Tuesday, March 22, 2016

No Parity in College Basketball?

Jay Bilas says the unthinkable, that "parity doesn't exist in college basketball." Did Duke lose? What could have upset him so much to claim there's no parity in the men's game?

He's not talking about the women's game, where UConn has dominated in a fashion that presumably can't happen anymore with the men, as it last did with UCLA in the 60's and 70's. He's talking about now and the parity I see each year with the "eye test" that Jay often refers to during bubble-talk. You know, how it seems like these days so many teams have height, athleticism and can nail 3-pointers to make any game a questionable outcome. Or how everyone agrees that one of these tourneys a 16-seed is going to beat a 1-seed. It must be parity, right?

Jay says no. He explains there are always brow-raising upsets in the opening rounds, but by the Sweet 16 we're left with a baker's dozen of the usual power conference suspects plus a few Cinderellas from mid-majors. "Parity means equality...but most people use it as an excuse when a big shot loses."

He could be right about the sound-bite excuse. How else do we explain 15-seed Middle Tennessee beating 2-seed Michigan State, a top Vegas favorite to win the 2016 tournament? Conventional basketball correctness says the answer is parity, but maybe that's an excuse and has become commonplace to the point of acceptance without evidence.

His comment surprised me, and props to him for going against convention. I've always appreciated his opinion just as I do for Gminski, Battier, Williams and others who sampled the dark side of blue at an impressionable age. But parity doesn't exist? Would Coach K make such a wild claim? Doubtful.

Jay also asks, "If we have parity, when did it arrive?" This makes it sound personal since it's like asking when did global warming arrive, that is if we have it. (However I can answer when it arrived, and Jay knows the answer too.)

Fortunately we have stats to demonstrate if parity exists or not. I believe Jay would agree that parity means more and more teams are becoming competitive against the highest ranked programs, even capable of beating them. I asked my staff to postpone their spring break long enough to crunch some numbers and determine just how crazy Jay's comment is.

Hypothesis #1:
If parity exists, there should be less of a gap between the best and worst teams in the tournament. There should be a shrinking average margin of victory in first round games of the 1 vs 16-seeds and the 2 vs 15-seeds. Is there victory shrinkage?

During 1985-1994, the first ten years of the 64-team field, the average margin of victory in games featuring the 1's and 2's vs the 16's and 15's was 20.1 points per game. The same scenario over the last ten years (2006-2015) is 19.7 points, not a substantial difference. No shrinkage.
Point to Jay.

Hypothesis #2:
If parity exists, there should be more higher seeds reaching the Final Four. Is there a higher average for those seeds lately than in the past?

From 1985-1994 the average seed for a Final Four team was 2.5.
From 2006-2015 the average seed for a Final Four team was 3.3.
Point to parity.

Hypothesis #3:
If parity exists, we shouldn't see the same college programs advancing deep each year. There should be a greater number of programs reaching plateaus like the Sweet Sixteen and Final Four lately than in the past.

From 1985 to 1994 the number of programs to reach the Sweet Sixteen was 68, and 23 programs made it to the Final Four.
From 2006 to 2015 those numbers fell to 67 and 22.
Point to Jay.

Of interest, some of the big anomalies are contrary to the parity-thought-train. For example, only once since 1985 have all 1-seeds made it to the Final Four and it happened recently (2008). Another example is the closest a 16-seed came to beating a 1-seed was back in 1990 (Murray State vs Michigan State) where the favorite needed overtime to win. And then the highest seed to ever win it all was 8-seed Villanova way back in 1985, the year it expanded to a field of 64.
Point to Jay.

And finally, look at the champions list since 1995, essentially the same names you'd hear from decades before without one example of a major surprise:
Kentucky (3)
UConn (4)
Michigan State
Duke (3)
North Carolina (2)
Florida (2)
Point to Jay.

Unfortunately the time frame is short. Just 31 years to see change truly represented--that may be a stretch. We probably need twenty more years to see better evidence. While I still believe in parity or want to believe in it, I'll concede to Jay for now. Not saying it wholeheartedly, but there appears to be no substantial change in parity for today's men's programs compared to those of 25-30 years ago.

However I do know when it arrived, the same parity that may or may not exist. Jay knows too. December 23, 1982 when the Silverswords of Chaminade University of Honolulu (800 students) beat #1 Virginia and Ralph Sampson as a senior. From that day on everyone knew the impossible was possible when it came to college basketball.

Chaminade over Virginia may not be the definition of parity, but it clearly indicated basketball was a game where David could beat Goliath. Perhaps that's why we love the madness. Parity, or something resembling it, makes this game insanely fun for players, coaches and fans alike. Enjoy the madness and listen to Jay Bilas. He's a smart man.


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