Category Archives: stay off my side

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

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

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

Even good math’s downstream from the big decisions


(Photo: Tony Triolo, Getty)

When the first preliminary reports reached Winston Churchill regarding the as yet unconfirmed death of his longtime political rival, Stanley Baldwin, he is reputed to have said: “Embalm, cremate, bury at sea! Take no chances!”

Which brings me to the Ratings Percentage Index.

Putting the haplessly erratic RPI out to pasture is long overdue, of course, but, since it hasn’t happened yet, the NCAA voicing a likelihood of doing so by 2018-19 is quite plainly an occasion for genuine, if watchful and conditional, celebration.

In 2012, fresh from the outstanding mock selection exercise that the NCAA runs annually, I speculated that the reason the knowledgeable, diligent, and inquisitive men and women in Indianapolis hadn’t already cast off the RPI’s deleterious cognitive shackles could only have been simple organizational inertia. Decry that inertia if you wish, but don’t wax superior about it. This, surely, is an affliction visited upon us all, varying only in its extent. (I will grant you this was one pretty extreme case.) Continue reading

The political economy of college sports is infuriating, profitable, and remarkably resistant to asteroids


The viewership for this game was, comparatively speaking, terrible. Why didn’t that matter to advertisers? (USA Today)

This week USA Today followed in Kyle Whelliston’s venerable footsteps and termed college sports a “bubble” that’s sure to pop sooner or later. Something strange happened in between the piece’s inception and publication, however, because the final product turns out to consist of a labored and rather convoluted lede placed atop the latest iteration of what has long been an excellent and even invaluable set of data.

For starters the nominal news hook presented by the numbers — most athletic departments operate at what they are pleased to term deficits — would seem to be something of an awkward fit for our traditional stock of “bubble” iconography. Maybe it’s me, but I always assumed that tulip merchants in 1637, the South Sea Company in 1720, in 1999, and subprime lenders in 2006 instead showed astronomic operating surpluses. In fact I rather thought this was precisely the red flag in those cases.

Nor is it clear why a bubble would aptly describe a revenue model now entering its sixth decade of “Seriously! Any day now!” impending legal doom. Finally, fretting about those darned young people and their cord-cutting in a piece based in no small measure on a brand new TV deal whose lead signatory is a legacy broadcaster founded in 1927 qualifies as still another curious ratiocinative choice, surely.

Far from being an “unstable situation,” college sports in general, college basketball more especially, and the NCAA tournament in particular instead present a series of successively smaller and progressively more advantageously situated concentric circles characterized by an unusual degree of hardiness solely as media properties. There are variables in play, naturally, and it’s not too much to term the threat of legal exposure “existential” — with regard to the NCAA. I don’t know who or what will be governing the sport in 2032, and I do trust that by then the players will have long since been receiving their fair share of the resulting revenues.

But if we view the essentials of the tournament as nothing more or less than 68 college teams playing 67 games of win-or-go-home basketball over three weeks from mid-March to early April, I’m yet to see anything even remotely persuasive in the way of a Book of Revelation. The essentials are eyeballs and basketballs, and if a tournament that earned record-setting revenues for a decade before, during and after the largest economic calamity since the Great Depression constitutes a bubble, well, put me down as bullish on this particular bubble.  Continue reading

Advance scouting an extreme Final Four


Is this man a defensive mastermind? Lucky that so few teams use his defense? A little of both? (USAT)

In keeping with my decade-old tradition of very late Final Four previews, here are some thoughts I’ve been mulling this week.

Is the Syracuse zone’s effectiveness scheme-blind and a simple matter of novelty? 
The funny thing about the Syracuse reign of defensive terror in this bracket is that — unlike a similar episode in 2013 — this season the Orange defense wasn’t very good.

During the regular season the ACC made 52 percent of its 2s against this D. In the tournament, however, this number has dropped all the way down to a rather ridiculous 36 percent. Are tournament opponents (ACC member Virginia notwithstanding) failing against this defense because it’s so strange and alien to them? Hard to say, but the history here is pretty interesting.

As it happens this season’s 16-percentage-point improvement in interior defense is by far the most extreme manifestation of what was nevertheless a preexisting historical pattern. Starting with Carmelo Anthony’s national championship team of 2003 and running through Sunday evening, the Syracuse defense has been exactly four percentage points better at forcing missed twos in the tournament than it’s been in conference play. (To keep the “novelty” hypothesis clean and tidy I threw out this weekend’s tournament win against league foe UVA, as well as the tournament loss against league foe Marquette in 2011.) That’s a big difference, and the sample sizes here are comforting: Syracuse has played 32 tournament games over that span.

I’ve never really looked at tournament vs. regular-season two-point defense over a decade-plus before, so just to be sure Syracuse really is weird I ran the same numbers for four other national champions of the period: Duke, North Carolina, Kansas and UConn. It turns out Syracuse really is weird. The Blue Devils have also played better interior D in the tournament than they have against the ACC, but the difference is smaller (two percentage points) and, anyway, Duke’s played weaker teams in its NCAA brackets than what it’s seen in conference play. Syracuse, on the other hand, has faced an almost identical strength of schedule both in the tournament and in conference play. Continue reading