Posted by Matt Jones
HOUSTON --- Walking into a football stadium and seeing 75,000 people in one place for a basketball game is an impressive sight. With such a large mass of humanity in one place, a collective energy pervades the building and immediately signals to all who are in attendance that an important event is about to take place. From an aesthetic standpoint, it makes the Final Four a tremendous experience.
However as Monday night showed us once again, the football stadium Final Four all too often also produces horrific basketball. The numbers from UConn’s 53-41 victory over Butler suggest it was the worst offensive game in Final Four history. Butler shot 18.8 percent from the field, the lowest percentage of any team in any championship game in tournament history. It was also the lowest shooting percentage of any team in this year’s tournament, obliterating the futility record set by St. Peter’s in shooting 29 percent versus Purdue. UConn may have won the game, but it too contributed to the string of horrendous bricks, going 1-11 from the three point line and becoming the first team to win an NCAA title shooting less than 10 percent from behind the arc.
But the awful shooting didn’t start on Monday. In the Kentucky-UConn game on Saturday night, the Huskies went 1-12 from three point land and won, leading to a preposterous 2-23 total for the weekend. Kentucky shot only 33 percent from the field for the game and went 2-12 from three point land in the first half, even though virtually every one of the looks was completely wide open. In fact, the entire Final Four was one consistent parade of missed open three pointers, leading to a brand of eye-bleeding basketball that does little to sell the college game while played on its biggest stage.
Believe me, I understand the reason these games are played in such massive structures. With 75,000 fans on Saturday and another 70,000 on Monday, the NCAA set a new attendance record for the Final Four and produced not only a large stream of revenue, but also an atmosphere to compete with the biggest sporting events in the United States. So arguing that the NCAA should go back to something resembling a regular arena for the Final Four is unrealistic and akin to arguing that “student-athletes” should miss less class during March.
However we should acknowledge that what we see at the Final Four is not the same game that is played throughout the regular season or in the early rounds of the NCAA tournament. A game in a football stadium leads to a shooting environment that is unlike anything a player will otherwise see. Behind the basket is simply open space, often filled with temporary stands that dont raise immediately as in virtually every arena in America. With no real backdrop to create a context, the basketball goal seems to almost be floating in space. This will often cause even a great shooter to have issues with depth perception that in many cases, he has never previously seen.
To understand exactly what is occurring, imagine standing in a desert, with no trees, mountains or buildings to help your eyes and brain conceptualize how far a particular object is from you at a given point. Absent the context around you, one is generally guessing to determine distances from a given point, an effect that is exaggerated to an even greater degree in a split-second situation. This occurs on a much smaller level in these football environments, often interfering with the regular routine of a shooter who is used to a regular context in the average basketball arena. Add the additional oddity of a raised court that hovers over the fans in the first couple of rows, and the difference from the players’ norm is real.
The dome effect has never been studied scientifically, but watch any game in such an environment and its power can be proven anecdotally. Over three games in Houston I witnessed not only poor shooting, but more truly bad misses far from their target than I have seen in any games all year. When those games are being had by the four teams playing for a national championship, the effect is even more striking.
The football stadium effect is only going to grow as the NCAA continues to put the Final Four in larger and larger venues. While domes are not new, some of the older buildings would put up large drapes to cover up some sections, which often had a secondary effect of making the arena a bit easier for shooters. Now the NCAA’s policy is go as big as it can get, meaning 75,000 fans will be the norm, not just a one-year attendance burst. That does lead to an amazing show and makes the Final Four experience one to remember. But the basketball game ends up being radically different, and as was the case on Monday night, often brutal to watch.