Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Padding the Stats: Thoughts on the End of the College Basketball Season

April 05, 2023

The college basketball season came to an end this week as first LSU on Sunday then UConn on Monday cut down the nets in the women’s and men’s championships, respectively. 

Neither championship game was particularly compelling as the Tigers and Huskies were both in firm control of the game most of the way outside of a brief second half surge for each of the runner-ups, but there’s still a lot to dive into.

First, let’s look at the women’s game, which has dominated the headlines for every reason other than the play on the court.

I’m not a ratings guy, but in this case they’re useful to dispel the notion that nobody watches women’s basketball. 

Not bad. Much of the viewership is due to the Caitlin Clark phenomenon, and for good reason, but she isn’t the only draw. Clark and the Hawkeyes, undefeated reigning champion South Carolina featuring last year’s Player of the Year in Aliyah Boston and a talented LSU team led by its own star in Angel Reese all converged to produce a memorable weekend of hoops.

Unfortunately, what dominated the conversation wasn’t the combined 25 3-pointers, another 30-piece from Clark, Reese’s 33rd double-double (in 35 games) or the 16-point second quarter off the bench from from LSU’s Jasmine Carson.

No, the majority of the talk centered on Reese’s actions at the end of the game when LSU had the championship wrapped up, as she tracked down Clark — a prolific trash-talker in her own right who seems to relish playing the villain — to mimc the taunting action Clark herself used in the previous game.

Did Reese perhaps go a little over the top? You could argue that. But the vitriol spewed at Reese is completely unwarranted considering all the factors at play. However, the most important factor is Clark herself had no problem with it.

“I don’t think Angel should be criticized at all,” Clark told ESPN’s Outside the Lines. “No matter which way it goes, she should never be criticized for what she did. I’m just one that competes and she competed. I think everybody knew there was going to be a little trash talking the entire tournament; it’s not just me and Angel.”

I can’t imagine being so upset (to the point of calling Reese terrible names) by something that doesn’t affect me if the person that actually was involved had no issues with it. There’s a difference between youth sports (where sportsmanship should be a major emphasis) and college basketball where competition reigns supreme and adults are the ones competing.

The other storyline that dominated the discussion in the last few days is the officiating, which sparked an entire column from The Athletic’s Nicole Auerbach. There were 37 fouls called in 40 minutes and numerous players had to deal with foul trouble (including Clark), but that’s not what stands out most.

Clark’s fourth foul was a technical, assessed for a second delay of game call when Clark tossed the ball backwards under the basket after a shooting foul called in Reese’s favor. The toss didn’t really delay the game in any way, but by the letter of the law I guess I understand why an official could call it (though not why he or she would choose to do so). But if they were going to be a stickler for the rules, why was Baylor coach Kim Mulkey allowed to act the way she did with no penalty? The officials could have whistled a technical on her for any of a number of offenses (venturing beyond the coach’s box onto the court during play, making contact with an official during play, demonstratively arguing and complaining about calls, etc.). That double-standard is a horrible look for the sport.

My friend Matt DeMarinis of White & Blue Review covers women’s basketball much more closely than I do and and said the state officiating on the women’s side is much worse than on the men’s, and fans constantly bash on those officials as well.

The truth is this is a problem without a simple solution. It’s an incredibly difficult job that fewer and fewer people are doing these days because of the mistreatment experienced at the lower levels. With the level of skill, athleticism and grifting in the modern game, I’m not sure how anyone expects officiating to improve without fundamental changes to the rule book and official instruction at all levels of the sport.

Trash-talking and officiating concerns aside, congrats to LSU on an incredible season (34-2) and the title. The best part about this year’s title game? Both Reese and Clark will be back for at least one more season to talk trash, put up video game stat lines and continue to grow the women’s game.

As for the men’s game, there was no controversy involved as the UConn Huskies controlled the action most of the way just like they did most of the season (outside of a brief rough patch in January). UConn put together one of the most dominant tournament runs we’ve seen and, in fact, the Huskies didn’t lose a single game outside of Big East play, winning each of them by 10-plus points.

UConn finished the season No. 1 in KenPom — third in adjusted offensive efficiency and seventh in adjusted defensive efficiency. 

KenPom’s database goes back to the 2001-02 season, giving us 21 tournament champions (excluding 2020, obviously). Eleven of those 21 champions finished at No. 1, three at No. 2, four a No. 3, one at No. 8, one at No. 10 and one at No. 15. So to reiterate, 18 of the 21 champions have been top-three teams in the sport.

Looking more closely, of those 21 champions, 19 of them were ranked in the top-1 on at least one side of the ball (18 on offense, 12 on defense) and 11 of them were top-1 in both. He bigger outliers were the 2003 Syracuse Orange led by Carmelo Anthony (ranked eighth overall — 17th on offense and 14th on defense), 2011 UConn led by Kemba Walker (ranked 10th overall — 19th on offense and 15th on defense) and 2014 UConn led by Shabazz Napier (ranked 15th overall — 39th on offense, 10th on defense).

The previous two UConn titles were more the result of a hot run through the tournament by a dynamic guard playing out of his mind, but this one was different. Dan Hurley built an incredibly well-rounded roster with a dominant two-headed center rotation, athleticism and shooting on the wings and a steady presence at the point. He built the core of his team with high school recruits (Final Four Most Outstanding Player Adam Sanogo, his massive back-up Donovan Clingan, freshman starter Alex Karaban and do-it-all hyper-athletic wing Andre Jackson most notably) while plugging a few holes with transfers (point guard Tristen Newton, bench sniper Joey Calcaterra and veteran reserve guard Nahiem Alleyne).

Congrats to the Huskies. With the amount of talent that could return and the coaching upgrades made this offseason, the Big East is going to be an all-out war every night next season (unless you’re playing Butler or DePaul, that is).

For all of its flaws, I absolutely love college basketball and can’t wait for the next season to begin.

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