Monday, January 31, 2011

Can we ask for a Delayed Reality Series?

Ken Pomeroy asked a new question on Monday. Should the NCAA committee go out and watch games? But that is not his real question. His real question is whether the NCAA committee should care about style of offense, the quality of guard play, and the quality of post play? And he answers with a resounding “no”. He argues that we should not confuse an already ridiculous process with more irrelevant variables. And I cannot imagine anyone disagreeing with him on that point. (Unless you have an injury situation to analyze, these types of data points should not come into the discussion.)

But I think his general question is actually more fascinating. Should the NCAA committee go out and watch college basketball games? I think the answer is a resounding yes. If the NCAA committee was made up of librarians who never watched college basketball, would they really have a handle on how to rank basketball teams? NCAA committee members should care about basketball and want to watch basketball games whenever possible.

Stats Do Not Tell Us Everything in Basketball

One of the things I love about basketball is that it is not baseball. Not every important piece of information can be found in a Sabermetric log. There are a ton of things you can learn by watching games that you just cannot pick up in the box score data. As an example, Kevin Pelton recently posted a fantastic discussion of what stats can and cannot tell us about NBA players. It is not a fair comparison, because Ken Pomeroy is asking about team quality and not player quality. And I cannot currently think of any team statistics that are not measured in the box score. But I would put it this way: Having more information is a good thing. I do not think anyone should harass the committee for attempting to learn more about teams throughout the season.

But the real problem that Ken and others identify is what happens if watching a subset of games causes the selection committee to have biased perceptions. [[This concern about “human bias” has long been discussed in the context of the BCS. The problem is that even if humans can be biased, at least humans are dynamic. People can put the wrong weight on certain pieces of data, but absent new forms of artificial intelligence, computers can only handle the problems they have encountered before. Formulas cannot anticipate or deal with unique or unusual new situations. I don’t know which form of bias is larger. I don’t know whether “personal experience bias” or “new situation bias” is a bigger problem. But I do know that computers will never win this argument. No selection process will survive if its conclusions do not mesh with popular opinion. And in the BCS, virtually all the weight has been put on the polls because that is the only system people will accept.]]

The idea that the NCAA selection committee may be biased by seeing a subset of games does not bother me. I happen to believe that people are quite capable of putting things in context. They can watch St. John’s win on Sunday and know that it is only one data point. Perception bias is a risk I am willing to take in order to have an engaged, aware, and thoughtful committee.

Moreover, if we are really concerned about personal biases, I would love to see the NCAA committee institute a monitoring system. We want the committee members to be free to have open and honest discussions, so I would not release the documentary immediately. But what if CBS recorded the NCAA selection process and agreed to air it 10 years after the tournament occurred? Would that be the most fascinating reality series of all time?

Wouldn’t you love to someday go back and listen to the discussion of where Davidson deserved to be seeded when Stephen Curry had led them on that long winning streak? What about when Memphis earned a 1-seed in 2006 with a questionable resume but a dominant late-season performance.

And wouldn’t it be fun to hear the committee debate the age-old questions? What value should we put on winning on the road relative to at home? What value do we put on close losses? What value do we put on how a team has played recently?

Ken Pomeroy may find his formula to be the best way to answer these dilemmas, but I think he would agree this is not a one-dimensional question. People can differ in the weights they put on different factors.

Ken’s rightful crusade is to try to remove the RPI from team data sheets, because the RPI is very weakly correlated with anything meaningful. And his crusade to eliminate non-essential variables like “style-of-offense” from the discussion is important. But I would never discourage the committee from following college basketball and collecting more information, even if watching games induces the possibility of “subset bias”.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Saturday Notes

1) I’ve come to take it for granted that every enjoyable game is available on cable or ESPN3.com, but this week a lot of the interesting non-BCS games were nowhere to be found. UAB took a late lead against UCF and continued the UCF conference play collapse, but I could not find the game. Charlotte and La Salle went to double overtime, but it was not on locally. Meanwhile the non-BCS games that were on TV tended to be blowouts. George Mason easily beat William & Mary in the annual battle of green and gold. Xavier at Richmond was surprisingly not competitive. And so I have no lead story about the under-rated game of the day.

2) Despite my hopes that Penn St. vs Wisconsin would be a 40-38 affair in a 46 possession game that would break the shot clock, the two slow paced Big Ten teams produced a relatively exciting game. Penn St. beat a 3rd ranked opponent at home to improve to 5-4 in the Big Ten. But why do the Big Ten schedule makers hate Penn St. so much this year? Penn St. plays ever team twice EXCEPT Indiana and Iowa. That’s just not fair.

Of course, if Penn St. finishes 9-9 in the Big Ten and 16-13 on the year, they will be a very interesting bubble case. Before you condemn the 16-13 record, remember they are projected to finish with a top 5 SOS. And even though it is really too early to speculate who will be in the RPI top 100, a 16-13 Penn St. team would probably have 8 top 100 wins. That would certainly put them in the discussion.

3) Is the SEC West better than we think? Or is the SEC East worse than we think? Given what happened in the non-conference schedule, I know some people expected a 36-0 sweep by the East, but halfway through the East-West matchups, the East only leads the series 12-6. Even Auburn earned a win against South Carolina on Saturday, and no one expected that at the end of December. I do question Tony Barbee’s sanity leaving a C-USA leading UTEP team for this mess, but Auburn has become a no lose situation for him, at least in the short term. Any Auburn win is considered a huge accomplishment at this point.

4) I wrote on Tuesday that Arizona St. was not as bad as their record indicated, and I was looking forward to saying “I told you so”. But then UCLA pulled out the win at ASU in overtime. (And if UCLA could have grabbed missed free throws, it would not have taken the extra session.)

5) Remember when Iowa St. was picked to have a winning Big 12 record by kenpom.com? After losing at home in overtime to Oklahoma, Iowa St. is now 1-6 in Big 12 play. Non-conference games don’t tell us everything.

6) Most of my other comments today seem like clich├ęs:

-College teams often win a huge game and then go on the road and overlook their next opponent. See BYU and St. Mary’s.

-Teams often get caught looking ahead. See Texas A&M, looking past Nebraska prior to the Big Monday game against Texas.

-There is parity in college basketball. See Pittsburgh and Ohio St.’s close wins.

But hold on a second. I get the feeling people think Ohio St. is not that good because they keep winning close. But I think it is very impressive to keep winning, even when you do not play well. It is very impressive to win when your opponent is on fire, as Michael “Juice” Thompson was late in Saturday’s game. I keep hearing that there are no “great” teams in college basketball this year, but I don’t buy it. I think there is a huge gap between the top tier and the next tier. Forget SI’s “Magic Eight”. I think there are only 6 teams with a legitimate shot at a national title. Here’s the list:

Ohio St.
Pittsburgh
Duke
Texas
Kansas
Washington

I don’t think anyone else is really close.
-John Calipari has really been a magician this year, but I don’t think Kentucky can win 6 games in a row with that young a team.
-I think Purdue’s lack of depth in the paint will eventually cause them to lose in the tournament. (Although they proved again today that they can rebound against bigger teams.)
-I think BYU and San Diego St. are fantastic, but I don’t see either really cutting down the nets.
-And most of the rest of the team’s with the best margin-of-victory numbers are in the Big East. And I’m not quite ready to endorse anyone other than Pittsburgh in that conference.

7) Speaking of the Big East, fantastic win for Marquette on Saturday, but it really was not a surprise. Everyone who follows college basketball knows that Buzz Williams’ teams work as hard as anyone in the country. And another fantastic win for Louisville. After I blasted Mike Marra for his terrible 3 point shooting, of course he hit a critical shot late in the game. With three one point wins this month, people are going to start calling Louisville “lucky” and over-rated, but I’d rather be 6-2 and lucky than 3-5.

And of course a fantastic win for Georgetown at Villanova. A few quick bullets from the Hoya perspective:

-I continue to be concerned about Georgetown’s big men’s ability to score in the paint. Teams keep hugging the shooters and daring Julian Vaughn and Henry Sims to win the one-on-one battle, and while both have improved this season, neither can consistently score against taller players. This may seem like an odd comment after a win, but until Mouphtaou Yarou got in foul trouble, I thought he was a huge defensive difference maker. Sims has turned into a great passer this season, but he needs to develop at least one true post move.

-I loved Georgetown’s ability to avoid charges against Villanova. I know the fans in attendance must have been going nuts, but when you looked at the replays, Georgetown was constantly jumping to the side of Villanova players that were trying to draw the charge.

-I loved the emotion Julian Vaughn gave us around the 10 minute mark of the second half. Vaughn was fouled after grabbing a defensive rebound and realized he needed to go to the other end to shoot a one-and-one. The look on his face said he was not sure he could convert, but he knew the free throws were critical. And after he made them both, you could just tell his smile was a little bigger than normal.

-I hated ESPN for giving us “bonus coverage” of the UConn game and missing the late 7-0 run for Villanova. How did Georgetown go from up 8, to up 3 with Nova at the free throw line? Like the number of licks it takes to get to the center of a tootsie-pop, the world may never know.

-I loved Austin Freeman’s toughness in this game. His heavily guarded pull-up jumper in the corner was not his only amazing shot. He also hit a jumper in the lane while falling to the ground where Doris Burke and I simultaneously praised Freeman’s incredible strength. And Freeman got a key offensive rebound on another of his misses. Freeman does not have the classic quickness of most guards, but his strength and touch are off the charts.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Illinois continues to fold under pressure

With 25 seconds left and trailing by one point, Mike Tisdale caught the ball in the lane for Illinois while being guarded by a smaller Indiana defender. He took two dribbles away from the basket, and proceeded to throw the ball in the corner and out-of-bounds. It was the perfect microcosm of the Illinois season to date. The announcer said it perfectly. “No one on Illinois looks like they want to take the shot right now.”

Here in brief, is a recap of all conference games and key non-conference games for Illinois this season:

Wins
Big lead vs Maryland, Maryland comes back late but basically runs out of time
Big lead vs North Carolina
Big lead vs Gonzaga
Big lead vs Iowa
Big lead vs Northwestern
Relatively close game against Wisconsin, but Wisconsin can never make any shots or make a run
Clutch win against Michigan St., McCamey makes some very tough threes to seal the game

Losses
Loss to Texas in OT - Texas forced the ball out of McCamey’s hands and Illinois could not execute
Loss to UIC – Illinois took a late lead, but could not execute on the final possessions
Loss to Missouri - Illinois was down by one in the final minute, but Missouri sealed it with an 8-0 run
Loss to Penn St. – Penn St. wins in the final seconds
Loss to Wisconsin – Never really close
Loss to Ohio St. – Illinois blows 8 point second half lead and cannot execute in the final minutes (but a lot of that may be because Ohio St. is legitimately an elite team)
Loss to Indiana – Mike Tisdale throws away a chance to take the lead late

What you see is a pattern very consistent with a team with solid margin-of-victory numbers. When Illinois wins, they win big. But in virtually every pressure situation this season, Illinois has failed. This leads to several thoughts:

1) Demetri McCamey is still not a consistent winner.

Demetri McCamey was told by NBA scouts that to be a 1st round draft pick, he needed to win more games. So far, he is failing again this season. Over 4 years, McCamey has developed an incredible chemistry with his 3 fellow seniors. His gaudy assist numbers are a function of the fact that he knows the type of shot each teammate likes, and he can find them in perfect rhythm. McCamey also runs the pick-and-roll exceptionally well with Tisdale, and he has picked up on a lot of Deron William’s NBA mannerisms for how to run selectively and surprise opponents with a change of acceleration. In a lot of ways, McCamey the college player is like Deron the NBA player. But that is actually why I think the comparison to Deron Williams is a terrible one. McCamey’s college game is very refined. He seems to be playing at near his peak performance. On the other hand, Williams was only using a fraction of his talent by the time he was a junior at Illinois. Williams never ran the pick and roll. He was still learning how to use his quickness effectively. Williams had significant upside as a junior. McCamey is a polished college senior without much more room to grow.

2) Bruce Weber should be on the hot seat.

I am very hesitant to say this, because I think it is wrong to be reactionary to close losses. And Bruce Weber is absolutely one of the great teachers of college basketball. But I jump back to something Weber said after his Final Four run in 2005. After the team went 37-2, there were lots of fans that said, “We’ll win it next year.” And Bruce Weber was very cautious. “You have to enjoy this season for what it was. 37-2 was a very special year. Seasons like that do not come around very often.” Weber hoped to be back in the Final Four, but he knew that even for dominant coaches like Mike Krzyzewski, there can be long Final Four droughts.

The question for most teams is not whether they can make the Final Four every year. The question is whether, when the team is back, when the talent is there, can they live up to their potential?

And there can be no question that this is a talented Illinois team. This is one of the greatest collections of shooters ever assembled. No BCS conference team shoots better from 3 point range than Illinois, and seven of the nine rotations players are clearly great shooters.

But when the shots are not falling, Illinois does not step up and make the basketball plays it needs to win. They do not drive and get fouled. They do not get the key steal. They do not get the key stop. Statistically, the most glaring deficiency is probably the team’s defensive rebounding. And Indiana and Penn St. both beat Illinois with offensive put-backs.

The end result is the scatterbrained outcomes you see above. When the shots are falling, Illinois blows teams out. But when things are not clicking, players are afraid to take the shot.

At one point, the question was whether Illinois could compete for a Big Ten title. Then the question was whether the team could make a Sweet Sixteen run and make some real noise in the NCAA tournament. Today, the question is more appropriately whether Illinois can make the NCAA tournament at all. Like Purdue, Illinois has a schedule that was very favorable early. But Illinois ends the year with road trips to Ohio St., Purdue, Michigan St., Minnesota, and a desperate Northwestern team. Simply finishing 10-8 or 9-9 and qualifying for the NCAA tournament would probably qualify as a success at this point. And that is why Bruce Weber should be on the hot seat this year.

3) Margin-of-victory is not everything.

Illinois continues to be ranked much higher in Sagarin’s predictor than in their Elo Chess ranking, reflecting what I stated above. When Illinois wins, they win big. When they lose, they lose close games.

Pomeroy calls this difference luck. And for the most part, we tend to believe this is random noise, not a real skill. (People have argued very persuasively that clutch hitting does not exist in baseball. And I’ve studied the “luck” numbers in college basketball, and the year-to-year correlations in “luck” are pretty small.)

To the extent some coaches are consistently unlucky, that reflects the fact that if you have a large enough sample, sometimes a coin will come up tails 7 times in a row. But I think it is interesting that Bruce Weber’s teams have not had a positive luck rating since his first year with the team (2003-2004). Many years his team’s luck ratings have been close to zero, but at no point have Bruce Weber’s teams really over-achieved.

And at a certain point, you do ask if there is something to the poor play in close games. If Mike Tisdale takes that shot in the lane and it clangs off the back rim, I probably deem it to be bad luck. But when he passes up the shot, and kicks it to a corner where no one is currently standing, that is when I scratch my head. Big Ten Geeks described Illinois' performance this way. "The Illini simply looked lost offensively down the stretch, when almost any aggressive play to the basket would have probably gotten them a trip to the foul line." That type of description is not just bad luck.

At a certain point, when a team fails to execute in pressure situations, I begin to believe that they are a bad team. And that is where I am with Illinois. Until I see them play well under pressure, I am very skeptical that they can perform under pressure.

And this also causes me to ponder a frequent blog question:

4) Should margin-of-victory matter for NCAA seeding?

In past years, fans of the tempo free stats have discussed in length the idea that when seeding teams, margin-of-victory should not be ignored. It is important that the 1-seed not face an 8-seed with great margin-of-victory numbers in the second round or there is no benefit to earning a 1-seed.

But watching Illinois reminds me that I’m not even sure that is right. The question is not necessarily the average quality of a team, but how often they play great. Would you rather face a team that is dominant half the time, and terrible half the time, or a team that has rarely shown signs of being dominant, but usually executes in close games?

Or to put it another way, I would be much more afraid to face Michigan St. than Illinois this year. In terms of margin-of-victory, Michigan St. has not been nearly as good as Illinois. But when the games are close, when the pressure is on, Tom Izzo and his players have been able to execute. And even when they lose, as they did Thursday, they still had a shot to win at the end. Against Michigan, Keith Appling’s three was in-and-out, and with a different flip of the coin, that game goes differently. For Illinois, I don’t feel the same way. I don’t think Illinois deserves a better seed just because they have better margin-of-victory numbers.

And this is why, despite people’s complaints about New Mexico’s seeding last year, or possible complaint’s about Washington’s seeding in mock bracket’s this year, that I continue to love the NCAA tournament selection format. In the end, a group of people reach a consensus and decide on the bracket. There is no formula; there is no guaranteed critical criteria. There are just a group of smart basketball people that are using the best available information to reach a consensus. The process is not perfect, but I think it is the best outcome of any sport.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Is Kansas better with Josh Selby? How much did Notre Dame miss Carleton Scott?

No numeric ranking system that I am aware of includes the impact of injuries or transfers. As I discussed last year, Ken Pomeroy’s does weight recent games more heavily, and after studying his methodology last year, I’m convinced that in the vast majority of cases this is adequate. But let’s face it. We are all curious. We want to see the injury or suspension splits. Are teams better or worse without their stars?

Today I am going to talk about almost every major injury, suspension, and transfer this season. My list includes over 100 events that caused players to miss games, but even my list is not exhaustive. First, I am limiting myself to the top 7 RPI conferences (plus the top of the A10, Butler, and Gonzaga).

I am also going to limit myself to players who play at least 50% of their team’s minutes when active. The NCAA tournament committee does take a look at a player’s on-court contribution when evaluating injuries, and almost no player can be deemed irreplaceable when he plays less than half the team’s minutes when healthy. In the end, you’ll see of the approximately 100 events, only a handful really make a difference in our evaluation of NCAA tournament teams.

A few quick notes:

-Data are through Monday January 24th.

- I am NOT presenting raw offensive and defensive splits. I am replicating the Pomeroy method that adjusts for the quality of opponent. I calculate the adjusted offense and adjusted defense. To the extent my splits do not add up to his totals, keep in mind that he weights recent games more heavily.

-Also keep in mind that the sample sizes are small in almost every analysis you see here. Quite a few of these results seem believable, but with small sample sizes unusual outcomes can always skew the results.

-Finally, notice that my list does not include players that have missed the entire season. When a player misses the whole season, the ranking is no longer misleading. If we want to know how Purdue will perform without Robbie Hummel, the full season ranking is adequate.

25 Splits You Need to Know

I present a table with the numeric splits below. (Scroll down if you are impatient.)

1) I’m mostly going to focus on players who missed games, but John Shurna is the lone exception. He injured his ankle against Mt. St. Mary’s and he has been trying to play through it. I think it is interesting to note that Northwestern’s offense has continued to play well even after his injury. But Northwestern’s defense has taken another step back since he was hurt. Obviously having one of your defenders lose lateral quickness is not going to help you win games. The difference is pretty minimal however.

2) Next, I present Minnesota with and without Al Nolen. Nolen re-injured his foot on Saturday, and may miss the rest of the season. Minnesota has been a substantially worse team defensively and offensively without its starting point guard. And the future outcome may be even worse when you remember that Minnesota had Devoe Joseph to fill in for Nolen during his previous injury. Joseph has recently transferred and now the Gophers must turn to three freshman guards to fill the void. I’m a little skeptical that Nolen is as big a difference maker as these splits show. But Nolen has historically been one of the Gopher’s best defenders. And as someone who has watched almost all their games this year, let me confirm that Nolen does matter to the Gopher offense. When he can drive into the lane and create, this is a different team. If you don’t think Nolen matters, go back and watch the Gopher's wins in Puerto Rico. Nolen almost single-handedly won the game against West Virginia by driving into the paint and creating for his teammates.

3) Louisville has been a bit of an injury nightmare, and I’m not even counting Jared Swopshire who is out for the year. First and foremost, Rakeem Buckles injured his finger and has been out for a month, and Mike Marra injured his ankle and missed four games. And Terrence Jennings and Kyle Kuric have also missed games this season. I’m going to slice it three ways. Louisville without Buckles (which is the current state of the world), Louisville without various other players, and Louisville at near full-strength (but minus Swopshire of course.)

Louisville has been struggling substantially on defense without Buckles in the lineup. At first his impact on the defense may seem too big. But remember he has a 25% defensive rebounding rate and he is one of the only Louisville players who is an elite defensive rebounder. They clearly miss his defensive post presence.

More surprising is the fact that Louisville’s offense has been much worse when the team has been at full strength. That might be a bit of a fluke. Louisville blew out St. John’s in a game Marra and Jennings sat out, and blew out some non-conference opponents when Marra sat out. If you really want to believe Marra is a drag on the Louisville offense, consider that he is only shooting 27% on 95 three point attempts this year. In other words, Louisville without Buckles is worse defensively, Louisville without Marra might be a better offensive team.

4) Carleton Scott missed four Notre Dame games with a hamstring injury and the team played substantially worse when he was out. Scott is currently Notre Dame’s most efficient offensive player, so I think we need to seriously discount their performance in losses at Marquette and St. John’s. This team is almost certainly better than the 26th best team in the nation (the current Pomeroy rank.) With Scott healthy, I have Notre Dame as the 14th best team in the nation.

5) Seton Hall’s Jeremy Hazell injured his wrist and then was shot. Seton Hall’s offense suffered tremendously when he was out, but since he is not 100% yet, the offense has not rebounded to form either.

6) South Florida’s Augustus Gilchrist had philosophical differences with his coach that caused him to miss 3 games in December. (Jarrid Famous was also out for one of these 3 games, a five point loss to Kent. St.) And I can’t even remember why Anthony Crater was out for 3 games in December. But the offense is clearly better with everyone available. The splits are even more surprising when you consider Crater missed USF’s best performance of the year, a near win against BYU. In non-BYU games without Gilchrist or Crater the team has really struggled.

7) Josh Selby was declared eligible part of the way through the season and the Kansas offense and defense have played worse since he joined the team. The Pomeroy rankings currently have Kansas 3rd nationally, but with Selby they have looked more like the 7th best team in the country. Now, you can argue that Kansas was never really tested before Selby showed up, but I don’t think that is fair. Selby currently has a terrible assist to turnover ratio and has struggled with his two point field goal shooting. I fully expect Selby to get better, but so far Kansas has not played better with him on the floor.

8) I think Nebraska’s loss of Christian Standhardinger is a little over-rated. He only played six games and the team has performed at a high level without him. (But the story about him being cited for indecency was still crazy.)

9) Kansas St. rebounded with a nice win Monday night. One is tempted to ask whether the team’s poor Pomeroy ranking is simply because Curtis Kelly and Jacob Pullen have missed time this year. Curtis Kelly was suspended early in the year because he was not practicing hard enough. Then he missed six games for receiving improper benefits. Jacob Pullen was also suspended for three games for improper benefits. Sadly for Kansas St. fans, these suspensions are not the explanation for Kansas St.’s poor play. Clearly Kansas St.’s defense has been better with both Pullen and Kelly on the floor, but they have struggled offensively even with Pullen and Kelly on the floor.

10) How has Duke performed without Kyrie Irving? Very well, thank you very much. The team has not missed a beat without its star freshman point guard.

11) How has Virginia fared without forward Mike Scott who is out-for-the-year with an ankle injury? Shockingly well. I thought his loss was devastating, but you cannot overlook the emergence of Assane Sene in the post for Virginia this year.

12) How has Virginia Tech fared without Dorenzo Hudson who is out-for-the-year with a foot injury? Surprisingly, they have played better. You might think that is unrealistic, but consider that Hudson had by far the worst ORtg on Virginia Tech. His high turnover rate and low eFG% was a terrible combination. This may legitimately be a case of addition by subtraction.

13) Tracy Smith missed most of November and December and NC State is glad to have him back. The offense has jumped back up with his return.

14) Washington’s splits are the most puzzling of all. Why would the loss of a great scorer and distributor in Abdul Gaddy hurt the defense? Perhaps it is a fluke or perhaps Gaddy’s injury is forcing Washington to play 5’8” Isaiah Thomas and 5’11” Venoy Overton more minutes. Given their lack of size, you can understand the perimeter defense sagging. Then again, this was always going to be a problem once conference play started and Washington started playing taller guards on a regular basis. So maybe it is just a coincidence that Washington’s defense has sagged in Pac-10 play.

15) Jio Fontan joined USC as a mid-season transfer. He’s been playing 33 minutes a game and from the moment he joined the team, USC’s offense and defense have improved. (Note: when joined the team, Bryce Jones playing time shrunk dramatically, which ultimately led to his transferring from the team. I could come up with a new “split” of data after Jones left, but the reality is that Jones ceased being a key member of the rotation the day Fontan showed up.)

16) Gary Franklin decided to transfer from Cal mid-season. He had a 75.7 ORtg prior to the transfer, so it is no surprise that California’s offense has improved with him absent. The defense has slipped however since he left the team.

17) Besides Kansas St., one of the puzzles this year has been the extremely poor play of Arizona St. Say what you will about Herb Sendek, his teams are usually competitive. Clearly injuries have hurt in Pac-10 play. Jamelle McMillan was injured for three games which may have cost Arizona St. in home games against Stanford and California. And the team was missing leading scorer Trent Lockett during the previous trip to Oregon and Oregon St. Arizona St. is playing poorly right now, but when healthy, they are not the worst team in the Pac-10.

18) UNLV’s Tre’Von Willis missed the start of the season after being arrested, then missed two conference games with a knee injury. But the team did not play substantially worse with him out.

19) Drew Gordon transferred to New Mexico mid-season and New Mexico’s defense has slipped since he joined the team. This strikes me as a bit of a surprise because Gordon has been a rebounding machine. Of course, around the time Gordon joined the team, Emmanuel Negadu left the lineup with an injury and he was posting similar rebounding numbers. Perhaps Gordon just needs time to fit into the New Mexico offense and defense.

20) Utah’s Jay Watkins has missed games because of abdominal and back problems this year, and he may be done for the season at this point. But JJ O’Brien missed the start of the season with a foot fracture and has stepped into the lineup. With O’Brien’s additional size, the defense has improved, but the offensive improvement is a puzzle because O’Brien is not an efficient offensive player.

21) Alabama’s best player, JaMychal Green, was suspended for three games in the middle of the season. The offense was substantially worse without him.

22) Georgia’s Trey Thompkins missed the first three games of the season with an ankle injury, and Georgia barely snuck by teams like Mississippi Valley St. without him. Thompkins was missed more on the defensive end. With Thompkins, I have Georgia as the 43rd best team in the country, but Pomeroy lists Georgia as 51st nationally.

23) Mississippi St. finally got Dee Bost back for the start of SEC play, after getting Renardo Sidney on the court a few games earlier. But the team has not played substantially better with both players on the floor. Pomeroy currently predicts a 5-11 finish for Mississippi St. and my splits do not disagree with that assessment. Mississippi St. might finally start to click at some point, but they just do not look like a dominant team right now.

24) LSU’s Ralston Turner has been out for four games with a foot injury and the offense has fallen apart without him. (I know you are laughing and saying LSU’s offense was not great before Turner’s injury, but it has reached a new low.)

25) Auburn’s Andre Malone has decided to transfer, and Frankie Sullivan is out for the year with a knee injury. This might seem irrelevant, but remember Sullivan’s last game for Auburn was the win over Florida St. At the time he was injured Auburn had just started to find a rhythm, winning four in a row. OK, who am I kidding? This was a bad team before; this is still a bad team now. But without Sullivan and Malone the offense is worse, while the defense is trying a little harder.



Less interesting, but here are the splits:

Iowa point guard Cully Payne played the first five games of the season before suffering a season ending back injury. Matt Gaten’s was also struggling to return from an injury and missed a couple games early in the year, so throwing those first five Iowa games out seems to make some sense when evaluating the team. Clearly Iowa has been a better team after the first five games, but part of that may be the fact that Iowa was learning a new system too.

Pittsburgh’s Nasir Robinson had knee surgery and missed the first three games of the season, and played sparingly in the fourth game. Pittsburgh has looked similar before and after he returned.

Texas Tech starting forward D’walyn Roberts has been injury plagued throughout his career and missed much of the non-conference schedule. Texas Tech has looked similar whether he plays or not.

LaceDarius Dunn missed the first three games of the season after an arrest. (AJ Walton also sat out the season-opener.) The offense did not really take off until he returned.

Washington St.’s Reggie Moore missed 5 games with a wrist injury, and one game due to a marijuana charge. (DeAngelo Castro missed two of the same games early in the year.) Washington St. was playing an unsustainable level of defense while he was out.

Vanderbilt’s Andre Walker has missed a ton of games due to injury. But despite hitting the game winner against Marquette, Vanderbilt has not really missed him.

Trevor Gaskins sprained his hamstring and missed three games for Ole Miss. No one really noticed.

Kevin Smith missed the first three games of the season for Richmond. They played great defense early in the year, but with only a three game sample, it was pretty unsustainable.

Sammy Yeager was kicked off the TCU team five games ago with little impact on the team. I know no one cares about TCU, but they will be in the Big East soon.

Worth monitoring

Indiana’s Maurice Creek is out for the season, and Verdell Jones missed the last game with an injury as well. It is still too early to know how the team will respond, but the blowout loss to Iowa was not a good start.

Clemson’s Tanner Smith missed Saturday’s two-point loss at Maryland thanks to a knee sprain. It is not clear how soon he will return.

Washington St.’s Faisal Aden sat out the Arizona St. win with a knee injury and played only limited minutes in the Arizona game.

West Virginia's Casey Mitchell was just suspended indefinitely.

It might have mattered, but it was only one or two games, so I’m not listing a split:
Jereme Richmond missed Illinois’ loss at Wisconsin due to a personal issue.

David Jackson missed Penn St.’s narrow win over Mt. St. Mary’s. That would seem significant except Mt. St. Mary’s was missing five players in that game too. You can also argue that Jackson’s neck injury played a role in the team’s next two games, losses to Virginia Tech and Maine. But that probably wouldn’t be fair. Jackson played very well in those two games. Right now the loss to Maine is Penn St.’s only loss to a team outside the Pomeroy top 75. Penn St. has actually played the second toughest schedule in the country according to Monday Night’s Pomeroy rankings.

Dominic Cheek missed Villanova’s two-point loss to Connecticut. That’s exactly the type of fact that will be passed along to the NCAA committee by the Big East regional scout. (Cheek also played against Syracuse, but I’m not convinced he is fully healthy yet.)

Kris Joseph missed Syracuse’s loss to Pittsburgh after banging his head on the court. And he may not have been full strength in the team’s subsequent loss to Villanova, but based on his 8 of 15 shooting night, I think you would have a hard time making that argument.

Cade Davis missed Oklahoma’s 13 point loss to Baylor. By the way, in case you have not seen an Oklahoma game this year, Cade Davis is a starting guard averaging 36 minutes and 13 points per game, so his absence is nothing to sneeze at.

Texas Tech’s John Roberson missed the team’s one point loss to New Mexico. The starting guard almost never scores, but he is a decent distributor, so perhaps his ball-handling was missed in that game.

Corey Raji was missing for two Boston College wins, but both games were close, and he could have made the margin more comfortable. More importantly, when Biko Paris had the stomach flu on Saturday and missed the game against Florida St., Boston College was blown out. And Danny Rubin did not play in Boston College’s loss to Yale. These guys may not be household names, but all log major minutes for BC and with a team learning a new system, it does not help when players are missing in action.

Erick Green missed Virginia Tech’s loss to UNLV in the 76 Classic thanks to a calf injury. He also missed the team’s win against Oklahoma St. and most of the game against CS Northridge in the same tournament.

Tyler Honeycutt missed UCLA’s one point win over UC Irvine. If he was healthy, it might not have been so close.

Joevan Catron sprained his calf and missed a pair of games against USC and UCLA. Oregon went 1-1 and probably was not going to beat UCLA anyway, but you never know. Malcolm Armstead also missed the loss to Washington St.

Kawhi Leonard and Chase Tapley missed San Diego St.’s win against Cal Poly. I bet San Diego St. wins that game by more than 6 points if they play.

Ronnie Moss missed TCU’s loss to Rice.

Taylor Broekhuis sat out Air Force’s blowout loss to UTEP.

JayDee Luster missed Wyomings’s losses to Missouri and TCU. Djibril Thiam was also out in the loss to TCU.

Melvin Goins missed Tennessee’s four point win over Missouri St. He could have helped make the final margin a little more comfortable.

Lance Goulbourne missed Vanderbilt’s one point win over Marquette. He might have made the final margin more comfortable.

Storm Warren missed LSU’s loss at Virginia. He might have made the final margin more respectable.

Juan Fernandez missed a pair of Temple wins, but the Saint Louis game probably would not have been nearly as close if he played.

Jamel McClean somehow only missed 1 game after fracturing a bone in his eye socket, but Xavier clearly missed him in a close win over Western Michigan.

Ronald Nored missed Butler’s loss to Evansville. They probably win that game if he plays, right?

Steven Gray sat out Gonzaga’s win over Xavier. Would that win have really been better with him on the floor?

Irrelevant

Korie Lucious missed the season opener after an off-season drunk driving incident, but Michigan St. won easily. William Buford missed Ohio St.’s blowout win over Morehead St. Northwestern’s JerShon Cobb missed a pair of blowout wins in the non-conference schedule, and Iowa’s Eric May missed the team’s close home loss to Ohio St. Darryl Bryant missed West Virginia’s blowout win over VMI. Dwight Buycks missed Marquette’s blowout win over TAMU-CC. Julian Vaughn missed Georgetown’s blowout win over Tulane. Scott Martin missed Notre Dame’s blowout win over Chicago St. And Herb Pope missed Seton Hall’s blowout win over NJ Tech.

Nate Tomlinson missed a pair of mindless blowouts for Colorado. Michael Dixon was suspended for Missouri’s blowout wins against Oral Roberts and Central Arkansas, but returned for his team’s key victory against Illinois. Carl Blair missed two blowout wins at the start of the season for Oklahoma. Jamar Samuels missed a meaningless non-conference blow-out by Kansas St. And Scott Christopherson missed Iowa St.’s win against Northern Illinois. Bonus question: Does anyone remember Scott Christopherson playing at Marquette three years ago before transferring? Yeah, me neither.

Deividas Dulkys missed Florida St.’s blowout win over Hartford. Demontez Stitt missed a pair of blowout wins for Clemson. Malcolm Lee missed UCLA’s blowout win over Pacific. Venoy Overton must have known Washington would blow out Nevada even if he did not step on the court. Markhuri Sanders-Frison missed California’s win over Hartford. His name is somewhat hard to spell.

Alex Tyus missed a game that Florida won by 50 points. John Jenkins missed Vanderbilt’s big win over Davidson. Ravern Johnson missed Mississippi St.’s big win over Alabama St. Reginald Buckner missed Ole Miss’s blowout win over Alcorn St. Hank Thorns sat out TCU’s blowout win over Chicago St., and TCU’s Nikola Gacesa missed the two opening games of the season. Michael Lyon’s sat out Air Force’s win over Sam Houston. Desmar Jackson missed Wyoming’s win over North Florida. Damian Saunders sat out the season opener for Duquesne. Gonzaga’s Elias Harris sat out the blowout win over Eastern Washington.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Comments on 18 Games on a very busy Saturday

UNLV vs New Mexico:
In my opinion, this was the ending of the day. This was a match-up of arguably the third and fourth best teams in the MWC. (New Mexico has not played very well so far this season, but they have a young team, and Steve Alford has proven he can develop players over time.)

With 45 seconds left, UNLV trailed by 1 when UNLV’s Tre’Von Willis stole the ball. He was striding towards the basket when he saw Chace Stanback at the three point line. Willis kicked the ball to Stanback, but Stanback assumed Willis was going to go for the lay-up, and so the ball went out of bounds. It seemed like a crushing turnover so late in the game. But just 15 seconds later, with only 30 seconds left in the game, Willis stole the ball again!

This time, Willis drew the foul and made two free throws to give UNLV the one point lead. After New Mexico failed to score, UNLV made another free throw to extend the lead to two points. Now New Mexico had the ball with the shot clock running down and needing a basket to tie or a three to win. And that’s when Kendall Williams tossed the ball out of bounds off teammate Phillip McDonald with two seconds left. The UNLV crowd went nuts. The game was over!

But not so fast my friend, New Mexico’s Kendal Williams proceeded to steal the UNLV inbounds pass, and put up a jump shot. It clanged off the back of the rim, but he was fouled. New Mexico now had a shot at redemption too. Williams made the first free throw, but missed the second free throw, and as time expired, he fell to the floor. The Lobos came up just short. Just a series of crazy plays to end a crazy MWC game.

Memphis at UAB:
This is one of those games that deserves a lot more hype. In 2006, Memphis suffered its only conference loss at UAB. Two years later, Memphis won by 1 point at UAB en route to their second straight undefeated conference season. (This was the game that practically led to a riot when a game-winning UAB basket was waived off.) Even last year’s game was close as UAB pulled within 3 in the last two minutes. And this year’s game was not a disappointment, as it went to overtime. I was distracted with other games, but the key sequence came in the final seconds of overtime. Trailing by three, UAB drove into the lane, but seemed to lose the ball out of bounds. But the UAB player dived to save the ball and somehow kicked it to a teammate for a wide open three. Had the shot gone in, we would have had a second overtime. But instead, it was an air-ball. Another great game, but a tough series for UAB.

Less than a week ago, kenpom.com was predicting an 8-8 finish for Memphis in C-USA. But after Memphis won at a veteran Southern Miss team by 1 point, and after they won in OT at UAB, kenpom.com now predicts an 10-6 finish for the Tigers, which would put them 2nd in CUSA. It just goes to show that any team can change its own destiny by playing better. In expectation, it is not likely that teams will improve after this many games. But every year some teams will begin to peak later in the season, and that is why we watch.

By the way, UTEP is back to being the CUSA favorite again. Despite a shaky non-conference slate, the defending conference champs are currently tied with Memphis for first place.

Clemson at Maryland:
Up by two points, with two seconds left, should you intentionally miss the free throw? The idea is that if you miss, the rebounding team will only be able to get a full-court heave at the basket. But if you make the free throw, they can inbound the ball with the clock not running and get a better shot.

On Saturday, Maryland proved that missing is not always a fool-proof strategy. Maryland intentionally missed with 1.6 seconds left, but the ball ricocheted off the side of the basket and went out of bounds, untouched. That meant Clemson was able to inbound the ball and throw a full-court pass even with the free throw miss. Clemson got a very good look at a three that bounced off the rim as time expired.

Colorado at Oklahoma:
All I have to say about this game is that it was “Star Wars” day at Oklahoma. They had a bunch of people in Star Wars costumes dancing during the commercials, and a special appearance by the guy who played Chewbacca in the original Star Wars films. Also, we all knew Colorado was going to come back to earth at some point, but it would have been fun if their crazy run lasted a little bit longer. Losing to Oklahoma hurts.

Tennessee at Connecticut:
Tobias Harris and Brian Williams facial features seem eerily similar to me. Ok, maybe it is just the haircut. So the upcoming Duke blowout of St. John’s not withstanding, the Big East has pretty much dominated the non-conference slate again. But will the Big East deliver in the tournament?

Villanova at Syracuse:
College basketball is often about match-ups, and Villanova’s great shooting and quickness is just a bad match-up for the Syracuse zone. (Jay Wright’s 10-5 record against Syracuse makes that clear.) There was one play where Corey Fisher sliced through the lane and threw up a crazy shot for the bucket and the foul and Rick Jackson had a look of shock on his face. What do we have to do to shut these guys down? Of course about a month ago I was talking about how Tennesee’s lateral quickness on defense was a terrible match-up for Villanova. Tennesee shut down penetration, and kept Villanova from getting anything other than a series of forced jumpers. Is Tennesee better than Syracuse? Probably not. But in college basketball, style of play and match-ups do matter.

Ohio St. at Illinois:
How odd is it to be watching a Big Ten game and be impressed with the dominating freshman players? Jared Sullinger was the differnce maker for Ohio St., but Deshaun Thomas hit arguably the two biggest shots of the game (when Ohio St. took the lead). And Jereme Richmond of Illinois also had his best performance this season. I’m used to needing to watch Big 12 or ACC games to see freshman shine on the biggest stage. But at least for one day, the Big Ten delivered.

By the way, I’m still in the Terrence Jones camp over Sullinger. I just think given the amount of experienced talent around Sullinger, Jones performance this year has been more impressive. But there’s no question that Jared Sullinger put Ohio St. on his back and refused to let the Buckeyes lose on Saturday.

Rutgers at Seton Hall:
What a brutal week for Seton Hall. They blew a late lead against Georgetown and then lost to Rutgers at home. They probably thought they’d be a .500 team a few days ago, but now they are 2-6 in Big East play. Ouch. I think as a whole Seton Hall is becoming a better “team” without Jeremy Hazell launching threes like crazy. So in some sense, his injury was a blessing. But what they really need is a healthy Hazell hitting threes within a more cohesive offense.

Rutgers coach Mike Rice said the other night that his team needed to not settle for playing better basketball, and start getting wins. And at least against the bottom of the Big East he came through this week beating South Florida and Seton Hall. Whether that translates against better quality opponents remains to be seen, but Rutgers is 3-4 in league play, and that’s a nice start for the first year coach.

Nebraska at Texas Tech:
I said last week that Texas Tech was a scary team. Essentially, I think they have quit on Pat Knight which is why they are playing so poorly. But if they manage to hang close in a game, I think are capable of pulling an upset given all their experience. And despite Nebraska being favored by 10 points on kenpom.com, the Red Raiders did in fact earn the narrow win on Saturday. Texas Tech won with a tip-in with 4 seconds left. Sadly I did not see it.

Virginia at Georgia Tech:
Virginia is another team I would not want to play right now. They have a terrible record, but when their guards get hot, they can be very dangerous. When Virginia’s Mike Scott was injured, it seemed likely they would fold up their tent, but not under Tony Bennett. After playing Duke close for half a game, Virginia dominated Georgia Tech on Saturday.

Minnesota at Michigan:
This game was one of the biggest contrasts in style of all time. Michigan was completely dependent on their ability to make jump shots, and Minnesota was completely dependent on their ability to get lay-ups in the paint. Minnesota was the bigger, more athletic team, and in the long-run that seems like it should win out. But the Gophers turned the ball over at a horrific rate, making things much closer than you might expect. Part of that was an injury to Al Nolen which had Blake Hoffarber as the Gophers only experienced guard for much of the game. But much of it was the Minnesota players just making dumb, unforced errors. In the end, Minnesota prevailed, but the contrast of styles made for a very amusing game.

Eastern Kentucky at Morehead St.:
After a great feature on Kenneth Faried in Sports Illustrated, the rebounding machine pulled down 21 boards in the televised home loss. But he also committed a key offensive foul late in the game with his team trailing by 4 points. The OVC was supposed to be a fun race between a Murray St. team that nearly beat Butler in last year’s NCAA tournament and Faried’s Morehead St. team, but neither team has been dominant, and the OVC race is wide open.

VCU at Old Dominion:
VCU won at Old Dominion, and with three losses in conference play, it may be time to stop labeling ODU the conference favorite. I still think ODU has the best chance of winning in the NCAA tournament of any mid-major because of their size in the paint. But the CAA has a lot of quality teams, and the odds of ODU making the tournament are starting to slip.

Rice at UCF:
Speaking of tournament odds slipping, what has happened to UCF? How can they lose at home to one of the worst teams in C-USA? I don’t think we should take anything away from what UCF did in the non-conference. Winning against Florida is a big accomplishment for a C-USA school in any year. But at 1-4 in conference play, UCF’s NCAA tournament hopes are looking very slim right now.

Louisville at Providence:
Providence became the first team with a losing record in the Big East to beat a team with a winning record in the Big East. Our first true upset 50+ games in?

Charlotte at Duquesne:
Why do the margin-of-victory numbers think Duquesne is now the A-10 favorite? Because when they win, they win convincingly. Duquesne crushed Charlotte on Saturday. Get ready to hear head coach Ron Everhart’s name mentioned for job openings in the upcoming hiring cycle.

Kansas St. at Texas A&M:
I’m going to have about 500 more words on Kansas St. before the season is over, but I think it is fair to ask how a team that was picked to win the Big 12 by the coaches (and me) is 1-4 in league play. Mostly, the offense has gone in the tank. No one has been able to replace Denis Clemente’s ball handling, and turnovers are up substantially. Also, the team’s free throw rate is down substantially, but that is because the team is afraid to go to the line right now. The team is missing free throws as such a horrific rate that they are now being more tentative around the basket. The net result is a Kansas St. offense that has gone in the tank.

Kansas at Texas:
Bill Self is unquestionably one of the best coaches in college basketball, but I disagree with Seth Davis’ halftime assessment that this might be the best Kansas team in several seasons. I think this team has more experience and plenty of depth, but it lacks the NBA level talent of some of the recent teams. Because of Bill Self’s ability to teach elite defense, Kansas is going to be in the hunt until the very end. But I could very well see them losing in the NCAA tournament like they did today, to a persistent talented team.

I cannot wait for BYU vs San Diego St. on Wednesday night!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Why is John Calipari yelling at Terrence Jones? Why are all Big Ten Teams living on the Perimeter?

Boy did Tuesday night sneak up on me. It had some intriguing games on paper, but the games were way above and beyond expectations. Let’s start with Kentucky vs Alabama. I was not surprised that Alabama could shut Kentucky down. Like Florida St., they are one of those sneaky good defensive teams. And when you play elite defense, you can surprise anyone. But to get a near 20 point lead and then blow a near 20 point lead made for great TV. When Kentucky pulled with four points with 5 minutes left, this looked like it was going to be a Wildcat rout. The crowd had surprisingly few Kentucky fans in attendance, but those in attendance started a loud “Let’s go Big Blue” chant, and it seemed like there was no way Alabama could hang on for the final stretch.

During this time, the focus on Kentucky’s Terrence Jones fascinated me. He had two fantastic head fakes leading to wide open finishes. And then they showed a close up of him and Alabama’s JaMychal Green bumping each other the entire way up the floor. I was impressed they could give that much contact and not get into a fight.

And then there was John Calipari yelling at Jones for not being tough enough when all Jones had done was put the team on his back. What is Calipari thinking? Tough love for his best player? I honestly don’t think there is a freshman in the country as tough as Jones, and that includes Jared Sullinger of Ohio St. (Sullinger is really benefiting from the fact that he has a super-talented team around him. He faces far fewer double-teams and he usually does not handle them well. Jones gets mugged on a regular basis, and just takes it in stride.)

So of course, after all this focus on Jones, he was irrelevant in the final decision. Kentucky turned it over twice trying to drive into the paint (once on a charge call, and once on a live ball turnover.) And in the end, Alabama hung on for victory. But this game was so intense that even that 2.5 second remaining full-court heave seemed dramatic.

Then we had the Illinois vs Michigan St. game. One of the universal laws of basketball is that if you are shooting lights out, and you have a small lead, you are going to lose. Eventually, all teams have a cold stretch. And Illinois had that cold stretch after shooting 60% for most of the game. But for Illinois, the fact that they only made one FG in the last 10 minutes did not matter. That’s because Michigan St. refused to take the ball to the basket and extend the game. They took three after three, and despite a lot of long rebounds, they could not catch back up.

What has happened to the Big Ten inside games? Ohio St. has Sullinger, but is principally a spread attack. They rely on great spacing to get good looks at the bucket, but no one would confuse Ohio St.’s offense with a 1980’s physical inside attack. Purdue’s JaJuan Johnson has become a lights out mid-ranger gunner, but with him on the perimeter, we are reminded that he is the only true inside presence for the Boilermakers. Wisconsin’s bigs are all better three-point shooters than inside players. And Illinois’ bigs have been soft for so long, it isn’t even a story anymore. So Michigan St.’s move to the perimeter is somewhat distressing. Yes Michigan St. crushed Illinois on the boards in this one, but where has the inside focus gone?

Is this some sort of Big Ten conspiracy or are the teams just adapting? I.e., interior defenses are too good, so they move to more perimeter-oriented attacks? I find this all a little bit of a riddle. (And yes, I’m conveniently ignoring Minnesota, the one true inside-oriented attack in the Big Ten.)

But, I want to go back to the rules of shooting logic for a moment. Georgetown games often violate the laws of shooting logic. That’s because when the Georgetown-offense (don’t call it Princeton offense around JT3), can create so many lay-ups that a 70% shooting rate can be sustainable for long stretches. But in the Seton Hall game, it was Seton Hall taking advantage of lay-ups. By earning 17 transition points (and about 11 in a row at one point), Seton Hall was maintaining a ridiculously high shooting percentage in the second half. And were it not for a bunch of odd free throw misses, they would have won the game. That’s because the Hoyas could not stop Seton Hall from scoring or getting to the line.

But ignore Herb Pope's foul out, and Georgetown's fine free throw shooting in the final seconds. Georgetown vs Seton Hall had one of the most bizarre end of game situations I had seen this year. Seton Hall appeared to hit the game tying three with 10 seconds left, but the Seton Hall player had his foot on the line, so it was only a two. The arena went crazy for about 8 seconds, until it slowly sunk in. "We’re still behind. Rats." That's a tough way to lose a game.

But that ending was topped moments later, when I saw the highlights of Georgia vs Tennessee. Brian Williams, the big bulky Tennessee center practically throws a Georgia player to the ground while grabbing an offensive rebound and putting in the game winning bucket as time expired. I’m pretty sure if he tried to do that again 100 times, he couldn’t time it like that. Forget all the arguments about whether he went over-the-back (which should not be a foul) or through-the-back. I’m sure opinions will vary depending on whether you bleed red or orange. But as a college basketball fan, I live for weird endings. That’s why I watch 14 games a Sunday and hate days like this last Saturday where 2/3rd of the games are blowouts. Celebrate the unusual. Tuesday was special.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Life is Good

Here are some things I am thankful for this season:

1) Two Hour Games - College Basketball has ruined all other sports for me. As much as I have historically loved football, this season has convinced me that games are just too long. But maybe I'm just bitter that I sat through all those Vikings games, while the Bears and Packers are in the NFC title game.

2) Fran McCaffery – Iowa is not very good yet, but seeing them on Sunday reminded me how happy I am to see that Todd Lickliter is gone. Was that really Iowa following a made Minnesota basket with transition lay-up? Was that really Iowa taking multiple transition three pointers? In tonight’s episode of the Journey, McCaffery talked about how Iowa fans miss the days when Tom Davis used to run-and-gun. And I’m glad to see him attempt to embrace it, even if it is going to take a few years to get the talent to make it work.

Aside #1: The Big Ten is now down to four coaches who hate college basketball. (I.e. prefer brutally slow-paced games.) That list includes Bo Ryan, Ed DeChellis, Bill Carmody, and John Beliein. Bo Ryan isn’t going anywhere, and I can’t blame Penn St. for trying to shorten the game. But the Big Ten only needs one Princeton-style offense.

Aside #2: By the way, how lucky is Minnesota to have a week off and then play Michigan and Northwestern back-to-back. If there was ever a time to practice playing against 1-3-1 defense and the Princeton offense, the Gophers got a gift by the Big Ten schedule-makers.

Aside #3: The ACC is getting slower. In 2008, there was only one slow team, NC State, and they were a last place team so it was hard to blame them for wanting to slow the tempo. Now Virginia, Boston College, and Clemson have started to move to the dark side. Steve Donahue said he was going to play much faster than he did at Cornell, but it has not happened so far. I think he prefers trying to win to trying to impose a faster-paced system.

(Much to my surprise, Wake Forest head coach Jeff Bzdelik is not playing a slow-paced system as he did at Colorado. Apparently he wants to make sure Wake Forest gets blown out every game. Of all my pre-season predictions, none looks better than picking Wake for last in the ACC.)

But back to things I am thankful for:

3) JaJuan Johnson – Has he been playing out of his mind or what? I can’t believe that he didn’t get the final shot when trailing by two against West Virginia. He was making impossible shot after impossible shot. Why not give him the chance? I was among those who thought Purdue would struggle this year. Johnson was good but not great last year, and I thought there was no way he could perform at a high level with so much defensive attention focused on him. I was wrong. Johnson has become a superstar.

Aside #1: It is hard to argue with Ryne Smith’s shooting, but Lewis Jackson’s ability to take the ball to the basket and draw fouls seems to be the missing piece for Purdue. Or maybe both are important, but I’m a sucker for driving guards. The three point shot might not fall, but if you can beat your man off the dribble, that’s always there.

(You probably think it odd that I praise a team that lost twice in the week, but nothing about Purdue’s performance convinced me they were a bad team.)

4) North Carolina's inconsistent three point shooting – North Carolina is in a perfect sweet spot. They are one of the must-see “brand names” in college basketball, and yet most of their games have been competitive this year.

Many factors have been identified as reasons for North Carolina’s struggles, but my favorite factor is their inability to knock down wide-open threes. Teams used to have to work so hard to keep North Carolina out of the paint, and then Wayne Ellington and Danny Green would just punish them. Now those same shots just seem to clang off the rim.

I’m in an odd position this year. As a Gopher and Fighting Illini fan, I want North Carolina to win and remain a quality non-conference victory. But as a fan of college basketball, cheering for North Carolina against Georgia Tech just seems wrong.

5) Colorado – It depresses me a little bit how much we “know” at this point in the season. (Just look at the Big Ten standings and it has already started to sort into various tiers.) But what I love about college basketball is when a team just goes out and proves us wrong. Colorado was supposed to be an 8th or 9th place Big 12 team. And the defense still is not great, so maybe they still will be. But winning at Kansas St., and beating Missouri and Oklahoma St. at home has Colorado at 3-0 and first place in the Big 12. Sweet.

6) Duquesne – But I also like it when the margin-of-victory numbers pick out a surprise. Ken Pomeroy picked Duquesne as an A-10 sleeper and they just beat league favorite Temple.

7) The SEC title race – Kentucky has feasted on two terrible SEC West teams at home, but they have all their good games coming up. I just have no idea which games those will be. Who else is good in this league? Why is everyone so inconsistent?

8) Afternoon basketball – If you have Monday off, enjoy the quadruple-header.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

A Day’s Worth of Channel Flipping

People who wait until March to watch college basketball have it all wrong. With staggered ending times, and great finishes across the board, regular season Saturdays are fantastic. I was able to watch part of all of the following games on my basic cable package on Saturday:

West Virginia at Georgetown: The Hoyas turned it over on four straight possessions in the final minute allowing West Virgina to hang on for victory. With three veteran backcourt stars, Georgetown’s inability to execute in crunch time is somewhat puzzling to me. One of the turnovers was probably a bad call (going out of bounds off the back of a West Virginia foot), but the other three were not. Georgetown still has a quality resume overall, but at 1-3 in the Big East, the pressure is on to start winning league games.

North Carolina at Virginia: Virginia led by 10 halfway through the second half, but this turned into a half-court defensive battle. And whether Roy Williams likes it or not, that’s when North Carolina is at its best. Despite constant double teams of Tyler Zeller, and an inability to make wide-open threes, North Carolina was able to draw contact and put the game away at the free throw line.

Syracuse at Seton Hall: Every team in America could use Herb Pope. He had 20 rebounds today as Seton Hall made a late run to make Syracuse nervous. But the Pirates could never quite get over the hump. I thought Scoop Jardine was the difference for Syracuse. He was relentless in crunch time. When Seton Hall thought Syracuse would run clock, he simply took the ball to the basket and kept getting lay-ups or foul shots. I never understood why Brandon Triche was starting ahead of Jardine last year, and Jardine continues to grow as the team’s lead point guard this season. He may still commit a few too many turnovers or take a few too many questionable shots, but he also makes a lot of winning plays.

Austin Peay at Murray State: Defending OVC champ and preseason pick Murray St. trailed Austin Peay in the standings, and trailed by 14 in this game. But some full court pressure and home court momentum allowed Murray St. to get close. That’s when one of the Murray St. players was called for an offensive foul for swinging his elbows. That meant a loss of possession, two shots for Austin Peay, and of course Austin Peay had a chance to score. But somehow this did not decide the game. Austin Peay made one of two free throws and was called for a five second (closely guarded) violation, and the door was still open for Murray St. After some more missed free throws, Murray St. had a three pointer to win at the buzzer, but it came up short. Austin Peay is now in the driver’s seat in the OVC standings.

Kansas St. at Oklahoma St.: In a relatively close game, Oklahoma St.’s Marhall Moses pushed Kansas St.’s Jamar Samuels out of the way in order to get a wide-open lay-up. Samuels complained to the referee and was given a technical. After Keiton Page made both free throws, Oklahoma St. made a three pointer less than a minute later. Samuels technical helped swing momentum and turn a close game into an Oklahoma St. blowout.

Michigan St. at Penn St.: Michigan St. always seems to struggle at Penn St., and this game was no different. And despite the fact that Talor Battle struggled mightily shooting the ball, his pull-up jumper with a 1 point lead in the final seconds sealed the victory.

Missouri at Colorado: By the time I flipped to this game, Missouri was down by a major margin. But despite forcing a number of turnovers late in the game, Missouri missed a ton of wide open lay-ups late in the game. Also, Colorado’s Alec Burks is good. He scored 36 points.

Baylor at Texas Tech: This was a crazy game. Baylor started on an 11-0 run. Then Texas Tech slowly grinded it out and took the lead. But a late 20-2 Baylor run sealed the victory. I would not want to play Texas Tech right now. They have a bunch of seniors who might decide to start playing at any point, but their record is horrible, and a loss to Texas Tech would look horrible for any team at this point.

George Mason at Old Dominion: Despite a late three from George Mason’s Cam Long, Old Dominion’s Frank Hassell had a couple of key lay-ups late to seal the victory. I became a fan of George Mason’s Luke Hancock down at the Charleston Classic, but his late attempt to get a lay-up or draw a foul could not penetrate ODU's interior defense.

California at Arizona St.: Trailing by three with 30 seconds left, Arizona St. grabbed three offensive rebounds and took four three-pointers, but could not make a shot to tie the game.

Connecticut at Texas: Kemba Walker’s three point prayer as the shot clock expired was not his only ridiculous shot in this game. He is playing out of his mind right now.

Charlotte at St. Bonaventure: Not all 3 OT games are created equally. This one included a bunch of missed baskets and questionable shot selection. One sequence probably best sums up the game. In the second overtime one of the Charlotte players swatted the ball away, corralled it, and then started dribbling. The refs felt the initial swat should have counted as a dribble, and called a double dribble. It was not only the wrong call, it cost Charlotte an easy lay-up that would have won the game. Instead St. Bonaventure prevailed.

UTEP at UAB: On the other hand, this 3 OT game was fantastic. Both teams exchanged huge shots, and UAB won with a three pointer by Cameron Moore at the end of the third overtime. But it was a pair of game tying threes by UTEP’s Randy Culpepper and Christian Polk that made this an instant classic.

New Mexico at Wyoming: Not to be outdone, the following game on CBS College Sports was equally good. Steve Alford’s New Mexico squad clawed back to take the lead late in this one, but with one tenth of a second left, Wyoming’s Francisco Cruz released a 5 foot floater that went in for the one point win. New Mexico was extremely lucky in close games last year, so perhaps they were due for a tough loss.

Vanderbilt at South Carolina: Despite a great day’s action, my ability to keep track of the action was fading at this point. I know South Carolina had some late threes, and Vanderbilt had some bad decisions late, including throwing a ball off the back of Jeffrey Taylor’s head in the lane. But by the time South Carolina prevailed, I had reached my limit. What a great start to the regular season!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Random-Fan Look-Ahead

What college basketball junkies understand is that every game matters. Every game can be a fantastic win against an RPI top 50 team or a horrific loss to an RPI 100+ team. And not only do all 30+ regular season games matter, through the matrix of opponents, 100’s more games matter every week. Today I chose a team at random, the Temple Owls. Though Temple is off on Saturday, January 8th, let’s see what a crazy Temple fan will be cheering for:

Saturday, January 8th through the eyes of a Temple Owl’s fan

(Note: I am pretending to be a Temple fan here, hence the use of “we”.)

11am
West Virginia at Georgetown

Hey, a week or so ago Georgetown was #1 in the RPI. We had a win over the #1 RPI team in the land. Don’t fall apart Hoyas. Temple needs that quality win on its resume.

Noon
Syracuse at Seton Hall
North Carolina at Virginia

We beat Seton Hall too, but that’s not looking so great. Keep it together guys, we need the Hall to be an RPI top 100 win at the end of the year. (Sadly, there are not going to be a lot of those in the A10 this season.) As for the other game, rooting against North Carolina is not as much fun as rooting against Duke, but it is still fun.

1:30pm
Tennessee at Arkansas

Remember when Tennessee beat Villanova? That made me smile. Real Temple fans just have to cheer against the Wildcats and their "best-team-in-the-city" attitude. The thought of Villanova going to the Big East in football still makes me want to puke. We would be a Big East member in all sports if it wasn't for Nova keeping our basketball team out 10 years ago. Go Volunteers.

2:30pm
California at Arizona St.

I still can’t believe Temple lost to Cal in the Old Spice Classic, but that loss would look a little better if Cal won here.

3:30pm
Connecticut at Texas

Oddly the "game of the day" does not interest me.

4pm
Kentucky at Georgia
Texas A&M at Oklahoma
Georgia Tech at Boston College
George Washington at St. Joseph’s
Richmond at La Salle
East Carolina at Memphis

We beat Georgia and lost to Texas A&M down in Orlando, which makes us a fan of both teams I guess.

Too bad we didn’t get to play Boston College in Orlando. That would have been a nice chance for revenge against Steve Donahue whose Cornell team knocked us out of the NCAA tournament last year. But for some reason, I still find myself cheering for the guy. I guess I just respect former Ivy league coaches. Go Fran Dunphy, go Steve Donahue!

Isn’t it hilarious how St. Joseph’s has fallen apart the last few years? I love to hear their fans complaining on the Philadelphia sports radio stations.

Richmond is so over-rated. I can’t believe some people are picking them to win the A10. I’d love to see them go down.

And don’t get me started on Memphis. Who have they beaten exactly? Let’s look at the Pomeroy Rankings: Temple =29, Memphis = 73. If anyone from a non-BCS conference deserves to be ranked, I think it is pretty clear who that should be.

5pm
UCF at Houston

And don’t get me started on UCF. Are they ever going to play anyone who is good? I’d love to see them go down to a team like Houston. Temple would be right back in the driver’s seat for a top 25 ranking.

6pm
LSU at Auburn

Just know that when Kentucky wins the SEC and everyone says how great they are, I’m pretty sure our A10 schedule is tougher than this.

6:30pm
Stanford at Arizona

Do you think the Pac-10 might only get 2 bids again? That would be great. I’m pretty sure Stanford is bad again, so let’s cheer for them.

7pm
Toledo plays Central Michigan.

Temple beat Toledo, so go Toledo. Oh, who am I kidding? Half the MAC could transfer and Toledo still couldn’t crack .500, let alone an RPI top 100 ranking. Can you believe we play these guys in football? Come on Big Ten, expand and cause more chaos! We need back into a BCS league in football at least.

8pm
Providence at Rutgers
St. John’s at Notre Dame

Down goes Rutgers! I love to see those New Jersey recruits come to Philadelphia.

Well, we watched Notre Dame win the title down in Orlando and they were a pretty good team, so why not cheer for them here? They have to show up in our opponent’s opponent’s schedules a lot, right? Go third factor in the RPI rating!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Real Opponent - Cupcake Splits: Why Missouri is Finally Catching up to their Preseason Rank

Some people like to say we have not learned anything about Cincinnati yet. That’s because the Bearcats have played only two top 100 Pomeroy teams, and neither of those games was a true road game. But even if they have played a lot of cupcakes, there is obviously something to be learned from their margin-of-victory (MOV) in various games. We can compare the final margin in Cincinnati’s drubbing of Toledo to the margin when other teams drubbed Toledo. And that is how a MOV stat like the Pomeroy rankings determines that Cincinnati has been the 40th best team, despite the fact that they have not played anyone.

But as many experts believe, you need to see how a team performs against real competition to get a true evaluation. Because not all coaches use non-conference games the same way, MOV is sometimes misleading. In particular, how a coach uses his bench in cupcake games varies substantially. Some coaches like to keep a tight rotation even in blowouts. I remember a few years ago Georgetown had virtually no bench, so they simply played the starters all the time, even when non-conference games were blowouts. On the other hand, many coaches use the non-conference games to give the freshman meaningful playing time. This may result in only a 10 point win against a bad team, but the coach is evaluating players, not trying to perform at a peak level.

One such team may be the Missouri Tigers. Despite, playing a deep roster in many games this season, against quality competition Mike Anderson has used his bench much more strategically. For example, in an overtime loss to Georgetown, Missouri essentially used a 7 player rotation. But in the close season opening win against Western Illinois, Missouri played 10 players over 10 minutes.

Cupcake blowouts also often measure the quality of the second and third unit. But whether the bench is deep may become less important as rotations are shortened.

To the extent these differences in bench utilization or bench quality impact the final MOV, one thing we can do is look at various splits. We can compare how teams have performed against quality competition to how they have performed against cupcakes. The next table shows that comparison. It compares team's adjusted offense and defense in games against the Pomeroy top 100 to the adjusted offense and defense in games against teams ranked 100+. Notice that this is not always correlated to win-loss record. (I.e. a close loss at Duke was still a solid performance for Michigan St.)

Efficiency Margin is the different between Adjusted Offense and Adjusted Defense. Efficiency Margin Difference is the Difference in Efficiency Margin in games against the top 100 relative to 100+. Efficiency Margin Difference essentially measures whether teams have played better or worse against quality competition.



(Note: If the splits do not seem to add up, recognize that Ken Pomeroy puts a higher weight on recent games in his official rankings.)

Ohio St. looks even more scary now that I see this table. Not only is Ohio St. winning by an impressive margin, it is not based on wins over cupcakes. Ohio St.’s best performances have come against good teams.

On the flip side, Duke is a classic case of a team that is going to be over-rated by a margin-of-victory stat. Mike Krzyzewski’s philosophy is to play his best players. He believes bench players can learn through practice. He does not believe they need game experience to develop. And thus his margin of victory against small schools is almost always large.

As noted above, Missouri has been much better against quality competition. That is one of the reasons the Tigers have been steadily rising from 40th in the Pomeroy rankings a few weeks ago to 16th today.

On the other hand, Kansas has been much worse against quality teams. The sample size is much smaller, and Kansas is still an elite team no matter how you slice it, but the two point win against USC is reason to make us question whether Kansas will dominate a deep Big 12 this year.

Alabama has been frankly horrible against good teams. Their defense has seemingly disappeared whenever they’ve faced a quality opponent this year.

Meanwhile Missouri St.'s offense has disappeared whenever they have played good teams.

The big problem with a table like this is sample size. Cincinnati’s defense was phenomenal against Dayton, but that was only one game. I think it is fair to say we have no idea how good Cincinnati is yet. But conference play is here in the Big East and will be everywhere else soon. The left-hand side of this table will have a lot more information soon.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

RSCI Top 20 Recruits who are now upperclassmen

I intended to continue the RSCI posts awhile ago but it turns out South Dakota does not have a lot of WiFi hotspots. Go figure.

This used to be the “McDonald’s All-American Watch”, but because the MAA team usually includes a few too many duds, I started posting this “RSCI Watch” last year. Sadly, when you remove the duds this exercise is a little less entertaining. For better or worse, RSCI top 20 recruits almost always develop eventually. Some took a few years, but have now become stars. See Tyler Zeller and Kemba Walker who have finally become elite players this year. The next table shows the career numbers for RSCI top 20 seniors and juniors who are still in school. Scroll to the right to see the full set of numbers.



Twelve juniors have already left school early,

1 Brandon Jennings
2 Jrue Holiday
3 Tyreke Evans
4 Samardo Samuels
5 Demar DeRozan
6 Greg Monroe
7 Al-Farouq Aminu
8 BJ Mullens
9 Ed Davis
13 Willie Warren
16 Elliot Williams
19 Luke Babbit

and most RSCI top 20 seniors have already left school early.

But what can we learn about the players who have stuck around? First, note that Duke and Georgetown are the only two programs who brought in a top 20 recruits who stuck around for four years. (While Vernon Macklin is now at Florida, he started at Georgetown.)

-Vernon Macklin has finally learned the value of rebounding this year.

-2007’s 13th ranked recruit, Austin Freeman has seen his percentage of shots taken and efficiency rating slowly creep up over his four years. I think he probably is not going to live up to the Big East player-of-the-year accolade, but he is on pace for a very solid season.

-Some of Kyle Singler’s shots are going to Nolan Smith who is looking to make the most of his senior season. While it is true that Smith is not a natural point guard, his assist rate is at the highest point of his career. And Smith has also learned to draw fouls this year, posting a career high free throw rate.

-Looking at the Juniors, 2008’s tenth ranked recruit Delvon Roe has yet to become a dominant player. Certainly injuries have played a large role in his lack of progress, but his progress does seem disappointing.

-Scotty Hopson has developed into a go-to scorer for Tennessee, significantly upping the number of shots he takes when on the floor. And he has done it without a drop in efficiency. (We have not reached SEC play yet, so it is unclear if he will be able to maintain his rating against SEC East defenses, but it is a nice start.) One key is that he is drawing fouls at the highest rate in his career, and he has finally learned how to make free throws.

-2008’s 12th ranked recruit, William Buford is going to go down as one of the most over-shadowed great players in Big Ten history.

-Florida St.’s offense still has problems with turnovers, but Chris Singleton is posting his best offensive season to date. His three point shooting and free throw shooting are improved and his ORtg is finally over 100.

-Kemba Walker has gone from being a player like William Buford (solid, but not spectacular), to a player of the year candidate. I might have expected him to shoot more frequently this year, but to simultaneously increase his efficiency this much is phenomenal.

-JaMychal Green needs some help.

-2008’s 18th ranked recruit, Tyler Zeller, has finally stayed healthy, and he is the most efficient scorer on North Carolina. And until recently, he was the only efficient scorer on the Tar Heels.

-Malcolm Lee has cut down his turnovers this year which has led to a bump in efficiency, but his assists are also down, which leads me to believe this is not a “real improvement.” Lee is just handling the ball less often this year.