Category Archives: hoops

Updated tournament wins this century

The win total now clocks in at 17. Not bad! (Photo: Darron Cummings)

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.) 

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This Final Four is all about shot volume, except for the historically heavy favorite

Outliers. (gozags.com)

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.

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An unbiased summary of why everyone should buy my book

I wrote a history of Catholic college basketball that starts with Naismith and ends with the 2020 tournament being canceled. The book opens with an interview of Sister Jean on the day after her 100th birthday in 2019, back when we still did such things in person. It’s my first book, it’s called Miracles on the Hardwood, and it comes out today.

You might be saying, “But my team isn’t Gonzaga, and it’s not a non-UConn or -Butler Big East team, and in fact it’s not any other Catholic team either.”

Well, me too. I’m a graduate of a huge public land grant university, and I live and die with every bounce of the ball for its basketball team. But in the course of writing a book about the 12 percent of Division I that’s Catholic, I learned a great deal about the sport I love.

I learned why men’s college basketball in the United States is played in halves, while most of the rest of the world — amateur and professional, men’s and women’s — uses quarters.

I learned that in the 1960s John Thompson ran a 4-H program in Washington, D.C., and told the Washington Post, “Our kids don’t need to know how to make Indian headbands, they need to know how to survive in the city.”

Speaking of Thompson, the 15 coaches selected as finalists in recruiting Patrick Ewing arrived at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in September 1980 in alphabetical order according to their school names.

When the three-point line was introduced in 1986, Bob Knight told the press, “I don’t like the damn rule.”

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The NCAA tournament can be a three-point defense lottery

When Syracuse reached the 2013 Final Four, its four tournament opponents to that point had shot 15 percent on their threes. (Stephen D. Cannerelli)

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).

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Origins, bubbles, and Bracketology

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?

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Offense, shot volume, and the best teams in the country

In terms of shot volume, Texas Tech is truly a rags-to-riches story. (texastech.com)

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.

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When “everyone’s back,” improvement skews heavily toward offense

Everyone’s back for Texas this season. (texassports.com)

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.

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When Selection Sunday doesn’t happen

dog

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

These are the teams that take the most shots

LSU

(Gus Stark)

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

Replace the committee with basketball games

storm

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