Final Four 2012: The Triumph of College Basketball's One Percent

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The last rounds of this year's NCAA tournament feature all marquee teams and no scrappy underdogs.

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Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), and Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic) talk about the NCAA men's basketball tournament.


Everyone,

I was wrong. In our previous roundtable discussion regarding whom should be college basketball's player of the year, I nominated Creighton's sharp-shooting forward Doug McDermott—not only a great player in his own right, but also a poster boy for the rise of Butler, Gonzaga and other mid-major programs, the egalitarian, Occupy the Brackets wave I felt had come to characterize campus hoops:

Unlike college football and the rest of American society, college hoops is moving away from stratification and toward greater equality. The gap between the blueblood and big-conference haves—such as, ahem, Kansas and Kentucky—and the traditional have-nots seemingly shrinks every year.

Oops.

Did McDermott arguably have a better year than former high school teammate, ballyhooed North Carolina super recruit, and would-be brand incarnate Harrison Barnes? Probably. But still: This year's Final Four is all about the haves. The one percent. Kansas, Kentucky, Louisville, Ohio State. Not a scrappy underdog among them. As a power-to-the-people agitator, this makes me sad.

As a basketball fan, I'm pretty excited.

Come the Final Four, I don't want to see the hottest team in the country (see UConn, 2011). Nor do I want to watch the luckiest (see Butler, same year). I want to enjoy the best. In terms of overall talent, Kentucky is inarguably the nation's top squad—shot-swatting superfrosh Anthony Davis will be the no-brainer No. 1 selection in the NBA Draft, and at least five of his teammates will almost certainly collect professional checks. Better still, the Wildcats' semifinal matchup with Louisville features a pair of delicious subplots: intrastate armageddon in the nation's most college basketball-crazy state (sorry, Indiana) and a no-love-lost coaching rivalry between Rick Pitino and John Calipari, with the victor sure to publish a winning-the-games-of-business-and-life 7-step success manual within the next three months.

That said, the Kansas-Ohio State game is hardly an undercard afterthought. Between the Buckeyes' bullish Jared Sullinger and the Jayhawks' indomitable Thomas Robinson, viewers will experience a double dose of an increasingly endangered college basketball species: the honest-to-goodness, back-to-the-basket, hossin' and bossin' post player. Big men who actually play, well, big. In an era of 6-10 power forwards who want to be shooting guards and don't know a sweet drop step from a crafty up-and-under, I find that refreshing, a throwback style of play that never feels dated.

Speaking of feeling dated: there's only one thing that bugs me about this year's madness. The points. Where are they? As longtime college basketball writer Greg Hansen recently noted, winning teams in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament 15 years ago averaged 76.7 points per game. Ten years ago, they averaged 81.4 ppg. But this year? A paltry 65.9. Last season's utterly unwatchable UConn-Butler contest felt like an unsightly aberration—yet given what seems to be a long-term trend toward slow-it-down, grind-it-out, mid-1990s NHL-style play (what is Wisconsin's Bo Ryan but the Jacques Lemaire of college hoops?), it may actually have been the new normal. To which I say: gack.

Of course, I grew up on fast-breakin' Pac-10 games, the product of a conference and a play style that currently seem as relevant as 1-800-COLLECT. So what do I know? Hampton, what are your thoughts on this year's Final Four?

–Patrick

Patrick,

There's no doubt the game has slowed—and you don't need a statistician to figure it out. Check out the highlights from 1999's championship game between Duke and UConn. Guys are thundering up and down the court—stopping, popping, and dropping. It's high-flying, run-and-gun jet-powered basketball. Last year's UConn team, by comparison, looks like an Edsel stuck in the mud. The Huskies' 53 points were the lowest score by a championship-winning team since 1949.

Given that my beloved Jayhawks are winning with that Selfsame gritty, bump, slap and dive-to-the-floor style of play, however, it's hard for me to complain. But, like Joe Walsh, sometime I still do. Sure, it's easy to long for the frantic late 90's, when everyone was trying to catch up with Jerry Tarknain's Running Rebels at UNLV.

Still, the pretentious little basketball purist in me loves to see fundamentally sound defense. Like in KU's tilt with North Carolina on Sunday, for instance. With 11:52 left in the game, the Tar Heels had scored 61 points. Then Kansas dropped the hammer, throwing down a nasty "triangle-and-two" defense—a hybrid scheme using three defenders in zone coverage, and two in man-to-man on the other team's top scorers.

Oh, it was disgusting—in a good way. The Heels scored only six more points, finishing with 67. They didn't score a single bucket in the game's last 3:58. Not one. That's just savage.

So, as for predictions about this weekend, I'll just say that defense don't slump. But I'll also confess a complete inability to be unbiased. The only thing I can say for sure is that, come Monday night, should KU be lucky enough to win it all, I'll be among that delirious throng packing downtown Lawrence. Oh, it's also safe to say that, no matter what the chancellor thinks, a championship for KU on Monday night would mean some very poorly attended classes on Tuesday morning.

Jake, I'm clearly way too emotionally involved for a rational analysis. What's your take? Can anyone stop Kentucky? And, moreover, will anyone score more than 70 points the whole weekend?

–Hampton

First off, let's not forget that UK beat Indiana 102-90 in regulation in the Sweet 16—hardly a Bo Ryan snoozefest. And given that the Wildcats have averaged 88 points a game in the tournament, I'd say it's a safe bet they will get to 70 in both games.

Kind of tipped my hands there, but for predictions I'll go UK over Kansas in the finals. No one is beating the Wildcats if they play their best game, just like UNC in 2009. And Thomas Robinson is feisty enough to force Jared Sullinger out of his comfort zone and force DeShaun Thomas to carry Ohio State all by himself, which he won't quite be able to do.

And the solution to plodding games with 55-50 scores is pretty simple, guys—it's called professional basketball rules. Specifically, the 24-second shot clock and the "defensive three seconds" rule forbidding a big man from camping out in the paint, a la Fab Melo in Syracuse's 2-3 zone this season. I get the lack of a defensive three seconds rule—zone defense has been a staple of college hoops for decades (I still think it should be change though). The 35-second shot clock, though...I defy someone to persuasively explain why it's needed without using the phrases "It's always been that way" and "That's the rules for all of basketball until you reach the NBA".

If you cut the shot clock from 35 to 24, you reduce the max time of each possession by about a third. All things being equal, that's 30-35 percent more possessions per game. I can guarantee you that games in the 50s—even Wisconsin games—would be a thing of the past. Plus, who really enjoys seeing a team take 15 seconds to get into its offense every time?

College basketball has been a "better late than never" adopter of hoops innovations—the three-point line is the best example. It's time to get on the 24-second-possession bandwagon as well. For all our sakes.

–Jake

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Patrick Hruby, Jake Simpson, and Hampton Stevens 

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