Thursday, December 3, 2009

Six to Five

For a Big Ten fan, it is hard to put the Big Ten’s victory in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge in perspective. It isn’t about bragging rights. No one can brag after their conference lost 10 years in a row. It isn’t about determining the best conference.* By any reasonable margin-of-victory statistic, the ACC has been the best conference in college basketball for the last decade. It isn’t even about this season. The ACC still has a better Pomeroy and Sagarin rating this year.

So what was the victory about last night? It was about finally winning one. I’d compare it to Minnesota winning the Little Brown Jug from Michigan in football. When Minnesota wins, it doesn’t mean Minnesota has the better program. It doesn’t even mean Minnesota will have a good season. But every so often, its nice to look in your trophy case and see the trophy sitting there.

And in a one-sided trophy game, it doesn’t matter what the final score is. (6-5 Big Ten.) It doesn’t matter if it takes a lot of luck. (Illinois and Penn St. comebacks, Duke failing to complete its comeback.) You just have to smile at the thought that the commissioner’s cup is finally in the Big Ten’s hands.

*Call this a Joe Posnanski star point. Even though the challenge wasn’t about determining the best conference, at least one Clemson Blog still saw it that way, writing after the game: “How the Big Ten is the best conference in America is still beyond me.”

But ACC fans shouldn’t be too sad either. To some extent, the Big Ten finally winning this thing brings some value to the cup in the future. Next year, when some ACC team wins to take a 6-3 lead with 2 games left in the challenge, they can show some ACC fans taking the trophy out of a Big Ten box and holding it up in glory. Winning a trophy back is fun too.

But there’s one big problem with this analogy. As Bob Knight pointed out, this isn’t really a team exercise. All fans really care about at the end of the day is that their team wins.* Did Bo Ryan care that the Big Ten won the challenge? Yes, he was happy. But he was really happy his team beat Duke.

And it isn’t like the Big Ten got together on Monday and had a big team huddle. “OK, all 11 teams. Let’s work together. It’s going to take a collective effort to win this thing. It isn’t about one team padding its stats. It will take all 11 of you out on the court to win.”

So it is hard to celebrate collectively. The Big Ten narrowly pulled out a close win. But it wasn’t close for Ohio St so there was no storming the court in Columbus. There was no elated interview from Thad Matta at the Big Ten’s victory. The trophy came home at the end of the night, but there was little fanfare.

*On Sundays if my NFL team loses, but my fantasy team wins, I'm unhappy, but I'll take it as a consolation prize. But I'm not sure the Big Ten losers appreciated the conference win as a true consolation prize. Certainly this Michigan Blog isn’t jubilant about the Big Ten’s win right now.

Final Thoughts:
-This might have been the biggest Illinois comeback ever, but it pales in comparison to the elite eight comeback against Arizona because of the importance of that game. And as numerous people have pointed out, these things seem to happen to Clemson. But I’m glad to have hope for this Illini squad because they are way more fun to watch then recent squads.

-Nice plus / minus for Demetri McCamey last night.

-Did Bob Knight really call John Leuer’s decision to “stand in place and wait to get fouled” the play-of-the-game?

Top 10 Freshman

There’s a reason why Luke Winn is a blogger’s favorite. He really knows how to use his tempo free stats. And Winn hit the nail on the head in a recent column. Top 10 recruits are almost always contributors right off the bat, but the rest of the Top 100 is much less consistent.

I’ve occasionally posted the numbers for McDonald’s All-American’s on this site, and I consistently got criticism that the McDonald’s All-American team is not a reliable indicator of a recruit’s ability. Every year there are several players around 50 in the rankings who sneak onto the McDonald’s team for one reason or another. And I was perhaps unfairly calling those players “busts”. But as I said in the Basketball Prospectus Big East preview, the Top 10 is a different story, and that’s why I’m excited to see Lance Stephenson and others this season. Winn’s column shows the numbers pretty clearly, but in case you wanted to check individual players, here are Top 10 debuts from 2006-2009:

(Wondering why some years I don’t list a freshman recruit at a certain slot? 2008-09’s #1 recruit Brandon Jennings went to Europe. 2005-06’s #2 recruit Monta Ellis went to the NBA, ect. And in some case’s RSCI lists a tie for a slot.)

There are almost no busts on the list. Sure Brook Lopez and Gerald Henderson had ORtg’s under 100, but they were pretty good defensive players and they developed into fantastic players. Probably the most recent true bust was Villanova’s Jason Fraser. (See the low number of minutes as a senior.) But injuries contributed to him fading out of the spotlight. The same hopefully will not be said for Michigan St.’s Delvin Roe. Not that Roe hasn’t been efficient, but he hasn’t been the high volume, explosive scorer as some of the others on this list. (Ed Davis had similar numbers to Roe last year, but is off to a more prolific start this year.)

The Giant Foul Study

Hidden in the week before Thanksgiving was this nice story about college officiating. The punchline:
-Refs are more likely to call a foul on the road team
-Refs try to keep foul calls even
-Refs are more likely to call a foul on the team in the lead

I haven’t been able to find the study online, so these criticism’s may not be fair, but unless they actually graded every call and every non-call, I can’t figure out how they know it is referee decision making and not a change in behavior?

-Do players play better at home, (because of emotion, familiarity with the backdrop, or confidence), and therefore earn more calls?
-Do players retaliate when fouled? Or does a team that commits a lot of fouls suddenly become more careful?
-Do teams in the lead become complacent and more careless?
Any of these changes of behavior could account for the numeric differences you see in the study.

Now some of these hypotheses may have been accounted for in the study. For example, to see if teams become more careful, you can control for how many steals they get after they commit a bunch of fouls, ect. But at the end of the day, I don’t think you can completely rule out the possibility that player behavior is different in different situations.

But let’s assume for the moment that the study is correct, since referee bias isn’t as controversial as I’m making it out to be. The next question is whether home team bias is harmful to the game. It might not be. With road TV games, I can pay bills or check my email while half-watching the game if my team falls behind. But if my team loses at home, I get all the misery. I’m stuck in my seat, I have road fans taunting me, and I have a grumpy commute home after the game. For this reason, home team bias probably makes me better off overall.

The problem is that this bias is not consistent from crew-to-crew. Some officials are more biased then others and thus your referee assignments can have an impact on the season. For this reason, home team call bias is probably a bad thing, but it isn’t universally horrible.

Similarly, if refs try to give fouls to even out the game, that’s probably good for neutral fans. People stop watching blowouts, so if a few foul calls turn a 12 point game into a 6 point game, it gets people watching.

But the real problem here is when this happens in the NCAA tournament, which is one game and done. When I heard of this study I immediately thought of Georgetown vs Davidson game from a few years ago. Georgetown built a big early lead, but kept picking up foul-after-foul. The refs wouldn’t let the game get over 10 points without calling Georgetown for something. Then, late in the game, Stephen Curry got extremely hot, wiped the 10 point lead out in a handful of possessions, and the game was over.

As a Georgetown fan, this “seemed” miserably unfair. Especially when Hibbert barely played due to some highly questionable calls. But in the grand scheme of things, this was probably good for college basketball. It made Curry a hero in a tournament devoid of Cinderella teams, and made for an exciting ending.

Cancun Challenge Redux


-DeMarcus Cousins may look like the most dominant athlete on the floor, but he’s only a freshman. And Calipari certainly let him know he made two critical mistakes at the end of the Stanford-Kentucky game. First Cousins faced a wide-open three with no defenders around him late in the close game. Cousins paused, thought about passing, and then took and missed the three pointer. Calipari immediately subbed him out of the game. 7 foot centers can’t afford to waste possessions in a close game.

A few minutes later, Cousins was back on the court, bricked the front end of a foul with Kentucky trailing, and proceeded to miss the second free throw on purpose, in hopes that he would get his own rebound. There was still plenty of time left and Calipari went nuts that Cousins would miss a free throw on purpose. It is fun to see these early struggles, because when Cousins puts it together, he’s going to be an outstanding player.

-Perhaps I’m just a Bill Self / Bruce Webber parrot, but I truly believe that when your season is on the line, you want to be playing man-to-man defense. With the exception of Syracuse and a few other teams, zone defense is usually passive, and it is highly dependent on how good the other team is playing. And in March in the NCAA tournament, the other team is usually playing too well for a zone defense to stop it.

But early in the year is a different story. Often the biggest coaching lessons from an early cupcake squash is whether your team can get easy baskets against the zone. It is sort of like a preliminary test you have to pass before you can move on and become a quality team.

For Memphis, this has often been a problem early in the year, as some of Calipari’s best athletes weren’t necessarily great shooters. But as Tyreke Evans and Derrick Rose eventually learned, there are other ways to score against the zone than just taking three after three.

And that was my big takeaway from Kentucky’s narrow overtime win over Stanford, where Stanford’s zone defense was highly effective. Like everyone else, I look at Kentucky and see some of the most intimidating athletes on any team in college basketball. But until they learn to move the basketball and get good match-ups against the zone, they’ll be susceptible to lose to anyone. Where I differ with some other people is in thinking this is a permanent problem. I think Calipari will get it sorted out.


Senior Landry Fields was often the best player on the floor, as no one on Kentucky seemed to be able to guard him in regulation. But in overtime, Patterson and Wall shut him down.


I was amazed how often Sylven Landesberg played off the ball. But in crunch time, he was the one directing the offense.

Cleveland St.

Former Rutgers coach Gary Waters still knows what he’s doing. Despite losing 4 senior starters, he had his team schemed well enough to hang with Kentucky and Virginia in this tournament. And PG Jeremy Montgomery probably isn’t that dominant a player, but he made some amazingly athletic moves to score inside against Kentucky in the opener.