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Mediocrity: Pro and Con

Okay, not done yet. I say "March Madness" is an obscene celebration of mediocrity. Jason Zengerle disagrees. I think his post couldn't have come out at a better time, right before last night's two excellent matchups -- Miami-Detroit and San Antonio-Denver. I have a soft spot in my heart for the Nuggets, so perhaps this is clouding my judgment, but I see them as the one real sleeper possibility in the playoffs.

March 23, 2006 | Permalink

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Comments

Seriously Matt, while there's obviously plenty of room to stake out contrarian views on college basketball, the irrational hatred driving your Prospect piece is downright strange and bizarre. Why not show a little solidarity for those underpaid college players and save the contempt for more deserving targets?

Posted by: fnook | Mar 23, 2006 9:46:47 AM

Single elimination tournament.

Multiple games played simultaneously.

Last second shots.

Huge upsets.

Bracketology/office pools/water cooler discussions.

I realize, that in terms of mediocrity, that all pales in comparison to the Star-bury and Stevie Franchise show.

Too bad you're gonna miss the Grizzlies v. Knicks tomorrow. Mediocrity's too kind a description for that "contest."

Yes, there were two good matchups last night in the NBA. That happens on occassion. Tonight, the best matchup on paper is the Grizzlies v. the Clippers.

But throw me in the pro-Mediocrity camp, because I'd so much rather watch Duke v. LSU and UCLA v. Gonzaga in single elmination games heading towards the Final Four than a regular season NBA game with two playoff teams that probably won't make it to their conference finals and are 13+ games back of the division leader.

It's not even close.

Posted by: SoCalJustice | Mar 23, 2006 10:01:15 AM

Obviously, "mediocrity" is a relative term, and it'd sound a little more convincing coming from the mouth of say . . . Lebron James.

Could you take the court for Bucknell?

I spent 17 years in competitive swimming, made national championships, and won a major conference title . . . but by the standards of the spectator class I was less than mediocre.

Basically it takes a failure of imagination for you to call these *very elite* athletes mediocre.

I dunno, maybe you miss Jock Jams and recent rab/r&b trash being played over the loudspeaker while the ball is in play.

Now, I'm going to go watch NCAA swimming championships, to watch someone you've never heard of (Cullen Jones -- the next great American sprinter) try to break 19 seconds in the 50 yard freestyle -- a feat exactly as rare as scoring 100 points in an NBA basketball game.

Posted by: Jeremy | Mar 23, 2006 10:06:38 AM

Jeremy--

Obviously mediocrity is a relative term, and in the context of Matt's argument it seems that college sports is intended to be mediocre relative to pro ball. This aspect of his argument seems definitively true, while at the same time making your "competitive swimming" comparison inapposite.

From the middle of Matt's TAP piece:

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.

Can anyone argue that this isn't an accurate description of the state of affairs? People may enjoy college hoops more--they may get caught up in the institutional chauvanism (sp?), they may get sold yet again on the myth of the undergrad "amateur competitors" nobly taking the court--but it seems to me it's all in spite of the observations Matt makes.

I mean, Jeremy, if in some alternate universe you could find a professional swimming circuit that featured athletes head-and-shoulders above the college athletes you watch, could you still enjoy college swimming as much? Getting worked up about college hoops is like getting worked up about high school swimming.

Posted by: DJ Ninja | Mar 23, 2006 10:47:13 AM

As a PS: After watching the NBA side-by-side with college ball, it takes a failure of functioning ocular circuits to miss the fact that most college ballers are, in fact, not elite. It seems a little unfair to say that Matt's ineligible to make this argument because he couldn't play DI college ball. That's like arguing that someone's foreign policy cred suffers from not having served in the military.

Oops--I've made that argument before. Dammit! But it's still not a good argument; I usually use it just to take potshots at Bush.

Posted by: DJ Ninja | Mar 23, 2006 10:52:10 AM

Are jump shots really that much more common in college than in the NBA? From the stats at 82-games (linked under my name), it looks like in the NBA, jumpers account for two thirds of all shot attempts, 60% of all points from the field, and about 48% of all points (correcting for free throws using ESPN stats on pts & FTM per game). I don't have the numbers for college (or for NCAA tournament teams), but I doubt that they're much higher.

Posted by: Blar | Mar 23, 2006 10:57:38 AM

I think Jeremy's point was that we should all clap for him. 'Cause he's awesome!

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Mar 23, 2006 11:45:53 AM

The fun for me in watching March Madness - other than the fact that I just have fun watching a basketball game, period - is the crazy intensity of a single elimination tournament played by emotional kids most of whom will never play organized basketball again. Their emotional investment is a lot greater than the average pro's, and there's something dramatically compelling about that.

The basketball sucks, though. The only thing I think NCAA basketball has over the NBA is (due to lower skill and shorter seasons) is the potential of a 40-minute full court press, which can create exciting turnovers. And everyone likes a good dribble-and-dish. But the around-the-perimeter Youth League swing passes are deadly. And, ultimately, I don't watch sports for the drama unless I'm somehow involved in the emotional drama.

And, Jeremy: few people could ever actually compete at Division I levels of athletics, especially in popular/elite programs. And I can't speak for collegiate swimming. But collegiate level basketball is, relatively, attainable. The gap between me and the average Div I player is smaller than the average Div I player and the average NBA player. Much smaller. Actually, that'd be a fun summertime reality show: take a good but not perennial contender college team - Illinois, Gonzaga, etc. - and pit them in a series of games against progressively worse "all-bench" teams of NBA players. Could the Illini take on a starting five of Bobby Jackson, James Jones, Michael Finley, Antoine Walker and Erik Dampier? Clearly not. But what about Orien Greene, Eddie House, Ira Newble, Brian Scalabrine and Rafael Araujo? Now *that* would be entertainment.

Posted by: Quarterican | Mar 23, 2006 12:19:38 PM

The gap between me and the average Div I player is smaller than the average Div I player and the average NBA player.

This is categorically false. If you mean the difference between the average player from the ACC/Big East/SEC who gets minutes and the average NBA player, then you are closer to correct. The gap is much smaller between a good D-III player and a D-I player then between D-I and NBA. (It generally amounts to about 2-3 inches and 30 pounds rather than a difference in skill).

As to MY's question: "The dominant big men who can transform a pro game are entirely absent." There aren't that many in the pro game either: Excluding foreign players, there's Shaq, Amare, Duncan, KG and Dwight Howard. Maybe JO, no longer Webber. Sheed and Big Ben, not quite.

Posted by: Pooh | Mar 23, 2006 12:34:14 PM

If MY thinks college ball is beneath him, imagine what he thinks of high school ball. I really enjoy watching a good high school game, myself.

Posted by: ostap | Mar 23, 2006 12:55:28 PM

As I posted when this article was linked on TAP, Matt's argument rests on a fundamental fallacy. Namely, that better players = more enjoyable games. This is simply not true. A big part of the problem is with the 24 vs. 35 second shot clock, but IMO college games are far more entertaining to watch. The players are too big and fast in the NBA, and as a result it ends up breaking down into serial games of 1 on 1 as often as not. The game is much worse, not much better, because of the greatly superior level of athleticism and resultant defense in the NBA.

In college, almost every team actually runs an offense involving all 5 players, rather than the 2 involved in too many NBA offenses. There are lots of different strategies on both offense and defense.

And teams running down the shotclock and forcing up a despertation 1-on-1 shot? That's about half of all NBA possession. It certainly happens far more in the NBA than it does in college.

Posted by: Doug T | Mar 23, 2006 1:21:56 PM

And as for the comments quoted above:

"The dominant big men who can transform a pro game are entirely absent."

There aren't that many of them. But recent champion teams have had Emeka Okafor, Sean May, Lonnie Baxter, Carlos Boozer. The top teams usually have good frontcourt play. On the other hand, how many dominant big men are there really in the NBA? More teams thaan not are making due with subpar centers and just trying to get by. When the lump of lard formerly known as Eddy Curry is considered one of the most promising big men in the eastern conference, you've got no justification for looking down your nose at another league.


"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."

I have no idea what game he is watching here. Lots of guys in college drive to the lane. The short 3-point line makes it more perimeter oriented, to be sure. But there's no need for exaggeration.

"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."

As mentioned, there's a lot more possessions ending in a forced buzzer beater in the NBA than there are in college. And they can't shoot? The average college team probably scores in the low 70's. In a 40 minute game. Scale it for time, and you end up with an average score in the mid to upper 80's for a 48 minute game. Not far off the NBA, if at all, considering there are fewer possessions because of the longer shot clock.

Posted by: Doug T | Mar 23, 2006 1:29:59 PM

Pooh, I'm confused.

?? Isn't the average player who gets minutes from a power conference better than the average Div I player overall? So since I was saying the gap between me and a guy playing college ball was smaller than the difference between that guy and a guy playing in the League, why does my statement get closer to correct (and further from categorically false) the further from me we choose the college player? The gap between me and J.J. Redick is much (much much) bigger than the gap between Redick and Michael Redd, but J.J. is much (much much) better than the average D-I player. Aren't our analogies essentially the same, w/the exception that I'm not as good as a really good D-III player? (But, the last time I was playing basketball seriously, I could compete in pickup games against guys good enough to play D-III ball; that doesn't mean I could've *made the team*, almost certainly not, but I could keep up. Most reasonably athletic college age guys w/basketball experience and a couple of dependable skills could probably do the same. It's the difference between being the worst guy in the game and it being obscene that you're even on the court. If you plucked the 10th or 12th man off of Duke or BC or whomever and tossed him into a Wolves-Lakers game, it'd be obscene that he was on the court.)

Posted by: Quarterican | Mar 23, 2006 1:38:21 PM

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.


That stuck out to me in the piece. I don't really know much about basketball, and so don't know if that's true. But it strikes me as possibly irrational. Clearly there's a theoretical situation where 4 years of a very good player is worth more than 1-2 years of a phenomenal player, depending on how good that very good player is. But how many players/siuations does that encompass? Are college programs making enough correct decisions in this regard to outweigh the potential foregoing of top four year college talent for above average college talent? Because there has gotta be some amount of error going in the other direction. So is it really worth it to operate this way?

Or is matt overstating the case?

Posted by: Jedmunds | Mar 23, 2006 1:42:18 PM

In the NBA, by contrast, the players on the court oftentimes seem like they'd rather be somewhere else. Maybe that's because they're almost too talented and they can afford to take possessions, and sometimes entire games, off.

Having just read that tnr piece, that part above seems unreasonable. That would be true for those pro players, playing in a league of diluted talent, such as in college. But if they're all basically elite basketball players, with very few exceptions, I don't see how players could afford to take possessions off when going up against fellow elite players.

It seems to me basketball fans like to talk out their asses a good bit.

Posted by: Jedmunds | Mar 23, 2006 1:48:52 PM

Doug T., I've said for a long time that the NBA needs to make the court both longer and wider (and probably move to the trapezoidal lane) to accomadate the increasing size and speed of the athletes.

Posted by: Pooh | Mar 23, 2006 2:02:46 PM

That stuck out to me in the piece. I don't really know much about basketball, and so don't know if that's true. But it strikes me as possibly irrational.

MY's wrong, and he's wrong because he's overrating teamwork. Every coach wants the best team he can field this year. If he can get a guy that could otherwise play in the NBA, great. The added benefit of teamwork over several seasons isn't going to be sufficient to make up for talent.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Mar 23, 2006 2:19:10 PM

Q,

And that's why I shouldn't post first thing in the morning...mea culpa, I thought you were saying the exact opposite of what you actually said. Ignore me. Good.

FWIW, though I think that the 10th man off of Duke/BC/what have you could hang on the court with NBA guys in a pick-up game. I was a bad D-III player and I could hang on the court in a game where most of the players were probably NBDL quality (the game was mostly journeyman NBA types or guys getting ready for their European season). I was the worst player on the court at all times, but they never asked me to stop coming (which they did to others).

Posted by: Pooh | Mar 23, 2006 2:22:50 PM

pooh--couldn't agree more. the court is way too small for the men playing it.

as for the style of play, to me the college game is how basketball should be played. Five guys working together, cutting, screening, passing, etc. endless variations of stategy on both offense and defense. if you're just watching the ball the NBA may be more entertaining because there will be more spectacular plays but if you watch the whole court it's night and day. the nba has eight guys watching, in college everybody will be moving, running an often intricate offense aimed at getting an open shot.

Posted by: farren | Mar 23, 2006 2:32:54 PM

farren, the two are related - there is not enough space for a lot of cutting, etc. on the NBA court,

Posted by: Pooh | Mar 23, 2006 2:55:57 PM

Pooh -

Ah, that makes more sense. And you're right in that I'm glossing/minimizing the extent to which a pickup game is forgiving of the very kinds of weaknesses that often start separating the ok from the quite good - ability to see the game when it starts moving at high speed, being undersized, etc.

Posted by: Quarterican | Mar 23, 2006 3:10:03 PM

"the nba has eight guys watching, in college everybody will be moving, running an often intricate offense aimed at getting an open shot."

I hear this sort of thing all the time, but it really depends on which teams you watch. When the Suns or the Pistons are playing well and in a good flow on offense, you'll get plenty of moving, cutting, etc. And during the last 10 minutes I saw of UConn's 2nd round win over Kentucky, the obviously much more talented UConn players were mostly just dribbling around like fools, including one inexplicable possession where they danced around near mid-court for about 30 seconds and ended up with a shot clock violation. They still won, mostly because their superior talent allowed them to get to the basket whenever they wanted to, but it sure wasn't because they were executing anything properly.

Posted by: Haggai | Mar 23, 2006 3:11:11 PM

"I have a soft spot in my heart for the Nuggets, so perhaps this is clouding my judgment, but I see them as the one real sleeper possibility in the playoffs."

The Nuggets are sleepers like Russ Feingold is a sleeper. The Nuggets could make some noise in the playoffs, but they're not a real possibility to win the title.

Even if Camby and K-Mart are completely healthy for the playoffs. the lack of any outside shooting means defenses will be able to collapse on Carmelo and take him out of the game without any adverse consequences.

They have a shot at winning their first playoff series, an very outside shot at taking down Phoenix, and zero possibilities past that.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 23, 2006 3:44:57 PM

"the nba has eight guys watching, in college everybody will be moving, running an often intricate offense aimed at getting an open shot."

I think this was a lot more true of the NBA 5 years ago. That was the nadir of the NBA game. These days, most teams run pretty intricate and fun offenses. The only playoff caliber teams that rely excessively on isolation plays are L.A. and Cleveland (for rather obvious reasons). Take my local team, the wizards. They's constantly running Gilbert, Antoine and Caron through screens while hitting their undersized big men for back cuts. It's really fun to watch and not at all like the murderball of knicks circa 1998.

I think the NBA's rep is still sufferring from the poor play of the post Jordan era. With time, more folks will come to appreciate the league's improvement.

Posted by: WillieStyle | Mar 23, 2006 3:59:27 PM

So ... pro athletes are better than college athletes. Gosh, who woulda thunk it? Since when did MY turn into Captain Obvious?

Posted by: The Buoyant Bananaman | Mar 23, 2006 4:12:41 PM

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