Random early March thoughts on college basketball

I stated at the outset that I was leaving the x’s and o’s and comprehensive analysis to the ESPN folks; this blog really is merely a personal journal of sorts recording experiences that are among the most important to me. However, since it is now March, when we are deluged with material to discuss, analyze and pick apart, some of it quite stupid, I will no doubt indulge my outlet here to share a random collection of thoughts on the season and the national landscape at regular season’s end.

The all-conference teams and the Sporting News All-America teams came out this week, and I hesitate to write too much on this since several more All-America teams are soon to follow. But a few glaring thoughts. I was surprised by the ACC media leaving Kendall Marshall off of the first-team (even barely), but only because of how much the conversation had shifted in his direction over the past two weeks. The tide of media opinion tends to sway in a massive exercise of group-think weeks before the votes, and on that measure, many were calling for Marshall to be in the POY conversation. Ultimately, Tyler Zeller turned in too many increasingly impressive performances for that to be an issue, but all the same, voting for Marshall for All-ACC, and even first-team All-America, was trending.

In hindsight, though, his second team appearance should not be surprising. None of the players in ACC history with similarly historic assist totals made the first team except Bobby Hurley, and he only made it his senior season with a 17 points per game average. I think the media got it right – Henson’s double-double average and status as the conference’s premiere defender and Barnes’ status as our leading scorer made them impossible to leave off. What Marshall is accomplishing this year is unprecedented and truly remarkable, but a guy who averages 7 points per game cannot match the production of Henson and Barnes. Marshall’s classy response indicates he understands that’s the way it works.

Though lack of production didn’t keep one guy off of the Sporting News Second team All-America list, and this is a far more glaring error than awarding Marshall ACC POY would have been. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is a special basketball player, and he will be drafted in the top five of next year’s NBA draft. If we were holding a college draft right now, he would probably be among the first five players taken. But All-America teams are about production, and Gilchrist did not produce at an elite level in any statistical category. Somebody should track down when the last time a guy averaging 11 points and 7 rebounds was an All-American, or when the last time a player who finished the season scoring in single digits in 6 of his last 10 games (including totals of 1, 4, 4 and 7) was an All-American. Let us hope that when later outlets release their teams, they correct this joke in favor of Kevin Jones (led the Big East in scoring and rebounding), Harrison Barnes or Mike Scott.

I am inclined to blame two factors for this bizarre decision by the media: hype and advanced stats. Regarding hype, the media has a well-publicized man-crush on Kidd-Gilchrist, who is the ultimate tough, high motor, “little things” athletic phenom. Their feelings for the man-child got the best of them.

And speaking of advanced stats, there is no question that the advanced stats era is relegating total statistical production to a back seat in evaluating teams and players. It is not all bad; understanding the way that players impact games independent of the obvious production totals is interesting and useful for comparing teams for predictive purposes, and I agree that tempo-free numbers in particular should support a player like Mike Scott when it comes to handing out awards. But arguments that a player affects the game dramatically in ways not reflected on the stat sheet, while true, are far too vague and intangible to earn honors based on production. Advanced stats, directly or indirectly, cannot be responsible for such a denigration of total production that a guy like Kevin Jones has to wonder what else he needed to do to top Kidd-Gilchrist for an award.

Kidd-Gilchrist made a significant marginal impact for Kentucky, especially on defense. But that marginal impact cannot compare to a player who led the Big East in both of the most important individual statistical categories. Some will argue that Gilchrist’s stats reflect his role on a loaded Kentucky team, while Jones was the only major option West Virginia had. While unquestionably true, this is not relevant for determining All-America awards. We are not looking for the best players, but the best cumulative bodies of work. Nobody on Syracuse made the Sporting News team for the same reason Kidd-Gilchrist should not have either.

I will spend some more time thinking and developing the argument in the off-season when I am bored… for now, it suffices to say that I am skeptical, and slightly annoyed, by the obsession with advanced stats, while still acknowledging that they represent useful progress.

I am also going to state  publicly my position that the three-point line should be eliminated from basketball. This argument also will be mostly reserved for an off-season post, but the general line of thought runs like this: the three-point line gives a massive advantage to teams such as Duke and sharp-shooting mid-majors that specialize in scoring from the outside, while punishing teams like the current version of UNC that specialize in scoring from the inside. Scoring from outside by shooting over the defense is not necessarily harder than finding a good shot inside and making it, and it is certainly not so much harder to warrant 50 percent more points. UNC was far more efficient on offense than Duke in our first contest, making eight more field goals and four more foul shots. Yet we lost the game because most of Duke’s points came from behind an arbitrary line, from where they prefer to shoot anyways. 30 years ago that game is a blowout. Shooters are just too good to provide that large of a reward from outside.

I realize by biased motivation for this position, and I also realize that even Duke has died by the three more than they have lived recently. But I have a few thoughts from the other side of the divide. I myself am a basketball player in the mold of Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry, an accomplished spot up shooter whose other skills are average, so I understand preference for scoring outside rather than driving, and benefit from a three-point line. I also find that when playing on a court without a three-point line, player spacing is better and players rediscover the lost art of the mid-range game.

Watching the bubble is one of the more interesting but irritating conversations in sports journalism, mostly because it is a perfect illustration of what I view to be one of sports journalism’s most glaring flaws: everyone uses their own criteria for judging resumes, and thus everyone talks past one another without addressing the core issues. VCU was a great story last season, but their performance in the tournament did not validate their admission; their relevant chance to earn a bid happened prior to the run, and their resume plainly paled to that of Virginia Tech.

It is constantly pandered that the tournament is better with teams like VCU than it would be with middling major conference teams. Sometimes that turns out right, and in certain circumstances, such as when a conference team finished at or below .500 with no good wins, it is as it should be. In many cases though, analysts are merciless toward major conference teams for losing too many games to other middling and bad major conference teams, while forgetting that nearly every team in that major conference is usually better than nearly every team on the mid-major team’s schedule. Drexel is 27-6, but if they receive an at-large bid, the committee will have forgiven losses to Norfolk St, Georgia State and Delaware for a team with no truly great wins. There is no way that a major conference team receives that level of mercy, and Virginia Tech knows it best.

Looking back at my preseason blog posts would certainly show just how much the college basketball landscape changed during the regular season. Most obviously, Carolina is no longer the favorite, having ceded that label to Kentucky. More broadly, the change is reflected in the number of elite teams with a real shot to win the national championship. Luke Winn published his annual “Magic 8” a couple of weeks ago, the list of eight teams from which he predicts will come the eventual national champion. The obvious choices among the eight were elite teams Kentucky, North Carolina, Syracuse, Ohio State and Michigan State, along with a few wildcards. He omitted Kansas, Missouri, and Duke, but few would argue that at least Kansas and Missouri fall in the category of “elite team” this season. That would be a list that runs seven deep, which was unfathomable for the past three seasons. Preseason there was a hint, even though UNC was thought to be a few steps ahead of everyone else, that this year might have the most elite teams since 2008, and the results of the season certainly show that to be the case.

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