Wisconsin is ranked No. 11 in the AP poll and the Badgers are currently being projected as an NCAA tournament No. 3 seed by the bracket hive mind. Greg Gard’s team has achieved this lofty status in spite of the fact that this very same group barely cracks the top 30 at KenPom and, indeed, has outscored its Big Ten opponents by an average of just 0.6 points per game over the course of 11 outings.
What can account for this disparity? Start with the usual February suspects, such as Wisconsin’s almost Providence-like wizardry in close games. The Badgers are 12-1 in contests decided by single digits, with the only close loss coming at the hands of the aforementioned clutch Friars.
It is also the case, however, that Johnny Davis and his mates are actively and wantonly deceiving our eyes. When you watch a Wisconsin game or when a studio analyst breaks down some UW half-court sequences at the intermission, it’s possible that neither of you will remark upon the fact that Gard’s charges recorded hardly any turnovers. Yet that very fact is a significant ingredient in how the sausage gets made in Madison. The Badgers own the lowest turnover rate of any major-conference team in league play, and that allows them to attempt an exceptionally high number of shots.
On February 22, 2020, Gonzaga lost 91-78 at BYU. Mark Few’s team would rally from that defeat and finish the season 31-2 with a WCC tournament title and a presumptive NCAA tournament No. 1 seed in its pocket. Then came the pandemic.
It turns out something notable occurred that night in Provo, something even more singular than the fact that Gonzaga lost by 13. After all, we all saw the Bulldogs lose by 16 last April. That can happen with the Zags, albeit only once in a great while. What we haven’t seen since February 22, 2020, however, is a game where the opposing team shoots much more accurately from the floor than Gonzaga. The Cougars posted an effective field goal percentage of 62.1 that evening, while the Bulldogs clocked in at 45.8.
Few’s team has played 44 games since that loss at BYU, and in 43 of them the Zags shot more accurately from the field than did their opponent. Even in losses to Baylor in the 2021 national title game and to Duke last Friday night, Gonzaga was measurably more accurate in its shooting than were the winning teams.
On May 13, 2019, John Beilein announced that he was leaving Michigan to become head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Beilein’s exit came almost a full month after that year’s college coaching carousel had closed for business.
Nate Oats (March 27), Kyle Smith (also March 27), Mark Fox (March 29), Fred Hoiberg (March 30), Buzz Williams (April 3), Jerry Stackhouse (April 5), Eric Musselman (April 7), Mike Young (also April 7), Mick Cronin (April 9), and Mike Anderson (April 19), had all accepted new positions. Eight of those 10 guys were either current Division I head coaches or, in Fox’s case, on garden leave from being one. Hoiberg was a former Iowa State head coach who subsequently served an ill fated stint at the helm of the Chicago Bulls.
Conversely, Stackhouse’s head coaching experience consisted of two seasons in the NBA G League. Today if you enter “Vanderbilt hires Jerry Stackhouse” into a Google News search for calendar year 2019, the first result on the page is a headline from The Tennesseean: “Vanderbilt makes untraditional hire in Jerry Stackhouse and there are plenty of questions.”
On May 22 of that year, Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel elected to follow the Commodores’ untraditional path. Manuel’s selection of Miami Heat assistant coach Juwan Howard was somewhat less surprising than Vanderbilt’s choice in the sense that Howard was and is a Michigan basketball legend. It was perhaps slightly more aberrant than Vanderbilt’s path, however, in light of the fact that Howard had not yet served as a head coach in the G League or anywhere else.
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 →