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Final Thoughts On Ranking 351 D1 Teams

In case you missed it, last Thursday I presented my upgraded projections model. Then I presented my 13-14 season projections on ESPN Insider. My projections included the median simulation, best case, and worst case for every team. I also did a Q & A session with Eamonn Brennan and another one with John Templon. I have also been answering a few questions on Twitter. You would think after all those words I would have run out of things to say, but here are a few thoughts that did not quite make the cut in those articles:

The Underrated Club

Q: Why does the simulation hate Arizona St.? Jahii Carson is one of the best players in the country.

A: Arizona St. is a team with a lot of two-star players on the roster. In fact, they have the second lowest average star rating in the entire Pac-12, ahead of only Utah. Luckily a few of those players are transfers who played well for other teams. But what this really means is that Arizona St. just doesn’t have the same upside as many of the other schools in the Pac-12. Herb Sendek’s track record on defense is also a huge concern.

Q: Why does the simulation hate Maryland? A lineup of Shaquille Cleare, Evan Smotrycz, Dez Wells, Nick Faust and Roddy Peters sounds like it could hang with anyone. And Seth Allen, Charles Mitchell, and Damonte Dodd all seem like solid reserves. Why is the model so pessimistic?

A: The simulation is concerned that Maryland has only nine scholarship players on the roster. There is real downside risk with such a short bench because if a couple of players struggle or get injured, there are no alternates. Last year N.C. State entered the year with just nine scholarship players and things turned south early. Now, that doesn’t mean Maryland is destined to fail, but depth is a risk with this type of roster.

Q: Why does the simulation hate Denver? They had a great margin-of-victory numbers last year.

A: While I truly believe star ratings are important, the focus on recruiting evaluations really hurts the small conference squads in my projections. Only when a small conference team has virtually no lineup questions will that team be ranked near the top. (This year the two exceptions are North Dakota St. and Harvard. North Dakota St. brings back 95 percent of its minutes and gets a player back who was injured for much of last year. Meanwhile Harvard gets two star players back who were suspended last season.)

In Denver’s case even with several efficient players back, particularly star Chris Udofia, winning seems likely. But Denver has to replace two of the three players that played the most minutes last season. And the likely replacements will only be two-star athletes. That’s not to say that head coach Joe Scott cannot build a winner again. But it is very hard to get a Top 50 margin-of-victory in a small conference. And if Scott does it again, that should be considered a huge accomplishment. It shouldn’t be the expectation. (The real issue for Denver is finding another ball-handler to compliment Udofia. Last year Royce O’Neale and Udofia both were key distributors for the team, but with O’Neale transferring to Baylor, the remaining options are not great.)

Random Thoughts on Some Major Conference Teams

- In my Insider column, I said that the Spartans were the lowest risk team in the nation which sparked some jokes from Michigan St. fans on Twitter. I think this points out how insanely volatile college basketball can be. Even when the Spartans bring back five of their six top rotation players including three clear stars, their fanbase in nervous. Part of that is the fact that Tom Izzo’s teams notoriously struggle in November. But when a team with Top 10 talent brings nearly everyone back and their fans are nervous, you know that anything can happen in college basketball.

- Michigan’s position in 12th in my rankings is a little misleading. I honestly believe that Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson can lead this team a long way. But I am legitimately concerned about the guard rotation. John Beilein was very reluctant to play Jordan Morgan and Mitch McGary together last season because they weren’t outside shooters. So I have to assume Robinson will play most of his minutes at the four-spot again this year. But then how does the guard rotation work? Does the team play Spike Albrecht, Derrick Walton, and Nick Stauskas together? What if Albrecht and Walton aren’t ready? That is why my model has such a low downside for the Wolverines. (And don’t tell me Caris LeVert is the answer. He was a low-ranked recruit and nothing he did last season leads me to believe he should be a key player on a Top 10 team.)

- When I first ran the model, I was a little surprised the downside for Kentucky was not lower. After all, a young Kentucky team lost in the first round of the NIT last season. But this is what happens when you return two efficient high potential players (in Alex Poythress and Will Cauley-Stein), and add five Top 10 recruits. With that many high potential players, even if two or three of them struggle immensely, Kentucky can still win. Kentucky could not afford for Archie Goodwin to struggle and Nerlens Noel to get injured last season. This year if Julius Randle struggles and Will Cauley-Stein gets hurt, the team can just say “Next man in.”

- I love the range for Indiana in my ESPN Insider rankings. The team has 7 top 100 recruits, and an elite season is still possible. But given all the new faces and how little most of the returning sophomores played last year, the downside risk is major.

- If you want to vote any of my model’s Top 34 teams into the Top 25, I can see arguments for all of them. But I stick by my model’s skepticism of Baylor. Pierre Jackson carried the Bears last year and I don’t see how they can be a better team without him. Their margin of victory was 26th last year (thanks to winning the NIT) and I only give them about a 20 percent chance to do better than that.

- If you have ESPN Insider, look at how painfully low Alabama’s downside is this year. After Devonta Pollard was arrested this offseason, the team is down to nine scholarship players who are eligible this year. If someone on Alabama’s squad doesn't play well, there are no alternatives. This is too bad because Anthony Grant is such a talented young coach, but off-court issues keep derailing his teams.

- Iowa St. made a great move adding Marshall transfer DeAndre Kane. But I suspect Fred Hoiberg needed to add a couple more transfers to keep his transfer winning streak going. With 64% of the lineup gone and four of Iowa St.'s six most efficient players departing (Melvin Ejim and George Niang return), expect Iowa St. to take a step back.

- My model is more optimistic about Seton Hall than what you see in some other rankings. Texas transfer Sterling Gibbs will be a huge upgrade over Tom Maayan and his 50% turnover rate. And with fewer injuries, Kevin Willard should have the defense playing better.

Random Thoughts on Some Mid-Major Conferences

- I’ve still got St. Mary’s on the NCAA bubble. Many will discount the team after Matthew Dellavedova's departure. But Beau Leveasque and Stephen Holt aren't suddenly going to forget how to shoot. Brad Wadlow isn't going to stop being a physical force on the boards and finishing over 60 percent of his shots. This team still has talent.

- The team I think most pundits have over-rated this year is Northeastern. The Huskies were extremely lucky last year. Despite the 7th best MOV in the CAA, they won a ton of close games, including a 4-1 record in OT. Their conference title is very deceiving. With the team's leading scorer and most efficient player Joel Smith gone, a repeat conference title seems unlikely.

- One team I am buying is Weber St. Weber St. had the best margin-of-victory in the Big Sky last year. They even outscored Montana by 19 points in their three meetings. But somehow they went 1-2 against the Grizzlies and that 1-2 mark gave Montana the regular season and conference tournament title. Weber St.’s aggressive and efficient inside-outside combination of Davion Berry and Kyle Tresnak is going to make sure that doesn't happen again.

- The conference champion I expect to come out of nowhere this year is Manhattan. Manhattan somehow lost 10 games to conference foes, but only one of those games was by double digits. This team was much better than last year's conference record would indicate.

- The race for the Big West title is wide open. I have five teams projected within one game of first place in that league.

- The CUSA race should also be highly entertaining. Louisiana Tech is the only team in CUSA that returns over 70 percent of its minutes from last year. (Tech brings back 85 percent of its minutes.) And Tech's losses won't hurt the offense. The team loses its least efficient player Brandon Gibson, and the extremely passive JL Lewis. With an already solid defense and an improved offense, Louisiana Tech could be headed for the NCAA tournament. But Southern Miss is just as formidable a competitor. The newest Golden Eagle, transfer Aaron Brown, shot the ball extremely well as a sophomore at Temple. His addition could give Southern Miss the CUSA title.

- Speaking of transfers, transfer Jay Harris was the PG on a Valparaiso team that won the Horizon league title in 2012. He could be the key addition that gets Wagner an NEC conference title in 2014.

- Finally, Indiana St. PG Jake Odum has to be kicking himself that RJ Mahurin transferred out in order to play his senior year with his younger brother. Mahurin was the team's only efficient big man, and the Sycamores could have been a more realistic NCAA bubble team had Mahurin returned.

Late Breaking News

- The news that Josh Smith was eligible immediately didn’t break until after I finished my rankings. With a full season of Smith you can move the Hoyas up to 27th in my projections. But as many people have noted, because of his conditioning, it still isn’t clear how much Smith will play. The downside risk for the Hoyas remains real. However, I do think that it is a major break that Smith will be around from the start of the season. The Hoya offense is a nuanced system that depends on precise cuts and passes, and integrating Smith mid-season would have been much more difficult.

- I had already assumed Joseph Young would be eligible for Oregon so their ranking is not affected by that news. It is clear that the transfer combination of Mike Moser and Young could be one of the best inside-outside combinations in the country. But I want to offer several cautionary tales. Ryan Harrow, Trey Ziegler, and Aaric Murray were three transfers that received a ton of hype last summer, and they were all such poor fits in the new environment, they have all moved on again. We’ve seen teams bring in a bunch of transfers and live up to expectations (like Iowa St.), but we have also seen teams take in a lot of transfer and disappoint (like Missouri last year.) Transfers are high risk players, and that is why my model has such a large range for the Ducks this season.

Dan Hanner vs Ken Pomeroy

Ken Pomeroy also released his preseason rankings on Saturday. While he is rather humble about his algorithm, I think it is important to note how well his system did last season. From a modeling perspective, a more complex system is not always better.

I would argue that the real advantage of my lineup-based system is not the predictive power. The advantage is that by focusing on the lineup, my model has fewer head-scratching conclusions. For example, Ken’s team level model has Miami at 62nd this year. With basically everyone in last year’s rotation gone and Angel Rodriguez electing not to apply for a transfer waiver, that’s an extremely optimistic prediction. But that prediction is based on how well Miami did last season, not any reasonable evaluation of the current roster. The same can probably be said of Minnesota at No. 35. The Gophers had strong margin-of-victory numbers last year, so Ken’s model loves them again this season. But my model sees that the Gophers made a substantial downgrade in the front-court and added an unproven coach. My model based on the current lineup has Miami at No. 102 and Minnesota at No. 63, and I think that’s much closer to what I have seen in most expert rankings.

But while Ken’s model can cause us to scratch our heads at certain results, do not overlook his predictions. The last five seasons of data are a very strong predictor in the aggregate. (If a team had a great offense before it tends to have better facilities, higher caliber recruits, and better coaches today.) And when the results of both our models agree, those are probably the strongest predictions of all. 

NCAA Tournament Day 1

Harvard's Upset

There is something about Ivy League schools in the NCAA tournament. In 1995, UCLA won the NCAA title. In 1996, much of the roster had turned over, but UCLA still earned a 4-seed and the Bruins were heavily favored in their first round against Princeton. Pete Carril, the legendary Princeton coach had announced his retirement prior to the game, and the Tigers pulled off a perfect game plan. They worked the clock. They played solid defense. They executed Carril’s classic back-cuts on offense. And in the final seconds, a back-cut led to a lay-up by Gabe Lewullis that finished off the epic win.

At the time it didn’t feel like just another win. I know that victories by 13-seeds hardly qualify as stunners these days. This wasn’t as big a seed upset as 15-seed Norfolk St. beating Missouri last year. The novelty of a defending champion losing is also a lot less special these days. With so many quality players leaving for the NBA, it hardly felt earth-shattering when Robert Morris defeated defending champion Kentucky in the NIT this week.

But at the time, the contrast in basketball power made this one of the biggest NCAA upsets of all time. Here was UCLA with all its legacy and all its resources, losing to a school that didn’t even offer athletic scholarships. It proved that basketball, when played right, and coached right, could be won by any team on any given day.

Thursday’s win by Harvard over New Mexico didn’t have that same dramatic feel. The ending wasn’t close. New Mexico doesn’t have the history or tradition of many power conference schools. (In fact, in many ways it was disappointing that New Mexico wouldn’t get a chance to extend one of the most dominant seasons in school history.)

But there was still something special about this win. Harvard is the quintessential academic school. It ranks in the Top 10 in just about every possible educational category from endowments, to department ratings, to future job earnings of graduates. Harvard students aren’t supposed to win in the NCAA tournament. And yet they did. And not only did they win, it didn’t require a buzzer beater.

Harvard didn’t have to execute some unorthodox strategy. This wasn’t Cornell executing yet another version of Carill’s back-cutting offense in their NCAA win. This wasn’t some completely perimeter focused-team. Tommy Amaker is a more traditional coach. And his team won playing basic basketball. They threw the ball into the paint to Kenyatta Smith and he scored over Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow. They attacked the paint and kicked the ball out for three. And most importantly, while they ran clock, they mostly moved the ball with the intention of scoring. Running a traditional based-attack, Harvard beat one of the big boys.

Some will say this is not your vintage Harvard team. Tommy Amaker encouraged the school to relax some of its admission standards to upgrade the basketball program. And those relaxed standards led to a horrific cheating scandal last year that caused the team’s co-captains to be dismissed before the season. But in many ways, that made Thursday’s outcome even more remarkable. Harvard had just one senior in the rotation this year. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year until the suspended players re-enrolled next season. But instead, one of the youngest teams in the nation, playing in a conference without athletic scholarships just defeated the regular season and post-season champion from one of the top conferences in the nation. By any measure, this is a special win. And the image of Wesley Saunders stealing the ball and clinching the victory is the tournament’s signature moment to date.

No Other Slippers

For most of the day, we didn’t seem to be heading towards any Cinderella team.

1pm: “I feel sorry for Bryce Drew, but this game is over.” – Charles Barkley at half-time of Michigan St. vs Valparaiso.

11pm: “Hey, I love 38 point games as much as the next guy…” – Ernie Johnson on Syracuse’s second half-lead against Montana.

And those weren’t the only small conference teams to struggle. A lot of people picked Belmont to upset Arizona based on their ability to knock down three point shots. But given Arizona’s size across the board, Belmont struggled to even get open looks. South Dakota St.’s Nate Wolters was an NCAA hero in his four year career, but Trey Burke hounded him defensively, and Wolters managed only a 3 of 14 shooting night while his team lost convincingly. If that shooting percentage sounds bad enough, New Mexico St. shot 28% as a team against St. Louis. And we’re not even going to talk about how much the basketball gods must hate Akron. Not only did Akron lose its point-guard prior to the game against full-court pressing VCU, then Akron was stricken with the flu this week. The game was ugly from the start. (If anyone picked Akron to win in your pool you should thank them for their donation. But wait, that’s probably the person who will win the whole thing.)

That isn’t to say there wasn’t some Cinderella drama throughout the day. It started with Bucknell-Butler. There was the brief moment when Bucknell took a 37 to 31 lead in the second half. We got a chance to learn about Bucknell’s 6’7” Joe Willman. He was the perfect example of a small conference senior forward playing his best game in the NCAA tournament. He knocked down the jump shots that gave his team the lead, and he even chipped in with three blocks. Willman certainly was not an outstanding athlete. But those blocks really showed that a lot of playing the post is experience and positioning. It isn’t always raw athleticism.

The close game was short lived however.  Butler had started 0-14 from three, but when Butler’s Andrew Smith and Rotnei Clarke finally nailed a pair of outside shots, Butler got on a run and somehow made the final margin a blowout.

Memphis vs St. Mary’s was closer in the final margin, but it wasn’t necessarily a more compelling upset possibility. Memphis has been one of the most fun teams to watch this year because of their fast-pace and the explosive dunking and shot-blocking of DJ Stephens. But while Stephens got his blocks, I only caught one that really showed his explosive leaping ability. And St. Mary’s slowed the game down enough that we didn’t really get to see Memphis’ exciting athleticism in action. At least the ending was a signature moment, and the sheer excitement in Verne Lundquist and Bill Raftery’s voice had to make everyone smile.  They both were amazed as St. Mary’s banked in a three to pull within two points. And they were down-right giddy at the subsequent turnover on the inbounds. Mathew Dellavedova’s attempt at a game-winning three was off-the mark, but these two brilliant announcers made it worth all the replays they gave it later in the day.

Gonzaga vs Southern also had its share of close moments. At one point Southern’s Madut Bol’s and Derick Beltran hit back-to-back threes to cut the lead to 41 to 40, and Doug Gottlieb noted that the crowd was starting to get behind the 16 seed. The smell of a historical upset was in the air. And after a pair of Brandon Moore free throws made it 54-54, you could just sense the people getting home from work, turning on their TVs, and getting glued to the action. But that is when Kevin Pangos took over. Pangos hit a three pointer, a dish for a three, and a ridiculous fake-drive, step-back three pointer that put Gonzaga ahead for good.

Davidson vs Marquette was even better, but again the underdog came up short. I loved this game because it showed that sometimes you have to throw logic out the window and realize that anything can happen. The announcers kept harping on the fact that Marquette was the worst outside shooting team in the NCAA tournament and that if they fell behind, Marquette had no chance of winning. The Golden Eagles simply couldn’t hit the threes they would need to complete a comeback. Meanwhile Davidson was the best free throw shooting team in the country and could easily close out any win late. And yet Davidson somehow squandered a 9 point lead. Marquette’s Vander Blue bucked the team stats and hit a pair of late threes, and Jamil Wilson chipped in one of his own. And a turnover with 6 seconds left allowed Marquette to win it with a Vander Blue lay-up at the end of regulation. It was a dramatic win, but it meant that Cinderella was denied once again. The night would have to wait for Harvard.

Dixon Falls Again

Some fans may view Wichita St.’s dominating win over Pittsburgh as another win for Cinderella. But this was far from an epic mismatch. Rather, it was a contrast of two similar teams. Both teams don’t shoot the ball particularly well, but rely on dominating offensive rebounding and physical play to win games. And for most of the game, Wichita St. was simply the better offensive rebounding team. (Pittsburgh chipped in with some late offensive rebounds to make the numbers look more even, but by then the game was out of hand.) It also hurt that 5th year Pitt senior Tray Woodall had a 1 for 12, five turnover performance in his final game. Woodall was playing so poorly that Jamie Dixon couldn’t even afford to play him in the last five minutes when the team was trying to come back. No one wants to see a senior go out like that. But this certainly didn’t feel like a fluke.

And it brings up more questions about whether there really is an NCAA curse associated with Jamie Dixon. Once again, his team had some of the best points-per-possession numbers in the country in the regular season. And once again Pitt lost earlier than expected. You can say that you need to have elite talent to win in the NCAA tournament, and Dixon relies more on experience and depth. And yet once again Dixon has not lost to a major conference blue blood. It wasn’t North Carolina or Kansas that took Dixon down. It was another mid-major squad. Will Dixon ever avoid NCAA disappointment at this point? You have to wonder if Dixon left for USC (which is a big rumor) whether the Pitt fans would even be disappointed.

Meanwhile, I don’t understand why Gregg Marshall isn’t on more lists for a power conference head coaching job. He took Winthrop to the NCAA tournament 7 times and finally won a tournament game at that small school. And now he has built Wichita St. into a two-year tournament team. Marshall should be on everyone’s short-list.

But even if there were no small conference Cinderalla’s, there were two major seeding upsets. And both suggested that the Pac-12 may finally be back. Early in the season I talked about all the prized freshmen and key transfers on Pac-12 teams. But they weren’t quite ready in November and December to display the conference’s improvement. Through at least one day of the NCAA tournament, the Pac-12 has made a statement.

I thought for sure Oklahoma St. would handle 12-seeded Oregon. Oklahoma St. has been very good at forcing turnovers this year, particularly star freshman Marcus Smart. And I thought with Dominic Artis still limited by injuries, and the fact that Oregon was not great at hanging onto the ball generally, that turnovers would be the difference in the game. Indeed turnovers were the difference, but it was Oregon that forced those turnovers in the first half and built a big lead. And the combination of turnovers and offensive rebounds had Oklahoma St. head coach Travis Ford fuming in his halftime interview. “We aren’t going to win if they get 21 more opportunities!” Oklahoma St. somehow flipped the turnover margin in the second half, but it was too little too late as Oregon kept the game at a manageable margin and pulled the seeding upset. I say seeding upset, because this was really just one good power conference team beating another.

12-seed Cal’s win over UNLV was a little more exciting. Cal’s never-ending string of missed free throws at the end nearly gave UNLV a chance to win in regulation. But Cal eventually hung on while playing in front of a favorable home crowd in San Jose.

Where is the NBA Talent?

At one point in the day, Charles Barkley was reciting his normal line. “Team X has the best player on the floor. He has to play well and then they should win.” But today basically showed that this is a dumb philosophy in this year’s tournament.

First, there aren’t any can’t miss NBA stars in college this year. There’s a reason no one in the NBA is tanking to win the draft this year. It isn’t clear that the top pick is really much better than the 11th pick. Trey Burke is my personal favorite player because of his all-around ability to manage the game as a point guard, but Burke was a surprising 2 of 12 from the field against South Dakota St. Meanwhile, UNLV’s Anthony Bennett was completely kept under wraps in one of the night games. Bennett did get to 15 points thanks to the free throw line and did grab 11 rebounds, but he wasn’t impacting the game like he sometimes does. That was because California played a very smart zone defense for most of the game. It led to far too many outside shots for UNLV and far too little utilization of UNLV’s future pro.

But that is the other reason Barkley’s philosophy is wrong. In college, the rules aren’t designed for one-on-one basketball. You can always take one player away. And since no one has Kentucky type talent across the board this year, there is no star you can count on to dominate the game. College basketball is a team game, not a star game.

Expected Win in Field of 64

Finally, I end with my traditional table on each day’s winners and losers. The table lists the expected wins in the field of 64 using the Pomeroy Rankings. Arizona was expected to win 1.17 games before Thursday and their own win increased their expectation to 1.87. New Mexico’s loss (and other adjustments in team rankings based on game margins) further increased that expectation to 2.37.

Contrast that to Michigan. The Wolverines won which increased their expected wins by 0.29, but because VCU won (and won in dominant fashion), Michigan’s win expectations decreased by 0.22.

Winners

EW Start Thur

Own Game

Other

EW End Thur

Arizona

1.17

0.70

0.50

2.37

Wichita St.

0.37

1.00

0.07

1.44

Harvard

0.21

1.04

-0.03

1.22

Oregon

0.57

0.96

-0.09

1.44

Memphis

0.60

0.91

-0.09

1.42

California

0.54

0.83

-0.10

1.27

Butler

0.87

0.75

-0.02

1.60

VCU

1.11

0.58

0.12

1.81

Colorado St.

0.62

0.71

-0.04

1.29

Marquette

1.38

0.71

-0.09

2.00

St. Louis

1.43

0.39

0.15

1.98

Michigan St.

1.77

0.45

0.09

2.31

Syracuse

1.97

0.23

0.27

2.46

Gonzaga

2.54

0.10

0.13

2.77

Louisville

3.44

0.05

0.07

3.56

Michigan

1.92

0.29

-0.22

2.00

Indiana didn’t play but their expectation fell slightly because Syracuse won and won in impressive fashion.

Losers

EW Start Thur

Own Game

Other

EW End Thur

Kansas

2.44

0.00

-0.11

2.32

Montana

0.13

-0.13

0.00

0.00

Indiana

3.35

0.00

-0.13

3.22

South Dakota St.

0.17

-0.17

0.00

0.00

New Mexico St.

0.28

-0.28

0.00

0.00

Valparaiso

0.28

-0.28

0.00

0.00

Akron

0.48

-0.48

0.00

0.00

Davidson

0.57

-0.57

0.00

0.00

Belmont

0.60

-0.60

0.00

0.00

Bucknell

0.72

-0.72

0.00

0.00

Missouri

0.74

-0.74

0.00

0.00

UNLV

0.93

-0.93

0.00

0.00

St. Mary's

1.03

-1.03

0.00

0.00

Oklahoma St.

1.11

-1.11

0.00

0.00

Pittsburgh

1.44

-1.44

0.00

0.00

New Mexico

1.60

-1.60

0.00

0.00

 

The Many Facets & Unpredictability Of March Madness

The older I get, the more I see that one of the things I love most about sports is the variety of it, the diversity of it and the CHARACTERS. Men’s tennis is at its best in many years because, for the first time in a long time, the top three or four players all have wildly different styles. The Tim Tebow story was fun on so many levels, but one of those levels was that he was just SO DIFFERENT in how he played — I’d say we are entering a great time for quarterbacks, because Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning and Drew Brees and Michael Vick and Cam Newton and Tebow and others are not really alike at all.

-- Joe Posnanski

As a basketball fan, I’ve never understood the division that exists between fans of the NBA and the NCAA. While the NBA has the best basketball players in the world, March Madness is compelling in its own right and as entertaining as anything that happens on the professional level.

In the NBA, the owners of the 30 franchises consider turning a profit and getting an equal shot at the top players a right, regardless of how well (or how poorly) they run their organization and the respective size of their fan-bases. Since every losing team is a few ping pong balls from the rights to a LeBron James, Kevin Durant or Dwight Howard, personnel determines scheme in the NBA.

In contrast, the vast majority of the 344 Division I programs in college basketball have little chance of ever receiving a commitment from a McDonald’s All-American. But instead of petulantly trying to sabotage the sport in a misguided effort to legislate fairness, schools try many creative ways of leveraging the talents of the players they can recruit. As a result, scheme determines personnel in the NCAA.

At Syracuse, Jim Boeheim has made a Hall of Fame career out of running a contrarian scheme, in his case an aggressive 2-3 zone. The Orange traditionally have rosters full of “1.5’s”, 6’3+ combo guards lacking the quickness to defend elite PG’s and the size to defend SG’s, and “3.5’s”, 6’8+ combo forwards lacking the quickness to defend elite SF’s and the size to defend PF’s. However, because Syracuse never plays man defense, the athletic deficiencies of their players are minimized.

So while nearly every NBA team runs a fairly similar system of isolations, pick-and-rolls and man defense, an incredibly diverse array of styles can be found in the college game. On one end of the spectrum, teams like Missouri play four guards and pressure the ball 94 feet for 48 minutes, on the other, teams like Wisconsin run a deliberate motion offense, trying to minimize the number of possessions and shoot at the very end of the shot-clock.

In the NBA, the players are too good for the “40 Minutes of Hell” system (which Mike Anderson has brought to Missouri and Arkansas in the last few years) to be successful. Like Mike Leach’s bizarre pass-happy offense in college football, Anderson’s system, which he learned as a member of Nolan Richardson’s staff in Arkansas in the 1990’s, has philosophical holes that professional athletes can exploit. Nevertheless, that doesn’t make them any less entertaining on the collegiate level.

And with 68 teams set to compete in the NCAA Tournament, there are a lot more surprises in the college game. Even programs ranked in the top-15 like Murray State have barely been on national TV this season.

We have a pretty good idea of how teams like the Pacers and the 76ers match up with the top of the Eastern Conference but not whether an undersized Murray State squad can handle the size of an elite team from a Power Six conference. It’s an open question how Isaiah Canaan’s speed and athleticism translates outside of the Ohio Valley Conference. Non-conference play in college basketball generally ends in late December, so it’s almost impossible to gauge how younger teams like Texas, Washington and Tennessee who have found their groove in the last two months will fare in March.

In the NBA, it’s hard to envision a scenario where Chicago, Miami and Oklahoma City aren’t three of the final four teams left in the playoffs. In the NCAA, as many as two dozen teams have a legitimate shot at making a run at the Final Four.

Of course, in terms of entertainment, none of this makes the NCAA necessarily better or worse than the NBA, just different. But, as Posnanski writes, there’s something to be said for the concept of “different” in the modern sports world. Basketball fans of all stripes should enjoy March Madness; the NBA will still be here in a few weeks.

Yet Another College Basketball Column (Post-Selection Edition)

The field of 68 has been set and the four No. 1 seeds boringly look like good bets to reach the Final Four, but here are a few teams capable of overachieving.
 

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