The Perils of March Madness

The Perils of March Madness
Mar 20, 2007, 01:10 am
Note: This article was originally published in March of 2007. With March Madness officially kicking off, we would like to bring this subject back to the forefront.

It’s inevitable almost. A college season or career comes to a close with a three week tournament that is intended to determine who the best team in the NCAA is. It’s a national pastime almost, garnering an incredible amount of media hype and almost non-stop TV coverage from all the cable and broadcast networks. Due to the nature of its format—a one and done competition and the many variables that go along with it, it’s questionable whether the tournament is able to decide who the best team in the country is. What’s even more questionable, though, is whether it should be relied on as a tool to analyze the professional potential of the hundreds of players who participate. Like it or not, though, that’s exactly what ends up happening if history is any indicator.

Patrick O’Bryant in 2006, Julius Hodge in 2005, Kirk Snyder in 2004…every year (except 2007?) there is at least one player who uses the NCAA tournament as a spring board to get drafted much higher than they otherwise would have. Trajan Langdon, Ed O'Bannon, Mateen Cleaves, Bo Kimble, Yinka Dare, Bryce Drew, Jared Jeffries, Tate George, Keith Smart…we could go on and on and on for days.

Sometimes, it works out well. Dwyane Wade had a rare NCAA tournament triple double against Kentucky on his way to leading Marquette to the Final Four. That helped him get drafted 5th overall in an extremely strong draft, and he’s now arguably the best player in the entire league.

Sometimes, it doesn’t. Josh Howard scored only 12 points in the first round of the 2003 NCAA tournament as #2 seed Wake Forest squeaked past #15 seed East Tennessee State. Forget winning the ACC for the first time in his school’s history, being named NCAA player of the year by four separate media outlets or being considered a consensus first team All-American, it was the last game of his college career, a miserable 14 point, 1 assist, 7 turnover performance losing to 10th seeded Auburn that sealed his fate and almost saw him fall out of the first round altogether. Howard is now laughing all the way to the bank.

It’s really just human nature. People best recall, and therefore put the most weight on, what they saw last. In the case of certain NBA General Managers, who often don’t hit the scouting trail themselves until after the NBA trade deadline has passed, a magnificent or terrible NCAA tournament performance can be their first introduction to a player their scouts have spent years evaluating—thus deeming their staff’s scouting reports essentially useless. “It can be really frustrating,” one longtime NBA Director of Scouting --who preferred to be quoted off the record—lamented. “You watch a player 10 or 12 times in person over their career…the good, the bad and the average, trying to get a true sense of what a player is really like, and then that all gets thrown out the window because of one game. Then go try to tell your boss that what they saw with their own eyes on the biggest and most electric stage in the world for amateur players, in front of thousands of screaming fans, wasn’t real. You have to fight with the media hype, the draft sites, the fans, everyone. And at the end of the day, your voice gets drowned out.”

Some NBA executives—a small minority albeit-- for that reason specifically decide to skip attending the tournament altogether. “I’ll watch it on TV, not because I don’t want to be there, but to protect myself, from myself essentially,” says a highly respected NBA Assistant General Manager. “In that atmosphere, it’s almost impossible not to get caught up in the experience and become a fan of certain players. That’s going to cloud your judgment…especially if you’re watching a player for the first or second time.”

It’s not uncommon for a player to have an unusually strong or weak performance in a one and done-type setting on a neutral floor in an atmosphere he’s never been a part of. “You never want to evaluate a player on his best or worst game, because inevitably that’s what sticks in your mind, regardless of whether it’s logical or not…but that’s human nature and it’s almost impossible to block out,” says that same NBA executive. “That’s where the value of tape comes in, although not everyone has the time or work ethic to sit down and watch dozens of prospects 6-8 times to get the full picture, they’d rather just bring him in for a workout.”

Adding to the chaos of March Madness is the unbelievable swirl of hype that can be set off by a single game or two. “That’s what everyone talks about for an entire month,” tells us Antonio Williams, a scout who works with Marty Blake and Associates, the NBA’s official scouting service. “It holds a tremendous amount of weight for NBA General Managers…and it’s almost impossible not to get caught up in.”

Few will want to admit that they are being swayed by just a handful of games in a 35 game season, but the reality is, history does not lie. “No matter what people say, a big NCAA tournament can have a tremendous impact on a player’s stock,” says another NBA assistant General Manager. “It can be really hard to go against the grain of motion that gets set off by a big game. You’d be hard pressed to find players who do well over the course of multiple NCAA tournament games who don’t see their stock go up.”

But how much? “I don’t care what you say, a player doesn’t move up 15 or 20 spots in one weekend like some of these ‘draft gurus’ would have you believe,” exclaimed a General Manger we keep in touch with from time to time. “A good game or two can get you on the board or move you from a bubble first rounder into the late first, but it’s just another piece to the puzzle.”

What is clear, though, is that out of sight can certainly mean out of mind sometimes. Out of the first 23 NCAA players drafted in 2006, 21 played in the NCAA tournament. The two exceptions were Quincy Douby, the runner up for Big East player of the year, and Renaldo Balkman, a somewhat shocking pick at the time, but still the MVP of the NIT Tournament in Madison Square Garden late in March. As ESPN’s David Thorpe told us back then, via Henry Abbott’s, 12 of the top 17 NCAA players made the Sweet 16.

So what does that mean for this year’s draft? Well, it looks like we’re right on track so far. Amongst the top 15 NCAA players currently projected as first round draft picks, only Spencer Hawes and Al Thornton will not be playing in the Sweet 16 this upcoming weekend. If last year repeats itself, that could mean that some of the next crop of players could be weeded out over the next week or two, as Brandon Rush and Aaron Gray are currently the only other players in the first round who are still dancing, while nine aren’t.

Will NBA decision makers, come June, toss out the window what players accomplished over their 4-year careers if they didn’t make it far enough or play well enough in the Dance? We’ll find out soon enough.

If you’d like to get sucked in yourself, make sure you check out our extensive NCAA tournament coverage.

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