Nylon Calculus: The rise of third-year players in the NCAA Tournament

For the past decade, juniors have ruled over the NCAA Tournament — Kemba Walker, Kyle Guy, Donte DiVincenzo, Joel Berry — why?

Freshmen stars have received most of the college basketball attention over the past 15 years. The last 11 No. 1 NBA draft picks have been one-and-done players. The media focuses on teams full of superstar recruits — Duke in 2019, Kentucky in 2015 and 2010, Kansas in 2010 — teams that combined for three No. 1 overall picks and 12 lottery picks.  Meanwhile, Virginia in 2019, Duke in 2015 and 2010, and UConn in 2014 remain as historical footnotes despite winning the title.

During the one-and-done era (since 2006) only three of 14 men’s NCAA Tournament champions rostered a one-and-done player, and that includes Tony Bradley on North Carolina in 2017, who did not start a single game for the Tar Heels.

Even though freshmen receive all of the attention, their presence often excludes a team from title contention. So senior-laden teams must dominate instead, right? A 22-year-old with four years of Division I college basketball experience should reign over the tournament, especially compared to freshmen (players less than 12 months removed from asking to use the bathroom in homeroom).

Wrong … sort of.

History suggests that it is all about the juniors. Nine of the last 13 NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Players? Juniors. Virginia’s best three players in 2019? Juniors. Five of Villanova’s best six players in 2018? Juniors. North Carolina’s top two scorers in 2017? Juniors. Kemba Walker? Junior.  Joel Berry? Junior.  Kyle Guy? Junior.

I could keep going but I think you get it. Something about a horizontal driver’s license and the ability to purchase alcohol in a player’s third year of college turns them into tournament-dominating forces.

Why have juniors had so much individual success in the NCAA Tournament recently?

Flashback to the last NCAA Tournament game — 711 long days ago — to revisit an all-time classic in the 2019 National Championship.

On one side was perennial disappointment Virginia, the school that became the first No. 1 seed to fall to a No. 16 seed a year ago. They were dominated so badly by UMBC, the upset lost its shock value before halftime. On the other side, a much-less-storied Texas Tech team reached the school’s first Elite Eight in 2018 and now had an opportunity to win its first title. The Red Raiders, led by sophomore standout Jarrett Culver, were riding hot after upsetting Michigan, Gonzaga, and Michigan State.

After nearly 40 minutes of back-and-forth play, Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter hit a game-tying 3-pointer with 12 seconds left in regulation to send the game into overtime. To the dismay of the Texas Tech faithful, Virginia broke the game open during the extra period. It closed out the final three minutes on a 15-4 run where third-year players Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, De’Andre Hunter, and Mamadi Diakite scored every point to secure the team’s first national championship.

Virginia owed its success to its three core leaders — Ty Jerome, De’Andre Hunter, and Kyle Guy. Jerome, the team’s starting point guard and ACC assist leader, closed out the tournament with the best three-game stretch of his career — averaging 20 points, seven assists, and seven rebounds on 40 percent shooting from 3.

In the game against Texas Tech, ACC Defensive Player of the Year De’Andre Hunter showed why analysts consider him a top-five NBA draft prospect. Sitting for less than a minute in the contest, he locked down Culver and held him to just 15 points on 5-for-22 shooting, including 0-for-6 on 3-point attempts. Meanwhile, on offense, Hunter led the Cavaliers with 27 points, including the game-tying 3 to force overtime.

Last, but certainly not least, the recipient of 2019’s NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player award: Kyle Guy. In the National Semifinal against Auburn, Guy sunk three consecutive free throws with less than a second left on the clock to give Virginia a 63-62 win and keep the team’s hopes of a championship alive. Guy averaged 21.3 points on 41 percent shooting from 3 and 92 percent shooting from the line in a remarkable 42 minutes per game over the final three contests. That performance earned him the Most Outstanding Player award — the ninth junior to win the honor in 13 years.

This trio showed the country that a squad of upperclassmen playing Tony Bennett’s defense-driven system can, and will, take home some hardware.

Teams need strong leaders to win a title. Whether a “Kemba candidate” who puts the team on his back or a Donte-DiVincenzo-type who comes off the bench with scorched-earth shooting, somebody needs to step on the court and own it. By the way, those three were all third-year players during their marquee tournament runs.

Let’s first journey through tournament teams of the past, take a survey of Sweet 16 competitors, and check in on schools that hung Final Four banners. We will look at some of the most memorable players and recall some of the most surprising (and disappointing) tournament runs. Then what I know you want — some predictions for this year. A handful of teams fit the mold of past champions, while a few teams with top billing could be headed for early exits.

Before all of that, a quick note on statistics.

What is offensive load?

Offensive load measures how often the end of possessions involves a specific player, whether via free throw attempts, field goal attempts, turnovers, or assists.

Imagine Luka Garza plays 100 possessions in a game. He takes 20 shots, no free throws, and has four assists with three turnovers. Of those 100 possessions, 27 directly involve Garza, so he has an offensive load of 27 percent.

What is lead rate?

Lead rate answers the question, “how often is player X the centerpiece of his team’s offense?” It measures how frequently a player has the highest offensive load among his teammates, taking into account stylistic differences between lineup combinations.

To stick with the Garza example, if he has the highest offensive load among Iowa players on 75 of the 100 possessions, then he has a lead rate of 75 percent. Most teams have at least one player with a lead rate above 50 percent, though rates as low as 30 percent and as high as 100 percent are not too uncommon.

All data derives from publicly two publicly available sources. Play-by-play details come from NCAA.org, while all other statistics come from sports-reference.com.

NCAA Tournament teams from 2011 through 2019

Let’s first look at the season-long lead rates, broken down by class, among teams that made the NCAA Tournament between 2011 and 2019.

Some interesting things jump out right away. First, seniors had a lead rate above 35 percent from 2011 through 2015, and above 45 percent for three of those seasons. Since 2014, however, their load has decreased each season, other than a small uptick in 2019. Over the last three seasons, seniors play the central role of their offense on less than 30 percent of possessions.

Freshmen and sophomores have stayed about the same over the past decade, with lead rates around 10 and 20 percent respectively. Juniors experience the biggest increase. Six consecutive seasons of growth have taken them from a lead rate of 25 percent to 40 percent — as much as freshmen and seniors combined.

Top leaders for NCAA Tournament Teams (2011-19)

The top leader can take on a variety of play styles, All-American forward Ethan Happ, green-light shooter Jimmer Fredette, and do-it-all guard Trae Young each carry lead rates over 95 percent.  These players never took a back seat, no matter the lineup or situation. Happ’s placement here shows his versatility from down low, the Wisconsin native finished third in assists in the Big Ten in 2015.

Final Four and Sweet 16 teams (2011-19)

Now let’s look at the most successful teams in the tournament, the ones that reach the second and third weekends. Do juniors still dominate? Are seniors still falling off? Or are the previous results above just a statistical oddity from small-conference teams?

To those questions: yes, yes, and absolutely not. Rather than fall from 45 percent to 30 percent, the trend among tournament teams, seniors plummeted from 45 percent down below 20 percent for Sweet 16 teams, and, while noisy, down to ten percent for Final Four teams. Once the foundation of college basketball, seniors now rarely fall at the center of an offense, their role indistinguishable from that of freshmen and sophomores.

Among the underclassmen, the lead rate for freshmen rose from five percent in 2012 to 20 percent in 2019, double the tournament-wide rate. However, among Final Four teams, first-year players find themselves at the center of focus much less often. Lead rates of 30 percent at the start of the decade have fallen to below 10 percent in the past few years.

Even when trimming down to the best teams, juniors still experience a massive rise. However, rather than an increase from 25 percent to 40 percent, the lead rate for juniors goes from 20 percent in 2014 for both Sweet 16 and Final Four teams, up to 50 percent and well North of 60 percent, respectively, in the most recent tournaments.

Top leaders on Sweet 16 teams (2011-19)

Here, some memorable tournament runs show up: Kemba Walker’s outstanding 2011, Carsen Edwards ripping my heart out against Villanova and nearly single-handedly beating Virginia in 2019, and Syracuse’s shocking run to 2016’s Final Four. While the list mostly contains scoring guards, forwards Jarrett Culver and Dillon Brooks both show up in the top ten.

Note the range of offensive loads as well. While Michael Gbinije has the highest lead rate, he has the lowest offensive load on the list. On the other hand, Jimmer Fredette had a slightly lower lead rate, 95 percent, but an offensive load of 45 percent, 13 percentage points higher than Gbinije. Whether shooting, passing, or turning the ball over, Jimmer led his team to an unprecedented degree — taking 21 shots times per game while no other BYU player attempted more than ten.

Top leaders on Final Four teams (2011-19)

Here come the juniors! Six of the 10 players with the highest lead rate on Final Four teams were in their third year of college. Jalen Bruson’s National Player of the Year campaign led Villanova to arguably the most dominant tournament run in history, while All-American Cassius Winston averaged 19 points and 8 assists per game to lead Michigan State to the National Semifinal, including an upset win over title-favorite Duke. Not to mention Kemba Walker or any of the other three juniors above.

Most Outstanding Player: A 3000-level class in tournament dominance

Even the awards recognize the importance of juniors in the NCAA Tournament. Nine of the 13 Most Outstanding Player awards since 2007 have gone to juniors. The diversity of the recipients makes it difficult to identify another factor in these results. Corey Brewer and Kemba Walker are the only juniors to go in the lottery and Wayne Ellington and Donte DiVincenzo are the only others drafted in the first round. Joel Berry and Luke Hancock combined for zero NBA minutes. So it is not just All-American juniors, or future-first-round-pick juniors, or even future-NBA juniors. It is all of them.

Top leaders among 2021 contenders

Now, what would a March Madness article be without some predictions? If you skipped to this section, just know that juniors matter a lot. Let’s take a look at the top three seeds in each region, along with two wildcard teams, Villanova and Oklahoma State, to see what the data says about this year’s tournament.

While a few of the primary leaders on this year’s top seeds have high lead rates, nothing approaches the likes of Trae Young, Jimmer Fredette, and Kemba Walker, who were each above 92 percent in their marquee seasons. This list also has more diversity in play styles and positions than the previous rankings: Luka Garza and Cade Cunningham are score-first forwards while Ayo Dosunmu and Jared Butler do a bit of everything on the perimeter.

NCAA Tournament teams to watch

This March keep an eye on the Bears, Jayhawks, Fighting Illini, and Longhorns. The first three teams each have a strong junior leader at the center of their offense on over 73 percent of possessions, putting them right alongside recent Final Four teams. Texas’ players have different but noteworthy statistics. Between Andrew Jones and Courtney Ramey, over 60 percent of Texas’ minutes have a junior on the floor leading the team. Rather than one superstar, Texas has multiple players that fit the mold of third-year Most Outstanding Player award winners.

Despite Baylor’s recent loss to Oklahoma State in the Big 12 conference tournament semifinals, the team should be poised for a solid tournament run. The same goes for Illinois, Texas, and even Kansas, COVID cancellations, and all.

NCAA Tournament teams to avoid

It pains me to say this, but do not pick Villanova in your bracket. The team’s hopes did not look good after losing point guard Collin Gillespie to a torn MCL and then falling to Georgetown in the Big East Tournament. Between the obvious problems and the lack of junior talent, avoid Villanova like COVID-19.

Oklahoma State presents an interesting case. Cade Cunningham has been billed as a generational talent and surefire number one pick, but evidence suggests that freshmen-led teams rarely make deep tournament runs. Oklahoma State has picked up some solid wins in the past two weeks — beating Baylor once and West Virginia twice — but be wary of projecting a deep tournament run for the Cade Train and the Cowboys.

Good basketball teams have good leaders, great basketball teams have great leaders. Nineteen-year-old freshmen rarely have the chops to handle that responsibility. Neither do sophomores. Something during that third year on campus sparks magic within players. Whether it is an extra year in their program, comfort away from home, or some mystical force in the universe that only Mark Titus can explain, juniors thrive in the tournament.

The effect is real. Juniors lead tournament teams on 40 percent of possessions, Sweet 16 teams on 50 percent, and Final Four teams on 70 percent. Juniors are trending up overall and become even more important in later rounds of the tournament. Seniors are heading downhill. Freshmen were once over-represented — thank Anthony Davis and Brandon Knight for that — but now barely matter when the games are in football stadiums.

Keep an eye on Kansas, Texas, Illinois, and Baylor in this year’s tournaments. Strong junior talent from the likes of Illinois’ Ayo Dosunmu and Baylor’s Jared Butler could set them up for a deep run. Avoid Oklahoma State and Villanova. Despite a star freshman for the Cowboys and two recent titles for Jay Wright and the Wildcats, the freshmen- and sophomore-driven teams look like candidates for early exits.

Seniors owned college basketball during the twentieth century. Freshmen own the NBA draft. Sophomores probably have something nice too. But juniors, the juniors have March. The juniors have April. The juniors play their senior year under a banner that they hung. Pick accordingly.