Thursday, March 28, 2013

About FGCU (and some bad analysis)

Deadspin has a fairly interesting article up today about Florida Gulf Coast University, this year's surprise entrant into the NCAA Tournament's Sweet Sixteen. Touching on some topics that I've previously discussed in posts here and here, author Jonathan Mahler puts a different spin on this Cinderella story.
Don’t waste your time wooing Nobel laureates to your faculty or trying to recruit National Merit Scholars to a college they’ve never heard of. Do what any self-respecting entrepreneur would do: Devote your resources to building a first-class Division I basketball program.
It’s not going to happen overnight, but FGCU pulled it off pretty quickly... The Eagles basketball program started in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics and had to apply more than once before being accepted into the National Collegiate Athletic Association—at the Division II level. Even after being granted permission to move up to Division I, the team had to wait three years before becoming eligible for postseason play.
Florida Gulf Coast University won its first NCAA tournament game in the school’s second year of eligibility, a mere 16 years after graduating its first student. Harvard won its first tournament game this year, too—371 years after its first commencement...
Just how valuable is a strong showing in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament? As it happens, Butler, whose improbable run to the 2010 Final Four is still the stuff of legend, has studied this very question. Its near-championship run—it lost in the finals to Duke—generated precisely $639,273,881.82 in publicity for the university. That’s to say nothing of the increases in merchandise sales and charitable giving, or the 41 percent surge in applications.
Interesting stuff, although as I've pointed out in my previous posts, not all schools are as successful at this game as FGCU has been—many more have thrown untold millions at their athletic departments and had hardly any success at all on the field or as an institution. On balance, it's pretty much a zero-sum game—some win big, but many others lose just as much.

Of course, where the author really lost me wasn't in this conclusion, but in his odd insistence that this Cinderella run somehow should have been foreseen by all of us, or that it was somehow inevitable. Mahler writes:
[Head coach Andy] Enfield hasn’t exactly had to scrounge for talent at FGCU. His team’s point guard, Brett Comer, grew up playing youth basketball with Austin Rivers, a current starter for the New Orleans Hornets and the son of former NBA star Doc Rivers. The father of one of Enfield’s bench players, Filip Cvjeticanin, played alongside Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic on the Yugoslavian national team that won a silver medal in the 1988 Olympics.
These are some pretty tenuous links here, my man. I, for example, grew up playing baseball against this guy, in games umpired by this guy, and I coached this guy at a baseball camp when I was in high school. My father, meanwhile, shared a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 1983, when I was two years old.

Do these connections alone make me a top-tier athletic talent, or a budding superstar journalist? Of course not. All they do is illustrate what we already know about the world, which is that it can be a pretty small place sometimes. If you play sports for long enough, you're pretty much guaranteed to line up with or against somebody who's pretty talented—and if not, you've probably got a relative who did (hey, come to think of it, my uncle did play hoops against Patrick Ewing in the Boston city championship way back when... maybe I've got more of a future in basketball than I'd realized).

As for FGCU, if they had really figured out a way to somehow magically attract top athletes to their school, they wouldn't have been recruiting kids who "grew up playing youth basketball with Austin Rivers", they'd have been recruiting Austin Rivers himself. This isn't to say that these FGCU kids aren't talented—in fact, they are. I've been amazed by what these guys have done, and it's no fluke. I can't wait to watch them continue their run tomorrow night against Florida (late game, eh, CBS? I see what you did there...), and I hope they take this thing all the way to Atlanta for the Final Four.

But to pretend as though FGCU was some sleeping giant—with tons of top talent that nobody bothered to talk about—obscures the real lessons that we could be learning here. Namely, that a coach and a team playing incredibly well as a unit while having fun and playing with reckless abandon can do some pretty special things on a basketball court (and that the NCAA probably screwed up a bit with this year's seeding of the tournament). Not to mention, this isn't exactly a unique story in recent years—George Mason, VCU, and Butler all preceded (and exceeded) FGCU in this regard. Sure, FGCU reaching the Final Four would be unbelievable, and I'm certainly rooting for it, but we're not there yet.

When a big sports story like this one comes along, a lot of bad journalism is bound to be written, so this particular article is hardly a surprise. I just wish that, for once, we could all just enjoy an awesome story on its own merits, without having to draw some bigger (nonsensical) lesson about it all. Unfortunately, that's just not what we in the internet age like to do.


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