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March 7, 2008
The Winehouse Factor
Measuring Inconsistency

by John Gasaway

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If you've been following along here at Basketball Prospectus this season, you know that my colleague Ken Pomeroy and I both like to look at tempo-free scoring margins. The difference between how many points Team A averages on each possession and how many points their opponents average per trip can provide an enlightening perspective on any team, regardless of their style, conference or even won-loss record.

Still, scoring margin alone, like any stat, isn't the end-all and be-all. Consider these three teams, all with identical per-possession scoring margins:

Through games of March 6, conference games only
Pace: possessions per 40 minutes
PPP: points per possession
Opp. PPP: opponent points per possession
EM: efficiency margin (PPP - Opp. PPP)

                                 Opp.
                 Pace    PPP     PPP      EM
Pitt             64.2    1.07    1.04   +0.03
Vanderbilt       68.3    1.06    1.03   +0.03
Texas A&M        63.4    1.03    1.00   +0.03

The first thing that might be ventured here is that Vanderbilt is overrated. The Commodores are currently ranked number 16 nationally in both major polls, yet they're outscoring their relatively weaker SEC opponents by the same modest margin by which the unranked Panthers and Aggies are outscoring their relatively stronger conference foes.

Maybe Vandy is indeed the beneficiary of reputational inflation, but, hey, go fight City Hall. It's March, way too late to correct any misconceptions on that front. There's a different distinction I want to draw between these teams.

The variable I want to highlight is consistency, specifically the game-to-game variation in performance exhibited by each of these teams on offense and defense. Let's take a very nerdy measure of consistency (standard deviation) and give it a more descriptive name. It is hereby christened the Winehouse Factor (WF), in honor of the indisputably talented yet notoriously erratic British pop diva.

Winehouse Factor (WF)

Through games of March 6, conference games only
Standard deviation, PPP and Opp. PPP

                         WF
Texas A&M offense       0.24
Pitt offense            0.17
Vanderbilt offense      0.16
Texas A&M defense       0.14
Pitt defense            0.11
Vanderbilt defense      0.11

Give this to Vanderbilt: they may be overrated, but at least they're consistent. Kevin Stallings knows what he's going to get when his players take the floor, especially on defense (though, granted, the Commodores' D isn't very good).

Not so, Mark Turgeon at Texas A&M. The Aggies' offense is truly Winehouse-esque. At home, playing against in-state rivals Texas and Texas Tech, Texas A&M has been the equivalent of Kansas or UCLA. On the road against those same rivals (or against Oklahoma), Turgeon's offense has played more like Oregon State or Northwestern.

Just about every team, of course, plays better at home than on the road. The thing about the Texas A&M offense, though, is that it takes what should be a natural tendency and turns it into a bipolar disorder. The Aggies' offense is the single most inconsistent unit in major-conference hoops:

Through games of March 6, conference games only
BCS conferences and Missouri Valley

                         WF
Texas A&M offense       0.24
Michigan State offense  0.23
USC defense             0.21
West Virginia offense   0.19
Missouri St. defense    0.19
LSU offense             0.19

Fans of Texas A&M and Michigan State certainly don't need any intensive number-crunching to know that they've been watching two very inconsistent offenses. After all, Tom Izzo's team has gone from scoring 36 points at Iowa in January to recording 103 points against Indiana this past Sunday.

Those same fans, however, might draw some kind of grim solace from knowing that their gray hairs have at least come honestly, that the teams they're supporting actually have historically inconsistent offenses. Over the past three seasons, no major-conference team has exhibited as much inconsistency on offense or defense in-conference as have the offenses of Texas A&M and Michigan State this year.

Granted, in the case of the Spartans it might be said that there's a positive spin to be put on this historic status. The positive spin would go something like this: Michigan State is "erratic" on offense because they used to be terrible and now they're great. They used to turn the ball over left and right and now they've stopped doing so completely. If that's "erratic," give me some more.

It's true that MSU has stopped turning the ball over. Izzo must have hypnotized his players or scared them straight or who knows what, because over their past five games the Spartans have committed turnovers on just 13 percent of their possessions.

The problem with the positive spin, however, is that turnovers don't tell the whole story of the Michigan State offense. Note, for example, that in terms of shooting from the field, the Spartans are far and away the most inconsistent team in the Big Ten. Thus we find that, over the past couple weeks, MSU didn't turn the ball over at home against Iowa or on the road against Wisconsin, but they didn't make many shots, either. Until further notice, then, mark Michigan State as consistently inconsistent. (Not that the positive spin must always be wrong. To my eyes if there's one statistically erratic team that really does deserve to have this tale of redemption believed, it's LSU.)

As for USC, the Trojans surely merit a special Winehouse Award. They're the only major-conference team in the country whose offense and defense both sport Winehouse Factors above 0.17. That makes USC a frightening March team for everyone involved, not least Tim Floyd. On the one hand, the Trojans could easily win a second-round game against a top seed (they did win at UCLA, after all). Then again, they could just as easily lose a first-round game to one of those hitherto anonymous mid-majors.

"Which team will show up" is criminally overused, but in the case of USC the question is certainly justified. In fact, hoping for any Winehouse team to win three or four, much less six, games in the NCAA tournament might just be the hoops-fan equivalent of enabling.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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