Democracy Dies in Darkness

Fancy Stats | Analysis

What the NCAA tournament would look like without the FBI probe players

March 5, 2018 at 11:24 AM

Duke forward Wendell Carter Jr. is one of the top finishers in college basketball, but he is also one of the players named by media reports in the FBI’s investigation of college basketball. (Gerry Broome/AP)

In February, reports from ESPN and Yahoo Sports described a wide-ranging investigation by the FBI into NCAA basketball, potentially implicating at least 20 Division I teams and more than 25 players. Schools named as part of the investigation include Duke, North Carolina, Texas, Kentucky, Michigan State, USC and Kansas, with players allegedly receiving impermissible benefits, such as “illegal cash payments to prospects and their families, as well as players and their families receiving tens of thousands of dollars from agents while they were still playing in college.”

Such benefits are a violation of NCAA rules and historically result in significant penalties from the organization, and they also have led to the loss of scholarships and the vacation of national titles and NCAA tournament appearances. To guard against such measures, schools will sometimes choose to sit or suspend players who may be implicated in such violations. And, indeed, we’ve already seen some of that with this investigation.

With the NCAA tournament beginning next week, and with some teams sitting players and coaches in the wake of the report for precautionary reasons, it get us thinking about how the investigation could affect teams during March Madness if every player named in the reports was withheld. (In all likelihood, they won’t be, but we still thought it an interesting exercise in case there is another development in the investigation before the start of the tournament.)

One of the players named, Eric Davis Jr. of Texas, has been suspended “until further notice” for “precautionary reasons.” Brian Bowen, another player reportedly involved, transferred to South Carolina after being suspended at Louisville. He isn’t eligible to play for the Gamecocks until next season under NCAA transfer rules. USC’s Bennie Boatwright, also linked to the investigation, suffered a left patella injury in February and was ruled out for the season.

Related: [How LeBron James says he’d fix the ‘corrupt’ NCAA]

That leaves at least four active players with ties to the investigation still eligible to play in the NCAA tournament, each critical to his team’s  success. If they were ruled ineligible or withheld from action by their teams, here’s how it would affect their team’s chances in March Madness.

Wendell Carter Jr., Duke

Carter is No. 9 in the Pomeroy Player of the Year standings, leads the team in box plus-minus (14.0) — a box-score estimate of the points per 100 possessions a player contributes above a league-average player, translated to an average team — and is one of the top finishers in college basketball, converting 69 percent of his attempts around the basket. He’s also scoring 1.4 points per putback off offensive rebounds, ninth-most among 27 Division I players with at least 50 putbacks.

Related: [Duke needs to make a tweak to its playing style to succeed in March]

Remove him from the equation, and his backup, Marques Bolden, is a reliable stopgap — he shoots 66 percent around the basket with 1.1 points per putback off offensive rebounds — but is a downgrade for Duke in terms of points, rebounds and assists per 100 possessions. Bolden also is no comparison for Carter behind the arc: Carter averages 2.5 three-point attempts per 100 possessions, while Bolden has yet to attempt a three-pointer this season.

Collin Sexton, Alabama

Sexton, a freshman, is an all-around scorer who can shoot, get into the lane and draw fouls. He leads the team in usage rate (33 percent) and points per 100 possessions (35.4), often handling the ball in the pick and roll, where he generates 0.9 points per possession, good enough to put him 57th among 235 players with at least 150 pick-and-roll possessions. Sexton’s 7.6 fouls drawn per 40 minutes place him seventh in the nation.

Sexton is also a versatile defender, using speed and discipline to stick with his man, and allowing opponents to score just 31 percent of the time when they try to go one-on-one against Sexton in isolation. The average in Division I is 38 percent.

His backups, Avery Johnson Jr. and Dazon Ingram, score 17.4 and 19.6 points per 100 possessions, meaning Alabama could see its already mediocre offensive efficiency (108.3 points per 100 possessions, 120th in the nation) drop even further in the tournament. But after losing five straight to close the regular season, Alabama’s NCAA tournament hopes are dicey.

Kevin Knox, Kentucky

Knox, a 6-foot-9 freshman, leads the team in usage (24 percent) and points per 100 possessions (27.6), scoring as a spot-up shooter, off the screen and in the pick and roll. He doesn’t cut to the basket much but, when he does, he is terrific, scoring on 13 of his 15 attempts. Knox can also knock down shots from the perimeter, converting 35 percent of his attempts from behind the three-point line.

His size and reach allow him to guard small or power forwards, limiting them to 0.8 points per possession, which places him in the top 25 percent of the nation’s defenders.

Wenyen Gabriel would get Knox’s minutes at power forward, while Hamidou Diallo would slide in at small forward. Gabriel could boost Kentucky’s efficiency (plus-7.3 BPM), but that would be dragged down by Diallo, whose production is estimated to be three points per 100 possessions worse than Knox’s.

Miles Bridges, Michigan State

Bridges is second on the team in usage (27 percent of possessions) and points scored per 100 possessions (31.8), scoring over a point per possession (top 6 percent in the nation) as the ballhandler on the pick and roll. The Spartans don’t run the pick and roll often — it accounts for one of every 13 possessions — but his backup at power forward, Nick Ward, has no experience running the play (two possessions in 2017-18), while Joshua Langford is significantly less adept (0.6 points per possession, 25th percentile).

The most frequent lineup for Michigan State over the past five games that doesn’t feature Bridges — with Langford at small forward and Ward at power forward — was used by Coach Tom Izzo just 3.2 percent of the time, but it projects to outscore opponents by 6.2 points per 100 possessions. With Bridges in for Langford — a lineup used a team-high 14 percent of the time — that would increase to 7.0 per 100 possessions.

Giving a more efficient lineup more court time doesn’t mean the Spartans will be able to sustain a higher efficiency rate, but it does show they might not suffer much in Bridges’s hypothetical absence.

More NCAA basketball:

This is the best Virginia Tech team to ever play ACC basketball

RPI appears to have too much influence in the NCAA tournament seeding process

Radford brings the Madness, but this high school QB hit the craziest title-winning shot


Neil Greenberg is a staff writer with The Washington Post whose beat is sports analytics. His analysis and insight can be found on the Fancy Stats blog, where he covers all pro sports, as well as college football and basketball.

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