What happened to the MOP?

For many decades, the “Most Outstanding Player” trophy of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament went to a signature star, year after year, many (or even most) of whom went on to have Hall of Fame NBA careers and become all-time legends.  The more recent winners have been… let’s just say less memorable.  Why might that be?

North Carolina Tar Heels v Illinois Fighting Illini

I’m sure you’re thinking that the duration of college athlete careers is the cause.  While the greats of yesteryear commonly stuck around for all four years of college ball, the “one-and-done” freshman stars of today’s game are the rule rather than the exception (at least among top talents).  However, I’m convinced that is far from the only reason for the decline of the MOP trophy, and I’m fairly confident it’s not even the biggest reason.

Let’s first establish what we’re talking about here.  Let’s look at the last 60 years, starting in 1954, and we will divide the years into two groups:  the first 31 years (1954-1984) and the last 29 years (1985-2013).  In those first 31 years, the following players were named MOP of the NCAA Tournament:

*  * *  1954-1984  *  *  *

1954 Tom Gola [HALL OF FAME; 5x NBA All-Star]
1955 Bill Russell [HALL OF FAME; 5x NBA MVP; 12x NBA All-Star]
1956 Hal Lear
1957 Wilt Chamberlain [HALL OF FAME; 4x NBA MVP; 13x NBA All-Star; NBA Rookie of the Year (“ROY”)]
1958 Elgin Baylor [HALL OF FAME; 11x NBA All-Star; ROY]
1959 Jerry West [HALL OF FAME; 14x NBA All-Star]
1960 Jerry Lucas [HALL OF FAME; 7x NBA All-Star; ROY]
1961 Jerry Lucas [HALL OF FAME; 7x NBA All-Star; ROY]
1962 Paul Hogue
1963 Art Heyman
1964 Walt Hazzard [NBA All-Star]
1965 Bill Bradley [HALL OF FAME; NBA All-Star]
1966 Jerry Chambers
1967 Lew Alcindor (Kareem) [HALL OF FAME; 6x NBA MVP; 19x NBA All-Star; ROY]
1968 Lew Alcindor (Kareem) [HALL OF FAME; 6x NBA MVP; 19x NBA All-Star; ROY]
1969 Lew Alcindor (Kareem) [HALL OF FAME; 6x NBA MVP; 19x NBA All-Star; ROY]
1970 Sidney Wicks [4x NBA All-Star; ROY]
1971 Howard Porter
1972 Bill Walton [HALL OF FAME; NBA MVP; 2x NBA All-Star]
1973 Bill Walton [HALL OF FAME; NBA MVP; 2x NBA All-Star]
1974 David Thompson [HALL OF FAME; 5x NBA/ABA All-Star; ROY]
1975 Richard Washington
1976 Kent Benson
1977 Butch Lee
1978 Jack Givens
1979 Magic Johnson [HALL OF FAME; 3x NBA MVP; 12x NBA All-Star]
1980 Darrell Griffith [ROY]
1981 Isiah Thomas [HALL OF FAME; 12x NBA All-Star]
1982 James Worthy [HALL OF FAME; 7x NBA All-Star]
1983 Akeem Olajuwon (Hakeem) [HALL OF FAME; NBA MVP; 12x NBA All-Star]
1984 Patrick Ewing [HALL OF FAME; 11x NBA All-Star; ROY]

Quite a collection.  22 of those 31 trophies went to NBA stars.  19 went to future Hall of Famers, and three more went to accolade-worthy NBA players.  In case you’re curious, those 31 trophies were won by players whose combined NBA careers would total 21 MVP trophies, 148 All-Star appearances, and eight Rookie of the Year awards, not including duplicates.1  Since 1985, on the other hand, the following players have been named the NCAA Tournament’s MOP:

*  *  *  1985-2013  *  *  *

1985 Ed Pinckney
1986 Pervis Ellison
1987 Keith Smart
1988 Danny Manning [2x NBA All-Star]
1989 Glen Rice [3x NBA All-Star]
1990 Anderson Hunt
1991 Christian Laettner [NBA All-Star]
1992 Bobby Hurley
1993 Donald Williams
1994 Corliss Williamson
1995 Ed O’Bannon
1996 Tony Delk
1997 Miles Simon
1998 Jeff Sheppard
1999 Richard Hamilton [3x NBA All-Star]
2000 Mateen Cleaves
2001 Shane Battier
2002 Juan Dixon
2003 Carmelo Anthony [7x NBA All-Star]
2004 Emeka Okafor [ROY]
2005 Sean May
2006 Joakim Noah [2x NBA All-Star]
2007 Corey Brewer
2008 Mario Chalmers
2009 Wayne Ellington
2010 Kyle Singler
2011 Kemba Walker
2012 Anthony Davis [NBA All-Star]
2013 Luke Hancock

Yikes.  These totals require way fewer fingers to calculate.  Zero Hall of Famers, zero MVPs, 19 total All-Star appearances (seven of which are Carmelo Anthony), and one Rookie of the Year.2  Carmelo is the only player from this group who presently has any kind of Hall of Fame case, and it is marginal at best.  Noah and certainly Davis could get there some day, I suppose, but the difference between the two groups is stark.  Real stark.

The duration of college careers is clearly a factor.  Many of the Hall of Famers in the first group above won their MOP trophies after their freshman year of college.  It’s probably also fair to assume that some of the greats of the Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant eras likely would have won a MOP trophy or two had they stuck around in college longer or been forced to attend college in the first place.

However, most of the Hall of Famers in the first group did not win their trophies in their final year of college ball, and several won them as underclassmen.  More importantly, under a system like the current one where most of the top players are only on college squads for one or maybe two years, the system partially corrects itself (for our purposes).  The best college players that modern stars like Anthony Davis compete against, for example, are either other freshman standouts or are upperclassmen from previous years who probably stuck around because they weren’t good enough to head to the NBA yet.  The point I’m trying to make is that just because many of the long-ago Hall of Famers won their trophies as upperclassmen, that doesn’t mean that the increased age and experience level in college of those players actually accounted for their MOP trophy winning.  IF the current system of one-and-dones had been around in Bill Russell’s day, Bill Russell probably would have won the trophy as a freshman rather than a junior, because he was the best freshman and the best competition from the two or three previous years would have already jumped ship for the NBA after their respective freshman years.

anthonydavisuk

Yes, the temporary high-school-to-NBA period removed a handful of signature stars like Garnett, Bryant, Amar’e Stoudemire, LeBron, and Dwight Howard from MOP contention,4 and that can’t be ignored, and the current one-and-done system obviously eliminates repeat winners like Lew Alcindor and his second and third MOP trophies.  Despite those effects, though, I do not believe the age system is really the primary driving force behind determining who wins the award in a given year.  If there were no other factors at play, the best players each year should still tend to rise to the top and win the trophies under the one-and-done system — they’d just do so as freshmen more often than they did in the 60’s and 70’s.  So yes, something else is at play here.

Before getting to the final factor, it is worth noting that there are only so many signature NBA stars at a time, and so it follows that there are only a handful (if any) of future NBA signature stars playing in the NCAA tournament in any given year.  For example, in the 2004 tournament, only eight future NBA All-Stars participated in the tournament, and several of them were somewhat marginal (Andre Iguodala, Jameer Nelson, Luol Deng, Devin Harris,  Chris Paul, Deron Williams, David Lee, and Brandon Roy).  Only Chris Paul is a legitimate signature NBA star of his era.  The 2007 tournament featured only seven future NBA All-Stars, but they have generally made bigger names for themselves than the ’04 set: Kevin Durant, Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Russell Westbrook, Brook Lopez, Roy Hibbert, and Stephen Curry.  Interestingly, Horford, Noah, Westbrook, and Hibbert all made it to the Final Four that year only to have NBA defensive gnat and role player Corey Brewer snag the MOP award.

It is also worth noting that the MOP tends to come from the team that wins the championship.  Olajuwon in 1983 was the last player to win the award without also cutting down the nets when his “Phi Slamma Jamma” team (including fellow future Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler) couldn’t eke out the win over NC State in the frantic Jimmy V/Lorenzo Charles game.  Therefore, it seems that a signature star (understandably) needs to play for a team that will contend for the title in order to contend for the MOP award.  Durant couldn’t carry his Longhorns past the Sweet Sixteen, and so he never had a shot at the trophy.  But the reason he couldn’t get his team that far is what leads into my final point.

I believe the biggest reason that we have had sucky MOPs for the last three decades is because of the P-word that the NFL bandies about so often: parity.  The popularity and breadth of the sport of basketball has increased over time, which means that the quality of the average college teams in relation to the best teams has increased.  Wichita State’s 1-seed in this year’s tournament is a testament to this.  As are Butler’s near-misses and George Mason’s wacky run to the Final Four.  But beyond those outlier examples, the real parity can be seen in the entire field of teams that is replete with cohesive teams that recruit solid players and play well together.  Durant’s 2007 Tournament was waylaid by a ho-hum USC team that featured average NBA players Taj Gibson and Nick Young, which was good enough to promptly lose in the next round to North Carolina, which lost in the next round to Georgetown, which lost in the next round to Ohio State, which lost in the Final to Florida.  Buried in that pile of failure is the NCAA campaign of a player (Durant) whom few would deny is the transcendent star of his half-generation.  So it goes in the modern era.  While some programs are certainly more successful than others at recruiting top talents each year (John Calipari and Kentucky, for example), or at using coaching to maximize the results achieved by their players (Tom Izzo and Michigan State, for example), most would agree that there is no “elite” set of schools that fields legitimate title contenders year after year the way the Wooden UCLA teams, the Rupp Kentucky teams, or the Woolpert San Francisco teams did once upon a time.

What I believe to be the biggest reason for the starkly different MOP lists above fits in with the parity concept, and it is simply expansion of the tournament format.  The tourney started in the dark ages (the late 30’s) with 8 teams, and then expanded steadily until the modern era.  It featured 16 teams in 1951, 20-something teams through the 50’s, 60’s, and early 70’s, 32 teams in the mid-70’s, 40 teams in 1979, and then 48 teams in the early 80’s.  A few play-in games were added in 1983 and 1984, but really the tournament remained a 48 team affair for the purposes of the contending teams.

Then 1985 saw the big jump.  16 teams were added and the first 64 team tournament was launched.3  64 teams means that the winner must win six straight games against what we already noted is well-organized opposition drawing from a deep recruiting talent pool.  That is a far cry from a 16 or 24 or 32 team tournament. Fewer elite teams, more teams that are competitive, and more rungs in the tournament ladder all mean that it is much more difficult for any given school to win a title now than it was in, say, the 60’s.

After all, such rapid expansion of the tournament is bound to leave some stretch marks.

Back in the early days, the marquee stars seemed to stand higher above the average players, and the dominant schools were more predictably dominant.  Nowadays, the Kevin Durants regularly lose to a Sweet Sixteen team that was upset the next year by Michael Beasley in the first round.

And what do you know?  That 1985 expansion year is the exact dividing line of the groups above.  Prior to the tournament enlarging to 64 teams, five out of the previous six MOPs were future Hall of Famers.  Once the 64 team expansion happened?  Never again.  Coincidence?  Maybe.  But probably not.

There is an analogy to be drawn to golf, and how Tiger Woods’s dominance in the late 90’s and through the 00’s was so impressive.  By that era, the PGA Tour’s talent pool had broadened such that Woods was fighting against a very deep field of good (but not great) players.  A deep field of good but not great players means that on any given weekend, any golfer could flare up and have the tournament of his life and beat Woods, only to sink back into the pack over the long haul.  It is similar to a mischief-minded low seeded basketball team that can flare up and upset a top teams, which happens essentially every year.  Once Woods’s devastatingly dominant period waned post-2008, we have seen long glimpses of the parity-laden void that he had been skillfully filling for years — the 20 majors that have been played since 2009 have produced a list of 18 different winners.5  Many of the names are nigh unrecognizable.  Only Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy have doubled up.

As more talent and more teams continue to level the field, we will likely continue to see more of the random MOPs of the past 29 years.  Last year’s winner, Luke Hancock, wasn’t even in Louisville’s starting lineup.  If the NBA raises the age minimum to 20, it will be interesting to see if the signature stars make more of a tournament impact.

In sports, we have come to expect the best and the brightest to succeed on the biggest stage, so it’s interesting that so few recent MOPs have been long-term stars, and that so few have also been College Player of the Year award winners.  If there’s one takeaway, perhaps it’s this — hit up your favorite sports book every March and feel free to place a MOP wager, but just make sure you’re betting on anyone other than the best players.

Footnotes:

  1. If we include duplicates, the 31 year totals climb to a ridiculous 33 MVP trophies, 195 All-Star appearances, and 11 Rookie of the Year awards.
  2. And that sole Rookie of the Year nearly lost out to Ben Gordon in the voting.
  3. A play-in game was added in 2001, making the official count 65 teams, and three more play-ins were tacked on in 2011, giving us the modern 68 team structure.
  4. And Moses Malone as well, who jumped from high school to the NBA in 1974, and who might have added to the ridiculous Hall of Fame roll call in the first group above by winning the MOP in 1975, ’76, ’77, or ’78 with the University of Maryland (with whom he had signed a letter of intent prior to being drafted).
  5. The list: Angel Cabrera, Lucas Glover, Stewart Cink, Yang Yong-eun, Mickelson, Graeme McDowell, Louis Oosthuizen, Martin Kaymer, Charl Schwartzel, McIlroy, Darren Clarke, Keegan Bradley, Bubba Watson, Webb Simpson, Ernie Els, Adam Scott, Justin Rose, and Jason Dufner.
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