Satellites and Chuck Klosterman: A 1,000,000 foot-view of the NCAA tournament

Yesterday, the voice of the Hip Generation, Chuck Klosterman, rated the NCAA men’s basketball tournament “slightly overrated.” In doing so, Klosterman identified an emergent feature of the tournament that I’ve been talking about for at least three years: the improved accuracy with which the tournament committee seeds the teams, leading to fewer “upsets.” Why? Satellite TV. Huh? The committee is watching more games of more teams. They’re more educated about more teams, so they rank them more accurately. Can you give me an example? Sure. Gonzaga likely has always been about as good as they are today, but the little school in Spokane with the funny name (it has a Z in it you guys!) used to come out of nowhere and “upset” teams because the ‘Zags were underrated. You used to be a fool not to mark Gonzaga down for two wins. Now, though, someone in Indianapolis could watch every Gonzaga regular-season game if he or she wanted, something people likely couldn’t and certainly didn’t do five years ago, and so Gonzaga’s come back to the pack as they’ve been more accurately seeded.

Writeth Klosterman:

The NCAA selection committee has gotten too good at its job. . . . The committee now seeds the tournament so precisely that the early rounds lack dissonance. We’ve exaggerated the import of the process. The brackets are way more accurate, but less compelling. In the not-so-distant past, the limitations of media kept college sports unpredictable. Easy example: Throughout the 1980s, it seemed like the New Mexico Lobos were habitually being shafted. In 1986-87, they won 25 games and still ended up in the NIT. And when analysts would try to explain why that happened, they’d concede that the members of the committee had not seen enough of New Mexico to give them the benefit of the doubt. They would almost admit they knew almost nothing about the program (and at the time, that felt like a problem). That could never happen now. I’ve somehow seen New Mexico play three times this year, and it’s not even my job. With unlimited media, nothing remains unknown; the committee makes fewer mistakes, and the seedings have become staggeringly reliable. Which was always the goal. The only problem is that the realization of that goal erodes the inherent unpredictability that everyone craves. The surgery was successful, but the patient died.

Silent Film Series: Baron Davis (Oakland, CA 2007)

The writers and readers of this site tend to be employed or otherwise disposed during the day such that watching video clips on full volume usually doesn’t happen. If there’s something I really want to hear, I save it for lunch or the end of the day, and I suspect a lot of people do the same thing. This means that there are a lot of us watching a lot of videos– the general tenor of the internet being what it is– on mute. Conventional wisdom suggests that this practice detracts from our experience of these videos. Conventional wisdom also suggests that you never get involved in a land war in Asia, but is Afghanistan even in Asia and anyway that’s not what we’re talking about because the fact is that conventional wisdom can be wrong about videos and about wars (but not about videos of wars), which is why we’re introducing the ALDLAND Silent Film Series.

The concept is simple: some videos are better without sound. Whether they’re made that way or are seen that way for some variation on the modern reality alluded to above, this addition-by-subtraction effect is very real.

The Series’ inaugural feature comes from Oakland, California in 2007. Yesterday afternoon, Amos Barshad included the clip in his possibly prescient (given the Knicks’ loss in Miami last night) contingency plan for the end of Linsanity. It stars a somewhat (i.e., five-years) younger Baron Davis in his role as point guard for the Golden State Warriors, and it comes in the final minutes of a 20+ point win over the visiting Utah Jazz.

I neither am nor aspire to be Chuck Klosterman: a second-by-second analysis of this video hardly seems necessary. Instead, as you watch it (sans audio!, of course), appreciate the silent cinemagic of every shot of Davis, his teammates, Andrei Kirilenko, the fans, and the referee. Sound can improve these visuals in zero ways.

Philip Jackson’s legacy

Now that we have a few generations of organized sport under our collective belt, we have more options for assessing the greatness of its participants contextually. While many of the major sports, especially hockey and baseball, have become internationalized through broad player entry, coaching pools remain markedly small. Moreover, many of the coaches are (professionally, and occasionally familially) related to each other. Trace a current head coach’s resume backwards and you’re likely to find that he worked as a coordinator or assistant alongside other current head coaches underneath a prominent head coach of the past generation. Looking prospectively, these relationships often are described as “coaching trees” (click here for a detailed look at some of the NFL’s coaching trees), and, beyond any championships won, seasonal records set, or individual players developed, these coaching trees can represent a coach’s most lasting impact on the game. Some of the most extensive coaching trees read like the first chapter of Matthew (the begattitudes), and these relationships are important not just because a handful of people used to work together and now are running their own teams, but because they represent shared philosophies of coaching– strategy, tactics, personnel management, etc. Sort of like long-gone U.S. presidents can continue to affect public policy through their lasting legacy of federal judicial appointments, athletic strategists can find their schemes in play long after they’re gone, directed by their coaching legacies and operated by modern stars they may never have met. Having a large, relevant coaching tree is a major indicator of coaching success.

Which is why it’s surprising to realize that professional basketball’s greatest coach, Phil Jackson, essentially has no coaching tree whatsoever.

Last month, Grantland’s Chuck Klosterman wrote a piece on Jackson and the Triangle offense that offered little insight on Jackson or the Triangle. It did conclude with the following, however, and while the last sentence frames this partial paragraph as a preemptive obituary for the Triangle, the substance of the quoted portion functions to conscribe the legacy of Jackson himself:

Jackson is widely viewed as arrogant. He engenders jealousy among his rivals (and seems to enjoy doing so). His acolytes are few and far between. Unlike most coaches who’ve had major success, he hasn’t spawned a significant coaching tree of former assistants — his only real tentacles into the league have been recently fired Timberwolves coach Kurt Rambis and ex-Mavs coach Jim Cleamons (currently working in China). Neither ran the Triangle in totality. Jackson’s NBA impact has been massive, but his ongoing influence will be muted. It appears that he will not be remembered as the NBA coach who ran the Triangle best; in all likelihood, he will be remembered as the only NBA coach who ran it at all. If the Triangle truly dies, it dies with him.

The man and the scheme are inextricably connected, of course, and we’re far too close to Jackson to estimate or predict his total legacy and future perception, but at a time when the many of the best coaches are seen either as the grand culmination of an existent coaching tree or, especially, the roots of a new one, Jackson appears rather isolated, which is sort of how we’ve always thought about him anyway.