By modern standards, the starters in the national championship game in the 2021 NCAA men's basketball tournament between No. 1 seeds Baylor and Gonzaga were a reflection of where the sport is and where it might be going. Seven of the game's 10 starters were between 6-2 and 6-5, and each team started three guards. The shortest starter was Baylor guard Davion Mitchell, 6-2, the defensive dynamo whose play on that end of the floor swung the outcome in his team's win over Villanova in the Sweet 16 and whose 44.7 3-point percentage ranked 50th nationally, a combination that propelled him to being selected ninth overall in the 2021 NBA Draft.
The 2022 national championship game, however, saw the average height of the starters in the game climb above 78 inches, or 6-foot-6, for the first time since 2017.
What was the minimum height in the 2021 national championship game was once the norm, the average, the standard, when the sport's postseason was first established. Based on an NCAA.com analysis of the starters from every national championship game in the history of the DI men's basketball tournament, starting with Oregon's win over Ohio State on Northwestern's campus in 1939, the average height of starters in the national title game has increased by roughly 3.5 inches.
I used Sports Reference as a starting point for players' positions and heights, and I also used school resources such as team media guides and record books, as well as historical newspaper archives from newspapers.com to try to get an accurate sense of how players' positions and heights were described in the moment.
So, if Davion Mitchell was dropped into the 1939 national championship game at Northwestern's Patten Stadium, not only would his man-to-man defense overwhelm opposing ball-handlers and his 24-foot 2-pointers amaze onlookers — remember, this is well before the 3-point line — but he would also be as tall as many of the tallest forwards.
However, as the game has evolved to one that emphasizes 3-point shooting, positional versatility and small-ball lineups, and that features not only a shot clock (which would've been foreign prior to 1985) but one that is now 30 seconds compared to the original 45, the average height of starters in the national championship game has actually slightly decreased in recent years.
Here are some of our most notable findings:
- In terms of basketball positions, the strongest relationship between year and player height has been seen in forwards. The R-squared value, which measures how much of the variance in the dependent variable (height) that can be explained by an independent variable (year), is 0.775, which means 77.5 percent of the variance in height can be explained by the year. An R-squared value of 1.0 means the independent variable explains all of the variance in the dependent variable, while a value of 0 means it explains none of the variance.
- The average height of the starters in the national championship game peaked in 1984 (at one-tenth of an inch over 6-7) and it bottomed out in 1940, at six feet and 0.65 inches, when six of the game's 10 starters from Indiana and Kansas were 6-feet tall or shorter. The last time those two met in their season-opener in November 2016 in Honolulu, the average height of the 10 starters was 6-5.5, or nearly five inches taller than when the two schools first met 76 years prior.
- The tallest starting lineup in the history of the men's basketball national championship game was 2014 Kentucky, with an average height of 6-7.8, while the shortest was the aforementioned 1940 Kansas team, which had an average height of 6 feet and 0.3 inches.
- The tallest starter in the history of the men's basketball national championship game was NC State's Tom Burleson, who stood at 7-2 when the Wolfpack won the 1974 national championship.
Note: The data regarding the average height for American males comes from Our World in Data and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among the 820 players examined, there were six whose height couldn't be determined.
Here's how the average men's basketball player's height has changed over time
The scatter plot below shows the average height of the starters in every men's basketball national championship game, along with a polynomial trend line that shows the recent, slight downturn in average height. Note that data isn't available for every starter for the 1939, '43 and '44 title games.
The lower bound of the y-axis is 72 inches, or an average height of 6-feet. The upper bound is 80 inches, or an average height of 6-8.
Here's how individual positions have been affected
While starting guards, forwards and centers in today's game are noticeably taller, on average, compared to their peers of 70 years ago, not every position group has been affected in the same way. The height of forwards, once a position for players who only stood at 5-11 or 6-feet tall, is now filled with modern players who are as tall as 6-10 or 6-11, but they might have the skill set of a guard.
A given men's basketball season can explain roughly 39 percent of the variance in the height of starting guards in the men's basketball national championship game.
A given men's basketball season can explain roughly 78 percent of the variance in the height of starting forwards in the men's basketball national championship game.
A given men's basketball season can explain roughly 40 percent of the variance in the height of starting centers in the men's basketball national championship game.
Basketball players compared to the average American male
Here's how the average height of men's basketball national championship game starters, guards, forwards and centers compare to the average height of American males. Of course, not every player who has played in the national championship game has been American, but the vast majority have been.
Here's how tall players were written about decades ago
Stanford won its first and only men's basketball national championship in 1942, just the fourth-ever NCAA tournament, when it defeated Dartmouth 53-38. In 1998, when the Cardinal earned what was then a tied-for-program-best No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament, the San Francisco Examiner's Dwight Chapin wrote of Stanford's 1942 team:
"The starting five of Cowden, Don Burness, Jim Pollard, Howie Dallmar and Ed Voss, plus key reserve Jack Dana, had all played center in high school. They averaged 6-feet-4, almost giant-size in the '40s. The height inspired a nickname: 'The Tall Redwoods of California,' no doubt a takeoff on 'The Tall Firs of Oregon,' who had won the first NCAA championship in 1939."
Even among basketball players, in the 1940s and '50s, anyone taller than 6-6 was often seen as a cross between a novelty and a rarity. Holy Cross' George Kaftan — a player whom The Boston Daily Globe once called "college basketball's rebound king" in 1947 — was described by The Globe's Jerry Nason as follows: "at 6-3 is only of average height as college basketeers go, and shrinks in comparison with the 6-5 and 6-6 men, and the 'freaks' ... the 6-9 to 6-11 players."
In 1952, the New York Daily News noted of Kansas star Clyde Lovellette, "at 6-9 and 230 pounds, he's the biggest man in the tourney." Today, there's a pretty good chance a player who's 6-9 and 230 pounds isn't even the biggest player on his team.
This season, Kansas' roster has four players who are at least 6-9 or at least 230 pounds, plus two others who are listed at 6-8 and 225 pounds.
'Positionless basketball' is common today; It used to be for other reasons
Nowadays, there's often a premium placed on players with versatile skill sets, which is part of the reason why the heights of basketball players, especially forwards, has gradually increased over the years. Who wouldn't want a player on his or her team that has the physique of a power forward but the skill set of a shooting guard?
That's why the term "positionless basketball" has been en vogue in the last decade or so, with teams such as the Golden State Warriors of the NBA doing much of the cultural heavy lifting.
For the purposes of this story, it also raises some important questions, such as, if we're going to accurately track the evolution of players' heights over the lifetime of the sport, how do we know what position to label a specific player?
Is a 6-10 big man a forward or a center? Does a 6-5 player who fits the more modern definition of a "wing" get labeled as a guard or a forward?
But as it turns out, debates and positional confusion aren't new.
Here's a prime example.
While researching the heights of the starters for Bradley, the 1950 national runner-up, I found a pair of game recaps, published eight days apart — both by newspapers located in the university's home state of Illinois — that listed the positions of the team's starters completely differently.
Each of the five starters was listed as playing one position on March 17, 1950, by The Pantagraph of Bloomington, Illinois, only for The Daily Dispatch of Moline, Illinois, to list each player's position differently on March 25.
Initially, it was Billy Mann and Gene Melchiorre at guard, with Charles Grover and Paul Unruh at forward, and Elmer Behnke at center. But a week later, the guards were Grover and Behnke, the forwards were Melchiorre and Mann (the latter's last name was listed in the box score as "Monn"), and the center was Unruh.
As it turns out, according to the Marengo Republican-News, another Illinois-based newspaper, Behnke was listed as both a guard and a center, but not a forward. That's him in the middle of the picture below — the tallest player on the team.
The year before, another national runner-up, Oklahoma A&M's Jack Shelton, was listed similarly by one newspaper — "g - c." By the way, that wasn't the only positional oddity, by today's standards, that I found.
The New York Daily News listed left guards and rights guards, and left forwards and right forwards, in the box score from the 1947 national championship game, even though such positional classifications are today more typical of sports such as soccer or hockey.
Many newspapers did this in the 1940s and '50s, just as they might list a player's height down to the half-inch, or label a player's height with a colon, "6:8," rather than a dash, like "6-8."
So, I did the best I could in my research, and intentionally or not, maybe positionless basketball started 70-some years ago, when a newspaper editor might list a player's position as both a guard and a center, rather than a forward, or a guard or a center.
Regardless of a player's labeled position, then or now, they've generally only gotten taller.