When it comes to tourney punditry, the proclamation that “great guards rule the dance” might be even more pervasive than “defense wins championships.” If that’s true, then fans of Michigan, with Trey Burke, and Syracuse, with Michael Carter-Williams, have to be feeling pretty good about their March Madness chances. And you might want to pay attention to darkhorses like Lehigh (C.J. McCollum), South Dakota State (Nate Wolters) and Murray State (Isaiah Canaan).
There’s just one thing: the pundits are often wrong in their pat judgments of the keys to tourney success. In our December 2 blog post, we learned that offense trumps defense when it comes to the late rounds of the tourney. Is the value of a strong backcourt also overblown?
One thing is for sure about guard play in the NCAA tournament: teams are relying on their backcourts for more scoring than ever. In the first five years of the 64-team era, the average tourney team relied on its backcourt for 44.6% of its points. In the last five years, the average tourney team got 57.2% of its points from guards. That’s a swing of nearly 13%. And the climb has been steady.
It used to be that frontcourt-dominant teams outnumbered backcourt-dominant by more than two to one. Today, the reverse is true. Take a look at this breakdown of the tourney teams by percentage of guard scoring in four seven-year periods:
In the first seven years of the dance, 37.2% of tourney teams got less than 40% of their points from guards (or, to put it another way, more than 60% of their points from forwards and centers). Only about one in six teams depended on guards for more than 60% of their scoring. Over the next three seven-year periods, the tide has shifted dramatically toward guard-oriented teams. The portion of squads getting 40-60% of their points from the backcourt has stayed pretty much the same. But the ratio of frontcourt versus backcourt teams has flipped. Since 2006, only 15.4% of teams have relied on big men for 60% of their scoring, while fully 40% of teams have depended on their backcourt to shoulder that much of the scoring load.
So it’s absolutely correct to say that more guard-oriented teams are getting into the dance. The question is: how are they doing when they get there? The answer is: not as great as their growing numbers might lead you to believe. Let’s look at the performance against seed expectations for the same three groups of teams over the same seven-year periods:
The top performing teams in three of the four seven-year periods were frontcourt-dominant squads relying on guards for fewer than 40% of their points. And surprisingly, their highest period of overachievement has come in the last seven years. When their numbers were the fewest, they logged a +.228 PASE. Meanwhile, backcourt-dominant teams have underachieved in three of the four seven-year periods—and most dramatically since 2006 (-.100 PASE), when their numbers were the greatest.
Here’s another indication that guard play isn’t the key to tourney advancement that some experts claim it is. In the first decade of the 64-team tourney era, the average tourney team relied on guards for 45% of their points. The average team advancing to the Sweet Sixteen also averaged 45% guard scoring. However, the average champion got just 39.5% of its points from the backcourt—5.5% less reliance on guards. The same dynamic has been at play over the last decade, albeit with higher percentages. The average tourney field has gotten 53.9% of its points from guards, which is nearly the same breakdown for Sweet Sixteen teams (53.6%). But the champions have been 7.3% more frontcourt-dominant, with just 46.3% of their scoring coming from the backcourt.
Yes, it is true that more guard-oriented teams are making it into the tourney. But, no, they are not necessarily performing any better than frontcourt-oriented teams. In fact, they underachieve against seed expectations, and the ultimate champions remain much more reliant on their frontcourt than the typical tourney team.
More great guards might be going to the dance, but the big men still rule it.