Quick Thoughts

1.    Cinderella Can Do It?:    With March Madness in full effect and the NBA in something of a slow wind down to the playoffs, I thought we’d take a step back and do a little more NCAA talk.  Specifically, all of our fascination with the Cinderella Squads, i.e. the small fries who upset major programs and their potential to get to a Final Four.  There are quite a few this year and I thought we could take a look at the true underdogs, the teams seeded 11 or higher, to track their history of success (technically the 9 and 10 seeds are also underdogs but the differences between them and their first round opponents are typically a coin flip).  Since the tournament has gone to 64 teams in 1984-85, the low seeds have had varying success.  Each year, the tournament has had 24 team in the 11-16 seed range.  Here’s how many of these teams got past round one (we’ll also put any teams in parentheses that got past the second round): 

1984-85:  2 (Kentucky made Sweet 16)

1985-86:  4 (DePaul, Cleveland State, and LSU made Sweet 16)

1986-87:  4 (Wyoming made Sweet 16)

1987-88:  3 (Richmond and Rhode Island made Sweet 16)

1988-89:  6 (Minnesota made Sweet 16)

1989-90:  4 (Ball State made Sweet 16; Loyola Marymount made the Elite Eight)

1990-91:  6 (Connecticut and Eastern Michigan made Sweet 16)

1991-92:  2 (No low seeds made the second round)

1992-93:  4 (George Washington made Sweet 16)

1993-94:  3 (Tulsa made Sweet 16)

1994-95:  5 (No low seeds made the second round)

1995-96:  4 (Arkansas made Sweet 16)

1996-97:  3 (Tennessee-Chattanooga made Sweet 16)

1997-98:  5 (Washington and Valparaiso made Sweet 16)

1998-99:  5 (Missouri State made Sweet 16)

1999-00:  1 (No low seeds made the second round)

2000-01:  7 (Gonzaga made Sweet 16; Temple made the Elite Eight)

2001-02:  6 (Southern Illinois made Sweet 16; Missouri made Elite Eight)

2002-03:  3 (Butler made Sweet 16)

2003-04:  2 (No low seeds made the second round)

2004-05:  4 (Wisconsin-Milwaukee made Sweet 16)

2005-06:  6 (Bradley made Sweet 16; George Mason made the Final Four)

2006-07:  2 (No low seeds made the second round)

2007-08:  5 (Villanova and Western Kentucky made Sweet 16)

2008-09:  5 (Arizona made Sweet 16) 

In the past 25 years (we exclude 2009-10 as the tourney is still going on), we see the following trends: 

-Of the 600 low seeds,  101 have made it past the first round (roughly 17%). 

-Of the 600 low seeds, 30 have made it to Sweet Sixteen (5%)

-Only four low seeds have made it to the Elite Eight (0.7%)

-Only George Mason has made it to a Final Four (0.2%)

-The first low seed to make it to the Elite Eight, Loyola Marymount, was probably the most memorable.  In fact, the team has been celebrated since this is the 20th anniversary of their impressive showing behind future lottery pick Bo Kimble and the team playing in memory of star Hank Gathers (who died tragically from heart problems during the conference tournament a few weeks before the NCAA tournament). 

-There aren’t too many pros out of these Elite Eight/Final Four group.  Loyola Marymount had only Bo Kimble, who washed out after a few seasons.  Temple had no pros (a no frills team led by Lynn Greer), Missouri had one pro (Kareem Rush), and George Mason had none.  Just in case your curious, George Mason’s top scorer, Jai Lewis, currently is playing ball in the Philippines. As for the other big names on that George Mason team, Tony Skinn is in Italy, Lamar Butler is in Turkey, Will Thomas is in Belgium, and Folarin Campbell  is in Germany. 

Another question is how accurate NCAA seeding is in predicting results.  In this case, I was curious to see if the higher seeded underdogs (11s and 12s) did score better than their lower seeded brethren.  Given that no 16-seed has ever won a tournament game (not including play-ins), it seems that this may be true but let’s map it out and see how true it really is.  Below is a list of the number of times each seed from 11 through 16 seeds were able to get past the first round, second round, and further:

 Seed Round of 32 Sweet 16 Elite 8 Final 4 Title
11 29 9 3 1 0
12 33 16 1 0 0
13 20 2 0 0 0
14 15 2 0 0 0
15 4 0 0 0 0
16 0 0 0 0 0
Total 101 29 4 1 0

Based upon the raw numbers, a 12-seed is actually slightly more likely to win in Round 1 than an 11-seed.  Moreover, nearly 50% of 12-seed upsetters go on to win in Round 2.  The 11-seeds are weaker in Round 2 (only win about 30% of Round 2 games) but make up almost all the teams to make deeper runs.  The NCAA seems to seed the 13-16 teams very well, as the number of upsets slowly fade by seed from low (13 seed), to lower (14 seed), to virtually nil (15 seed), to nil (the 16 seeds). 

The only four teams to make the Sweet 16 that were higher than 12-seeds were (any future NBAers are noted next to the team in parentheses): 

-1985-86 Cleveland State (Clinton Smith had a cup of coffee with Golden State)

-1987-88 Richmond (No NBA players.  Incidentally, the only NBAer of note from the school is Johnny Newman)

-1996-97 Tennessee-Chattanooga (Johnny Taylor had a short career in the late 1990s)

-1997-98 Valparaiso (Bryce Drew) 

So, only Drew had any NBA buzz.  He ended up varying between 12th man and useful back up point during his six-year career.  Drew is back at Valpo as an assistant coach now.  

Overall, we see that seeding does matter.  The chance to breakthrough is very low for the lowest of the low.  So, enjoy the upsets because as random as the whirlwind of the NCAA single elimination program seems to be, the good teams tend to avoid upsets most of the time and the chance of a low seed going near the title is a once a quarter century occurrence. 

2.    NCAA vs. NBA:    Every year around this time, the inevitable question comes out whether the college games is more fun to watch than the pros.  I find myself watching the NBA game more, even in March (I watched Portland/Dallas over the Sweet 16 most of the night).  Still, the question is obviously a subjective one.  I hate to re-print my views but below is a column I wrote back 2007, using an interview from baseball genius Bill James and his appreciation of his Kansas Jayhawks.  The research is three years old but still holds mostly true.  Anyway, here it is: 

I may be a little late getting into it but  a few weeks ago Bill James, the first stats-related pragmatist writer in baseball (and the inspiration for countless other baseball and sportswriters in print and on the Web today), made some interesting observations with respect to the NBA in a baseball-related interview at SheaFaithful.com about the NBA that drew some interest.  In discussing the ramifications of an ostensibly .500 St. Louis Cardinals team winning the World Series in 2006, James stated:  “I’m not a great fan of the Wild Card. But it is tremendously important, for the health of the sport [baseball], that the best team doesn’t always win. That’s the real problem with the NBA. . .the best team is going to win in the long run, and everybody knows it. The season becomes a long, crushing battle in which, ultimately, you have no chance to escape justice. . .as opposed to college basketball, which is vastly more exciting, simply because you never know who will win, and therefore have to do everything you can do to maximize your chance. In the NBA you don’t really HAVE a chance to win, if you’re not one of the two or three best teams, and everybody knows this on some level. . .therefore, why play hard, why dive for the ball on the floor, why fight for the rebound, why sacrifice your body to score a point, when you ultimately can’t win. No sport can survive if the best team always wins.”  

Henry Abbott over at True Hoop, examined the remarks and while conceding that the NBA has been dynastic for much of its existence did not necessarily buy the premise that the NBA presents an inexorable coronation of the top regular season team each year.  Abbott wrote: “[i]s Bill James really right? Just to make sure, I’d like him to prove it. I’d like him to identify those two or three teams at the beginning of every NBA season for us. Did he really pick Larry Brown’s starless 2004 Pistons? Last year’s Miami Heat?” 

I may be a bit untimely on this subject but I thought I’d throw in my two cents.  Before I do so, I think we should acknowledge that James’ remarks were somewhat off-the-cuff and it really isn’t fair to dissect them to the highest level of scrutiny.  Still, our particular place exists for no other reason but to delve into the minutia of sport, so let’s take a closer look at the statement anyway.  In a nutshell, here are James’ premises:

-The best team (or one of the top three teams) always wins in the NBA

-You need variety and surprise to draw fans and to have a health league/sport

-College basketball is more entertaining than the NBA because it is much more unpredictable

-Because the ultimate outcome is a foregone conclusion, NBA players don’t play as hard as they might otherwise or as hard as NCAA players 

With the proviso that James’ clearly wasn’t intending to state divine law, let’s examine each premise and see if they hold up to scrutiny… 

-The best team (or one of the top three teams) always wins in the NBA

Without really checking, this seems to me to be pretty true.  How many times have one of the top three teams NOT won title?  Putting aside Pythagorean records and all that, let’s see take a look: 

-2005-06 Miami Heat

-2003-04 Detroit Pistons

-1994-95 Houston Rockets

-1977-78 Washington Bullets

-1974-75 Golden State Warriors

-1968-69 Boston Celtics 

Yup.  In 51 years, a non-top three team has only won six times and even some of these teams weren’t a huge surprise.  By contrast, here are all the non-top three MLB teams that have won the World Series since the Wild Card was adopted in 1995: 

2006 St. Louis Cardinals

-2003 Florida Marlins

-2001 Arizona Diamondbacks

-2000 New York Yankees

-1997 Florida Marlins

A bit more frequent than the NBA to be sure.  This is particularly true since only eight teams make the playoffs in baseball versus 16 teams in the NBA.  Of course, very few of these teams were actually considered big upset stories, with the exception of the 2003 Marlins and the 2006 Cardinals.  

-You need variety and surprise to draw fans and to have a health league/sport 

This is a bit of an open-ended premise.  How do you define variety or surprise?  Clearly the same team shouldn’t win every year, yet baseball has a history of repeat contenders and pretenders almost as often as the NBA.  In addition, success is also hard to define.  The conventional wisdom was that the NBA succeeded when it had uberstars and successful major market teams.  Ratings don’t mean everything about popularity but they do represent something of a snapshot of fan interest.   In that vein, here’s a look at the the NBA Finals and World Series as far back as I could find them:

Year WS Teams WS Ratings   NBA Teams Finals Ratings
1968 Detroit/St. Louis 22.8   N/A              N/A
1969 Baltimore/N.Y. Mets 22.4   N/A              N/A
1970 Baltimore/Cincinnati 19.4   N/A              N/A
1971 Baltimore/Pittsburgh 24.2   N/A              N/A
1972 Oakland/Cincinnati 27.5   N/A              N/A
1973 Oakland/N.Y. Mets 30.7   N/A              N/A
1974 Oakland/Los Angeles 25.6   N/A              N/A
1975 Boston/Cincinnati 29.0   N/A              N/A
1976 N.Y. Yankees/Cincinnati 27.7   Phoenix/Boston 11.5
1977 N.Y. Yankees/Los Angeles 29.9   Portland/Philadelphia 12.7
1978 N.Y. Yankees/Los Angeles 32.7   Seattle/Washington 9.9
1979 Baltimore/Pittsburgh 28.0   Seattle/Washington 7.2
1980 Kansas City/Philadelphia 32.8   L.A. Lakers/Philadelphia 8.0
1981 N.Y. Yankees/Los Angeles 30.0   Houston/Boston 6.7
1982 Milwaukee/St. Louis 28.0   L.A. Lakers/Philadelphia 13.0
1983 Baltimore/Philadelphia 23.3   L.A. Lakers/Philadelphia 12.3
1984 Detroit/San Diego 22.9   L.A. Lakers/Boston 12.3
1985 Kansas City/St. Louis 25.3   L.A. Lakers/Boston 13.7
1986 Boston/N.Y. Mets 28.6   Houston/Boston 14.1
1987 Minnesota/St. Louis 24.0   L.A. Lakers/Boston 15.9
1988 Oakland/Los Angeles 23.9   L.A. Lakers/Detroit 15.4
1989 Oakland/San Francisco 16.4   L.A. Lakers/Detroit 15.1
1990 Oakland/Cincinnati 20.8   Portland/Detroit 12.3
1991 Minnesota/Atlanta 24.0   L.A. Lakers/Chicago 15.8
1992 Toronto/Atlanta 20.2   Portland/Chicago 14.2
1993 Toronto/Philadelphia 17.3   Phoenix/Chicago 17.9
1994 N/A            N/A   Houston/New York 12.4
1995 Cleveland/Atlanta 19.5   Houston/Orlando 13.9
1996 N.Y. Yankees/Atlanta 17.4   Seattle/Chicago 16.7
1997 Cleveland/Florida 16.8   Utah/Chicago 16.8
1998 N.Y. Yankees/San Diego 14.1   Utah/Chicago 18.7
1999 N.Y. Yankees/Atlanta 16.0   San Antonio/New York 11.3
2000 N.Y. Yankees/N.Y. Mets 12.4   L.A. Lakers/Indiana 11.6
2001 N.Y. Yankees/Arizona 15.7   L.A. Lakers/Philadelphia 12.1
2002 Anaheim/San Francisco 11.9   L.A. Lakers/New Jersey 10.2
2003 N.Y. Yankees/Florida 13.9   San Antonio/New Jersey 6.5
2004 Boston/St. Louis 15.8   L.A. Lakers/Detroit 11.5
2005 Chicago W./Houston 11.1   San Antonio/Detroit 8.2
2006 Detroit/St. Louis 10.1   Dallas/Miami 8.6

Obviously, it’s hard to say what you can learn from ratings because so many factors can go into any single rating draw.  Do these championship ratings reflect overall popularity of the sports or just the popularity in the cities that made the title round?  Also, how do we account for the general downward trend toward in network television viewership?  We do know, at the very least, that the variety of teams in the title series hasn’t actually helped ratings.  In the NBA, viewers seemed to follow Michael Jordan around, and Magic and Bird to a lesser extent.  In MLB, the Cardinals surprising win brought the worst ratings of of any World Series since 1968.  Again, we don’t really know how to weigh cause-and-effect here but we certainly can’t call St. Louis’ win a boon for baseball’s popularity. 

-College basketball is more entertaining than the NBA because it is much more unpredictable 

This is a legitimate school of thought but it is entirely subjective in its origin.  I won’t run through all the NCAA tournament results but it’s fair to say that we have seen a shocker or two more than in the NBA Playoffs.  On the other hand, you don’t always get the sense that the best team won reached the Final Four or won the tournament.  There is a balance between the best team always winning and the best rarely winning.  If upsets happen too often, the legitimacy of the title is undermined. 

I personally enjoy both the NBA Playoffs and the NCAA tournament.  My preference, however, is towards the NBA Playoffs, though it can’t match the frenetic nature of a large single-elimination tournament.  This choice is not necessarily based upon the format as much as it is on the fact that the NBA game is played at a much higher level and the game is not dictated as much by the a very close high school/college three-point line.  It’s theoretically possible that if the NBA had a 30-team single-elimination tournament that I’d might prefer such a format to the present 16-team, multiple seven-game series format.  Still, my gut does tell me that there is a sense of satisfaction to the results of the NBA Playoffs because the sample size is fair and results are, more often than not, rational. 

-Because the ultimate outcome is a foregone conclusion, NBA players don’t play as hard as they might otherwise or as hard as NCAA players 

This is the only part of his statement where James loses me.  Talking generally, I can’t really think of much evidence that NBA players play less hard than NCAA players.  In watching NBA versus NCAA game you can’t assume that NCAA players are playing harder because they have a better shot of winning a title.  There are a myriad of factors that motivate players and professionals (money, legacy, sticking in the NBA) and winning title, while important, is only one of them.  Indeed there are plenty of players on the Memphis Grizzlies who need to play well to ensure that they have an NBA career in 2007-08, even if the team’s ownership might not mind a swoon for the next couple of weeks. 

I can understand liking the college atmosphere, which has a certain zealous charm that the NBA game usually does not.  The NBA is a business and its players are playing hard too.  Tim Duncan wasn’t any less stolid in college than he is as a pro.  Likewise, Rasheed Wallace was as much a screaming nut at North Carolina as he is as a pro 11 years later.  

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that college players are screaming and diving more than their NBA counterparts.  Does that mean they are playing harder?  James, himself, might admit that perceptions and assumptions about who is playing harder can be illusory.  In his 1982 Baseball Abstract, he addressed this very question when he juxtaposed popular spastic Red Sox third baseman Butch Hobson with the Royals’ smooth center fielder Amos Otis: 

“Nobody will ever convince me that Butch Hobson has gotten out of his talent anything like what he had the potential to be.  Everything about him–his batting style, his defense, his baserunning–is gung ho.  And ill considered.  The only thing he knows about defense is run hard toward the ball and throw it as hard as you can throw it.  That kind of play just does not provide a fertile ground for the development of refined skills.  Two years ago I saw a game in Kansas City in which the fans lustily booed Amos Otis, who had only given them about ten good years, because in one inning he pulled away from two balls that he might have caught….The Kansas City fans will never forgive Amos for being a percentage player, but the Yankees would score only one run in that inning, and Otis would drive in two runs before the night was over and the Royals had won.  And some people will always admire Butch Hobson because, come hell or high water, he always tried for everything.  But I’m not among them.  My favorite player is Amos Otis.” 

Obviously, James’ point in the Hobson essay was somewhat different than the one we are discussing.  But there is a common notion about playing hard and its worth to the game that pervades both situations.  In both cases, the knee jerk assumptions miss the big picture about who is actually imparting a more nuanced (and valuable) game.  Again, you can reasonably prefer the college game and the nature of whacky regional rivalries but to assume NBA players aren’t playing with as much intensity as college players just doesn’t hold water.  

Finally, as for the question of what is good for the NBA, the league’s growth comes from finding great players and great teams and not from free-for-all formats.  Fans will watch the Magic Johnson Lakers play the Larry Bird Celtics every year or Michael Jordan Bulls go for a title just as they will watch the Yankees or Red Sox every year, provided the teams play good entertaining games.  Sure an occasional upset spices things up but the core of any good playoff is excellent teams.  Any concerns about the inevitable nature of the NBA affecting popularity or integrity of the players efforts are unfounded.

4 comments for “Quick Thoughts

  1. lieiam
    March 26, 2010 at 12:26 pm

    enjoyed the article and would like to throw in my two cents regarding nba and ncaa playoffs. i LOVE march madness and follow it quite a lot and find it to be very exciting (especially the first two rounds). in that sense i prefer it to the nba playoffs. however, i would HATE the nba playoffs to be in that format. why? i’m a casual ncaa fan who pretty much only follows the tournament, while in the nba i follow it all season long and don’t want its playoffs to be so fluky.
    as a casual fan (of college hoops), the ncaa tournament is better, but as a serious fan (of nba hoops) the nba playoffs are better.

  2. March 26, 2010 at 12:39 pm

    Good article! One assumption you left unchallenged is the legend of Bird/Magic dramatically increasing NBA popularity. From your numbers above, the 1980 finals (w/Magic) and 1981 (w/Bird) were very unpopular – even compared to prior seasons. The change in popularity seems to be in 1982, during the 1st NBA finals that all games were shown live, instead of some tape delay.

  3. Harlan Schreiber
    March 28, 2010 at 12:08 pm

    Lieiam,

    That is precisely the point. It’s an entirely subjective decision on NCAA v. NBA. I do think it would be fun to run an NCAA-style in the NBA once for fun(they really should’ve done this in the lockout season of 1998-99). Still, flukes mean more in the NBA when they come around so rarely playoff time.

    SkeptiSys,

    I didn’t want to make too many snap judgments on TV ratings but I agree that it’s likely that those finals were shown on tape delay couldn’t have helped the ratings.

    Also, I suspect that it took a while for the Bird/Magic rivalry to catch on with the casual fan.

    Harlan

  4. March 31, 2010 at 12:20 pm

    Looking a little closer, I still find nothing to support the ‘Bird/Magic save the NBA’ line.
    I looked at NBA attendance and found 3 periods with major fan increases:
    1. About 400% jump from ABA competition 1967-76 (and ideas taken from ABA like 3pts, blocks, steals, etc).
    2. Merger (takeover) with ABA, understandably attendance rose.
    3. starting in the late 1980’s, mainly 1985-90, coinciding with Michael Jordan’s arrival (with Pat Ewing & lottery).

    In fact, the total NBA fan attendance was approximately the same in each of Bird/Magic’s 1st 7 seasons as it was in the 2 seasons prior to their arrival – despite the increase in number of teams due to expansion.

    (sorry to go on about this, but I saw a HBO ‘documentary’ on Bird/Magic where the main basketball historian was Arsenio Hall.)

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