The chicken or the egg? Nature or nurture? Free will or predestination? These are some of the most frequently asked “big questions” in human history. As the 2019 Final Four — who is there and who is not — settles into reality, let’s ask this other question: “Chemistry or talent?”
Obviously, teams need a certain degree of both, but with Duke and Zion Williamson not making the Final Four — and moreover, not dominating any of their NCAA Tournament games after their 1-over-16 formality in the round of 64 — it is certainly worth revisiting this question.
One cannot escape the reality that over the broader history of college basketball since the end of the John Wooden dynasty — we can include this season, which means we have had 44 seasons since Wooden called it a career — the best teams often fail to win national titles.
I didn’t say “usually,” but I did say “often.”
For every two elite teams which won it all, there’s a not-so-elite team which came together and stayed together at the right time.
This will be somewhat imprecise due to its brevity, but on a very broad level, let’s shoehorn the past 44 national champions into two broad categories: “elite teams” (No. 1 seeds or best iterations of teams at a given school or under a given coach) and “secondary teams” (lower seeds or not-as-formidable iterations of teams at a given school or under a given coach).
1976 Indiana was an elite team. 1977 Marquette was secondary. Two clear examples to start.
1978 Kentucky was elite. 1979 Michigan State was elite. 1980 Louisville was elite. See how this goes?
1981 Indiana: secondary.
1982 North Carolina: elite.
1983 North Carolina State: secondary.
1984 Georgetown: elite.
1985 Villanova: secondary.
1986 Louisville: secondary — I think 1980 and 1986 Louisville are close calls, but ultimately deserve to be split 1-1.
1987 Indiana: elite.
1988 Kansas: secondary.
1989 Michigan: secondary.
1990 UNLV: elite.
1991 Duke: secondary.
1992 Duke: elite.
1993 North Carolina: elite.
1994 Arkansas: elite.
1995 UCLA: elite.
1996 Kentucky: elite.
1997 Arizona: secondary.
1998 Kentucky: secondary.
1999 UConn: elite.
2000 Michigan State: elite.
2001 Duke: elite.
2002 Maryland: elite.
2003 Syracuse: secondary.
2004 UConn: elite (close call).
2005 North Carolina: elite.
2006 Florida: secondary.
2007 Florida: elite.
2008 Kansas: elite.
2009 North Carolina: elite.
2010 Duke — an exception to the rule: secondary, though it was a No. 1 seed that year. More on this below.
2011 UConn: secondary.
2012 Kentucky: elite.
2013 Louisville: elite.
2014 UConn: secondary.
2015 Duke: elite.
2016 Villanova: secondary.
2017 North Carolina: elite.
2018 Villanova: elite.
2019 winner: secondary UNLESS it is Virginia.
The tally: Entering the 2019 Final Four, 27 of the past 43 national champions have been elite teams, 16 have been secondary, with Virginia being the only “elite” team in Minneapolis. If Virginia does not cut down the nets on April 8, the tally over the past 44 years will be 27-17 for the elite teams, a shade above 60 percent, or 3 out of 5.
That might not seem like an explosive revelation, and I wouldn’t even say that it IS explosive, but realize how different this is from professional basketball, in which the best team almost always wins.
The 2011 Mavericks beating the Heat? The best team did not win. The 2016 Cavs over the Warriors? The best team did not win, because Draymond nut-punched LeBron with the Warriors about to go up 3-1.
The 2006 Heat beating the Mavericks? The best team did not win. Dallas and Miami traded NBA Finals upsets this century.
That makes THREE clear-cut examples in the past 19 NBA Finals of the best team not winning. Go back through the 1980s and 1990s, and you won’t find many examples of the best team not winning.
Viewed against that backdrop, a nearly 40-percent national championship rate since the end of the Wooden era represents, quite vividly, the parity and unpredictability in college basketball — not just at the level of 2-over-15 upsets or double-digit seeds making the Final Four, but of less-than-overwhelmingly-great teams at certain programs or under certain schools winning national titles.
You might have wondered in my NBA examples above why I did not include another NBA Finals series. The 2004 Pistons beating the Lakers? That wasn’t an example in which the best team lost?
This is tough — the Lakers clearly had more talent, but the Pistons just as clearly were more cohesive. One team squabbled, the other one worked seamlessly. It was an upset in terms of raw ability and previously established reputations, but it didn’t feel like an upset as soon as Detroit convincingly won Game 3 following the Lakers’ narrow win in Game 2.
This discussion of the Pistons and Lakers brings me back to the point of chemistry and talent.
People are raking Coach K over the coals for not winning the national title with this Duke team and with Zion Williamson, and to be clear, Mike Krzyzewski plainly failed to make this team as good as the sum of its parts. Forget about making Duke BETTER than the sum of its parts. Coach K couldn’t even get to sea level with this team.
It is important to blame million-dollar coaches more than 18-year-old athletes in college sports. The coach gets paid PRECISELY to mold teams into cohesive units. However, having acknowledged that point, it is a fact of life that adults can’t fully control 18-year-old members of the human species. One has to allow for the reality that in some seasons, teams simply don’t mesh. You look at the raw talent and think a team should be so much better than it is, but the full product never materializes.
I think of 2002 Kentucky under Jules Camara. I think of Steve Lavin’s teams in the late 1990s at UCLA. I think of Dale Brown’s Shaq teams at LSU. Brown could coach an 11 seed-level team like a magician, but he was terrible at handling high-end talent for most of his career.
Yes, coaches deserve fierce criticism for not winning with the best talent. However:
If we are talking ONLY about talent and don’t leave any room for chemistry, we are missing an important part of this discussion.
If we focus only on the 27 elite teams which have won national titles the past 43 years, we ignore the 16 teams — maybe the 17th this year if it’s not Virginia — which won a national title because they played together and stayed together.
This is where the coaching of the losing team must be balanced against the coaching of the team which defeated it.
Since we ARE talking about Coach K here, let’s look at the man who knocked him out and, in the process, made his eighth Final Four.
Tom Izzo lost as a 2 seed with a very formidable team in 2016, a team many expected to win that year’s national title. Izzo couldn’t even make the Sweet 16 in 2018 despite having two lottery picks, Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson. He won a lot of games with the 2018 team, but it never fully came together, a lot like Duke in 2019.
It happens — it doesn’t excuse the job Izzo did. It was one of the worst coaching jobs of Izzo’s career, in fact — but it happens over the longer run of time. The mark of a great coach is that after enduring a rough season in which nothing works, he fixes it the next season.
Izzo did that with his 2019 Michigan State team. It didn’t have two lottery pick-level players on the roster, but it played so much more cohesively and seamlessly together.
On the flip side, I mentioned above that I didn’t view 2010 Duke as an elite team.
Yes, Duke received a No. 1 seed. However, most bracketologists felt West Virginia, not Duke, deserved to be the top seed in the East. That’s point one. Second, when comparing the 2010 Duke team to the other heavyweight national championship Duke teams Coach K has led (1992, 2001, 2015), I see noticeably less talent and depth. I think that “secondary” label is warranted.
The secondary label is meant to bring up the point that Coach K — despite a lot of swings and misses this decade relative to the Final Four — still has two national titles, and moreover, one national title won without a team which was the best in that year’s NCAA Tournament. Krzyzewski has three “elite” national champions, but it’s the two non-elite champions, from 1991 and 2010, which enable his full career to be seen as something more than the Phil Jackson-like overseer of dominant teams who attained inevitable championships. 1991 and 2010 profoundly change the equation for Coach K… much as Izzo making Final Fours with 5 seeds twice (2005, 2010) and once as a 7 seed (2015) gives his portfolio much more depth and breadth of achievement.
Similarly, while John Calipari cultivated historically great teams at Kentucky in 2012 and 2015, it’s the two unexpected Final Four runs in 2011 and 2014 which enable Calipari to be seen as a remarkably skilled bench boss.
Yes, that 2014 team was — heading into the NCAA Tournament — an even worse version of 2002 Kentucky. 2014 Kentucky was an 8 seed, 2002 Kentucky a 4 seed. Yet, Calipari was able to develop chemistry on the roster — at a very late point in time, but in enough time to make the Final Four and the national championship game.
Calipari objectively did a poor job with his team through March 1 and that humiliating loss at South Carolina which led Pat Forde to dump on the Wildcats, but when a coach is able to rescue a season in one month the way Calipari did in March of 2014, that’s a remarkable testament to a coach’s quality, even if it seems to overvalue a small sample size over a larger whole.
Great coaches generally come up with at least one of those rescues or — if not that — at least one run to the Final Four as a seed of No. 3 or lower. That can’t be the only way or the main way coaches get to the Final Four, but having one of those seasons on file provides an example of being able to adjust on the fly, in the midst of struggle, and find a solution with teenage athletes.
Chemistry might have been late in arriving, but not too late. It doesn’t mean 2014 Kentucky — or 2015 Michigan State, or 2016 Syracuse — was an objectively better team than a No. 1 seed which played well for a full season. It does, however, mean that chemistry, once found, is as potent and important as talent is.
At the very least, it is roughly 40 percent of the formula if the past 44 years of college basketball are any measurement.
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