Why March Madness isn’t that mad


March is the best month of the year, but it’s also the busiest. Not complaining, just saying. Sometimes you need reinforcements. Or a guest post.

With that, I’ll leave it to msnbc.com Science editor Alan Boyle with his take on a recent study involving college basketball and evolution.

This post originally appeared on Cosmic Log.

By Alan Boyle

A professor from Duke University says it’s only natural that the NCAA’s March Madness basketball tournament highlights the same teams year after year … like Duke, for instance.

This sounds like either an attempt to get in good with the higher-ups at the university in North Carolina, or one of those “duh, right” studies that merely confirm common sense. If your sports team builds up a reputation, of course it’ll continue to attract good athletes and coaches to keep up that reputation — and that goes for the Duke Blue Devils as well as other sports dynasties.

But the point behind the newly published research from Adrian Bejan, an engineering professor at Duke (and a former basketball star from Romania), is that sports dynasties serve to illustrate evolution at work.

“The science of sports evolution is a significant step in evolutionary biology, where the accepted view is that evolution is impossible to observe because of its long timeframe,” Bejan said in a news release. “With sports, we can focus on a particular population of athletes and witness ‘live’ the evolution of the design and performance of this selected group.”

Bejan’s analysis of hierarchies in basketball and academics was published online this week in the International Journal of Design and Nature and Ecodynamics.”

Constructal law
Bejan says only a few sports teams can rise to the top of a hierarchy, and that hierarchy can be predicted in line with a theory that he calls “constructal law.” The theory, which Bejan developed 15 years ago, is based on the principle that flow systems evolve their design to minimize imperfections, reduce friction or other forms of resistance, and increase their efficiency with time.

As a college basketball program becomes successful, the “friction” involved in recruiting those prospects is reduced. Less effort has to be expended to bring in the best athletes, and that solidifies the university’s standing in the athletic hierarchy. The way Bejan explains it, this process is as natural as the fact that a river cuts a deeper channel as time goes on.

“In this case it has to do with the players,” Perry Haynsworth, a former student of Bejan’s who contributed to the study, told the Duke Chronicle. “The easiest path for these high-school basketball players to the NBA is to the top 10 schools, and because of that these top 10 schools have more success.”

For the record, the top 11 schools listed in the paper are, in descending order, UCLA, North Carolina, Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, Louisville, Indiana, Michigan State, Michigan, Cincinnati and Ohio State (rankings based on NCAA Final Four appearances). This year’s anticipated top seeds, as projected by Dave Ommen, don’t exactly track that list. Duke, Kansas and Ohio State are the only teams from Bejan’s list of 11 that are projected to be No. 1 or No. 2 seeds when the NCAA announces its brackets on March 13. But Bejan emphasizes that his study is about long-term trends rather than any one year in particular.

To be sure, Cinderella teams can break into the Final Four, and the top-rated teams can be upset as well. But Bejan and his colleagues say a college that wants to establish itself in basketball’s top tier would have to spend more on its program and recruiting efforts than the existing top-tier teams. By the same token, the top teams tend to keep their reputation even if they have a bad year once in a while … like Duke, for instance.

“The principle is that winning will return to a campus such as Duke because Duke is one of those channels of processing the best talent in the country,” Bejan told the Duke Chronicle.

Academics and athletics
Bejan’s analysis applies to academics as well as athletics, and he maintains that there’s an evolutionary lesson in the way that colleges develop specialties. Universities, like species, have to balance the expenditure of resources for a variety of purposes. Some species have super-sharp hearing. Others rely more on their sense of smell or their sharp vision to survive. Similarly, some universities are better-known for academics than for athletics (Hooray for the Caltech Beavers!) while it’s vice versa at some other universities I could name (but won’t).

Some universities may show up on top-10 lists for athletics as well as athletics … like Duke, for instance. But Bejan said “most of the universities appear only in one of the rankings — they seem to separate themselves into two different worlds.” He maintains that academic powerhouses follow the same evolutionary rules that athletic powerhouses do.

This isn’t the first time Bejan has blended athletics and evolution: In previously published research, he found that Olympic swimmers and sprinters have grown bigger, taller and faster over the past 100 years — recording an average growth rate that’s almost three times as high as the wider population’s average growth rate over the same time frame. More controversially, he has sought to explain why the top-rated sprinters tend to be black while the top-rated swimmers tend to be white. (He and his co-authors contend that it has to do with torso length, as measured by the position of the belly button.)

Do you think Bejan has hit the mark with his evolutionary analysis of March Madness, or has he thrown up an airball? Feel free to add your color commentary in the comment space below or by clicking here.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

Sam Upshaw Jr./Courier Journal/USA TODAY NETWORK

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

Rich Janzaruk/Herald-Times/USA TODAY NETWORK

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.