Tuesday, April 9, 2024

On Dan Hurley and Close Games

Dan Hurley and the UConn Huskies are once again the champions of Division I men's college basketball. UConn is the first school to win back-to-back titles since Florida in 2006 and 2007. The way UConn did it though is also astounding. The Huskies have played 12 NCAA Tournament games in the past two seasons and the closest victory was by 13 points against Miami FL in last season's Final Four. It is as dominant a stretch as could be imagined.

That dominant run is also great for Hurley in particular, because he has historically struggled in close games. But if you never play in them — it doesn't matter.

The chatter about Hurley and close games died down a bit after the Huskies won their first title. This season UConn just didn't play many close games. The Huskies went 2-1 in games decided by four points or fewer. The loss was at Kansas on Dec. 1. (We'll get back to the Jayhawks and Bill Self in a minute.)

Eventually UConn will have to play another close game and what happens then is anyone's guess. Here's a look at Hurley's career coaching record by margin and school. A big thanks to Bart Torvik for the underlying data.
SchoolMarginWinsLossesWinning Pct.Pct. Games
Rhode Island1-4213140%27%
Rhode Island5-8172046%19%
Rhode Island9-15371670%28%
Rhode Island16+371374%26%

Hurley's teams at UConn have lost 72% of the 1-possession games they've played during his time there. It's almost unbelievable considering how good he's been in every other situation and even moreso considering how good UConn has been against elite competition. These should be 50/50 tossups and the only place that was almost ever true for Hurley was at Wagner.

Maybe though it's just that great coaches are: 1) Less likely to play close games or 2) Worse in them?

To test those theories I looked at five of Hurley's contemporaries: Bill Self at Kansas, John Calipari at Kentucky, Tom Izzo at Michigan St., Mark Few at Gonzaga, and Scott Drew at Baylor. Here are their results at their current (or most recent) school.
Coach / SchoolMarginWinsLossesWinning Pct.Pct. Games
Self / Kansas1-4762972%17%
Self / Kansas5-8833471%19%
Self / Kansas9-151312783%26%
Self / Kansas16+2062490%38%
Calipari / Kentucky1-4484552%17%
Calipari / Kentucky5-8743667%21%
Calipari / Kentucky9-151122880%26%
Calipari / Kentucky16+1751493%36%
Izzo / Michigan St.1-4684461%19%
Izzo / Michigan St.5-8734860%20%
Izzo / Michigan St.9-151245071%29%
Izzo / Michigan St.16+1603283%32%
Few / Gonzaga1-4512964%14%
Few / Gonzaga5-8492566%13%
Few / Gonzaga9-151122184%23%
Few / Gonzaga16+2831695%51%
Drew / Baylor1-4594756%19%
Drew / Baylor5-8725059%21%
Drew / Baylor9-151155368%29%
Drew / Baylor16+1502586%31%

I probably didn't need to make this table for it to be obvious, but Bill Self is an absolutely amazing in-game coach. The fact that his Kansas teams have won 72% of their games decided by four points or fewer is just unbelievable.

Most of these coaches though: Have coached in a similar percentage of close games (with the exception of Few) and have won more of those games than Hurley. Few is probably an outlier in terms of the percentage of close games because Gonzaga plays their conference season against the West Coast Conference, which doesn't lend itself to a ton of high-level competition. Self is by far the outlier in terms of close-game winning percentage, but the lowest otherwise is Calipari at 52% (Drew isn't far behind at 56%). 

While it hasn't mattered during the NCAA Tournament in either of the past two seasons. Hurley's close game results are still fascinating. Does anyone have a good explanation? I'm all ears.

Thursday, April 4, 2024

Two Interesting NIT Developments

Tonight is the NIT Championship game. The tournament, which has had extremely strong ratings and engagement throughout its 32-game run this March and early April will conclude with Indiana St. and Seton Hall playing a dream matchup at Hinkle Fieldhouse.

There have been a few interesting developments to the side of the NIT, including two in particular that I would like to address, because they speak to the future of the tournament (and this site).

Development #1: ESPN ran a graphic that stated 17 teams declined to participate in the NIT.

ESPN ran a graphic during the first round games that showed all of the "Teams That Declined NIT Inviation", according to the graphic's header. [You can see it below.]

This graphic is misleading for a number of reasons, and I've already addressed many on Twitter, but I think it's worth separating these teams into a few categories for context.

Category 1: Teams That Were Clearly Going To Be Invited And Declined (7)
  • Washington
  • Pitt
  • St. John's
  • Syracuse
  • Memphis
  • Oklahoma
  • Ole Miss
Category 2: Pac-12 Teams The NIT Had To Ask (6)
  • Arizona St.
  • Cal
  • Oregon St.
  • Stanford
  • UCLA
  • USC
Category 3: Bubble Teams That Declined Or Asked Not To Be Considered (4)
  • Florida St.
  • Indiana
  • Maryland
  • St. Bonaventure
When you separate the teams into those three categories, things look a little different. Seven teams directly declined to participate in the NIT when they knew they were likely to receive a bid. There is no denying that's a lot of teams, but each had some reason for doing it. (Though only Washington with its pre-announced coaching change really made sense.)

Washington declining a bid forced the NIT to go down a list of Pac-12 teams that had already shut things down for the offseason by the time they were even being considered. College athletes from some of those teams had literally gone home by the time Selection Sunday rolled around.

Category three is pretty interesting. Florida St., Indiana and Maryland are all power conference programs that probably consider participating in the NIT (especially as a road team) beneath them. St. Bonaventure is a completely different institution with a rich history in the NIT. The fallout from pre-emptively declining an NIT bid that would've most likely been offered has (partly) cost the Athletic Director their job.

That desire to play in the NIT is especially strong amongst fan bases outside of the power conferences. I saw that this season in my bracketology and from the discussions I had with numerous people on X and other places. The NIT represents a chance to compete against a group of teams that schools from the tier of conference starting at the A-10 and Missouri Valley on down don't often get the chance to match up with (especially towards the end of the season once rosters have gelled).

Which brings me to Development #2 and what if that all gets taken away?

Development #2: The College Basketball Crown is announced.

If it had been announced on Monday, I think most people would've assumed that the College Basketball Crown was an April Fools joke. The tournament, which is brought to you by FOX Sports, is a 16-team tournament for teams that don't make the NCAA Tournament that will be played in Las Vegas from Monday, March 31 to Sunday, April 6, 2025.

The tournament appears to have the backing of FOX's major television contract partners: the Big Ten, Big 12 and Big East. Much like what was supposed to happen for this season's NIT, there will be two automatic bids from each conference into the tournament.

Beyond that, extremely little is known about what other teams will want to play in this tournament.

Theoretically though this is the can of worms that the NIT was trying to avoid when it changed its selection process to hand out automatic bids to power conference teams. It doesn't seem to have worked.

There are definitely enough good basketball teams to have a 48-team postseason beyond the NCAA Tournament. (At least when we have 68 teams in there.) I don't doubt that both the NIT and the College Basketball Crown will be able to fill their tournaments next season.

But if both tournaments are trying to attract schools that are big television draws, such as say Ohio St. this season, where will teams like the Buckeyes end up? It's hard to say. Can CBC automatic bids be turned down? There's a lot we don't know, but I thought The Barking Crow did a good job thinking through a lot of the implications.

One knock on effect though might be that the College Basketball Crown threatens the viability of the College Basketball Invitational. The tournament has run an awesome event that past few years in Daytona Beach, FL but I wonder if teams that might've played in that will now go to the CBC? [Seattle beat High Point for the title this season.] It'll be interesting how teams are redistributed.

I will continue trying to learn more about the landscape as we move into next season so that I can continue to deliver the best NIT Bracketology possible. But come Selection Sunday 2025 things might get even weirder.

How ESPN Might Save The NIT

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