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Friday, July 19, 2019

Men’s or Women’s College Basketball: Who’s Better? Athleticism, Quality Play Do Not Go Hand-in-Hand

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By Clay Kallam

This week’s column may be a bit more densely packed than usual. That’s only appropriate, as it addresses a sensitive area for many fans of women’s sports.

The goal is to make a relative comparison between women’s and men’s college basketball, and step one is to compare male and female players.
At one level, of course, that’s easy: Men are, on average, bigger, faster and stronger. As a general matter, that translates to better. But how much better? (We’ll get to whether it matters next.)

The received physiological wisdom is that males of our species are about 15 percent stronger than females. In basketball terms, that translates into speed, quickness and jumping ability, three key components of basketball skill. The speed and jumping ability differences can be measured objectively in track, but quickness too is tied to musculature: Explosive movements take explosive muscle contractions, and since men’s muscles are relatively bigger, they will be more explosive.

A digression: Sure, an elite female athlete can outperform an average male, but the comparison we’re trying to get to is between elite females and elite males. There’s no doubt the Phoenix Mercury could go down to the park on Saturday and win all day – except of course if the Suns were there.

It’s also true that men are taller, and nobody questions that basketball is a game that rewards the tall. My general rule of thumb is that there are about six inches difference when it comes to basketball – in other words, a 5-8 female is comparable to a 6-2 male, relatively speaking, and a 6-4 female is comparable to a 6-10 male. What falls out of that is that 6-4 females are as rare as 6-10 males, and 5-4 females are as common as 5-10 males.

So, a perceptive reader might wonder, what?

The point here is that the best women’s basketball team in the world cannot compete on even terms with a mediocre men’s basketball team, and the reason is not skill or teamwork or basketball IQ or the inability to dunk. The difference is simply that athleticism erases skill.

For example, let’s take a 5-7 female shooting guard who can go both ways off the dribble, make the open three and understands the game. In short, she’s a good basketball player. But now let’s guard her with a 5-11 female who is taller, heavier, faster, stronger, quicker and more explosive. The 5-11 woman may not be able to go both ways off the dribble, or make an open three, but there’s one thing she can do: Make sure the 5-7 woman can’t either. The taller, more athletic player doesn’t need skill to make the smaller player a non-factor on offense – and the taller player will probably get a couple baskets on offensive rebounds or layups, which makes her a more effective player (not better, necessarily) than the more skilled one.

This disparity becomes even more crucial when men are compared to women. To begin with, there are many more 6-2 men than there are 6-2 women, so the simple law of averages says that there will be more elite 6-2 male athletes. In addition, those 6-2 men are going to be 15 percent stronger, quicker and more explosive, which means their athleticism is going to erase whatever skill deficit there might be.

And this is why the Phoenix Mercury would lose to every men’s college team in America – and yes, I mean Division III as well.

“DIII?” my editor asked me. “Isn’t that overstating the case?”

Not really. When Sonny Allen was coaching with the Monarchs, he brought in a D-III team to scrimmage—and the Monarchs were OK. And he said the women just couldn’t win because the men were just so much quicker and faster.

And when Notre Dame won the national title, they couldn’t beat the practice squad of men they played against every day, and none of those men were D-I players.

My varsity girls, who are pretty good and pretty big, would get pounded by our boys’ JVs, and would have to battle to beat the frosh.

The Mercury would obviously be much smaller than every D-I team, but even at the D-III level, where they might match up in height, the difference in speed and strength would be too much to overcome. Every 50-50 ball would go to the guys; every rebound that depended on jumping ability would go to the guys; every contest of strength would go to the guys. (And it’s not as if men in D-III can’t play at all; they’re all accomplished athletes who have been playing competitive basketball at a relatively high level their entire lives. They may not have Diana Taurasi’s range, but they’re good enough to make shots.)

That said, though, the Mercury are better basketball players than D-III college players. On the whole, they have a higher basketball IQ, they have more skills, they have more experience and they can maximize each other’s abilities.

What this means is that better basketball players can lose to better athletes – and it happens all the time, at every level. A pretty good team can be overwhelmed by taller, faster, stronger, quicker, more explosive players, regardless of gender. But this also means that it’s impossible to measure quality of basketball play by wins and losses; a team can play a wonderful game and get out-athleted, but that doesn’t mean it played the game poorly.

In short, the best team doesn’t always win.

How does that concept apply to the comparison between men and women at the NCAA level?

Let’s take two points as proven: 1) That female basketball teams cannot beat male basketball teams at a similar level, or even several levels below; and 2) that the better basketball players and teams don’t always win games because athleticism can neutralize skills.

The surface logic would then suggest that NCAA men’s basketball would be clearly superior to NCAA women’s basketball. After all, a Pac-10 men’s team could name the score (even if it were 140-30) against a Pac-10 women’s team, and there are plenty of elite players on both sides of the gender line.

But the case I’m going to make flies in the face of what would happen on the court: Just because one team can beat another doesn’t mean it’s better at the game (though it might be). It could mean it just has better athletes, though athletes who are less skilled and have a poorer grasp of the sport – but that their athleticism is just too much for the better players to overcome.

In fact, we all see this all the time. A very skilled, highly disciplined high school team comes up against a group of taller athletes who press, press and press some more. The taller players can’t shoot very well, but they make some layups and get pretty much every rebound, and so win easily. A college team like Villanova is fundamentally sound and makes three-pointers, but can’t stop the opposition often enough to get to the Final Four. Or a WNBA team without a point guard wins a playoff series.

But if we’re talking about playing the game, as opposed to keeping score, it’s a different story. Villanova plays the game as well as any college team; the Wildcats might not win as many as some teams, but winning and playing well don’t always go hand-in-hand.

And since we’re talking about playing the game, I want to claim that the NCAA women play the game better than the NCAA men. Now I’m not reprising the stale argument that women are better fundamental players than men – some are, no question, but there are far too many WNBA players who can’t make a layup with their off hand to convince me females are more devoted to fundamentals. I think you might be able to make the argument that girls and women play together a little better than men, and rely less on one-on-one effort and more on a team game, but that’s not the same as being more fundamentally sound.

That teamwork, however, is a critical aspect of how well one plays the game. In Leonard Koppett’s wonderful phrase, a good basketball team should be like five fingers of one hand. When one player has the athleticism and skills to just take over a team, that subtle balance can easily get lost, and the game isn’t played as well.

But I think the real advantage the women have over the men at the college level lies in the relative number of elite players and coaches involved.

In fact, the gap was greater before the NBA instituted its rule requiring players to wait a year after high school to join the league, but even now the very best male players, the stars, are one-and-done. (And some, like Bryan Jennings, who played in Europe instead of going to college, are none-and-done.) This not only robs the college game of three years of highlights on Sports Center, it also robs the teams of continuity and identity. So O.J. Mayo gives USC one season – do Trojan fans get that excited about him? Do the students get to see him in class? Is he really part of the team since everyone knows he’s only there because he has to be?

There’s no doubt that basketball is a game that revolves around its star players. Those elite athletes elevate their teams, their teammates and the fan experience, and on the NCAA men’s side, they’re only around for a year. On the women’s side, fans get to watch Maya Moore for four seasons (barring injury), and Brittney Griner seems very likely to hone her game in Waco through 2013.

This helps the women’s game in terms of fan appeal, general interest in the sport and team identity. And it also helps raise the level of college play to its highest possible point, something that can’t be said about the men. (It helps the WNBA too because fans get four years to learn about players before they are drafted.)

And don’t forget there are 30 NBA teams to stock with players. I would guess there are at least 30 elite men’s players who left college early, and perhaps as many as 50. Let’s say there are 40, and they left on the average after two seasons: That’s 80 player-seasons of elite athletes gone from the college men’s game, and that can’t help but have an impact on the quality of men’s collegiate play.

Equally important is the brain drain. The NBA siphons off most of the best coaches with its money and its focus on basketball (as opposed to recruiting), and with its huge staffs, picks off more than just head coaches. Imagine if there were 12 NBA teams instead of 30 – that would put 50 or more veteran, high-quality coaches back in the NCAA men’s mix, and there’s little doubt the men’s college game would get better as a result.

The coaching advantage is even greater than it appears for the women, because WNBA jobs are not only fewer, but much less attractive than NBA jobs. They pay less than college employment, and are much less secure, so almost all the elite women’s coaches are at work in the NCAA, again pushing the women’s college game closer to the ceiling of being as good as it can be.

So does it really matter that the worst men’s D-I team could beat UConn’s women by 40? From the fan perspective, from the coaching perspective, from the purist perspective, the women’s college game still is relatively better: It has more of its elite players longer, and many more of its top coaches – and when you put those two together, you get a higher relative quality of basketball than the NCAA men, no matter what the haters claim on sports-talk radio.



Originally published Sat, November 28, 2009

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Week: February 7, 2012
1 Baylor (31) 24-0 1 1 1 775
2 Notre Dame 23-1 2 2 2 743
3 Connecticut 21-2 3 4 3 710
4 Stanford 20-1 4 5 4 685
5 Duke 19-3 6 8 5 650
6 Miami (FL) 20-3 7 7 6 604
7 Kentucky 21-3 5 15 7 584
8 Maryland 20-3 10 10 8 534
9 Wisconsin-Green Bay 20-0 9 24 9 530
10 Ohio State 21-2 11 NR-RV
10 483
11 Tennessee 17-6 8 3 11 476
12 Delaware 20-1 13 NR 12 434
13 Georgetown 18-5 15 11 14 379
14 Texas A&M 16-5 16 6 15 378
15 Nebraska 19-3 18 NR 13 309
16 Rutgers 17-4 14 12 17 372
17 Louisville 17-6 12 9 20 276
18 Gonzaga 21-3 19 NR-RV
19 234
19 Purdue 19-5 17 21 16 222
20 Georgia 18-6 20 12 21 202
21 Penn State 18-5 21 14 18 176
22 DePaul 17-7 23 18 NR-RV
23 Georgia Tech 16-6 22 NR-RV
22 104
24 South Carolina 18-5 NR-RV
NR 24 46
25 Vanderbilt 18-5 NR-RV
NR 45
Dropped Out: No. 24 North Carolina, No. 25 Kansas.
First-place votes: Total first-place votes received (if any) are indicated in parentheses following school name.
Others receiving votes: St. Bonaventure (22-2) 34; North Carolina (17-6) 19; California (17-6) 18; Florida Gulf Coast (21-2) 16; Middle Tennessee (19-5) 15; Texas-El Paso (20-2) 8; Texas Tech (16-6) 5; Brigham Young (21-4) 4; Fresno State (19-4) 4; St. John's (15-8) 4; Princeton (15-4) 3; Oklahoma (15-7) 2; West Virginia (17-6) 2; Kansas State (15-7) 1.
Rank remains unchanged since last week
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Credit: Courtesy Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA). The weekly Division I Top 25 Coaches' Poll, sponsored by USA Today and ESPN, is based on voting by a Board of Coaches made up of 31 head coaches at Division I institutions all of whom are WBCA members.