Dean Oliver’s identification of the “Four Factors of Basketball Success” in the early 2000s gave hoop heads a new approach to what translates to wins in the game of basketball. Between putting the ball in the hoop (effective field goal percentage), limiting miscues (turnover rate), getting multiple scoring opportunities (offensive rebound rate), and attempting free throws (free throw rate), teams that can outperform their opponent in these areas usually end up with more points on the scoreboard at the end of games.
Oliver noted that being efficient in all four areas is key to winning basketball games, but all four factors are weighted differently. Shooting carries the most weight, followed by turnovers, rebounding, and free throws. These four factors don’t just apply to offense, but defense as well, effectively making eight factors to basketball success.
Ken Pomeroy’s utilized those factors in his KenPom ratings index, which dates back to 2002 and has become a staple of any serious March Madness researcher.
Before first- and second-round action gets underway in the 2023 NCAA Tournament, let’s take a look at the top-10 schools in the tournament field who lead the way in the offensive and defensive four factors. Discovering teams that have excelled in these categories relative to the rest of college basketball can lead you to pick more winners and cash more tickets throughout March Madness.
Offensive four factors
Effective field goal percentage
As Oliver’s identified, shooting carries the most weight, so this group of 10 schools could be the most lethal.
Matt Langel’s Colgate Raiders might be underseeded, entering the tournament with the best offensive effective field goal percentage in the nation. This year’s Colgate bunch shot at an even higher clip than last year’s team that posted the 12th-highest effective field goal percentage. In the 2022 NCAA Tournament, 14th-seeded Colgate gave third-seeded Wisconsin a run for its money in the first round, losing 67-60. Even if it doesn’t win outright against second-seeded Texas, the current +13.5 point spread is enticing.
Gonzaga’s starting to click at the right time, as Mark Few’s crew has rattled off nine straight wins. This is the first season since 2018 that the Bulldogs aren’t ranked in the top two of KenPom’s rating index, but the Bulldogs can still go on a deep tournament run. They played a gauntlet of a non-conference schedule and took down top-seeded Alabama, 100-90, in late December, and they can beat any team on a neutral court.
Tommy Lloyd’s first two Arizona teams have ranked in the top 15 in effective field goal percentage, but this year’s team is even more efficient than last season.
Oral Roberts excelled on the offensive end this season, posting a higher effective field goal percentage than its 2021 Sweet 16 team. Can the Golden Eagles knock off Duke? Maybe not, but they should be able to keep it close.
Marquette and Xavier exceeded preseason expectations in the Big East, so it’s no surprise to see both schools donning a top-three seed in the tournament.
Furman’s efficient offense could give Virginia’s defense fits, making them a potential Cinderella team to watch.
Missouri and Utah State both sport effective field goal percentages above 55 percent, and with both offenses wanting to push the pace, Thursday’s matchup could turn into a track meet. The current over/under (155.5) is a good indication that it’ll be a high-scoring contest, but with the spread sitting close to a pick ’em, it’s likely anyone’s game.
Penn State completely changed the trajectory of its season over the past couple of weeks, and a run to the Big Ten Tournament championship showcased its ability to grind out wins in March.
It’s not surprising to see some of the schools that lead the country in effective field goal percentage committing the fewest turnovers, as taking care of the ball can lead to better looks and more makes.
Oral Roberts’ ability to play clean basketball could result in a closely contested game against Duke. Duke’s defense doesn’t turn its opponents over much (273rd in defensive turnover rate), so ORU’s likely to get up a fair share of shot attempts.
Considering ORU, N.C. State, Iowa, Gonzaga, Colgate, and Marquette all employ fast tempos, and it’s impressive to see them also sport a low turnover rate.
Virginia, Penn State, Vermont, and Northwestern are on the other end of the spectrum, playing lower possession games by executing most of their offense in the half-court.
Offensive rebound rate
Being able to secure two, three, and sometimes even four scoring opportunities on a given possession should lend itself to a made basket. For the teams in this group, a missed shot can be their best shot.
These schools also boast some of the better front-court players in college basketball, with Connecticut’s Adama Sanogo, Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe, and Purdue’s Zach Edey towering over their opposition.
Texas A&M doesn’t have a player over 6-9, but their ability to gang rebound has led to the sixth-best offensive rebound rate in college basketball.
Duke, the nation’s tallest team in terms of average height, could match up with Tennessee in the Round of 32, setting up what will likely be a 40-minute rock fight.
Providence and Charleston draw tough first-round matchups against teams with imposing front courts, so we’ll see if either school can maintain their elite offensive rebounding abilities.
Free throw rate
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Free throw rate is less impactful than the first three factors, but being able to get to the line and score without the clock ticking plays a crucial role in the outcome of games.
Texas A&M has a knack for getting to the charity stripe, which could help it take down Penn State in the first round.
VCU’s ability to draw fouls could help the Rams pull off a 12-5 upset over Saint Mary’s. The Gaels rank eighth in adjusted defensive efficiency, but if they rack up fouls, VCU could make things interesting.
Only three of these 10 schools are high-major programs, and while we’d like to the officiating is relatively equal throughout college basketball, it will be worth watching to see if these non-power conference schools maintain a similar free throw rate in their first-round games. Did they get the benefit of the whistle due to being the superior team in their respective conference?
Defensive four factors
Effective field goal percentage
On the defensive end of the floor, forcing your opposition into low-percentage shots is just as impactful as putting the ball in the hoop, as these 10 schools can be looked at as similarly dangerous.
Alabama’s ability to force their opponents into tough twos by playing drop coverage in the pick-and-roll has led to the Crimson Tide sporting the nation’s best effective field goal percentage defense.
Tennessee’s not far behind them, as the Volunteers’ stifling defense actually held the Crimson Tide to their lowest offensive output of the season (59 points) last month.
This year marks the sixth-consecutive season that Houston’s ranked within the top 10 in effective field goal percentage defense, and a second Final Four appearance over the past three seasons is well within reach for the top-seeded Cougars.
The rest of these schools shouldn’t get overlooked, as they all figure to keep things close in their first-round matchups.
For a school like Iowa State that can go into scoring lulls on offense, turning defense into offense is exactly what they’ll need in order to make a run in March Madness.
Missouri has a more efficient offense than the Cyclones, so it’s not as reliant on forcing turnovers relative to their desired result at the end of games, but the Tigers still want to turn their opponents over.
Marquette’s the lone school on this list that ranks in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive turnover rate, as Shaka Smart has his best chance to return to the Final Four since he took VCU on a Cinderella run back in 2011.
Two of Smart’s former schools, VCU, and Texas, also sit on this list, as he’s left an imprint at both places.
Will Northern Kentucky and Kent State be able to turn their first-round opponents over enough to pull off an upset?
Offensive rebound rate (aka defensive rebound rate)
This list is dominated by non-power conference schools, which makes sense, as the teams that have earned an automatic clearly separated themselves from the rest of their conference, therefore boosting their defensive rebounding numbers.
It will be intriguing to see if these non-power conference schools can maintain their elite defensive rebounding rate now that they’re stepping up in class.
Drake might be the most compelling team on this list, as 6-10 center Darnell Brodie is one of the best defensive rebounders (24.1 DR%) and could feast against an undersized Miami team if center Norchad Omier (ankle) fails to suit up.
Purdue and Creighton both rely on physically imposing big men (Zach Edey, Ryan Kalkbrenner) to dominate the paint, helping both schools rank atop D-1 in defensive rebounding rate.
Free throw rate
Defending without fouling plays can translate to wins in March even though it doesn’t carry as much weight as the other factors. Purdue and Creighton led the country in defensive free throw rate along with being elite defensive rebounding teams. Can either use that as a springboard to win six games in the NCAA Tournament?
Colgate and Oral Roberts are two mid-majors who’ve routinely popped up on these lists, and their stability on both ends of the court could be enough to pull off monumental first-round upsets.
Charleston’s another dangerous No. 12 seed, and it will need to maintain its elite defensive free throw rate if it wants to upset San Diego State.