Basketball is probably the most predictable of all our team sports. Well, it only makes sense. Everything in basketball is on a smaller scale in basketball. The court is smaller. There are fewer players on each team. There are fewer players on each roster. There are fewer angles, fewer moves, fewer countermoves. One great basketball player can make a larger impact, I suspect, than one great player on any other team sport.
If you need proof of basketball’s predictability — look at the NBA. While baseball fans complain endlessly about the lack of competitive balance and while the NFL constantly legislates new ways to make its game fair and balanced, the NBA is more unbalanced than Charlie Sheen*.
*Charlie Sheen jokes never get old, do they?
How predictable is the NBA? Here are three NBA facts that might blow your mind:
1. Of the last 59 NBA Finals, 38 of them featured either the Celtics or the Lakers, often both.
2. Since 1984, only seven different teams have won an NBA title. Seven! And only one of them — the Miami Heat — won only one title.
Let’s put this in a little bit of perspective:
Number of teams that have won their championship since 1984:
World Series: 18
Super Bowl: 14
Stanley Cup: 13
NBA Finals: 7
3. By my quick count, there are 10 NBA teams — admittedly, some of them are expansion teams but still — 10 NBA teams that have not even reached an NBA Final in the city where they are playing. That’s one-third of the league that has not even been to a final … ever.
By contrast, only four NFL teams — Cleveland, Detroit, Houston and Jacksonville — have never been to a Super Bowl, and Cleveland and Detroit won NFL Championships before the Super Bowl. By contrast, only Seattle and Washington have not been to a World Series, and almost every team (other than the lamentable Cubs) have been there in the last 35 years.
Basketball is just a game for dynasties, for predictability, for sameness. One great player — one Michael Jordan, one Tim Duncan, one Larry Bird, one Kobe Bryant — can order the cosmos. One great collection of players under the tutelage of Red Auerbach or Phil Jackson or John Wooden can dominate an entire generation.
And that’s the genius — the absolute genius — of March Madness. In a best-of-seven playoff system, basketball will be stunningly predictable. In a rigid seeding system where you give the very best team a first-round bye and and an easy schedule and ask them to win only four games to win the championship, you will get UCLA winning 10 championships in 12 years.
But what happens if you put 64 teams in a field — no, make it 68 — and no teams get byes and even the best regular season team has to win six games in a three-week free-for-all? What happens if seeding is really random because after a certain point you don’t REALLY know who is the 34th best team in the country and who is the 11th best, and so the No. 1 seeds sometimes face great teams while the No. 4 seeds sometimes don’t? What happens if you devise a tournament where the goal is not exactly to identify the BEST team in America but instead to create a monthlong celebration of basketball and hope and upsets and buzzer beaters and the spirit of college sports fans?
Here’s what happens: Every now and again, when the fog clears, you will get Butler against Connecticut, a bright young coach against a street-smart old one, a team of small-town Indiana kids against a team led by a charismatic New Yorker who is one of the greatest players in the history of the tournament. Nobody can really think that Butler and Connecticut — two teams that were not ranked among the top 20 teams for part of the year — are the two best teams in America. And, at exactly the same time, nobody can really think that Butler and Connecticut are NOT the two best teams in America. That’s the wonder of March Madness. It has redefined what “best” even means. It has turned basketball unpredictable.
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Coaches cannot stand unpredictable things, by the way. Unpredictability is a coach’s biggest enemy. Coaches spend a hundred hours a week going through every scenario they can conjure up, even the most implausible — especially the most implausible — because there’s nothing scarier to a coach than being surprised. The thing that keeps them awake at night is not that their players might fall on their faces. It is, instead, that something will happen that they never saw coming.
Because of this, single elimination tournaments can make coaches crazy. North Carolina’s Dean Smith always wanted to point to his team’s remarkable consistency during the regular season — his Tar Heels won 17 ACC Championships, won more than 20 games and reached the tournament every year from 1975 to 1997 — as a TRUE measure of his team’s ability. Coach after coach, after losing in the tournament with great teams, have talked about the tournament as a crapshoot, have talked about wanting their players and fans to be proud of their great seasons.
But, to be honest, the randomness of the NCAA tournament has blunted much of that. Only North Carolina fans remember the ACC titles. Dean Smith is remembered much more for his two national championships — both with odd finishes — and all the ones his teams didn’t win. Kansas this year — after losing its three best players to the NBA — went 32-2 during the season, won its seventh straight BIg 12 championship, won its fifth Big 12 tournament in six years. And you know what people will remember? Kansas lost to VCU in the Elite Eight. The season is widely viewed as a disappointment — in many quarters the season is viewed as a HUGE disappointment. One bad game. One poor match-up. One day shots don’t drop. This is March. And it is Madness.
But we love it. That’s why it works. We love it. College football attempts to win over fans with what it calls the best regular season in sports … but despite the overwhelming popularity of college football almost nobody loves the college football ending. The BCS has the popularity numbers of influenza. Before VCU and Butler played on Saturday in probably the most unlikely Final Four game yet, several people said they were thinking about TCU’s undefeated football team and how it did not get its shot at the championship. There’s something about the NCAA basketball tournament that seems FAIRER than any other … even though you could argue that it’s not especially fair at all.
“There’s almost no advantage for being good during the season,” one Division I coach says. “I’m not complaining about it, but that’s just a fact. If you finish first in your conference or third or fifth, you pretty much start in the same place when the tournament begins. If you have a great year where your team comes together and plays great basketball but then have a player get injured or run into a team that makes 15 three-pointers, most people won’t see that you had a great year.
“All that said, the tournament is so great for our sport. I mean, it’s really great. It’s fun and everybody gets into it. We all know the deal. In football, your job is to go undefeated for the whole season, if you can. In basketball, your job as a coach is to do your best to get your kids ready to play, hopefully, six games in March.”
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Only the NCAA Tournament could have given us a final like Butler and Connecticut. You know their stories. Butler, after coming together and becoming the unlikeliest team to reach a national championship in a quarter century, lost its best player to the NBA and then CAME BACK. Connecticut, after a turbulent up-and-down year led by the spectacular Kemba Walker, won five games in five days to win the Big East Tournament and came out of that flurry with a belief that it cannot be beaten.
This kind of thing doesn’t happen in other tournaments and playoffs. You probably could not get N.C. State beating Houston on a last-second dunk or Villanova making just about every shot in the second half against Georgetown or the rise of a program like Duke in other sports. In a country that loves the underdog, and thrives on the unexpected, and believes in the theme that it’s never too late to become great, the NCAA Tournament fits us better than almost anything else.
Now, we get this wonderful final … and one more time it’s hard to know what to expect. Connecticut did not begin the season in the Top 25. It played brilliantly at times during the season and also lost four of five and entered the Big East tournament as a No. 9 seed. Connecticut’s Walker really is having one of the greatest individual seasons in recent memory and belongs in the conversation with Magic Johnson and Danny Manning and Pervis Ellison and others in the way he has carried his team to this point. The rest of the team is mostly made up of young and raw players — freshman Jeremy Lamb has, at times, been a phenomenon — and so the Huskies have been good and inconsistent, hot and cold. They have surprised a lot of people.
Now, though, the Huskies are expected to win the national championship. That’s how fast it turns — underdog one day, sure thing the next. Well, the underdog role for this game is adamantly Butler’s. After last year’s miracle run, the Bulldogs often looked like a team that would not even make the tournament this year. They did make it as a No. 8 seed, and they promptly rode the March flying carpet — beating Old Dominion by two, surviving the foul-frenzy of the final seconds and beating Pittsburgh by one, persisting through a battering game against Wisconsin, overcoming Florida in overtime and finally smothering a VCU team that, on its biggest night, missed a whole bunch of layups.
Butler has its own terrific players, of course. Shelvin Mack is a 6-foot-3 guard who poured in 30 against Pittsburgh and 27 against Florida and seems to enjoy matching up against more famous and celebrated opponents like Kemba Walker. Matt Howard is a 6-foot-8 forward who coaches unanimously adore because of how hard he plays and how he always seems to grab a rebound or dive on a loose ball or score around the basket when you need it most, and how, like Traveler’s Insurance, he can take the scary out of life. The other Butler players seem to know exactly what they are supposed to do … and come March they do it.
So what happens? We don’t know what happens. That’s the beauty. Even more: That’s the point.