In one of the most intoxicating games of this year’s NCAA Tournament, the UCF Knights went toe-to-toe with the top-seeded Duke Blue Devils. Leading up to and throughout the game, considerable bandwidth was spent debating whether the soon-to-be top pick in this year’s NBA draft, Zion Williamson, would add another body to his posterized graveyard. UCF center Tacko Fall, the would-be victim, chipped in 15 points on seven made shots, each of which came in eerily similar fashion. They were all dunks. At 7-foot-6, Fall is genetically predisposed to excel above the rim, as evidenced by his ability to jam it, flat-footed.
Nobody this season dunked on Mike Krzyzewski’s squad more than Fall and the Knights. But the Blue Devils, which ultimately moved on with a win, are even more dunk crazy. And they aren’t the only team still playing in this tournament with eyes trained on the rim.
This season’s Sweet 16 features a number of teams that relish slamming the ball through the cylinder. The teams have combined to produce 1,866 dunks this season. Three of the four dunk-happiest teams this season — Florida State, Duke, and LSU — are still in the field. Another contender, Gonzaga, ranks in the top 10 while Auburn, Virginia, Tennessee and Michigan rank in the top 30 by this measure. In all, six of this year’s Sweet 16 entries have a dunk share1 exceeding 10 percent. Four years ago, only one did.
The dunkers are thriving
Division I men’s college basketball teams for whom at least 10 percent of their 2-point field-goal attempts in 2018-19 were dunk attempts
Share of offense from Dunks
Made Sweet 16?
William & Mary
This is less about a few dunk-crazed teams and more a reflection of the nationwide trend in college basketball. As of Tuesday, there had been 19,550 dunks this season, the highest total of any season since at least 2010. Five years ago, for comparison, there were 17,687. Individually, the 2010 season featured 23 players who had at least 45 dunks. This season there are 36, seven of whom remain in the tournament. “We’re seeing more dunks,” Jay Bilas told The New York Times, “because there are more spectacular athletes out there.”
To be sure, some of this is intuitive. Advances in science and technology make comparing today’s college athlete to those of yesteryear a comical examination. Perhaps more than ever, basketball rewards height — and, increasingly, arm length — and athleticism. Nowadays, warm-up lines seem to be as much for the fans as for the players. Tennessee is credited for starting a choreographed dunk during warm-ups that involves the entire team. It spread around the country and even reached the NBA.
As the number of dunk attempts has spiked, so too has their importance. Dunks accounted for 5.4 percent of all 2-point field goal attempts this season, the highest portion since 2014-15, and the fourth consecutive season that the national dunk share has risen.
In fact, according to Bart Torvik’s website, three3 of the 12 teams with the most single-season dunks since 2010 can be found in this weekend’s regional semifinals.
Of course, there are outliers. Most noticeably, Loyola-Chicago made a surprise run into and past the Sweet 16 a season ago. The Ramblers had just 15 dunks, accumulating a 1.6 percent dunk share. Duke squares off with Virginia Tech on Friday and has a clear edge on dunking; the Hokies (62 dunks) have fewer than a third as many dunks as the Blue Devils (188). But far more often, it seems that the high-flyers are moving on.
Dunks have held a special place in the NCAA Tournament for decades. It’s how many came to know the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels. It’s where Florida Gulf Coast, a plucky No. 15-seed in 2013, became known Dunk City. They have been everywhere this season and will continue to be, particularly with the regional semifinals featuring Florida State, Duke and LSU, three teams that have already skied for at least 177 dunks. The play has elevated the entertainment of the sport by a considerable measure.
While the rise of the 3-pointer has justifiably garnered much attention, the dunk is the sport’s most marketable shot. The feat of athleticism is frequent fodder for highlight reels and commercials. And, since nearly 90 percent of all dunk attempts since 2010 have been converted into points, it’s likely the most efficient shot in basketball. What was once banned is now propelling the sport forward. So keep your eye on the rim this weekend as the Sweet 16 takes flight.
gfoster (Geoff Foster, sports editor): We have 52 games in the books of the men’s NCAA Tournament. And there has been one prevailing theme: chalk. There has been a staggeringly small amount of bracket busting. Other than Oregon (a No. 12 seed but a Power Five conference winner), the highest seed remaining is Auburn at No. 5! In the round of 32, the favorite won 100 percent of the games! If you picked all favorites in your bracket (like my mom probably did), you’d be 87.5 percent right. I could go on and on. So, do you think this is just an aberration, or is there something behind the dearth of Cinderellas?
jplanos (Josh Planos, contributor): FiveThirtyEight’s model was pretty chalky when the draw was announced. It certainly could be a matter of more appropriate seeding or merely an opportunity for the committee to pat itself on the back before next year goes haywire.
jakelourim (Jake Lourim, contributor): I was surprised like everyone else by that trend. Even given the slim chances to reach the Sweet 16 given to those double-digit seeds, we would expect at least one Cinderella to make it, right?
The seeds followed what the stats would have recommended — and the top teams do seem to be better than in years past.
gfoster: So there hasn’t been a shocking upset, with all due respect to Mississippi State, but some teams have had an easier time with their first two opponents than others. Which team has impressed you the most in the early going?
jplanos: I think Gonzaga has looked pretty tough with two double-digit victories. The 38-point opening-round victory over Fairleigh Dickinson was the most lopsided tournament game in two years.
Baylor and Fairleigh Dickinson aren’t strong defensive teams, to be sure, but the Zags have decimated both. In each win, Gonzaga posted at least 19 assists, was at least plus-10 on the glass and shot 35 percent or better from three and 53 percent or better from the field. According to Ken Pomeroy, two of the team’s three best performances this season in offensive rebounding percentage have come in the tournament.
Brandon Clarke somehow got glossed over for every major award and has gone berserk. Against Baylor, he joined Shaquille O’Neal as the only players in NCAA Tournament history to put up 36 points and five blocked shots in a single game.
sara.ziegler: Kentucky had a tricky draw against a very talented Wofford team, but they looked pretty good. Michigan has looked good, too. And Purdue has been under the radar — my radar, at least — but the Boilermakers have posted two convincing wins.
It’s funny — even though the bracket has been so chalky, several of the top seeds have looked suspect at times.
jakelourim: I think from a performance standpoint, I’d have to say Texas Tech. I thought Buffalo played great on Friday and would give the Red Raiders some trouble on Sunday, but Chris Beard’s team hammered Buffalo and got back to No. 1 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency. That clash with Michigan on Thursday is going to be a slugfest.
gfoster: I’ve also been impressed by the Texas Tech defense. Northern Kentucky’s Drew McDonald was the conference player of the year, and he was completely erased from the game in the first round, scoring only 5 points. Likewise, the Red Raiders more or less shut down Buffalo’s best player in CJ Massinburg, who couldn’t get much going. It will be interesting to see how they do against Michigan, which isn’t dependent on a top-heavy scoring guard like those two are.
jakelourim: It might just be my impression, but I think after UMBC knocked off Virginia last March and Virginia remained such a prominent storyline all season, both the No. 1 and No. 16 seeds were on guard Friday — the 1s to avoid being embarrassed, the 16s because maybe UMBC brought new hope. Duke, North Carolina and Virginia together were -2.3 in scoring margin in their first halves. Then they all recovered and won by double digits.
jplanos: Pretty typical for teams of all strengths to start opening-round games tight, too.
gfoster: OK, so which high seed has looked the most vulnerable? It’s hard to knock a team for winning two games, but let’s do it anyway.
sara.ziegler: I still think Virginia could find itself in trouble because of its slow play. The Cavs looked much better against Oklahoma on Sunday, but still.
jakelourim: I’d be worried about Tennessee. That was a near-disaster Sunday against Iowa, giving up a 25-point lead to go to overtime before pulling it out. That’s not a great Iowa team, either, and Tennessee’s next opponent (Purdue) won’t be as forgiving.
sara.ziegler: Jake, I think Tennessee should be worried, too. Though how much of that game was the Volunteers getting up so much, then taking their foot off the gas?
jakelourim: Very weird, Josh, regarding Schofield. All around, it was a very weird way to end a game in which the Vols led by 21 at halftime. I do think a lot of that was just diminished intensity in the second half, but even that was a concern. Purdue, by contrast, was up by 19 at halftime and then built that lead to as many as 35 before winning by 26.
gfoster: I also agree that Tennessee’s days are numbered. The Vols’ offense is supposed to be the third-most efficient in the country, but that isn’t what we’ve seen so far. Colgate’s defense is objectively bad, one of the worst in the tournament. Only scoring 77 points there is kinda a letdown, even though it’s a respectable number.
And Iowa’s defense is far from stellar, too.
jplanos: I never thought UCF could compete with Duke — and the Knights came about as close to an upset victory as possible. Granted, it was in Orlando. But Duke’s inability to adjust at halftime seemed problematic. Plus, it wasn’t like the Blue Devils had an off shooting night. Going 10-for-25 from 3-point range is a really good performance for Duke, and it resulted in a 1-point win.
sara.ziegler: Agree. And it wasn’t just Tacko Fall who was a problem for Duke!
(Though his absence at the end of the game certainly helped the Blue Devils.)
jplanos: No doubt, Sara. I have a hard time believing Duke snags that last-second rebound for the put-back bucket with him in the game. To say nothing of the multiple fouls on that play.
sara.ziegler: ^^^ THIS
jakelourim: Absolutely, Tacko fouling out was a game-changer. Even if the rebound does still bounce to Duke, he probably blocks any put-back attempt if he’s there. It’s crazy to me that UCF was up by 3 with what ended up being one possession left and lost in regulation. That’s almost impossible!
sara.ziegler: Look at the crazy swings in our live probabilities at the end of Duke-UCF:
jplanos: Most games are filled with tens of what-ifs, but it almost makes it worse for UCF that Aubrey Dawkins, who played a masterful game, missed the alley-oop late that probably would’ve put it away (and then the tip in the waning seconds).
sara.ziegler: That sequence was a 5-point swing in Duke’s favor.
gfoster: All this said about Duke, I haven’t been that impressed by Virginia Tech. Both of the Hokies’ wins were ugly affairs against lesser teams. The Saint Louis game was an absolutely brutal free-throw contest. So I don’t think Duke is going anywhere just yet. Do you disagree? If not, what other high seed could be on upset watch?
jakelourim: I definitely thought entering the tournament that Virginia Tech had a great (and underrated) chance to upset Duke in the Sweet 16. The Hokies beat Duke in Blacksburg last month, and while Zion didn’t play in that game, neither did Virginia Tech star Justin Robinson. But now, after watching the first weekend, I do doubt Virginia Tech’s chances against Duke. It just doesn’t seem like Robinson has eased back into the lineup as seamlessly as Tech had hoped.
gfoster: He seems like he’s playing hurt, to be honest.
jplanos: I agree with you, Geoff. I’m not high on the Hokies. I mostly expect chalk to play out in the Sweet 16.
jakelourim: The flip side of the first weekend lacking upsets is that it set up some awesome matchups for the Sweet 16, including four No. 2-vs.-3 seed matchups (three of them between top-12 teams in KenPom).
sara.ziegler: The West region could be fun — Florida State has a real shot against Gonzaga, and I like Texas Tech over Michigan.
jplanos: I think the best thing that could happen for Texas Tech is for Jordan Poole to drill two threes to open the game. For my money, there isn’t a more inconsistent Overconfident Guy left in the field.
gfoster: I think Oregon has a legitimate shot against Virginia. The Ducks are by far the lowest KenPom team, and it’s not close. But that doesn’t speak directly to how well they are playing right now. Point guard Payton Pritchard is a man on fire.
sara.ziegler: I refuse to believe in Oregon.
jplanos: I refuse to believe in the Pac-12.
And for good reason.
gfoster: Both that game and the Michigan game will be complete rock fights: 60 to 65 points will be enough to win either.
jakelourim: While this belief burned me in the bracket’s first weekend, I just think the Pac-12 has nothing to show for itself this weekend. How did Oregon lose so many games out of that league? The Ducks also skated by against a lesser second-round opponent — seemed like the mighty Anteaters used up all their juice in upsetting K-State on Friday.
sara.ziegler: The Ducks have the 74th adjusted offense in the country, according to KenPom. That’s not how you beat Virginia.
gfoster: Gardner-Webb was beating Virginia for a half. I just feel like the Cavs tighten up when they are playing from behind. Oregon is the opposite — they have been playing with nothing to lose for weeks.
sara.ziegler: I agree, Geoff — I just don’t think Oregon is good enough offensively to get a lead.
jakelourim: I really like Virginia’s path because the Hoos play a No. 12 seed first and are 26-0 against teams outside the KenPom top 15 this season. An underrated part about that region: Virginia will play in Louisville’s home arena, which is as familiar to the Cavs as you could hope to be at this stage in the tournament. The Hoos have played and won in that building in each of the past four seasons, including an inconceivable comeback last season from down 5 with less than 7 seconds left.
jplanos: Wofford, but only because Murray State would’ve gotten waxed by Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 had the Racers advanced. With Wofford’s perimeter shooting, they might have had a puncher’s chance against Houston. Loved the offensive flow of their game(s).
jakelourim: I’d say Wofford, too, because of how the Terriers lost to Kentucky on Saturday. Watching the tiny SoCon upstart hang with Kentucky, only to watch Fletcher Magee clank shot after shot off the rim, was painful. You have to feel for Magee, who is now the most prolific 3-point shooter in NCAA history but just went cold at the worst time.
gfoster: That was awful.
jplanos: I know the myth of the hot hand will be argued for eternity, but at what point do you tell a guy to stop shooting? Especially when the guy’s offensive output seems to almost exclusively consist of inefficient jump-turn-and-figure-it-out jumpers.
gfoster: The truth is, he had to keep shooting. He’s a huge cog in their scheme, and they don’t have enough talent to just let the other four to six guys pick up the slack. People were comparing him to Steph Curry at Davidson! So I, like everyone else, was shocked that NONE of those dropped, even the crazy off-balanced shot attempts.
gfoster: I actually think Belmont could have made some noise if the Bruins could have gotten past Maryland. (They lost at the wire.) They are an electric, up-tempo team, and I think they would have beaten LSU and then been a fun test for Sparty.
And they would have extended the First Four streak!
sara.ziegler: Would have loved to see more from the Bruins.
jakelourim: I agree, Geoff. I think Belmont could have made some noise. LSU was not the dominant, unflinching No. 3 seed that Houston, Texas Tech and Purdue proved to be, so Belmont could have hit enough threes to make it a game at the end. And then once that happens …
jplanos: That was a tough matchup for Belmont. Maryland coughs it up constantly, but Belmont doesn’t force turnovers. When you’re already operating at a talent deficit, and you can’t even depend on additional chances, it’s almost impossible to overcome unless you shoot the lights out.
That game was Maryland’s season-best performance in terms of turnover percentage, according to KenPom.
jakelourim: That’s why I think this chalk-heavy first weekend was a one-year deal — just a collection of momentum swings that went toward the favorites. If that backdoor pass from Belmont goes through, Aubrey Dawkins’ tip rims in and Magee makes even, what, two of 12 3-pointers, this is a totally different tournament.
gfoster: So, which conference has impressed the most? I know who it is not: The Big East. Pretty sad effort from the conference that has won two of three titles (granted, that’s just Villanova, so a generous way to praise the conference).
jplanos: Agreed, Geoff. When your second best team gets dusted by nearly 20 by a team from the Ohio Valley Conference … yikes.
sara.ziegler: The Big 12 has been pretty pathetic. Texas Tech has the whole conference on its shoulders now.
jplanos: The SEC has been the most impressive. But how about the Big Ten getting three teams into the Sweet 16? Maryland and Iowa were about as close as you can get to advancing, too.
gfoster: Is there any team that has completely defied what you thought of them entering the tournament?
jplanos: Purdue. Mark me down as having never believed in the Boilermakers all season. All too often it seems to be Carsen Edwards or bust, with the latter winning out.
Purdue lost two of its last three games entering the tournament, including an opening-round loss to Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament. But after two double-digit victories, including an 87-61 thrashing of defending champion Villanova, well, I’m still not ready to believe in their chances moving forward. But I am ready to eat crow.
I wasn’t all that surprised that the Wildcats were eliminated before the Sweet 16, but I am surprised that the Boilermakers reduced them to rubble and are still standing.
gfoster: Mid-majors or non-mid-majors, which team has let you down the most?
I know Sara’s.
*cough, Cyclones, cough*
jplanos: In my opinion, the biggest disappointment is Nevada, by a considerable margin.
Most of this roster reached the Sweet 16 a year ago, and the Wolfpack ostensibly were primed for another deep run in the tournament. Instead, Nevada failed to win its conference tournament and then got bounced in the opening-round of the NCAA Tournament by a fairly average Florida team. They allowed the Gators to dictate the pace and played at the slowest tempo of any game this season, according to KenPom. Not only that, they posted the second lowest effective field goal percentage of any game this season and the highest turnover rate of any game this season.
I even talked myself into Jordan Caroline smashing a fire extinguisher as a galvanizing moment for the team! Turned out it was just a representation of their frustrating season.
jakelourim: Even given everything that happened this season, can I still say Kansas? I know, I know — the Jayhawks played the season under the cloud of player eligibility issues, lost Udoka Azubuike early, ended The Streak and generally looked very un-Kansas-like. But this was still supposed to be a really talented team. Watching them not just lose but get run off the court by a football school in the second round was very odd to me.
sara.ziegler: I think that loss is what they deserve for being placed in the Kansas City regional.
sara.ziegler: STOP GIVING KANSAS SUCH A GOOD REGION
jakelourim: And also, Cincinnati was sent to Columbus and collapsed against Iowa in the first round. That’s like when you draw a bad foul call and go to the line and miss the free throws.
gfoster: Mine is Buffalo. I had the Bulls in the Sweet 16 in all the brackets I filled out. And felt vindicated when they absolutely steam rolled their former coach Bobby Hurley. But Texas Tech absolutely closed down shop from the tip-off on. They didn’t even make a run.
jakelourim: Nevada is another good (bad?) one, Josh. I would have been very worried for Michigan if Nevada were on the other side in the second round. That’s no seventh-seeded roster. But Eric Musselman’s team never put it together like it did in last year’s tournament.
gfoster: That’s another thing about this tournament: There really hasn’t been much drama, Duke and LSU aside. Of the 16 winners in the round of 32, only three didn’t cover the spread: Tennessee, Duke and Gonzaga (and they won by 12 points).
sara.ziegler: My disappointment is actually that Oregon made it this far. I hate it when major-conference schools that played like crap for most of the season make it to the Sweet 16. Seems unjust.
gfoster: Would you like them better if they had Bol Bol?
(Yes, the answer to that is yes.)
sara.ziegler: Yes, of course. They’d also be way better.
jplanos: I think if Auburn had dropped that opening-round game, we’d be talking about this tournament wayyyyyyyyy differently. That would’ve given us two all-timers in the opening weekend.
sara.ziegler: Oh, yeah — I forgot how close that game was!
jakelourim: New Mexico State could have gone on and handled Kansas, too, no?
jplanos: Yeah, my analysis is that Kansas is bad.
sara.ziegler: ENDORSE, Josh.
gfoster: Before we get to our updated Final Four picks, let’s talk about the women’s tourney, which has been objectively better from an entertainment standpoint. What is your biggest takeaway so far?
sara.ziegler: There were three overtime games in the first round alone!
jplanos: I’m glad offense is winning out on the women’s side, as seven of the top 10 teams this season in points per possession remain in the hunt, according to Synergy Sports. I for one am pleased that we get more opportunities for Sabrina Ionescu to do crazy things on the court, like intentionally missing shots for triple-doubles
jakelourim: Absolutely, the women’s tournament has been more entertaining, I think.
gfoster: According to our model, this is still a two-team tournament. Baylor and Notre Dame combine for a 60 percent chance of winning (32 percent and 28 percent, respectively). Although Louisville and UConn appear to be mutually hurting each other’s chances by just being in the same region.
sara.ziegler: Though most of the top women’s teams have all advanced, we’ve seen closer games than we have in the past.
No. 2 Iowa had all it could handle from Mercer. And No. 10 Buffalo acquitted itself nicely against UConn.
jakelourim: Mercer took Iowa to the wire in an effort to produce what I believe would have been the first 15-2 upset in the history of the tournament.
sara.ziegler: That game was great. I loved the chart for No. 7 Missouri against No. 10 Drake, too:
Look at that excitement index!
jakelourim: That is a crazy game.
gfoster: All right, let’s quickly update our men’s Final Four picks. This is not like a bracket pool — you can easily change from what you picked previously. No one will judge you. (Someone may judge you — it’s the internet.)
Let’s go lightning round through the regions, starting with the East.
I had Michigan State, I’m staying with Michigan State.
jakelourim: Had Duke, staying with Duke. MSU doesn’t have the dudes to take them down.
sara.ziegler: Yeah, I’m sticking with Duke. There’s just so much talent there.
jplanos: I had all No. 1 seeds because I’m not fun at parties. So I’m sticking with Duke.
gfoster: OK, West. I had Gonzaga in my bracket, I said Michigan on our podcast. I’m going with…..
sara.ziegler: Texas Tech. BIG 12 REPRESENT
jakelourim: Had Michigan, staying with Michigan. Happy to die on this hill.
jplanos: Allow me to re-plug Hot Takedown and say that I’m finally ready to go with my heart. The Wolverines have been tenacious throughout the tournament, as best showcased by a Michigan tuba player running down the Gators mascot.
gfoster: Only because I think they are showing again that they are the best-coached team in the country. They don’t do any of the things that cost teams games: turn it over, foul trouble, bad shots, etc.
jakelourim: Yes, I think they have the best coach in that region. That’ll be enough.
gfoster: OK, in the South. I had UVA. I might have said Nova on Hot Takedown, but that was clearly me being an idiot.
sara.ziegler: I believe that went something like, “Jay Wright is amazing, he will obviously win.”
jplanos: You did indeed say that, Geoff. I will withhold my opinion on that pick.
gfoster: That was a product of me not liking ANY team in the region. And I still don’t!!!!!!
sara.ziegler: Wait … that was the region I didn’t like, Geoff.
You didn’t like the Midwest.
gfoster: I like that more, now. I have an answer there.
I still don’t like anyone in the South. I have Tennessee … which I don’t feel great about.
jplanos: I’m still going with UVA. Whoever reaches the 20-point mark first is deemed the winner.
jakelourim: Had Virginia, staying with Virginia. Still think Tony Bennett’s team is the most consistent in the country — NCAA Tournament demons notwithstanding.
gfoster: OK, let’s do the Midwest.
jplanos: Tar Heels. Never a doubt.
sara.ziegler: Remember when they were trailing to Iona at halftime of that game? That was fun.
jplanos: I said never a doubt, Sara!
I still like Kentucky.
jakelourim: I’ve got Ol’ Roy and UNC.
sara.ziegler: You guys are BORING.
jakelourim: This tournament started it!
gfoster: Only because I need to pick something that can be mocked later, I’m taking Auburn. Bruce Pearl’s team is here to provide the madness of 2019. The Tiger offense is so impressive. I love these teams (like some Beilein teams) where every guy on the court can knock down the three.
jplanos: HAHA, Geoff. Come on now.
sara.ziegler: What a pick.
gfoster: You think there will be no surprises at all? We’ll see.
*checks bracket pool standings, sees self in 90th*
True to the reputation of an overlooked mid-major, when the Wofford Terriers were headed for the Southern Conference tournament earlier this month, they refused to take anything for granted. As dominant as the Terriers were, the persistent refrain from Spartanburg, South Carolina, was that Wofford would not feel safe on Selection Sunday without a tournament title and an automatic bid to the Big Dance.
But the concern proved to be unnecessary. Wofford defeated its three conference tournament foes just as it won its 18 regular-season league games, and based on the way Sunday went, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. This is no ordinary mid-major underdog. It’s official now: Wofford is going to the NCAA Tournament as one of the most dangerous mid-major teams this century.
A No. 7 seed in the Midwest region, the Terriers are a rare breed of March upstart. They are the highest-seeded Southern Conference team since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. Other than powerhouse Gonzaga, just five schools this century have earned top-eight seeds in the NCAA Tournament from conferences that had played fewer than three tournament games per year.1 They are Pacific, Murray State, George Mason, St. Mary’s (twice) and Butler (four times).
Wofford compares favorably to other mid-major contenders
Teams from conferences that had played fewer than three tournament games per year and were seeded No. 8 or better in the men’s NCAA Tournament, based on key KenPom efficiency stats, 2000-19
Adjusted Efficiency Metrics
Tiny Wofford has posted a 118.5 adjusted offensive efficiency, better than all of those high-seeded mid-majors except St. Mary’s in 2016-17. The Terriers’ No. 19 ranking in Ken Pomeroy’s metrics indicates that they’re actually underseeded. In fact, they resemble the profile of the most famous Southern Conference darling, a Davidson team with a star shooter named Stephen Curry.
Entering the 2008 NCAA Tournament, Davidson was 30th in adjusted offense, 25th in adjusted defense and 18th overall. Today, Wofford is 11th in offense, 63rd in defense and 19th overall. Davidson finished 27th in effective field-goal percentage, while Wofford is fourth. Neither team went to the foul line much — Davidson was 332nd in free-throw rate; Wofford is 303rd — but both compensated by limiting turnovers, taking lots of 3-pointers and making a high percentage of those threes. Both teams ran the table in the SoCon.
Sunday was kind to little guys everywhere, from Wofford to Buffalo (a similarly threatening No. 6 seed in the West) to Belmont (which earned an at-large bid from the Ohio Valley Conference). But no team has Wofford’s combination of firepower, efficiency and relative obscurity.
Mid-major conferences have had looks at the top 20 in Pomeroy’s rankings — Wichita State from the Missouri Valley in 2014, San Diego State from the Mountain West in 2011 — but even in that company, Wofford and the Southern Conference would be considered lower-profile in every way. In the NCAA’s 2016 revenue distribution based on tournament success, the Southern received a smaller share than any other conference except the Big Sky, with which it tied at $1.56 million. The conference with the biggest share — the Big Ten — received $25.82 million.
The Terriers have been to the tourney before, positioned as a double-digit seed underdog in 2010, 2011, 2014 and 2015. In 2010, they were tied at 49 against No. 4 seed Wisconsin with 1:17 left. They didn’t score again and lost 53-49. In 2015, they were tied at 53 with No. 5 seed Arkansas with 1:55 left. They didn’t score again and lost 56-53.
Mike Young’s team has since developed into one that’s built to pull off an upset or two in the next couple of weeks. Wofford has followed the collegewide trend of increased reliance on the 3-point shot. The Terriers are second in America from 3-point range, shooting 41.6 percent, and 43.5 percent of their shots are from deep. Since 2002, only two tournament-bound mid-majors shot a higher percentage from three than Wofford did this season. In 2012, Doug McDermott and No. 8 seed Creighton knocked out Alabama before running into top-seeded North Carolina, and in 2010, hot-shooting Cornell made the Sweet 16 as a No. 12 seed after upsetting Temple and Wisconsin.
To power that offense, Wofford has a shooting threat capable of being a star in this tournament: Fletcher Magee, who’s just two 3-pointers shy of the all-time career record for made threes. Every March explosion needs a spark, just like Creighton had McDermott, Davidson had Curry and Murray State had Isaiah Canaan in 2012. Magee’s work ethic has become mythical in Spartanburg, where they tell tales of the guard who practices in the dark to work on his feel. He once shot in his driveway in the middle of the night, setting cushions under the hoop to muffle the sound.
As for any comparison to the other hot-shooting SoCon star? “I don’t like to compare players,” Young told The Athletic in 2017, “but in terms of Fletch’s ability to score and do it as efficiently as he’s doing it, from all points on the floor, let’s just say it reminds me of someone.” The mid-major energy and the streaky shooting are familiar, too.
The history of mid-major success in the NCAA tournament is what makes March Madness so special. Loyola of Chicago became the latest stunner last season when it reached the Final Four as a No. 11 seed from the Missouri Valley. If Wofford makes a similar run, nobody should be shocked.
The NCAA tournament is finally here! Will we see another No. 16 seed beat a No. 1 seed? Will Gonzaga finally win its first national championship? Will Zion Williamson’s shoe explode again? We can’t tell you exactly what will happen over the next three weeks, but we can help steer you in the right direction when picking your bracket using our March Madness prediction model. You can read about how the system works here, and read on to learn what the model has to say about the top seeds’ fates, dark horses and Cinderellas to watch, and favorites to avoid. Let the madness begin…
Top seed outlook: According to the FiveThirtyEight model, top seed Duke has the best chance of advancing to the Final Four in the entire field (53 percent probability) as well as the best odds of winning the national title (19 percent).
The Blue Devils are led by four soon-to-be first-round draft picks, including Zion Williamson, one of the greatest talents in recent memory. Duke is a walking highlight reel on the offensive end and far stingier on defense than many may realize. This is among Mike Krzyzewski’s most-balanced teams and projects to be his first since 2010 to rank inside the top six in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offense and defense metrics. That team won the national title.1
On the other side of the region is the winner of the Big Ten conference tournament, Michigan State. As their reward, the No. 2 Spartans have the honor of a potential matchup against the top overall seed in the Elite Eight. Head coach Tom Izzo was none too pleased. The Spartans have been pummeled by injuries but remain one of the most balanced teams in the country, ranking inside the top eight in Pomeroy’s adjusted offense and defense metrics.
Sneaky Final Four pick: No. 4 Virginia Tech. Led by the star pairing of Kerry Blackshear Jr. and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, the Hokies are a balanced squad that ranks among Pomeroy’s Top 25 teams on both offense and defense. Although they’ve lost eight times, only two of those were by double-digits. Virginia Tech also has a not-altogether-unfriendly draw, with extremely winnable opening games against Saint Louis (87 percent) and the Mississippi State-Liberty winner (63 percent) before most likely running into Duke’s juggernaut. We give the Hokies a respectable 25 percent chance against the Blue Devils — and a 54 percent chance against whoever emerges from the bottom of the region if they do manage to knock off Duke.
Don’t bet on: No. 3 LSU. With coach Will Wade embroiled in a pay-for-play scandal and his team probably overvalued as a 3-seed, the Bayou Bengals could be ripe for an upset in this tournament. They ranked only 18th in Pomeroy’s ratings — roughly the quality of a No. 5 seed — thanks in large part to a defense that didn’t even crack the nation’s top 60 in adjusted efficiency. (This showed up in the 51 second-half points they allowed to Florida while losing their first game of the SEC tournament.) Their NCAA path isn’t very easy, either: Yale is no pushover as a No. 14 seed, nor is potential second-round opponent Maryland, and we give the Tigers a mere 26 percent chance of beating Michigan State if the teams meet in the Sweet Sixteen. This is easily the lowest-rated top-three seed in the field.
Cinderella watch: No. 11 Belmont. The East is top-heavy, with Duke and Michigan State soaking up most of the Final Four odds. But the Bruins are an intriguing lower-seeded team because of an impressive offense led by do-everything swingman Dylan Windler. According to Pomeroy, Belmont ranks 20th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency (and second nationally in raw points per game behind Gonzaga), while Windler was one of only three players nationally to average 20 points and 10 rebounds per game. Although the Bruins do have to win a play-in game against Temple just to make the field of 64 — we give them a 59 percent chance — they would have a very competitive 39 percent probability of upsetting Maryland in the first round and an even better chance against the LSU/Yale winner.
Player to watch:Cassius Winston, Michigan State
Three years ago, zzo said he thought his 6-foot-1 freshman could be Michigan State’s best passer since Magic Johnson. The Spartans’ do-everything point guard — one of the best facilitators in the country — is validating his coach’s comment. Only Murray State’s Ja Morant, a surefire lottery pick in this year’s draft, has a higher assist rate than Winston (46.0 percent). And behind Winston, the Spartans assist on the highest rate of field goals in the country.
Likeliest first-round upsets: No. 9 Central Florida over No. 8 VCU (47 percent); No. 11 Belmont* over No. 6 Maryland (39 percent); No. 10 Minnesota over No. 7 Louisville (34 percent)
(* Must win play-in game first.)
Top seed outlook: Gonzaga is the best team in the West by a considerable margin, but the Zags, despite reaching the final two years ago, haven’t always performed well under the bright lights of the tournament. Still, Gonzaga has a 70 percent probability of reaching the Elite Eight, according to our model, and the third-best odds of any team to reach the national championship game (26 percent).
Should Gonzaga face Syracuse in the second round, the zone defense of the Orange could give the Bulldogs trouble. This is the best offense Mark Few has had in Spokane, but it may be tested by any of the terrific defenses in the West: Four of the top 15 can be found in this region, including the top two in Texas Tech and Michigan.
Sneaky Final Four pick: No. 4 Florida State. A fixture in the KenPom Top 20 for most of the season, the Seminoles are hoping to build on last season’s tournament run, which saw them come within a 4-point margin of making the Final Four. FSU has a dominant defense (No. 9 in Pomeroy’s ratings) and a balanced roster that saw four players accumulate at least 2.5 win shares. This draw isn’t terrible, either: Vermont isn’t especially difficult as a first-round foe, and Marquette is very beatable (more on that below). No. 1 seeded Gonzaga probably looms after that, and we give FSU a 24 percent chance against the Zags — but the Seminoles would have a 48 percent chance of making the Final Four if they were to pull off the upset.
Don’t bet on: No. 5 Marquette. Teams seeded fifth aren’t usually good bets to make it past the Sweet 16 anyway, but Marquette might be an especially bad pick. According to the FiveThirtyEight power ratings, the Golden Eagles are by far the worst No. 5 seed in the field, and a first-round date with breakout mid-major superstar Ja Morant didn’t do them any favors. Marquette has some star power of its own in junior guard Markus Howard, who ranks sixth in the nation with an average of 25 points per game, but this team lost five of its last six games and has a tough tournament road ahead of it.
Cinderella watch: No. 10 Florida. The Gators may have been one of the final bubble teams to sneak into the field of 68, but they could be poised to do some damage now that they are here. They drew Nevada, a so-so No. 7 seed, in the first round, and we give Florida a 42 percent chance of pulling the upset there. Last year’s national runner-up, Michigan, likely waits in Round 2, and that is a tough matchup (23 percent odds for Florida) — but if the Gators win, they have a 38 percent chance of making the Elite Eight. In a region with a number of good-but-flawed options, Florida looks better than the typical 10-seed.
Player to watch:Brandon Clarke, Gonzaga
The linchpin of the Zags isn’t the consensus lottery pick, nor the two veteranguards who have together started 87 percent of Gonzaga’s games over the past two seasons. It’s Brandon Clarke, a transfer from San Jose State who is in his first active season with the team. He’s perhaps the most underappreciated player in the country.
“If I feel like if I can get a good, quick jump first, I’ll pretty much jump with anybody,” Clarke told me. “I mean, I’ve seen Zion (Williamson) coming down through the lane before on TV, and if I can’t jump at the right time, I probably wouldn’t jump with him, but … I don’t really see myself not jumping with anybody.”
Likeliest first-round upsets: No. 9 Baylor over No. 8 Syracuse (48 percent); No. 10 Florida over No. 7 Nevada (42 percent); No. 12 Murray State over No. 5 Marquette (32 percent)
Top seed outlook: Can No. 1 Virginia exorcise last year’s demons now that the team is at full strength? Our model thinks so. The Cavaliers have a 49 percent probability of cracking the Final Four and a 31 percent probability of reaching what would be the program’s first national title game.
With De’Andre Hunter, who wasn’t on the court last year during UVA’s historic loss to No. 16 Maryland Baltimore County, the Cavaliers have been dominant on both ends — the only team ranking in the top five in Pomeroy’s adjusted offense and defense metrics. Once again, Tony Bennett’s pack line defense is suffocating most every offensive opportunity and successfully turning games into rock fights. But this year’s team is even better on the offensive end and should breeze into the Elite Eight, where it could meet Tennessee. Thanks to Grant Williams and the wonderfully named Admiral Schofield, the No. 2 Volunteers are playing their best basketball in program history. We give them a 22 percent probability of reaching the Final Four.
Sneaky Final Four pick: No. 6 Villanova. Is it “sneaky” to pick the team that’s won two of the past three national titles? Maybe not. But this hasn’t been the same team that coach Jay Wright guided to those championships. After losing a ton of its best players from last year’s title-winning team, the Wildcats had an up-and-down year and lost five of their final eight regular-season Big East games. But they also got hot over the past week, capping off a season in which they still won the Big East regular-season and conference-tournament titles — and still had one of the 20 best offenses in the country according to KenPom (powered by an absurd number of 3-pointers). Our power ratings think they’re the fourth-best team in the South despite being the No. 6 seed, and they have a 39 percent chance of at least making it back to the Sweet 16 for a fifth time in the past six seasons.
Don’t bet on: No. 4 Kansas State. Coach Bruce Weber’s Wildcats nearly made the Final Four last season, but they might find it tougher this time around. K-State has an elite defense (it ranks fourth in the country according to Pomeroy’s ratings), but its offense is prone to struggles — and could be down its second-leading scorer, forward Dean Wade, who missed the team’s Big 12 tournament loss to Iowa State with a foot injury. A brutal draw that gives the Wildcats tough No. 13 seed UC Irvine in the first round, then places them opposite the Wisconsin-Oregon winner in Round 2, could limit their potential to advance deep into a second consecutive tournament.
Cinderella watch: No. 12 Oregon. According to our model, the Ducks have the best Sweet 16 odds (24 percent) of any double-digit seed in the tournament, more than twice that of any other candidate. Oregon struggled to string together wins for most of the regular season, and its chances seemed sunk after 7-foot-2 phenom Bol Bol was lost for the season with a foot injury in January. But the Ducks have rallied to win eight straight games heading into the tournament, including a convincing victory in Saturday’s Pac-12 championship. Oregon fits a similar mold as K-State — great defense with a suspect offense — but that’s telling, given that the Ducks are a 12-seed and the Wildcats are a No. 4. If they meet in the Round of 32, we give Oregon a 47 percent chance at the upset.
Player to watch:Grant Williams, Tennessee
The junior has come a long way from being “just a fat boy with some skill.” Williams, the de facto leader of Rick Barnes’s Volunteers, has bullied the SEC over the past two seasons, collecting two consecutive conference player of the year honors.
The Vols might just feature the best offense of Barnes’s coaching career — and we’re talking about a guy who coached Kevin Durant! Much of that offensive potency can be traced to Williams, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, who ranks in the 97th percentile in scoring efficiency, according to data courtesy of Synergy Sports.
Williams possesses an old-man game you might find at a local YMCA, a back-to-the-basket, footwork-proficient offensive assault that manifests primarily in post-ups, where he ranks in the 98th percentile in scoring efficiency and shoots an adjusted field-goal percentage of 56.1. He can get the Volunteers buckets in the waning moments of games, too, as he ranks in the 96th percentile in isolation scoring efficiency.
Likeliest first-round upsets: No. 9 Oklahoma over No. 8 Ole Miss (53 percent); No. 12 Oregon over No. 5 Wisconsin (45 percent); No. 10 Iowa over No. 7 Cincinnati (34 percent)
Top seed outlook: On paper, the Midwest seems to be the most open of the four regions, but we still give No. 1 North Carolina the best odds, with a 35 percent probability of reaching the Final Four and an 18 percent probability of appearing in the national championship game. Those odds are at least 8 percentage points lower than any other No. 1 team in the field, though, and for good reason: North Carolina’s offense depends on turning every play into a fast break. The Tar Heels struggle to get to the free-throw line and give up a ton of shots along the perimeter, which, in a slowed-down, half-court matchup, could be quite problematic.
After getting waxed by Duke to open the season, No. 2 Kentucky has caught fire in recent weeks while finding balance on both ends of the floor and mostly abstaining from the 3-point line. No. 3 Houston, meanwhile, is in the midst of its best season since Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon were revolutionizing college basketball, and they boast a defense that ranks among the very best along and inside the perimeter.
Sneaky Final Four pick: No. 5 Auburn. When the Tigers steamrolled Tennessee 84-64 in Sunday’s SEC title game, it likely got the attention of a lot of bracket-pickers. That wasn’t a one-off — Auburn also beat Tennessee eight days earlier, part of a string of eight straight wins for the Tigers, and 10 in their last 11 games. With an explosive offense (No. 8 in KenPom efficiency) that got more of its points from downtown than any other team in the NCAA field, Auburn can heat up in a hurry. We give the Tigers nearly a coin-flip’s odds of making the Sweet 16 — and a very solid 37 percent chance of beating top-seeded North Carolina if the Tar Heels are waiting for Auburn there. The only kryptonite might be a hypothetical regional-final matchup with No. 2 seed Kentucky, which beat the Tigers by 27 in late February to sweep their season series.
Don’t bet on: No. 4 Kansas. The Jayhawks went into the season ranked No. 1 in the AP’s preseason poll, and they appeared to validate the choice by starting the season 10-0. But a 15-9 record (and some key injuries) since then have cast doubt on Kansas’s NCAA tournament potential. This is a well-balanced team, but to say it doesn’t shoot well from the outside is an understatement — see KU’s 3-for-18 performance from deep in Saturday’s Big 12 ouster against Iowa State. Add an unfavorable draw that puts them on a potential second-round collision course with Auburn (see above), and we give the Jayhawks only an 8 percent chance of making out of the Midwest with their championship hopes intact.
Cinderella watch: No. 11 Ohio State. If a Big Ten team that has made 11 Final Fours can be a Cinderella, then you’re looking at it in these Buckeyes. (Hey, the committee’s increasing tendency to seed underwhelming power-conference schools this way really messes with the definition.) OSU went only 18-13 during the regular season, was defeated in its second Big Ten tournament game and has almost twice as many losses as wins since New Year’s. So why are the Buckeyes a potential Cinderella? Despite the seed, this is still a dangerous team, one that ranks 27th in Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive ratings and has star forward Kaleb Wesson back from suspension. So maybe they’ll give Big 12 champ Iowa State trouble. But mainly this tells you something about the other potential Cinderellas in this region: Seton Hall got a very tough first-round matchup with underseeded Wofford; none of the other low seeds here are world-beaters. That leaves the Buckeyes, a team that did all it could to play its way out of the tournament, but has some upset potential regardless.
Johnson has thrived in North Carolina’s every-possession-is-a-transition-opportunity scheme this season. He’s blossomed into one of the best scorers in the ACC, ranking between the 85th and 100th percentiles in scoring efficiency in transition, off screens and on spot-ups.
Johnson has elevated his game in conference play, boasting the ACC’s top offensive rating (132.5) and true shooting percentage (64.6). Suddenly, a player who wasn’t seen as a guaranteed professional now projects to be a second-round pick.
Likeliest first-round upsets: No. 9 Washington over No. 8 Utah State (49 percent); No. 10 Seton Hall over No. 7 Wofford (37 percent); No. 11 Ohio State over No. 6 Iowa State (33 percent)
No state has a glossier tradition in men’s college basketball than North Carolina. It has produced 13 national championships.1 It is home to the sport’s fiercest rivalry: Duke vs. North Carolina. It has seen more than a hundred All-Americans and dozens of Hall of Famers cut their teeth on its courts, including Tim Duncan, Vince Carter and Michael Jordan.
You might think that the state’s all-time leading scorer is one of those all-time greats. But he’s actually a current player. He’s not a Tar Heel or a Blue Devil or even a Demon Deacon. He’s a Fighting Camel in Buies Creek, North Carolina. Far from the spotlight, Chris Clemons, a senior at Campbell University in the Big South Conference, is making college-basketball history in a state that’s long on it.
As a high schooler, Clemons was an all-state athlete in Raleigh, smack dab in the backyard of the ACC. When the power conferences overlooked him, Campbell didn’t. In fact, it sometimes brought the entire coaching staff to watch him hoop. “I told him when I was sitting in his living room that I thought he’d be the all-time leading scorer in Campbell history,” Campbell head coach Kevin McGeehan told me.
Only five players in NCAA history have scored more than Clemons has. And his 3,106 points have not come easy: Clemons is 5-foot-9, at least 4 inches shorter than each of his teammates. But that disadvantage wasn’t a problem for McGeehan. “I’ve never thought twice about his height,” he said.
Chris Clemons is the shortest of the scoring greats
The top 25 NCAA men’s basketball scorers and their height
Mississippi Valley State
South Dakota St.
With Clemons on the court, the Fighting Camels score 1.12 points per possession, according to Hoop Lens — or at a rate that would be among the best in the country if maintained over an entire season. When he sits, the team scores 0.84 points per possession, or at a rate that would rank around 300th if maintained. Without Clemons, the team’s effective field goal percentage drops more than 10 percentage points, and the team’s turnover percentage spikes almost 7 percentage points. As a pick-and-roll ball handler, he has scored more points this season than everyone else on the team combined, according to data provided by Synergy Sports.
McGeehan hasn’t wasted a second of his point guard’s eligibility. Clemons has played at least 80 percent of team minutes each season on campus. As a senior, he’s taking on 93.1 percent.
Over the past three seasons, Clemons has finished no lower than seventh nationally in KenPom’s percentage of possessions used metric, which measures how many possessions a player used while on court, assigning credit or blame to the player when his actions resulted in an ended possession. He leads the country this season, absorbing 37.5 percent of the team’s possessions. “Obviously,” McGeehan noted, “he’s heavily relied upon.”
Clemons is leaned on heavily
The NCAA men’s basketball players with the highest share of their team’s possessions that season, since 2016-17
Cal St. Northridge
Should his average hold, Clemons will finish the season with a 38.9 percent usage rate, which would give him three of the top 25 marks produced by players since 2009, the first year for which data is available.5 His career usage rate (35.9 percent) figures to edge former BYU star Jimmer Fredette for the top spot by any player over the past decade.
There have actually been plenty of undersized, high-usage players on college courts. Clemons is just relied upon much more than any of the rest — and has been since he arrived on campus. Since 2008, there have been 450 seasons that saw a player shorter than 5-foot-10 appear in 20 games and play at least 40 percent of team minutes, according to BartTorvik.com. Of that sample, Clemons is in line to finish with the first, third, fourth and 23rd highest usage rates.
Let’s remove the height restriction. Given those same qualifications, since 2008 there have been 522 seasons of a player producing a usage rate exceeding 30 percent. Of that pool, Clemons is on track to post two usage rates that rank in the top 15 and another one that ranks in the top 45.
This season, only one player6 has taken a higher share of team shots than Clemons’s 39.3 percent.7 This would be the fourth consecutive season that Clemons has finished in the top 25 in percentage of team shots taken, a feat of production that has never been matched since KenPom began tracking such metrics.8
The Fighting Camels made their only NCAA Tournament appearance in 1992, five years before Clemons was born. This season, Clemons has Campbell roaring into shape to make a run at a second, provided the team wins its conference tournament.
Which is to say: Clemons has the perennial green light to do everything. “I always had one,” Clemons said. “But I don’t remember it being like this.”
Have coaches ever told him not to shoot? “I haven’t heard that lately,” he said.
Is there anything McGeehan wouldn’t trust Clemons to do? “Probably give me a haircut.”
Clemons’s numbers are more impressive when you consider the system under which he plays. Watching him, you get the sense that he could get to the rim or drain a jump shot around 10 seconds before he actually does. McGeehan runs a hybrid version of Pete Carril’s Princeton Offense that relies on quick ball movement and constant motion. It also typically suffocates tempo, as the Princeton Offense is ostensibly designed to limit huge production by either team. Campbell has ranked outside the top 190 in average offensive possession length each season since 2013. This season, it ranks 265th in adjusted tempo. Campbell averages 68.4 possessions per 40 minutes, which is tied for 238th nationally. North Carolina, for instance, averages nearly eight more possessions per game.
Despite all of his success, Clemons may not ever reach the next level. To be sure, there have been other players under 5-foot-10 to reach the NBA: Muggsy Bogues, Earl Boykins, Calvin Murphy, Spud Webb. There have even been a few who have done it since the turn of the century: Isaiah Thomas, Kay Felder, Nate Robinson. Clemons, who has declared for the NBA draft after each of the past two seasons only to return to campus, is unlikely to join them via that route.
The irony is heavy: One of the greatest scorers of all time, in arguably the state with the richest college basketball tradition, plays just a short drive down the road from perhaps the most-talked-about college athlete of all time, for a team that packed in fewer than 2,000 fans per home game last season. The smallest guy on the court is dealt the largest offensive burden and has most of the team’s dunks. The pint-sized player with the larger-than-life impact.
“When it’s all said and done,” McGeehan said, “I’m probably going to go back and say, ‘Wow, did that really all just happen?’”
Immediately after the Pac-12 football championship game in late November, an on-screen interview with commissioner Larry Scott at Levi’s Stadium was interrupted by a chorus of boos. Attendees, it seemed, weren’t too fond of the leadership of the “Conference of Champions.”1
For nearly six decades, the Pac-12 managed to emulate its ostentatious slogan across the collegiate sports landscape. The Pac-12 has finished an academic year with the most total national championships of any conference in 52 out of the past 58 years, including the past 13 years.
But when it comes to the two high-profile men’s sports of football and basketball, the Pac-12 is falling short. Months removed from Scott’s boo-inducing interview, as the college basketball season winds into its final stretch, the conference’s vertiginous fall in the top two revenue-generating sports is unmistakable.
While the Pac-12’s performance in football has been steadily declining since the College Football Playoff was introduced, the conference’s decline in men’s basketball seems more abrupt. Two years ago, the Pac-12 featured three 30-win teams for the first time. Three teams reached the Sweet 16, and Oregon punched the conference’s first ticket to the Final Four in nearly a decade. The abundance of talent was confirmed when the conference produced three lottery picks in the NBA draft — including Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball, the top two overall selections.
The Pac-12 saw the top overall pick in the NBA draft again last season, in Arizona’s Deandre Ayton. But the conference face-planted at the NCAA tournament. Each of the three teams to reach the tourney failed to get out of the first round, including Ayton’s Arizona.2 Not since the Big 12 was formed in 1996-97 had one of the six major conferences3failed to send a team to the second round of the tournament. No Pac-12 team finished inside the top 25 of KenPom’s adjusted efficiency margin metric, either. Of course, this came after three UCLA Bruins were arrested for shoplifting on international soil in the days preceding a game meant to showcase the conference, and the FBI’s investigation of corruption in college basketball led to the arrests of assistant coaches from USC and Arizona4 before the season even tipped.
But that didn’t curtail the enthusiasm of the commissioner heading into this season. “Really excited about what our teams look like,” Scott said at the Pac-12 media day. “Feel like we’ve got a very, very strong conference.”
On paper, he wasn’t wrong. The conference accounted for seven of the top 40 recruiting classes, with UCLA and Oregon pulling in two of the top five. Three teams were ranked in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 poll. But as the calendar year came to a close, the Pac-12 was mired in the worst December by a major conference in 20 years. By January, UCLA had fired head coach Steve Alford, and Oregon had lost Bol Bol, the conference’s most marketable player and the crown jewel of the 2018 recruiting class, for the year to a foot injury. Dana Altman’s Ducks, which checked in at No. 14 in the preseason poll and were considered an early favorite to reach the Final Four, are now longshots to even reach the tournament.
Cal is one of the worst teams in any conference and in the midst of its worst season in program history. Washington is the highest-ranking team in the conference by KenPom’s adjusted efficiency margin metric and checks in at No. 35. No other Pac-12 team ranks in the top 50.
The conference has hardly proved itself against top-notch opponents. In any Quad 1 games,5 the Pac-12 is 11-51. The ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12 and SEC each have at least three times as many wins over that caliber of opponent.
Conference record in Quad 1 games, 2018-19
As it currently stands, the conference would be lucky to receive two bids to the tournament, with the Huskies projected to be a No. 9 seed and Arizona State possibly squeaking in as a 12 seed. It’s been a quarter-century since a major conference produced a one-bid campaign.
According to Sports-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System, the Pac-12 collectively is just 7.31 points better than an average Division I team this season. That’s on track to be the conference’s worst single-season mark since the 2011-12 campaign and the third worst in the past three decades. The last time a major conference produced a worse SRS was 1997-98, when the Big 12 put up a 7.17 in its second season of existence. You have to go back at least 30 years to find a worse mark produced by the Big East, Big Ten or SEC.
If recent history serves, next month’s tournament will reinforce what many already know: The Pac-12, which hasn’t won a national title since Arizona cut down the nets in 1997, has fallen off considerably in terms of prestige.
Over the past decade, the Pac-12 has made two Final Four appearances and failed to reach a national championship game. Every other major conference has been to at least twice as many Final Fours and made at least two title game appearances. The Big East has won more national titles in the previous eight years than the Pac-12 has in the past 45. In particular, the performance of the Pac-12 in the 2016 tournament, relative to seeding, was the second worst performance by any conference since at least 2000. And over the past three years, no conference has underperformed more than the Pac-12 when it matters most.
The Pac-12 is also struggling in college football. Over the past two seasons, the conference is a combined 4-12 in bowl games, with three wins coming by a combined 4 points.
If this feels like a sudden drop, it’s because it is. The Pac-12 has won a single national title in the past 20 years, but you only have to go back three years to find an ESPN segment debating whether it was the best conference in college football. Since the playoff was introduced, the Pac-12 has made two appearances — going 1-2 — and failed to appear in three of the five seasons.
In total, the conference was 3.53 points better than the average FBS team in 2018-19, the lowest mark by a Power Five conference6 in six years. Since 2010, the conference has produced three of the seven worst seasons, two of which came in the past two seasons.
Oregon State has arguably been the worst Power Five football team for twoconsecutive years, and programs like Oregon, Stanford and USC, which traditionally have been competitive on a national level, have fallen off considerably. Washington’s good-but-not-good-enough seasonal cadence seems to have run its course, too. This offseason, perhaps the conference’s biggest story was that Kliff Kingsbury almost became an assistant coach at USC.
Arizona State is the lone Pac-12 school with a Division I hockey team,7 and there’s a reasonable chance it will end up ranked higher at season’s end than any team the conference fielded in football or men’s basketball.
Living up to the standard established by John Wooden, who won 10 national championships over 12 years at UCLA, would be impossible. But falling to the bottom of the major-conference barrel in the two sports most scrutinized is a disastrous turn for a conference literally branded around dominance.
To some, the Conference of Champions® has transformed into the Circle of Suck. This may be the bleakest moment in the illustrious history of the Pac-12, as the conference continues its stroll away from relevancy.
CORRECTION (Feb. 22, 2019, 12:30 p.m.): An earlier version of this article said the Pac-12 had no football teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 at the end of the 2018 season. Two teams were ranked: No. 10 Washington State and No. 13 Washington.
Ten games into what will almost certainly be his lone season in Durham, Duke’s Zion Williamson has treated college basketball like a rim on a breakaway. Which is to say, he has left it trembling.
On game days, the anointed freshman effectively has a residency on “SportsCenter,” his highlights the fantasy-come-true of any sports-radio personality or TV show producer. Need to fill time? Just discuss the comical absurdity of an 18-year-old throwing down midgame windmills with ease or opine that he’d be unable to handle the scrutiny if the Cleveland Cavaliers were to select him in the NBA draft.
Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski shepherded in one of the most heralded recruiting classes of the modern era this summer, an embarrassment of riches featuring the top three prospects in the country. Unsurprisingly, the Blue Devils rank among the top teams in the nation, their lone loss coming against the veteran-laden Gonzaga Bulldogs in Maui. RJ Barrett, the consensus top-ranked player from the 2018 class, leads the Atlantic Coast Conference in scoring. Yet it’s Williamson who most often elicits the shock-and-awe moments that keep Instagram’s highlight-reel accounts fully stocked. It’s Williamson who draws comparisons — again and again and again — to the incomparable LeBron James. It’s Williamson who is appointment television.1
That’s because college basketball has never seen a player like him.
With a 6-foot-7, 285-pound frame, Williamson looks more like a linebacker than he does a forward. The Wall Street Journal, with the help of a university physicist, found that attempting to draw a charge on Williamson is akin to colliding head-on with a Jeep. Among all active players in the NBA, only Boban Marjanovic outweighs him. And at 7-foot-3, Marjanovic is more than half a foot taller than Williamson. The build of the former South Carolina Mr. Basketball is certainly unorthodox.
At Duke’s practice combine, Williamson’s vertical leap exceeded 40 inches. He corrals rebounds and defends the paint with the unadulterated violence of a center, runs the floor with the fluidity of a modern wing, possesses touch with both hands and has a shooting stroke that stretches to the perimeter. Relative to his size, Williamson’s athleticism doesn’t compute. He’s the Refrigerator Perry of the hardwood.
In the one-and-done era of college basketball, Duke is no stranger to dominant freshman — players like Jahlil Okafor, Jabari Parker and Jayson Tatum. But what Williamson is doing in his first year at this level is downright historic for any player, let alone a freshman.
One way we can assess a player’s contributions to his team is Box Plus/Minus, a metric that estimates the number of points per 100 possessions a player contributes above (or below) average using stats found in the box score. BPM has never seen a college player like Williamson. Among players who qualified for the points per game leaderboard at Sports-Reference.com and appeared in at least 10 games since 2010, the first year for which data for all players is available, Williamson’s mark of +20.4 ranks first among 25,793 individual seasons.
Another way to evaluate a player’s contributions is using player efficiency rating. Williamson’s PER of 41.9 is the best mark by any player who saw action in at least 10 games since 2009, the earliest year for the data.
It happens that Williamson is emerging at a moment in which the NBA is putting a premium on positionless players. A decade ago, Williamson might have been relegated to the post, his skill set withering away against taller opponents on the blocks. However, Krzyzewski doesn’t need to shoehorn Williamson in anywhere; ostensibly, he has free reign to roam the backside of the defense like a safety and run the floor in search of rims to pulverize.
On one of the nation’s deadliest offenses, Williamson is likely the team’s most versatile player, dropping in a team-best 1.18 points per possession,2 according to data provided by Synergy Sports. Because of his size and speed, Williamson has been a nightmare to defend in transition, where he contributes a team-best 1.48 points per possession.3 It doesn’t get any easier for the opposition in the half court, where he ranks in the 91st percentile in scoring.
Fronting Williamson in isolation is a fool’s errand. He pours in 1.31 points per possession in those situations, good enough to rank in the 95th percentile nationally, with an adjusted field-goal percentage of 70 percent. Factor in his uncanny court vision and passing abilities, and the equation gets scarier. On isolation plays that include passes, Williamson is scoring 1.37 points per possession, which ranks in the 96th percentile.
Allow him to find a spot on the interior of the defense, and you’re asking for more problems. Williamson scores a team-best 1.14 points per possession on post-ups, which ranks in the 89th percentile. When the opposing defense doesn’t send an additional defender, Williamson scores a robust 1.44 points per possession, which ranks in the 99th percentile.
Williamson is adept at setting a pick in a pick-and-roll set, but he can also run it. On six pick-and-roll possessions as the ball handler, he scored 10 points.
Defensively, Williamson is more than serviceable. As the primary defender, he allows 0.72 points per possession, which ranks in the 73rd percentile. Duke’s defense has improved considerably from a year ago, when Krzyzewski was so fed up with the team’s performance that he instituted a zone defense. This season, the Blue Devils are playing a zone base on just 3 percent of minutes and rank in the 97th percentile in points allowed per possession. Some of that certainly is attributable to the switchable Williamson, who averages two blocks and two steals per contest.
His numbers already stack up well against the last five players to go No. 1 in the draft — and many draft projections indeed suggest he’ll go first overall.
Zion sure looks like a No. 1 overall pick
How Williamson’s scoring prowess compares with previous top NBA draft picks based on their national percentile rank in points per possession
Points Per Poss. Percentile
Williamson is averaging 20.4 points and 9.0 rebounds per contest, with a true-shooting percentage of 67.5. Only three other players since 1992 have hit those benchmarks, and each was an upperclassmen. And let’s not forget to factor his defense into the comparisons: No player in the past 25 years has averaged 20 points, eight rebounds, two blocks and two steals per contest. But that’s where Williamson is.
At its roots, basketball is a sport largely defined by the exploitation of mismatches. Williamson is a mismatch for virtually every player tasked with defending him, and he’s putting up numbers that haven’t been seen in at least a quarter-century. Williamson garnered a reputation as a high flyer by punishing rims and opponents at the high school level, but his first — and likely only — season at the college level has revealed a more polished game that extends to every area of the court, not just above the rim.
The Villanova Wildcats produced one of the most dominant seasons in NCAA history last year, going 36-4, including a complete dissection of a strong Michigan team to win the championship game. The Wildcats scorched teams on offense, ranking No. 1 in the country in offensive efficiency and effective field goal percentage, according to college basketball stats guru Ken Pomeroy. This helped them beat the Wolverines by 17 points.
It’s typical for reigning national champions to lose a large chunk of their talent the following season, especially in the one-and-done era. And while the Wildcats may not have lost the most win shares of past champions, the immediate exodus of talent will have huge consequences for their prospects to repeat as champions this season. This is perhaps a long way of saying winning back-to-back titles, or even coming close, has become very difficult in college basketball — and for good reason.
Villanova’s departures have left a sizable hole
Total win share of players who left NCAA championship teams the season after their championship, since the beginning of college basketball’s one-and-done era
And when it comes to the one-and-done era, the Gators are an anomaly themselves, as Donovan managed to persuade the likes of Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer to remain in Gainesville for their junior years before winning another title and then moving to lengthy careers in the NBA.
For most champions, winning a national title usually means saying goodbye to their best talent — the nation’s top freshman are forced to use college as a stopgap for a year before jumping to the NBA, and upperclassmen often ride their team’s success to test the NBA’s waters. For his part, Wright did well to keep Brunson and Bridges in Philadelphia for another two years after winning their first title, which built a bridge to that second championship.
But the team that cut down the nets last year has been gutted, particularly on the offensive side. Among the top four players of each champion since 2006, when the one-and-done began, Villanova’s departed quartet leave the greatest offensive hole for a reigning champion, a hole that might be too great to overcome.
Villanova fans might choose to view things in a more optimistic way, instead thinking themselves as fortunate that they only lost four players, especially seeing the Wildcats of Kentucky lose an unimaginable six players after their championship in 2012 and then stumbling into the NIT a year later. Nova’s relatively tiny rotation last year — Villanova ranked 302nd in total bench usage, according to KenPom — could be a blessing in disguise as the likes of Eric Paschall and Phil Booth are still available to make the leap to the top of the college ranks and potentially beyond.
Still, Villanova fans thinking of a repeat might want to curb the enthusiasm.
Any team not named Duke, Kentucky or Kansas — whose recruiting prowess means a revolving door of NBA-bound super freshmen — has struggled to be relevant again immediately. If you look past these three blue bloods, Louisville is the only reigning champion to reach the Sweet 16 the year following championship in the last dozen years. It’s why the 2010 North Carolina Tar Heels couldn’t even make the NCAA Tournament after winning the whole thing a year earlier. It’s why last year’s Tar Heels were swept aside in the second round of the tournament by Texas A&M.
Back-to-back has become a pipe dream
How men’s NCAA champions have fared the following season in college basketball’s one-and-done era
Season after championship …
Joining senior Paschall, who’s being touted as a first-round pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, and redshirt senior Booth, who netted 23 in his season debut last week, is the 12th best recruiting class, according to ESPN. Five-star recruit Jahvon Quinerly is considered one of the best freshman point guards in the nation, and four-star forwards Cole Swider and Brendan Slater both also have a place on the ESPN 100. Whenever this is enough for Wright’s team to make waves again in March is a question for the season ahead. However, with currently the fifth-best ranked recruiting class for next year, Wildcats fans may have another title-winning team in the not-too-distant future, maybe just not in the immediate one.