Monday, December 14, 2020

Patience May Be Necessary

By Ross Lancaster

As I wrote a few weeks ago, trying to play college basketball during a pandemic would be quite bumpy. It hasn't let us down in that regard.

Each day, there are myriad games in Division I that have been called off or postponed to a later date. Many of these are below the power conference level, but the biggest programs have been anything but immune.

Gonzaga/Baylor was a potential showpiece game of the non-conference season and was scheduled as a college football lead-in on CBS. It was called off that morning. Michigan State traveled to Virginia this past week, only to turn back after the game got called off.

Coach K is coming under some heat for wanting the season to be paused and cancelling the rest of Duke's non-conference slate after Duke's loss to Illinois in Durham. And in a perfect world, yes, college basketball wouldn't be taking place right now so we could ensure that the players and coaches are healthy.

But we don't live in a perfect world at the moment. We can't just hit pause on the season like it's a game of 2K on PS4 and expect to come back in a couple months with everything looking the same. If games aren't scheduled, and conferences/the NCAA aren't able to fulfill TV deals, schools risk flushing more sports (and scholarships) down the drain.

That being said, any player at a big-time program or with a possible pro future would be well within his or her rights to sit out the season. At this point, it seems like a losing proposition to play college basketball much longer if you're a sure lottery pick like Cade Cunningham or Evan Mobley.

Let's come back to something else Coach K said (in August), though, "We can't have it where two years in a row you don't have the NCAA tournament," Krzyzewski said in August.

To put it bluntly, that's the reason college basketball is being played right now. The NCAA lost hundreds of millions of dollars from canceling March Madness in 2020. The thing is, there's no law saying the NCAA tournament has to be during a certain month, as synonymous as it is with March in all of our minds.

April Absurdity and May Mania don't have the same ring but extending the season — or at least not having a set-in-stone Selection Sunday when games have to be completed by — would offer college basketball some much-needed flexibility for getting schedules in. It's tough to ignore the COVID elephant in the room as it relates to anything touching college basketball, but there have been some games played (hundreds, in fact).

Some curious trends have popped up over the first couple weeks of play. Per KenPom, offensive efficiency is down nationwide — to what appears to be at least 20-year lows — at 99.4 points per 100 possessions, or under 1 point per possession. That comes after a drop in offense last season. Furthermore, turnovers and free throw attempts are up. Let's hope things get more watchable soon on those fronts.

The pace of play is up nationwide, however — to over 71 possessions per team per game. In 2015, with a 35-second shot clock, that national average was about 64. So, if the overall scores of games look higher despite a drop in offensive production, that's why.

My first thought on seeing all those statistical trends was that college teams were trending towards a three-point heavy, pace-and-space offense and missing more deep shots. Teams are missing more from behind the arc — but the percentage of three-point attempts to all shots is unchanged from last year — and down from 2019.

But my biggest takeaway so far from this ... unique season is that I think there's a legitimate best team and championship favorite already: Gonzaga. The 'Zags have close to everything to me: elite young talent (Drew Timme and Jalen Suggs), leadership from upperclassmen (Corey Kispert, Andrew Nembhard), size, perimeter athleticism, and a dynamic offense. The one thing they aren't right now is a great three-point shooting team.

However, with the showdown against Baylor called off, it appears Gonzaga's next game after a COVID layoff will be against the supernova offense of Luka Garza and Iowa on Dec. 19. If no non-conference games are added for Gonzaga, that could be the last game on the schedule against anything close to a top opponent.

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