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What have Final Four teams looked liked over the last decade?

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And importantly, how does Syracuse use that information to get back there sooner rather than later?

NCAA Men’s Final Four Semifinal - Syracuse v North Carolina Photo by Chris Steppig - Pool/Getty Images

While most of us have probably tuned out of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament since the Syracuse Orange were unceremoniously ousted in the first round, it’s actually still going on.

Yeah, weird, I know!

In any case, a season of pretty chalky results wound up yielding something a little less than chalky for its final weekend. A single one seed — the Virginia Cavaliers — made it to the Final Four, along with the Michigan State Spartans, Texas Tech Red Raiders and Auburn Tigers. Why do we care at this point? Because statistically, those teams and all recent Final Four squads tell us a lot about what’s needed to get this far.

It won’t surprise you that statistically superior teams make it to the Final Four, of course. But it ends up that the No. 1 offense or defense (according to KenPom) in the country has made the Final Four for five straight years, and in eight of the last 10. The 2015 and 2013 seasons also featured both the top-ranked offense and defense. This year’s Final Four features the best defense in the country in Texas Tech.

So while there’s no clear advantage with regard to the top-ranked offense or defense making it since 2015 — both have made it three times in the last five years — the overall make-up of the Final Four does tell us numbers that any team (especially Syracuse, for our purposes) needs to hit in order to get this far. Looking at the stretch from 2010 to 2019:

Loyola v Michigan Photo by Brett Wilhelm - Pool/Getty Images
  • Just three offenses outside the top 50 made it: Loyola-Chicago ‘18, South Carolina ‘17 and Louisville ‘12)
  • Five top-ranked offenses made it: Villanova ‘18, North Carolina ‘16, Wisconsin ‘15, Michigan ‘13, Duke ‘10
  • Five top-ranked defenses made it: Texas Tech ‘19, Gonzaga ‘17, Kentucky ‘15, Louisville ‘13, Louisville ‘12
  • Just three defenses outside the top 40 made it: Kansas ‘18, Butler ‘11, VCU ‘11
  • As one would expect, 2011’s the anomaly with just one offense or defense ranked among the top 10 (Kentucky’s 8th-ranked offense); every other year had no fewer than three top-10 offenses or defenses
  • 2019 and 2012 are tied for the “toughest” Final Fours, with six top-10 rankings on the offensive or defensive side

The last 10 years is a good measure to look at, but the last five do start to show some slight trends that could be more relevant to how the game’s evolved of late. Five out of those 20 offenses were ranked among the top 20, possibly reflecting the shift to three-point shooting and shot efficiency in general. Also, eight of the defenses were top-10 variety, versus 11 offenses in the top-10.

For Syracuse, this shouldn’t be extrapolated out to say “scrap defense for offense.” You still need too look pretty good on both ends of the floor. However, it does show that efficient offenses are becoming more and more important when it comes to competing for national titles. And in general, teams are far more balanced in the last five years than they were in the previous five. The full view:

For reference, Syracuse was 60th on offense and 29th on defense this year. Those numbers don’t put them lightyears outside of what’s needed to get back to the Final Four. But that combination’s still outside the norm. No team since 2011 (Butler, VCU) has had both units rank outside the top 20, and it’s only happened three times (2010 Michigan State was the other) since 2010.

As you’ll see above, the Orange’s two most recent Final Four teams were much more in line with what’s expected — albeit still at the low end. Just three Final Four offenses in the last 10 years ranked worse than the 2016 team’s 50th, but they were also buoyed by a top-20 defense. The 2013 squad looked much better offensively, and the defense was also about 10 points higher.

Here’s a better look at Syracuse since 2010, which should provide a clearer picture about which teams truly were Final Four/national title contenders:

From 2010 to 2014, Syracuse had the make-up of not just a Final Four contender, but a team that could win a national championship (sobs loudly). And better still, they looked like one that could get it done in the more recent five years too, when things were more balanced.

In the last five years, that’s where the issue arises. The most balanced team in that stretch was 2016, and while yes it got us to a Final Four, the splits still show SU on the low-end of balance compared to other contenders in the timeframe.

The easy answer to all of this is obviously “be better” than we have been of late. But more than that, it’s be more balanced. Also, if we’re going to go in on one side of the ball — assuming defense, based on recent returns — let’s make sure it’s a top-10 group. Look at last year as the epitome of the spoiled potential for SU over the last five seasons. The best defense and worst offense of the last decade of Orange basketball. Put that same defense in any other season except 2015 and you’re looking at a potential Final Four team.

Still, it tells you that defense alone is not enough. While five different No. 1-ranked defenses made the Final Four in the past decade, just one of the other five (2014 Arizona) made the Elite 8 and that team had a 20th-ranked offense as well. The rest all failed to varying levels. The 2018 Virginia team (30th on offense) famously lost to 16-seed UMBC, while 2016 Wichita State (67th) lost in the second round of the NCAAs. In 2011, Florida State (147th) lost in the Sweet 16. But 2010 USC (267th) didn’t even make the postseason.

Hopefully we start seeing a turnaround on the offensive side of the ball next year to help balance things out (or potentially carry the load, given the fact that Syracuse’s top defenders from 2018-19 all depart).