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2016-17 CBB Preview Questions: Can the sport shake its self-inflicted identity crisis?

November 8, 2016 Columns No Comments

As the 2016-17 college basketball season nears, one would think the caretakers of the sport should feel pretty good about its state.

The most recent NCAA Tournament provided a likable champion and one of the sport’s all-time greatest title games and finishes. The recent script that has seen freshmen dominating the sport was flipped, with juniors and seniors the top players in the country, regardless of how much some TV networks tried to tell us otherwise.

The long-desired goal to have more scoring was accomplished, and the aim to clean up physical defense was largely met. And, thus far, they did not come by sacrificing the parity and inclusiveness that forms so much of what makes the sport attractive nationally.

Given all of that, it should’ve been an offseason for the sport to relax, feel good, acknowledge its improvement and look ahead to doing better. Instead, the offseason brought us:

1) More NCAA Tournament changes proposed, including a behind-the-scenes movement for a time that intended to expand the selection committee from 10 members to 12, in order to guarantee that all five certain conferences with fat TV contracts have representatives on the committee. As if these conferences haven’t already made enough of a power play the past couple years with some of the ridiculous at-large selections benefitting them.

2) Still more rules emphases and tweaks to encourage even more scoring. Rather than letting last year’s rules marinate and make sure that last year’s gains in freedom of movement actually stick, the rules committee decided we need more double fouls. Some conferences are also experimenting with expanded replay in the final minutes of games, because the sport apparently needs even more of officials going to monitors to bring games to a halt. There will always be points of emphasis, but if there was ever a year for the sport to leave well enough alone and get a second year’s worth sample of data to evaluate major changes, it was this year.

3) Of course, part of the reason why there continue to be rule changes and modifications is because of the subset in the sport that continues to carp about the sport not being a facsimile of the NBA or international games, such as here. Here’s a newsflash for coaches and media who continue to beat this drum: different rules at different levels is something that happens in all kinds of team sports. Football has a whole host of differences between the high school and college levels and then from college to the pros. Do we hear college coaches or analysts regularly whining because hash marks aren’t close enough to the center of the field, or because their play clock isn’t the exact same as the NFL’s?

No sport seems to look more for things to fix that aren’t broken than college basketball. The continued attempts to ‘fix’ the NCAA Tournament rank as incredibly absent-minded, showing a shocking level of understanding of just what makes this sport.

The biases in the selection committee have become a problem again, but that’s all they are-biases. Despite the regular protests otherwise on social media, the power ratings used to group teams numbers aren’t a problem near as much as pure brand name attachment. But there’s no way to legislate that, other than to continue calling out the problem and insisting committee members educate themselves properly on all the info, not just cherry-picking the numbers they want to put in the teams they want.

The sport also didn’t need all the rule changes it implemented last year. It needed freedom of movement, which in turn would lead to more offense, and it needed a reduction in timeouts. The two alone accomplished everything needed, and any other changes were just fluff.

It was thought referees would need to legislate hands off defensively, but coaches clearly-finally-got the message last year. The number of fouls called went up only slightly, and there were far fewer free-throw shooting exhibitions in November and December than in the last attempts at freedom of movement in 2013-14.

As a result, scoring ballooned, and shortening the shot clock was not responsible for anything more than a small portion of teams like Fresno State, Monmouth and Princeton making 10-15 point increases in scoring. As such, there was no reason to change the clock, which combined with defenses backing off brought us more scoring, but also more and more offensive possessions looking the same.

The beauty of college basketball always has been that teams could win by pushing the pace and shooting quickly or by passing and working until they get a good shot. They can win by pressing or by stressing halfcourt defense. That is getting lost, so while the sport gained points on the scoreboard last year, it also gained a generic quality and lost some of its soul.

The rule changes, last year and this year, continue to point strongly at the addiction some in college basketball have to wanting the sport to be the NBA or international basketball. These souls believe that every team needs to be dominated by quick-shooting offenses either a) bombing away from three-point range or b) driving as hard and as fast as they can to the basket. Defense? It’s a complete afterthought. Just don’t get in the way those beloved “athletic wings.”

Oh, sure, someone will point out the San Antonio Spurs or Golden State Warriors, and they are nice passing and cutting teams-for about 10 seconds per possession. Then it’s right back to the one-on-one or two-man play with three guys standing around. It’s evidently appealing to NBA fans (let’s face it; most pro fans aren’t watching basketball for the detail; they’re watching for the athletes and the spectacle of it being a professional sport). It’s a bore for more than a few college fans.

Even when college basketball has a good year-as it did last year-this addiction apparently will not go away. You’ll see it again next offseason, when the push begins for quarters instead of halves. (exactly what is wrong with halves?)

More than anything, it makes those influencing the sport look chronically insecure. Like any sport, college basketball is not perfect. The sport of basketball in general has problems, with the AAU culture breeding players who transfer teams and schools regularly, regularly making business decisions in formative years of their life when they should not be.

TV coverage in general could be better-selling the sport to basically one cable network from November through the first half of March is working well for a couple featured conferences, not so much for others-but it’s what the sport’s leaders have settled on. It’s going to take some original thinkers out there to get together and get their product featured on other networks, but at this point it’s not seen as a problem by those in charge, so it’s what the sport deserves.

Overall, though, the sport is just fine. It doesn’t need continued tinkering. It doesn’t need more modifications to the NCAA Tournament. It doesn’t need to become a certified NBA Lite.

The NFL is learning just how fickle fan support can be when a sport tries too hard to change the things that work for it and strays too far from its roots. College basketball would be wise to learn from that.

Other quick hitter questions as we head into the season:

What does Villanova do for an encore? Having shed several years of questions about their postseason performance and even their conference, the Wildcats should be able to play with a certain level of freedom this year. There’s no expectation of a repeat-not after the loss of Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu-but Villanova still returns significant experience from last year’s team, is still the heavy favorite in the Big East and would shock few if it made the Final Four again.

How do Duke and Kentucky mesh this year with their now-annual influx of newcomers? Little has changed at the TV networks’ two favorite programs, as huge incoming classes of freshmen are expected to play big roles. The Blue Devils are the preseason title favorites for bringing back essentially four starters and having the more touted recruiting class this year, while the Wildcats’ class is almost average by their standards but needless to say still potent. There are always question marks, though, when trying to mix players in their first year at the collegiate level with those who have already done it-no matter how talented those newcomers are.

Will Oregon repeat history 77 years later? The Ducks won the first-ever NCAA Tournament back in 1939. On paper, there’s arguably no team more loaded entering this season. The Quack Attack has it all, with size and athleticism aplenty, options at point guard and young talent on hand to fill the gaps. Dana Altman’s team will surprise no one this year, though, and there also will need to be some mixing and matching with touted new faces taking on big roles.

Can Purdue furnish a backcourt approaching the quality of its frontcourt? The story with the Boilermakers hasn’t changed for a couple years now: they’ll go as far as their post players can take them. Purdue plays delightfully old-school, pound-it-in basketball, and don’t be misled by the losses of A.J. Hammons and Kendall Stephens, because the Boilers are still loaded up front. Caleb Swanigan, Isaac Haas and Vincent Edwards. The backcourt? A lot is being expected of Michigan transfer Spike Albrecht-maybe too much-but the best expectation is the group hits open shots to free up the inside guys and collectively can make up for what it lacks in star power.

Which is the real Wisconsin? Staying in the Big Ten, it has to be asked just what the realistic expectations are for the Badgers this year. Are they the team that won 11 of 12 down the stretch and rallied in the final minute to stun Xavier in the NCAA Tournament? Or are they the team that not only started poorly (youth was a perfectly acceptable excuse early in the season) but also laid an egg in the Big Ten tourney against Nebraska and then faltered down the stretch against Notre Dame in the NCAAs? With five starters returning, most are expecting the former, but we’d advise some caution.

Can Brad Underwood and Chris Beard replicate their smashing success in the Big 12? And if so, will it be in similar manners to their previous success? Perhaps no schools made better hires in the offseason than Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, as the Pokes landed Underwood and the Red Raiders lured away Beard from UNLV via Arkansas-Little Rock. Underwood worked wonders at Stephen F. Austin, taking a quality Southland program to the level of legitimate national contender, while Beard guided the nation’s best turnaround story last year, leading Little Rock to 30 wins and the NCAA Tournament second round in his only year there. Recent history is that both of these coaches know how to win, and win big, and do it in a way unique in comparison to the endless stream of ball-screen offenses we see now. Underwood won with a spread motion offense and denial defense that made SFA as much fun to watch as any team in the country, while Beard used a Bob Knight-like motion offense and pack-it-in D at UALR that also foiled many a foe. We’re curious to see how good both coaches get their teams, how quickly they do it, and if they do win big, just how their teams do it.

Do Arizona and/or Connecticut rebound from seasons that were pedestrian (by their lofty standards)? Both of these teams probably didn’t achieve quite as much as expected a year ago. The Wildcats (Associated Press preseason No. 12 a year ago) did win 25 games but were bounced from the NCAA Tournament quickly by Wichita State. The Huskies (AP preseason No. 20 in 2015-16) had an uneven campaign with big non-conference wins, some puzzling losses and a sixth-place finish in the American, yet won the conference tournament and went two-and-out in the NCAAs. Early expectations seem to be Arizona (replenished with some prime recruits) as a fringe top 10 team this year and UConn-with a mix of returnees like Rodney Purvis and Jalen Adams and newcomers like Alterique Gilbert) not far behind.

Is the ACC really that good? Some early prognostications are predicting the ACC will have 10, maybe even 11 NCAA Tournament teams. Consistently forgotten in these breathless declarations is one simple fact: in every single one of the 135 games in the conference’s regular season schedule, there has to be a loser as well as a winner. This isn’t Lake Wobegon; not everyone can be above average, and the fact is there are going to be a number of teams with 10, 11, 12 conference losses in their 18-game schedules. To still get an NCAA bid with that many losses, teams need to be nearly perfect out of conference, and that’s a lot to ask. No matter how deep a conference is.

Will Lon Kruger retire at midseason? No, we don’t really expect the outstanding veteran Oklahoma coach to head home to his ranch permanently, but it has to be said just how much OU this year looks like Wisconsin a year ago. The Badgers were a consensus top 20 team before last year even after heavy losses from their 2015 national runner-up, as the genius of Bo Ryan was expected to trump the loss of four starters and relatively little proven talent on hand. Likewise, the Sooners have lost a whole lot from their Final Four team, including three starters and three assistant coaches, and on paper there’s little to suggest a team a top-half finish in the tough Big 12. Kruger has earned the benefit of the doubt, though, which is why his team is still regularly ranked in preseason polls. Wisconsin went on a ride a year ago with a shaky start, Ryan stunning many when he retired at midseason, and then the team making a sudden turnaround under then-interim coach (now head coach) Greg Gard. Oklahoma can only hope its season is just as successful, but less eventful.

How much room for growth does Saint Mary’s have? The Gaels are a chic darkhorse pick nationally this year, but the truth is for many (not all, but more than a few) that’s based less on having actually seeing them play and more on two things: 1) efficiency ratings loved them last year and 2) five starters return this year. SMC has quality guards and skilled big men but is not incredibly physical or athletic. The Gaels won last year by out-executing teams, but it may be a lot to ask for them to execute better than a year ago when they shot better than 50% from the field, 40% from three-point range and averaged less than 10 turnovers per game. If they are improved even at all, though, a deep NCAA Tournament run is certainly possible.

Can’t those who love analytics and those who don’t all just get along? Some people enjoy the trendy, so-called advanced analytics in college basketball and sports in general (we say ‘so-called’ because rating formulas are hardly new to sport-Jeff Sagarin has been doing them for over 30 years, and the Dunkel Index started more than 50 years before him). There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Some also prefer to watch and analyze the sport in other ways, too. Yet the vitriol on social media-and even in some of the sport’s media-for people who don’t promise undying affection for the new analytics is not cool. Not everyone lies awake in bed at night thinking about how angry the RPI makes them. There are many ways to watch and follow sports. Those who pay only moderate attention to analytics are perfectly fine with those who do. They’d just like the same courtesy extended the other way a little more, too.

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