How Bad Is This Final Four?

By Martin Kleinbard

Not all Final Fours are created equal. In 2008, a juggernaut blueblood quartet of #1 seeds—armed with an embarrassment of NBA talent—invaded San Antonio. Contrast that spectacle of a finale with a 2010 that featured just one player get drafted the following June, or a 2011 that pitted an 8 vs. 11 matchup in one semifinal. That’s like going from Manning-Newton in one Super Bowl to Hoyer-Gabbert in the next.

Where does 2016’s Final Four rank on that broad spectrum? On the positive side, we have a budding superstar in Buddy Hield and an awakening giant in North Carolina. On the negative side, we have a relatively starless field (Buddy aside) and a 13-loss Syracuse squad. Not surprisingly, the public’s response toward tomorrow and Monday’s games has been ambivalence mixed with slight curiosity.

Seeking to put some oomph behind the public’s “meh,” I took a look at every Final Four since 1998 to see where this year’s edition stacks up. Let’s start with a figure that everyone’s familiar with: the tried and true “sum of seeds,” which is literally just the sum of all four team’s seeds. I promise it will get juicier:

final four data 1

‘Cuse’s 10-seed knocks this year into the bottom third, but a 1 and two 2 seeds save it from the bracket-massacring levels of ’06, ’00, and ’11. That being said, all four of these teams have had a share of ups and downs in a season marked by unusual mediocrity…er, I mean parity. It stands to reason that 14th could be overstating the strength of this group. Let’s take a look at a figure with a little more meat in it: the average pre-tournament RPI of the four semifinalists:

final four data 2

The drop from 14th to 16th lends credence the notion that this is a particularly weak group, even when considering their seeds. For some context, 0.626 puts the overall level of talent and production on the court this weekend somewhere between this year’s Kentucky and SMU.

Some years, an otherwise subpar quartet of Final Four participants get a PR boost from the incredible runs that each went on to make it that far. In 2011, for example, Butler, UConn, Kentucky, and VCU combined to beat the numbers 1, 2, 4, 6, and 7 teams in the country on their way to Houston. Here are the best and worst years in terms of the average RPI of the tourney opponents of each Final Four team:

final four data 3

As you might expect, there’s a negative correlation between the last two variables[1]: if mediocre (or worse) teams make the Final Four, they probably had to go through some top seeds along the way. This makes 2016’s below-average performance in both categories stand out even more (only 2001 shares that distinction). UNC’s cakewalk slate of opponents—no one better than a 5-seed, good for 72nd out of 76 teams studied in terms of opposing RPI—weighs down two average (Syracuse, 31st, Oklahoma, 41st) and one above-average (Villanova, 19th) strengths of schedule.

We’ve made it this far with barely any mention of the phenomenon that is Buddy Hield. The presumptive Wooden Award winner has channeled his inner Steph Curry this March Madness, including a ridiculous 37 points against top-seeded Oregon in the Elite 8. Hield’s run to the Final Four (and up the mock draft boards) has got to count for something, right?

In an attempt to quantify this star effect, I ranked each year’s Final Four participants by performance in the ensuing NBA Draft. A first overall pick was worth 60 “draft points,” a second overall pick 59, and so on down to 1 point for pick #60. Since this year’s draft hasn’t happened yet, I used a very unscientific method of gathering a consensus opinion from a few mock drafts I found online[2].

final four data 4

Another ranking, another bottom-third performance for 2016. We all love Hield, but there really is a dearth of other must-see talent. Brice Johnson and Malachi Richardson have lit up this tournament, but neither has NBA star potential. Many are comparing Hield’s singular dominance of this March to Kemba Walker’s monster 2011, but Walker was actually the third player drafted from that year’s Final Four (Kentucky’s Enes Kanter and Brandon Knight came before him). By comparison, Hield really does look on his own.

Ok, so there may not be many stars in this year’s Final Four, but how about the depth? Are there are lot of excellent players who project to be late first/early second round picks? Let’s take a look at the number of players taken in the draft immediately following each championship weekend:

final four data 5

Finally, a top-10 showing for this year’s Final Four(!)…But a couple of big caveats. First, it’s a six-way tie for 9th, which severely dampens the celebration. Second, this assumes a 56th overall pick for Isaiah Cousins. If Cousins ends up going undrafted, it’s back to the bottom third once again.

Before we render our verdict on this season, let’s take a moment to recognize the best of the rest of the field. In terms of in-season greatness, no one can match 2008. This shouldn’t come as a huge shock since it was the only time in history in which all four #1 seeds made the promised land, but the degree of dominance was impressive nonetheless. First in sum of seeds and RPI, second in draft points, plus a trio of NBA superstars (Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, and Kevin Love): it’s unlikely we’ll see anything like it any time soon.

In terms of draft depth, 2015 is tough to top: 11 players (second most) and 488 draft points (far and away the most). However, it’s too early to tell if lottery picks Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor, Willie Cauley-Stein, Frank Kaminsky, Justice Winslow, Trey Lyles, and Devin Booker will make the same imprint in the pros that they did in college.

And 2016? It isn’t pretty. This year’s best showing on any of the rankings is 9th place—the worst of any season studied. I rank it behind fellow bottom-feeders 2006, 2010, 2011, and 2013 because those years had the intrigue of a small-conference Cinderella: George Mason (2006), Butler (2010, 2011), VCU (2011) and Wichita State (2013). Sure, Syracuse is a surprise, but no one’s calling a Jim Boeheim-led team a feel-good, David-over-Goliath story.

I’ll nestle this year’s Final Four in a group along with 2000 (#1 Michigan State, # 5 Florida, #8 UNC, #8 Wisconsin) and 2014 (#1 Florida, #2 Wisconsin, #7 UConn, #8 Kentucky) in the race for the Least Intriguing Final Four in Recent Memory. They all share a few key qualities: top seeds that lacked top-level NBA talent and faced brutally easy roads to the Final Four, and low-seeded big-conference schools that erased a disappointing regular season with an unexpected March run. Like Syracuse this season, 2000 UNC and Wisconsin had 13 pre-tournament losses. 2014 Kentucky began the year #1 in the country but was unranked by the time Selection Sunday rolled around.

In the end, the presence of Hield and Johnson saves 2016 from the bottom slot. 2000’s best players? Mike Miller and Mateen Cleaves. 2014’s? Julius Randle and Shabaaz Napier. Let’s leave this year with the Bronze medal in the race for Final Four irrelevance.

While this Final Four may lack major pre-game storylines, it can redeem itself with a trio of exciting games. Since the NCAA started staging the event in football stadiums, we’ve had a flurry of brickfests and blowouts. Give us games in the 80s and dramatic finishes, and I’ll throw the numbers out the window.

***
Martin Kleinbard is a fan of the Yankees, Nets, Islanders, and Raiders. He looks forward to telling his grandkids about the last time the Raiders had a winning record. Martin is also co-founder of The Bandwagn, a newsletter/website that allows non-sports diehards the chance to join the sports conversation. He can be reached at martin.kleinbard@gmail.com.

 

References:

[1] -0.65, to be exact.
[2] In case you want to argue that I was either too tough or too lenient on this year’s prospective draftees, here they are: Hield (3rd overall), Brice Johnson (11th), Malachi Richardson (17th), Michael Gbinije (31st), and Isaiah Cousins (56th).

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