Welcome back to the March Madness Survival Guide!! It’s 2016, and believe it or not we are only nine weeks away from the NCAA Tournament.
For those of you who may be new to the Survival Guide, we have a dream, so noble and fundamentally American that it brings a tear to my eye: to survive March Madness with a perfect bracket, and claim Mr. Warren Buffett’s billion dollar reward.
That is unless I successfully achieve the other American dream and win this Powerball jackpot, in which case this is a billion dollar gift that I’m giving to you all and will therefore be able to write it off my taxes.
I hope you all spent your entire winter breaks studying college basketball teams for their tournament merits. Oh wait, you didn’t? You had lives and friends and things to do? Well in that case read on and allow me to fill you in.
There’s going to be a bit of a new format to the Survival Guide this year. To this point I have been running through games on a case-by-case basis, which is fun and interesting but I’m realizing isn’t teaching you all the lessons that can be applied throughout the season and ultimately when you’re filling out your bracket.
So for the next nine weeks (give or take) I’m going to be reviewing the games using an underlying principle or takeaway, that you can stash away in the back of your mind and bring back up in time to fill out the perfect bracket.
Class is in session! Lesson number one: The Edison Effect.
My brother played high school basketball at Thomas A. Edison high school, so for the purposes of this principle, “Edison” will lend its name, because it’s an alliteration and it sounds freakin’ sweet.
During my brother’s high school years, he played on some very good high school basketball teams.
I’ve already talked before about the lessons to be learned from the year they were nationally ranked only to be upset before they reached the state tournament. But a couple of years before that, my brother’s school was a relative unknown that hadn’t placed in the top eight in the state in a number of years.
But they were a very talented group of young kids, and surprised everyone throughout the year and qualified for the state tournament. This meant they got to play in what was then the Ford Center, now Chesapeake Energy Arena, where the Oklahoma City Thunder plays.
This was a huge shock to the group of young kids who played most of their games in a small dusty old gym. Everyone who was anyone in the Oklahoma basketball scene was in the gym to see their game. On the big court under the bright lights in front of a ton more fans than usual, the team without realizing it changed its game.
What made them successful was their fast pace and athleticism, and most importantly their “devil may care” attitude. They would surprise teams by their tenacity and how hard they played, and it made up for a lack of experience. They flew all over the court, took chances for steals and dove for loose balls.
But suddenly the giant arena served as a microscope, and every possession seemed to matter too much. “Don’t you know this is the state tournament? You can’t play so careless!” seemed to be the message being passed around.
Running the fastbreak became too risky, firing up quick shots became “low percentage basketball,” and the game slowed way down.
Add to that the fact that hustling for a loose ball doesn’t look “cool” to a big crowd, and for flashiness sake neither does boxing out, setting screens, or making the extra pass. Whether it be consciously or unconsciously, the team stopped doing all of the little things and were trying to act too cool, playing to impress the crowd.
It became a possession for possession type game, one in which Edison High School was not ready for, and they lost.
This is just one anecdote to explain a phenomenon that I have seen throughout my basketball playing and watching careers. It’s much more obvious in the NBA playoffs, explained here in an article by the New York Times. On a study of seven seasons, they found that games were 2% slower, resulting in two fewer possessions for each team per game.
While it’s really only talked about in the NBA, I can tell you with absolute certainty that it applies to high school and college basketball as well, and needs to be kept in mind when March rolls around.
And so I define The Edison Effect as the following:
1. During postseason play, especially very important games, the games tend to be played at a much slower and more deliberate pace.
2. In response to the pressure of a big stage, inexperience, or discomfort due to unfavorable opposing styles/matchups, one primary panic function is to slow the pace of the game down.
And in order to validate my theory and explain to you that this is a legitimate factor in determining postseason outcomes, I looked back at past NCAA Tournaments.
The primary way to measure pace of play is through possessions per game. While not a perfect statistic, it does describe pace on a basic level and it’s much easier to understand than some kind of advanced metric.
For example, when Oklahoma played Iowa State earlier this season, we knew that both teams like to play at a break-neck speed and the numbers back up what our eyes told us: Oklahoma had 76 possessions and Iowa State had 82.
To put this into perspective the fastest paced college basketball team in America (Citadel) averages 83.7 possessions per game, while the slowest (Denver) comes in at 63.0, and the average number of possessions last season was 67.1. Each point and half point is significant, considering the amount of data.
Now, as to its tournament relevance. In looking back at the past three seasons, there wasn’t a single team in the Final Four in any of those seasons that was in the top 100 in pace, and many were even very near the bottom of the 350 eligible teams.
2013 Final Four: Louisville (136th), Syracuse (188th), Michigan (261st), Wichita State (234th)
2014 Final Four: Connecticut (211th), Kentucky (193rd), Florida (337th), Wisconsin (332nd)
2015 Final Four: Kentucky (224th), Duke (141st), Michigan St (206th), Wisconsin (346th)
To compare that to KenPom’s advanced “adjusted tempo” metric, a more complete take on pace, it holds up. For 2015, Kentucky was at 251, Duke 114, Michigan St 245, and Wisconsin 346.
This is not a fad, not an anomaly, not even a coincidence. It’s a trend. In fact, in the past ten years only one national championship team has been in the top 100 in possessions per game (we’ll call it pace for short):
2012: Kentucky (165th), 2011: Connecticut (187th), 2010: Duke (225th), 2009: North Carolina (9th), 2008: Kansas (129th), 2007: Florida (181st), 2006: Florida (132nd)
I hope this amount of data has at least convinced you to consider pace in your Tournament selections this year, but I also don’t want you to be mislead by it. The lesson after all is not about pace, it’s about The Edison Effect.
Those numbers I just shared with you are not describing The Edison Effect, but there is a connection to be made.
The NCAA Tournament is going to be played at a slower, more deliberate pace than the regular season. This does not mean that a team that plays at a very fast pace cannot win in the NCAA Tournament. But it does mean that the team must be capable of playing good basketball when the pace inevitably slows down. Some teams are talented enough to do that (see North Carolina 2009) and still be better than a team that played slow all season.
So absolutely do not go through your bracket and pick every team just based on how many possessions per game they get, that would be silly. But make sure to factor in The Edison Effect. Just as Edison High School was taken out of their element and was not ready to play half court basketball, some college basketball teams will fall into the same boat.
There weren’t a ton of upsets in last year’s tournament, but among the few were Iowa State, VCU, SMU and Baylor, who all prefer to play up-tempo.
There’s another theory that supports this reasoning on first round upsets (Giant Killers if you want to read ahead), but I’ll cover that another time. For now, I think we need to identify some teams that need to be wary of The Edison Effect, and a few teams that could benefit:
Teams that are Hurt
Oklahoma: The Oklahoma-Kansas game was the best regular season basketball game I’ve seen in a long time. But watching the overtimes of this game is what actually gave me the idea to write about The Edison Effect. When Oklahoma plays fast and free, they are incredible. If you don’t believe me, rewatch the Villanova game where they absolutely ran them out of the gym and won by 23.
Buuut in those overtimes, when things got tense and The Edison Effect hit, the game became possession-for-possession. Oklahoma, who doesn’t run a super organized offense in the first place, became extremely stagnant on offense and ended a lot of possessions with cheap isolation. In some cases Buddy Hield was able to bail them out because he is that good and on fire, but Isaiah Cousins launched a couple contested threes and Jordan Woodard had a couple heavily-contested runners off of late clock iso.
Quick sidenote, why the heck is Buddy Hield not being considered as a top draft choice? Who wouldn’t want a 6-5 shooting guard with that kind of shooting ability and the cahones he’s shown? Sure he’s not a complete player, but you’re telling me Brandon Ingram is more polished?? Please. It’s unbelievable to me that his value goes down that much just because he is a 22-year-old senior. The whole system is so screwed up and we wonder why these extremely raw kids are jumping early to the league and not panning out. Ridiculous.
Anyway Oklahoma is a great team and has been impressive to this point, but we’ve already seen one example of The Edison Effect hitting them, so who’s to say it won’t strike again in the NCAA Tournament? Something to watch out for in March!
North Carolina: The UNC men’s volleyball team has been playing better as of late, and middle hitter Bryce Johnson looked impressive against Virginia Tech with 39 points and 24 rebounds. But please stop with the Wooden Award talk for a college version of Deandre Jordan. Roy Williams never posts up Johnson, and while dunks off of put-backs and dump-offs look great on SportsCenter, they’re not exactly what you’d call…..”a part of the offense.”
Run n’ Jump can only get you so far, and I’m utterly amazed by a backcourt rotation that has three guys who are 6-1 and shorter (Paige, Berry, Britt). They are quite possibly going to have shorter guards than the mid-major they face first round, yikes.
When they slow down, they tend to shoot a lot of threes, and unless Paige can hit six or seven per game, they don’t really have anyone else who can shoot very well. Hopefully when Big Jolly” Kennedy Meeks comes back, it stabilizes their half court offense. (sidenote, kinda mad I can’t call him Big Jolly anymore, in fact he should become the new Subway spokesman after what happened to Jared)
Kentucky: Guys, I simply can’t say this without a smile on my face: Kentucky is in real trouble. Having just witnessed Alabama win another National Championship in football, it’s good to see college basketball’s evil empire struggle. This team doesn’t play particularly fast, but makes the list because they play best when they play fast. Their guards are fast and tough, and can be lethal in transition.
The Edison Effect should hit them really hard, since they have no low post game and haven’t been good shooting on the perimeter to this point. But if there’s a single candidate to be an exception to the rule, it’s Kentucky, for which there doesn’t seem to be a single stage that’s too big. They’ve already played in huge arenas, against top teams.
Let’s all just enjoy Kentucky struggling for now, but not give them the courtesy of under-rating them. The 2014 team had tons of problems and ended up making the NCAA Championship game as an 8 seed.
Teams that Benefit
Michigan State: It sounds like a paradox to say this, but it’s the only way I know to describe Michigan State. They always play like they’re a great team, but I just don’t think they’re a great team.
What I mean is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and they always seem to get the most out of their guys. Maybe I’m just underestimating them but it sure seems like their players are simply playing better than they are, but it’s so consistent I’m probably wrong.
Before the break, I was concerned that Michigan State was peaking too early in the season. That problem was solved when their best player Denzel Valentine went down for a couple weeks. Which led to Mark Titus presenting an interesting conspiracy theory: that Valentine was in fact never hurt, and Izzo instead sat his best player so that the team could continue to improve and peak in March like every Izzo team does. All I can say is I wouldn’t put it past Izzo.
Which leads us to this weeks COACH DOPPELGÄNGER!!!
Tom Izzo as Harvey Keitel, but more specifically as “Mr. White” and “Winston Wolf” from the Quentin Tarantino movies “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction.”
Izzo and Keitel actually have a pretty strong resemblance, as shown in the picture above! But if you’ve been following the March Madness Survival Guide, you know that appearance is far from the most important factor in these doppelgängers.
I’ve had a turbulent relationship with Tarantino movies. I don’t get them, haven’t particularly liked them, and most importantly have failed to see the genius in them that everyone else sees. I’m a work in progress. That being said, they all have incredibly memorable characters.
Tom Izzo is like Mr. White from Reservoir Dogs in his support of Denzel Valentine, just as his support for Mr. Orange led to his death in the movie (spoiler alert). If Valentine were secretly an undercover Kentucky player who was going to switch teams before the tournament (plausible), Izzo would still defend him at gunpoint.
He’s like Winston Wolf because “I solve problems” really sums up Izzo’s coaching style. It doesn’t matter what chess pieces he has or the other team has, he just finds a way to exploit some advantage and win. Plus if there were one coach I’d call if I had just shot a man in the backseat of my car and there was blood everywhere and I needed to clean up the situation, it would be Tom “Winston Wolf” Izzo (again, spoiler alert).
Maryland: Their biggest problem is depth, which history tells us isn’t a huge problem in the NCAA Tournament. Aside from the fact that they are just incredibly talented, there may not be a single team with a higher ceiling when in comes to half court offense. They have inside scoring (Diamond Stone, Robert Carter), outside shooting (Jake Layman, Rasheed Sulaimon) and just a flat out gamebreaking studmuffin (Melo Trimble). They would relish The Edison Effect.
Did you see Trimble’s game winner against Wisconsin? Cold Blooded. There’s probably not a single basketball coach in America that liked him pulling up from NBA three-land in a tied game with 3 seconds left instead of driving the lane, but it’s a play that’s becoming incredibly popular in college basketball this season. As long as you’ve got cahones like Trimble and knock it down, people aren’t going to have much to say.
Louisville: Funny that I likened myself to Tom Hanks in “Castaway” last season in my support of Louisville, because here we go again. I begged and pleaded with you all to believe in them, but no one listened. Then they made it to the Elite Eight. You all listening now!?!
I love Louisville for the same reason I’ve come to love Russell Westbrook this season. There’s just absolutely no substitute for playing that junkyard dog style. They’re great for the NCAA Tournament because they make you feel uncomfortable, not the other way around.
They’re also like a good MLB pitcher in that they have a couple different pitches. They can press you and make you play fast, or drop back into a funky zone that you don’t quite know how to handle, which slows you down. And the players are too scared of Pitino going on a murder spree if they get upset to let that happen.
REMEMBER THE EDISON EFFECT, SURVIVALISTS, AND YOU WILL BE ONE STEP CLOSER TO THE AMERICAN DREAM!
By Matt Craig
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