Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Day 4 FIBA

Turkish fans can rejoice. The host country defeated Group C favorite Greece in front of a packed house in Istanbul. Turkey is now in the driver's seat to win the group. But like the US team, I took the day off. I have nothing to tell you about today’s action other than the fact that two thirds of today’s games were decided by 8 points or less. Well, after you check the ESPN box scores, and peruse the standings, let’s look at Wednesday’s games:

Group D:
Lithuania (3-0) and France (3-0) meet with first place in Group D on the line. Both teams upset group favorite Spain, and now one of them will clinch first place with a win. Elsewhere, Spain (1-2) faces Lebanon (1-2) and the reality that they might not make it to the knockout round if they don’t pull things together fast. And Canada (0-3) must beat New Zealand (1-2) and hope for some tie-breakers if Canada is going to make it to the knockout round.

Group B:
Brazil (2-1) faces Slovenia (2-1) with second place on the line. Iran and Croatia are tied for the final knockout round spot, but Iran (1-2) faces the US (3-0) while Croatia (1-2) faces Tunisia (0-3). In other words, it looks like Croatia is advancing to the knockout round.

Group A:
Assuming Germany (1-2) holds off Angola (1-2) tomorrow, the top four should be set here too. Australia (2-1) can now rise up to second in the group if they knock off Serbia (2-1) Wednesday. Argentina (3-0) meets Jordan (0-3) in a game that sounds extremely boring on paper.

Group C:
Here’s where things get interesting. Puerto Rico (1-2) faces Turkey (3-0) and you wonder if the host country might have a let down after beating Mediterranean border rival Greece. A Puerto Rico win almost certainly lifts them to the knockout round since Puerto Rico still faces Ivory Coast on Thursday. And poor Ivory Coast (0-3), I can’t imagine they’ll have fun against an angry Greece (2-1). But the key game is clearly China (1-2) against Russia (2-1). If China wins, the tie-breakers for the knockout round will come into play.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Day 3 FIBA

A day after Germany beat Serbia in double overtime, Germany laid a goose-egg, losing by 35 to Australia. I enjoyed the take of the announcer on NBA.tv. “Germany looks like a team playing with a hangover.” Dramatic pause when he realizes the implication of what he said. “Oh, I don’t mean to imply they were out drinking last night, but certainly their double overtime victory was on their minds.” Sure.

But the game of the day was clearly the US vs Brazil. I feel like I’ve already used my quota of praise for the FIBA tournament, but this game was definitely worth an hour and a half on the DVR. And if you did not record it, go watch the replay in the ESPN3 archives.

Also, it may be tempting to fast-forward to the end of the game, but to enjoy Brazil vs the US, you have to watch the first quarter when Brazil was playing insane basketball. This was a classic case of one team shooting lights out, and it being apparent that the other team was eventually going to come back. But Brazil's early run kept the game entertaining. Teams cannot match up with the US in the long-haul, but over 10 minutes, and sometimes over 40 minutes, plenty of these teams can play impressive basketball.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Day 2 FIBA

I love having 4 games on at once. These FIBA sessions are great. Here were Sunday’s highlights.

Game of the tournament so far: Germany defeats Serbia 82-81, 2 OT

A day after Serbia crushed Angola by 50, Serbia trailed Germany at several points in this game. Down the stretch in regulation, Germany was nursing a 3 point lead and appeared to get a key steal that would seal the game. But the German player’s toe was on the out-of-bounds line and Serbia got the ball back. Then with time running down Alex Rasic of Serbia made a three pointer to tie the game.

Next Germany missed two chances at buzzer beating game winners. At the end of regulation Germany had a good look at a three but missed, and at the end of the first overtime period Germany drove for a game winning lay-up, but the ball was batted out of bounds as time expired.

That sent the game to the second OT where guard Demond Greene caught fire and Jan Jagla hit a ridiculous turnaround three pointer while falling out of bounds. Jagla’s prayer shot turned out to be the difference maker and may be the highlight of the tournament so far.

Serbia continued to use pressure defense down the stretch and cut the lead to one in the final seconds. But Serbia missed a lay-up as time expired and Germany held on for the victory.

Lithuania defeated Canada 70-68

Interesting strategy at the end of the game when Canada trailed by two late, but Lithuania had the ball. There was a seven second differential between the game clock and shot-clock and Canada elected not to foul. Lithuania used the full shot clock and missed the shot, but after the rebound and pass ahead, all Canada’s Jermaine Anderson could do was take an off-balance three as time expired.

You may not remember, but Anderson was a key player for Fordham from 2002-2006. Why are players like Jermain Anderson and Demond Greene taking the key shots? Well, the US team is not the only team missing the A-list NBA stars. Steve Nash last played for Canada in 2004, and he has said he is done with international competition. Dirk Nowitzki plans to play for Germany again, but just not this year.

Greece defeated Puerto Rico 83-80

Greece may be the favorite in Group C, but after getting crushed by the US in an exhibition, after almost losing to China yesterday, and after almost losing to Puerto Rico today, they do not look like a team that will challenge for the FIBA title this year. But the story of this game was Puerto Rico falling apart in the fourth quarter for the second game in a row. The Puerto Rico bench looked completely exasperated after a number of missed shots down the stretch. They’ll need to pull themselves together quickly because at 0-2 in a group with 5 viable teams that could advance to the knockout round, Puerto Rico needs to win its next games.

Argentina defeats Australia 74-72.

Group A favorite Argentina trailed by double digits in the 3rd quarter but came roaring back to take the lead late in the game. Then after Australia’s Patrick Mills hit a three pointer to tie the game at 69, Argentina’s Pablo Prigioni hit a three pointer to break that tie. And after an exchange of free throws and a crazy reverse put back by Australia’s Joe Ingles, Argentina seemed to have the game in hand.

Argentina had the ball with a two point lead and just over 3 seconds left. But Argentina’s Hernan Jasen threw the inbounds pass away which gave Australia one last chance at glory. Australia’s Adam Gibson had a look at a three pointer, but it was off the mark as Argentina held on for victory.

Really, these games have been much better than I ever expected.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

FIBA 2010 is Underway

Finally, competitive basketball has returned. Look, I’ve been enjoying spending the summer writing about stats as much as the next guy. And I’ve enjoyed peeking in at the Las Vegas summer league games on NBA.tv.

(I particularly enjoy listening to maligned former Timberwolves General Manager Kevin McHale call games. I kept thinking to myself, there’s a huge difference between “sounding like you know how to evaluate players” and “knowing how to evaluate players. I also really enjoyed when John Thompson Jr. joined a game for commentary and spent 10 minutes complaining about how Greg Monroe needs to be more aggressive and how he has foolishly accepted the label of “unselfish” when that’s not going to make him a star in the NBA. Thompson certainly spoke out about the need for Monroe to be more aggressive in the past, but he was unleashed here. John Thompson Jr. must have felt he needed to hold his tongue until Monroe was drafted.)

But the Las Vegas summer league games are simply exhibitions designed to get the young players some playing time. This weekend with the start of the FIBA 2010 tournament, we finally get games that feature elite players and teams that are trying to win the game.

The best part of this is the timing. The reality with niche sports is that they work best when they fall in a quiet period on the calendar. August definitely falls in that category. Preseason NFL, golf, and endless baseball can easily be pushed aside for a chance to see Nick Calathes and Patrick Mills playing to win one more time.

By the way, if you are wondering how best to watch this tournament, it is almost NCAA quality on the weekend. This Saturday and Sunday feature three blocks of 4 simultaneous games. Some of the games are on ESPN and NBA.tv, but all are free online. So I recommend you check the ESPN box scores at the end of the 3rd quarter of each tier of games, see if there are any endings worth watching.

Best yet, the games are not broadcast in the middle of the night. I thought with the games in Turkey we’d be looking at 4am start times, but that’s not the case. The earliest games start around 9am while the latest start around 2pm. Not bad at all. Here’s my review of Day 1:

Almost Upset of the Day: Greece defeated China 89-81.

I started watching this game in the third quarter and the first thing that occurred to me was how poor these international teams seem to be at stopping dribble penetration. There seems to be a staple play where teams spread the floor, place a player at the top of the free throw line, and use a simple screen to drive inside for a lay-up or free throw. Where is the help defense? On some level I understand this play working for Greece because they have a number of good three point shooters, but I was surprised to see this working for China.

Maybe this means that China’s guard play has improved. China has always had good depth in the front court, but today guard Sun Yue absolutely looked like a star. When he drove the lane for a one handed dunk in the third quarter, I practically fell off the couch. Sun also made some clutch jump shots in this one. And his good play seemed to pay off with some luck. China cut the lead to 81-79 on Sun Yue’s banked three pointer with just over 3 minutes to play.

But after that point China fell apart. They couldn’t make shots, players like Wang Zhizhi committed too many turnovers, and Greece held on for victory. The back-breaker was probably Vasileios Spanoulis drive to make the score 83-79. China had switched to a zone defense to cut off penetration and Spanoulis drove all the way to the basket against the zone and scored a lay-up. It was simply atrocious defense and it cost China a chance to win.

Closest Game of the Day: Australia defeated Jordan 76-75.

Sadly the game didn’t involve a clutch last second shot, but there was still plenty of drama. Australia, which had to be the favorite due to participation in the 2008 Olympics trailed by 5 with just over a minute to play. But thanks to an offensive foul by Jordan’s Osama Daghles, and clutch free throws by Patrick Mills and David Andersen, Australia took a one point lead with 13 seconds left. At this point we got one of those crazy sequences under the basket where Jordan kept getting the rebound and kept missing shots. It looked like they got up about five attempts, but the box score shows only three. Regardless, Jordan had several chances to win, but couldn’t make a lay-up and Australia hung on for victory.

Upset of the Day: France defeated Spain 72-66.

If you did not catch this live, it is almost worth watching this game just to listen to how excited the announcer was down the stretch. Sadly, I didn’t catch his name. Spain is one of the few international teams that is capable of beating the US, as seen by their one point exhibition loss to the US earlier this week. So this result was a major shock.

Down the stretch
-Spain missed free throws
-Juan Carlos Navarro, who played extremely well against the US team last week had his thumb injured on a play when France went for the steal.
-Ricky Rubio was called for an offensive foul
-and Spain let Boris Diaw drive all the way to the basket uncontested.

But all of that could be overcome. Spain made a last minute run and could have been back in the game if not for an extremely dumb move by Rudy Fernandez. Fernandez thought he had a clean block with about 2 minutes left. In his upset state he ran up into the stands. This drew a technical from the officials. Fernandez mistake cost the team two standard free throws (one of which was missed), two technical free throws, and possession of the ball (which resulted in a basket.) Overall it was a five-point swing. And in a game where Spain was within 5 points several times in the final minute, Fernandez’s bad decision was the difference.

Once College Football kicks off, it will probably be harder to pay any attention to these games. And sadly, due to a larger field for the FIBA championships relative to the Olympics, the talent dilution makes for fewer must-see games until the elimination rounds. But when your other option is listening to the Nationals talk more about the Stephen Strasburg injury, competitive basketball is a nice change!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Who says the summer is quiet?

If you think the off-season drama ended when the last of the elite recruits made their college decisions, if you think the drama ended when vital players announced their intentions to transfer, if you think the off-season drama ended on May 8th when the last early entrants stayed in the draft pool, well you would be sadly mistaken. The summertime is the time when the “crazy” roster changes occur for college basketball teams.

-First, Mississippi St. guard Dee Bost mysteriously withdrew from the NBA draft after the deadline and decided to re-enroll at Mississippi St. While Mississippi St. still lists Bost on their roster for this year, the consensus seems to be that he has little chance of regaining his eligibility. (Perhaps Mississippi St. just likes to have ineligible players on their roster after watching Renardo Sidney sit out all of last year.)

-Then my jaw dropped when I read that Providence’s leading scorer and rebounder Jamine Peterson was leaving school early, but not for the NBA. Say what you will about the crazy fast-break style Keno Davis has installed in his two years with the Friars, but one thing the system did was develop Peterson into a scoring star. And the fact that Peterson will not be returning is devastating to Davis’ attempt to rebuild the Providence program. The goal last season was to give young players a lot of minutes and identify the stars. Then this season would have been the year to focus on fundamentals and develop complimentary players to try to make an NCAA tournament run. Instead Providence is once again a team desperate for an offensive leader. (And as Ballin’ is a Habit describes it, ridiculously desperate.)

-Then by late summer, as is too often the case, we had a number of high profile recruits who were declared academically ineligible. I do not have the full list, but in the SEC alone this includes Mark Fox’s first big signing at Georgia Cady Lalanne, Auburn recruits Shawn Kemp Jr. and Luke Cothron, plus LSU recruit KC Ross Miller.

-Then there was the former Northwestern scoring star Kevin Coble, who was academically eligible, but athletically disinterested. Coble has decided not to return to the basketball team and focus on graduation. While I agree with statistical arguments John Gasaway and others have made that Northwestern needed to improve its defense more than it needs Coble’s scoring, Northwestern is not such a deep team that another offensive option would be irrelevant. And Coble’s return would have allowed the team to be more aggressive defensively and not worry as much about the starters fouling out. Plus Coble’s return may have helped motivate the fan-base and sell more tickets, building a more consistent home court advantage. Northwestern fans needed to have faith that the team would finally make the tournament and Coble provided much of that hope. And now he is done.

-Also this summer, there was the rare story of a player being declared academically eligible as Memphis recruit Will Barton was re-instated after further review. Ah academic eligibility, it just never gets old does it?

-If it does, the fun new summer event is the graduate school transfer. This is the rule that allows random players like Justin Knox to leave Alabama and play for North Carolina without sitting out a year, simply because he finished his undergraduate studies. And Knox is not the only player to take advantage of this rule.

-After that, the summer was filled with the normal “force-out” stories. Do not be fooled by Bo Spencer’s 14.5 points per game production, he was a horribly inefficient player for LSU shooting just 28% on his threes and 39% on his two point shots. I wonder if Trent Johnson was not happy to find an academic reason to officially dismiss the shot hog from the team.

-Taylor King was forced to leave Villanova after violating a team rule and now he’s transferring to USC. King was such a versatile scorer at Duke and Villanova making him the perfect fit for a USC team that couldn’t put the ball in the ocean last season.

-But it’s the high profile teams that get most of the attention. People seem to really care that Chris Allen is leaving Michigan St. And while Allen was a fantastic shooter and talented player, Michigan St. is not without other options at the off-guard position. Similarly, Kentucky’s Darnell Dodson will not be returning. The loss means Kentucky returns just two players with over 10% of the teams minutes last season, Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins. While I agree the loss of a proven three point gunner will hurt a young Kentucky team, losses like Dodson and Allen tend to get magnified because Michigan St. and Kentucky are such high profile teams. If similar role players left Seton Hall or Nebraska, I doubt anyone would even notice outside of the fan-base. Heck, most of the Oregon basketball team has left and no one even blinked.

-But what makes the silly summer roster season so fun is the odd stories that surround many of these roster changes. Take Phil Turner’s dismissal from Mississippi St. as an example. Turner claims he got the equivalent of a pink slip in the mail from his former employer. Now this is possible. Turner was not a great point guard or solid shooter and Mississippi St. was never going to use him as more than a reserve guard. But I doubt Rick Stansbury is that heartless. After all, Turner did hit a game winner for Mississippi St. in February, and Stansbury must have given him some respect to allow him to take that shot. Sadly, we may never find out what really happened. It seems like the topic is not up for further discussion.

In the end the summer season reminds me of the rule I instituted after Charlie Villanueva de-committee from Illinois a few years back. Until the players show up in uniform for Midnight Madness, don’t make any assumptions about what the roster will look like.

(Final note: I don’t have the time or the resources to update these stories on a daily basis which is why I include the Rush-the-Court link on the left, but I also have to emphasize the terrific work the folks at Ballin’ is a Habit are doing covering these stories. They are all over the summer drama including the current story of a top Texas recruit who is now considering Kentucky.)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Yet Another Set of Coaching Numbers

Ken Pomeroy measures "luck" and "consistency" on his website. Today I look at all seven year coaches and present each coach’s cumulative luck ranking and each coach’s average consistency ranking in all jobs over the seven year period.

Of BCS coaches, Rick Barnes of Texas has been the least consistent. (If his teams have high variance every year, does that make them consistently inconsistent?) And Paul Hewitt, Stan Heath, and Mike Brey's teams have been the unluckiest. I.e., they consistently lose more games than their point differential would predict. Is it random chance? After all, someone has to be the unluckiest coach? Or do these coaches have a lot of talented players but poor execution in tight games? You can draw your own conclusions. Scroll down to see the full table. The unluckiest coaches are at the bottom.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Don't Blame the Freshman Forward

-You have to make your free throws to win close games.
-You have to be aggressive for the officials to give you the benefit of the doubt.
-Senior players are more likely to excel in pressure situations.

There is some truth to all these statements. Teams need to make shots to win and on average players get better over time. But do these factors help teams over-achieve? Does experience and free throw success contribute to a team winning more games than their point differential would indicate?

The short answer is yes. Experience and free throw shooting are correlated with Ken Pomeroy’s measure of “Luck”. Teams that have these qualities are more likely to win more games than their Pythagorean ranking predicts.

But the next three pictures should suggest that statistics are often misleading. These pictures plot Pomeroy’s Luck rating for teams over the last seven years relative to the team’s FT%, the team’s FTA/FGA, and the team’s Experience level. (Over this time period, the unluckiest team was Florida Atlantic in 2004, while the luckiest team was Wagner in 2008. Wagner won 5 overtime games in 2008 and won a number of other close games as well.)

Figure 1 confirms what a regression analysis shows - a team’s free throw percentage is not a statistically significant predictor of Luck. There is a minimal positive correlation, but as the wide scatter plot shows, the relationship is virtually meaningless. There are bad free throw shooting teams that are lucky and good free throw shooting teams that are unlucky.

The trend line for free throw attempts is a little steeper than the trend line for free throw percentage, but as the scatter plot reveals, the relationship is not very strong. Playing aggressive and taking the ball to the basket often fails. But aggressive teams do tend to have a little more luck on average.

Finally, we come to the role of experience. I am certainly not going to convince you based on the scatter plot that there is a relationship between the variables. But I can tell you that the positive correlation is statistically significant at the 1% level. And if you want to visualize the reason, I think it is hidden in the upper left-hand corner of the plot. There is not a single inexperienced team with a luck rating over 0.1.

There is no magic formula for winning close games. Sometimes veteran players make their free throws; sometimes they do not.
But this should be a bit empowering. I recall when Illinois could not make their free throws in 2008 and skidded towards the "unluckiest team of the year" award. There was a sense that there was nothing they could do to win close games. The numbers suggest otherwise. Don't blame the freshman forward if he misses a free throw that costs you the close game. There were plenty of other plays that made a difference too.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Again Texas Tech? Again?

NFL training camps are starting and the first college football game is 32 days away. Thus it must be time to re-run my annual complaint about scheduling.

This year six college football teams have not scheduled a single BCS opponent in the non-conference schedule. This year’s list:

Mississippi St.
Ole Miss
Virginia Tech
Texas Tech

I can sort of understand what Indiana, Baylor, and the two Mississippi schools are doing. Those schools are desperate to go to a bowl and if they have to go 4-0 in the non-conference schedule and 2-6 in the conference schedule to do it, they won’t be ashamed. But what’s perennial power Virginia Tech doing on this list? Yes, they play Boise St. this year. But this year’s schedule seems like a step down for a team that has had a series with LSU in recent years.

But Texas Tech remains my number one enemy. This is the 7th year in a row Texas Tech does not have a BCS opponent on the non-conference schedule. And I don’t see any on their announced future schedules either. All of these other teams at least played one BCS team at some point in the last three years.

Looking at conferences, once again the Big East leads the way with 1.88 non-conference BCS games per team. But due to only 7 conference games, Big East teams play the fewest total BCS opponents. Pac-10 teams will play the most BCS schools thanks to 9 conference games.

The 96 non-conference BCS games are double counted, so there are actually only 48 non-conference games between BCS teams. That’s down from 50 games in 2008 and 53 games in 2008.

This trend remains distressing because these games are the only way to evaluate conferences. Whether it be human voters determining this year’s reputation, or computers determining the best conferences, sample size is critical. 53 games was a very limited sample with which to draw any conclusions, and 48 games is even worse.