Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Around the Boxscores Wednesday Edition

I usually only go around the boxscores on Saturdays, but there was too much interesting stuff on Wednesday to just comment on one game.

1) Georgetown lost to Cincinnati tonight, but the worse news was that leading scorer DaJuan Summers went down with a twisted ankle. JT3 is notoriously unwilling to share information on injuries, so we’ll have no idea of the severity until we see Summers running up and down the court again. I thought the Hoyas had a weak case for a Top 25 ranking coming into this week, but until Summers is 100%, Georgetown is a lower division Big East team. On the plus side, given Summers terrible rebounding for a big man, a significant injury might actually improve the Hoyas rebounding weakness. Nikita Mescheriakov chipped in with 7 rebounds tonight, but only 1 of 6 shooting.

2) Is Providence legitimate now after beating Syracuse? Maybe not, but at least they didn’t blow the lead like they did against Marquette. Syracuse is reeling losing 3 of 4, but relative to Georgetown, Notre Dame, and Wisconsin, it doesn’t seem too bad.

3) LSU finally won a big road game, at Tennessee no less. I would have never guessed that out of the Old Spice Classic that Michigan St. and Siena would be having the best seasons while winner’s bracket teams Gonzaga, Tennessee, Georgetown, and Maryland have all suffered losses they would like to forget.

4) In a game no one had any business watching, Indiana had a chance to win its first Big Ten game of the season at Northwestern. Indiana had the ball down 2 with 5 seconds left but the Wildcats stole the ball and ran out the clock.

5) I’ve finally figured out the secret to Nebraska’s high number of steals. It isn’t so much the full court pressure, although they use it occasionally. It isn’t so much the half-court pilfers. What Nebraska does better than anyone is play like smart cornerbacks. When getting back on defense the cornhusker guards are always keeping their eyes back on the ball. So if you try to push the ball ahead they are always there to get the interception. I think this helps explain why they could beat a good Missouri team and yet suffer losses to slow-tempo teams that never push the ball like Oregon St. Speaking of Missouri, the Tigers are getting blown out by Kansas St. tonight. Talk about a team that doesn’t want to be ranked. Every time it looks like Missouri might be a Top 25 team, they go and lose a real head-scratcher.

6) Pitt lost to Villanova. Is any team more dependent on a 12 point per game scorer than Pittsburgh? When DeJuan Blair gets in foul trouble, this is just not the same team. We already knew Villanova was good, so this hardly comes as a shock, but this is still a big win for Nova. Villanova has spent several years scratching and clawing for the final Big East NCAA tournament berth, and wins like this make the road a lot more comfortable. Meanwhile, Pitt’s reward is to face a Notre Dame team that is absolutely desperate for a win on Saturday. This is the Big East where quality teams desperate for a win match up on a nightly basis.

7) Georgetown’s game wasn’t on Full Court, so I got to watch a great game between Wake Forest and Duke. Both Duke’s Gerald Henderson (to tie) and Wake Forest’s James Johnson (to win) made huge shots at the end of regulation against fabulous defensive teams. To anyone who thinks that size is eventually going to do the Blue Devils in, this game is evidence that the answer is… maybe. While Wake Forest’s size clearly bothered the Blue Devils, (see the sick block after the officials failed to call the offensive foul on Duke), Duke still had a chance to win at the end on the road. And Duke had a chance to win without any contribution from players outside of Singler and Henderson. It is hard to think of many other teams with frontlines like Wake Forest, so in my eyes, this game actually did more to convince me that Duke was a national title contender than the other way around.

And at the same time, Wake Forest which already established themselves as a true contender proved why they can beat any team at any time. There are plenty of teams that I put in the category of “Can beat a top 10 team if that team plays poorly.” Wake is one of the rare teams with enough inside presence and PG play that I think they fall in the category of “Can beat a top 10 team when that team plays well.” They still lack the consistency to call them a lock for the Final Four, but they should clearly have those aspirations.

8) Umm, is North Carolina actually tied with Florida St. with 3 minutes to go? This is college basketball.

Two Straight Posts with Maryland in the Title

Among people I know, I’m usually the last person to say that a coach should leave a team. I thought people who wanted to see Bruce Weber fired after last season were crazy, and while Billy Gillispie has certainly earned himself less lee-way at Kentucky with some bad losses over the last few years, he certainly deserves a few more seasons to see what he can do. Those cases aren’t really close. But by far the most fascinating case is Maryland’s Gary Williams. I highly recommend this article discussing the good, bad, and ugly that Gary Williams has brought to Maryland. I think the 60-20 deficit was the tipping point for me.

And once I lose faith in a head coach, it is pretty much over. There was really no joy in Dan Monson taking the Gophers to the NCAA tournament late in his tenure, because I had already given up on him as a coach. Similarly, while part of me wants to get excited about this year’s Northwestern team that beat Michigan St., Florida St., Minnesota, and DePaul, the reality is that I’ve already given up on Bill Carmody. You can’t win a TOTAL of 3 Big Ten games over two seasons with a team comprised of all players you recruited; you can’t have 8 non-NCAA tournament seasons in a BCS league; you can’t do that and still keep my respect.

That’s why, despite Northwestern having the best chance to beat Indiana in decades, despite Indiana having nothing to play for, I can’t in good conscience root for the Wildcats tonight.

My Dream for Northwestern

Even if Carmody was providing no benefit in Evanston, at one time you could argue that he was providing a benefit to the rest of the Big Ten. Not only was Northwestern good for an easy victory, the modified Princeton offense was unique enough that it provided good practice for other Big Ten teams that might face Herb Sendek or John Beilein in the NCAA tournament.

But now that John Beilein is coaching in the Big Ten, there seems to be a lot less value in playing a Bill Carmody led team. The Princeton offense is not unique, the occasional 1-3-1 zone defense is not unique, and the depressingly slow tempo is certainly not unique. Basically, I see no real advantage to either Northwestern or the rest of the Big Ten for Northwestern to keep Carmody as head coach.

I say this realizing all the inherent disadvantages in coaching at Northwestern. The team has a terrible stadium, Chicago is easy for outside coaches to steal recruits from, and most importantly, the Wildcats have never reached the NCAA tournament. So believe me, I gave Bill Carmody the benefit of the doubt. But at a certain point, even if the Northwestern job is the kiss-of-death, I believe you need to take a chance and try someone new.

My recommendation would be for Northwestern to hire a Seven Seconds or Less (SSOL) coach willing to risk losing a few years at high octane in order to build something. I’m not sure who the best fit would be. Would Mike D’Antoni assistant Phil Weber or VMI head coach Duggar Baucom be appropriate? The consistently slow-paced Big Ten could really use a fast paced team willing to shoot quickly, regardless of the consequences.

Right now the Big Ten has a few coaches, (Tom Izzo, Thad Matta, Tubby Smith) who would play at a faster tempo, but they teach their teams to play smart basketball and only push it when appropriate. But how fun would it be to see a Big Ten team just decide to go crazy regardless of the consequences?

Part 2 of my plan would be for Northwestern to find a way to play their home games at the United Center. Yes, the attendance would be terrible at first, but the team could always bus the students down to the United Center. And like many Big East teams using a similar strategy, the United Center would definitely be a marketing tool for recruits. More importantly, walk-up traffic of people coming in to see the SSOL offense would definitely drive enthusiasm for the team.

I have to believe that some combination of the SSOL and the United Center would create buzz for Northwestern, and maybe, just maybe, the BCS team that has never made the NCAA tournament could break through.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

On the plus side, I'm not a Maryland fan

1) Monday our TV died. It was 28 years old, didn’t offer HD, was only 20”, but it worked for us.
2) Tuesday I learned that despite our proximity to the national mall, because of our proximity to the parade route, it was virtually impossible to get anywhere or see anything during the inauguration.
3) Thursday Georgetown got blown out at home and I got to listen to a surprisingly small crowd of West Virginia fans out-scream the home crowd. Let’s go Mountain Ears.
4) Today Georgetown lost on the road to a winless Big East team.

Yep, not the best week. Despite John Gasaway’s correct point that Georgetown’s defense has been subpar lately, to me the story of the recent Hoya collapse is a complete lack of energy, translated into a complete inability to make shots offensively. I’ve always figured that Georgetown was playing its starters too many minutes and that the Hoyas would break down at the end of the year, but it seems to be happening already. The Hoyas have had their worst two eFG% days of the year this week:
Georgetown vs West Virginia 41.2 eFG%
Georgetown vs Seton Hall 35.6 eFG%

No comments on other games. See point 1 above. But you can always read Friday’s post.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Experience Part 2, The Most Improved Offenses, and Is Dominic James Really a Better Distributor?

Allow me to clarify something from my last post on experience. First, returning minutes may be a better indicator than the “class” of returning players, and if someone else wants to do that analysis, I highly encourage that. There’s a lot more to be done here if I had more time.

Second, my statement is not that experience does not matter. There are tons of players who put in the time and clearly improve over the course of four years. My point was simply that this process is a lot less steady and a lot less predictable than most people think.

Here is a very rare stat line in college basketball:

Wesley Matthews, Marquette
PPG (ORtg) Year
19.1 (124.5) Sr
11.3 (111.2) Jr
12.6 (106.1) So
9.0 (99.1) Fr

Wesley Matthews has not only improved his scoring over 4 years, he’s also improved his offensive efficiency every year he has been at Marquette. But for most players, the process is a lot less uniform than we might expect:

Geoff McDermott, Providence
PPG (ORtg) Year
8.8 (91.3) Sr
10.3 (99.4) Jr
9.5 (99.3) So
8.9 (93.5) Fr

No one can question the effort level of Geoff McDermott on the court. In his four years at Providence he’s filled in at Point Guard, hustled for every rebound, and quite frankly been a box-score stuffer. But he’s also never really developed into a steady offensive force.

Even for players who do ultimately improve, the process is often not uniform:

Jeff Adrien, Connecticut
PPG (ORtg) Year
14.4 (118.9) Sr
14.8 (101.2) Jr
13.1 (100.4) So
6.5 (122.3) Fr

Jeff Adrien played on one of the most dominant teams in the country as a freshman and was incredibly efficient. He really only needed to shoot when he had a wide open dunk. As a sophomore he was asked to carry the load on a much weaker team and his efficiency took a big hit as his scoring went up. (This is a fairly common occurrence.) As this year’s UConn team has rounded into form, (Dyson making better decisions, Thabeet efficient if not consistent, and the addition of Kemba Walker), Adrien has seen his efficiency creep back up.

Want a really interesting example? How about Dominic James of Marquette? His scoring has steadily fallen over his four years at Marquette.

Dominic James, Marquette
PPG (ORtg) Year
11.6 (108.6) Sr
12.9 (104.7) Jr
14.9 (102.3) So
15.3 (104.9) Fr

The big “story” if you listen to Marquette games is how James has dedicated himself to becoming a much better distributor of the ball this season. The key evidence of this is the increase in his assist to turnover ratio.

Assist / Turnover Ratio (Assist Rate, Turnover Rate)
2.76 (31.7, 15.9)
2.05 (28.6, 16.5)
1.88 (31.5, 17.4)
1.92 (33.8, 18.0)

But if you look at the data, his assist rate hasn’t really increased. What has improved is his turnover rate. One interpretation might be that as other players on the team have become consistent scoring options, James has not had to force the ball inside as much as was needed when he was a younger player.

But if all James has done is stop driving into the lane when he’s triple teamed, does that really make him a “better player”? Experience can and often does matter, but it is not a uniform process by any stretch of the imagination.

Biggest Improvements

So if experience is overrated, why do teams improve from year to year? Because of the difficulty in assigning defense to individual players, I’m going to focus on 9 teams that have seen dramatic improvements in offensive efficiency this year (4+ point increase in offensive efficiency.) These include Iowa, Oklahoma, Michigan, Oklahoma St., BYU, Arizona, LSU, Northern Iowa, and Missouri. How did these teams get better this year?

[For those of you expecting discussion on Illinois, while the shooting (particularly free throw shooting) is remarkably better this year, the drop-off in rebounding has negated that, and Illinois is only marginally better in adjusted offensive efficiency this year. The key difference is that Illinois has not caved in all close game situations this season.]

Ingredient 1: Add Players

Adjusted Off. Eff. now 118.0, was 109.4
The addition of all-everything freshman Willie Warren has clearly made the offense more explosive.

Northern Iowa
Adjusted Off. Eff. now 110.0, was 105.3
You were probably under the impression that mid-majors only win with experienced players. It turns out they can play young players and have success too. The addition of Kwadzo Ahelegbe (the distributor), and Johnny Moran and Ali Farokhmanesh (the sharpshooters) has given Ben Jacobson’s team new life.

Ingredient 2: Subtract Players

Adjusted Off. Eff. now 114.2, was 107.5
Graduated senior PG Ben Murdoch learned not to shoot (eFG% of 42% last year), but he still turned it over too much to be an effective starter. Jimmer Fredette has replaced him in the starting lineup and has done nothing but shine. I have to believe his ability to distribute has made Jonathon Tavernari a more effective player.

Ingredient 3: ???

Adjusted Off. Eff. now 118.1, was 113.8
I find it very hard to evaluate full court pressure teams like Missouri. Is it the improvement of DeMarre Carroll that makes everything click? Is it the efficiency of freshman like Marcus Denmon and Kim English? Is it the fact that senior Matt Lawrence now plays so sparingly that he should be able to make his wide open threes? I really have no idea why Missouri is better, but they are better across the board.

Ingredient 4: Add a Coach

Louisiana St.
Adjusted Off. Eff. now 110.6, was 105.4

LSU has improved in all four factors and virtually every player on the team is now more efficient. I think you have to give coach Trent Johnson a lot of credit for the turnaround.

Oklahoma St.
Adjusted Off. Eff. now 117.1, was 109.4

Travis Ford can coach guards, and it is a good thing since that’s all he has on this year’s team. Suddenly he has four perimeter players with over 25 made threes, each shooting over 40% from long range.

Adjusted Off. Eff. now 108.6, was 99.1
In some cases, it takes until the second year for players to master the new system. Clearly the addition of freshman Matt Gatens who is shooting 55% on three pointers has helped, but the key is much simpler. Last year despite playing a slow, perimeter style offense, the Hawkeyes turned it over on a full 25% of possessions. Perhaps you can blame it on the fact that the team was playing a freshman PG. Freshman Jeff Peterson had a turnover rate of 36.7% last year. But this year Peterson’s turnover rate is still unacceptably high at 30.1%. The key seems to be that the players are more comfortable in Todd Lickliter’s system and turnovers are down across the board.

Adjusted Off. Eff. now 111.3, was 103.3
Michigan has also improved on turnovers in year 2, from 19.7% to 16.3%. But the big change is that the team can actually make some threes this year. Last year, the team was 314th in 3 point percentage which was horrible news for a POT (Perimeter Oriented Team). This year’s team is still not a dominant three point shooting team, but when they get hot they can beat anyone, even Duke.

Arizona St.
Adjusted Off. Eff. now 117.8, was 111.5
In Arizona St’s case, the jump may have taken until year three because Herb Sendek essentially started over in 2007-08 with only one upperclassman in the lineup. The team clearly wasn’t ready to win from the get-go and Arizona St. started the 2007-08 season down 20-0 to Illinois in the opening game. ASU then played a weak NCSOS to try to gain confidence, but by the time the team figured out how to win against quality competition, it was too late to avoid the NIT in a brutal Pac-10. This year Arizona St. has mastered Sendek’s system and virtually every player is significantly more efficient offensively. Also helping the cause, Rihards Kuksiks has replaced Jerren Shipp in the lineup and made 51 made three pointers, (52% on the season). His ability to draw opposing big men out of the lane for James Harden to drive has done wonders for ASU.

Does Experience Matter After All?

When I hear people talk about the value of experience, they always seem to be talking about a Junior or Senior laden team like North Carolina. But perhaps the biggest jump occurs when a very young team moves to year #2 like ASU. Perhaps the value of experience is not what you gain the 3rd or 4th time through the circuit, but what you gain the 1st time. Well, that’s a post for another day.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

“There wasn’t anything remotely dirty about that play”

I would not want to be Keno Davis right now. Leading by 11 on multiple occasions in the second half, the most experienced team in a BCS conference blew the lead and the game to the Marquette Golden Eagles. And if Keno Davis isn’t careful, Providence may blow the season. You could see it in the eyes of Geoff McDermott at the end of the game. He had 15 points, 17 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals and a block. He had seemingly done it all. Providence played as well as they could play. And they still couldn’t beat an elite team in the Big East.

“When is it going to be our year?” I said last weekend that no team has more experience than Providence. The Friars have an 8 man rotation consisting of 5 seniors, 2 juniors, and 1 sophomore (Marshon Brooks). For Weyinmi Efejuku, Geoff McDermott, Jonathon Kale, and Jeff Xavier, this is now or never. Providence has gone 6-12, 8-8, and 5-11 in Big East during their careers. And after starting 3-1 this year, players like Geoff McDermott had hope.

Sure the efficiency stats weren’t any better. I showed that on Sunday. Providence looks offensively and defensively almost exactly the same as last year. And for all the little things he does, Geoff McDermott has never had an Ortg over 100. Even when his eFG% has broken 50%, he’s always turned it over too much to be considered a dominant offensive player. But what if they could just win the close games? What if they could just avoid blowing the lead this year? Isn’t fate supposed to be a little more kind to a veteran team?

“The Friars are experienced at losing.” I’ve seen that quote written and heard it said, and you could see it in Geoff McDermott’s eyes at the end of the game. Here we go again.

-We can’t even win when we shoot the lights out. Providence had shot 56% in the first half and started the second half 8 of 10, but the lead was only 6 points. And in the final 8 ½ minutes, Providence only scored 10 points.

-We can’t even get an emotional burst from Jeff Xavier getting injured. In the second half, Jeff Xavier took the ball to the basket and ran into Joseph Fulce’s elbow. “There wasn’t anything remotely dirty about that play” said Bob Valvano, but apparently someone disagreed. In one of the truly bizarre moments of the year, a “relative” of Xavier went out onto the court to have a discussion with the officials. He was escorted out in calm fashion, but Jeff Xavier went nuts. It isn’t clear whether Xavier was mad about the non-foul call or about his “relative” getting arrested.

-And the team couldn’t even win for Weyinmi Efejuku. If I heard Valvano correctly, Weyinmi attended his father’s funeral earlier in the day and it was unclear if he would even make it to the game to play. Weyinmi played 32 minutes, but was not as dominant as he can sometimes be.

Basically, this was a loss that killed Geoff McDermott’s hope. And it probably ruined the hope of a lot of Providence fans. Providence still has a chance to rebound from this with upcoming games against Cincinnati and Seton Hall. Providence still has a chance to have a good season. But Keno Davis has a lot of work to do this week, and none of it has to do with X’s and O’s.

Sports are a funny thing. Not everybody wins in the end, even if they give their heart and soul and dive for every lose ball.

And now on to a team experienced at winning

On the flip side, this was an equally critical comeback for Marquette. I said a few weeks ago that even though the non-conference Pomeroy Rating was not that impressive, there was still plenty of reason for optimism for this team. And in conference play, Marquette has completely turned things around for its senior trio. At 5-0, first place in the Big East, the schedule is only going to get tougher, but Marquette is playing “no excuses” basketball. Certainly if they had lost at Providence, that loss would have been “explainable”. But Marquette doesn’t just want to make the tournament this year. They want to compete for a Big East title and make a deep tournament run. And to achieve those things, you have to beat Providence. Marquette came back and won, no excuses necessary.

Other Random Games

-I have no idea if the Arizona Cardinals will pull off another upset on Sunday, but Kurt Warner’s alma mater Northern Iowa scored a huge win on ESPN2 to start the day. Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson is in his third year with the school, and the first two years were nothing to write home about. Despite having the best defensive rebounder in the nation last year in Eric Coleman, Jacobson couldn’t get Northern Iowa above .500 in MVC play and with Coleman graduated, Jacobson started this season at 6-6. That included losses to Wyoming and a terrible Indiana St. team at home. At this point, it seemed pretty safe to pencil Northern Iowa in for a 7th or 8th place finish in the Valley. But all of a sudden the team has been on fire, winning 6 in a row to take over first place in the MVC standings. For Northern Iowa to go on the road and beat defending champ Drake is a surprise. But for them to completely dismantle the Drake defense in a game where Pomeroy gave them only a 25% chance of winning? That’s a dream outcome for a TV game.

- I’ve written enough negative columns on Oklahoma St. where I’d really love to see them get a huge road win and I’d love to see Byron Eaton have a special moment. But just when I tune in to see it, it doesn’t happen. Case in point: Oklahoma St. which had been up by 7 on the road at Baylor, blows the lead in part due to Eaton missing the front end of a one-and-one and fouling out. Now back-up point guard Keiton Page comes in with the team down 4 points, and immediately scores 5 points to give Oklahoma St. a one point lead. It is stuff like this that makes me think Eaton is cursed. Page was arguably no better than Eaton on the day, but in the final minutes, Page = good things, Eaton = bad things.

Also, Baylor still has “The Greatest Offense of All Time in the Final Minute of a Game”. So of course they tied the game and won in overtime. Seriously, they need to find a way to trick the players into thinking the opening five minutes is really overtime. I know I shouldn’t take a team seriously that can give up 90 points on a regular basis, but I still think Baylor is going to play in the most entertaining second round game in the NCAA tournament this year.

-What’s up with Nebraska? After they lost to Oregon St. and UMBC, I figured they were good for an 12th place finish in the Big 12. OK, maybe 10th place. Texas Tech and Colorado are pretty bad. But now Doc Sadler’s team has beaten Missouri and crushed Kansas St. (who have Pomeroy ratings of 11 and 26 respectively) at home to start the season. The key against Missouri was that they drew fouls. The key against Kansas St. was that they forced turnovers, something they seem to do better than anyone in the nation.

-Finally, I'm sure at some point I'm going to do a longer post on Michigan St., but Spartans Weblog said everything I would have said about the Illinois vs Michigan St. game. I'd argue that the Illinois offense actually looked better at times than the guard-shooting would indicate. I remember one key sequence where they ran a back-door play, followed by a motion jump shot play, followed by a high-low pass and I was practically jumping out of my seat at how exciting the offense was. But I think it says something when a team down 6 to a team that can't make its free throws gives up on fouling at the end of the game. Illinois couldn't make a three against the tough Michigan St. defense so there was no point in extending the game. You have to give Michigan St. credit for doing the little things better (rebounding and drawing free throws). It seems like that was how Tom Izzo's teams won when they won Big Ten Championships, and maybe that's the best sign for the Spartans.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Because I'm not going to write about the game if Georgetown loses to Duke

My blog is a poor imitation of Yoni Cohen (but I’m too wordy), John Gasaway (but I’m too lazy to crunch the numbers that heavily), and Bill Simmons (but I’m not that good a writer). 22 months in, and I still don’t know what I’m doing.

But watching John Gasaway move to national coverage, I wanted to make sure I had a forum to comment on all games, not just my teams. Because of this, I had a long-time ban on team-specific blog links. Basketball Prospectus was fine because it was a national website. But Villanova by the Numbers and all the great player-of-the-year stat charts - sorry folks - you get no link because of your devotion to one team.

Thankfully, Mike Rutherford broke this habit when he wrote this post about drawing the CUSA conference tournament bracket on scrap paper at school (along with other random squiggles.) It no longer mattered that Card Chronicle was a team-specific blog. This silly observation was the pulse of college basketball obsession.

Since then I’ve added some clearly great team blogs to the blog-roll at left, but I still haven’t found time for a full-scale link project. And I’ve always been hesitant to add links to blogs for my teams. I figure if you care about Georgetown, you already know where to look. But that’s really not fair, and Cracked Sidewalks called me on it. There is no excuse for me not to have a link up for Hoya Prospectus. Consider the following great posts from this year:

Which Hoyas suck at rebounding
Why the Hoyas aren’t rebounding
Why did Tennessee have to make 10 of 15 threes against Georgetown? - sigh

These types of posts are exactly what I think a stats blog should do. They not only provide the stats, they discuss the visual evidence and strategy that coincides with the numbers. This is perfect.

And I’m absolutely embarrassed that I never linked to this post where Hoya Prospectus claims to read me and makes a tempo-free aerial for the Big East teams. I am such a jerk for not seeing this earlier. Well, consider this an apology and a permanent link. So on those days when I decide not to give you Yet Another Georgetown Recap, (or even if I do), give HP a visit.

Hey - you can’t expect me to be insightful about every Georgetown game, can you? OK, if I had written about Syracuse vs Georgetown I would have written the following:

Nikita Mescheriakov should retire now; he’ll never have a better 2 minutes. Jay Bilas said recently that JT3 doesn’t enter a game with a set rotation, he puts players out on the court depending on the feel of the game. And Jay Bilas said this is a brilliant explanation because then there is no way to criticize any of JT3’s moves. How can you criticize an instinct? On Wednesday night, JT3 was feeling Nikita Mescheriakov… for 2 minutes. And all Mescheriakov did was knock down a pair of threes and roll up the back of Andy Rautins leg while diving for a lose ball. Then Mescheriakov went back to the bench for the rest of the game. Wow, that’s some instinct.

The Comeback

March 22, 2007, I wrote one of my happiest blog posts to date. That was the day that the University of Minnesota announced the hiring of Tubby Smith as the men’s basketball coach. I had randomly speculated about him moving to a job like Minnesota months earlier with colleagues, and I was not surprised with the move. I also wrote about the reasons he could win in Minnesota on the blog. Now, not even 22 months later, without yet achieving a single NCAA tournament win, Tubby Smith’s teams have already given me two moments of college basketball bliss.

First of course is the Blake Hoffarber shot to beat Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament. Assuming the Big Ten Network survives, I’m looking forward to the 25th anniversary special where a still-teenage-looking Mike Hall looks back on the moments that made the network a must-have franchise. And he’ll show highlights of two things: First, he’ll show the Appalachian State win over Michigan. And then he’ll show the crazy lefty Laettner shot by Hoffarber to beat Indiana. For all the times that the Gopher football team gave up 31 points in the 4th quarter, I’ll always have that shot.

Second, beyond a singular moment, comes a singular sequence of basketball. But to understand it, you have to understand how hard it is to beat Bo Ryan in the Kohl Center. In his eight years as head coach at Wisconsin, Bo Ryan entered the game with a record of 56-3 at home in Big Ten play. I’ve seen so many championship caliber teams walk into that arena and look horrific. I remember numerous Michigan St. squads with more talent and better NCAA tournament performances finding no answer for the Kohl Center. I remember Brian Cook’s final year at Illinois: Cook hit a bucket to give Illinois a one point lead, but in the final seconds, Dee Brown was called for a foul, and Devin Harris hit two free throws to give Wisconsin the Big Ten Title at the expense of the Illini. And I remember some bad Gopher teams playing some absolutely embarrassing basketball while Minnesota products like Kammron Taylor absolutely schooled the Gophers.

And for most of the game Thursday, it was happening again. Wisconsin led Minnesota 41-27. Wisconsin led Minnesota 48-36 with 6:18 left in the game. That’s bad against most teams, but Wisconsin doesn’t turn the ball over. According to, Wisconsin allows the 5th fewest steals per possession and 11th fewest turnovers of any offense in the country. Here were the Badgers running down the shot clock. Here were the Gophers on pace for an embarrassing 44 point offensive output or something similar. And at 52-40 with 4:53 left, there was still no reason to expect anything other than another Bo Ryan home victory.

And that’s when something incredible happened. That’s when a Tubby Smith moment happened. Tubby, a big believer in depth from watching Dean Smith’s teams as a youngster, employs an 11 and sometimes 12 man rotation for the Gophers. And in the final minutes, when Minnesota put on the full court pressure and dived for every lose ball, and jumped higher for every block, the unthinkable happened. The Gophers won in Madison.

Al Nolen with the steal.
Blake Hoffarber with the steal, Lawrence Westbrook lay-up.
Paul Carter steal, to Devron Bostick, back to Carter for the dunk.
But then Wisconsin beat the pressure. Damian Johnson had what seemed to be a sure block, but was called for the foul. But after a seeming make-up foul call on Trevon Hughes, Wisconsin beat the press again. But wait.
Paul Carter with the block!
Damian Johnson for three!
And after two Wisconsin free throws, there was hero Blake Hoffarber, who was absolutely ice cold from three point range, passing the shot up and giving it to Lawrence Westbrook. Westbrook for three. We’re going to overtime!

And in the OT, Wisconsin looked like a tired team. Their shots were coming up short and the Gophers put the game away with Westbrook making 4 straight free throws to ice the game.

Look, I don’t know how good Minnesota can be this year. They still have a lot to prove. But no Dan Monson team was going to come back in the Kohl Center. Few Big Ten teams ever will. Only a Tubby Smith team can come back from down 14 points to beat the Badgers in Madison. Thank you Tubby Smith. Thank you Gopher players. Thank you for an ending I will not soon forget.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Non-Conference Review, What's the Worst Loss of the Year?

High-Major Conferences (Non-BCS)

Rank according to RPI – Sagarin – Pomeroy

MWC: 6 – 7 – 7
MVC: 8 – 8 – 10
A-10: 9 – 10 – 9
CUSA: 10 – 9 – 8
HOR: 11 – 11 – 11
WCC: 12 – 12 – 13

The CAA, WAC, MAAC, and MAC are often mutli-bid leagues, but none are having particularly good years. Consider this:

Win against BCS teams

That’s fewer than:
Summit 4
American East 3
ASun 3

Wins against BCS teams are not a factor for the selection committee, but since the RPI ratings are in such great flux at this point of the season, I feel like this provides a decent barometer of how non-BCS leagues are performing:

UNLV beat Louisville
UNLV beat Arizona
Utah beat Oregon
Utah beat LSU
Utah beat Ole Miss
TCU beat Colorado
TCU beat Texas Tech
New Mexico beat Ole Miss

The MWC may be the 6th best conference in the RPI, but that is more because of the complete collapse of the SEC than a particularly dominating non-conference resume. Utah scored 3 BCS victories, but had its own meltdown, losing to a non-division one team in the season opener. Meanwhile, TCU scored a pair of BCS victories, but also lost at Indiana. UNLV’s wins will probably be the most impressive at the end of the year.

Missouri St. beat Arkansas
Drake beat Iowa St.
Drake beat Iowa
Northern Iowa beat Auburn
Creighton beat DePaul

The MVC once again avoided enough terrible schools to keep the non-conference SOS up, but with few signature wins, this really looks like a one-bid year.

Xavier beat Missouri
Xavier beat Virginia Tech
Xavier beat Virginia
Xavier beat Cincinnati
Xavier beat Auburn
Dayton beat Marquette
Dayton beat Auburn
Temple beat Tennessee
Temple beat Penn St.
UMass beat Kansas
St. Louis beat Boston College
Rhode Island beat Penn St.
Charlotte beat Mississippi St.
St. Bonaventure beat Rutgers
St. Joe's beat Indiana

This is what a good high-major resume looks like. Not only did Xavier dominate the non-conference schedule, several other A10 schools scored signature wins as well. The A10 still has a lot of dead-weight at the bottom but should be able to make a solid case for multiple bids.

Memphis beat Cincinnati
Memphis beat Seton Hall
UAB beat Arizona
UAB beat South Florida
Tulsa beat Texas A&M
UTEP beat Texas Tech
Southern Miss beat Ole Miss
Central Florida beat South Florida
SMU beat Colorado

CUSA may never be the same after losing 5 teams to the Big East, but it is never terrible. There are solid BCS upsets across the board this year.

Ill-Chicago beat Georgia Tech
Ill-Chicago beat Vanderbilt
Cleveland St. beat Syracuse
Butler beat Northwestern
Wright St. beat South Florida
Loyola Chicago beat Georgia

Butler also has a signature win against Xavier, but a lot of people are going to question whether Butler is as good as the RPI indicates.

Gonzaga beat Tennessee
Gonzaga beat Tennessee
Gonzaga beat Maryland
Gonzaga beat Washington St.
Gonzaga beat Oklahoma St.
Gonzaga beat Indiana
St. Mary's beat Oregon
St. Mary's beat Providence
San Diego beat Oregon
San Diego beat Mississippi St.
Portland beat Washington

Once again the WCC scored some wins outside of Gonzaga.

So based on the RPI, Sagarin, Pomeroy Ratings, and 5+ wins against BCS leagues, I’m calling these six leagues the high majors this year until further notice. Or until I change my mind. Final Minor Note: I’m counting Davidson as a high-major this year for obvious reasons. Davidson has wins against West Virginia and NC State.

BCS Leagues

So how have the BCS leagues performed this season?

BCS leagues as a whole have 113 BCS wins, 113 BCS Losses, 56 High Major Losses, and 32 Bad Losses.

ACC: 26 – 18 – 6 – 3
B10: 19 – 17 – 5 – 2
B-E: 21 – 19 – 13 – 9
B12: 19 – 21 – 10 – 7
P10: 13 – 17 – 7 – 5
SEC: 15 – 21 – 15 – 6

This much we know: The ACC is good. The SEC is not so good. As for the teams in the middle, it depends where you look. The margin statistics (Sagarin Predictor, Pomeroy) say the Big Ten is only a middling league this year. But the RPI loves the Big Ten. And the above chart shows why. By avoiding bad losses, the Big Ten has jumped ahead of several other leagues in the RPI calculation. The Big East is high in public perception, in part due to the large number of stars that returned from last year, and in part due to the teams at the top. But there are enough bad teams at the bottom of the Big East, that the league is only in the middle in most rankings measures.

There’s not much time left for these numbers to change. Here are the only remaining BCS non-conference games.

Tonight: Richmond at Virginia Tech
Tonight: Marshall vs West Virginia
Sat, Jan 17: Georgetown at Duke
Sat, Jan 24: Houston at Arizona
Sat, Jan 24: Xavier at LSU
Mon, Jan 26: Cal St Bakersfield at Oregon St.
Tue, Jan 27: Tex Pan American at Auburn
Mon, Feb 2: Robert Morris at Pittsburgh
Tues, Feb 3: NC Central at NC State
Wed, Feb 4: Chicago St. at Northwestern
Sat, Feb 7: Michigan at UConn
Sat, Feb 7: Notre Dame at UCLA
Tues, Feb 10: Cal St Bakersfield at Stanford
Tues, Feb 17: NC Central at Kansas St.
Thur, Feb 19: Duke at St. John's

Saturday, Feb 7th should be fun. It also features a game between Memphis and Gonzaga.

And with basically the entire non-conference slate over, it is time to determine the worst non-conference loss of the year. Here are the worst losses by BCS schools this year:

VMI beat Kentucky
Harvard beat Boston College
Oakland beat Oregon
Liberty beat Virginia
Lamar beat Texas Tech
College of Charleston beat South Carolina
UMBC beat Nebraska
TAMU-CC beat Georgia
Libscomb beat Indiana

Twice is nice:

Mercer beat Alabama
Mercer beat Auburn
Northeastern beat Providence
Northeastern beat Indiana
Montanta St. beat Colorado
Montana St. beat Oregon St.
Western Kentucky beat Louisville
Western Kentucky beat Georgia
Morgan St. beat DePaul
Morgan St. beat Maryland
Kudos to Ken Pomeroy for pointing out the job Todd Bozeman had done at Morgan St. even before these upsets.

And the following BCS teams have been really bad more than once:

Howard beat Oregon St.
Yale beat Oregon St.
Nevada beat Oregon St.
Lehigh beat Rutgers
Binghamton beat Rutgers
IUPUI beat Seton Hall
James Madison beat Seton Hall
Oral Roberts beat South Florida
Niagara beat South Florida
Hawaii beat Iowa St.
South Dakota St. beat Iowa St.
Vermont beat Colorado
Buffalo beat Colorado

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

You have got to be kidding me - 54 points

After watching Wake Forest beat UNC and UCLA/USC go down to the wire on Sunday, I furiously flipped through some numbers and tried to write a coherent column on Sunday night. But by the next morning I was once again questioning my sanity. This is January. Can the games really be this good? Why am I staying up until 2am to write about this stuff?

And then Jodie Meeks goes for 54 points against Tennessee. And none of the shots were forced. Meeks was playing to win, and with the lead down to 7 in the second half, his team needed all of his offensive dominance to put the game away. I've seen NBA players score 50 on TV, but they always take a few bad shots along the way. Meeks' shots were all smooth and all in rhythm. He set a Kentucky school record for points in a game. That's not just any school record, that's a Kentucky record. And it was on the road against arguably the best team in the conference. Or should I say, the second best team, behind Kentucky. If this is January basketball, I'm almost afraid of how good March is going to be.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Experience is over-rated, just ask UNC

Quite possibly the most over-rated factor in college basketball is experience. It is easy to point at Mike Conley and Derrick Rose and show that the best teams can be led by freshman. But that’s not really what I have in mind here. My point is that from scanning the Pomeroy player data, it is surprisingly difficult to find examples of players who become significantly more efficient from year-to-year.

I say this having watched Chas McFarland put Wake Forest on his back at the end of the UNC game. I still can’t believe he finished that fast-break (after the Hansbrough missed three) without someone from UNC catching him and stopping the ball. McFarland had a 101.4 efficiency rating last year and he’s up to 114.8 this year.

But the reality is that most players don’t change fundamentally over 4 years. Most senior stars were also good young players, but they simply took on a larger role over time. Coaches like to say that players become more consistent over time, but the efficiency is usually there to some degree from an early stage.

That's not to say it isn't valuable to have a veteran team. A veteran team may be less likely to panic in a close game, or panic after a big run by the opponent in a road game. But are experienced teams fundamentally more efficient? Let’s look at one piece of data.

Here are the 15 most experienced teams in BCS conferences according to Providence, Notre Dame, Marquette, Auburn, Miami (FL), UConn, LSU, Stanford, Baylor, South Carolina, Texas, Villanova, North Carolina, Nebraska, and Oklahoma St.

Here are their current Pomeroy Ratings (Overall Rank, Offense, and Defense) through Saturday’s games and the same rankings last year.

Miami (FL)
This Year Rnk 26, Off 23, Def 43
Last Year Rnk 39, Off 40, Def 62

This Year Rnk 7, Off 2, Def 24
Last Year Rnk 22, Off 17, Def 41

When people give credit to experience, Miami and UConn are what they had in mind. But both teams got blown out at home in the conference opener, showing experience isn’t everything.

Notre Dame
This Year Rnk 44, Off 4, Def 166
Last Year Rnk 28, Off 22, Def 42

Under Mike Brey, Notre Dame has always been a better offensive team than defensive team, but the drop off in defense this year seems a little ridiculous. The 140.5 defensive number against North Carolina really hurts the overall statistics, but so do efforts like 113.8 against a terrible DePaul team.

This Year Rnk 31, Off 59, Def 21
Last Year Rnk 43, Off 61, Def 34

This Year Rnk 30, Off 13, Def 69
Last Year Rnk 42, Off 15, Def 105

Baylor and Villanova are both showing some improvement across the board, but both teams are in the range of last year.

This Year Rnk 17, Off 7, Def 48
Last Year Rnk 11, Off 24, Def 10

Marquette actually lost some size due to Ousmane Barro’s graduation. Does that explain the drop-off in defense?

By the way, see all the Big East teams on this list? That’s why people are calling this the best conference ever. They have enough returning stars to get people excited, but according to Pomeroy, Sagarin, and the RPI, the Big East isn’t the top conference this year.

This Year Rnk 79, Off 177, Def 34
Last Year Rnk 121, Off 64, Def 198

Quantez Robertson and Kovortney Barber have suddenly become horrible offensive players. Auburn is still bad this year, but in a new way.

So given the above, should it really be a surprise that North Carolina is basically performing about the same as last year?

North Carolina
This Year Rnk 3, Off 3, Def 15
Last Year Rnk 4, Off 1, Def 19

North Carolina is a dominant college basketball team, and the odds on favorite to win the national championship. It is arguably deeper than last year’s team, but what can depth add to a team that was already one of the deepest in the nation? Even the Jordan Bulls didn’t win all their games.

I guess my punchline is that even though we should expect great things from North Carolina due to their experience, without a new player suddenly becoming the greatest defensive player of all time, it is hard to see how they could dramatically improve from last year’s team.

Perhaps the greatest reason to pick them in the pre-season was the lack of incoming talent in this year’s freshman class. But college basketball has a way of developing new super talented teams. And with Wake Forest and Duke proving to be super-heavyweights, they won’t have to leave the ACC for a real challenge.

Talent and Coaching

So if teams don’t get better solely based on experience, the biggest key to winning is talent. (Just ask Rick Pitino what it was like to coach the Celtics.) But you also can’t overlook the value of coaching. Mike Montgomery has done wonders in a brief time at Cal. And plenty of other coaches (See Tubby Smith) have turned around stagnant programs.

I didn’t include the following experienced teams in the above analysis because they all got new coaches, but the numbers show some improvements:

This Year Rnk 77, Off 78, Def 90
Last Year Rnk 74, Off 60, Def 95

This YearRnk 84, Off 64, Def 127
Last Year Rnk 92, Off 122, Def 76

South Carolina
This Year Rnk 48, Off 86, Def 37
Last Year Rnk 88, Off 70, Def 109

Oklahoma St.
This Year Rnk 38, Off 8, Def 118
Last Year Rnk 57, Off 65, Def 59

And I didn’t include the following teams because they all lost at least one key contributor. (I.e. DJ Augustin, the Lopez brothers, and Alex Maric). Thus, even though these teams have a highly experienced core, the drop-off in performance was to be expected.

This Year Rnk 27, Off 69, Def 14
Last Year Rnk 9, Off 3, Def 36

This Year Rnk 39, Off 36, Def 53
Last Year Rnk 12, Off 25 , Def 15

This Year Rnk 67, Off 136, Def 33
Last Year Rnk 34, Off 78, Def 13


Who throws a shoe? Honestly. Darren Collison’s shoe fell off and Daniel Hackett threw it up into the crowd to get it off the court. Part of me thinks this shouldn’t be legal, but USC was on offense, and Hackett didn’t want one of his teammates to trip over it.

Taj Gibson picked up three fouls in the first 6 minutes of the game. Tim Floyd trusted Gibson with 2 fouls and Gibson responded with one of the dumbest fouls I’ve seen in awhile, throwing a UCLA defender aside trying to get an offensive rebound.

I love guard-oriented teams. UCLA may not be as consistently dominant as last year, but the upside is still there. Westbrook was absolutely phenomenal at the end of last year, but if I’m a UCLA fan, I really am glad I get to see Darren Collison for another year.

Favorite non-vital play: Jrue Holiday made a freshman mistake and got caught in the air with the basketball and no angle for a shot. He responded by bouncing the ball off the USC defender below him and then he grabbed the ball back while coming down. Sweet. (And he didn’t even hit the USC player in the face.)

DeMar DeRozan has discovered the art of the two point jumper. Hey, if you can’t make three pointers, it’s a good shot to have.

Did Drew Gordon take a cheap shot on a USC player? The refs say no, but he clearly swung his arm in a dangerous way for no reason. I’m guessing this is going to be discussed heavily in LA. That is if people like to argue about college basketball when its 80 degrees in January. Sigh.

Absolutely suffocating half-court defense by USC turned this game around. If it wasn’t for a few timely steals, UCLA would really be struggling.

Again, suffocating defense by USC. UCLA gets called for a shot clock violation while leading by 3 with 1 minute left in the game. But UCLA holds on to win. Great game.

Final Random Notes

Minnesota went 9 for 9 on threes against Penn St.

People have been raving about Taylor Battle and all I can say is, “I agree”. Hard to imagine a player looking better while his team gets blown out by 20. Battle had 19 points and 9 assists, 3 offensive rebounds, and a pair of steals. And he has an efficiency rating of 121.0 on the season. I sure wish the rest of the Penn St. team was good enough to get him in the NCAA tournament.

Hey new format for some of the Pomeroy pages. Cool.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Saturday Afternoon

Conference play is here for all the BCS conferences. Sweet.

Marquette defeats West Virginia 75-53: Remember my comment on Monday about the Pomeroy Rankings still being in flux at this point in the season? West Virginia was a 71% favorite on the road at Marquette. Instead, Marquette wins by 22.

Nebraska defeats Missouri: More evidence we don’t know anything yet. Missouri scored only 3 points off of turnovers in the game. Missouri entered the game at #1 in the country in steal percentage. Oddly enough, Nebraska was #2 in steal percentage despite playing at a much slower pace. Nebraska imposed their pace in this game and held on to win.

Duke defeats Florida St. Seriously, I thought I was watching a Big 10 game. It was 19-14 at halftime. I don’t understand people who think Duke is too short to win a national championship. This team flat out plays the best defense in the country. Take a guy like Nolan Smith. Yes, he’s only 6’2” tall, but there he is out-jumping a taller Florida St. player to steal the inbound at mid-court and take it in for a dunk.

VMI defeats Coastal Carolina 103-102 in regulation: Nobody saw it, but on paper doesn’t this sound like the most entertaining game ever?

Louisville defeats Villanova: Really bummed I missed this one due to the Georgetown game. Well, I can always read the thread on Card Chronicle.

Georgetown defeats Providence: Let’s compare last year’s Georgetown team and this year’s Georgetown team. Advantage this year: Georgetown took advantage of Providence’s full court pressure getting numerous dunks and only committing one bad turnover late in the game. Advantage last year: Were it not for those fast-break points, Georgetown wouldn’t have won. Georgetown struggled in the half-court in the first half, and late in the game didn’t know how to run the clock to seal the victory. Amusing moment: Georgetown students started a “We are Georgetown” chant while the officials checked the clock situation. And when the stoppage of play ran on-and-on, the chant continued for a full 8 minutes.

UMass defeats Dayton: So who’s the real UMass? The team that defeated Kansas and Dayton or the team that lost by 30 at home to Vanderbilt earlier this week?

South Florida defeats DePaul 80-58 at DePaul: It’s official. DePaul is the worst team in the Big East.

Virginia Tech defeats Virginia 78-75: Sophomore Guard Mustapha Farrakhan has only been playing limited minutes for Virginia, but he might have earned more time after hitting 4 three pointers in the final minutes to make a blowout close. But AD Vassallo was just too good, hitting a spinning fade-away jumper that essentially put the game away.

Florida leads Ole Miss: Florida started the game 7 of 9 from 3-point range.

Yep, I love this time of year.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Ug in Ugly

I'm really hoping you did not watch last night's Iowa vs Minnesota game unless you are a fan of either of the two teams. Brutal, brutal game. Doug Gottlieb tried to be judicious about it, calling it blue-collar and scrappy. But let's face it, nobody enjoys a 55 possession game where neither team can top 1 point per possession.

But the most amusing moment of the night might have been when Doug Gottlieb sent out a plug for Check out the reaction on their live-blog thread. Wow, good for them.

Of course the other annoucer immediately made fun of Gottlieb, claiming that if he reads blogs that Gottlieb has no life. Question: How many blogs are now going to pander to Gottlieb hoping he will be trolling in pre-game?

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Hazell Yeah, Harvey No

I hate New Year's Resolutions. Seriously, I have a routine where I go down to the excercise room, put one of the three TVs on college basketball, and enjoy running on the treadmill. But thanks to the "New Year" the place is suddenly jammed full of people trying to better themselves. Um, whoever decided to put it on ESPN Classic to watch boxing, you aren't making any friends.

Look folks, let's keep this simple. You either want to excercise or not. Don't fool yourself. If you are going to give up on this in 2 weeks, do me a favor and give up right now. Thanks.

So eventually I get back to see the end of Villanova vs Seton Hall. The Hall has lost its first two Big East games by 24 and 26 respectively. (Hey, remember when they beat USC. Guess what, so did Oregon St.)

So of course Seton Hall comes back from 8 points down in the final seconds to send the game into overtime. And how do they do it? Seton Hall is shooting 29% from three point range on the season, 302nd nationally. Basically only one player is a half-way decent three point shooter, and that's Jeremy Hazell. So of course, Hazell hits a banked three pointer in the final seconds to tie the game. He even gave us the Reggie Miller leg kick out, which made it look like he was fouled, despite a lack of contact.

To be fair, other than that play, Villanova absolutely denied the ball to Hazell down the stretch and made Harvey try to beat them. And in OT it was Harvey who got called for a travel while trailing by 2. Then the 17% three point shooter Harvey missed an open three in the final seconds to seal the victory for Nova.

Oh, and Scottie Reynolds scored 40 points, becoming the 18th player to do that in a Big East game. But you already knew he was good.

Predictions Without Numbers

After my Marquette post yesterday, I ended up sending a rambling email to Cracked Sidewalks that probably insulted them at some point. Punch line: Their 9-9 prediction was a lot more detailed than I gave credit for, and they are certainly aware of the sample size issues. But the bigger picture still holds. I think certain teams are destined to get a lot better than the Pomeroy Rankings currently indicate.

These include:
30 Miami (FL): See last post about shortening rotations.

18 Washington: Another team still looking for the right rotation. Venoy Overton may get a lot of steals, but he can't shoot and has a horrible assist to turnover ratio this year. Put the right team around Brockman and this could be a top 10 team.

14 UCLA: Not that a ranking of 14 is bad, but once Ben Howland finds the right combination of players, I think this team is going to be very dangerous.

25 Michigan St.: Tom Izzo in November = Frustrating, in March = Amazing

48 Wisconsin: Bo Ryan just wins Big Ten Games

33 Syracuse: This team has seriously played down to the level of competition all year.

19 Louisville: The offense has to improve at some point, right? Right?

I can probably think of more, but I'll leave it at that.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Hope in Marquette and why Miami (FL) might get better

You might think I haven't been writing because I'm gloomy. And that's partly true. Two Georgetown losses, an Illinois loss, and the Vikings getting eliminated from the playoffs will do that to you.

But the real reason I was away was lack of internet access. I'm back, but with plenty of coverage of the weekend action on Basketball Prospectus, let me just point out my favorite story of the weekend. No, I'm not talking about North Carolina going down. I'm talking about Oregon St. winning a Pac-10 conference game. Hey, no one deserves to go winless, and it was nice to see the Oregon St. fans finally get something to cheer for. And in that link Kevin Pelton covers the equally exciting story of how California not only beat Arizona this week, but also Arizona St. It is amazing what a difference a coach can make to a college basketball team and Mike Montgomery is having an impact in his first year back in the Bay Area.

Sample Size, Bench Minutes

But before we jump on or off the Cal bandwagon, or any bandwagon for that matter, I'm amazed how much faith people are putting in the early season results. People seem to assume that the Pomeroy Rankings or Sagarin Ratings have already determined a national champion. I particularly like this post by Marquette Blog Cracked Sidewalks where the Marquette bloggers sadly admit the team will have trouble doing better than 9-9 in Big East play.

But hold on a minute folks? Are we really ready to anoint the rankings as being fixed at this point of the season? There's still plenty of time for teams to improve or fall apart. And more importantly, do you really want to draw strong conclusions when most BCS teams have played only 2-5 BCS competitors at this point?

Certainly margin of victory or points per possession differential against cupcake teams can be meaningful. (I'm pretty sure Indiana is not very good.) But it can also be misleading because of how teams use non-conference games. Is the coach expirementing and giving major minutes to untested players, or did the coach narrow a rotation early because of injuries or lack of depth. Having watched Illinois, I know there were times when they had a big lead against a small team, but blew it after bringing in a bunch of young players who didn't know how to run the offense. Alternatively, Georgetown has had so few bench players that the subs have had only limited opportunities to lower the team's overall efficiency.

I suppose if this hypothesis is true, I should point to teams that might get better once they narrow the rotation. A key stat here might be Pomeroy's Bench Minutes. (But you have to be careful here to avoid the full-court pressure teams that always use long rotations like Minnesota and Missouri.) I think a good case in point is a team like Miami (FL). I think the Hurricanes may ultimately be much better than their Pomeroy Ranking of 26 indicates, once they settle on a shorter rotation. Miami has tried to mix in younger players like DeQuan Jones and Eddie Rios but with limited success. But once Frank Haith takes these players out of the full-time rotation, or focuses on these players strengths and defines a key role for each player, Miami can still compete to be a top level ACC team. Jack McClinton, Dwayne Collins, and James Dew are too good for Miami not to step it up.

(A few more notes on Miami: Everyone knows about McClinton, and James Dews was a solid back-court mate last year, but Junior Dwayne Collins has really emerged as a post option this year. Last year Collins, was solely a rebounder, but his emergence as an offensive post player, eFG% of 61.3% is huge for the Hurricanes.)

Remember Mississippi St?

Last year Mississippi St. ended up with the second best SEC PPP differential. But no one would have expected it after they lost to Miami (OH) and South Alabama in non-conference play and started the year 5-5. (To be fair, their pre-conf Pomeroy ranking was not horrible thanks to some blowout wins, but it wasn't very good either.)

And I guess that brings me back to my initial point about Marquette. Already, the Pomeroy Rankings have improved for the team. No longer predicted to go 9-9, the prediction is now 11-7 in conference play. And it will change again by next week.

[[Side note #12: Fabulous win for Marquette against Villanova. Yes, they probably should have won that game at home, but given how evenly matched they are on paper and on the floor, it was a very sweet victory. Villanova seemed to commit too many unforced turnovers in the game (traveling outside the three point line), while Marquette's turnovers were all in the course of trying to get the ball to the basket, but those two teams always make for a fabulous match-up.]]

But back to the prediction. Yes, Marquette probably does still face the toughtest final 5 regular season games of any team in the country, but the reality is that there is still a lot to learn about teams before then. Conference play is here! The time has come to sort out the contenders and pretenders, not only in the ranks of the unbeatens, but also in the margin of victory statistics.