Monday, January 13, 2020

College Basketball’s Curious Season

By Ross Lancaster

In 1971, UCLA won its fifth consecutive NCAA basketball title, a number that would eventually become seven before a loss to NC State in the 1974 Final Four.

Even though the Bruins went 29-1 and 14-0 in the Pac-8, it was still a decidedly different squad from what came just before and immediately after. With Lew Alcindor (who would soon change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in May 1971) graduated and Bill Walton not eligible to play as a freshman under the rules of the era, John Wooden went so far as to call the 1971 team, "The Team Without," and said it was one of his favorite teams that he coached.

There are, of course, few similarities between college basketball in 1971 and college basketball in 2020. And it would be extremely inaccurate to paint UCLA's Walton/Jabbar gap year as some sort of scrappy underdog in the annals of NCAA title teams. But this year feels like "The Season Without" in college hoops.

There's no one-and-done demigod like Zion Williamson capturing the limelight and attracting pro athletes to his games. Heavily-hyped NBA prospects like James Wiseman, Cole Anthony, LaMelo Ball, and R.J. Hampton are sidelined, done with college basketball, or playing overseas.

There are no great teams, either. Already, with two months of the regular season down and two months until Selection Sunday, we've had six different No. 1 teams in the AP poll. The record for one season is seven.

And it's not like it's just a selection of elite programs and top 20 teams giving each other losses every day. College basketball's one sure result over the years — a North Carolina win in Chapel Hill against Clemson — is no longer after Saturday. Barring a stunning turnaround, the Tar Heels — a No. 1 seed three of the last four years — will not be in the NCAA tournament. Meanwhile, in the Big Ten, Rutgers could very well find its name called on the middle Sunday in March.

Commentators love to talk about parity in college basketball and how many teams can potentially win the championship this time of year, but ultimately 21 out of the last 22 champions have been No. 3 seeds or better in the tournament bracket. This year, it would shock very few people who follow the sport closely if a team ranked anywhere from 13 to 30 by the selection committee end up stringing together a six-game winning streak to win a title.

We'll hear a lot about this dynamic amidst college basketball's free-for-all season in the coming months. But what I haven't heard a lot about yet is this season's massive drop in offensive efficiency.

Last season, per KenPom, the average Division I team scored 104.3 points per 100 possessions, meaning that over the tens of thousands of possessions in a season, teams could be counted on to score 1.04 points each time down the floor. This season, that number has fallen to 100.4 per 100 possessions.

This may strike you as marginal, but that's an unprecedented year-on-year change in the KenPom data, compiled since the 2001-02 season. Furthermore, it's the lowest college basketball-wide efficiency number for a whole season. And it's not like that drop is being driven by smaller conferences. In fact, with each conference besides the Ivy League now having played a couple weeks of conference games or more, the SEC is the only league with conference-wide efficiency over 100.

Undoubtedly, this drop has a lot to do with the NCAA moving the three-point line back about a foot and a half to be consistent with the FIBA line. Three-point percentage across college hoops is down 1.3%, and effective field goal percentage is down 1.4%.

I have to admit to being pretty surprised by this, as I assumed that college players would be able to make the longer shot without much difficulty in today's three-happy world of basketball, and the longer line would open up spacing and driving lanes. Instead, those 17 inches have made the shot tougher and haven't created the spacing and creativity like we see in the NBA.

That will change in coming years as players get more used to the deeper shot. But for this year, it's clear that the sport will have less offensive punch.

As an aside, scoring overall — not on a per-possession basis — isn't down much thanks to more possessions in an average game, likely because of full implementation of the NBA-style rule of knocking 10 seconds off the shot clock on an offensive rebound.

So, what does this mean for this most curious of college basketball seasons?

It's tempting to say that whatever teams master the longer line will be in great position for March success, but that's also a bit too simplistic. Instead, I think the teams that can finish at or near the basket the best and often enough to keep defenses honest will be the best-positioned for March in an offense-starved year.

And mind you, that doesn't necessarily disqualify teams that shoot a high volume of threes or get a high proportion of their points from behind the arc.

After all, the closest college hoops has come thus far to a 2014-19 Golden State Warriors offensive force was Villanova's 2017-18 title team. That team shot nearly as many threes as twos but was also third nationally in made two-point percentage.

For 2020 so far, this formula would favor currently ranked teams like Dayton, Gonzaga, Michigan, Oregon, and Kansas.

This season doesn't have the star power or offensive play of some recent seasons in college basketball. Nevertheless, it should still be a highly compelling — and unpredictable — next three months to determine a champion.

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