Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Illinois Season Preview

This is John Groce’s first season as Illinois’ head coach. I don’t mean that literally—obviously, he’s been in Champaign for a couple of seasons. But this is the first season in which the roster was truly of his design. And despite the fact that everyone seemingly has nice things to say about the former Ohio State assistant, the Illini are consistently put in the 7th to 9th range in the preseason Big Ten standings. Basically, people are sleeping on Illinois. Consider this preview a wakeup call. 

First, let’s talk about what’s wrong with Illinois. Somewhat ironically, it’s team captain Nnanna Egwu, the only holdover from the Bruce Weber regime that will play this season (senior Tracy Abrams will miss the season with a torn ACL). The 6-11 center has developed into a plus defender—albeit one that’s a little light on defensive rebounding—but he’s been a very big liability on the offensive end. Egwu has always been a poor shooter, but that’s mostly been about shot selection, as an all too-high 61.5 percent of his shots were of the midrange variety. It’s hard to be efficient like that. 

That “mostly” qualifier is important, as I’m not sure this problem would go away entirely even if all of Egwu’s attempts came at the rim. He only converted 63 percent of those attempts last year, even on a fairly selective diet (just 29 percent of his FGAs). Generally speaking, the more you attempt of something, the less successful you’ll be. This is because the “extra” attempts are not going to be of the wide-open variety, as the player is already taking those shots. The extra attempts will be challenged shots, or shots with the off hand, or under shot clock duress. So even if Egwu swears off midrange shots for good, his field goal percentage would almost certainly be well below 60 percent. 

And frankly, I don’t expect a 4th-year player to change his stripes that significantly. If there’s one shooting trend in Egwu’s career, it’s an increased propensity to attempt three-pointers (starting at 0, to 6, to 23 last season). I expect that to continue. And he might be fairly successful with those, given last year’s free throw shooting (78 percent). By the way, that’s another casualty of Egwu’s midrange game—in 103 career games, he’s attempted 102 free throws. 

However, other than Egwu, Illinois’ offense should be scorching this season. Consider the career three-point percentages of the Illini wing players:

Player
Career 3P%
Aaron Cosby
38.8
Kendrick Nunn
38.8
Ahmad Starks
36.6
Malcolm Hill
34.1
Rayvonte Rice
28.0

Obviously, one of these things is not like the others, but more on that in a bit. For the moment, consider whether Illinois has the second-best shooting in the conference behind Michigan (four players boasting 38 percent or better is pretty tough to beat). Considering another competitor is Wisconsin, who I think the Illini edge out, that’s no small feat. 

It’s also worth noting that two players on this list were freshmen last season, and the last time Cosby and Starks played, they each shot 40 percent from three-point range. But even this level of shooting is not why I’m high on Illinois’ offense this year. I think the biggest plus the team has going is usage. Let’s take a look at the shot distribution (using the most recent season of the players) of a lineup I think we’ll see fairly often this season:

Player
Shot Percentage
Aaron Cosby
23.3
Kendrick Nunn
19.3
Rayvonte Rice
28.2
Malcolm Hill
17.5
Nnanna Egwu
17.0

Total that up, and it’s 105.3 percent of the available shots. Obviously, that’s too many. That’s a very good thing, as it means each of these players can be more selective with the shots they take, and there should be fewer end-of-shot-clock desperation situations as well. As for the rest of the rotation? Ahmad Starks will get something close to starter’s minutes, and his Shot Percentage was over 25.0 for 2 of his 3 seasons at Oregon State (with high efficiency). Freshman Leron Black (RSCI #46) is a strong rebounder, but it’s not clear what his usage will be like. The last spot or two in the rotation will likely go to one of the sophomore big men (Maverick Morgan and Austin Colbert) or sophomore Jaylon Tate. 

It’s worth mentioning that Tate is the only thing on the roster that statistically looks like a point guard (Starks looks like one physically in that he’s really short, but he’s played more like a combo in his career thus far). That said, there should be enough ballhandling on the floor such that Tate’s services will not be in high demand. That’s a good thing, as his 1 for 23 accuracy from three-point range last year would not fit in with the rest of the crowd. 

That’s also an issue with Rice, who has never been all that accurate of a shooter. Rice dominated against lesser competition last season, with an offensive rating over 120 in the non-conference slate. In the Big Ten it was a different story, however, as Rice shot just 36 percent from the field to finish with a 94 offensive rating. 

Of course, last season it’s not like there were a lot of superior options to Rice. This was the worst-shooting team in the Big Ten, and Rice was at least assertive. This year, he won’t have to be, as he’ll be surrounded by accurate and confident shooters. Perhaps the biggest challenge for Groce will be finding a way to get Rice to pass up shots he’s likely to miss—even at Drake, Rice was a quick firing shooter that wasn’t terribly accurate. The team is deep enough that Illinois doesn’t need him on the floor for his offense, however, Rice is also Illinois’ best defender. 

It’s hard to miss Groce’s emphasis on “sacrifice” heading into this season, and that has to apply to Rice’s offense in particular. If he can dial his shot percentage to a more manageable 22 or 23 percent, the team will be much better for it. 

In a lot of ways, Illinois looks very much like Michigan, in that it has a loaded backcourt but a lot of question marks in the frontcourt. I like Michigan’s backcourt a bit more, and Illinois has fewer questions on the interior, but both teams look awfully similar otherwise, and I expect similar results as well. Falling onto the bubble would be a disappointment for this year’s Illini.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Iowa Season Preview

There’s a well-known concept in finance (but it applies elsewhere) known as the recency bias. Like the name suggests, it’s an inclination to value more recent events over otherwise similar older events when making predictions about the future. As far as I can tell, that’s the only reason why everyone is expecting so little out of Iowa. 

Iowa finished the season on a 1-6 note, then had to endure the ignominy of participating in a “First Four” game against Tennessee. The Volunteers, of course, went to the Sweet 16 where they lost by 2 to Michigan. On the season, they finished 7th by Pomeroy ratings. All of this is to say that in 2014, there’s still plenty to gripe about when it comes to the NCAA seeding process. 

Would a more ambitious non-conference slate helped the Hawkeyes avoid that kind of draw? Probably—Fran McCaffrey has not impressed with his non-conference foes. But resume-building notwithstanding, prior to the end of the year slide, Iowa was 19-6, with wins over Ohio State (in Columbus) and Michigan. On the season, Iowa netted a +0.06 efficiency margin in the Big Ten, a better figure than that boasted by Ohio State, and not far behind preseason darling Wisconsin (+0.09). 

Iowa also does not lose all that much in terms of minutes from last season, despite losing some big names in Roy Devyn Marble, Zach McCabe, and Melsahn Basabe. Everyone else is back, and the team adds JUCO point guard Trey Dickerson, who averaged 20 points a game last season. The downside with this team is that there aren’t a lot of angles for big jumps. Dickerson might immediately contribute, though I suspect he’ll need a year. The only returning sophomore on the team is Peter Jok, who performed well in limited action last year. He could break out—although he did not see a ton of minutes, the fact that he was able to see more than mop duty time despite Iowa’s deep rotation is a positive (Also, he’s 6-6, shot 80 percent from the free throw line, and has quite a bit of confidence in his outside shot. Don’t sleep on him.). Still, there are other teams with more breakout candidates than Iowa. 

Even so, the lack of a breakout star should not doom the Hawkeyes to a bottom half finish. After all, Maryland and Minnesota have very little in terms of returning sophomores, lose a lot more (in Maryland’s case) or about the same number of (in Minnesota’s case) minutes, and they were both decidedly inferior to Iowa last season. So why are we seeing these teams ahead of Iowa in previews? 

Again, it has to be recency bias at play. Iowa struggled down the stretch—particularly on defense—so surely they will roll those struggles over into the new season. Well, let’s take a look at those six Big Ten losses to finish the season:

Opponent 2P%
Opponent 3P%
Opponent FT%
56.8
45.2
77.0

Now this isn’t the entirety of if—the fouls were also a little higher than you’d like, and the rebounding was poor for a Big Ten team (but not out of hand), but those were more than offset by a pretty stellar defensive turnover rate in those games. So really, it comes down to the shooting.

And the last two columns are luck. Opponent free throw shooting needs no explanation, and Pomeroy’s work on three point defense is well-documented. Thus, the argument distills to Iowa stinks because they got unlucky in a cluster of games that happened to come near the end of the season? Well, not totally—that two-point defense is bad, bad, bad, but you can’t tell me that Minnesota keeps its 6-point win if they make 6 of 19 three-pointers, rather than 11 (and if you’re not convinced on that, perhaps the Gophers shoot 70 percent at the line rather than 83 percent). Or that Northwestern would have won that game shooting 8-23 on 3s, rather than 11-23. 

Just flip those two games, Iowa gets a comfortable 4 or 5-seed, wins a couple games against legitimately inferior opponents, and I suspect they’d be picked between 2 and 4 in this year’s Big Ten. What’s the alternative—that McCaffrey was practicing some defensive wizardry that opponents figured out in mid-February? This isn’t to say that Iowa was a good defensive team last year. But it also was not the yackety sax operation you witnessed at the end of the season. 

As for the strengths, I expect the team to once again be offense-first. The loss of Marble means the offense will flow through Aaron White, an exceptional shot-maker. Over his career, White has converted 58 percent of his two-pointers, a percentage that spiked to 63 percent last year. White does this by attempting 60 percent of his shots at the rim, where he converts 75 percent of them. White has also attempted 562 free throws, which ranks 16th all-time in the Big Ten (that’s probably not accurate, as I could only find records dating to 1997-98. If anyone can find earlier numbers, please send them along.). He’s got an outside shot at Alando Tucker’s "record" for attempts of 817 (if he attempts the same number he did as a sophomore, he’ll beat it by 3. Of course, White had an incredible foul rate that year, and more importantly, Iowa played 38 games en route to the NIT championship game.). But he’s almost a shoe-in to break the all-time free throws made of 520.

What will be interesting is Iowa’s lineup. The five best players on last year’s team that remain are probably White, Jarrod Uthoff, Adam Woodbury, Gabe Olaseni, and Mike Gesell. By my count, that’s one guard, two power forwards, and two centers. So if McCaffrey puts his five best on the floor at once, that might technically make the 6-9 White a shooting guard. 

I don’t see that happening all that much, which underscores the point that Iowa is not without question marks entering the season. But these things are relative, and I prefer Iowa’s questions to those held by most of the rest of the conference. There’s no reason Iowa can’t finish in the top 3 of the Big Ten.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Purdue Season Preview

A.J. Hammons might have saved the Purdue basketball program. 

At 7-0 and 250 pounds, Hammons has the rare size to be an NBA center. He also has the ability to be the best (and the worst—more on that in a bit) player on the floor on any given night. He’s a strong rebounder and arguably the best shotblocker in the country. He gets to the FT line almost at will, and he's a powerful finisher (converting on over 80 percent of his attempts at the rim). So it’s reasonable to guess that NBA teams have their eyes on Hammons. And given that he’s 22 years old, Hammons was more like a collegiate senior last year than a sophomore. 

But he came back. And that’s a good thing for Matt Painter, because there’s no way this team was going to make the NCAA Tournament without him. 

That’s probably not something I would have guessed even 6 months ago. While Purdue had plenty of problems last season (outside of rebounding, the team did very little well against Big Ten foes), the Boilermakers were also playing a fair number of freshmen in Bryson Scott (RSCI #84), Jay Simpson (a redshirt), Kendall Stephens (RSCI #63), and Basil Smotherman. All but Simpson (whose career is over due to a heart condition) return, which means you expect some large gains. But the departure of point guard Ronnie Johnson hurts the team severely. Johnson struggled with his outside shot, but in every other area he was solid. Marginal shooting improvements would have made him a plus performer in the conference. 

And while Simpson was raw, you could see areas in which he would have likely improved—his shooting at the rim was an unlikely 65 percent, which is low for a guy standing 6-10 and weighing 250, and his midrange accuracy was also a fluke-screaming 29 percent. 

But with those two unforeseen exits, Hammons’ presence becomes a necessity. If Hammons plays to his potential, Purdue should be an NCAA Tournament team, which would give some reassurance that Matt Painter is the right coach for this program. That last part can no longer be taken as a given, as Purdue is just 13-23 in Big Ten play over the past two seasons. Another middling season, and you’ve got a longer NCAA Tournament drought than Gene Keady ever had. 

Now, coaches get dismissed all the time, but Matt Painter has a pretty hefty buyout:

By way of example, assume that (i) Purdue elects to purchase the right to terminate this Agreement effective as of January 31, 2015 without Cause [...]  Under the foregoing assumptions and calculations the Remaining Agreement Amount will equal [...] $10,739,583.35.

That’s not chump change. And remember, the buyout is just the first piece, you then have to pay the next guy a lot of money, too. That’s not welcome news to an athletic department with an unhealthy football program

OK, enough doom and gloom. Let’s talk about upside, which begins and ends with Hammons. The big man is capable of dominating games, like he did against Nebraska last year (18 points on 9 shots, 4 blocks, 0 turnovers). But he’s also capable of disappearing completely like he did against Wisconsin (2 points on 3 shots, 2 rebounds, 3 turnovers and 3 fouls in 12 minutes). But most of his lines—for example, against Northwestern—are a mix of the really good (17 points on 10 shots, 10 rebounds, 4 blocks, 2 steals) and the really bad (7 turnovers). 

When you look at Hammons’ numbers, you don’t see a player that just turned 22, you see a player that just turned 19. He’s a big man with athleticism, as indicated by the ridiculous shotblocking ability, elite finishing percentage, and high offensive rebounding rate. But he’s a foul machine (4.7 fouls committed per 40 minutes) and extremely turnover prone. He led Purdue in turnovers last year. Think about that—a center, who managed only 15 assists on the entire season, led the team with 78 turnovers. Hammons probably shouldn’t be making 78 combined dribbles and passes in a season, much less throwing the ball to the other team that many times. It’s also worth mentioning that Hammons led his team in fouls, even while playing almost 200 fewer minutes than Terone Johnson. 

This is what makes Purdue so hard to project this season. These flaws are typically held by freshmen who are adjusting to the speed of the game. They are not usually found in upperclassmen. For freshmen, it’s easy to see improvement. That becomes harder as a player is bearing down on his 23rd birthday. You have to think that if Hammons wants a shot at the NBA, he’s going to leave after this season. And Painter similarly needs to show fans that he can bring the Boilers back to the Tournament (and Purdue needs him to be successful, just as much as he does). For everyone involved, it might be now or never.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Michigan State and Michigan Season Preview

So we’re going to be doing things a little differently this year. Gone is the regimen of dedicated team previews and regularly-scheduled recaps. Much more of a “write about what we want to, when we want to.” So with that, welcome to the new season.

Also, I started writing this preview before I knew how much I had to say about both teams. So this is really long. Here’s a jump to Michigan, if you just want to read about the Wolverines. 



***

Just 60 miles or so separates Ann Arbor from East Lansing, and there isn’t a lot that separates the two teams right now. They’re both coming off very similar seasons, for instance:


Overall
Conference
Efficiency Margin
Michigan
28-9
15-3
0.107
Michigan State
29-9
12-6
0.088

Even more, coming into this season, both teams lose roughly half of last year’s minutes. And with both teams, that’s probably underselling it. Michigan State for its part lost three starters to the NBA and graduation (Keith Appling, Gary Harris, and Adreian Payne), and another rotation player to a failure “to meet necessary obligations” (Kenny Kaminski), although Tom Izzo made sure everyone knew it was “just a minor setback” (seriously?). 

Replacing those players on the roster is largely freshmen along with an impact transfer. On paper, this freshman class is the second substandard one in a row, though that’s applying the standards of Michigan State. Lourawls Nairn is the lone top-100 player in the class (RSCI #78), but I don’t see him being all that good as a freshman, though I like his long-term potential. That’s not what Spartan fans want to hear, I’m sure, because there aren’t exactly a ton of ballhandling options on the roster (more on that later). Nairn and his classmate, Marvin Clark, Jr., played on the same AAU team in their summer before their senior seasons. Nairn didn’t exactly have the desired shot selection from someone who will likely be charitably listed at 6-0, as just ten of his 179 field goal attempts were 3s. And it’s also difficult to claim his reticence from deep was due to things going swimmingly inside the arc, as he shot just 44 percent on his 2s. More likely, Nairn just wasn’t all that confident in his outside shot, as his 58 percent free throw stroke indicates. 

Clark is an interesting option—the forward was his team’s leading scorer, though his 43.8 eFG wasn’t all that stellar. But a 6-7 forward that devotes nearly half his attempts to 3s, and wasn’t so bad at them, is worth a look. But that’s not all—Clark was also extremely skilled at getting to the line, which is where he excelled (84 percent). Free throws and three-pointers are great ways to find efficiency, so I’m very intrigued by this guy. Alas, he might be too raw as a freshman, given his turnover-prone ways (17 turnovers against just 2 assists). But as sleepers go, Clark isn’t a bad pick. 

Javon Bess appears to be another underrated 3-star. A double-digit scorer, Bess is also a strong rebounder and appears to have some pretty good handles to go with it. Yes, that does sound a lot like Draymond Green and Denzel Valentine, though I’m sure Spartan fans are hoping he’s more like the former. 

Finally, MSU got a much-needed boost to its outside shooting when Cleveland State transfer Bryn Forbes was given a waiver to play this season. I don’t expect Forbes to do much beyond shoot 3s (42 percent last year at Cleveland State), but given the lack of other outside options on the team, that should keep him plenty busy. 

So does this incoming quartet have a chance at replacing the aforementioned exodus? Of course not—that group included a couple of first rounders, after all. Michigan State is not going to compete for the Big Ten title this season, that much is clear. But we’re still seeing a lot of projections putting the Spartans in the top-25, though I’m not sure I can sign onto that, either. For one, I’m not sure where the improvement comes from. The only returning sophomores are Gavin Schilling and Alvin Ellis. Schilling had his moments last year, but he, like Ellis, is an extreme role player that seems unlikely to grab a larger share of the offense. Travis Trice is a three-point specialist who sometimes plays a point guard on TV, though Valentine might actually be better-suited for the role. Valentine and Branden Dawson are nice enough players, but I’m not sure there’s a lot more to see out of either of them. Both players were third and fourth options while on the floor last year, but now they’re expected to be the centerpieces of this attack. While Valentine should improve on his finishing (just 49 percent at the rim last season), the added responsibility will likely lead to more bad shots. As for Dawson, he’s incredibly effective around the rim, where over two-thirds of his shots have come from in his career. But he’s not a jumpshooter. When the shot clock is winding down, he’s not someone I want to see with the ball in his hands at the top of the key. 

And ultimately, that’s the problem I see with MSU’s offense this season. A lot of players who are good in the right role, but all role players to be sure. I see a defense first, second, and third team here, and one that appears headed for the bubble.
****
OK, so what about Michigan? Coming off an outright Big Ten title and another deep Tournament run, is this just another reload? After all, this team lost Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr., and didn’t miss a beat. Why can’t that happen again down a Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary, Jordan Morgan, and Jon Horford? 

Well, one reason is because I couldn’t read that sentence out loud without taking in another breath. The losses are more significant this season. But perhaps more importantly, there’s not quite as much upside here. What made Michigan’s runner-up season all the more impressive was the amount of not-NBA ready freshmen were on the floor for John Beilein’s team. Over half of the conference minutes in 2013-14 were played by freshmen that came back for their sophomore seasons. It almost doesn’t matter what you lose when that’s the case. 

This year, there are no such resources to draw from. Sure, Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton are fine prospects that played a lot of minutes last year, but that amounts to under a quarter of last year’s totals. 

And it’s also worth mentioning that not all freshmen are alike. Stauskas himself is pumping the brakes a bit on Irvin, and for good reason. It’s one thing to expect a freshman to improve on something he is doing poorly—it’s quite another to expect him to fundamentally change his stripes:


% of Shots at Rim
% of Shots 2P Jumpers
% of Shots 3PAs
Freshman Stauskas
18.5
20.5
61.1
Freshman Irvin
5.1
20.4
74.5

This is the first reason why I’m a bit bearish on Irvin’s breakout prospects. Unlike Stauskas, Irvin was very much just a shooter (it’s also worth noting that Stauskas’ shot distribution did not change very much in his sophomore campaign). 

The second reason that I’m bearish is that Irvin is already a pretty good shooter, making 43 percent of his 3s last year. His 13 assists in 569 minutes also indicates he’s not much of a creator. So with Irvin, the question is what is going to get better? The only answer I can come up with is “more minutes.” Frankly, that’s not so terrible—this guy was attempting 25 percent of his team’s shots when on the floor with a blistering eFG (59.2). So maybe he will be a breakout player, at least to those who rely on counting stats. 

I do see more potential in Derrick Walton, mostly by means of whittling down his turnover rate. For a freshman, it was very reasonable, but that caveat should be dispensed with this season. His already-advanced ability to run the pick and roll figures to take off this season as well. 

Alongside those two sophomores will be Caris LeVert, who figures to be the centerpiece of the offensive attack. He won’t be Stauskas, either, but he should be good enough to push for the 1st team. He’s not quite the outside shooter Stauskas was (who is?), but otherwise he’s similar. 

That’s a very good backcourt, and possibly the best in the conference. If basketball were 3-on-3, Michigan would likely repeat as conference champs. But the frontcourt is a mystery, and that’s putting it mildly. The options are:

  • Max Bielfeldt, who has attempted all of 11 shots at the rim over his two years at Michigan (making 5, all in his freshman season). He’s not a real option, and it should be unnerving that I’m mentioning him this early.
  • Mark Donnal, a reshirt freshman, and Ricky Doyle, a true freshmen, are reportedly locked in a battle to start at the 5 position. Neither was a top-100 recruit coming out of high school, neither has separated himself as the starter. The odds that Beilein found two diamonds in the rough is probably low.
  • Kameron Chatman, a top-50 true freshman (RSCI #27), who is probably going to play 30 minutes a game simply because he can rebound.  Chatman was the 7th-leading rebounder in EYBL play last year, behind some well-known names like Cliff Alexander and Jahlil Okafor. What else can he do? That’s much more uncertain. He averaged roughly 16 points a game for his AAU team, but it was a very inefficient 16 points (42.9 eFG). As best as I can tell, everyone on the team aside from Kameron Chatman and Daniel Hamilton (a 5-star shooting guard headed to UConn) needed written permission to shoot. My guess is that one of the first things Chatman will need to learn is the value of shot selection—certainly, someone who hits 17 percent of his 3s probably should not attempt 54 of them over a 17-game stretch.
  • True freshman D.J. Wilson, who missed a good chunk of the summer with an injury. I don’t know much about him other than the fact that “potential” is thrown around a lot. So, probably not someone we’ll see a lot of this year.
  • Aubrey Dawkins, who grew from 6-4 to 6-6 late in his high school career. Dawkins went to prep school before heading to Ann Arbor. He’s the son of Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins, which makes one wonder why he isn’t in Palo Alto. Apparently, it’s grades. Score one for Harbaugh. That said, Dawkins didn’t have a ton of offers even very late in his recruitment. However, Beilein does have a knack for finding underrated players.

This list has potential, but mostly it has questions. And that’s why I don’t see Michigan at the top of the Big Ten this season—too many questions in the frontcourt. But the guards should be good enough to propel the team to the NCAA Tournament yet again.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Of nose cuts and face spites

It’s been a while since I’ve waded into these waters, but recent developments are prompting a revisitation to the topic—Northwestern has secured an initial ruling that puts its football and men’s basketball players on the road to unionization. So let’s talk amateurism.

This is a debate in which I find myself disagreeing with both sides. The NCAA, for its part, is practicing histrionics by declaring that unionization would “completely throw away a system that has helped literally millions [ed: very helpful for the NCAA to distinguish from a metaphorical million] of students over the past decade alone attend college.” There are a few problems with that statement, the first being that the players’ demands certainly don’t strike me as a wholesale system teardown. Second, the NCAA’s headcount seems misplaced when it includes the likes of Andrew Wiggins and Julius Randle who, in an alternate universe devoid of post-high school waiting periods, likely would have chosen to bypass college altogether, despite all the help offered by “the system.”

On the other side, we have the players who had the advantage of starting out in a sympathetic position. Yes, they receive compensation in the form of tuition and expenses, but it’s clearly not a market rate. Further, they are in danger of having this compensation yanked away from them in the event they are no longer able to adequately perform their job, because of an injury sustained while on the job.

All of this seems to line up with Northwestern’s demands. They want stronger concussion protections, scholarship guarantees, and financial compensation to fund or reward the completion of a degree. Sure, all of that sounds nice and reasonable. But it also has me wondering—why the heck aren’t the players asking for this stuff prior to showing up on campus?

You see, in traditional organized labor environments, the workers are largely fungible. You show up at the factory, and get a job on the line. There are exceptions to this—and sports leagues are one—where the workers do have highly specialized skills. But in the NBA, for instance, the league needs anti-competitive aspects to survive. If the Los Angeles Lakers—by virtue of playing in one of the largest media markets in the world—could buy up any player it wanted, agree to pay termination costs and rip up existing contracts of other players to other teams, the Lakers would be really good. They would probably win 70 or more games every season, were they able to retain the talents of Lebron James, Kevin Durant, Paul George, Anthony Davis, and Chris Paul. And the league would be really boring. The Oklahoma City Thunder, which plays in a city of roughly 600,000 residents, probably goes out of business as it’s unable to compete. Other teams would have to fold, too. And the NBA becomes the boring 8-team league where the Lakers win every year. Eventually, even the LA diehards stop caring, and the whole thing falls apart.

That’s the theory, anyways, and the one that has justified these antitrust exemptions we see in lots of sports leagues. But for a number of reasons, the NCAA isn’t in very much danger of becoming that. So I’m back to my question—if the Northwestern player demands are important (and they certainly seem to be, given the current effort being put forth here)—why didn’t they insist on them while being recruited? Want more concussion protections? Demand them in recruiting. Want a guaranteed scholarship for four seasons? You can ask for that too—in fact, some schools are already starting to give those out. Guess what—you can ask for postgraduate scholarship money, too.

In other words, none of these benefits require any changes to NCAA rules. And there are few people on the planet who enjoy more recruiting leverage than the prized recruit being courted by a head coach. Coaches will risk their jobs and employment sanctions in order to court high school prospects. Surely, they would indulge more modest requests like guaranteed scholarships and concussion protections.

All of this tells me that one of two things is happening: either the players aren’t entirely forthright that this effort is not about the money, or they’re suffering from a severe case of buyer’s remorse. Instead of insisting on these things prior to signing onto the dotted line on a national letter of intent, they insisted on playing time, a certain style of play, or even shiny new locker rooms. If the things now being litigated over were really important to players, they would have them already.

I’m not sure there’s much more to be said about the latter possibility, so let’s focus on the former, which is that unionization is one step toward outright player compensation. And let me be clear—that’s not an unworthy goal. But getting at it via unionization probably leads us to a place where schools are paying players directly. But I’m not sure how they can do that. For one, the Supreme Court told them not to. Then there’s also the problem that there really isn’t a lot of money to go around. No, really.

First, let’s get this out of the way—it’s best to view the NCAA and its members schools as one and the same for these purposes. After all, some 96 percent of its revenues are distributed back to the schools. The NCAA is a middleman operating on a shoestring budget (and an efficient one, at that). So instead, we should focus on the schools themselves.

Let’s take Alabama as an example. If anyone would be a worthy candidate for our vitriol, it’s the win-at-all-costs football school paying a ton of money to its head coach.



Your eyes do not deceive you—football and men’s basketball pay out more revenue than they take in. Those sports are subsidizing the “non-revenue” teams. Some of that is because schools want to. Some of that is probably because they have to.

Schools capitalize on men’s basketball and football players in order to subsidize expenses in other sports. That’s largely what’s happening. Sure, some people are getting rich, but Saban’s salary accounts for roughly 5 percent of the University of Alabama athletic department’s expenses. And it’s likely that his talents increase the overall department budget—if Alabama fired him tomorrow and gave his replacement a salary of $50,000, the whole department budget likely plummets as revenues drastically decline. And that’s Alabama. For most schools, the department loses money.

This is all a very long way to illustrate that when people say that the schools should start compensating players at something closer to market value, what they necessarily mean is that schools should stop investing so much in non-revenue sports. Others have pointed this out as well (much more succinctly, it’s worth noting). And it’s not necessarily a loser, either. Stereotyping is a dangerous undertaking, but I’m fairly confident that high schoolers that are good enough to earn rowing scholarships have socioeconomic backgrounds that are—on average—better than those that go on to play men’s college basketball or football. Should we be using the talents of the worse-off to fund the educations of the better-off? Maybe not. I’m not going to weigh in more on that debate today, except to say that there seems to be a dearth of pro-player’s union pieces that are raging against the women’s soccer team.

Of course, from a practical level, you’re asking schools to risk non-compliance with federal law and running afoul of Supreme Court directive, to say nothing of the outcry that naturally comes from pulling the plug on hundreds of varsity teams. Stranger things have happened, but not much stranger.

My preference at the moment, however, is we simply table that debate. Schools don’t need to pay players outright—let them go get jobs like the rest of college students. If that job happens to signing a contract to put his likeness on a jersey, good for him. The counter-argument I’ve heard to this is some mix of boosters and shoe companies wreaking havoc and reducing Rome to rubble. Frankly, that’s a vote in favor, from my view. Henny Penny wasn’t right, after all.

I’m also not sure there’s much more time for the NCAA to act on this. As we’ve seen before with the Sanity Code (and more importantly, what came immediately after it), once we march down one path, it snowballs (as the current 430-page rulebook demonstrates). Unionization is not the best outcome for either the players or the NCAA and its member schools. But it’s the one with the most momentum right now.