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2015 NCAA Tournament Final Review: A solid tourney by historical standards

April 13, 2015 Columns No Comments

Collectively, the 2015 NCAA Tournament was a roller coaster. There was the high of the first few days before the tourney slipped into mediocrity in its middle rounds, only to rise back up again for a big finish at the end, worthy of all the history of such a splendid event.

It is the truth that three of the very best games of this year’s tourney came from the regional finals onward. Kentucky against Notre Dame, Wisconsin against Kentucky and Duke against Wisconsin were all competitive and terrific theater down to the wire. And also very high in the TV ratings, it might be noted, much as those who would prefer you to believe the sport is a steaming disaster would rather you not know that.

The final games were quite fitting for this time in college basketball, very 20-teens-like. Nothing summed that up more than when it was noted that Duke and Wisconsin’s halftime deadlock was the first in a title game since Oklahoma and Kansas were tied at the break in the 1988 championship game.

The Sooners and Jayhawks were tied at 50. The Badgers and Blue Devils were knotted at 31. Combining the two teams’ scores together doesn’t get one much over what Oklahoma or Kansas were able to put up on their own.

That doesn’t mean it was bad basketball. Again, ratings seemed to prove that. Even when Kentucky lost in the national semifinals and doom was predicted for Monday night’s title game, it did not happen, with the highest ratings for a championship game since 1997.

(Jimmy Valvano and N.C. State defeated Houston 54-52 in the 1983 title game. Has anyone in history ever called that game “unwatchable?” Ever?)

Duke won its fifth national title, all under Mike Krzyzewski, and the Blue Devils are certainly a worthy champion. Like the 1991 and 2010 championship teams, Duke wasn’t necessarily the best team in the regular season, but most certainly it was one of the best. The Blue Devils navigated their tourney path the best and were the best team in the tournament, and there’s not a thing wrong with that.

To be able to win titles in such circumstances multiple times now is no fluke; Coach K is one of the all-time greats. No need to get into a comparison of whether his feat is more impressive than John Wooden’s (yes, less teams in the 60’s and 70’s, but nothing compares to winning seven straight) but he is unquestionably among the top five, likely even top three (with Wooden and Adolph Rupp) all-time.

The 2015 NCAA Tournament will be remembered for Duke’s fifth title, Kentucky’s aborted run at a 40-0 season and Wisconsin’s takedown of the Wildcats and brilliant offensive team. It will be remembered for Notre Dame pushing Kentucky to the limit, Michigan State finding a way to the Final Four again and Gonzaga finally getting back to the Elite 8 for the first time since it introduced itself to the national college basketball audience. It will be remembered for Ron Hunter coaching on a stool-and then falling off that stool-while his son hit a buzzer-beater that will live on in the sport’s lore.

We noted it before the Final Four, and we can say for certain now that, from a statistical perspective, this year’s NCAA Tournament will do down as a good one, slightly above average, if not necessarily among the all-time greats by statistical measures. If you’re the NCAA selection committee and prefer to evaluate by the eye test and not, you know, actual results and facts, one would say the same: this year’s tourney was very good, if not historically awesome.

Where it was above average: the tourney’s six one-point games was one shy of the record of seven in a tourney, originally set in 1982 and tied three other times. It is still astonishing that not a single one of those games came after the first round (Round of 64).

This year’s NCAA Tournament also finished with three two-point games, five three-point games and four overtime games. Those four categories together are defined as “close games” by the NCAA’s tournament records book. This year’s total of 15 close games ties for 14th among 33 tournaments since the tourney expanded to 52 teams in 1983, the first year at least 50 NCAA tourney games were played. That number is still well shy of the 1990 total of 24 (still the greatest NCAA Tournament of all-time, from this viewpoint) and just above the average of 14.21 such games over the last 33 years.

It is still striking the divide in this year’s tournament between the first 36 games and the rest. In those first 36 games, 11 were decided by three points or less, and a total of 15 were decided by five or less and/or in overtime. Twenty-one of the 36 games were decided by single digits, with 15 decided by double figures (including three by exactly 10 points). In other words, based on their 10-point final margin, a full two-thirds of these games can be roughly deducted to have come down to the final two minutes.

From the Round of 32 onward, though, just five of 31 games were decided by five points or less. Three of those were decided by three or less. Fifteen of those 31 games were decided by single digits, making for 16 decided by double digits, including two by exactly 10 points. Just over half of all games after the Round of 64 met the approximate two-minute test of above.

Finally, scoring remained virtually the same from the average of the first weekend (67.79 ppg) to the second and third weekends (67.73 ppg). Those scoring numbers essentially mirrored the regular season averages. What this should blow up is a bad theory that never held any water anyway: that somehow it’s only the “less-talented” teams that are playing at a slow pace. Teams of EVERY skill and athleticism level of Division I were doing it this year.

 

More tournament notes:

Here is our pick for a top 10 list of most memorable games from this year’s NCAA Tournament:

1) Kentucky 68, Notre Dame 66  Midwest Regional Final. For our money, this was still the best game we watched and one that measures up with the historic regional finals. Before Wisconsin finally slayed the Wildcats, the Fighting Irish demonstrated the blueprint on how to beat them.
2) Wisconsin 71, Kentucky 64 National Semifinal. The magnitude of this victory and seeing the seemingly impetuous Wildcats fall slightly obscures the fact that both teams had leads in the second half but then committed multiple turnovers in handing back those leads.
3) West Virginia 68 Buffalo 62 Midwest Region 1st Round. The Bulls never led in this game. They trailed from the start-West Virginia scored the first seven points and led by 13 early. They didn’t even play particularly well in their first-ever NCAA appearance. But Bobby Hurley’s team never, ever quit, continuing to scrap, get back up after being knocked down by the Mountaineer pressure, and even tying the game in the final minutes, until WVU guard Tarik Phillip hit a dagger with 28 seconds left. It was fascinating watching Buffalo find ways to stay in this game. Not that it is surprising in any way when a Hurley is on the sideline.
4) Mississippi 94 BYU 90 First Four. It’s hard putting a play-in game on this list just because we will always believe the perfect number for the tourney is 64 teams. But for back-and-forth action, this was the very best game of the tourney, a reminder that there are still teams out there that play an entertaining style.
5) Duke 68 Wisconsin 63 National Final. Sixteen lead changes, including 13 in the first half. Badger fans will remember this as one that got away, but the play by Blue Devil guards Tyus Jones and Grayson Allen in the second half will mark this one in the history books.
6) Wichita State 78 Kansas 65 Midwest Region 2nd Round. It was already one of the most anticipated games of the tournament, as the Jayhawks continue to duck the Shockers in the regular season under that tired, lame “nothing to gain from playing them” excuse. To see WSU then take advantage of it so thoroughly means this one won’t be forgotten soon.
7) Wisconsin 85 Arizona 78 West Region Final. Slow? Boring? The Badgers scored 85 in this one (and 79 the game before against North Carolina), shooting 67% from three-point range (including 10 of 12 in the second half). So many teams can only wish to be so boring.
8) North Carolina 67 Harvard 65 West Region 1st Round. The Crimson placed far more of a scare into the Tar Heels than even followers of Harvard this year would’ve expected. This one could be even higher, the type of game that would be better remembered if it was shown more nationally, as Harvard rallied from a 16-point second half deficit to make this a barn burner.
9) Arkansas 56 Wofford 53 West Region 1st Round. Low scoring, this was a truly 2015-type of game. By no means whatsoever does it mean the game was not exciting. Every possession was critical, as neither team led by more than three points in the entire second half in a definitive example of a game that could’ve gone either way.
10) (tie) Georgia State 57 Baylor 56 West 1st Round, UAB 60 Iowa State 59 South Region 1st Round. Neither game was particularly pretty to watch, which drops them down this list a bit. Georgia State’s upset of Baylor featured an incredible, frantic finish as the Panthers rallied from 12 down in the final three minutes, with R.J. Hunter hitting the dagger from at least 30 feet out to win it. In contrast, the Blazers’ workmanlike effort (18 offensive rebounds, 52-37 rebounding advantage) was not as flashy but equally effective, even as it did come on a cold shooting day for the Cyclones.

Two things that stick out from that list: 1) The Midwest and West regions were the places to be, and 2) With the pod system, does anyone even know what region teams are playing in during the first and second rounds? Again, if you’re trying to make the tourney better, get back to sub-regional games being played in their proper regional sites.

 

What else we learned from this year’s tourney:

  • The best three teams all season really were the best three teams. Duke, Kentucky, Wisconsin. They were all far closer than many thought, and that was proven in the Final Four. Virginia might’ve been in that group too most of the year, but the Justin Anderson injury unfortunately clearly affected the Cavaliers’ end result.
  • You don’t always know how they’ll do it, but more than not Duke, Louisville, Michigan State and Xavier are going to go a long way. They may let you down on occasion, but more than not they are going deep in the tourney. Remember that next year when in doubt on how to fill out your bracket.
  • Only one team can win a national title and only four can make the Final Four. Sometimes one has to take a longer view of success in perspective of a team’s expectations coming into a season. Example: Butler, Cincinnati, Georgia State, Maryland, Oregon, San Diego State and UAB. All may have lost in the second round, which means they did not reach ultimate tourney goals of a title, a Final Four or even a Sweet 16. But if anyone had told these teams before the season that they would finish among the final 32 teams in the tourney, they would’ve been tickled and taken it in a second.
  • Inconsistent teams showed flashes of exactly why they tempt us so much, but overall also played exactly to their stripes in the tourney. N.C. State was able to upset Villanova, but then couldn’t deliver again against a Louisville team it beat on the road in the regular season. Iowa looked amazing against Davidson, and then pedestrian against Gonzaga. North Carolina was good enough to lead Wisconsin midway through the second half, but not good enough to finish. Texas was able to keep it close against a good team-again-but lost-again. Other than Michigan State’s regular March revival, the teams that teased us in the regular season did so in the NCAA tourney before paying for it fairly early.
  • Late at-large teams from BCS conferences come up short again, as always, posting a 3-9 record from the 64-team draw on, not including a play-in victory and also including a win over a 14 seed (UAB). (In contrast, non-BCS schools were 1-3, a similar win percentage in a smaller sample size) One year is an accident, two years is a coincidence, three is a pattern…so what does 29 consecutive years of major conference at-large teams seeded ninth or lower not reaching the Final Four tell us? LSU in 1986 remains the last such team to get to the national semis, while George Mason, VCU and Wichita State have done it in the last nine years alone. Again: when it comes to the later at-large bids in the tourney, why are we giving the benefit of the doubt to teams like Texas or Indiana? History proves unequivocally they no threat for a national title or even a Final Four.

 

Many will measure conference performance based on a league’s collective record in the tournament. As we repeat often, though, the tourney is all about matchups, and a conference’s overall record also is heavily affected by where it’s teams were seeded to begin with. A more interesting stat to us is how leagues perform in comparison to how their seedings said they should have performed. While this record also is related to matchups, at least it is an indication of which leagues as a whole were able to out-perform their seedings. Not including play-in games against like seeds (since those games are particularly toss-ups and hard to designate a favorite), here is how conferences did in that category:

Conference Expected record by seed before tourn. Actual record in tourn. Wins +/- Expected
Big Ten 8-7 12-7 +4
ACC 14-6 17-5 +3
Pac-12 5-4 8-4 +3
MVC 2-2 3-2 +1
Conference USA 0-1 1-1 +1
Sun Belt 0-1 1-1 +1
WCC 3-1 3-1 Even
Mountain West 1-2 1-2 Even
Atlantic 10 1-3 1-3 Even
AAC 2-2 1-2 -1
SEC 7-4 5-5 -2
Big East 9-6 5-6 -4
Big 12 10-7 5-7 -5

Michigan State carried most of that load for the Big Ten, winning three more games than it was seeded to. UCLA won a pair of games for the Pac-12, though one of those ended up actually being against a team seeded lower. The Big East was particularly hurt by Villanova (No. 2 overall seed) losing in the second round, while the Big 12 was the worst performer below its seeds, with Kansas, Baylor and Iowa State all losing a full two rounds earlier than seeded to do.

 

Attacking CBS’s NCAA Tournament coverage has been something of a sport in itself for many years, and nothing nor no one will ever duplicate the way ESPN once covered the early rounds of the tourney in the 1980s (including ESPN itself). Must say, though, that over time have come to appreciate the job CBS (as well as cable partners TBS, TNT and, yes, even truTV) does with the tourney.

CBS’s coverage is of the solid, no-frills variety, but has developed a comfortable, warm feel to it because it is consistent,  professional, and generally keeps the focus on the teams and players competing instead of the network itself. Guys like Greg Gumbel, Clark Kellogg, Verne Lundquist, Jim Nantz and Bill Raftery have become synonymous with broadcasting this event, and they always do an outstanding job. “One Shining Moment” is still amazing every year. Also, good use has been made of the cable partnerships with the nightly highlight show after all the games.

The coverage is not perfect. We’re not a fan at all of regional finals and the Final Four games on cable (the “homer” broadcasts are fine, not our flavor but if it’s something networks have judged to be lucrative, then guess can live with it). There are too many promos for network shows, and we’re not a huge fan of so much NBA presence in the broadcast teams. There are plenty of people who keep closer watch on the sport and can help promote the college game better. As mentioned a few weeks ago, we also would like to see a better overall national presence for the event in the earlier rounds, if there was some way to feature single national games in some time slots in later afternoon and later evening. That’s generally nitpicking, though. Overall, the tourney’s coverage could be a lot worse than what CBS does, and it’s becoming time to appreciate that.

 

Finally, a little bit about the NIT, CBI and CIT. Specifically a look at those tourneys’ use of a 30-second shot clock, that according to some (many? too many?) is the answer to college basketball’s perceived problems.

Compared to the NCAA Tournament, scoring was up slightly in the NIT, roughly 2.5 points ahead of the pace of NCAA tournament games and regular season. Scoring started out at 70.98 ppg in the first round of the NIT, in part aided by higher-scoring teams like Central Michigan, Iona and Murray State in the field (all three finished in the top 15 in scoring in the nation). By the time it reached the quarterfinals, semifinals and championship game, though, the average had plummeted to 66.29 ppg for the small sample of those seven games.

Scoring also averaged 69.91 points per game in the 16-team CBI and 73.40 ppg in the 32-team CIT. The CIT provides quite a contrast to the other two tourneys and had some quite freewheeling games (low-scoring Eastern Illinois scored 34 points above its average in a 97-91 win over Oakland), interesting because that tourney had no teams from a top-8 conference according to the conference RPI. For the tourneys combined, scoring averaged 71.46 ppg, including 70.17 ppg over the NIT & CBI combined.

To put this in perspective: scoring was 71.00 ppg in 2013-14, the year freedom of movement rules were re-emphasized (though eventually all but thrown out the window by the end of the season), yet 67.50 the year before that re-emphasis and right back to that level again this year when freedom of movement was but a distant memory.

Admittedly, these tourneys are still a small sample, and a question which there is no answer for is how many coaches might’ve used particularly these lower-level tournaments as opportunities to experiment and do things they may not have in the regular season. All of this should illustrate that at the least far more testing needs to be done if shot clock changes are going to be considered. At the bare minimum, it’s almost certain that shortening the shot clock on its own is not going to result in significant improvements in scoring. It also is clear that, even after freedom of movement disappeared in conference play last year, the scoring average for the 2013-14 season was higher than the scoring average in the NIT & CBI this year under the shorter shot clock.

Stylistically to the eye, the shorter shot clock did exactly what we expected: it provided a couple more possessions for each team, but also resulted in a slightly more homogenized game with possessions looking increasingly the same. Ultimately, this is the tradeoff that those in the sport will have to decide on: is basically regulating a few more points into the game by shortening the shot clock worth the further dilution in different styles of play? Or are there other ways to accomplish more scoring without reducing the opportunities to play differing styles?

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