17 takeaways from the 2016-17 college basketball season

It’s time to look back on the season that was, from November to April. (AP)
It’s time to look back on the season that was, from November to April. (AP)

The conclusion of a college basketball season always seems so abrupt. We as media and fans pour so much time and energy into the NCAA tournament. Everything builds to the Final Four. And then… poof. We have nothing. No games to watch. No controversial calls to debate. Nothing.

And after so many eyeballs and minds and souls hone in on the tournament, it’s easy to forget that an entire four-month season preceded it. That’s just the way the sport is structured. Three weeks in March are what matter, so three weeks in March are what we remember.

But as college basketball, or at least the on-court portion of it, goes into hibernation, it’s important to reflect on the full season, what it taught us, and what the lasting takeaways from it will be. Since this is the year 2017, here are 17 of those takeaways:

1. There are still so many different ways to win college basketball games

And there is no better example of this than the national champions, the North Carolina Tar Heels. The Tar Heels are winning big with bigs, which runs counter to an overall trend (more on that later). They also played fast with bigs. Of the four No. 1 seeds, though, Kansas played fast and small. Villanova played slow and small. Gonzaga was somewhere in between all three. North Carolina also maintained a top-10 offense while taking only 30 percent of its field goal attempts from beyond the 3-point arc. Three other top-10 offenses took over 40 percent of their shots from deep. There are no hard and fast schematic or stylistic rules for how to score and win in this sport.

2. There are still so many different ways to build college basketball teams

The best team on the balance of the season, Gonzaga, comprised one grad transfer, two other transfers, a McDonald’s All-American who could go one-and-done, a Frenchman, a Pole, a former three-star recruit now an upperclassman and a former four-star recruit still an underclassman. Others had success at either end of the spectrum. North Carolina and Villanova won with barely any contributions from freshmen at all. Kentucky and UCLA won chiefly on the backs of freshmen. Kansas and Duke won with a mix. No one philosophy for roster construction is superior to another. All remain viable.

3. Offense won the year …

Points weren’t just more plentiful; offenses were more efficient than they’ve been in a long time. Division I teams averaged 1.047 points per possession, a record for the KenPom era, and up from 1.036 in 2015-16. Part of this could be coaching. Part of it could be a prioritization of offensive ability over defensive ability on the recruiting trail. But a lot of it — including that second trend — are due to something that happened two offseasons ago

4. … So did referees

And no, this is not a sarcastic take on the title game. Referees, on the whole, were outstanding this year and last year, and because they were, the sport is better off. I examined this extensively earlier in the season, but long story short, the NCAA implemented new “freedom of movement” rules in 2013. Offensive efficiency spiked, but mostly because games turned into foul fests. Coaches and players didn’t obey the new rules. The following year, though, refs backed off, and defense remained dominant because illegal physical contact was still being allowed.

So in the 2015 offseason, the NCAA reemphasized the rule changes. This time, referees stayed consistent in their enforcement of them. As a result, 2016-17, the second season since the reemphasis, not only set a record high for offensive efficiency and effective field goal percentage over the last 15 years; it set a record low for free throw rate.

Scoring data are color-coded on a green-yellow scale based on values dating back to 2001-02. Foul data are color-coded on a red-blue scale based on values dating back to 2001-02. (Henry Bushnell)
Scoring data are color-coded on a green-yellow scale based on values dating back to 2001-02. Foul data are color-coded on a red-blue scale based on values dating back to 2001-02. (Henry Bushnell)

So, to recap: Better offense. Fewer fouls. More watchable. The rules committee and referees did their jobs, and did them really well.

5. The game continues to become more and more perimeter-oriented

Perhaps part of the reason for the offensive uptick is that 3-pointers are often some of the most efficient shots in basketball, and they’re being taken at a higher rate then ever. In 2016-17, 36.4 percent of field goal attempts were 3-pointers. That’s a full percentage point increase over last season, and, per kenpom.com data, more than two percentage points higher than the final season of the 19-foot, 9-inch arc. More teams are putting four or even five players who can shoot on the court together, and 3-point percentages are also the highest they’ve been since 2007-2008. It’s only a matter of time before talk of moving the arc back again begins to intensify.

6. The NCAA tournament wasn’t great …

Oh well. It happens. There’s no enlightening or groundbreaking takeaway here. The lack of early upsets was 5 percent good seeding, 10 percent poor matchups for potential Cinderellas, 15 percent a general lack of parity (more on that later) and 60 percent randomness. The lack of buzzer-beaters was mostly due to chance. The tournament also seemed underwhelming because last year’s was an all-timer from start to finish.

7. … It was, however, full of drought-ending

Two schools reached the Final Four for the first time ever. A third got there for the first time since 1939. South Carolina won its first NCAA tournament game in 44 years. And five teams earned bids to the Big Dance for the first time ever. The biggest story of the five was Northwestern, the last power conference school that had never been to the tournament, and one of five teams that had never made it despite competing for a place every year since the tournament’s inception in 1939. That list dwindled to four after the Wildcats’ breakthrough. The longest major-conference drought now belongs to Rutgers, which hasn’t received an invitation since 1991.

8. Gonzaga is here to stay

The Zags were the real story of March, despite coming up short on Monday night. Mark Few finally got the validation he deserved for two brilliant decades of coaching and program building. And just like all Gonzaga’s regular season success wasn’t a fluke, neither was this run. It has spent the better part of the past 20 years proving that new milestones weren’t one-offs, but rather signs of things to come, and will do so again. Gonzaga has the resources, the leader and the basketball culture to stay among the college hoops elite.

9. But true mid-majors? Not so much

The deck is stacked against the majority of the 276 Division I men’s basketball schools outside the big six conferences in so many ways. The selection committee’s seeding of Wichita State and non-seeding of Illinois State were two examples of one way. The scheduling roadblocks that those two schools run into are examples of another. The financial gap between the Power Six teams and all but a select few mid-majors is another. All the inherent advantages make it more difficult to operate at a non-brand-name school in a non-brand-name conference. There’s a reason Wichita State is bolting for the AAC. Only four teams outside the Power Six received at-large NCAA tournament bids this year, and only one, St. Mary’s, was really a mid-major. Don’t expect the number to be so low next year, but expect it to stay somewhat low unless the power structure of Division I college basketball changes.

10. In general, the 2016-17 season did not feature much parity

A big aspect of this, and a big aspect of the relative absence of mid-majors in the NCAA tournament, was the underperformance of leagues like the Atlantic-10 and Mountain West. But another aspect is that the good teams were better than usual. Remember when we discussed the lack of NCAA tournament upsets, and in particular first-round upsets? Here’s another reason for that: The average adjusted efficiency margin of KenPom‘s top 20 teams this season was the highest it’s been this decade.

The average margin estimates a given team’s strength compared to the average Division I team. Numbers in red highlight seasons in which the top teams were better, and therefore seasons in which there was less parity. Numbers in blue represent the opposite. (Henry Bushnell)
The average margin estimates a given team’s strength compared to the average Division I team. Numbers in red highlight seasons in which the top teams were better, and therefore seasons in which there was less parity. Numbers in blue represent the opposite. (Henry Bushnell)

Of the 20 teams seeded 1 through 5, 16 came from this top 20. Somewhat unsurprisingly, 19 of those 20 teams won their first-round games.

11. One thing we never learned: How good Duke could have been

The greatest “what ifs” of the season concern Duke. What if Harry Giles’ knee had been healthy? What if Grayson Allen had been the player he was as a sophomore? What if Marques Bolden had been the one-and-done talent many thought he’d be? And what if the Blue Devils had a few more weeks to answer some of these questions? Duke’s season was one of unfulfilled potential. Because it was, we were never able to nail down what exactly that potential was. Duke never fully coalesced as a team, and that’s a shame, but it’s also why we don’t crown champions in October.

12. There was no one transcendent player in college basketball this season

Allen was the preseason player of the year, and obviously didn’t live up to that billing, but he was a somewhat underwhelming pick in the first place. In the end, Frank Mason was a deserving winner of most postseason honors, but the diminutive Kansas point guard and his closest competitor for individual awards, Villanova’s Josh Hart, were merely very good players on very good teams. Both, and especially Mason, had a ton of talent around them. Both had All-American seasons; neither was national-player-of-the-year good.

13. Lonzo Ball is going to be a tough act to follow at UCLA

Ball was actually the closest thing to a transcendent player. A better adjective might be transformative. Or revolutionary. The Bruins more than doubled their win total from 2015-16, and they did so because they were a completely new team with Ball at the helm. Ball didn’t just transform UCLA, he transformed Bryce Alford; he transformed Isaac Hamilton; he helped TJ Leaf excel alongside him. UCLA has an outstanding recruiting class coming in to follow Ball and Leaf, who are both off to the NBA, but it’s going to be really tough for the new group to recreate what Ball temporarily fashioned in Westwood.

Additionally, whether we want to admit it or not, Lonzo Ball is a much bigger name right now than he was a couple months ago in part because of his dad. LaVar Ball made UCLA one of the most polarizing teams in college basketball, which is ridiculous, but true. LaVar will still be around, because the second of three Ball brothers, LiAngelo, is part of the next six-man recruiting class. But LiAngelo is nowhere near as good as Lonzo, nor as good as he’ll be expected to be based on his dad’s outsize personality and his older brother’s exploits. It will be an interesting 2017-18 season at UCLA.

13. Never mind the tournament shortcomings; Kansas remains the most consistently great program of the 21st century

The streak goes on, and it goes on in style. Kansas won a Big 12 regular-season title for the 13th consecutive season. The conference looked set for a three-team race up until February; in the end, the Jayhawks crossed the finish line four full games ahead of the pack. The fact that that achievement isn’t more widely discussed and celebrated is, in a way, precisely what makes the streak so incredible. Kansas’ dominance has become boring.

The Jayhawks again came up short in the NCAA tournament. They looked like the best team in the nation for three games. They lost to a really good team in a fourth. That does little to take away from how successful this year’s team was, and how successful it’s been over the past decade-plus.

14. This year’s Big 12 wasn’t just the best conference in college basketball, it was arguably the best of the past 15 years

Seriously. This makes Kansas’ margin at the top all the more impressive. Statistically, the 2016-17 Big 12 was the second-best conference of the KenPom era, only slightly behind the 2003-04 ACC that featured Jarrett Jack’s Georgia Tech, Chris Paul’s Wake Forest, J.J. Redick’s Duke, Julius Hodge’s NC State and one-year-before-a-national-title North Carolina.

Some thought the 2016-17 ACC was one of the best conferences ever. Some opined that both the ACC and Big 12 were overrated because they flopped in the NCAA tournament. The first take was misguided, the second silly. Seventy percent of the Big 12 finished in the KenPom top 30. Sixty percent of it made the NCAA tournament. The seventh-place team won the NIT. The sixth- and seventh-place teams likely would have finished around fourth or fifth in the 12-team Pac-12 or the 14-team SEC. It was difficult to gage just how strong the conference was because teams like TCU kept falling short in games against the top five. There still is no definitive answer, even after four-plus months of evidence. But the most reasonable answer is that the win-loss records of TCU and Kansas State, and maybe even Texas Tech, woefully undersold those three teams, and therefore undersold what was one of the toughest conferences college basketball has seen in a while.

15. The West Coast resurgence happened… kind of

Prosperous seasons for UCLA, Arizona and Oregon finally coincided, which gave the Pac-12 more must-watch marquee games than it’s had in a while. Unfortunately, the rest of the conference was dreadful. Its bottom half was as weak as it’s ever been. Gonzaga rose from the left coast and, together with Oregon, snapped the West’s decade-long Final Four drought, but the WCC was a two-team conference, the Mountain West was way down for a second-straight year, and the other mid-major conferences based in the Pacific and Mountain time zones didn’t offer much. So while there was top-end quality out west, there wasn’t much depth.

16. Plenty of young coaches emerged as rising stars

This happens every season, but 2016-17 seemed to be a particularly good one for up-and-coming head coaches. The best of the bunch is Mike White. He just turned 40 in March, and already seems to have re-established Florida as a top-tier program only two years after Billy Donovan left. Alongside White on the rise are Chris Collins at Northwestern, Richard Pitino at Minnesota, Bryce Drew at Vanderbilt, Steve Wojciechowski at Marquette, Will Wade at VCU and now LSU, and Kevin Keatts at UNC-Wilmington and now NC State. There were also late-blooming breakout coaching stars, none more suddenly popular than Frank Martin at South Carolina. There were also Brad Underwood at Oklahoma State and now Illinois, and Tim Jankovich at SMU.

17. But the old guard still reigns supreme

The final AP top 10 of the season featured Jay Wright, Mark Few, Bill Self, Sean Miller, Roy Williams, John Calipari, Mike Krzyzewski and Rick Pitino. Those might be eight of the 12 most successful active coaches in college basketball right there. And a ninth, Bob Huggins, was right outside the top 10. If there was one theme of the year — not of the tournament, but of the full season — it was that bluebloods, both programs and their head honchos, stayed at or returned to their place atop the sport.