The four structural hazards of any coaching search

This March the hot young coach generating all the buzz is 52.

This March the hot young coach generating all the buzz is 52. (Getty/Jamie Squire)

The coaching carousel is turning rather slowly this March, with major-conference openings currently available at Alabama, Arizona State and DePaul and nowhere else. Perhaps there’s another shoe or even two that will drop on this front, but for now the salient characteristic of this season’s job market is not only the small number of openings but also the fact that none of these vacancies were created by voluntary coach exits. To really get the carousel going you need a series of guys jumping by choice to greener pastures.

Still, even in a slow year for hirings we will likely see all the traditional characteristics that make hiring a college basketball coach a uniquely challenging endeavor. To my eye these are the four structural hazards in any coaching search:

Tournament warp
Great coaches tend to do well in the NCAA tournament, eventually, but not every team that does well in the NCAA tournament necessarily has a great coach. Not to mention “doing well” in the tournament is by custom defined as making the Sweet 16, but most of the coaches who make the second weekend in any given year aren’t looking to change jobs. Continue reading

You won’t be disappointed

(Getty/Andy Lyons)

(Getty/Andy Lyons)

The NCAA tournament is shockingly close to perfect because fairness is sacrificed so ruthlessly and deliberately at the altar of drama.

In a playoff that exalted fairness above all else, Kentucky would have better than a 34 (Ken) or 41 (Nate) percent chance of winning it all. But this is the business we’ve chosen. It’s a single-elimination tournament with 68 teams. The inherent structure of the event means the answer to “Kentucky or the field?” is the field. The answer to “Incredibly Great Team X or the field?” is very nearly always going to be the field. The NCAA tournament is shockingly close to perfect because death is always just 40 minutes away, even for Kentucky.

If we wanted to pick a “fair” or “real” champion we could shrink the field and kill the single-elimination format. But that’s the NBA’s shtick, isn’t it? If you want larger sample sizes and smoother win probability curves, the next level has you covered. At the next level it’s axiomatic that game seven always pulls in the best ratings. Well, the NCAA tournament is 67 game sevens. Continue reading

Why I’m declaring for the draft

What if instead of just taking the bracket the NCAA gives them, Bill Self and his guys could choose their spot? (Photo: Kansas Men's Basketball)

What if instead of just taking the bracket the NCAA gives them, Bill Self and his guys could choose their spot? (Photo: Kansas Men’s Basketball)

The genre of bracket reactions is clearly in crisis. Quality of analysis has declined for years, and nowadays writers lack the fundamental skills to pen a cogent and trenchant bracket reaction piece. These days talented young writers are striking up relationships with shadowy agents earlier and earlier and are in it just for the big payoff down the line.

Every agent whispers in the young writer’s ear that he or she will be the next Michael Lewis, but inevitably most wash out of the profession entirely and turn to real estate. Stories abound that a wretched few even end up in law school.

Moreover the pacing of these bracket reaction pieces has steadily decreased in recent times and is now at an all-time low. Any polemic points scored in such works are more or less purely accidental. What’s needed is a commissioner of bracket reactions and a change to the post/spike rules. Continue reading

How to watch Selection Sunday

Why, that's my colleague Jeff Goodman interviewing the Pac-12 champion Arizona Wildcats. Sean Miller's team is about to named the strongest No. 2 seed in a very long time. (AP/John Locher)

Why, that’s my colleague Jeff Goodman interviewing the Pac-12 champion Arizona Wildcats. Sean Miller’s team is about to be named the strongest No. 2 seed in a very long time. (AP/John Locher)

This year Selection Sunday’s a little different: Kentucky will have our full attention in the SEC title game even though the Wildcats have already sewn up the No. 1 overall seed. UK’s unique historical circumstance has the potential to lend some drama to what in the past has been a somewhat dilatory and anticlimactic Sunday of hoops. Typically the very fact of the impending bracket announcement looms so large it overshadows the basketball being played. (Which is one more thing I love about the idea of a bracket draft — it would create the ideal conditions for at long last killing Sunday hoops for good.)

Once the Wildcats’ quest for perfection has either been extended or denied, Selection Sunday will come down to what it always comes down to — top seeds and bubble teams. Continue reading

Tuesday Truths: “Final reality” edition

They're getting ready in Indy.

They’re getting ready in Indy.

There are at least two problems with focusing on who does and does not get a No. 1 seed. The first problem is that 13 of the last 16 No. 1 seeds have failed to make the Final Four.

The second problem is that this year in particular there will be no meaningful distinction to be drawn on the S-curve between the last No. 1 seed and the first team seeded on the 2-line. In fact in 2015 the number of interest appears to be six, not four. And I’ll go to war with these six: Kentucky, Arizona, Villanova, healthy-Anderson-version Virginia, Wisconsin, and surging Duke.

Sure, other things being equal, it’s best to be a fellow No. 1 seed alongside UK so that you don’t have to face John Calipari’s team until you get to Indy. But this piece of conventional wisdom — trusty enough in its essentials — somewhat overstates the difference between Kentucky and the other five teams named above while also (and we do this one every year) vastly overrating the actual likelihood of a region’s top two seeds meeting up in the Elite Eight.

The probability of a 1 vs. 2 collision in a regional final is 29.3 percent, and while we’re on the topic it’s not terribly clear who should be afraid of whom in such instances. Top seeds are a mere 17-17 in such games. My recommendation is to look past the question of who receives the four No. 1 seeds. Keep your eye on the Big Six instead.

Continue reading

Tuesday Truths: “Lessons of history” edition

IU1976

Jahlil Okafor says Kent Benson’s two-point percentage is too low.

Kentucky is trying to do something that hasn’t occurred in 39 years, and assuming UK continues to progress toward that goal (starting with tonight’s road test at Georgia) we will be treated to some good comparisons to that 1976 Indiana team. For instance the Hoosiers that season outscored opponents by 17.3 points a game. As for the Wildcats this season that number is currently 21.8.

That’s not apples-to-apples, of course. We’re viewing IU’s scoring margin after Bob Knight’s men completed a successful trip through the NCAA tournament against some of the best teams in the country. Nevertheless, in early March of 2015 it’s fair to say that John Calipari and his team are giving history a good run for its money. So far.

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Tuesday Truths: “Yet another 2 x 2 matrix” edition

I for one don’t fret about successful slow-paced teams like Wisconsin or Virginia causing other teams to go slow. If other coaches do indeed choose to decelerate, my happiness in watching their games will be a function primarily not of pace but of quality. Basically I like good hoops at any speed.

matrix

The contours of this discussion are durable across the years. There’s always room for a perceptive and through first-person disavowal of a particular team’s style. If a team really does displease your eyeballs, your senses are sovereign in the matter. A problem arises only when this distaste is elevated — as it always is — into somehow being a matter of civic hoops concern.

Good luck with that, but my tastes are incorrigibly catholic. Good hoops arrives in many styles.

Continue reading