Winning Away From Home
So your team is pretty good this year. Congrats. It’s still February and realistically there are 20 or so CBB squads out there that have a shot at making a run. Maybe even a deep run, a Cinderella run. So, what is the one thing that your team needs to be paying attention to right now? Indeed, what is one of the primary historical key indicators that if your team achieves now, you can confidently stand around that watercooler one month out and say, “Seriously, we have a shot to not only go to the Elite Eight, but this is the year we are a Final Four team!”
It’s simpler than you might think, and while it should be noted that by itself this indicator is not a fool proof identifier, it is incredibly common among Final Four participants. It is simply this:
Final Four teams win on the road all season long.
Examining data that goes back to 2003, every Final Four participant, except two, has earned a road victory percentage greater than 50%. That is, 70 of 72 teams are winners on the road. They not only win at home but throughout the season they are able to go into away arenas full of hostile student sections (except the PAC, as they barely have empty hostile student sections these days) and win. Final Four teams are confident away. They have the ability to function in foreign environments and ultimately, they produce results.
Honestly, we’re not setting the bar very high here–just a winning record not in your own gym. But by the time you factor in all of the early season tournaments, conference schedule and the conference tournaments, you really do have to be a good away team to win in the Big Dance.
The Two Exceptions – 2016 Syracuse and 2021 UCLA Were Not Road Winners
Of the 72 Final Four participant in the last 18 tournaments, only two teams were able to make it to the Final Four without having won more than half of their away games that season. Could your team be that lucky? It’s highly unlikely.
The 2016 Syracuse was the Cinderella of Cinderella’s. To be honest, much of what they accomplished is because they benefited from a path that completely cleared itself of tougher competition – not their fault… still a fact.
As a 10-seed, Syracuse beat #7 Dayton, #15 Middle Tennessee and #11 Gonzaga. They met #1 Virginia in the Elite 8 but our algorithm did not give as much credit to the Cavaliers scoring capabilities as the Selection Committee did, so ‘Cuse rolled on. Syracuse lost their next game by 17 point to 1-seed UNC in the Final Four.
The other road patsy to win big was UCLA in 2021. They entered as an 11-seed with an away win percentage less than 50% and took down #6 BYU, #14 Abilene Christian, #2 Alabama and #1 seeded Michigan. Only to lose to Gonzaga, who was the closest mid-major to ever win the whole thing. (Remember, mid-majors don’t win the tournament). They would certainly classify as an outlier in the largest outlier (COVID) season.
Notable “Long Shots” That Earned Their Way to the Final Four
Some of those that are on the final stanzas of the Big Dance were remarkable that they got there because of their low seeding. It is difficult to advance when the deck is stacked and you are constantly playing high quality teams. But every one of the teams with a seeding higher than 7, except those noted above, that have made it did so with a greater than 50% win-percentage in away games that season.
- 2006 11-seed George Mason – 65% away win rate
- 2011 8-seed Butler – 61% away win rate
- 2011 11-seed VCU – 60% away win rate
- 2013 9-seed Wichita State – 65% away win rate
- 2015 7-seed Michigan State – 61% away win rate
- 2017 7-seed South Carolina – 50% away win rate
- And the shocker of them all (sorry Wichita) 2018 11-seed Loyola Chicago with a 78% away win rate and a mere 11 seed
First Round Success
This trend is also helpful when looking at the earlier rounds. For instance, of 12 seeds who had a road win percentage of at least 65%, 16 of 40 advanced to the Second Round. For 11 seeds, 8 of 18 advanced past the opening round and with 10 seeds, half of them won in the First Round.
Think about that for a second, all of those teams were expected to lose their first-round games by the committee and yet a significant number of them advanced. Far more than the same seeded teams with losing away game records. There is something to this theory; by the numbers, it appears that winning at home will get you to the tournament, but winning away from home in the regular season will get you deep in the tournament.