OPINION: March Madness 2016 — The year of the mid-major

(Illustration by Audrey Hockersmith)

As many of you may know by taking a glance at your brackets, the 2016 March Madness basketball tournament has been anything but predictable.

Teams such as Wichita State and Stephen F. Austin advanced further into the tournament than many people expected and busted many brackets along the way.

Because of teams like Wichita State and Stephen F. Austin, every bracket in the world is flawed in some way, according to the NCAA article, “March Madness: Last perfect bracket busts after 26 games.”

The success of these two teams can be explained by analytics and a structural blueprint. When these two elements intertwine, it creates a basketball team that is quietly revolutionizing college basketball forever.

The Wichita State basketball program is not a stranger to the NCAA Tournament.

The program is currently on a five-year consecutive tournament appearance streak, but has made the NCAA Tournament 13 times, according to ESPN’s NCAA basketball tournament history.

This year, the 11th seeded Wichita State defeated the 11th seeded Vanderbilt Commodores in the First Four and moved on to beat the sixth-seeded Arizona Wildcats in the first round. Wichita State was eventually beaten in the round of 32 by the third-seeded Miami Hurricanes.

Wichita State led the nation in scoring defense. In the 35 games they played, they gave up an NCAA-low 59 points per game, and in the tournament they gave up an average of 57 points per game, according to the NCAA’s official statistics report.

More impressively, in the three NCAA Tournament games they played this year, Wichita State out-rebounded those teams 106-103 and out-stole those teams 24-13. Not to mention, all three of those teams were Power Five opponents and all three teams were the same seed or higher than Wichita State, according to ESPN’s official box scores.

Sean Miller, head coach of the Arizona Wildcats, complimented Wichita State’s defense after their loss to Wichita State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

“When you play against a defense that talented, ferocious, disciplined, tough, you have to be great at what you do, and that’s what’s going to be required to beat them,” Miller said in Washington Post article “Wichita State is back; Miama and rest of NCAA Tournament field has been warned.”

As good as the Shockers were on defense, they were also very good at protecting and distributing the ball on offense.

The Shockers out-assisted their opponents 29-23, and had a 5.6 turnover margin — the ratio between the amount of turnovers a team causes in comparison to the amount of turnovers they commit — which is second to Stephen F. Austin, according to a NCAA statistics report.

These stats show that Wichita State’s blueprint to winning is to play solid defense while cutting down on offensive turnovers and distributing the ball on offense.

Wichita State and Stephen F. Austin have strikingly similar blueprints.

The Lumberjacks have been to the NCAA Tournament four times. This year, they were notorious for upsetting the West Virginia Mountaineers in the first round.

Once again, analytics show that Stephen F. Austin wasn’t as much of an underdog as we thought.

The team had the best turnover margin ratio in the country at 6.5. In 34 games, the Lumberjacks forced 631 turnovers and only turned the ball over 411 times. Not by coincidence, those 631 turnovers were the most in the country as they averaged 18.5 forced turnovers per game, according to the NCAA statistics.

I realize that playing good defense and limiting turnovers aren’t new goals for coaches at any level, but putting an emphasis on playing that style of basketball requires a coach to have a group of guys who are unselfish and who buy into that style of basketball.

“What we tell our guys is you come in with these — obviously you have skills — but in order to show those skills, you’ve got to prove that you’re invested in (defense),” Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall said in The Wichita Eagle article “Shocker assistants devise the defense that defuses opponents.”

I also don’t want to take away from the other 12 teams that produced upsets in the first round of the tournament. To win their games, they obviously had to have had similar strategies to Wichita State and Stephen F. Austin. It’s time, however, we stop letting the label “mid-major” or the teams’ seedings cause us to overlook their skills.

After looking at the analytics from these two teams, it suggests that the Shockers and Lumberjacks didn’t upset anyone at all. Statistically, they were the favorites. It’s just that very few people knew it.