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.
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.
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 population of men’s Division I college basketball rosters as a whole in 2022 may be older than it’s been at any time since first-year students were granted athletic eligibility in the 1970s. If this is indeed the case, the geriatric shift has been brought about by allowances in eligibility granted in response to the pandemic.
Indeed, it’s possible we already started seeing the consequences of this demographic adjustment last year. With the benefit of hindsight, Baylor looked pretty old last spring even for a national champion in the one-and-done era not named “Duke” or “Kentucky.”
The pandemic may have expanded our definition of “old” National champions, average age weighted by minutes (AAWM)
2012 Kentucky 19.7
2013 Louisville 21.7
2014 UConn 21.7
2015 Duke 20.1
2016 Villanova 21.1
2017 North Carolina 21.6
2018 Villanova 21.2
2019 Virginia 21.4
2021 Baylor 22.3
Age on March 1 of title season
Poor Gonzaga. The Bulldogs arrived at the 2021 title game sporting a very late-2010s-looking AAWM of 21.0, doubtless thinking it was business as usual in the world of college basketball actuarial tables.