“Don’t be Drake” is Always Good Advice

From SBNation, a primer on March Madness for an NBA fan:

We’re halfway into the month of March, which means the NCAA Tournament is right around the corner. Most of the country is about 7 days into their 30-day NCAA basketball attention span, trying to figure out which mascot they think will win in a fight between a Badger and a Cyclone so they can finish their bracket before the deadline. NBA fans are no exception; you’re in the stretch run of your own season, watching the standings to see if your team is in the playoffs or the lottery. You don’t have time to research who the leading rebounder is for the Green Bay Phoenix, or if there is a Green Bay, or if their mascot is actually a phoenix.

(Now you’re interested. Go ahead and Google it, I’ll wait.)

(You didn’t know that was even a team, did you?)

(Neither did I until a week ago.)

So with that in mind, let’s set the table for you on what to expect this week.

This isn’t pretty basketball

If you’re a NBA fan, you’ve spent the last few months watching Steph Curry redefine the concept of shooting. You’ve spent the past 3-4 years watching the San Antonio Spurs create an offensive system that’s as much poetry as sport. You’ve had a decade of Lebron James doing things no 250 lb man should be able to do. This is not that game. NCAA basketball is trying to improve the offensive flow with a number of rule changes to the block/charge call & hand-checking, amongst other things. Early returns are positive, but it’s a work in progress and you’re likely to see a game with a foul every minute at least a couple times the first weekend. NCAA basketball is moving away from being Murderball, but you’re probably going to have some flashbacks to mid-90s Detroit Pistons/New York Knicks games.

The players aren’t great

You’re used to seeing the best basketball players in the world, so you gotta dial back your expectations a little. Most of these guys are going to be accountants & project managers in 2 years, not the 6th man for the Brooklyn Nets. There aren’t any transcendent players this season; Buddy Hield & Denzel Valentine are great NCAA players and will likely have solid NBA careers, but they’re not Kevin Durant or The Brow. A guy like Georges Niang is going to have his jersey in the rafters for the Iowa State Cyclones sooner than later, but it’s highly unlikely he makes a NBA squad next season. There will be at least a dozen guys who make a name for themselves this month and are never heard from again because that’s how it is when you’re in a league with 350 other D1 schools (I’m not exaggerating, there are 351 D1 schools technically eligible for March Madness.)

The scores will be low

There are a number of reasons for this; the shot clock is longer (30 seconds v. 24 for NBA), the games are shorter (40 minutes v. 48 for NBA), and the players are on average worse shooters (trust me). The Connecticut Huskies broke 100 points a couple days ago…it took them 4 OTs to hit it. Expect your bracket to be full of final scores in the 60s & 70s.

I’m painting a really rosy picture right now, I know. I can imagine you’re wondering why you should even bother turning on the games, and it’s a valid question. One answer is because you’re a degenerate gambler and the first week of the NCAA Tournament is basically Christmas in Las Vegas, but that’s not really what we’re getting at here. We’ve made it through the cons, here are the pros.

Nobody is immortal

This NCAA season has no NBA D-League teams like last year’s Kentucky squad, there are a number of teams that could make it to the Final Four is larger than I’ve seen in years. Any of the #1 seeds could get popped early (alright, not in the 1st round, it isn’t that insane) or they could all make it to the end, it’s wide open.

There’s variety

Do you want to watch a team that runs the floor for 40 minutes? Watch Green Bay. Do you want a team that runs a full-court press? Watch the West Virginia Mountaineers. Do you like a team that owns the boards? The Baylor Bears are a good bet. Do you appreciate teams that value the ball? The Temple Owls turn the ball over less than anybody in the tournament. There’s something in this tournament for everybody, you just have to know where to look.

The results will be unpredictable

For all the NBA has going for it, when it comes to the playoffs the NBA is fairly predictable. Last year it wasn’t a surprise that the Cleveland Cavaliers made it to the finals, and it wasn’t particularly surprising that Golden State won the whole thing. This year feels like – barring Greg Popovich stuffing kryptonite in Steph Curry’s mouthpiece – one long coronation for the Warriors. In the NCAA, this year could be especially messy; there are a pack of 10-15 teams at the top who are all bunched up together and a bunch of teams being led by battle-tested seniors lurking in the middle seeds. There may not be a 15-seed making it to the Sweet Sixteen, but don’t be surprised to see a number of 10-13 seeds destroying brackets this year. Bask in the glow of not knowing who is the clear favorite, it’s part of the entertainment.


If you’re a basketball purist and you think anything less than the Warriors is shit, you probably should just stick to the NBA. But if you have the capacity for normal human emotions and want to mainline 96 hours of basketball, this is the best weekend of the year. Pick a random team to root for – not Kentucky, don’t be Drake – and ride the roller coaster.

8 Responses

  1. A couple of observations of my own:

    1] The great depth of Kansas and UNC (and some other teams) is almost neutralized by the numerous and lengthy TV time-outs in the NCAA tournament.

    2] The seeding isn’t important for the top 8 teams but is for everyone else. That Michigan State and OU [2s] are better than UVA [a 1] has no meaning for the tournament because the path for 2s and 1s is equally soft, until they meet each other, if they get that far. For everyone else, in a year with parity like this one, bracket placement can be critical. The sooner your team must face a one or a two the more likely it will leave the action.

    3] Do we want to post a bracket here this year?

    I’m probably picking Michigan State – based on Izzo in March. Coaching does make a difference. We see examples every year in watching the Big 12, I have no doubt that the Baylor – Kansas matchups are decided by coaching. Self would win with either roster. Baylor has made the Elite 8 three times in the last six years or so based entirely on its roster, not its coach – against Izzo or K or Self they will not win. But it is so close this year I will have to study the field and match-ups a bit longer.


  2. MSU wuz robbed by the selection committee–but, in the grand scheme of things, there isn’t a material difference in the teams that the #1 and #2 seeds play in the bracket. So MSU is gonna blow them all out of the water.

    Go State!


  3. Good article, Mark.

    I am a huge college basketball fan, but I think it has become pretty bad quality. Not sure if it is due to the increasing number of one-and-dones, meaning teams are less cohesive and have less experienced on-court leadership, or due to more aggressive defense (something the NCAA seems like it is trying to fix), or probably a combination, but the quality has definitely gone downhill.

    I have been a huge Syracuse fan since I was a little kid, and when I was younger Syracuse teams used to regularly score in the high 80s and 90s, with a few 100+ games every year. In fact Burger King in Syracuse used to run a promotion where you could get free fries with a ticket to any game where the Orange scored more than 100 points. And this was in the days before both a shot clock and a 3 point line.

    I think the last time Syracuse scored more than 100 points was 7 years ago and it took them 6 ovetimes (vs UConn) to do it!. Nowadays if BK wanted to run a similar promotion they’d have to make the bar 80 points. The Orange are lucky if they get 75 points and they regularly have games in the low to mid 60s. Offense is anemic. Syracuse may be particularly bad (how they got into the tourney this year I’ll never know), but I think a similar thing plagues college hoops in general.


    • For high scoring today a team needs 3 point shooters more than anything else.

      OU is probably the best shooting team in the nation, so they are easy to watch.

      I also find the true running teams easy to watch, Scott, even in lower scoring games. UNC defines that style in college hoops.

      The Pitino style game – lots of pressing – that Shaka Smart also uses, can be fun, as well.

      Grind it out D and rebounding, which an Izzo team will do better than anyone else, is not as much fun to watch, but it often claims a lot of victims in the tournament.

      Duke, KY, KU, and UNC have the most athletes, year to year, and also have coaches who use them well. But having ten guys who could start for most of the field is no better than having a 7 man rotation in the tournament, due to the aforementioned breaks in the action for TV time-outs.

      A great zone D [Syracuse] is not fun to watch, either, if you like points. A mediocre zone [Baylor] is fun, because as great as their athletes are [they are right behind the Big Four in athletes] they will give up points as readily as score them to a team that can hit from out, or that can find the seams.


      • Mark:

        For high scoring today a team needs 3 point shooters more than anything else.

        I decided to do a little research and discovered this site that gives scoring stats for all D1 schools between 1997/98 and 2015/16.


        They tell a very interesting story which both generally confirms and yet totally debunks my impressions.

        If you look at the annual stats, there is a very clear trend between 1997/98 and 2012/13 of scoring getting lower and lower.

        In 1997/98, 22 schools averaged more than 80 ppg, and just under half of all D1 schools (152 out of 309) averaged at least 70 ppg. At the other end of the spectrum, there were only 6 schools that averaged less than 60 ppg.

        In 2004/05, only 7 school averaged more than 80 ppg, only 41% (137 out of 330) of all schools averaged at least 70, and 17 schools averaged under 60.

        By 2012/13, only 1 school average more than 80 ppg, less than 30% (103 out of 347) averaged at least 70 ppg, and 31 schools averaged less than 60 ppg.

        The trend lines between ’98 and ’13 is not entirely unbroken, but it is very clear, with fewer and fewer teams scoring in the 80+ range, and more and more teams scoring in the less than 60 range. Also worth noting, between ’98 and 2002 there were 7 teams that averaged more than 90 ppg, and 2000 was the only year that didn’t have any at all (the top scorer that year averaged 89). Between 2003 and 2013, however, only 2 schools averaged more than 90, in 2007 and again in 2009.

        However, something definitely happened in 2013/14 (a rules change?) and scoring improved dramatically. In that single year, the number of schools averaging greater than 80 ppg jumped from 1 to 14, the percentage of schools averaging at least 70 jumped from less than 30% to more than 50% (178 out of 351) and the number of schools averaging less than 60 ppg fell from 31 to only 6.

        At first I though 2014 was just an outlier, because the previous trend continued the following year in 2014/15. Only 2 schools averaged more than 80 ppg, only 23% of schools (82 out of 351) averaged at least 70 points, and 32 schools, the most yet, averaged less than 60 ppg.

        But like 2013/14, 2015/16 has totally bucked the trend and, contrary to my impression of this year, scoring in 2015/16 was higher than it has been in years. 21 schools, more than any other year since 1997/98, averaged at least 80 ppg, 68% of all schools (238 out of 351) averaged at least 70 ppg, and only 4 teams – fewer than any other year in the period analyzed – averaged less than 60 ppg.

        So although my impression of a steady trend of weakening offense over the years seems to be confirmed, I was totally incorrect about this year. I would like to understand better what explains the drastic change between 2013 and 2014, and the drastic reversion back to the previous trend in 2015. Those last three years, 2014-2016, look very strange.


  4. Two easy rules of bracketology. 1. Put the top two seeds of each bracket into the Sweet Sixteen. There will be upsets. It’s a fools game to predict them. 2. Pick every #12 against every #5. You’ll get some wrong, but that’s where you’ll get the big upset.

    Oh, and Goose? Jayhawks over Spartans in the finale. Sorry.



  5. The NCAA has been trying to goose the scores of the college game since the days of Dean Smith’s Four Corners shut-downs.


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