Now there’s two.
Lorenzo Charles. Kris Jenkins. Just two of the 78 NCAA Division I National Championship Games have ended in game-winning buzzer beater fashion. Charles’ tip slam as time expired in 1983 capped one of the most improbable championship runs in basketball history. That run, however, was fueled by NC State’s ball-control offense, capitalizing on the lack of a shot clock, and Jim Valvano’s fouling tactics, combining to form a style that would be considered unbearable to watch by today’s standards. Monday night, on the other hand, provided the nation with quite possibly the very best of those 78 title games, a game that simply had everything. Kris Jenkins carving out a place in college basketball lore. A halftime buzzer beater. Turnaround fadeaways along the baseline were consistently buried. Phil Booth went bananas. A 28-26 score over the final 10 minutes of the game. Am I missing something? Oh yeah, Marcus Paige made this:
All of this exquisite shot-making took place in a stadium notorious for its negative impact on shooting. Simply put, Monday night was an unprecedented rollercoaster of emotions, whether you had a vested interest or not.
After the confetti fluttered and the dust settled, the Villanova Wildcats were hoisting their program’s second National Championship trophy, and the nation had seemed to forgive and forget their recent tournament transgressions. Winning a National Championship, of course, will unfailingly quell the wrath of the naysayers, but let’s take a trip down memory lane. Since reaching the Final Four in 2009, the Wildcats had repeatedly endured postseason struggle. As a 2-seed in 2010, Scottie Reynolds played his final college basketball game in the 2nd round as his team was toppled by 10-seeded St. Mary’s. A 2-seed again in 2014, Villanova was denied the second weekend by Shabazz Napier. A year later, they suffered the same fate, this time more unforgivingly as the top seed in the East Region. Resultantly, Villanova basketball had understandably developed a bad reputation among college basketball fans and became the butt of the joke somewhat. I am certainly not condoning losing in the 2nd round in three consecutive tournaments as a top two seed. Yet we should further delve into the context of the situation, particularly looking at the previous two seasons. Nova ran into a buzzsaw in 2014. They lost to UConn, the eventual national champions, and if you watched that game you’d understand that nothing could have been done about Shabazz Napier continuously sinking 25-footers as the shot clock expired. With just two losses on the season entering the 2015 Tournament, the Wildcats bowed out at the hands of NC State, a very talented team whose combination of size and ability to make difficult shots allowed the Wolfpack to match up with anyone in college basketball. Both of these losses I would consider respectable. However, as Villanova’s 2016 regular season unfolded in a similarly excellent fashion, the Wildcats were disregarded in any title contender conversation.
The pertinence of this Villanova situation to statistics does not involve a complex array of numbers, but rather an unpretentious answer. The phrase “they’re due” isn’t widely used for no reason. It makes sense. People believe in it. It’s the everyday actualization of the statistical principle that governs every aspect of the world, the Law of Large Numbers. The formal definition of the Law of Large Numbers is as follows: “a principle of probability and statistics which states that as a sample size grows, its mean will get closer and closer to the average of the whole population” (Investopedia). Essentially, the Law of Large Numbers states that everything will converge to its average, converge to the way it’s supposed to be. Sports can be the most tangible evidence of this, and Villanova is a case in point. While sports are governed by statistics, they can also defy statistics at the same time, such as an underdog’s star individual (Shabazz Napier), or a favorite’s inexperience or immaturity. Villanova, as a favorite and a program with strong values and upperclassmen-laden teams, did not portray this over the past three seasons, leading me to believe they were a team that was met with tough luck and plagued by single-elimination circumstance. They were simply too consistent and too good of a team to faceplant in the NCAA Tournament three consecutive seasons. They’re due.
The more important statistical development that allowed Villanova’s run to come to fruition, however, occurred within the 2016 season itself. The Wildcats’ first matchup with Oklahoma seemed to re-establish the college basketball universe’s general consensus on Nova. They couldn’t survive 14 Sooner threes, lost 78-55, and were dismissed as “same old Nova.” That said, how much do we read into an early December game played in Hawaii? The imperative stat of Villanova’s dismal night was their 3-point shooting, going 4-32 (12.5%) from beyond the arc. Miserable outside shooting was not an isolated incident for Villanova during the 2015-16 regular season, especially early. They unusually struggled as a collective unit to make outside jumpers and were below the national 3-point percentage average for a good portion of the regular season. The likes of Josh Hart, Ryan Arcidiacono, and Kris Jenkins toiled around 33% from distance during that period. Hart was a 47% three-point shooter in 2014-15, Arcidiacono 37%, with an improved percentage every year of his college career, and Jenkins 39% and one of the prettiest strokes in all of the land. Judging from these individuals and Villanova as a team over the previous two seasons, these were merely too good of shooters to maintain such a percentage through an entire season. In spite of this, though, Villanova continued to quietly win basketball games. Aided largely by their suffocating perimeter defense and an outrageous 2-point shooting percentage (went 28-32 from 2 in January against Creighton), Villanova suffered only two losses before the tide began to turn. With this defense as a constant, what was going to happen when they started to hit shots? Percentages were going to converge to the mean. Shots were going to fall at a high rate. The Law of Large Numbers said so.
No coach in the country spends more practice time on sound shooting mechanics than Jay Wright. In a loss at Virginia just two weeks following the Oklahoma disaster, Villanova scored 75 points on 60 possessions (1.25 PPP), a noteworthy performance masked by the result. In Big East play, the Wildcats showcased they were capable of explosive performances, burying 13 of 25 (52%) from deep on New Year’s Eve against Xavier and 16 of 29 (55.2%) on February 3rd against Creighton, progressing the percentages toward the mean. A general rule of thumbs in statistics is that a sample size of 30 necessary to generalize findings to the population. Therefore, it is no coincidence that this was the approximate number of games played when the true Villanova began to manifest itself. By the time the NCAA Tournament arrived, Villanova was a runaway train, steamrolling four of their six tourney opponents. We may never see a tournament shooting performance as dazzling as Nova’s. In six tournament games, the Wildcats shot 58.2% from the field and 50% from distance, topping out with a purely maddening 71% in the National Semifinal against, fittingly, Oklahoma. When it was all said and done, Villanova, a team whose 3-point percentage sat at about 33% for 15 or so games, finished the 2015-16 campaign at a more predictable 36.2%, good for 105th in Division I. The shooting arrived. The other qualities never left. The perfect storm culminated in reaching the pinnacle of college basketball.
Maybe the extended poor shooting stretch was a blessing in disguise. Villanova was overlooked, forgotten, and never considered. Most would’ve thought that a Villanova pick was extremely outside-the-box, but in reality it required merely simple reasoning and intuition. In a season marked by no defined best team, we should have seen this coming. Who had the fewest road losses in the country? Villanova. Who played 13 of their games as the #1 ranked team in KenPom, by far the most in the nation? Villanova. Who had the nature of statistics on their side? Villanova. Who won the National Championship? You bet.