Eric Angevine emailed me tonight with this very interesting question. Here was my response:
First, let me emphasize the value of basketball coaches relative to the other sports. According to Forbes magazine NBA head coaches make slightly more than NFL head coaches, and both make significantly more than MLB head coaches. There may be numerous reasons NBA coaches earn more. But a reasonable inference is that incrementally, basketball coaches can make a significant difference to winning. Phil Jackson isn’t earning $10 million a year because he is a lucky rabbit’s foot. He is earning $10 million a year because he understands all the little details of what it takes to win. From the X’s and O’s, to in-game adjustments, to how to motivate his players over the long grind, Jackson has the formula down to a science. Or a zen art.
The lesson for college basketball is that coaching is a lot more than simply deciding whether to bring the walk-ons into the game at the 2 minute mark or the 1 minute mark in a blowout. Coaches can make a significant difference to whether a team is ahead when the final buzzer sounds.
And Bruce Pearl is not just another coach. I currently rank Bruce Pearl as the 30th best coach in terms of adjusted efficiency margin from 2002-2011, (which includes his successful final 3 seasons at UW-Milwaukee.) That might not seem phenomenal, but I don’t think the margin-of-victory numbers really do Pearl justice. Tennessee plays a very long rotation which tends to make some games closer than they should be. But in crunch time, Bruce Pearl always has the best lineup on the floor. And over the last seven years, no BCS coach has out-performed his efficiency margin more than Pearl. Ken Pomeroy refers to this as luck. Bruce Pearl’s teams have been consistently lucky. And there is certainly an element of winning close games that is good fortune. (Florida’s Erving Walker hit one of the biggest shots of the year to force a second overtime against Georgia, but I’d be shocked if he could repeat it.) But there’s also something to the cliché that you make your own luck.
But none of this really gets to the key question. Will Bruce Pearl make a difference when he returns to the sideline this year? The difficulty is that we know Pearl is a good coach, but we don’t know what makes him a good coach. Is it his recruiting? Is it his unique drills in practice? Is it his style of offense? Is it his pressure defense? If it is those things, then his return to the sideline should have little impact on Tennessee.
But what if Bruce Pearl’s teams win for other reasons? Is it his ability to know when to apply pressure defense? Is it his calling of set-plays? Is it his ability to draw up plays on the clipboard? Is it his half-game adjustments? Is it his key substitutions? Is it his ability to motivate players in the locker-room?
Unfortunately, when it comes to the data, we don’t have a lot of variation to sort out these factors. Coaches don’t usually leave their team in the middle of the season. I think there is some anecdotal evidence that coaching absences hurt a team. Connecticut struggled at times when Jim Calhoun was missing because of health issues. (And when Louisville’s defense was historically bad last year, I wondered how much of that was because Pitino was mentally checked out with the Karen Sypher situation.)
Perhaps most relevant this season, Rick Majerus somehow cut his leg during the Bowling Green game and missed the next three games with a leg infection. St. Louis lost all three games without Majerus on the sideline. Based on the quality of opponents, the Sagarin Predictor method says St. Louis should have lost those three games by a total of 27 points. But St. Louis was defeated by 36 points in those 3 games, or about 3 points more per game than we should have expected.
Was Rick Majerus really worth 3 points a game? That number seems a little high. Although I cannot find the citation online, I think the top coaches tend to be worth about 2 points in the Vegas lines.
Will Bruce Pearl make that big a difference when he returns to the sideline? I’d assume he is worth a little less than a point a game. But over the course of the season, when lots of games come down to the wire, you never know when that extra something will be the difference between winning and losing. And in an SEC East, where no team is under .500, every win means a lot.
Note to self: Learn how to take screen-shots. If anyone can send me a screenshot or youtube link of Stacey and Ray Paine, (10:41 to go in the Kansas - Missouri game), this item will be much more amusing.
But the Paines are not the subject of this header. After a commercial break, we had this exchange.
Brent Musberger, "I can't believe, especially given that his dad is in the basketball business, that Larry Drew would just walk out on North Carolina in the middle of the season. To walk out on a team like that, I'm surprised the young man would act that way."
Bob Knight - No Response
Hmm, recalling the Texas Tech situation? You just cannot make this stuff up.