Loving an always changing game

The NCAA tournament is shockingly close to perfect because fairness is sacrificed so ruthlessly and deliberately at the altar of drama. Every March without fail we learn again that literally any team can lose in a single-elimination bracket that requires six or seven wins for a championship. Possibly this isn’t the fairest method for determining a national title. Well, sports aren’t fair. The tournament’s a national treasure.

Incrementally and miraculously, the NCAA tournament evolved over the years into an iconic event worthy of Naismith’s game. The defining features of the tournament are access and single elimination. Limiting access to the top 68 teams in any given rating system would effectively kill the magic. You would still have a compelling win-or-go-home bracket populated by the top teams, it just wouldn’t be March Madness.

If hoops had been around in Talleyrand’s day he would have said smoothing out the randomness by eliminating single elimination would be worse than a crime, it would be a mistake. The randomness that governs which teams lose one time is the point. Then, in the compensatory fashion of any trustworthy dialectic, the teams that emerge without losing even once turn out to be not quite so random after all.

Access and single elimination are the unchanging sinews of a championship event for a changing game. This tournament is irreplaceable, no less so because the evolution of the sport itself has completely changed the content of its championship event.

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On the size, strength, and selection of the field

Where have you gone, Harold Olsen?

Tonight the 2023 NCAA tournament will open with a matchup ranked No. 10 for KenPom Thrill Score on an evening when there are just 10 Division I men’s basketball games being played nationally. March Madness is tipping off with what projects to be the worst game in the country.

Partly this is what transpires (or at least what we expect to transpire) whenever a No. 16 seed’s in action. Actually, the Thrill Scores for Thursday’s 16-vs-1 games are even lower than what we have on tap tonight. But we’re happy to tolerate 16-vs-1 matchups when we have three other simultaneous games from which to choose. Conversely tonight’s opener has the Madness floor to itself.

The number 68 is to blame for this. The number is not especially compatible with a single-elimination format. We can and likely should advance automatic qualifiers straight past Dayton to the round of 64, as is often proposed. Then again the AQ leagues currently recording what are strictly speaking NCAA tournament wins in Dayton aren’t necessarily enamored of that proposal.

Nevertheless, assume for the sake of discussion that Dayton is retrofitted to host nothing but at-larges. Then we would be opening the 2023 NCAA tournament with Mississippi State vs. Pitt, tonight’s No. 1 game in the nation for Thrill Score. This nominal “best” game, however, has earned that distinction by a numerical hair over a virtually identical score posted by Yale vs. Vanderbilt in the NIT.

We can do better. The start of the NCAA tournament can be just as good as Thursday has always been. All we need is a better number than 68. Happily, most even numbers are better than 68.

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Houston’s historically mighty shot volume

Marcus Sasser is afforded many opportunities to score. (uhcougars.com)

The No. 1 team in the AP poll is 27-2 and riding the nation’s sixth-longest active win streak. Said team also sits atop KenPom’s rankings and has done so continuously for the last 60 days. So what do we do as a college basketball commentariat? We sit around and talk about how there are no great teams this year. Forgive us. It’s what we do most years.

Houston may indeed turn out to be not great. As always, that will be for March and April to decide. What we can say without fear of contradiction in February, however, is that the Cougars are the greatest shot volume team we’ve seen in college basketball in the last five years.

Teams that take care of the ball and rebound their misses attempt a higher volume of shots than do opponents engaged in one or neither of these pursuits. To say as much feels unnecessary. It’s mere common sense, but for whatever reason we rarely watch games or discuss teams with this in mind. Happily, we can make helpful comparisons between numbers of attempts across varying tempos and free throw rates with our trusty shot volume index.

Named for Svi Mykhailiuk in the best traditions of PECOTA, SCHOENE, KUBIAK, and VUKOTA, a shot volume index can be thought of as the number of attempts a team would record from the field in 100 possessions of (rather implausibly) zero-free-throw basketball. This season Houston looks really good on this measure.

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How the postseason can value the regular season

The value of the regular season can depend on your conference. (unipanthers.com)

Recent talk of potentially expanding the NCAA tournament bracket has produced at least three instances of salutary clarification. First, it is abundantly clear that, notwithstanding a few noteworthy exceptions, the overwhelming majority of people who talk and tweet and write about college basketball don’t want the field to expand. Second, it is increasingly apparent that the NCAA itself has little or no interest in a larger bracket.

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.”

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Expand the field

Sam Owens/Courier & Press

[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.

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Your updated rankings for tournament wins in the modern era


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.

NCAA tournament wins, 1985-2022

1.  Duke                 101    
2.  North Carolina        96 
3.  Kansas                92 (Congratulations!)
4.  Kentucky              83
5.  Michigan State        60
6.  Syracuse              57* 2018
7.  Arizona               56
8.  UConn                 55
9.  UCLA                  53* 2021
10. Michigan              51* 2016
11. Louisville            49
12. Florida               48
13. Villanova             47
14. Gonzaga               41
15. Oklahoma              37
16. Arkansas              36
    Wisconsin             36
18. Indiana               36* 2022
19. Ohio State            35
    Purdue                35

* Round of 68 wins

Note the gap between Kentucky and Michigan State. That top four’s been in a league of its own historically speaking.

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Hoping for a bare minimum of official reviews


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.

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Let’s never speak of shooting backgrounds again

Brady Manek is averaging four made threes per tournament game on 47 percent shooting. He is the exception to the rule in 2022. (Maggie Hobson, goheels.com)

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.

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Villanova’s quest for free throw glory

Harvard’s Bob Ferry, right, defends Duke’s Johnny Dawkins in 1984. (Sean Kardon/Associated Press)

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.

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Your 2022 bracket should be shot volume-aware

Keegan Murray gets many chances to score. (Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com)

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.

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