Finally, discussing the shape of the tournament field has brought to the surface foundational assumptions on how we should go about doing men’s Division I college basketball as a whole. Not merely the postseason, mind you, but the whole ball of wax, from November through the first Monday in April.
In particular, the belief that putting more teams into the bracket would by definition cheapen the regular season appears to have attained the status of conventional wisdom. In this line of thinking “there are real concerns about devaluing the regular season, and frankly, there aren’t many more deserving teams.”
Whenever the powers that be talk gravely about devaluing the regular season, that sound you hear is 78 percent of D-I bursting into laughter. For teams in 26 of our 32 leagues, the regular season tends to be an afterthought while the conference tournament is most often everything. Ask last year’s outright champions of Conference USA and the Missouri Valley about “devaluing the regular season.”
[NOTE: This was posted three hours before the NCAA Division I transformation committee published its recommendation to create larger championship fields.]
When expanding the NCAA tournament to 64 teams was first discussed seriously in 1981, NCAA men’s basketball committee chair Dave Gavitt made plain that he was opposed to the proposal. “I am personally very much against expansion,” he said that year. “I’m prepared to speak against it. I’m prepared to vote against it. Whether I have the prevailing opinion, I don’t know.”
Gavitt did not have the prevailing opinion. Two years later when it appeared increasingly likely that expansion would be approved, he sought to make the best of the situation. “I’m not anti-64,” Gavitt said. “But I am greatly concerned about what it will do to the quality of in-season play. It scares the hell out of me.” Nevertheless, the NCAA men’s basketball committee approved the 64-team field by an 8-to-1 vote on December 3, 1983. Gavitt’s was the lone vote in opposition.
The field expanded to 65 in 2001, but basically the tournament retained its essential structure for a quiet quarter of a century. Then expansion reared its head once again in the 2009-10 season, at least topically. Retired head coach Bob Knight made headlines that December not only by questioning the “integrity” of a certain unnamed head coach recently hired at Kentucky but also by coming out against all this talk he and everyone else was suddenly hearing about a 96-team bracket.
We have now seen 37 “modern” NCAA tournaments played to completion. All but the first one in 1985 used a shot clock. All but the first two, in 1985 and 1986, featured a three-point line.
The expansion of the tournament to 64 teams in the 1980s also did away with byes, giving us a true measuring stick when teams accumulate tournament victories over the years. Yes, the NCAA muddied that up a bit by expanding past 64 teams starting in 2001, but we can adjust with a well-placed asterisk here and there.
Here are the teams with the most tournament victories since the field expanded in 1985 right through to Kansas winning the 2022 title.
Any worthwhile Final Four preview should provide an informed forecast of events.
This will be the first Final Four in three long years with fans.
Jim Nantz loves referencing past Final Four locations and he will mention that this is the 40th anniversary of Michael Jordan’s game-winning shot against Georgetown, which also occurred at the Superdome. He may also mention that this is the 35th anniversary of Keith Smart’s game-winning shot against Syracuse, which also occurred at the Superdome. He will definitely mention that this is the 29th anniversary of North Carolina’s 1993 national title, which was also won at the Superdome. There would seem to be no particular reasons to mention the 2003 title won by Syracuse or the 2012 championship captured by Kentucky, both of which also occurred at the Superdome, but you never know.
Bill Raftery will make self-deprecating remarks about his coaching and playing days. In fact he was a good coach and an even better player. He was La Salle’s leading scorer as a sophomore in an era when sophomores were the youngest players on the floor.
Grant Hill may sound unduly self-deprecating in tone with reference to his playing days even though he was a first-team All American in 1994. He will say you don’t need a three here.
The Superdome is about to welcome the Final Four for a sixth time, which means the site is moving up the all-time rankings for most national title games hosted. Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City is still the leader with nine, and at the final horn on Monday night the Superdome will officially be tied with Louisville’s Freedom Hall for second place among structures that still exist. (“Old” Madison Square Garden hosted seven NCAA title games, though these weren’t what we would today call “true” Final Fours. Read more!)
Should one or more of the upcoming three games feature ugly three-point shooting, there’s a fair chance the shooting background in the notoriously cavernous New Orleans edifice will be cited as a factor. Then again we’ve already seen 64 tournament games played, and none of them took place in a venue that can host an NFL game. Last weekend’s regionals, for example, occurred in NBA arenas occupied by the Warriors, Bulls, Spurs, and Sixers. To this point, the 2022 tournament has played out exclusively in basketball venues.
Which is interesting, because the three-point shooting in the tournament this year has been historically awful.
(Data from the indispensable sports-reference.com. Pay no mind to that automatically generated 2020 label.)
No, don’t blame that new ball that was rolled out for this year’s men’s and women’s tournaments. Shooting on free throws has held up just fine on the men’s side (73.0 percent) compared to last year’s tournament (72.3). It would be an odd ball indeed that poses no problem on free throws but becomes belligerent on threes.
The one guaranteed source of drama in Villanova’s round of 32 game against Ohio State today will be watching what Jay Wright’s team does at the free throw line.
If the Wildcats were to go 7-of-10 at the line and be eliminated from the bracket by the Buckeyes, for example, then Villanova’s name will go down in the record books. Conversely, going 6-of-10? A forgotten season. That’s how close this thing is.
“This thing” is the record for the most accurate free throw shooting team of all time. The record has been held for decades by Harvard’s 1984 team, which converted 535 of its 651 tries for a success rate of 82.18 percent. Today, 38 years later, Villanova enters its game against OSU at 82.53. The Crimson of 1984 may watch today’s game in a state of high anxiety.
For a time it looked as if the record might fall last year. Both Colorado and Oral Roberts came close to setting a new standard, and the New York Times ran a piece on the free throw chase by Ken Plutnicki, who averaged nine points for that Harvard team.
Iowa is an offensive juggernaut despite the fact that the team did not shoot as accurately from the field as Purdue in conference play. The Hawkeyes also came in behind Ohio State in terms of effective field goal percentage. Indeed, Fran McCaffery’s group was less successful at getting the ball into the basket than the Boilermakers, the Buckeyes, Michigan, Illinois and Michigan State in Big Ten play. Yet Iowa had the league’s best offense.
We see this same paradox at work in the whole-season results at KenPom. The Hawkeyes rank No. 2 in the nation for adjusted offensive efficiency behind only Gonzaga. (Grab those precious pre-tournament numbers today while you still can! There are just a few hours left, otherwise you’ll have to root through Ken’s CSV formatting from here to eternity.) Iowa achieved this lofty status despite the fact that there are 32 teams nationally that shot more accurately than the Hawkeyes this season. Shooting is so overrated.
No, actually, making shots is a good thing. It will always will be No. 1 with a bullet among the four factors in terms of importance. (Free throw rate, by stark contrast, is purely adverbial. Ask Virginia about 2019.) Because I’m basically lazy and because I grew fatigued with always having to juggle four factors, a few years back I decided to shrink the group down to just three factors. Don’t tell Dean Oliver.
By combining turnover and offensive rebound rates into one number, we get a nifty little item that correlates quite well with points per possession.
In 2022, Iowa looks beautiful in terms of the nifty little item.
Until last night, you could subscribe to a Whig history of NCAA tournament selection and seeding even if you doubted the wisdom of using a committee for that process. Yes, the history ran, there was a bad three-letter sorting metric in the old days, but now there’s a sound three-letter sorting metric.
The committee appeared to be growing more savvy. See? the committee would say. You don’t need to replace us with the wealth of insightful metrics of the 2020s. We love them! We use them and we know how to step in when one metric disagrees with another. You need us.
Then last night happened. The trend up until this year had been to put together the top of the bracket in a manner that year by year was becoming progressively more aware of measures of team strength. Then, down at the cut line, measures of win value would make the tough decisions.
It didn’t work out that way in 2022. A stronger team was given a No. 3 seed at the expense of a weaker team’s spot on the No. 2 line. At the at-large cutoff, bids and one near-invite (that would have been actual had there not been a bid thief in the Atlantic 10) were awarded like golden tickets at the Wonka factory. The reason cited was good wins.
As conference tournaments take over the calendar, a different rite of March entirely is with us once again. All during Champ Week and especially next week when brackets are being completed, you may hear this team praised or that one doubted because it does or does not “rank in the top 25 at KenPom for adjusted efficiency in both offense and defense.”
Being one of the nation’s best teams on both sides of the ball is surely a good thing. All of us would like our team to make this list. Furthermore, teams meeting this specific top-25 definition of performance ambidexterity have indeed won a flock of national titles over the past two decades.
Nevertheless, there’s a curious quality of wheel-reinvention at work here. In fact, the first sentence on the warning label for this evaluative rule is that it’s 0-for-1 over the past 12 months. The dual-top-25 thing ruled out Baylor as a potential national champion last year.
The selection process for the NCAA tournament predates the shot clock and the three-point line. While the members of the NCAA men’s basketball committee are conscientious and, happily, they now have a wealth of insightful data at their fingertips, selection still comes down to 12 people going into a room and making a bracket.
It’s remarkable that we still do it this way. Someday we’ll look back on the committee era and marvel that a 1960s-vintage process survived as long as it did.
Instead of creating a bracket in March, the men’s basketball committee should convene in May or June or July and make a completely team-blind determination of how the tournament field will be selected and seeded. The committee will then sit back and let the season select its own postseason field.
Whether the committee chooses to select and seed the field according to this set of metrics or that one will be a weighty matter for the men and women charged with making the decision. That importance, however, is likely to be overstated and ultimately misconstrued by two otherwise dissimilar populations of onlookers.