April 1, 2008
A Changing Landscape
The Soft Parity of Rotating Hegemons
by John Gasaway
College basketball doesn't have a "commissioner," of course, but if it did that person would have had to issue a statement yesterday on what four one-seeds making the Final Four says about the sport's competitive balance. Said balance, in theory made up of parity and domination in optimal opposing measures, is the most fundamental aspect of any sport. Parity is a good thing, of which a sport can indeed have too much. Domination is all right as long as it's brief and it rotates. There are different ways to measure this equilibrium.
For instance, consider the ACC and the Big Ten where competitive balance is concerned. It has now become a veritable rite of late November for the Big Ten to get whomped head-to-head by the ACC in the ill-named "Challenge" between the two conferences. Many of us take comfort in--indeed, derive our seasonal orientation--from such verities. They're like the circadian rhythms of a collective sports nation's body, stretched out on an expansive annual canvas: the Maui Classic, an Army-Navy football game, then a preposterously humiliating display by the Big Ten.
Why is it, then, that in two of the past three years the Big Ten has actually done far better, in terms of expected wins by seed, than the ACC in the NCAA tournament? Maybe it's because the bottom half of the ACC is perpetually and markedly superior to the bottom half of the Big Ten. Come tournament time, however, those respective bottom halves are absent and moot. (Well, except for Miami, which this year somehow got a bid-zing!)
In other words, the season is--or at least can be--different than the tournament. Then again, the tournament is kind of important, you know? It is now being dominated. The last two Final Fours have comprised two of the three most aristocratic such gatherings in the 24-season modern (64/65-team) era.
Snootiest Final Fours
1985 to Present
2008 1.00 (North Carolina, Memphis, UCLA, Kansas)
1993 1.25 (North Carolina, Michigan, Kentucky, Kansas)
2007 1.50 (Florida, Ohio State, Georgetown, UCLA)
2001 1.75 (Duke, Michigan State, Arizona, Maryland)
1999 1.75 (Connecticut, Duke, Michigan State, Ohio State)
1997 1.75 (Kentucky, North Carolina, Minnesota, Arizona)
1991 1.75 (Duke, UNLV, North Carolina, Kansas)
This dominance is not only measurable by the composition of the Final Four. Consider also that 11 of the last 12 one-seeds have made the Elite Eight. The collective tournament record of those 12 one-seeds against non-one-seed opponents is a notably robust 44-6.
Lastly, it's worth remarking that there was a time not so long ago when it was at least within the realm of possibility for a one-seed to lose a second-round game. Sure, it was a rare occurrence, but it did happen 12 times in the first 20 tournaments of the 64-team era. Such a thing was conceivable. No longer. Starting with the 2005 tournament, the cumulative first-weekend record of the one-seeds is 32-0.
Why is this era of domination happening now? It's early to speculate, of course, but it might just turn out to have something to do with those freshmen we keep hearing about. The NBA collective bargaining agreement that took effect before the 2006 draft defined eligibility upwards. Now a player has to be 19 during the calendar year of the draft (or, if they matriculated at a U.S. high school, at least one year has to have passed since their graduation). Meaning Greg Oden was the first player forced, in effect, to play college basketball for a year. The best, or at least most promising, players in the country outside the NBA are no longer high school seniors. They're college freshmen.
The NBA's rule change has left us with a situation in which the insistent visual prominence of spectacular freshmen is partly justified--they really are great--but it's also partly an optical illusion caused by the outmigration of NBA-worthy sophomores, juniors and seniors. Keep in mind that if we still played by the old John Wooden-era rules, where "college" meant a four-year collegiate career, we would have seen all of the following still plying their trade in the college ranks this past season:
Dwight Howard, Shaun Livingston, Robert Swift, Sebastian Telfair, Al Jefferson, Josh Smith, J.R. Smith, Dorrell Wright, Marvin Williams, Martell Webster, Andrew Bynum, C.J. Miles, Monta Ellis, Louis Williams, Andray Blatche, Amir Johnson, LaMarcus Aldridge, Tyrus Thomas, Rudy Gay, Patrick O'Bryant, Cedric Simmons, Shawne Williams, Rajon Rondo, Kyle Lowry, Jordan Farmar, Daniel Gibson, Leon Powe, Greg Oden, Kevin Durant, Al Horford, Mike Conley, Jeff Green, Corey Brewer, Brandan Wright, Joakim Noah, Spencer Hawes, Thaddeus Young, Julian Wright, Rodney Stuckey, Nick Young, Sean Williams, Javaris Crittenton, Jason Smith, Daequan Cook, Wilson Chandler, Arron Afflalo, Gabe Pruitt, Marcus Williams, Glen Davis, Josh McRoberts, Dominic McGuire, JamesOn Curry, Taurean Green, and Ramon Sessions.
More to the point, under the rules that applied up until 2006, Michael Beasley and Derrick Rose would today be very good NBA rookies instead of outlandishly superb college freshmen. Today's most prominent freshmen are indeed spectacular. However, their presence in college has been compelled, and they do benefit from players who aren't there. Most notably, today's outstanding freshmen have opportunities for playing time at blue-chip programs that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.
The effect of these freshmen on their teams has been dramatic. North Carolina is the only Final Four team without (gasp!) a representative from the 2007 McDonald's All-American Team. Then again, Kansas would very likely be where they are even without Cole Aldrich. The catalytic Final Four freshmen this year are, of course, Kevin Love and Derrick Rose.
True, their teams would be excellent without them. Their teams may even have made the Final Four without them. The point is not that you need a spectacular freshman to win the national title. (After all, we haven't seen such a team since Carmelo Anthony's time.) No, the point is that college basketball appears to have become bifurcated. On the one side are teams good enough to both attract (that includes Kansas State) and capitalize on (that does not include K-State) a catalytic freshman. On the other side are 330 or so other teams. If the catalytic freshmen were smart, they'd start committing in groups, a la Greg Oden and Mike Conley.
Yes, it would be foolish to sound the parity alarm here without at least acknowledging that the two one-seeds that played for the national championship last year, Florida and Ohio State, couldn't even get into the tournament this year. Tournament-brand domination does rotate, thank goodness. The extent of that domination, however, is greater than it's been in quite some time.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.