Mythbusters: Experience Matters Not
Basketball analysts like to talk about a team's experience as if it is the great deciding factor between winning and losing. They believe a team with more experience will have been in pressure situations before and learned from them. Therefore, this "experienced" team will play with more poise during crunch time and produce at a higher level.
I can smell the bull manure all the way from my nosebleed seats at Madison Square Garden for the first round of the Big East Tournament.
With conference tournaments in full swing across the country, it's time to debunk this theory that experience really matters in college basketball. Sure, in the locker room experience is relatively important -- seniors give better pregame speeches and pep talks. But on the court it is not nearly as significant as most people think. (Which is why I will be watching a senior-laden Notre Dame team that is seeded 10th take on Rutgers...)
If experience were really that important in determining the outcome of a basketball game, then most tournament champions from smaller conferences, those that are not pillaged by the NBA, would be led by upperclassmen. But that is just not the case. The Ohio Valley champ, Morehead State, starts one senior. So too, does Big South champ, Radford. Missouri Valley champion, Northern Iowa, starts no seniors.
A lot of times, analysts refer to experience when they really mean maturity. It is an understandable generalization. Often, experience leads to maturity, but not always. There are many young players who are mature beyond their years. These freshmen and sophomores -- players like Oklahoma's Blake Griffin, Johnny Flynn of Syracuse, and Pittsburgh's DeJuan Blair -- lead by example, not experience.
This season, Butler is a perfect case of a young college basketball team excelling, despite a dearth of experience. The Bulldogs lost five of their seven top scorers from last year. Brad Stevens, the third-youngest coach in the nation, starts three freshman and a sophomore. If experience mattered, Butler would be down in the basement of the Horizon League, which is what most pre-season polls predicted. But, at 26-4, the Bulldogs are ranked No. 16 in the nation and enter the finals of the Horizon League Tournament as the team-to-beat.
Stepping up from the mid-majors, Wake Forest is another team that's skill far exceeds its experience. Guard Jeff Teague is just a sophomore, but might be the most clutch player in the ACC. Surrounding Teague is a young cast of complimentary players like James Johnson (sophomore), L.D. Williams (junior) and Al-Farouq Aminu (freshman). Together, this youthful team, one that does not feature a single senior, finished tied for second in the cutthroat ACC.
Those who put their faith in experience like to point to Mario Chalmers' game-tying three-pointer last year in the NCAA Finals as evidence that seasoning matters when the game is on the line. Kansas coach Bill Self called it "the biggest shot in Kansas history." Yes, Chalmers was an upperclassman. Yes, he nailed an incredibly clutch three with 2.1 seconds that allowed his Jayhawks to win a national championship. But don't forget, Chalmers had never been the finals before. The furthest he had gotten in the NCAA Tournament was the Elite Eight. He had no collegiate experience whatsoever in that kind of pressure-packed situation. In the end, Chalmers acted on instinct, and instinct is innate, while experience implies improvement through practice.
On the flip side of the coin, Siena returned all five starters this season from a team that beat Vanderbilt in the first round of the NCAA Tournament one year ago. And while the Saints ran through the MAAC regular season and won the conference tournament again this year, the experience of upsetting a big-time program has failed to carry over so far. Earlier in the season, Siena lost to Tennessee, Oklahoma State, Pittsburgh and Kansas, and none of the games were even close.
If I were to throw out a hyperbole, I'd say that experience matters in basketball slightly more than hand-eye coordination matters in chess. It is nice to have on your side, but not really necessary. After all, Florida won back-to-back NCAA National Championships in 2006 and 2007 playing with a core group of sophomores and juniors.
Basketball success comes down to talent over experience, which -- along with players leaving for the NBA -- is why underclassmen win the Naismith College Player of the Year Award more often nowadays than seniors. In the last ten years, senior players have claimed the award only four times -- J.J. Redick, Jameer Nelson, Shane Battier and, of all people, Kenyon Martin.
I would even go as far as to say that, in certain cases, experience can hurt a player's performance. Last season, North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough scored a pedestrian 17 points in a Final Four loss to Kansas. It was the third year in a row that he failed to lead the Tar Heels to a national championship. How much will Hansbrough's past failures in the NCAA Tournament come back to haunt him this season? Every year, his March shortcomings must weigh on him more and more. If you can try too hard, why can't you experience too much?
Got a myth you want to see busted or just want to bust my chops? Send all thoughts and complaints to Jacob.Osterhout@gmail.com.
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