An age old debate in college basketball has been experience versus talent. Is it more preferable to have wise old veterans or raw, unpolished skill? For Kentucky fans the answer is easy, Coach Calipari says if he “had a choice between a talented team and an experienced team, (he’s) taking talent every time.” That sounds eerily familiar to something the legendary John Wooden, who is arguably the greatest basketball coach ever, once said. “I’d rather have a lot of talent and a little experience than a lot of experience and a little talent.” I think that Woodenism turned out alright for him, wouldn’t you?
Let’s be honest, some fans “favor” experience, because their school of choice can’t land the elite talent. A simple rebuttal can be, if given the choice of a No. 1 recruiting class — taking the best talent available — or keeping marginal seniors, what do you choose? It’s a simple answer. Point blank, period. The ability to recruit and coach one-and-done studs isn’t the norm, therefore it should be regarded as a luxury to be able to survive and thrive in such a system. But then you have teams like Butler from a couple of years ago, who wouldn’t have made a run in March without its senior leadership, and that throws a kink in the theory.
So what is really better? I’ve taken some graphs and tables from statsheet.com of current numbers from this season and here’s what I found. Of the top ten most and least experienced teams, a significant difference appears in total wins, with 113 and 77 respectively. That distribution can be seen in this graph:
Here, the x-axis is class average where the average figure contains class year per minute played (seniority of a team in terms of years of experience and how many minutes they play) versus the y-axis of winning percentage. You can see minor variation across the board from the youngest teams of less than two years’ experience to teams with over three years’ experience, and it does favor the more experienced teams. What this suggests is that nationally, there is some correlation between winning percentage and experience level of a team. Note: The right extreme represents a team with nearly an all-senior squad. Because there are so few teams with this criterion I believe the figure is skewed. And in the case of the left extreme, an all-freshman team, there are none.
But this scatter plot shows how minor the variation is. Notice no clear pattern in the distribution of dots in terms of class average along the x-axis and winning percentage on the y-axis. The vast majority of teams just fall somewhere in the middle, with both extremes representing high and low winning percentages. If you’re wondering, Kentucky is the blue dot in the uppermost left corner.
Of course, there are always exceptions. In this case, Kentucky and Connecticut are spearheading the talent train, with a class average of about 1.8 years of experience and a combined record of 28-4. On the front-end of the veteran van is Missouri with a class average of 3.4 years and a record of 14-1.
One interesting note is looking at some of the teams this year running with little experience on the floor. In addition to UK and UConn, St. John’s, Boston College and Western Kentucky, while not “powerhouses” this season by any means, are notable college names. Contrast that to the experience path, aside from Missouri, there is really no one else on the list.
Finally, take a look at these conference breakdowns of the Big East, SEC and Big 10. What you’ll notice is several of the most experienced teams in each league have an underwhelming winning percentage, while a few of the younger teams are outperforming them.
In these graphs, the green line is the upward trend in seniority through the conference. The youngest teams are listed to the left and get older to the right. The blue line is winning percentage.
In the Big East, Louisville and South Florida are very experienced teams, but its winning percentages are nothing better than what Connecticut has done. And those teams in the middle of the pack all have lower winning percentages than a stereotypical “experienced team” should have. The three youngest teams in the SEC have the three highest winning percentages, but the old-timers of Vandy and Auburn and even Tennessee are floundering thus far. The only exception here would be Mississippi State. Finally, looking to the Big 10, Ohio State, Illinois and even Indiana are relatively young teams, but have a better record than the older teams like Nebraska or Purdue.
What does all of this mean? The first graphs we looked at paint an entire national picture of experience versus talent, and what it shows is a small lean towards experience. This could be because it’s factoring in so many smaller schools with a very small recruiting base. What the Big East, SEC and Big 10 show are a small lean towards talent where these schools have the ability to recruit elite skill and pump players thought the system.
While this data and analysis does not factor in variables such as scheduling and coaching, it can be seen as a rough estimate, at least for this year so far, that experience and talent have little to do with anything. So if you know somebody still debating this, let them know there’s nothing to argue.
The data represents both experience and talent depending on your scope. There’s plenty of teams who do can ball with youngsters, and loads of teams who stink. There’s also a fair representation of very veteran teams who can run with anyone, and just as many who can’t do jack. Talent or experience? Pick your poison. It’s all coming down to who wants it more, anyway. March Madness doesn’t care about these graphs or numbers. It cares about the will to win. So the elite teams should just keep going young, and the small-time teams should just keep going veteran.
I’ll be back on Thursday afternoon with more statistical analysis of Kentucky, breaking down the season six games at a time.