Experience and the NCAA Tournament

Sherron Collins' experience allowed him to go 4-15 with 5 turnovers in the biggest game of Kansas' season

Even for a square, pop culture-ignorant guy like me, a neat part of living in Manhattan is the occasional celebrity sighting. I ran into Bill Cosby on the corner years ago. I saw Matt Damon wheeling a stroller – with, presumably, a child in it – down my block this past winter. I’m also beginning to think the entire cast of “The Wire” lives on the Upper West Side, because I’ve seen Seth Gilliam (Carver) taking his kid to school, Wendell Pierce (Bunk) outside Lincoln Center, and John Doman (Rawls) on the 3 train. Does it make me feel cool to write all this? Yes. Yes it does.

The famous person I see more than anyone else, however, is current broadcaster and former NBA player Len Elmore. He must live in the neighborhood, because I see him everywhere. I owe my first interaction with Mr. Elmore to my father. We were walking up Amsterdam Avenue several years ago when a gigantic figure emerged from Caesar’s Palace Pizza on 84th Street. My dad, a University of Maryland fan and graduate, quickly recognized his fellow Terrapin and gushed to me “that’s Len Elmore!” Naturally, my dad introduced himself to Elmore, and the three of us continued uptown together in varying degrees of shock – dad at meeting Len Elmore, Len Elmore at being met by my dad, and me at my dad’s hidden reserves of childlike enthusiasm. It was three blocks of bliss for my dad, who reluctantly parted ways with Elmore at 87th Street.

Obviously, with the NCAA Tournament in full swing, I haven’t seen Elmore around so much in March. But since he’s returned to the broadcasting booth, I’ve noticed a tendency of Elmore’s that I had never noticed before. More than most broadcasters I can think of, and certainly more than any other college basketball analysts, Elmore talks about the importance and significance of experience in the game of basketball. With Elmore, persistent shooting slumps and steady ball handling are attributed less to a simple cold streak or superior dexterity, and more to the absence or presence of a player’s experience. He’s not a radical. He’s not one of these analysts or fans that makes judgments about a player based on their look, their swagger, or any number of other arbitrary criteria on which intellectually complacent folks rely. But he really does seem to like himself some experience in a player.

As you can well imagine, I don’t think experience matters all that much when it comes to in-game activities. I suppose it matters when it comes to mental and physical preparation, but the number of variables affecting an athlete’s play in a game is so high that it strikes me as problematic to pin a player’s success or failure on the slippery and amorphous quality of “experience.” With all other factors being equal, yes, I would prefer an experienced player over an inexperienced one. The chances of “experience” being the deciding factor in any given game, however, seem quite low to me.

I bring all this up because this year’s NCAA Tournament has had its fair share of high-profile seniors falling flat on their respective faces in some of the most important games of their careers. Look at some of these seniors’ numbers:

  • Sherron Collins (KAN): 10 points, 4-15 FG, 4 assists, 5 TOs  (loss to Northern Iowa)
  • Matt Bouldin (GONZ): 8 points, 3-13 FG, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 TO (loss to Syracuse)
  • Jermaine Dixon (PITT): 2 points, 1-9 FG, 5 rebounds, 1 assist (loss to Xavier)
  • Ishmael Smith (WAKE): 2 points, 1-9 FG, 4 assists, 3 TOs (loss to Kentucky)
  • Trevon Hughes (WISC): 10 points, 3-8 FG, 2 assists, 6 TOs (loss to Cornell)
  • Donald Sloan (TA&M): 11 points, 4-17 FG, 1 rebound, 4 assists, 3 TOs (loss to Purdue)
  • Scottie Reynolds (VILL): 20 points, 2-15 FG, 2 assists, 4 TOs (win against Robert Morris)
  • Scottie Reynolds (VILL): 8 points, 2-11 FG, 3 assists, 1 TO (loss to Saint Mary’s)
  • James Anderson (OKST): 11 points, 3-12 FG, 3 assists, 3 TOs (loss to Georgia Tech)
  • Luke Harangody (ND): 4 points, 2-9 FG, 7 rebounds (loss to Old Dominion)
  • Anthony Johnson (MONT): 6 points, 1-12 FG, 2 assists, 4 TOs (loss to New Mexico)
  • Quincy Pondexter (WASH): 7 points, 3-9 FG, 2 rebounds, 1 assist, 4 TOs (loss to West Virginia)
  • Da’Sean Butler (WVU): 14 points, 5-16 FG, 4 turnovers (win over Washington)
  • Da’Sean Butler (WVU): 18 points, 4-15 FG (win over Kentucky)
  • Jacob Pullen (KST): 14 points, 4-13 FG, 1 assist, 4 TOs (loss to Butler)

This is a staggering list of names, a list that includes some of the most celebrated veterans in college basketball today. Moreover, several of these players have been specifically touted as having “it” – that arbitrarily determined winning quality that we so often hear analysts talk about. And yet, all of these players but one (Da’Sean Butler) are currently out of the tournament. So what do we make of this? Where did Sherron Collins’ magical ability to elevate his play when his team needs it most go? What about Scottie Reynolds’ innate ability to win and hit big shots? Pullen’s grit and determination? Bouldin’s mastery of his offense? Dixon’s scrappiness?

During the tournament, Elmore himself witnessed in person an example illustrative of experience’s relative meaninglessness on the court. Elmore and Gus Johnson were calling the Syracuse-Butler match-up in the Sweet Sixteen. Midway through the second half, with about 10 minutes to go, Syracuse forward Rick Jackson picked up his third foul. Elmore said something very close to:

“Coach [Jim] Boeheim is leaving Jackson in here with three fouls, and I think it’s the right move. Jackson is a junior, so he has the experience to stay in the game, play without fouling, and help his team win.

At this point, it should be noted that my viewing partner said “watch Jackson pick up his fourth foul right away.” Sure enough, two minutes of game time later, Butler guard Willie Veasley drove it to the basket and was hacked pretty hard by the experienced Jackson for his fourth foul. My friend then threw up his arms in a way that suggested both personal victory and general incredulity. It was pretty funny.

In any case, I think this incident is a much better example of why experience doesn’t matter all that much once the game begins. A player’s performance depends way, way more on numerous other factors before we get to experience. Like anyone in any job, players have good days and bad days. The quality of their work depends on the same factors as our work: preparation, fatigue, individual strengths and weaknesses, opponents’ strengths and weaknesses, helpful and clear supervision (i.e. coaching), and probably several other factors. Sure, experience can aid things like preparation and, to some extent, fatigue. But individual performance and game outcome really do come down to simpler things like skill, whether the match-up is favorable or not, and plain old luck. Experience matters in a basketball game when you’re working on the margins, and even then it’s probably a negligible effect.

Assuming, for a second, that experience really is a pretty useless “skill” in a basketball game, why does it come up all the time? This is a much dicier question, and one for which there is no clear answer. My personal hypothesis is that it’s a useful analytical crutch. If a player is a senior and is having an excellent game, it’s easy and intuitively correct to stay “his experience is making the difference.” Conversely, if a player is a freshman and is playing poorly, it’s easy to say “he’s just not ready, he doesn’t have the necessary experience yet.” Both of these assessments are much easier to make than to look at the actual in-game match-ups themselves. For example, if Duke’s Andre Dawkins shoots 0-6 from three against Temple, it’s probably not because Dawkins is a freshman and is shrinking from the spotlight. It’s probably because Temple is elite at defending three pointers and Dawkins is experiencing a little bad luck. If Kansas State’s Denis Clemente can’t miss from distance against Oklahoma State, it’s probably not because he’s a senior and the Cowboys just don’t have an answer for that kind of savvy. It’s probably because Oklahoma State is 270th in the country at defending the three and he’s benefiting from some good luck. In most cases, analysts don’t offer this kind of information, preferring instead to lean on vague but important-sounding terms like “veteran,” “experience,” and “mental toughness.” These things do exist, but they don’t govern play all that much.

You would think that with the tournament’s slew of poor outings by such high-profile seniors would cause analysts to reconsider their stance on the importance of experience. I suspect, however, that next season won’t be all that different. But hopefully, the next time a Rick Jackson incident occurs or Jacob Pullen falls asleep on defense during an importance inbound pass (which happened against Xavier), you’ll think of this post and how you know, deep down, that experience is generally a bunch of hogwash.

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One Response to Experience and the NCAA Tournament

  1. Phil says:

    The individual skill of a player is, more or less, an aggregate of four factors: experience, innate talent, hard work, and other intangibles (maturity, “basketball IQ,” etc). I think it’s safe to say that any given skilled player is exceptional in at least one of those categories, especially “hard work.” How many categories, however, and to what degree, is very difficult to pin down. One could say, for example, that Wall’s PPG probably has more to do with the “talent” category, than the “experience” category. But pinning that down, assuming one could to any quantifiable degree, for individual players is basically a waste of time. Another example, one could fairly accurately say pre-season that Texas had a lot of “talent.” Or that Purdue was an “experienced” team. But those phrases are basically just fillers with no meaningful substance. Saying Purdue is “experienced” doesn’t really say much in terms of how they’ll play any given day against a certain team. Experience might be one of the last things I look at, after mis-matches, offensive/defensive efficiency, shooting percentages, turnovers, free throw%, defensive style, strength of schedule vs. wins/losses, and so forth. To say Hummel’s PPG is based, at least in some part, because he is experienced, is essentially a factoid and nothing more. A player might be a gritty, hard-working senior.. but if he shoots 30% from the line and turnsover the ball 8 times a game, I don’t really care how much experience he has.

    This whole discussion reminds me of Al Davis seeing a fast 40 time and drafting heyward-bey. All things considered, yes… I’d rather have a wide out with a fast 40 time than a slow time, I’d rather have an experienced point guard than a freshman point guard, and I’d rather have a closer with lots of saves as opposed to no saves. But focusing on these minutia stats aren’t particularly helpful when there are better statistics that more accurately depict a player’s skill. Experience has a place, and shouldn’t be completely disregarded. Taken in tandem with talent and other factors, perhaps it can tell you how a player is developing, what his future might be like, the appropriate role for him on the team, his leadership abilities (which may or may not be important, depending on the player’s position and role). But all in all, we hear WAY too much about it. As you said, I’d rather hear in a telecast about Temple’s 3-point defense than Dawkins being a freshman if he’s having a cold night.

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