Back before George Mason University’s basketball team was two wins away from a national championship, the school had a different set of all-stars: its economics department. It counts two Nobel laureates and is a ground-breaker in research into how changing incentives affect people’s behavior.
But perhaps the two sets of stars have something to learn from each other. Basketball, as it turns out, makes an intriguing laboratory for testing economic theories against how things work in the real world — a specialty of George Mason’s economists.
And Todd Zywicki of the Volokh Conspiracy—who served on my dissertation committee— has more.
I would add just one further point of elaboration to their Moneyball analysis of the basketball program. I heard Coach Larranaga on the radio this week addressing the precise question of how he managed to find these kids on the team who were overlooked by the larger schools. Larranaga suggested that he just looks for something different from what the big programs are looking for in a player. Larranaga says that rather than just looking for kids with the best individual skills, who all the big-name programs focus on, he looks for kids who come from winning high school programs. The idea is to find kids who are know how to win and are willing to do what it takes to win, which means working hard, listening to the coach, and playing as a team. First he mentioned this stunning statistic that Will Thomas and Rudy Gay both went to high school in Baltimore and that Thomas’s teams are now 8-0 playing against Gay’s teams in their careers. He then proceeded to list the key players on the team, noting that every one of them (if I remember correctly) had played for a state champion or major city champion in high school. Larranaga indicated that he thought that it was this intangible commitment to winning that accounts for the selflessness of the team in terms of sharing the ball, running the game plan, playing defense, and doing the hard work to win. If this is true, it is a fascinating observation that commitment to winning (versus raw talent) is an undervalued attribute in the modern basketball marketplace.