What does it take to make it to the Final Four?

Another NCAA Tournament has come and gone, and it gives us another opportunity to try and figure out why in the world the Vols just can’t seem to make it to the Final Four.

That, of course, has been a question on the minds of Tennessee fans for decades now, but it’s been put even more into focus over the last 15 or so years with the likes of Bruce Pearl and Rick Barnes leading the Vols to multiple trips to the Sweet Sixteen in that span. Yet, with a total of seven Sweet Sixteen appearances since 2000, Tennessee has managed to to advance to the Elite Eight only once in those seven attempts, and there have been zero Final Fours then or at any point in UT men’s basketball history.

You can look at any number of factors to try and figure out what Tennessee needs to do in order to finally reach that coveted Final Four. You can look at roster construction, coaching style, seeding, scheduling, and philosophy. But one easy way is to use analytics to try and see if there’s a common theme among teams that have made Final Four runs in recent history.

So let’s consult everyone’s favorite statistician: Ken Pomeroy.

I looked at the last 10 NCAA Tournaments (2013-23, minus the 2020 Tournament since there wasn’t one thanks to COVID) to find out if the Final Four participants over the last decade had anything in common, using KenPom’s data as a guide.

Turns out, they do have something in common. Well, a lot of them, anyway.

Let’s start with the Elite Eight, a place the Vols have only reached one time in program history. Over the last 10 NCAA Tournaments, dozens of different teams with varying makeups and philosophies have reached the final weekend of action before the Final Four. And on average, those teams have had more efficient offenses than defenses.

The average offensive efficiency ranking of an Elite Eight team over the last decade is 21st. Of the 80 teams that reached the Elite Eight over the last 10 tournaments, 38 of them had an offensive efficiency ranked inside the top 10 on KenPom, and over three-fourths of them (76.3%) had an offense that ranked inside the top 25.

On the flip side, the average defensive efficiency ranking of teams that made the Elite Eight is 24.7. That’s not drastically different than the average offensive ranking, but consider this: 31 of the 80 teams had a top-10 defense, and 54 of the 80 (67.5%) had a defense ranked inside the top 25.

For Final Four teams, those ratios are relatively similar. The average offensive ranking of the last 40 Final Four teams is 16.9, while the average defensive ranking is 19.9. Of those 40 teams, a little over half (22) had offensive efficiencies that ranked inside the top 10, while just 15 had defensive efficiencies inside the top 10. Only 8 of the 40 Final Four teams over the last decade had an offense that ranked outside the top 25 on KenPom, while 12 had defenses that ranked outside the top 25.

What’s even more telling is the fact that 25 of the last 40 Final Four teams had offenses that ranked higher than their defenses on KenPom. And that’s magnified even more for the teams that go on to win the National Championship, as Mr. Pomeroy himself stated in a tweet shortly after UConn cut down the nets this year.

Now, in some instances we’re kinda just splitting hairs with the data. There have been numerous times where teams that made the Final Four over the last 10 tournaments had an offense and a defense that both ranked in the top 10 or top 25 on KenPom. In fact, as the averages I listed above would suggest, you ideally need to be good on both offense and defense in order to advance far into the NCAA Tournament. There have been obvious exceptions, like St. Peters in 2022 that ranked 231st offensively but 25th defensively, South Carolina in 2017 that ranked 91st offensively but 3rd defensively, or Miami this year that ranked 99th defensively but 6th offensively.

Typically, though, to make it to the Elite Eight or Final Four, you have to be a top-25 team on both sides of the court and don’t usually rely too heavily on one side over the other.

So, what does this mean for the Vols?

Under Rick Barnes, Tennessee has become known for a stifling defense that usually ranks among the best in the country, but their offense can sputter and have deadly cold spells. You don’t need fancy metrics to tell you that; if you’ve watched even just a handful of games over the last 4-5 years, you know exactly what I’m talking about. But the numbers do back that up.

I’m going to do Barnes and Tennessee a favor and not look at the numbers from his first two seasons in Knoxville, as those were rebuilding years. But from the 2017-18 season up till now, the Vols have ranked inside the top 10 in defensive efficiency on KenPom four times, with the only exceptions being the 2019-20 season (that was cut short due to COVID) and the 2018-19 season.

Only once over the last six seasons have the Vols had an offense that ranked in the top 10 on KenPom. And you can probably guess which team that was (yes, it was the 2018-19 team, and they finished 3rd in offensive efficiency that season). In fact, that’s the only time under Barnes that the Vols have even had an offense that ranked in the top 30 on KenPom, with the 2021-22 team (35th) and the 2017-18 team (36th) being the next-highest.

Excluding the 2019-20 team, Barnes’ last five teams that ended up making the NCAA Tournament have had an average offensive ranking of 44.6, while the defense has averaged a ranking of 11.4.

SeasonOffensive RankingDefensive Ranking

This isn’t to say that Tennessee can’t or won’t make it to another Elite Eight or the program’s first Final Four under Barnes. There have been multiple teams that have made it to the Elite Eight or made Final Four runs with defenses that are significantly better than their offenses. San Diego State this year is an example, as the Aztecs ranked 4th on defense but 75th on offense. Texas Tech in 2019 made it to the Final Four with the No. 1 defense but an offense that ranked 25th, and Michigan in 2018 finished with the 3rd-best defense but the 35th-ranked offense. Back in 2014, the last time UConn won a national title before this year, the Huskies’ defense ranked 10th while their offense ranked 39th.

But more often than not, teams with offenses that are more efficient than their defenses are the ones more capable of going on deeper NCAA Tournament runs. And under Barnes, the Vols have only fit that criteria one time over the last six years.

Oddly enough, Tennessee’s lone Elite Eight team doesn’t fit into the analytics of the last decade. That 2010 Elite Eight run was fueled by a defense that ranked 11th but an offense that ranked 75th. In fact, it will probably surprise you to learn which Tennessee team was actually the most complete team from an analytical perspective over the last 20 years.

That would be Cuonzo Martin’s 2013-14 Vol squad.

In Cuonzo’s third and final year, the Vols finished 15th in offensive efficiency and 19th in defensive efficiency. Tennessee ran at a slow pace, with a tempo that ranked 313th in the country, but they were highly efficient on both ends of the court. Actually, those rankings are in line with the averages for teams that have made it to the Final Four over the last decade, but Tennessee fell in the Sweet Sixteen that year (thanks partially to a blown charge call, but I digress).

Clearly analytics aren’t everything, because that Vol squad was a Final Four team on paper. But it certainly didn’t play out that way, and that team is more of an exception given the data we have over the last decade.

So, this was a long-winded post that basically boils down to this: In order to make it to another Elite Eight or to the program’s first-ever Final Four, the Vols are likely going to have to up their offensive production and maybe focus a little less on defense. Will Rick Barnes do that? He’s only done it once so far at Tennessee, but that was arguably his best team at UT. While at Texas, Barnes had a better offense than defense nine times in the KenPom era (starting in the 2001-02 season), but only one of those instances came in his last five years as the Longhorns’ head coach.

A team doesn’t have to have a better offense than defense in order to have success in March, but it’s usually better if they do. Maybe the Vols can buck the trend in the coming years, or maybe Barnes will adapt and focus more on the offense.

Either way, let’s just hope Tennessee’s Final Four drought doesn’t continue much longer.

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