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Monday, March 27, 2006

March Madness, Part III

Now that we know the identities of the Final Four participants--and if you had George Mason, LSU, UCLA and Florida in your bracket before the NCAA Tournament began, congratulations and please email me what numbers I should play in the lottery--let's examine what we've seen so far in the 2006 version of March Madness.

Most brackets have fizzled like cheap fireworks on the Fourth of July. I actually picked Florida as a Final Four team in the ESPN Tournament Challenge, so at this point the best of my five brackets there ranks on the 96th percentile out of more than 2 million brackets; my first bracket contained my actual predictions and the other four were "wacky" brackets filled with bizarre upsets. Ironically, one of those brackets ranks on the 87th percentile, nearly keeping stride with my "real" picks. Unfortunately, in my best bracket my predicted title game matchup of UConn versus Memphis was about as accurate as J.J. Redick's shooting in the Sweet 16, so I assume that my percentile rank will drop next weekend. On the other hand, this year's Tournament seems to have baffled even the "bracketologists," so maybe most brackets will still be more messed up than mine after the championship game.

Speaking of Redick, he closed out his collegiate career by shooting 3-18 from the field in a 62-54 loss to LSU in the Sweet 16. He had great difficulty creating a shot for himself--at least a good, high percentage shot. He had the ball stolen and on the rare occasions that he got into the lane off of the dribble LSU's big men spiked his shot attempts like they were playing volleyball. Too much shouldn't be made of one game--which is why it is interesting to note that in Duke's four NCAA Tournament losses during Redick's career he shot 13-60 from the field. Read that again; it is not a typo. Against the toughest competition, Redick shot 21.7%. There is no doubt that he is great at shooting open jump shots. The question is, how many open jump shots will he see in the NBA? One thing is certain: with that kind of percentage, he is not going to get 18 shot attempts to find his rhythm. Remember, shooting is Redick's strong point; even at the college level he is not a great rebounder, passer or defender. What about the fact that Redick scored over 2700 points in his NCAA career and finished second in the nation in scoring this year? That must mean something, right? Check out these names: Kevin Granger, Charles Jones, Alvin Young, Courtney Alexander, Ronnie McCollum, Jason Conley, Ruben Douglas, Keydren Clark. Do you have any idea who they are? They are the Division I scoring leaders from 1996-2005 (Jones and Clark each won two Division I scoring titles). As the saying goes, most of those guys aren't even household names in their own homes. Being a great collegiate scorer only translates to the NBA level if you have the physical and psychological components necessary to compete against the world's greatest athletes. I love watching great shooters and it would be tremendous to see a marksman like Redick be successful in the NBA--but I think he'll do a lot better in the Three Point Shootout than he will against NBA defenders.

I know that for many fans March Madness is their favorite basketball event. The NCAA Tournament certainly features many dramatic finishes and the one and done format gives underdogs a chance that they would never have in a seven game series. For students and alumni of the schools involved this is a very exciting time--but the idea that the college game is better, more fundamentally sound or purer than the NBA game defies logic. How can the college game be better or more fundamentally sound when the professional players are obviously bigger, faster, stronger and more skilled? Who in college has post moves like Tim Duncan, passing skills like Steve Nash or a shooting stroke like Ray Allen? Much is made about how poorly NBA players shoot. Then I watch NCAA Tournament games and I see scores in the 70s, 60s, 50s and even 40s. Number one seed Villanova shot 24.7% from the field in its 75-62 loss to Florida; number seven seed Wichita State shot 31.3% from the field in a 63-55 loss to George Mason. Heck, Villanova beat Boston in overtime despite shooting 35.0% from the field. Number two seed Texas shot 30.4% from the field in a 70-60 loss to LSU.

The coup de grace was the "epic" battle of number one seed Memphis versus number two seed UCLA. Memphis shot 31.5% from the field (17-54) and 60% (9-15) on free throws, starting the game 1-13 from the field; their only made field goal in the first 8:24 of the second half came on a goaltending call. UCLA won 50-45 despite shooting 35.0% from the field (14-40) and 51.3% (20-39) on free throws; the Bruins shot 4-17 from the field in the second half. But here is the best stat: Both teams had more turnovers than made field goals--17-14 for UCLA and 18-17 for Memphis. Perhaps this is a small, unrepresentative sample of games--but they are also games by college basketball's best teams in the sport's premier event. When NBA playoff games finish with scores in the 80s we hear that the games are bad and boring. At least the San Antonio Spurs and Detroit Pistons have rosters packed with athletes who are playing great defense and making spectacular plays at both ends of the court--Tim Duncan with his balletic post moves, Manu Ginobili making slashing drives, Ben Wallace and Tayshaun Prince erasing shots with great blocks. I don't see those kinds of plays and that level of skill in the college game.

I admit that there has been more to this year's March Madness than missed shots and turnovers. One of the most entertaining NCAA Tournament games that I saw was Texas' 74-71 win over West Virginia. The shooting percentages were decent (both teams were over 45% from the field and 70% from the free throw line), there were a lot less turnovers than field goals and the finish was very exciting--Kevin Pittsnogle's three pointer to tie followed by Kenton Paulino's three pointer to win. Perhaps the best part is that Texas did not call a timeout after Pittsnogle's shot, but instead pushed the ball immediately up the court. Texas Coach Rick Barnes had prepared his team for exactly this situation in practice and trusted his players to execute under pressure. I much prefer coaches who emphasize preparation and execution to coaches who seem to be using timeouts as a means to increase their airtime on national television. Does every single late game play in a college basketball game really need to be preceded by a timeout? What are these teams working on in practice? Coaches should follow the examples of John Wooden and Phil Jackson--prepare your players beforehand and don't engage in sideline theatrics during the game (yes, they were both blessed with great players but they also won championships with those players). If I'm not mistaken, Wooden used to tell his players not to look toward the sideline for help during the game because there was nothing he could do for them at that point; the games are won by the preparation that is done in practice and the correct execution of the game plan by the players during the crucible of competition.

As for the supposed purity of the college game, NCAA sports (not just basketball) are plagued by low graduation rates, recruiting violations and players dealing with various legal troubles. Chicago Sun Times writer Greg Couch just wrote about one such situation, involving the theft of four laptop computers worth $11,000: Marcus Williams, UConn's star point guard, received a slap on the wrist from the school for his involvement in the crime. A.J. Price, a backup player on the team, was suspended for the season while Williams was only suspended until the start of conference play.

Couch writes, "The law gave the players similar sentences, by the way. Specifically, Williams was charged with four counts of third-degree felony larceny and later given something called accelerated rehabilitation, basically 18 months of probation and 400 hours of community service, for being a first-time offender." Here is a link to Couch's complete article on the subject:

UConn's just unjust playing Williams

Please don't think that I am picking on UConn. Choose your favorite--or least favorite--NCAA Tournament team and you likely won't have to dig too far to find examples of double standards, hypocrisy and cutting whatever corners are necessary to assemble a winning team.

Justin Wolfers, a University of Pennsylvania professor, has just written a paper titled Point Shaving: Corruption in NCAA Basketball. He researched nearly every NCAA basketball game played in the last 16 years and discovered that in a disproportionate number of games involving a heavily favored team that the favorite just missed covering the point spread. His research suggests that point shaving is occuring in 6% of such games.

Gambling and point shaving are the elephant in the room that is NCAA sports and everybody involved hopes that the elephant doesn't stomp through the room and trample the golden goose--the multi-billion dollar television contracts that are making everyone (other than the players) rich. Point shaving scandals have popped up every few years for decades; the scandals of 1951 almost destroyed college basketball and another scandal in the 1960s not only damaged the game but tainted the names and affected the careers of innocent men such as Connie Hawkins and Roger Brown.

In the March 29, 2004 issue of Sports Illustrated, Ian Thomsen quotes an anonymous NBA scout on the subject of NBA basketball versus NCAA basketball: "The college tournament has our playoffs beat in terms of drama, because it's a 100 yard dash and ours is a marathon. But I get tired of hearing that the NCAA Tournament is pure basketball and superior to what we do. The level of play is the equivalent of Double A baseball (it used to be Triple A--before the teenagers started turning pro). And you've got to be real naive to think it's pure. A lot of the best players have their 'advisers' calling guys like me to see whether their NBA stock is up or down after each game and a lot of coaches are using the tournament to angle for their next job."

I enjoy watching college basketball and look forward to next weekend's Final Four--I just don't accept the premise that NCAA basketball is in any way superior to NBA basketball.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:10 AM


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At Tuesday, September 12, 2006 3:15:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello David,

I read your article and had to comment about Alvin Young. Alvin did lead the nation in scoring and had a short stay with the Bucks,Boston, Jazz & Magic in the NBA. He has become a well known name overseas and is one of the top ten rank guards over in Europe. In his veteran career he has netted over 2 million in salaried contracts and has enjoyed star status in every country he has played. He is and household name from NYC to Italy, Israel, France etc. Now as for JJ Reddick he will need to learn how to create his shot and go to the basket when necessary. The NBA needs shooter and it is one of the reason the overseas players are better at,Just look at the World Championships enough said.

Thanks and keep up the good work!

At Tuesday, September 12, 2006 3:42:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Thank you for the update about Alvin Young.

Of course, I meant no disrespect to him or the other Division I scoring leaders whose names I mentioned. My point is that leading the NCAA in scoring does not guarantee that a player will have a long, successful NBA career.


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