On this day 25 years ago, the word “bracketologist” was used in print for quite possibly the first time. Mike Jensen dropped the neologism into a Philadelphia Inquirer article that ran on February 25, 1996.
The NCAA had just suspended Villanova star Kerry Kittles for three games for unauthorized use of a university credit card number. “You wouldn’t know anything is different if you came to watch practice for the first time,” Wildcats coach Steve Lappas was quoted as saying in that day’s Inquirer. The only difference, the coach said, was that now Kittles was “wearing a white shirt instead of a blue.”
Lappas was striking a nonchalant note, but the concern around the program was that, without Kittles on the floor, Villanova could lose what had been shaping up to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Jensen speculated that the spot on the top line might now be given to Connecticut instead.
But how could anyone in 1996 game out what losing Kittles for three games might do to the Wildcats’ seeding? And what did the tournament chances look like for Philadelphia’s other programs in late February?
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 →
This is a piece about postseason bids, and this is not a picture of athletic directors in a conference room. It is instead a picture of people happy about their team. (startribune.com)
Selection committees are college basketball’s original sin.
The first modern postseason tournament was arguably the eight-team National Intercollegiate Basketball Championship Tournament in Kansas City in 1937. It had a selection committee. The following year, the inaugural National Invitation Tournament was held with six teams at Madison Square Garden. It had a selection committee.
Finally, in 1939, due largely to pushing and cajoling by Ohio State head coach Harold Olsen, the NCAA held its first tournament, an eight-team affair that culminated in a championship game in Evanston, Illinois. It had a selection committee.
At least the creators of the NIT had the decency to foreground the subjective nature of the endeavor in their event’s very title. The NCAA tournament has been an invitational now for decades, albeit one with 32 spots reserved for automatic entrants certified by their conferences.
We should learn from and follow through on the example set by these automatic bids. We should make each tournament spot an outcome to be won through unmediated basketball performance instead of a favor to be granted through jury deliberation.
People in the 1930s needed committees to put on these tournaments. We no longer do. 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 →
Michigan hired Juwan Howard yesterday, and the first two hot takes I read asserted that the odds are stacked against the new Wolverine coach. Howard, of course, played in the NBA, and it is said that coaches that have tried to transition from playing at the highest level to running a Division I program have been notably unsuccessful. Chris Mullin, Avery Johnson, you name it.
In truth, ex-NBA players do face long odds when trying to succeed as college coaches. But so too, of course, do all newly hired college coaches.
Certainly NBA types like Mike Dunleavy and Mark Price took on daunting challenges when they assumed the head coaching responsibilities at Tulane and Charlotte, respectively. The analytic nut to be cracked, however, is that, obviously, any coach trying to breathe life into the Green Wave, whether they have an NBA pedigree or not, would be taking on a herculean task. Continue reading →