Category Archives: in many ways the work of a critic is easy

End the schedule obsession


Via David Hess.

The evaluative dead-end in which college basketball finds itself today has two sources. On the one hand, it’s a straightforward problem of political economy, method, and optics.

On the other hand, it’s a statistical issue that, rather remarkably, metastasized over the course of 40 years into an all-encompassing mode of entirely basketball-independent basketball perception. Ironically, that mode is engaged in mostly by those who fancy themselves as true basketball people above minutiae and pedantry like statistics.

The problem of political economy, as always when the NCAA’s involved, is maddeningly easy to solve in concept but difficult to make happen in reality. We keep critiquing the content of what this men’s basketball committee does, when in fact it is the very existence of and charge given to the committee that charts our path-dependent course. Once we’ve made the decision to let a group of eight or so people go from blank slate to a completely seeded and bracketed 68-team field, literally everything else is a footnote. Continue reading

Your viewer’s guide for Selection Sunday 2018


(L.E. Baskow – AP photo)

The reason the mock brackets gathered together at are so valuable collectively is that the people making those brackets are doing precisely what the committee does.

Unlike my good friends doing games on TV or talking about a given game from the studio, a person who goes to the trouble of building one entire bracket isn’t simply covering one game, pointing at a team, and saying, “They should be in.” Instead, they’re dealing with a finite number of spots, just like the committee. They have to make tough decisions regarding Arizona State versus Louisville, just like the committee. And they have exactly 36 at-large bids to hand out, just like the committee.

Then again, the reason why the cumulative consensus that results isn’t infallible is that even such a “bracket of brackets” is, in the end, just one bracket — and so too is the committee’s. Going 68-for-68 is entirely possible, but it entails luck as well as skill. Continue reading

Social norms and Trae Young


(Josh Gateley,

It appears increasingly likely that Trae Young will turn out to be the most interesting player of my “writing about college basketball” career so far.

Here’s a freshman who started the season ranked as the No. 23 recruit in the country, yet who then proceeded to out-Curry Curry. (Literally.) That was, frankly, amazing to behold, and we all said so.

Now, as if that weren’t enough, Young has sparked one of the better basketball conversations to come down the pike in a long while, courtesy of his 48-point, 14-of-39 effort in Oklahoma’s overtime loss at Oklahoma State. Depending on whether one focuses on the “48” or the “14-of-39,” I suppose Young might be rendered as either a Prometheus or a problem. Continue reading

The trouble with Arizona


Photo: Casey Sapio, USAT Sports

If you could travel back in time to one month ago, and tell someone there that Arizona is 5-3 and unranked, they wouldn’t believe you. And by that I more specifically mean I wouldn’t believe you.

I ranked the Wildcats No. 1 in the preseason, and I had good company.

Arizona’s preseason rankings

    AP     Coaches    KenPom
     3        5          3           1

Keep in mind nothing’s “happened” to Arizona that we didn’t know about previously. Yes, Sean Miller has had to play without Rawle Alkins to this point, but we knew that when these preseason rankings were derived. Yes, the program, like much of the sport, is under active federal investigation, but we knew that too when these numbers were formulated. Continue reading

Peer performance pressure, and the limits of coaching theory


Last season, this offense made its shots and took outstanding care of the ball. What could possibly have gone wrong?

Years ago, when rebound percentages were still seen as newfangled, the first question I was ever asked by a Division I coach was what the best target numbers are for both offensive and defensive rebound rates. I don’t remember my response, though I would guess I delivered, as requested (I was thrilled simply to have had my opinion solicited), two numbers spelling out what the team “should” be doing.

I now think that was a mistake. True, thanks to Dean Oliver, we know that the four factors in basketball are shooting, turnovers, rebounds, and free throws, and we rank offenses and defenses on each of those metrics.

But of late, however unconsciously, I find I no longer regard all of the factors as a must-watch sequence in and of itself. Instead, I’ve elevated shooting to a co-starring role above the title in this movie we call hoops.

Furthermore, I’ve collapsed turnovers and offensive rebounds into one quantity and elevated that into the other co-starring role, one I call shot volume. (In this two-factor amalgam, offensive rebounding is clearly the junior — or at least downstream — partner.) And, for better or worse, I now regard free throws as an occasionally dispositive but basically exogenous event, kind of like a power outage or visiting relatives.  Continue reading

Instead of prosecuting bartenders in speakeasies, let’s repeal prohibition


The federal government alleges that Chuck Person, Emanuel Richardson, Lamont Evans, and Tony Bland abused their positions as assistant coaches at Auburn, Arizona, Oklahoma State, and USC, respectively. The Justice Department and FBI charge that these coaches were bribed by sports agents and financial advisors to steer talented players their way. These same federal authorities are also charging that James Gatto paid out six-figure sums to players on behalf of Adidas to secure their commitments to programs (e.g., Louisville, reportedly) affiliated with the shoe brand.

I’m not building any parade floats in honor of any of the above alleged activities, particularly as those activities relate to an alleged willingness to prey on young men so guileless or trusting or both that they would sign up a financial advisor without even Googling the guy. But I also don’t particularly need to see my state actor visit its displeasure upon these actions through the draconian and imprecise medium of its punitive machinery. Above all, I would much prefer to free up my state actor and its limited resources for any number of other far more pressing prosecutorial needs.

Because, speaking as longtime observer of the business of mass-spectator sports on college campuses, we’ve got this one. Trust me. We can fix it ourselves without wiretaps or indictments, though, paradoxically, your wiretaps and indictments may be just the jolt that was needed to do so. Continue reading

Bigs, Bagley, and evaulative habit


This week I re-ranked the top 25 players in college basketball on the occasion of Marvin Bagley III reclassifying and joining this year’s freshman class. I put Bagley at No. 1 because he’s been termed the best player to come out of high school since Anthony Davis. If Duke’s star does indeed have a Davis-level impact for the Blue Devils this season, I’ll come off looking like a genius in a vast hegemonic horde of parroting savants.

Whether that particular scenario pans out or not, I do wonder whether this Bagley moment itself may not function as a handy summation, one that can be called The (Evaluative) Trouble with Freshmen. On the one hand, the get-off-my-yard gene in all of us says that, at the very top of the rankings, freshmen are pretty much always overrated.

Markelle Fultz turned out to be as good as advertised, his team missed the tournament entirely, and his coach was fired. Ben Simmons turned out to be as good as advertised, his team missed the tournament entirely, and his coach was (eventually) fired.

Even Jahlil Okafor, who, whatever else you may think of him, was a first-team All-American as a freshman and was the leading scorer on a team that won a national title, is now being pointed at as some kind of museum exhibit for obsolete basketball artifacts and cautionary draft tales. Freshmen are always overrated. Continue reading