I initially set out to write a story that simply examined the surprise tournament runs from this year’s tournament. While I still do this below, I happened to stumble upon an interesting narrative along the way.
What qualifies as a “surprise” tournament run is subjective, but when looking at this season, it makes sense to start with the four double-digit seeds that advanced to the Sweet 16: 11-seeds Syracuse & UCLA, 12-seed Oregon State, and of course, 15-seed Oral Roberts.
Syracuse and UCLA both deserve plenty of credit, and I certainly didn’t see their runs coming (particularly the Bruins’). Still, there is at least some precedent for 11-seed Cinderella runs. In addition to UCLA this season, four others have reached the Final 4: 2018 Loyola Chicago, 2011 VCU, 2006 George Mason, and 1986 LSU.
Oregon State’s and Oral Roberts’ tournament performances have arguably been more surprising and noteworthy. Prior to this tournament, only one 12 seed — 2002 Missouri — had ever reached the Elite 8 (advanced no further), and no team seeded worse had ever managed to do so. The fact that Oregon State has now joined this group — and a 15-seed (!) in Oral Roberts was just a shot away from doing so as well — is remarkable.
Additionally, per KenPom’s rankings, the Beavers are the “worst” team to ever reach the Elite Eight (Golden Eagles would have been the “worst”) and would have been the “worst” team to ever reach the Final Four. Oregon State entered the Pac-12 tournament only 103rd in KenPom. After pulling off three straight upset victories over UCLA (in overtime), Oregon, and Colorado the Beavers not only secured a tournament bid but rose to 84th in the rankings. The Oral Roberts Golden Eagles entered its conference tournament 165th in KenPom, and after three victories of its own, climbed modestly to 151st by the time it squared off in the first round versus Ohio State.
Since 2001-02, only four teams ranked below 30th entering the tournament have reached the Final Four. Outside of 2011 VCU, each team ranked far better than Oregon State’s and Oral Roberts’s 84th and 151st rankings. The bottom line: no team in the KenPom era has ranked as low as Oregon State or Oral Roberts when entering the tournament and managed to reach the Final 4.
While teams of Oregon State’s and Oral Roberts’s caliber haven’t managed to reach this milestone, have any broken through to the Elite 8? Prior to the Beavers doing so, the answer was “No”, with 2014 Dayton slated as the “worst” team at 56th (a far cry from 84th and 151st). Overall, these charts hammer home how unprecedented it was for Oregon State to reach the Elite 8 (along with how crazy it is that Oral Roberts almost did so as well). They also point to something else however — the narrative I mentioned at the beginning of the article.
There’s something in common between the “worst” team to reach the Final Four (2011 VCU) and the worst team (prior to Oregon State) to advance to and lose in the Elite 8 (2014 Dayton). Both had head coaches in Shaka Smart and Archie Miller that became super attractive coaching candidates across the sport. Smart’s 2011 tournament run helped him secure the Texas job, while Miller eventually landed at Indiana. Ironically, 2020-21 was the final season for both Smart and Miller at their respective positions. Neither was able to win a single tournament game during their tenures.
To be fair to both of these coaches, they had success at VCU and Dayton beyond these isolated tournament runs. Still, this begs the question, do coaches become overrated after surprise tournament performances? Are these runs really predictive of future coaching success?
There isn’t a straightforward answer to this question, and given I didn’t have this idea in mind when I started the article, this wasn’t the time for me to fully dive into what the data has to say. Still, after giving it a few minutes of thought, it sounds like there isn’t a clear “yes” or “no” answer. While Smart and Miller have had their struggles, Porter Moser has proven this season that Loyola Chicago’s 2018 Final Four run clearly wasn’t a fluke. Additionally, while things had been slightly bumpy for Andy Enfield at USC, the Trojans made an impressive Elite 8 run this season. Lastly, Brad Stevens proved Butler’s 2010 run to the title game was anything but fluky when he replicated it the following season.
Overall, it’s difficult to know exactly what to make of coaches following surprise tournament runs. Given how much is invested when these coaches take new jobs, however, it’s important that athletic departments give this question some significant thought.