For years—decades really—I’ve drifted away from college basketball. As I lamented a year ago, it wasn’t the same game I watched as a kid and as a young adult. It was exciting, no doubt, but the quality of play had declined. I still watched, but the thrill was gone for me.
This season, I came back, but the motivating factor was arcane. I wanted to see if advanced metrics had any place in college hoops. Advanced metrics are the algebraic gymnastics that judges a team and its players based on the efficiency of its scoring rather than its sum total. In baseball, nearly every team has a number-cruncher in the front office who can calculate statistics and make most math majors shake their heads in wonder. And it's for good reason. Baseball has kept meticulous tallies of isolated events. Advanced metrics crept to the periphery of the baseball mainstream 25 years ago, and now they are solidly in the mix.
The march of advanced metrics in basketball has been slower. The NBA didn’t keep tallies of turnovers, a key statistic in calculating efficiency until 1974. Thus, we can only speculate how a current star like Chris Paul measures up against a legend like Oscar Robertson.
The idea of doing these metrics for college basketball initially seemed like folly to me. First of all, in contrast to the 162 games in a baseball season and the 82 contests in the NBA’s campaign, college basketball teams play only 30-35 games each season. The teams are markedly different each season. And these are teenagers and early 20-somethings—a very unpredictable demographic—that these statisticians were trying to analyze. I had doubts because of the small sample size and full-blown skepticism due to the age of the players.
But the regular season unfolded with no team able to hold on to the No. 1 ranking in the polls for very long. It seemed as if there were an elite group of teams with little to separate them. To my surprise, the metrics found at places like Kenpom and the analysis at Basketball Prospectus anticipated this alignment. These metrics are often called “tempo-free” stats, since they evaluate teams on a per-possession, rather than on a per-game basis; variations in tempo can cause huge disparities in any given game. Put another way, a team can have the appearance of a good offense if it has an up-tempo, but inefficient game and scores 80 points. A slower paced team can have an efficient offense, but because they have 20 fewer possessions per contest, they score only 60 points per game.
It’s a far less sexy approach than figuring out who will be the ESPN Sportscenter lead story, but it was effective. With a handful of exceptions (most notably UCLA and the University of West Virginia), the teams that were most efficient also made it to the Sweet 16, which is where the tournament got really interesting. This wasn’t 2007 when the University of Florida towered over all comers; 14 of the 16 teams that faced off in games on Thursday and Friday had legit dreams of making the Final Four. (Fans of Purdue University, a No. 5 seed in the Western Regional, and the University of Arizona, a No. 12 in the Midwest Regional, were just enjoying the ride.)
The lessons from the weekend were primarily tactical. Teams that were dependent on one phase of the game were upended. The University of Memphis relied heavily on their suffocating defense and were helpless when the University of Missouri found a breach and put up 102 points. The University of Pittsburgh’s strength all season had been their rebounding. So when other teams sent all five players to pound the boards against Pitt, the Panthers eked out three-straight close wins against teams they should have clobbered. A fourth win seemed like a possibility until Villanova guard Scottie Reynolds streaked down court to sink a buzzer beater for the ages, and brackets burst all over the world (including one at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue).
Villanova will be joined by the University of North Carolina, Michigan State University and the University of Connecticut in Detroit for the Final Four with games on Saturday and next Monday to crown a champion. Both Saturday matchups are intriguing. Michigan State is the 10th-ranked team in defensive efficiency, but they are 29th on offense. North Carolina has the most efficient offense but ranks 22nd on defense. The teams play at strikingly different tempos, but with their 72-60 over the University of Oklahoma on Sunday, UNC has shown they can win playing slower than their preferred pace. I’m skeptical that Michigan State can win againt UConn if the game shifts to an up-tempo pace.
In Saturday’s other game, the efficiency measures forecast a clear win for UNC. Villanova ranks 19th and 15th in offensive and defensive efficiency, respectively. The Tar Heels rank 22nd on defense but are number one on offense. Unless you’re a ‘Nova alum, those are hard numbers to argue with.
A UConn-UNC final would probably pit the two best teams in the country against one another, and it just might be good enough to stop me from carping about the decline of the college game.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.
This article contains corrected information about the semifinal rounds.