire pool?
Not that the latter is easy to do -- it's not -- but the point is this: Your time ought to be spent determining your Final Four teams rather than trying to appear to be the smartest fan in your pool on the first days of the tourney. Don't get me wrong, every point matters, but don't forget that the early picks only matter if the late ones come through ... not the other way around.
My goal is not to lead you down the path of a perfect bracket; it is to provide you with context as to what a Final Four team traditionally looks like and which teams in this season's field most closely resemble that.
When making your Final Four picks, consider these historical facts from the past 20 tournaments:
Seven of eight Final Four teams that averaged more than 25 free throw attempts (FTA) per game made the title game
No winner allowed opponents to average more than 20 FTA per game
76.5 percent of Final Four teams with a free throw edge of at least 7.3 FTA per game made the final (41.2 percent won the whole thing)
Fifteen of the past 20 champions (75 percent) have either shot at least 73.5 percent from the line or had an edge of at least six FTA per game
Only five Final Four teams (6.3 percent) allowed more FTA than they attempted (Michigan State accounted for two of those occurrences in 1999 and 2015)
Seven of the past 10 champions had a player averaging at least 18.0 points per game (PPG)
Nine of past 10 champions had a player average at least 18 PPG or had a team assist-to-turnover ratio of at least 1.399 (Kentucky 2012 being the lone exception)
Nine of 11 Final Four teams with a player averaging at least 18 PPG made the final over the past 10 seasons
26 of 40 (65 percent) finalists had an assist-to-turnover ratio (ATO) above 1.155
18 of 26 (69.2 percent) Final Four teams that had an ATO higher than 1.294 advanced to the final
11 of 14 (78.6 percent) Final Four teams with an eFG% of at least 56 percent made it to the title game (eight winners)
Three of the past four champions had the highest remaining eFG% among Final Four teams (top-10 rate in the country)
Nine of 15 Final Four teams with an eFG% of 50 percent or lower did not make the title game
Of the 80 Final Four teams the past 20 seasons, 67 (83.8 percent) held a top-10 rating in the polls at one point during the season.
The majority of Final Four teams (52.5 percent) held a No. 1 or No. 2 rating at some point during the season, with 75 percent of champions rising that high. At one time or another, 33.8 percent were ranked No. 1 (45 percent of champions).
81.3 percent of Final Four teams had a victory of at least 35 points on their résumé heading into the tourney (95 percent of champions, with the lone exception being UConn in 2011)
In a perfect world, your champion will look something like this: has won a game this season by at least 35 points ("big win"), has appeared in the AP top 10 during the season (if not a top-two ranking), has a player averaging at least 18 points, takes more free throws than its opponent (ideally attempting more than 25 FTA per game while not allowing more than 20 FTA per game), has an assist-to-turnover rate over 1.155, and has an eFG% over 50 percent (ideally 56 percent or better).
So who checks the most boxes of the contenders? I'm happy you asked.
Soppe's Final Four picks
Michigan State: My highest-rated team ranked as a top-12 squad in six of seven categories, putting them in a tier of their own. Health is an issue, but this pick gives my bracket elite talent with a Hall of Fame coach at a low championship pick percentage.
Gonzaga: The Zags could well coast to a Final Four berth, as 12-seeded Murray State is the only other team in their region that grades inside the top 20 for me. They own the top eFG% in the field, making them a nerd's dream ... so no, I'm not sorry, and yes, I am confident.
Virginia: They lost in the biggest shocker last season, but I don't think they lose until the final game of the 2018-19 season. Tennessee profiles as a significant challenge, but they hold a significant edge in limiting opponent free throws, and a high volume of easy points are correlated to late-season success.
North Carolina: If you're looking for a chaotic region, the Midwest is for you. Yes, I have chalk emerging at the end of the day, but I don't feel great about it. I trust the battle-tested nature of the Tar Heels (second in strength of schedule; the average SoS mark for my other top-four-graded teams in this region is more than 40th).
Feel free to make some noise in the early rounds here, but at the end of the day, the Tournament Challenge winners this season will be those who #Don'tBalkAtTheChalk
Beyond the Final Four
If you're looking for some extra help filling out the rest of your bracket, check out my full bracket here and my power rankings for every team in the tournament below.
I ranked all 68 teams based on seven key metrics (percentage weight): kenpom.com strength of schedule (31.125 percent), assist-to-turnover ratio (18.25 percent), assist percentage (6.75 percent), FTA (11.145 percent), FT% (8.855 percent), eFG% (50 percent) and total rebound percentage (10 percent).
Yes, that is more than 100 percent. The strength of schedule aspect of the formula is meant to assign a value to the other numbers, so it provides a numerical context to an already "full" résumé. The stat categories are a spin off of Dean Oliver's famous "Four Factors of Basketball Success," and the weights are the result of charting past games to determine what a winner looks like.
Lower numbers are better, as each team is assessed a field ranking in each metric (thus 1 is the best and 68 is the worst).
How should you read this data? Well, you could simply advance the team with the better "Soppe rank" and be on your way. Not a bad option, but it doesn't allow for much flexibility. Last season, three Elite Eight teams occupied the top four spots in my power ranks and three of the Final Four teams were 13th or better (believe it or not, Michigan was the surprise Final Four team according to these metrics, not Loyola).
If there is a team in my ranks that appears funky to you, you're welcome to dismiss it, but understand that there are underlying numbers that put them there ... fade the math at your own risk.