Every year, the NCAA Division I Basketball Tournament captivates fans with its gauntlet of games packed not only with action but with the hopes and dreams of players, coaches, and supporters alike. Drama increases with every tick of the game clock, leading to bracket-busting upsets and buzzer-beating results.
With this intensity comes an impressive number of tight games where the difference between winning and losing is often determined by the minutest of details. And sometimes, the most obscure, even when they’re front and center all along.
This event didn’t emerge as a phenomenon until it first deposed the rival National Invitation Tournament, whose major attraction to teams was its centralized location in media hub New York City. In 1970, after Al McGuire’s Marquette team declined its seeding and placement in the NCAA tournament in favor of the NIT – which it won – the NCAA pulled rank, declaring that any of its members who refused to play in its tourney would be prohibited from playing anywhere else in the post-season. It was a move that would have put a tear in any robber baron’s eye.
Incidentally, it was McGuire who inspired the term Big Dance. (He was also the originator of the term kick it out to describe a pass from the key to the perimeter.) He often sported a blue blazer on the sidelines during Marquette’s 1977 season. When a reporter asked if he’d wear it if the team made it to the tourney, he replied, “Absolutely. You gotta wear the blue blazer when you go to the big dance.” And so he did. Marquette wound up winning it all. And so it was.
The NCAA also lifted the terms March Madness and Sweet Sixteen. Those came from the high school ranks. The former was coined for the Illinois state tourney in 1939. Brent Musberger, who had moved from his Chicago sportswriting job to CBS, brought the phrase with him. Promoter Bob Walsh applied it to the 1988 Final Four in Seattle, at which point the association was cemented. That was the year Kentucky’s high school athletic authorities trademarked the latter to describe its state tournament, but the NCAA absconded with it anyway. Ultimately terms became joint properties with the respective high school bodies.
The NCAA then claimed Elite Eight and Final Four as its own, completing the set. That covered the marketing glitz. As to the atmosphere it created for neutral courts, the NCAA’s arrangements affected a set of conditions that have a subtle but direct effect on the games themselves. Here are five of them:
The NCAA has decreed that the privilege of being a top seed in the tournament includes proximity to campus. Thus, the higher seeds usually don’t have to travel as far to their assigned neutral court sites, which can sometimes afford them the benefits of home.
This year, for example, Wisconsin saw a virtual sea of red in its first weekend as a result of being placed in Milwaukee. Passionate crowd support certainly didn’t hurt when the Badgers mounted their double-digit comeback to overcome Oregon and advance to the Sweet Sixteen. However, even though Syracuse fans packed the house in nearby Buffalo, the Orange couldn’t avoid the upset by a determined Dayton, whose contingent of Flyer fans may have been outnumbered but made their presence known.
Like most teams try to do, Dayton prepared for neutral court games by playing in an early-season holiday tournament. They went to Hawaii on Thanksgiving break and met fellow 2014 Dancers Gonzaga (winning, 84-79) and Baylor (losing, 67-66) as well as California (winning, 82-64). It surely helped, but the home-court resemblance Syracuse posed in Buffalo still made the Flyers’ accomplishment there all the more impressive.
Everyone’s favorite whipping boys obviously can’t be excluded from the neutral court experience.
The NCAA sends their best officials to the tournament. But they’re human, and whether they know it or not, they still have their biases.
In 2009, the respected Journal of Sports Sciences published the results of a multi-year study that included the following conclusions:
-The visiting team’s probability of being called for a foul is 7% higher than that of the home team;
-In nationally televised games, there are more fouls called against the team that’s leading than there are in locally televised games;
-If there’s a significant disparity between teams in number of fouls called, the team with the fewest will most likely benefit from the next call; and
-If the home team has five or more fouls than the visiting team, the probability is an eyebrow raising 69% that the next call will be in its favor.
Two of those findings reiterate the effect that geography can have in creating a home-team environment for top seeds.
The professors only used first-half data so as not to have late-game foul-a-thons skew the trends. And the NCAA did ask for a detailed copy of the research. To date, no comment.
3. Elevated Courts
In 1997, the NCAA decided to capitalize on the Final Four’s drawing power and mandated that any venue hosting it must have a capacity to seat at least 40,000 spectators. This decision obviously limited sites to buildings not built to house basketball games.
This season, for example, Cowboys Stadium — Jerry Jones’ billion-dollar playpen in Dallas – drew a record crowd of 108,713 fans for the 2010 NBA All-Star game. Its configuration was changed to accommodate a combined 158,682 attendees for both Final Four games, with tickets priced from $50 to $200 a pop. This by far surpassed the current top house count of 78,129 at Detroit’s Ford Field in 2008, which was a regular season game, the one-off Basketbowl where Kentucky beat Michigan State, 79-74. The New record set between Connecticut and Kentucky was 79,238.
Sightlines needed improvement for the crowd’s benefit, so the NCAA opted to raise the court 27 inches above field level. Schools such as Minnesota and Vanderbilt feature this characteristic, but for most teams, this can be a disorienting experience.
Playing on what amounts to a platform puts the benches farther away. That has an effect on the communication between the team on the floor and its coach; some would say this is an improvement, though, as the college game’s trend of micro-managing coaches standing instead of sitting and letting the players play can be maddening.
Even though the NCAA installs a ten-foot carpet around the court’s edges, many players are still hesitant about going full-throttle for loose balls in those areas. Value judgments must be made. Is it worth risking injury and thus exclusion for the rest of the game for just one possession? Then again, will that one possession make all the difference?
Tough call in the spur of a moment.
And then there are depth perception issues for the shooters, which is an issue in itself.
2. Shooting Backgrounds
To this day, scientists are at a loss to physically define the human body’s ability to accurately shoot a basketball. That would assuredly classify the process as an art, and neutral courts often make it more of a challenge to perform.
Lower seeds in the Big Dance often play in gyms rather than full-fledged arenas, where the backboards and rims are relatively close to walls. This enables the shooter’s eyes transition from ‘wide vision’ to ‘focused vision’ a quick but normal function. Thus, the shoot-around is an important practice for them when they’re on the road as they adjust to the greater distance between hoop and background in larger venues. How quickly they adapt is a key factor in their chances of pulling the upset.
Those teams aren’t alone in neutral court games, where both sides must acclimate to new shooting backgrounds in only a couple of practice sessions. This is a skill seasoned shooters must have, but a team’s secondary scorers may not be as comfortable with it, which may limit the effective options available to that squad during the course of a key game. As such, defenses can deploy their strategies accordingly. And sometimes, tellingly.
Since ‘dome games’ have only been featured recently, data samples are too small to reach definitive conclusions. But it’s clear that with shooting backgrounds seemingly in the next area code, the rim and backboard can appear to be floating in thin air.
The Wall Street Journal parsed what scant information exists in dome games and observed that shooting percentages for three-pointers dipped on average from 36% in four previous non-dome Final Fours to 32% and overall attempts fell from 46% to 42%. They did not take into consideration the fact that the trey arc moved one foot back from the 2008-2009 season onward, so the effect of this change has not been quantified.
Suffice it to say that in a dome game where the point spread is three points or less, this percentage differential is enough to give punters pause. And for coaches of teams where treys are an integral part of their offense, it’s enough to give them ulcers.
1. The Ball
Sponsorships are vital in college athletics, so it’s not news that each school has its own equipment contract. However, it’s often overlooked that these deals include the brand of balls being supplied and used in home games.
There are six major makes in use among the NCAA’s power conferences, and seven if Sterling’s sole relationship with Wisconsin is included. (Could this have any slight influence over Bo Ryan’s 195-21 record there?) Nike is used by the overwhelming majority of power conference teams, with Adidas a distant second. Spalding, Baden, and The Rock have contracts in the single digits.
Big Dance contests feature the Wilson Solution. Only 16 teams share that distinction.
And no, a ball is not just a ball. It’s already been established that shooting is an art, and no self-respecting artiste is going to agree that his primary tool is just a ball.
They’ll tell you that every ball has its own feel, a point that can easily be confirmed by visiting any local sporting goods store. Materials used are different, not to mention styles. Nike has deeper seams. Adidas has a different panel construction. The Rock has shallow seams. And so on.
Wilson is distinctive for its ‘softer’ leathery tone. Some feel this provides a better grip, but those shooters and ball handlers more accustomed to the ‘slicker’ feel of a Nike or Adidas ball have to be more conscious of the difference. At the end of the season, in the Big Dance – when the rubber meets the road, so to speak – being more conscious of anything that’s been a reflex up until then can create a moment or two of doubt. In a close game, that’s not a favorable situation.
Of course, most teams do their best to be prepared for this. They keep various brands of balls on hand for road games and events such as the NCAA tournament. However, compared to the balls they’ve used daily in drill after seemingly endless drill, there’s no getting around the fact that conscious adjustments must be made.
No doubt the Big Dance champions Connecticut Huskies weathered a storm or two in order to raise the trophy and cut down the nets, thus achieving championship immortality. And somewhere in its triumphant mix, there is no doubt a measure of how well its players and coaches handled the challenging undercurrents present when competing on the NCAA’s neutral courts.
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