An accelerated and higher-scoring version of Madness


Are you not entertained? (Ronald Martinez/Getty)

Maybe it’s just me, but it seemed like this March there was a marked drop in the number of more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger pre-mortems for college basketball. True, there was one such foray that I know of, and, to be sure, there could be more to come. The week before the Final Four’s a five-day blank canvass for eager coroners of the sport. Perhaps I’m a little too eager to be the coroner of coroners. We’ll see.

Still, it’s possible that the sudden downturn in doomsaying so far can be traced to a realization that is both quantitative and rooted in that proverbial gut we’re always consulting so assiduously. Even back in the bad old days of the Scoring Crisis and a 35-second clock, the NCAA tournament was still rather entertaining. Now the event is a faster-paced and higher-scoring version of its usual rollicking self. That plus a charitably selective memory (we’ll look past Wisconsin-Pitt and remember Wisconsin-Xavier) makes for a media property worth billions.

If you put 68 teams on the floor in a win-or-go-home setting, it’s statistically probable that you will see literal tears of joy.

That’s March. The only differences this March are in the formerly fretted about fields of tempo and scoring.

We’ve whittled the field down to 16 teams by playing 52 NCAA tournament games. And even including that 47-43 game between Wisconsin and Pitt, it turns out that the basketball we’re seeing is faster-paced than what transpired in the first 52 games of the 2015 tournament. The increase in tempo, along with the fact that offensive efficiency hasn’t changed (it’s actually up a hair from tournament to tournament) means we’re seeing more points scored. Huzzah.

The first 52 tournament games
2016 vs. 2015
Pace: possessesions per 40 min      PPP: points per possession
Scoring: points per 40 min

        Pace    PPP   Scoring
2016    67.3    1.05    70.7
2015    64.3    1.05    67.3

Whenever I say something like the sport is three or four possessions faster I hear back from helpful readers with solid counting skills who cheerfully point out that three or four possessions aren’t that big a deal. Well, no, they’re not in any discrete basketball game, but as a bump in the average produced by many basketball games those three or four possessions indicate a significant change in your viewing prospects.

For example during the 2016 tournament so far, you’ve had a two percent chance of seeing a game with less than 60 possessions. (Again, Wisconsin-Pitt: 54.) Last year after 52 games? You were 10 times more likely (21 percent chance) to have encountered a sub-60-possession contest. I class that change as a big deal.

A hymn to small sample size
This week Ken Pomeroy went open-source on the Pac-12’s RPI hack, and, of all things, it made me think of the telegraph. Before Mr. Morse’s invention, news of a world-historic event like Waterloo could arrive in a big city via traders or brokers who’d rushed to the marketplace to capitalize on a fleeting disparity in knowledge. Who knows, maybe Ken will be the telegraph to the Pac-12’s fleet-footed commodities speculator. Henceforth gaming the RPI and securing a No. 7 seed for your league’s middling team will be a mere question of volition; we’ve now achieved parity in knowledge.

In the abstract, it’s true, there’s no difference at all between where we are now and where we were before. A program’s ability to game the RPI Pac-12-style is entirely unrelated to how good you are at basketball, but so too was a program’s ability to schedule in a way that pleased the committee’s subjective preferences. More than a few people have been at some pains to make this latter point for a few years now, and the RPI’s still standing. Maybe this former realization will be the one that finally does the old girl in. One can hope.

Nor do I blame the Pac-12 one bit for dancing to the NCAA’s tune. The league was just being Tessio to the other major conferences’ Clemenza — it was the smart move — and maybe now we can agree that what’s needed is a different tune. Actually if utopia arrives next year and we do start using an index comprised of multiple reputable basketball-specific metrics, I’ll still have many of the same reservations concerning our curious fixation on “top-50” wins. (See what you’ve done, Vic Bubas?)

The Pac-12 happens to have had a rough first weekend on the floor, but there’s as much injustice as justice, surely, meted out by the festival of small sample sizes known as the NCAA tournament. The one new-March resolution that I’ve made for myself this year (which I won’t be able to keep) is to stop rapping knuckles for drawing conclusions from a small sample size. Because we all draw conclusions from a small sample size.

If you’re criticizing the Pac-12, you’re drawing those conclusions. If you’re an ACC fan, you’re drawing those conclusions with some euphoria and popular acclamation this week. If you’re a proponent of more equitable treatment at the hands of management for the mid-major and you want it soon, you drew those conclusions from 40 minutes between Middle Tennessee and Michigan State or between Stephen F. Austin and West Virginia or between Yale and Baylor. We all draw those conclusions, because this is the NCAA tournament. To paraphrase one of the Jets or Sharks (I get them mixed up): I say this sample size is small, but it’s all we got, huh?