The smart comment to make, as this year’s N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament tipped off, was that parity had finally come to a sport traditionally dominated by a few select schools. There are no evidently dominant teams, and conventional wisdom holds that any of the top twenty have at least a shot at the title.
College basketball may be experiencing some leveling out of talent, at least for now, but the bigger trend is the supremacy of the systems that coaches have developed and implemented, allowing them to take new players, year in and year out, and fit them into consistent on-court strategies and philosophies of play.
The systems vary from coach to coach, but all successful college programs have them. In the pro game, even dynasties need great players: Gregg Popovich, of the San Antonio Spurs, is the best coach in the N.B.A., but his success would have been limited were it not for the willingness of star players—Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili—to stay in one place for their entire careers. College players, by rule, are allowed to play for only four seasons, and many choose to leave for the pros before that. Plus, determining the athletic promise of teenagers is a notoriously murky business: How does one accurately measure a seventeen-year-old’s work ethic and leadership skills? Only the coaches and their systems stick around, and only they can be depended upon for the long term.
The question currently coursing through the game is what kind of system works. On Wednesday, we saw one side of the philosophical divide when Julius Randle, the best high-school player in the U.S., agreed to spend a year or two at the University of Kentucky, beginning next fall. Randle is from Texas, so why go to school in Lexington? “The final straw that came to me was the system,” Randle said, during a nationally televised press conference. “I felt like the system at Kentucky was a great system.” What he meant, really, is that John Calipari has a structure in place that allows him to take the most talented high schoolers he can find and prepare them for paid positions in basketball as efficiently—and quickly—as possible. Usually, it works. The downside is that occasionally Kentucky will end up with a season like the one it just completed: the Wildcats became just the fifth team since 1985 to miss the tournament one year after winning the whole thing. They fell even further on Tuesday with a loss to Robert Morris in the first round of the N.I.T., college basketball’s consolation tournament, which is a bit like a U.S. Senator, having been defeated for reelection, running for city council and losing to a teenager.
The trouble for Kentucky was that its system is dependent as much on the annual recruitment of top players as it is on a consistent application of strategy and principles; it’s no easy task to take a new group of players each year and get them to master complicated offensive sets, or buy into a specific defensive strategy. This year, the system broke down. Most of the talent from last year’s team bolted for the N.B.A., and this year’s crop of freshmen proved unable to match their predecessors’ success. (In fairness, the team’s best player, Nerlens Noel, suffered a season-ending A.C.L. injury.)
Calipari’s system will produce both spectacular results and disappointing failures. To look at a different, more consistent approach, take the University of Kansas and its head coach of ten years, Bill Self. (A disclosure up front: I’m a fan.) Kansas, like Kentucky, is one of college basketball’s elite programs, and it has the ability to attract top talent. Often it does, but sometimes it doesn’t: only once in the past four years has Self had a recruiting class ranked among the nation’s ten best. (Kentucky has ranked first or second in each of those years.) Nevertheless, under Self, the Jayhawks have won nine straight conference championships—the first time any team has done that since John Wooden’s U.C.L.A. dynasty in the seventies—and one national championship, and they enter this year’s tournament as a No. 1 seed.
This year’s Kansas team starts four seniors—none of whom were starters before their junior seasons—so they’ve had several years to buy into Self’s system before having to implement it on the court. What distinguishes his system? Defensive effort, for one. The Jayhawks are consistently among the better defensive teams in the country. (This year, they led the country in limiting their opponent’s shooting percentage.) Defense is a skill, but it’s more taught than innate. Self certainly enjoys having talented players, even if only for a brief time—he has called Ben McLemore, the team’s star freshman, the most talented first-year player he’s ever coached—but he fears becoming dependent on them and leans heavily on his experienced players. Three years ago, he recruited the top player in the country, Josh Selby, who turned out to be a disappointment, barely breaking into the starting lineup. He left after one season, never having completely bought in.
Self also recognizes the fact that he is dealing with teenagers who must be given strict, consistent instructions. “We have to convince our players that if we play the way we’re supposed to play, we’re going to be really good,” Self said recently, as an explanation of his steady success. “We have to convince our players that this is what we do.” The Jayhawks—like Kentucky, which deploys Calipari’s N.B.A.–ready dribble-drive offense—run the same offensive sets, year in and year out, regardless of which players are in place. Which brings us to the most famous shot in Kansas’s history. Down three points, with ten seconds to go in the 2008 national-championship game against Memphis—coached, at that time, by Calipari—Self called a play to get his shooting guard, Mario Chalmers, open for a game-tying three-pointer. The play involved the point guard Sherron Collins bringing the ball up the right side of the court and passing it off to Chalmers, as if they were quarterback and running back, before using his body to gently impede the defenders’ path and give Chalmers just a little space to take his shot. It worked; Kansas won, and in almost every end-of-game situation since, Self has called the same play. (Here it is earlier this year, with only the addition of an extra pass. Same result.)
These were two instances of the shot going in; sometimes it doesn’t—talent and luck still matter—but the opportunity is almost always there. By now, fans know it’s coming. Why don’t Kansas’s opponents? I posed that question to Doug Gottlieb, a former top college point guard who is now one of the color analysts for C.B.S. He took my pen and paper and diagrammed the play, showing how many scoring options it afforded Kansas, and the difficulties it presents to an ill-prepared defense. It is a finely tuned system that, when run as it should be, is all but guaranteed to work as planned. The only way to disrupt it is an equally effective system designed by the opposing coach. So why didn’t other teams have a plan in place? Gottlieb offered one suggestion, which brings us back to the trouble inherent in depending on boys who are too young to legally drink: “A lot of these Big East teams don’t scout because their kids are too stupid, and they’re worried they’re gonna confuse them.” This is the ultimate expression of why properly implemented and designed systems typically dominate college basketball: lesser coaches and teams can’t counteract them if they don’t even try. And when success is left to chance, in the hands of twenty-year-olds, the system wins out.
You need a system to win in the markets. You don’t just sit there and guess and or predict.