And so it begins? The NCAA has fairly or unfairly taken a beating in recent months over its handling of just about everything from its use of player likenesses to academic scandals to jewelry purchases to replacement refs (ok, maybe not the last one). For the most part, the federal and state governments have kept their noses out of it, preferring to let the NCAA as a private organization operate under its own auspices. But with billions of dollars flowing through the nation’s top athletic universities via lucrative sports media deals, and a general sentiment held by the public that the NCAA fosters an environment of exploiting its student-athletes, California governor Jerry Brown on Thursday signed a bill called the “Student-Athlete Bill of Rights.” This new law, which by virtue of their size will only impact the four Pac-12 schools located in the Golden State, will require greater protections for the players at those schools in terms of medical coverage, scholarship guarantees, and due process. The law is the first of its kind in the nation, and other states are no doubt watching closely to determine if they want to follow suit. We’ll have more on this interesting and important topic later today.
Luke Winn has been in his Brooklyn-based math lab crunching the numbers in anticipation of the new college basketball season, and as always, his insights answer questions that most people didn’t even know they had. In his latest piece at SI.com, Winn explores the “exploitable gap” in balancing the scheduling of non-conference games for the purpose of maximum RPI juice while not particularly taxing the team in its bottom line (taking losses). He finds two case studies of “Scheduleball” to illustrate his point — Pittsburgh under Jamie Dixon, and Colorado State under Tim Miles — with each showing how the formula of scheduling top 50 and top 100 opponents and avoiding games against teams in the bottom 100 of the RPI is a key recipe for success. There are other ways to manipulate schedules to your RPI advantage, of course, but as Winn clearly argues, as long as the formula continues to use winning percentage as a proxy for schedule strength, there will continue to be flaws in the RPI system.
While we continue on the theme of smart people doing smart things, the US Supreme Court will reconvene for its October term on Capitol Hill next week. One of the most controversial cases that it will consider next month has gotten the notice of many head coaches around the game because the issue involves the holistic approach of using race as a factor in college admissions decisions. While the cynics out there might believe that the self-interested coaches are merely trying to protect their own players in their defense of affirmative action, the truth is that athletes are usually admitted through other loopholes anyway. But their interest in the law (last upheld by SCOTUS in 2003) is to ensure a diverse campus environment that their players will find welcoming beyond the basketball court. This can play a huge role in recruiting, especially when often dealing with athletes largely from minority communities. Oral arguments will occur on October 10 with a decision due next spring.
Alabama head coach Anthony Grant has gradually improved his Crimson Tide program since arriving in Tuscaloosa just over three years ago. His first team struggled, but he followed that up with an NIT runner-up finish in 2010-11 and an NCAA appearance in 2011-12, the school’s first since 2006. His teams get after it defensively and there’s no reason to believe given this recruiting and coaching abilities that the Tide will drop off from the NCAA level anytime soon. His bosses have noticed, as Grant was rewarded this week with a one-year extension through the 2018-19 season and a raise to $1.9 million per year (ahem, still well below Nick Saban’s $5.6 million per year deal). With many of the traditional “SEC West” basketball programs still in transition, Grant has a golden opportunity over the next five years to turn Alabama into the top program in that geographic slice of the conference.
We’ll finish with something from earlier this week on Ken Pomeroy‘s site. According to the stats guru, there were only 17 games last season where a team had less than a one percent chance of winning at any point during the game and came back to do so. The only game most of us were likely to have watched finished at #8 on his list — the early February Duke vs. North Carolina game in Chapel Hill — also known as the Austin Rivers shot game. With UNC up 10 points and 2:38 remaining on the clock, Pomeroy’s win probability states that the Blue Devils at that point only had a 0.62% chance to win the game. For those of us more accustomed to Vegas-style odds to make sense of the world, that converts to a 1-in-162 chance. And yet, “Duke would have just five possessions left and went 3, 3, 2, 2, 3 to finish.” And remember, that game represents only the eighth least likely comeback — get over there to read about the 16 others.
Ever wake up on a random summer Thursday to learn about something planned for five years from now, and spend the rest of the day giddy thinking about it? Yeah, us too. When the Champions Classic was announced two years ago featuring a rotating schedule between Kansas, Duke, Kentucky and Michigan State, we were happy. When the as-yet-unnamed Phil Knight event was announced yesterday featuring a ridiculously cool dual tournament format that includes the likes of Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Florida, Connecticut, Michigan State, Gonzaga, Ohio State, Texas, Oregon, Stanford, Butler, Oklahoma, Georgetown, Xavier and Portland facing off over four days, we were ecstatic. Everyone loves some March Madness — this one-of-a-kind event to celebrate the 80th birthday of Nike founder Phil Knight will be as close as it gets to November Madness. Football people have trouble understanding this, but basketball at every level has always been a tournament sport — you win, you advance; you lose, you go home. Our only beef with this idea — why only one year? Make it permanent!
If all the contracts are signed and this Phil Knight event actually comes to pass in 2017, perhaps some of this summer’s younger prep stars will be playing in it. This year’s high school juniors would be college seniors in the 2017-18 season if they played straight through, after all. SI.com’s Frank Burlison released a summer recruiting report for those of us who haven’t kept up with all the news from the summer camps and tournaments, and from his perspective, North Carolina and Florida had the most successful season on the prep circuit. Interestingly, Burlison’s analysis of Jabari Parker, SI’s cover boy as the best prospect since LeBron James, rates him fifth in his own class. His educated opinion is that Class of 2014’s Andrew Wiggins is the best player in high school basketball, regardless of class. Maybe SI will put him on the cover next year with the headline “Best Since Jabari Parker!”
Everyone knows that Boise State‘s blue-fielded football program is poised to join the Big East on the gridiron beginning in 2013 — what was less certain is what would happen to all of the university’s other sports, including men’s basketball. No longer is this in question, as it appears that the Broncos will join the Big West just as fellow Big East/Big West member San Diego State has already done. Confused? Yeah, when you take into account that Boise State’s football (Big East), wrestling (Pac-12), gymastics (WAC), women’s swimming and diving (Mountain West), and men’s basketball and all other sports (Big West) reside in five different leagues from coast to coast, it really hits home just how ridiculous certain results of conference realignment has gotten. The volume of paperwork running through the athletic department alone must be downright Himalayan.
Most college basketball head coaches are notoriously apolitical — at least publicly — being either too busy or too strategically diplomatic to engage in much discussion about the issues facing the country in an exceptionally polarized political environment. In a slightly odd twist from the norm, a number of prominent head coaches including Tom Izzo, Ben Howland, Johnny Dawkins, Tubby Smith, Jamie Dixon, Mike Montgomery, and Phil Martelli recently filed a “friend of the court” brief along with the NABC and Black Coaches and Administrators organizations regarding a Supreme Court case about race-based admissions decisions. The amicus brief (in full here), one of over 50 submitted for this case, argues that public universities should have considerable discretion in how they choose their admitted students, which may include attempts at balancing diversity by considering factors other than test scores and grades. This is a touchy subject for many people, but we’ll leave it at this — schools have always found ways to admit people who fell outside the numbers, long before anyone knew what affirmative action was. There’s no reason to believe that will ever change, simply because it’s not in their best interests to do so.
It appears that all of the external pressure on North Carolina is resulting in some much-needed action. On Thursday, UNC chancellor Holden Thorp announced that former North Carolina governor James G. Martin (for those of you wondering, he’s a Davidson alumnus) will lead an independent review of UNC’s academic issues prior to 2007 in tandem with Virchow, Krause & Company, a national management consulting firm. Thorp said that he expects the team’s findings to be reported within a few weeks in the hopes that the school can put this scandal behind them, but of course that will also ultimately depend on what any new findings actually reveal. It’s good to see that UNC is taking this seriously, though, and has removed the investigation from its internal mechanisms. Roy Williams has an opinion on the matter, for what it’s worth.