Counting NCAA tournament wins in this century is little more than a blinkered exercise in setting arbitrary and subjective quantitative goalposts. Much like a good portion of real life. Right, let’s do this.
NCAA tournament National titles
wins, 2000-21 2000-21
1. Kansas 51 1
2. North Carolina 50 3
3. Duke 49 3
4. Michigan State 46 1
5. Kentucky 45 1
After Kentucky there’s a big drop — equivalent to one national championship run — before you get down to a plucky underdog with two national titles like Florida. No other program has won more than 36 games. (Full team list at the bottom of this post. Limber up your scrolling finger.)
If the first weekend of the 2021 NCAA tournament taught us anything, it’s that nobody knows anything. So here’s one more reckless assertion quite possibly doomed for the ash heap of history after the tournament’s final weekend.
Gonzaga, we think, enters the Final Four as an overwhelming favorite. According to my friend Ken’s laptop, the Bulldogs have roughly a 60 percent shot at winning it all. That’s a notably robust figure with two games yet to be played in a bracket that includes both a No. 1 and a No. 2 seed in the other semifinal.
A 60 percent win probability is perhaps counseling us to be wary of the social media zeitgeist in at least one respect. It has become fashionable over these past few days to say see, we were right all along. Gonzaga and Baylor really are the two best teams. But both Ken’s odds and the ones at FiveThirtyEight show a single heavy favorite more than they do a clear top two. We may well have been right two or three months ago, but Baylor this season has presented us the challenge of assessing two different teams over time.
Pre-COVID Baylor was kind of like pre-Army Elvis. That team had an edge that has now been softened, at least statistically. In January, the Bears were absolutely obliterating opponents with: 1) insanely accurate shooting; and 2) a pressure defense that forced an exceptionally high number of turnovers.
As strange as it may seem, the 2021 NCAA tournament will mark the first time the championship’s been determined using the current three-point line. The line has of course been in place now for two full seasons and is thus a fixture of our hoops landscape. We forgot about it and moved on to other things early last season.
Then March 2020 happened. Since we all had to content ourselves with a three-weeks-long Joe Lunardi tweet storm instead of an actual tournament, the 2021 bracket is indeed about to present us with a new world order beyond the arc. The line at its current distance will be a newly configured feature on all those March Madness court designs that, perhaps inexplicably, people love to critique.
I for one will be watching closely to see if three-point accuracy across the breadth of the bracket lands someplace other than 33.9 percent. That figure was the success rate we saw over the course of 600 or so tournament games starting with the 2011 First Four and running through Virginia cutting down the nets in 2019.
Over that same stretch, however, the pre-Final-Four opponents of the 36 eventual national semifinalists were far less accurate from the perimeter. Those opponents shot 29.7 percent from beyond the arc over the course of 145 tournament games (non-divisible-by-four number of games brought to you by Shaka Smart, salute).
Everyone says ritually that “Chris Beard’s doing a heck of a job,” and that he’s in line, should he wish, for a gig with any of the bluest of the blue-chips when those opportunities avail themselves. Everyone’s exactly right, just not necessarily, in 2021, for the reasons everyone’s saying.
A traditional video search of half-court sets for the heck of a job that Beard’s doing, for example, will by itself prove insufficient. This particular Texas Tech team can’t throw the ball in the ocean from a rowboat and in fact can be found down in the 200s nationally for effective field goal percentage.
Likewise, the vaunted no-middle defense in Lubbock has this season become the no-misses D. The Big 12’s shooting 41 percent from beyond the arc against these guys. Yes, that’s mostly outside of the Red Raiders’ control, and, no, that level of accuracy’s not likely to continue. It’s just tough to name streets after a defense that’s clocking in right at its league’s average in conference play while down the road in Waco another D entirely is, when it gets to play, appointment viewing for the hoops gods.
We trust there will be some semblance of a season in 2020-21, and if that does occur while keeping everyone healthy, including coaches of varying ages, it will dwarf every other consideration. Then and only then will we be able to progress to minute considerations of basketball minutiae, like we used to do in the good old days.
What follows qualifies as a minute consideration of basketball minutiae. Teams like Texas, Richmond, Missouri, UCLA, Utah, Rutgers, Villanova, and, to a slightly lesser extent, Miami, Wisconsin, and Iowa will all have pretty much everyone back this season. All of the above will be expected to perform accordingly, and teams like the Longhorns, Bruins, Wildcats, Badgers, and Hawkeyes in particular can already be found on various preseason top 25 rankings.
In the recent past, major-conference teams that have returned at least 80 percent of their possession-minutes for a new season have tended to live up to high expectations by improving significantly on offense. It has been far more rare, though not unheard of, for a major-conference team that returns just about everyone to remake itself dramatically on the defensive side of the ball.
Writing about basketball feels frivolous at the moment. Writing about basketball has always felt a bit frivolous upon reflection. It is frivolous.
The far more typical case has always been that people have to do true, exhausting, unceasing, and often hazardous work to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. Certainly my ancestors did. If I didn’t know that before, I understand it much better now.
With the fortuitous alignment of my dad’s retirement years, advancing technology, and my mother-in-law’s mastery of ancestry.com, there’s been an explosion in the field of Gasaway genealogy of late. I’ve learned enough as a student there to know that my tough and persistent yet sporadically educated forebears are looking down on me right now and saying, “He seems nice, but what is it he does again?” I know, ancestors, I know.
In the past, I’ve wondered aloud if we in this profession, perhaps unconsciously, finesse this sea change by seizing a vocabulary of terms from things that do matter — “existential crisis,” for example, is a hardy sports perennial — and smuggling those signifiers into our particular toy department. Maybe we do this because we do, in fact, recognize the frivolity. Continue reading →
Recently I dropped in on a Division II practice and spoke with an analytically woke head coach who had two urgent messages for me. First, shot volume is great. Second, what happened to Tuesday Truths?
Let’s focus on that first highly perceptive part. Shot volume is just one half (how often you shoot) of one half (offense) of basketball, but it is, by far, the 25 percent of the sport that garners the least attention. It is this imbalance in explanatory bandwidth and not any silver-bullet features of the metric itself that is unfortunate. (It is no silver bullet. Ask Notre Dame.)
If you want to know how it’s possible, nay conceivable, that Illinois (still!) might wear home uniforms in its first-round NCAA tournament game despite being the least accurate team from the field in Big Ten play, our good friend X’s and O’s can’t solve that riddle alone. An awareness of shot volume can help.
As always, one of the most intriguing takeaways from these numbers is how the hoops gods seriously do not give a flying fig how you get the job done. Shot volume’s a stylistic buffet, and everyone’s invited. Whether you love offensive rebounds or choose to fear them the way early civilizations dreaded mirrors and solar eclipses, the bottom line on volume can turn out exactly the same…. Continue reading →
A national title this season for Auburn? Possibly. (AP/Julie Bennett)
If you’ve been following along here for a while, you know I’m a big fan of the week six AP poll. Over the last 20 years, week six has outperformed previous AP rankings in predicting which team will cut down the nets in April. In fact, every national champion since 2004 has been ranked in the top 12 of that season’s week six AP poll.
So, without further ado, welcome to week six:
3. Ohio State
I don’t know if Tre Jones will have a proverbial breakout sophomore season in terms of shooting threes, but I do wonder if, as a college basketball commentariat, we have perhaps overlearned the lessons of Duke’s round of 32 nail-biter against UCF last March.
That was the game where the feisty Knights weren’t merely sagging but were reportedly shouting “Shoot it!” and “Hell, nah!” at Jones when he had the ball outside the arc. Johnny Dawkins must have been doing something right, because his guys played top-seeded Duke into the final seconds before falling 77-76.
The word that recurred coming out of that game (for there was time to kill leading into the Sweet 16 matchup with Virginia Tech) was “exposed.” Duke and its lack of three-point shooting had been exposed. The KenPom archives were duly ransacked, and it was discovered that no team that was this bad at making threes had ever won a national title. Continue reading →
The fact that the NIT was bypassed by the most dominant player up to that time on the most dominant team up to that time may have had long-term consequences. (Photo by the incomparable Rich Clarkson, of course.)
People who talk about the history of college basketball like to say that the NIT used to be just as prestigious as the NCAA tournament, if not more so.
I know this is the case, because I recently said it in an unpremeditated fashion myself. A couple weeks ago I was interviewing a college basketball VIP, and I somewhat airily blurted out that Seton Hall winning the NIT in 1953 was noteworthy because, you know, the annual get-together in Madison Square Garden used to be a really big deal.
Then I started wondering. My knowledge of the NIT in the early 1950s is admittedly limited. Is the sound bite we all like to use really accurate? Continue reading →