I apologize for a second straight blasphemous post singing the praises of teams not named Michigan, but I'm learning to be a more pleasant sports fan these days, and I'm hoping to provide insight that will help others have a more enjoyable neutral sports-watching experience. That being said, I went on and on about Camp Randall last week so let me just say I went back to the Big House for the Ohio State game, and The Big House still blows away any other stadium experience. Seriously. But you knew that already. Other organizational notes: if you're here for fun basketball graphs, may I direct you back to my Twitter, and if you're antsy for the first bracket projection, that'll happen some time around New Years, once teams like Temple, Nevada, and Rhode Island aren't top 10 teams in the RPI. As for today's post, we're going to take a look at what makes for a perfect second favorite college basketball team.
On January 4th, 2016, I watched the single greatest college basketball game I had ever seen, and I emerged with a new temporary second favorite team. Buddy Hield's Oklahoma Sooners went into Phog Allen Fieldhouse to face #1 ranked Kansas. The teams traded haymakers for 3 straight hours, the game went to triple overtime, finished around midnight eastern, and Kansas emerged with an absolutely insane 109-106 victory. I followed the Sooners pretty closely the rest of that season, and while they never quite captured the magic of that night in Lawrence, they remained an insanely fun team to watch.
After a close friend of the blog wrote this flaming hot Deadspin post proclaiming Duke of all teams to be "fun," my initial visceral reaction caused me to dive deeper into my own basketball watching preferences, which eventually led me to come up with the ingredients that make a basketball team I would otherwise have no connection to fun for me to follow. I compared 2016 Oklahoma with a few other teams I enjoyed watching (2014 Creighton is the other big one, and to be honest I began to also grew fond of 2015 Wisconsin once Michigan was done playing them). When I thought back to why no team stole my heart in 2017, I realized that team was in fact just Michigan. This became clearer when I narrowed down my scattered thoughts to four simple ingredients:
1. A Game-Changing Talent. Following a basketball team is a big commitment, so if you're going to commit to a secondary team, it helps if they have one guy that is all over the court making plays. This might be the biggest difference between what you want out of your favorite team and your second favorite team. Obviously you usually want your team to share the ball and have multiple stars, but that's too much effort for a team you're only going to watch when it's convenient. Give me one Buddy Hield or Derrick Walton running wild all over the court stuffing the stat sheet and I will be delightfully entertained.
2. Incendiary 3-Point Shooting. This one is a personal preference, having grown up in the slog of the Amaker years before being enlightened by the glory of the Beilein offense, but I think most people would agree that teams that can light it up from beyond the arc are a lot of fun to watch. Especially when this isn't a team you've tied all of your emotions too, you want to be able to flip their game on and watch them just make it rain. This is what made 2014 Creighton so fun: they had Doug McDermott to attract all the attention of opposing defenses, and when they collapsed on him, there was Ethan Wragge hitting an insane 110 three pointers at a 47% rate. Find yourself a team that can do that and you'll be in good shape.
3. Insane Games Against Traditional Powerhouses. This one is kind of obvious unless you're a Duke fan. The reason you pick a second team is in the hope of getting to see them beat other teams you don't like. Or even if they don't win, like Hield in '16, if they give you an awesome game to watch and a reason to have a rooting interest, that works too. I didn't really fall for 2015 Wisconsin until the tournament, when they took down North Carolina, Arizona, and the greatest Kentucky team any of us have ever seen in three straight games. If your favorite team is having a down year, pick a secondary team who has the opportunity to beat all those teams you don't like, which brings me to my final point:
4. No National Championships in My Lifetime. You might not be the exact same age as me, so you can make this rule whatever you want. Since Michigan doesn't have a championship in my lifetime, I feel slightly jealous towards the fan bases that do have one in that time frame. So for me, this no-cheer list consists of UCLA, Kentucky, Arizona, UConn, Michigan State, Duke, Maryland, Syracuse, North Carolina, Florida, Kansas, Louisville, and Villanova. That seems to nicely cover all the easily hate-able teams in college basketball, plus a few extras.
So Who Is it This Year? That's the question, isn't it? As the rest of this post indicates, sometimes it takes a while for the second favorite team to emerge, and that's okay. You just have to keep watching until someone steals your heart. So far none of the early contenders have really jumped out at me, but I'll put up a tentative top 5:
Oklahoma again? Trae Young does just about everything for what appears to be another fun Sooner team. I haven't watched any of their games yet, so I can't really form an opinion yet, but the numbers are encouraging. This would deviate quite a bit from Rule 2 though, as Oklahoma is much more proficient at 2-pointers than 3's this season.
Notre Dame? Seriously? Probably not, because it's Notre Dame. But Mike Brey has developed a style quite similar to Beilein's over the years, and this year Bonzie Colson is a game-changing talent that can take over a game at any point. The problem here is if you watched the Irish play Michigan State, majorly blowing their first chance to take down a traditional powerhouse. But if they can pull off a big upset against Duke or UNC, my opinion of them could change quickly.
Virginia Tech? The Hokies seem to have some players that can light it up and currently have the best effective FG% in the country, but no clear go-to guy that would take them to the next level of awesome. They also don't appear to be quite good enough overall to put the fear of God into the rest of the ACC just yet.
Arizona State? Um maybe? Haven't watched them at all either, but Tra Holder has an extremely impressive Kenpom line: 134.8 offensive rating on 25.7% of possessions while playing 88.6% of available minutes. The Sun Devils score from all over the court and travel to Phog Allen this week. They only have an 8% chance of pulling off the upset, but if they do, this competition is locked down.
TCU? This is basically an even more balanced version of Virginia Tech. The Horned Frogs have 6 different players with an offensive rating over 115, and have the second best offense in the Big XII (after Kansas) led by great 3-point shooting. They probably won't emerge into a true second favorite team, but they'll upset someone at some point and it'll be a lot of fun.
So that's Spidey's anatomy of a fun team. I watch a lot of college basketball, so I'm really hoping someone emerges from the pack of "kinda fun" into a true team to keep an eye on and cheer for in big games. I'd love to hear from readers about what criteria makes a team fun for you. I think this guide will work for a large percentage of college basketball fans, and if you disagree with the rules, there's always Duke.