College basketball is a sport for blue bloods. We like to claim that it’s a sport for Cinderellas and upsets and even that its annual national championship tournament is madness. In reality, though, it’s a sport where elite prospects commit to elite programs and bring the same handful of schools success year after year. And we don’t just accept the idea that the same small group of schools wins titles year after year—we celebrate it. Just two weeks ago I was foaming at the mouth over the possibility of a Duke–North Carolina national championship game. Apparently, I thought the most exciting thing this sport could provide was a six-time national champion playing a five-time national champion for the fourth time this season.
Yet the actual championship game the sport has given us is a matchup of, um, regular bloods. Top-seeded Virginia will play third-seeded Texas Tech on Monday night, guaranteeing that one of the schools will capture its first national title. This marks the first time since UNLV met Duke in the 1990 final that the last two teams standing are both championship virgins—that’s right, just 29 years ago, Duke had never won a men’s basketball national title—and will mark the first time since Florida in 2006 that we’ll get a first-time champion.
There are 353 Division I college basketball teams. Only 34 have won a national championship. But even that paints a somewhat unrealistically diverse picture of the sport—10 of those schools won titles before 1960 and haven’t won since. (Shout-out to Holy Cross, La Salle, and Wyoming.) Over the past 10 years, we’ve seen Kentucky win its eighth title, UNC win its fifth and sixth titles, Duke win its fourth and fifth titles, Connecticut win its third and fourth titles, and Villanova win its second and third titles. A few schools have rafters filled with banners, but most have none.
Virginia and Texas Tech are in the crowd of others. If Virginia wins, it’ll become the first ACC team other than Duke or North Carolina to win the national title since Maryland in 2002. (Louisville won a now-vacated title in 2013, but as a member of the Big East.) If Texas Tech wins, it’ll become the first Big 12 team to win the title other than Kansas … ever. (Oklahoma State won in 1945 and 1946, but back then it was called Oklahoma A&M and was a member of the Missouri Valley Conference.)
Virginia had a good run in the 1980s, mainly due to the dominance of Ralph Sampson, a three-time Oscar Robertson Trophy winner and the no. 1 pick in the 1983 NBA draft. The Cavaliers finished third at the 1981 NCAA tournament—yes, there used to be a third-place game—and made a surprise run to the 1984 Final Four behind Rick Carlisle and Olden Polynice. In recent years, the Cavaliers have emerged as a consistently excellent team (they’ve won the ACC regular-season championship four times in the past six years) that’s crashed and burned in the tournament. That was most notable last March, when Virginia became the first no. 1 seed ever to lose its opening game against a no. 16 seed. (Luckily for the Cavaliers, their path this year was UMBC-free.) Texas Tech’s basketball history is even bleaker. The Red Raiders had never made the Elite Eight before last season and have produced just one first-round NBA draft pick in school history (Tony Battie, in 1997). The Red Raiders are better known for their high-scoring football program that … also hasn’t won Big 12 or national championships.
TV executives openly root for prominent programs to make the national championship game over newbies. And even among newbies, Virginia and Texas Tech aren’t exactly brand names—CBS would happily take a Tech trade that pits Texas and Virginia Tech in Monday’s game instead. Surely, there are advertisers out there furious that they paid Duke-Kentucky prices for a Virginia–Texas Tech title game.
And the actual basketball product likely doesn’t help matters. Virginia is the slowest team in the sport, averaging a glacial 59.3 possessions per game. Texas Tech is the best defensive team in the sport, allowing 83.3 points per 100 possessions. This matchup combines the thrilling speed of the tortoise with the impregnable structural integrity of its shell. (It’s a bad sign that we’re talking turtles in a title game that doesn’t include Maryland.)
But these schools tell the story of another integral aspect of college basketball—and one that’s not often on display in the title game. While the blue bloods can succeed year in and year out because of sheer talent alone, the regular bloods frequently attempt to succeed by adopting unique styles, with coaches turning their teams into on-court basketball experiments.
Consider the variance between extremes at the NBA and college levels. The fastest NBA team this season (the Hawks) averages 104.57 possessions per game; the slowest (the Grizzlies) averages 97.19. In college, the fastest team in 2018-19 (Florida International) averages 77.7 possessions per game, and as previously noted, Virginia averages just 59.3. That is to say, the fastest NBA team is 8 percent faster than the slowest NBA team, while the fastest college team is 31.03 percent faster than the slowest college team. This sort of variance holds up across the board. The highest-scoring NBA team (the Bucks) scores 14.33 percent more points per game than the lowest-scoring team (again, the Grizzlies). The highest-scoring college team (Gonzaga) scores 52.88 percent more points per game than the lowest-scoring team (Maryland-Eastern Shore). There is a college team that shoots 3-pointers on 57.6 percent of its possessions (Savannah State) and a college team that attempts 3s on 22.6 percent of its possessions (Kennesaw State). There are college basketball teams that run a 1-3-1 zone defense. Can you imagine an NBA team running the damn 1-3-1 zone?
It makes sense that college basketball caters to unusual strategic choices. With hundreds of head-coaching jobs, there are more opportunities for coaches with quirky plans to succeed. And with a much wider pool of potential players and a much lower level of talent, coaches can hand-select rosters designed to achieve their specific on-court goal. Virginia and Texas Tech both exemplify this. Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers aren’t just slow this year—in each of the past six seasons, they have ranked 345th or lower in adjusted tempo, according to Ken Pomeroy’s statistics. Bennett’s teams rarely turn the ball over and rarely try to force turnovers; they rarely get fouled and they rarely commit fouls. They are masterful at controlling the game. And while Beard isn’t quite as established, having taken his first head-coaching job at Arkansas-Little Rock four years ago, he has already proved to be a defensive mastermind, equipping a fascinating defense that prevents opponents from getting the ball into the middle of the floor. In his lone season at Little Rock, Beard oversaw the biggest year-over-year jump in defensive efficiency ever recorded. Now, Beard’s Red Raiders don’t just have the best defense in the country but have one of the best of all time. In the 18-year history of KenPom’s database, nobody has ever registered a better adjusted defense metric. It’s not particularly close, either—this Texas Tech group is almost a full point better than 2008-09 Memphis, which allowed 84.2 points per 100 possessions.
Even more significant than the range of styles, though, is the range of different cultures in college basketball. Every NBA team is based in a major city, plays its home games in a 17,000- to 20,000-seat arena, and has a payroll somewhere above the league-mandated salary floor. But college basketball programs vary wildly. There are big schools and small schools; rich schools and poor schools; city schools and suburban schools and country schools. Some college teams play in 25,000-seat arenas; others play in 1,000-seat gyms that might look like the one your high school had. Some schools have rich basketball traditions; others don’t care at all.
There’s a big difference between the green hills of middle Virginia and the dusty plains of West Texas. Virginia has a famous on-campus statue of the Greek poet Homer; Texas Tech has a famous on-campus statue of the cowboy comic Will Rogers riding his horse, Soapsuds. Both have distinctive basketball programs. And both have found men capable of building brands that could bring them their very first national championship.
Monday night probably won’t usher in a ratings bonanza or be a high-scoring thriller, but it represents what I love most about this sport—the opportunity for strange teams from strange places to try strange things in the hopes of achieving greatness. It’s so much more interesting to see basketball experiments succeed (or fail) than it is to watch the same elite programs rinse and repeat with fresh crops of five-star athletes. College basketball is a rich and nonsensical tapestry filled with attempts to accomplish what Virginia and Texas Tech have pulled off, but the most fascinating threads are generally cut short before the sport’s biggest stage. Only one team will get to cut down the nets on Monday, but it will be a victory for every program that has ever tried to win by getting weird.