Wednesday, March 22, 2006

A Shot Across The Bow

Matthew Yglesias writes some great pieces for the American Prospect. This isn't one of them.

He takes aim at college basketball - calls it a mediocrity and our love of it anti elitist.


A Sore Sport
College hoops is nothing more than a celebration of mediocrity.

By Matthew Yglesias
Web Exclusive: 03.21.06

If April is the cruelest month then March is the most frustrating. My favorite sport -- basketball -- is still in full swing but, at the same time, mercilessly pushed out of public view in favor of the NCAA Tournament. College ball is, simply put, basketball played badly, and America's obsession with that game's absurd method of determining a national champion is the true madness.

Even if you're not a basketball fan, you probably see some of the tournament games. Thanks to the ubiquitous office pools, the tournament is broadcast constantly -- everywhere -- for a few mercifully brief months. And if you're not a fan, you probably don't appreciate exactly what it is you're seeing. In all college sports, the athletes are, naturally, not up to the standard of their professional peers. They're younger, inexperienced, and physically under-developed. Basketball, however, differs from football in the crucial respect that the most promising professional talents almost never play a full four or even three seasons at the amateur level. Indeed, until the NBA changed its rules last off-season, it was by no means uncommon for the very best players to turn pro straight out of high school. Thus, many of America's brightest basketball stars, including at least three of the top five players in the world -- Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Kevin Garnett -- never graced the floors of college competition at all. Other top talents -- Dwyane Wade, Gilbert Arenas, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony -- graduate early. And yet another set of superstars -- Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker, Yao Ming, Manu Ginobili -- don’t play college ball because they're foreigners and cut their teeth in the pro leagues of Europe, Asia, or even Latin America.

This has two consequences for the college game. One is simply to deprive it of talent. College football isn't up to the NFL level, but the Bowl Championship Series really does offer the best 18- to 22-year-old players in the world. The best college-age basketball players don't play college basketball -- they're in the NBA. The other, more insidious problem is that in college, as in elsewhere, experience matters. Seniors have an advantage over sophomores -- they've had more time to learn the game, their teammates, and the coach's system. As a result, the savviest college hoops programs don't actually want to recruit the very best young players available. A top talent will come to your school, play for a year or two to show off his stuff, and then move on to bigger and better things. You're looking for a player who, while skilled, has sufficient deficiencies as a player -- typically a lack of height or speed -- to compel him to stick around as an amateur.

Topping that off, this thin pool of talent is stretched even thinner by the relative cheapness of running a Division I basketball team. The NCAA Tournament, allegedly a competition between the very best teams, features an insane 64 squads. The NBA, drawing on a much larger pool of talent that includes a wide range of ages and players from all around the world, has less than half as many and could probably stand to drop a franchise or two.

Consequently, the college game bears only a faint resemblance to the real thing. The dominant big men who can transform a pro game are entirely absent. Strength, speed, quickness, and athleticism are radically diminished, and the quality of the defense is consequently laughable. Yet, despite the poor defense, virtually nobody in the college game has what it takes to penetrate into the lane and make a strong move to the hoop. So the rules need to be altered -- a 35-second shot clock instead of the proper 24 and a short three-point line -- to give the offense some hope. Consequently, players dribble in circles and pass, pass, pass around the horn endlessly, taking advantage of defenders who lack the quickness to snatch the ball. Eventually, someone will wind up open and fire off a shot -- which more often than not they miss anyway. At the pro level, this is called "settling for jump shots" and it's distinctly frowned upon. You take jumpers as a last resort, when you can't make it into the paint, or else you do it as a threat -- and you'd better nail them -- forcing teams to defend you on the perimeter in order to open up the inside game.

To watch the world's best basketball teams -- the Miami Heat, the Phoenix Suns, the San Antonio Spurs, the Detroit Pistons, the Dallas Mavericks -- is to distinctly put oneself in the presence of greatness. The feats on display are not quite super-human -- Shaquille O'Neal and Shawn Marion and Tim Duncan are still members of our species at the end of the day -- but they certainly appear to be. That one could run the floor like Steve Nash or charge the paint like Allan Iverson or crash the boards like Ben Wallace seems absurd. These men are not just better than you or I, they're way better, qualitatively different, exhibiting physical skills that neither you nor anyone you know nor anyone you'll ever meet can even hope to approach. The sheer speed and ferocity of the games is astounding -- even mentally you'd be overwhelmed, lost, driven to tears or insanity amidst the flying bodies, flailing limbs, and zipping ball. Key moves in the game -- the dunk, the alley-oop, the tip -- are just things you could never accomplish, no matter what the circumstances, no matter how long you practice, no matter how weak the competition.

There's something reassuring about the college game. The players are, obviously, better at basketball than any mere fan could dream to be. But unlike basketball on its highest levels -- or even at the intermediate levels of the Euroleague, the CBA, or the Olympics -- it bears a superficial resemblance to what you might do at the YMCA or have done on the JV team in ninth grade.

It's reassuring, yes, but to take refuge in such reassurance -- to thus celebrate mediocrity -- is ultimately somewhat abhorrent. It's of a piece with the same blinkered anti-elitism that led not only millions of voters but a shockingly large suite of pundits who should have known better to conclude that it didn't matter that George W. Bush wasn't up to the job of running the United States of America. It's the athletic equivalent of the blinkered anti-intellectualism no respectable person would endorse in other walks of life.

The very structure of the tournament reinforced the mediocrity inherent in the sport. A six-round single-elimination tournament is crazy. Even a truly dominant team -- one that wins 80 percent of the time it plays -- will lose such a tournament three times out of four. The defense is that this makes the tournament better for gambling purposes. And, indeed, it does -- if what you're interested in is a structure that rewards mediocre gambling. The high level of randomness ensures that even a bettor with a sophisticated knowledge of the game has only a small advantage over someone equipped simply with the fact that a one seed is better than an eleven seed.

Skill and knowledge will get you almost nowhere, so the whole office can pitch in and a good time can be had by all. But this is merely the same problem all over again -- a weak-minded desire to construct a competition that fails to reward excellence.

If your alma mater is in the mix, or if you, like most everyone, has some money riding on the outcome, then by all means watch and root. But know that you're watching a kind of farce, a competition between players who can't quite hack it designed to ensure that being the best team is no guarantee of victory. Or, you can wait 'til April and May and check out the NBA playoffs if you want to see the game played properly.

Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect staff writer.

I fired a quick missive in the comments section here - - about a quarter of the way down.

Feel free to pipe in.


  1. Here's a bit of my initial reaction to the article and to Chris' comment on the TAP wesbite:
    . . . most offensive of all, I do think there's something to what the
    author's saying--it is a bit silly how someone named "I don't watch
    NCAA basketball" is currently in 10th place nationwide on the Yahoo!
    tournament pick'em thing . . . and the talent gap is real--an
    under-500 team like the Bulls would have little trouble w/teams like
    UCONN or Duke, which I've long thought takes something away from the
    college game; maybe back when players like Wilt played college ball
    the issue wasn't one, but it is undeniably so today . . .
    That said, you are right, I think, to complain about the length of NBA
    games and seasons--much of it certainly is boring; is that so
    different, however, from much of what goes on, for example, in the Big
    12 North in years like this? (Mizzou vs Nebraska? most any game involving K-State?) A difference in degree, I'd suggest,
    rather than kind.

    Forced to choose, I probably would take college ball, as more does
    seem to hinge on each game and each play; I'm just glad, therefore,
    that I'm not forced to choose.

    go ahead: have at me

  2. I'm usually the first to defend the NBA, and I appreciate Yglesias's attempt to do so, but his analysis of basketball is downright illiterate (not to sound elitist or anything)...

    Pro players more talented than college players? That's a "Duh, duh" statement if I've ever heard one.

    But the talent gap is not as great as you might think; the NBA puts such a premium on drafting 7-footers and freakishly athletic wing players that they sometimes forget to draft guys who can actually shoot, pass, and play D. Just look at KU players: does anyone really think Greg Ostertag, Scot Pollard and Sasha Kaun (whom the scouts are reportedly high on) are better players than Adonis Jordan, Ryan Robertson, Aaron Miles and Keith Langford?

    I think we all know that the terms "great player" and "NBA prospect" are not synonymous.

  3. I agree with a good deal of Deron's comments; the KU player comparison, however, strikes me as unfair--you're simply comparing some okay big men to some arguably great guards: but why do you leave out Hinrich? He was drafted by the league, and above Collison (hey--why didn't you mention Collison either?). In fact, the only recent KU player drafted higher was Drew Gooden; hey--why didn't you mention Gooden?

    It's not as though the most talented players at their position aren't getting in while less talented players at that position are--rather, it seems that many talented guards (I won't even name any, as I assume we can all come up with a decent list) are not playing college ball: and that, I believe, is part of the complaint with college ball.

  4. Kirk, Nick and Drew are instances where the NBA got it right. They were skilled, proven players rather than "projects" drafted simply on size or imagined potential. But look at all the Kwame Browns and Darko Milicics in the league and I think you'll take my point.

    The fact that we're talking about guards vs. big men is relevant to the complaint that the NBA is littered with clumsy giants clogging up the lane. Yglesias seems to prefer watching dominant bigs, but I'd like to see more 3-guard lineups in the NBA, with more emphasis on speed and skill than on size. Anything to make the game swifter and more artistic -- like much of college basketball; (Villanova has a FOUR guard lineup!) -- has to be a good thing.

    Drafting more guards (even some who aren't quite as great as Kirk) and fewer "utility" big men (I think Ostertag was drafted almost solely for the purpose of giving fouls) and high school pituitary cases would help a lot...

  5. But I haven't even gotten round to the most laughable parts of this essay. For instance, Yglesias's notion of "elitism" seems almost completely backward.

    Aren't liberals SUPPOSED to be "anti-elitist?" Aren't Bush and Cheney (intellectual capacity aside) the very definition of elitist?

    Bush did not come to power because of anti-elitism; he was anointed (and Cheney anointed himself). Bush had the name, he had the money, he looked good on TV, and that was all he needed. If he had been challenged in any way analogous to the rigorous minefield that is the NCAA tournament, he would have been "one and done," as they say.

    Is Yglesias really a progressive? His phraseology is right out of Ayn Rand:

    --"To watch the world's best basketball teams ... is to distinctly put oneself in the presence of greatness."

    --"These men are not just better than you or I, they're way better, qualitatively different, exhibiting physical skills that neither you nor anyone you know nor anyone you'll ever meet can even hope to approach."

    --"The sheer speed and ferocity of the games is astounding -- even mentally you'd be overwhelmed, lost, driven to tears or insanity amidst the flying bodies, flailing limbs, and zipping ball."

    --The NCAA tournament represents "a weak-minded desire to construct a competition that fails to reward excellence."

    --"...(T)o thus celebrate mediocrity -- is ultimately somewhat abhorrent."

    I swore I was reading "The Fountainhead" there for a moment.

    Is he saying that Al Gore and John Kerry are the political equivalents of Shaq and Duncan?

  6. ...AND (I think I'm almost done here) how could Yglesias claim with a straight face that the NCAA tournament awards mediocrity? It does exactly the opposite. It demands that you not only have great talent (after all, it's the big-league schools that always make the Final 4) but also that you show up to play every single game, no matter the opponent.

    The tourney rewards performance, not potential. Does KU have better talent than Bradley? Hell, yes, but as the saying goes, that's why they play the games.

    KU probably would have won a championship or two since 1988 if we'd had the benefit of 5- or 7-game playoff series (a topic for another thread, perhaps) but I wouldn't trade the excitement of the single-elimination tourney for that.

    Yancy, as for the length of seasons, isn't "a difference in degree" the only difference that matters? Do you really think the conference schedule needs to be shorter?