Sunday, August 11, 2019

The 2010's: College Basketball

I've reached the age where my views of sports are all tinged with nostalgia for my youth.  Names like Ed "Too Tall" Jones and Jay Shidler will always have a disproportionate impact on my recollection of sports.  As a result, there is a grave temptation to underestimate what is happening now.

There's another factor at play.  I grew up at the end of the period -- which covered most of the 20th century -- where sports were mostly left to sports fans.  When I was growing up, sports was generally run by people who knew and cared a lot about sports, and who put on their competitions in a manner designed to appeal to folks like me.  I can remember when we still had pennant races, when the Super Bowl kicked off at 1 P.M. on Sunday, and when the bowl games really mattered.  But the folks who ran sports were so successful that by the end of the 1970's, it was obvious that enormous amounts of money were being left on the table.  Since the early 1980's, we have seen sports taken over by a new type of executive -- someone who knows exactly how to squeeze every possible dollar out of the competitions we love.  In the pursuit of these dollars, they have changed our sports in a determined effort to make them as palatable as possible to the so-called "casual" fan.  Those of us who really care about the outcomes have seen our games flooded by new teams that probably shouldn't exist, games that are played at odd times, additional playoff rounds that demean the regular season, and rule changes designed to keep everyone happy.  At the same time, the enormous sums at stake have encouraged coaches and athletes to treat every play as if it would decide the title -- an attitude that goes further than anything else to explain why all games now take so much longer to play.

But all of these complaints can easily go too far.  The truth is that middle-aged sports fans have always complained that the games aren't as interesting as the ones they remember from childhood -- and often these complaints are more about our advancing age than about any problem with the sports or the athletes.  The truth is that if you still care about the games -- if you still care about who wins and who loses -- then the last decade has been full of spectacular drama.

Since we are now wrapping up the 2010's, I thought I would look back at each of the major sports -- not through the eyes of nostalgia, but in the spirit of the sports books of the 1960's and 1970's.  In other words, I will assume that you really care about outcomes, drama, and greatness.  College basketball has already played its 2019 national championship, so we will start there.

2010:  Duke 61, Butler 59 (Indianapolis, Ind.)
2011:  Connecticut 53, Butler 41 (Houston, Tex.)
2012:  Kentucky 67, Kansas 59 (New Orleans, La.)
2013:  Louisville 82, Michigan 76 (Atlanta, Ga.)
2014:  Connecticut 60, Kentucky 54 (Arlington, Tex.)
2015:  Duke 68, Wisconsin 63 (Indianapolis, Ind.)
2016:  Villanova 77, N. Carolina 74 (Houston, Tex.)
2017:  N. Carolina 71, Gonzaga 65 (Glendale, Ariz.)
2018:  Villanova 79, Michigan 62 (San Antonio, Tex.)
2019:  Virginia 85, Texas Tech 77 (OT) (Minneapolis, Minn.)

It was an era where college basketball was dominated by the East Coast.  Eight of the 10 titles were won by teams from the ACC or the Big East.  Another was won by Connecticut in 2014 -- the year after UConn left the Big East.  So Kentucky's 2012 title was the only one captured by a team not connected to one of the big eastern conferences.

Best Program of the Decade:
Three schools -- Duke, UConn, and Villanova -- won two titles in the 2010's.  UConn's program collapsed toward the end of the decade, so it's not really eligible for this discussion.  Given that Villanova won its two titles as a Big East member after most folks thought that conference had been left for dead, I will give the edge to Villanova.

Coach of the Decade:
Here I'm going with Coach K.  Not only did he win the NCAA's twice -- he also led the USA to two Olympic gold medals and two FIBA world championships in the decade.  He was also brilliant in adapting both to the rise of one-and-done's and to the increased use of the three pointers.  And Kentucky fans have to be impressed with the fact that he won both of his national titles in years where UK had a number-one seed and Kentucky fans really thought it was going to be our year.  But it was Coach K's year instead.  He's my coach of the decade.

Best Team of the Decade:
In 2018, Villanova completely dominated the NCAA's.  The Wildcats beat Radford by 26, Alabama by 23, West Virginia by 12, Texas Tech by 12, Kansas by 16, and Michigan by 17.  No one else in the decade had such an easy ride through the tournament.  But Kentucky's 2012 team was also very strong -- the Cats never trailed in the second half of any game -- and the Cats had to win rivalry games in the tournament against Western Kentucky, Indiana, Louisville, and Kansas.  The Cats finished the year with a record of 38-2, while Nova went 36-4.  On the other hand, Ken Pomeroy's Estimated Margin indicates that 2018 Villanova (33.76) was better than 2012 Kentucky (32.59).  If you're going with that, however, you should consider that according to Ken Pom the best team of the decade was 2015 Kentucky (36.91) -- and I'm not picking any team that failed to win a title.  So we have to do it old school, and use the eye test:  who would win a game between 2012 Kentucky and 2018 Villanova?  In any such contest, I'm usually going with the team who has the best player -- and therefore I'm going with Kentucky.

Best Player of the Decade:
Anthony Davis of Kentucky.  Media coverage of college basketball during this decade was dominated by one-and-done players.  But Anthony Davis was the only one of those players who took his team all the way to the promised land.  (Jahlil Okafor had a spectacular year for Duke in 2015, but I give much more credit for that title to Coach K.)  Ask Zion Williamson or Karl Anthony-Towns how easy it is for a freshman to lead his team to the championship.  In almost 50 years of watching Kentucky play basketball, Anthony Davis is far and away the best Wildcat I've seen.  He's not only the best player I've seen for Kentucky -- he's also the smartest.  I will never forget how he got better at shooting free throws, how he always managed to be in the right place at the right time, and his spectacular ability to go from defense to offense.  In terms of a college player, I would put him up against anyone I can remember -- other than Bird and Magic.

Best and Worst Changes of the Decade:
The worst change to college basketball, in my opinion, was the decision by the football schools to pull out of the Big East.  The old Big East was a joy to watch, and I miss it all the time.  Meanwhile, Big East veterans like UConn, Syracuse, and Pittsburgh have struggled to find an identity without their historic rivalries.  Word has it that UConn is returning to the Big East, and that will help, but it still won't be the same.  We also continue to have a major problem with the officials, as we saw in the 2019 tournament, but that can hardly be blamed on the last decade -- it's been a problem for many years.

I'm not sure anything really got that much better in the 2010's.  Personally, I like the one-and-done's -- I certainly think it's better than having folks like Zion going straight to the pros -- and I don't think they've distorted the sport in any significant ways.  But it's not exactly a huge cause for celebration.  On the whole, I think the most hopeful development was the rise of three-point shooting, and how teams like Villanova and Duke imitated the Warriors' bombing style.  The NCAA gives defenders significantly more scope to hold and hack offensive players than the NBA or FIBA, and as long as that is the case, three-point shooting will be the only way to open the floor.

Best Tournament of the Decade:
It was a great decade for NCAA tournaments.  There were several tournaments in the 2010's that were as good as any from the golden age in the 1980's.  In 2011, four underdogs -- UConn, Kentucky, Virginia Commonwealth, and Butler -- made the final four.  In 2014, the final game was between a 7-seed (UConn) and an 8-seed (Kentucky).  Kentucky's run through the 2014 tournament was possibly the most exciting thing I've seen as a UK fan.  In 2015, you had a series of showdowns between Super Teams at Kentucky, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Duke.  And remember when Butler reached the final game in back-to-back years?

But the best tournament of the decade was the one that just concluded in April.  Every round featured the usual drama, but the Round of 16 saw some amazing games:  Duke beat Virginia Tech 75-73, Kentucky beat Houston 62-58, and Purdue beat Tennessee 99-94 in overtime.  But that was only the beginning.  Here were the last seven games of the 2019 NCAA Tournament (AP rankings in parentheses):

(9) Texas Tech 75, (4) Gonzaga 69
(2) Virginia 80, (13) Purdue 75 (OT)
(14) Auburn 77, (7) Kentucky 71 (OT)
(5) Michigan St. 68, (1) Duke 67
(9) Texas Tech 61, (5) Michigan St. 51
(2) Virginia 63, (14) Auburn 62
(2) Virginia 85, (9) Texas Tech 77 (OT)

That's three overtime games and two other games decided by one point each.  Every team that reached the quarter-finals had a good chance to win it all, and all eight of us can tell ourselves that if they ran the tournament again, we could get there.  To win the title, Virginia had to win two overtime games and a one-point game.  In doing so, Virginia became the first team since Florida in 2006 to win the title for the first time.  Virginia also overcame the demons of its humiliating loss to 16-seed UMBC the previous year.  It's hard to make up more excitement than that.  I have some severe differences with the officiating down the stretch in those games.  But in terms of sheer drama, that tournament can stand with any of the ones from my childhood.  I really hope that in 30 years, someone does a 30-for-30 type film on the 2019 NCAA Tournament.

Best Game of the Decade:
Every season, college basketball throws up dozens of games that include as much drama as anything in Hoosiers.  As a Kentucky fan, I have particularly fond memories of UK's regular season wins over UNC in the 2011-12 and 2016-17 seasons -- and I am extremely happy about our victories to eliminate U of L from the tournament in 2012 and 2014.  But the game of the decade was Villanova's 77-74 win over UNC to win the 2016 tournament -- the rare example of a national championship game being decided by a buzzer beater.  It was really like something out of a movie.

And that summarizes my experience with college basketball in the 2010's.  Of course, I always think college basketball is more fun when UK is really good -- and UK was really good in the 2010's.  But I think anyone who watched these games in a fair spirit would conclude that we saw some spectacular action.  I, for one, almost had to stop watching after the heartbreak of Kentucky's 2015 season.  As time went on, however, the sheer excitement of the games drew me back in -- and now I'm already looking forward to the 2020's.


  1. So how good was UK during the 2010's? Here are some numbers to put it in perspective:

    1970's: 223-69, winning percentage of .764, two final fours, one national title
    1980's: 231-85, .731, one final four
    1990's: 282-63, .817, four final fours, two national titles
    2000's: 240-97, .712
    2010's: 305-70, .813, four final fours, one national title

    So it was a very good decade.

  2. Actually, I did think of a big change in the decade that I liked a lot. I'm very happy with all the new analytical work being done by people like Ken Pomeroy, and the way this work has been incorporated by coaches. For me, one of the main differences about basketball in the 2010's is that I had a much clearer picture of what was actually happening, and which teams were really good. For example, UK's team in 2004 was a number 1 seed, and was ranked high in the polls, but it wasn't actually that good. It had been very lucky in a number of close games. But I didn't know any of this, and so I was devastated when UK lost in the second round to UAB. Now I have a much better sense of how the game actually works. So that is a huge improvement that took place in the last decade.

  3. This is fantastic. I'm so excited about this whole series.