There’s No Escaping Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell has a number of public responses to the sort of thing I ranted about the other day— not to me specifically, mind, but to the same general points– on his own blog and on ESPN’s Page 2. It’s pretty much the same argument others made in the comments to my post. Taking a fairly representative bit from his blog post:

The press is not for everyone. But then the piece never claimed that it was. I simply pointed out that insurgent strategies (substituting effort for ability and challenging conventions) represent one of David’s only chances of competing successfully against Goliath, so it’s surprising that more underdogs don’t use them. The data on underdogs in war is quite compelling in this regard. But it’s also true on the basketball court. The press isn’t perfect. But given its track record, surely it is under-utilized. Isn’t that strange?

The problem here is that I’m not sure what track record he’s talking about.

I’ve been following college basketball closely for twenty-five-ish years, and I just don’t see that much support for the claim that pressing basketball is the best way for untalented teams to beat better competition. The more common pattern is actually the other way around– teams that press tend to whip up on inferior opponents, but struggle to beat teams that are good.

There are only a handful of championship-level teams over the last quarter-century that have won by playing pressure basketball, and two of them were absolutely stacked: Pitino’s 1996 Kentucky team, and Jerry Tarkanian’s 1990 UNLV team. The best example of a pressing team to win with arguably mediocre talent would be the 1994 Arkansas team, who edged a Duke team consisting of Grant Hill and a bunch of stiffs– talent-wise, Duke was probably the underdog in that one.

The more striking pattern is in the losses. Essentially the same UNLV team that won in 1990 lost in the semifinals the next year to essentially the same Duke team that they had run out of the gym the year before. Arkansas made the title game again in 1995, losing to UCLA. Billy Tubbs took Oklahoma to the title game in 1988 playing pressure basketball, and lost to Danny Manning and a bunch of stiffs. Georgetown under John Thompson played a tough full-court game, and went 1-for-3 in title games with Patrick Ewing, losing to UNC under Dean Smith, who was (in)famous for the “four corners” slow-down game, and a Villanova team with no great talents.

If you look at the recent-ish history of NCAA basketball, you’re more likely to find less-talented teams winning by playing slow than by pressing. Think Princeton over UCLA in ’95, and almost over Georgetown in ’89. Kansas in ’88 played Oklahoma even for a half at high speed, and beat them playing slow in the second half. Villanova beat Georgetown by limiting possessions. Davidson last year got within a game of the Final Four last year not by making it a frenetic full-court game but by playing under control at all times. Ben Howland has made it to three of the last four Final Fours by playing some of the slowest, ugliest basketball you could ever hope to see. The one loss that 1996 Kentucky team had was to a UMASS!!! team with Marcus Camby and a bunch of role-players, who won by not trying to run with the loaded Kentucky team. And on, and on.

What really ought to be the main example of the effect he’s purporting to find is Loyola Marymount under Paul Westhead in the early 90’s. They played a ridiculously up-tempo pressing game using players who couldn’t make it at better-known schools, and managed to get themselves on ESPN pretty much every night for a couple of years there. They’re not in the piece, though, because that’s pretty much all they did– they got a lot of attention from the sports media, and won a lot of games in their terrible little conference, but whenever they had to play good teams– teams with talent as good or better as their own– they got beat. Sometimes they got blown out.

Similarly, Jerry Tarkanian made a name for himself at UNLV with an intense up-tempo pressing team, when he was working with really talented players and lots of shady recruiting. When he left under a cloud, and had to work with rejects and head cases at Fresno State he didn’t do much of anything. For that matter, Westhead has had a couple more cracks at it, and never managed to match his Loyola Marymount success.

This is why the piece bugs me. It’s not just that he’s flubbed a few details here and there in a basketball analogy– the whole thing is built on a handful of cherry-picked examples, and falls apart if you look too closely.

Gladwell is sufficiently wrong about his claims regarding basketball (at least as I see it) that I don’t feel I can trust what he says about the other pieces of evidence he offers. The broad claim– underdogs do better by changing the rules of the game– ought to be fairly uncontroversial, but the stuff he says about the main example around which he’s constructed the whole article is so far off that it makes me wonder whether he’s reporting the other evidence correctly, or if he’s garbled that as well.