Basketball Prospectus: Unfiltered Everything Else is Fluff.

April 4, 2011

What Will We Tell The Kids

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kyle Whelliston @ 7:13 pm

HOUSTON — You realize that someday, we’re going to have to convince our children and grandchildren that for the first two decades of the NCAA’s supergonzo megabracket era, there was an invisible seal that kept low-budget teams from the smaller conferences out of the Final Four. We won’t be able to describe it, because it was a completely intangible feeling that little engines were going to fall apart at some point in the Rounds of 64, 32, Sixteen or Eight. They won’t believe us anyway.

Rd Opp Score Poss PPP D-PPP
R64 Michigan State W, 75-65 66 1.13 0.98
R32 North Carolina W, 65-60 67 0.97 0.91
S16 Wichita State W, 63-55 62 1.02 0.83
E8 Connecticut W, 86-84 70 1.23 1.15
F4 Florida L, 58-73 64 0.91 1.14

George Mason 2006 laid the template down, led by an old and wise head coach in Jim Larranaga who had a different catch-phrase for every game and would unspool lyrical odes to George Mason University every time he ascended to the dais (indeed, when he got his raise afterwards, part of it was specifically earmarked towards the ambassadorial work he was doing). Five double-figure scorers, precise ball movement, and a team that topped out at 6-7 that finished 12th in the nation at stopping the two-point shot (42.7 percent). That was bodies-on-the line defense, which was strained and tested as the tournament went on. Still, to this day, it’s worth a moment of wonder what could have happened against Florida in Indianapolis if Coach L had any bench at all. The sixth man on that team, turnover-creation widget Gabe Norwood, scored 4.9 percent of the team’s points.

Rd Opp Score Poss PPP D-PPP
R64 UTEP W, 77-59 67 1.14 0.84
R32 Murray State W, 54-52 59 0.91 0.95
S16 Syracuse W, 63-59 64 0.98 0.89
E8 Kansas State W, 63-56 67 0.94 0.85
F4 Michigan State W, 52-50 58 0.89 0.83
NC Duke L, 59-61 63 0.94 1.07

The true Mason effect, as it turned out, happened not on the court but in the boardrooms. Many athletic directors called their coaches and asked, “Why aren’t we in the Final Four too, and while we’re at it, why aren’t you out there being Mr. Ambassador?” Coaching turnover helped weaken the Valley and Colonial, the two premier mid-major leagues of 2006. But five years later, a new star rose in the Midwest. When Butler 2010 came home to Indianapolis, seeing Final Four merchandise racks full of weird non-BCS logos wasn’t totally foreign anymore. And the pride of the Horizon played some of the most sacrificial and punishing defense the Tournament has seen in recent years. Still, though, how exactly did they win that Murray State game?

Rd Opp Score Poss PPP D-PPP
R64 Old Dominion W, 60-58 59 1.01 0.97
R32 Pittsburgh W, 54-52 61 1.17 1.17
S16 Wisconsin W, 61-54 60 1.01 0.82
E8 Florida W, 74-71 70 1.06 1.07
F4 VCU W, 70-62 65 1.07 0.90

Butler 2011 began the season with defensive stopper Ronald Nored struggling to recover his form with his rebuilt shins, and a lot of 2010 role players taking on larger parts in the 2011 narrative. They were bound to struggle. But the most fun thing about this Butler run, from an objective standpoint, has been the kitchen-sink chemistry lab that Brad Stevens has been running with his role players. Freshman Crishawn Hopkins playing 24 minutes in calendar year 2011 before coming in and hitting the three that re-ignited the Dawgs against Florida? Sure! Zach Hahn scoring nine points in the first tournament, then a swift eight-spot early in the second half against VCU? Why not? Can’t scout for randomness, after all. It’s definitely a more offensive story this time, as Butler finds any way possible to turn possessions into points.

Rd Opp Score Poss PPP D-PPP
PIG USC W, 60-58 59 1.00 0.77
R64 Georgetown W, 60-58 63 1.18 0.85
R32 Purdue W, 54-52 70 1.35 1.13
S16 Florida State W, 63-59 74 0.98 0.94
E8 Kansas W, 63-56 67 1.05 0.85
F4 Butler L, 62-70 69 0.90 1.07

While the Bulldogs remain the only team on this list to have averaged more than a point per trip in each game, VCU 2011 is the only one to have run opponents right off the floor, with their sudden three-point prowess and their fearless swagger. I believe that the Rams’ run will end up as the most dissected and pondered by mid-major coaches of the future, and considered to be the most generally inspiring. It was a fairly common team statistically that made use of adjustments and the element of surprise (cases in point: the slow death-grind of the USC game, and the opening burst of energy that put the Jayhawks back on their heels) in order to survive and advance. So the threes stopped falling in Houston. VCU has become an instant symbol of hope for mid-major fourth-place teams everywhere.

One of my favorite items at the official street vendor stands here in Houston is this heather gray t-shirt for children, which shows in colorful and fun relief exactly how much of the Final Four the outsiders occupied this year. As one of my Twitter followers said once I posted the picture, “Kids are going to grow up thinking mid-majors always make the Final Four. This is fantastic.” And when little tykes grow out of these shirts and get good at basketball, they might be more likely to accept giant-killer scholarships. The future needs more Zach Hahns.

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