ESPN knows what college basketball needs: Don’t believe the hype

basketball1Let’s do a blind taste test on stats from three ACC teams in ESPN college basketball games this week. Just for fun, you know, no other reason.

  • Team #1: 1.082 points per possession, scores on 48.2 percent of its possessions, turnovers on 18.8 percent of its possessions, assists on 54.5 percent of its made baskets.
  • Team #2: 1.052 points per possession, scores on 46.6 percent of its possessions, turnovers on 12.1 percent of its possessions, assists on 55 percent of its made baskets.
  • Team #3: 1.047 points per possession, scores on 51.2 percent of its possessions, turnovers on 12.8 percent of its possessions, assists on 55.2 percent of its made baskets.

Which team is the “boring” team that is bad for college basketball?

Strong hint with one detail that I left out, and will now offer up: Team #1 averaged 17 seconds per possession, Team #2 averaged 22 seconds per possession, Team #3 averaged 15 seconds per possession.

And there we have it! Team #2 is the boring team, second-ranked UVA, bad for college basketball. Team #1 is Duke, Team #3 is North Carolina, fresh off their epic, sorry, “breathtaking” 92-90 overtime thriller in Durham Wednesday night.

No question it was exciting to watch. But according to ESPN.com columnist C.L. Brown, it was also “exactly what the game needed,” whatever that means.

“In a season in which college basketball has taken its share of shots,” Brown writes, “rightfully so, in many instances,” the game was a “breathtaking reminder” of why we love college basketball in the first place.

And ESPN took Dick Vitale off the Duke-Carolina game … why, again?

The “shots” at college basketball have come from, go figure this, ESPN, which has had its writers on a full-court press of late picking holes in the success of teams like UVA and Wisconsin who force teams to try to beat them at their slow-tempo game.

Conveniently, ESPN has absolved Kentucky of its share of any criticism in this respect, even though the top-ranked and undefeated ‘Cats are more UVA and Wisconsin (UK games average 62.7 possessions per game, UVA games 58.1, Wisconsin 59.7) than Duke (67.4) or UNC (70.2).

The narrative being pushed by ESPN, that slow is bad, prevents a bigger discussion about how slow isn’t even the same across the slow board, in a way of speaking. Wisconsin, for example, is having success at slow tempo despite being ranked just 54th in defensive efficiency (per KenPom), because the Badgers, slow as molasses, have the top-ranked offense in the country efficiency-wise.

Virginia, slower than molasses (350th of the 351 teams in Division I in tempo), is 19th nationally in offensive efficiency, and second nationally in defensive efficiency, to Kentucky, which also has the seventh-most efficient offensive unit.

And then of course there are differences among the fast. Duke, from a blind profile, is more like Wisconsin (third offense, 56th defense), Carolina similar, but a little lower in the rankings (11th in offense, 66th in defense).

It could be worth noting here briefly that UNC is one of just two teams in the KenPom Top 25 that are also in the top 25 teams in tempo (Iowa State is 19-6, eighth in offensive efficiency, 101st in defensive efficiency, in games averaging 70.2 possessions per).

One more brief note: only one team in the top 25 in adjusted tempo is also in the top 25 in defensive efficiency, West Virginia, which is overall 29th in KenPom, 25th in defensive efficiency, 63rd in offensive efficiency, in games averaging 69.9 possessions.

So fast doesn’t necessarily make you more successful, slow, well, maybe there is some correlation (three teams in the bottom 10 in tempo, UVA, Wisconsin and Northern Iowa, are ranked in the top 11 in KenPom), but success isn’t what ESPN is concerned about.

Or, yeah, actually it is the success of slow-tempo teams that ESPN is concerned about; why ESPN is concerned is another question. The reason for college basketball’s growth over the past 40 years isn’t because it was packaged as a minor-league NBA, because honestly, the NBA has never been more than a niche sport that people only pay attention to in June.

College has the focus of the casual fans from mid-February through the end of March Madness on the first Monday night in April. A big part of that appeal, yes, no doubt, is seeing the usual suspects, the Dukes, the Carolinas, Kentuckys, Kansases, Michigans, UCLAs, slugging it out, but it also cannot be denied that a bigger part of the appeal is the David-Goliath factor, the little guy with the slingshot taking aim at the big boys and their McDonald’s All-Americans.

Malcolm Gladwell offered interesting insight into David and Goliath that turned what we’ve all thought we’ve known about how David slayed the giant on its face. David beating Goliath wasn’t an upset at all, in Gladwell’s telling, because the little guy made the big guy fight the fight on the little guy’s terms, and when it played out on the battlefield, the big guy’s armor became his tomb.

UVA and Wisconsin as “little guys,” Davids? It’s a stretch, both being programs attached to big state universities in power conferences ranked in the Top 5, but they’re not the sport’s bluebloods, and they’re not playing the game the way the big boys do, with Hall of Fame coaches running assembly lines of pedigreed one-and-dones.

In terms of narratives, the Embrace the Pace teams should be a good competing one for the ESPN types to push for the sake of ratings. Instead we get more hype about how faster is better because, faster!

Don’t believe the hype.

– Column by Chris Graham

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