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The Bracket, the best tool for Unicorn analysis

The “one and done” the Unicorn of causal explanations of college basketball phenomena

This is march madness. Some say it is caused by a virus, other by satellites and their beams. The most likely explanation is that people actually enjoy watching reasonably skilled players sports a ball, a basketball in this case. Sports journalism is a necessary byproduct of this maddening. Not only is the quality of the work terrible, often sports journalists make political journalists appear empirical. Unlike political journalism, where there may be some secrets or special information, a combination of injury reports, SportsVU cameras, and cable television make most game data trannsparent. There is no excuse for bad sports journalism aside from mendacity or simple lassitude.

Among the throng of under-thought stories are those about the one and done player, the fellow merely taking a quick detour into college on their way to the ultra-verdant pastures of the NBA.

Two major lines appear about one-done players:

If only our coach would get one of these one and dones, we could win the title.

“All those one and dones” are ruining college basketball because they leave all the good teams every year

To get some conceptual leverage on these ideas, we need some data. Luckily, I collected some data and did some analysis. Players I am interested in: A. Left college after their frosh year and B. Were drafted in the first round by an NBA team after 2004. I am not concerned with total one-done players only those who actually were drafted. Also, I am only concerned with data since the NBA changed it’s rules, frosh who left prior to 2005 are not relevant to testing the impact of this rule.

There have only been 55 one and done players, an average of 5.5 per year with a standard deviation of 2.6. So somewhere between 3 and 7 players leave college after one year to head to the NBA.

Only 6 teams with a one-done player have played in the final four. Those teams were coached by Roy Williams, Thad Matta, Ben Howland, and three by John Calipari. These players were present on 15% of teams with final four berths.

8 one-done players have gone on to be NBA all-stars.

27% of all one-done players have been coached by John Calipari.

23 schools have had players leave after one year to enter the NBA.

Number of one-done players by school (if greater than two): Kentucky (12), Ohio State (5), Kansas (4), UCLA (4), Memphis (3), Duke (3), Texas (3). 58% of all one-done players have competed for the preceding list of schools. Schools with two: Indiana, Arizona, UNC, Washington, Georgia Tech. With those schools incldued, 80% of all one-done players are accounted for. 11 other schools account for the remaining 11 players, for the sake of interest: LSU, K-State, USC, NC State, Syracuse, Tennessee, Florida, Connecticut, UNLV, Pittsburgh, and St. Johns.

None of these are mid-majors or schools lacking a strong basketball tradition.

Aside from Memphis these schools are from the largest and must successful conferences. Since Cali

pari left Memphis, no mid-major school has played a one-done.

One-done players represent 17% of all players taken in the NBA draft since the rule change.

First, can your coach go “get one of those one and done” guys?

No. Not by a long shot. These players are generally well informed about basketball, they choose to play for schools that are already good at it. They won’t answer the call to come play for Southwest Minnesota State. In general, these players have been shuttled between various speciality private schools and AAU opportunities for years and are quite aware of where they would like to spend a year playing basketball. I know that you think a lot of West Dakota Tech, but a basketball savvy fellow from Chicago doesn’t.

Second, are all of these one and done guys “destroying the game?”

Who are these guys you are talking about? I see a handful of teams with pretty good players, and of those teams the vast majority are eliminated before the final four stage. If you consider that OSU in 07 had 3 one-done players and UK in 10 had 4, the number of TEAMS with one-done players starts dropping. The idea that a handful of teams that play less than one percent of all games (way less) dramatically effects the style and quality of play is silly.

There are many factors that seem far more likely to serve to meaningfully inform the probability of a team winning or not winning a game. Coaches like accolades, and press coverage of smartness protects their jobs, genius is a quality of defensive coaching. Practice time is zero sum, more defense means less offense. AAU teams reward dunking not shooting. Highlight reels of middle school kids screw-up their ego integrity. Students with better psychological profiles tend to pool in saner environs where they play better offense (see Madison, Wisconsin). The Spurs prove this every year in the NBA. College basketball is structurally unsound: too long on the shot clock, too much roughhousing inside, poor block/charge articulation etc. Factors that effect the majority of college players seem like far better for building causal models. Even of the players drafted many are busts because they simply aren’t up to NBA standards. The NBA labor market clears very, very slowly. Player career lifetimes are in the decades, not the NFL standard three years. The number of large players taken one-done is well in excess of their ability because you can’t teach size.

Let’s go a step further into the game play dynamics. Most college teams run three-guard configuration often double-barreled (two point guards). Even then, the forwards or centers they employ are typically too small for the professional game. The college game is dominated by small guards and multi-point offenses. Teams with a single one-done super center simply can’t get the ball past half court against the ultra-aggressive trapping and pressing defenses that have become common. There was a point during a first round game (KU-NMSU) when the commentators began to discuss different sub-types of full court press. A decade ago this would have been obscure, twenty years ago ridiculous. In the style of contemporary college basketball, it is only reasonable to have different full court press configurations. I guess we will hear more about the three back press in the future. Again, consdier the labor market — joining the NBA at the point guard position is far more difficult than joining at PF/C. As we can plainly see the Unicorns here are Derek Rose, Brandon Knight, and John Wall. Roughly every three years an NBA quality guard plays for a single college team for a single year.

Are teams adjusting their styles of play to deal with these one-done wonders? No. Many major conferences lack one-done players on a regular basis on even a single team. Game planning for a professional level pf/c seems to be more a matter for situational basketball in a single game every few years than something to build an entire team and system around. To be blunt, a super good rebounding center just isn’t that impactful in the modern game.

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Kevin Love?

Toward the Unicorn

One and done players explain almost none of contemporary college basketball. There are far more reasonable explanations of almost all in-game phenomena that do not require outliers. These players offer explanatory options when better options are available but are uninteresting. Clearly, the presence of a few remarkable individuals explains everything, not the collective work of ten thousand and the subtle impact of structure on culture and the reverse. Kevin Love and Anthony Davis are Unicorns, magical creatures that exists outside the limits of normal causality. They make anything possible and somehow have an impact on variables far beyond their actual reach. This is one reason why in economy arguments one argumentative strategy is to focus on stars, rather than common folks. One Taylor Swift must explain more about wages, fairness, market preference, and distribution than one million not Taylor Swifts.

Or, to put it another way, Unicorns relieve people of the need to do cognitive work. Occam’s razor was surely designed for styling the manes of magical horses. It is just so easy to think this way. The stories practically write themselves, especially given that the key to this entire debate is one man — John Calipari. His (and to a real degree Bill Self’s) ability to recruit these people mitigates their impact across the game, there really is one super-team with most of these future NBA guys in any given cycle, the rest of the game rarely ever sees these individuals.

Don’t believe the hype. The one and done story is lazy at best, and more likely than not, mendacious sports churnalism. One and done players are quite rare, are unlikely to play in major games, and are not first tier professional players anyway. Given that these players choose well established programs anyway, it seems unlikely that inclusion or exclusion effects much other than the University of Kentucky, and even then, UK would always do what it needed to do to be good at basketball. I guess when Coach K retires Duke will join the Ivy league and give up on basketball excellence? Kentucky will focus on football? Oregon will catchup to Oregon State in awesomeness? None of the above.

As for point A — no your local college hoops coach is not a Unicorn wrangler., they can’t just “go get” one of those guys. This isn’t Pokemon. Unicorns like it better in Lexington and Lawrence anyway.

Associate Professor of Social Media. Oregon State University. Read my book: Selling Social Media (Bloomsbury Academic), 2018.

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