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

The trouble with committees

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.

Really?

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How the entire season will benefit from bringing selection out of the dark ages

(NCAA.com)

The selection process for the NCAA tournament predates the shot clock and the three-point line. While the members of the NCAA men’s basketball committee are conscientious and, happily, they now have a wealth of insightful data at their fingertips, selection still comes down to 12 people going into a room and making a bracket.

It’s remarkable that we still do it this way. Someday we’ll look back on the committee era and marvel that a 1960s-vintage process survived as long as it did.

Instead of creating a bracket in March, the men’s basketball committee should convene in May or June or July and make a completely team-blind determination of how the tournament field will be selected and seeded. The committee will then sit back and let the season select its own postseason field.

Whether the committee chooses to select and seed the field according to this set of metrics or that one will be a weighty matter for the men and women charged with making the decision. That importance, however, is likely to be overstated and ultimately misconstrued by two otherwise dissimilar populations of onlookers.

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These are the teams taking the most or least shots in 2022

The Big Ten places a premium on shot volume. The Big 12 not so much. (uwbadgers.com)

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.

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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 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

History still says one of these 12 teams will win the national title

AUB

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:

1.  Louisville
2.  Kansas
3.  Ohio State
4.  Maryland
5.  Michigan
6.  Gonzaga
7.  Duke
8.  Kentucky
9.  Virginia
10. Oregon
11. Baylor
12. Auburn

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Threes, luck, and volume in the NCAA tournament

Izzonew

March 1993: Jud Heathcote announces that Tom Izzo will be his successor as head coach at Michigan State. (Lansing State Journal)

Michigan State was the final team to reach the 2019 Final Four, thanks to a Kenny Goins three with 39 seconds remaining against Duke. By virtue not only of Goins’ heroics but also the fact that, on the same afternoon, Auburn beat Kentucky in overtime, we now know that using one-and-dones in college basketball doesn’t work.

With that question settled once and for all (I’m kidding; apparently that needs to be indicated), let us turn our attention to the gathering of old geezers in Minneapolis.

If we think of said geezers as four offenses and four defenses, one thing to be said about the collective is that, with the possible exception of the Texas Tech offense, all of these units are used to seeing three-point attempts — both for and against — flying every which way in the tournament. Indeed, Ken Pomeroy noted last week at The Athletic that the NCAA tournament has become strikingly perimeter-oriented these last few years. Continue reading