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February 16, 2009
Winehouse Factors
More on Inconsistency

by John Gasaway

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If you're a regular reader, you know I like to track tempo-free scoring margin, the difference between a team's points scored and allowed per possession. I've found this "efficiency margin" to be very descriptive of a team's true ability and potential, not to mention quite useful come March.

Of course, no stat by itself is the end-all and be-all, not even efficiency margin. Consider the following two teams, each of them sporting identical per-possession scoring margins.

Same levels of performance…or not?

Through games of February 15, 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   
Kentucky       70.2    1.03    0.93   +0.10
Tennessee      69.6    1.10    1.00   +0.10

Kentucky is getting the job done with defense, while Tennessee is more geared toward offense. Still, here are two SEC East teams operating at virtually the exact same tempo, each of them outscoring league opponents by a tenth of a point per trip. What could be more similar, right?

Actually, while the bottom lines are the same, the way these two teams have arrived to this point are quite different. Specifically, the Wildcats and the Volunteers are miles apart when it comes to consistency, the game-to-game variation in performance shown by these teams on offense and on defense. For the second consecutive season I want to take a nerdy measure of that variation (standard deviation) and brandish it under a somewhat more descriptive name. I call it the Winehouse Factor, in honor of a certain notoriously erratic British pop diva.

Winehouse Factor (WF)

Through games of February 15, conference games only
Standard deviation, PPP and Opp. PPP

                       WF   
Tennessee defense     0.21
Kentucky defense      0.16
Kentucky offense      0.14
Tennessee offense     0.05

The first thing to note about these figures is that there's really nothing to note about Kentucky. I realize Billy Gillispie's tenure has already been eventful and it seems like his team is always losing to someone shocking in November. Nevertheless, his Wildcats have been completely normal when it comes to consistency during SEC play. The 'Cats have good games and bad games, but so do all teams--in about the same degree and frequency as Kentucky.

No, the real news here is Tennessee. As of this moment, at least, Bruce Pearl has both the most consistent unit in major-conference basketball (his offense) and the least consistent unit in major-conference hoops (his defense).

Let's start with the Volunteer offense, which has been the next best thing to a metronome for Pearl. Game in, game out, he knows his team is going to score a little more than a point per trip. His nucleus of Tyler Smith, Wayne Chism and Cameron Tatum has provided Pearl with consistently outstanding two-point shooting in 12 league games. That accuracy from in close, along with the ability to hang on to the ball, has given Tennessee an offense that's been the SEC's best to this point in the season.

The Volunteer defense, on the other hand, has been a different story. Not that it's been bad, mind you. In fact it's netted out to a level that's a hair better than the conference average. The key term here, however, is "netted out." To speak of "Tennessee defense" is really to speak of a Jekyll-and-Hyde unit. The D has been exceptionally good at times (vs. Georgia, vs. Vanderbilt, vs. Florida) but has also been extremely permissive at other times (vs. Jodie Meeks, er, Kentucky; at Auburn; vs. LSU).

Yes, all teams go through both good times and bad. No unit in major-conference hoops, however, has experienced the swings that the Tennessee defense has:

Glaring inconsistencies: highest Winehouse Factors (WF)

Through games of February 15, conference games only
ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10, SEC

                       WF   
Tennessee defense     0.21
Arizona offense       0.20
Georgia offense       0.20
Cincinnati defense    0.19
Iowa St. defense      0.19
Maryland offense      0.19

Generating opponent turnovers, of course, helps the Volunteers do what they want to do on defense. Still, keep in mind that Tennessee won a 75-possession game against South Carolina in which the Gamecocks committed just 12 turnovers. The fluctuation in takeaways explains part, but not all, of the fluctuation in the Tennessee D.

Looking past the Vols, our list additionally points to the fact that in certain instances "inconsistency" can actually be good news. Take the Arizona offense, a unit that was somewhat "consistent" up until February 7, when the Wildcats received the gift that every Pac-10 offense longs for: a game against Oregon. In the three games that the 'Cats have played since then (at Oregon, vs. USC, vs. UCLA), they're averaging an other-worldly 1.29 points per possession.

Can the 'Cats sustain this level of offense? Of course not. Making more than half your threes and scoring at this rate is a blissful interlude. The point is not that Arizona is suddenly the best offensive team in the country, but rather that their offensive explosion is real, it's already happened, it's in the books and it's turned the season around for them. If that's "inconsistency," give me what they're having.

The same might be said for Georgia, whose appearance on this list is due solely to their Extreme Makeover 88-86 win against Florida on Saturday. For one magical stretch of 67 possessions in Athens, one of the worst offenses in major-conference basketball was transformed into a lean, mean, scoring machine. It was enough, barely, to give the Bulldogs their first win in SEC play. (It was also enough to inflict perhaps the single most damaging loss of the year on any NCAA tournament-bound team. The Gators will carry this loss like a millstone into the conference room where the selection committee determines their seed.)

In short, teams that have been underperforming will of course always welcome a little "inconsistency." For teams with big plans for March, however, boring is better. Look at last year's Final Four:

2008 Final Four: Winehouse Factors

Conference games only

                           WF   
Kansas defense            0.16
UCLA defense              0.15
Memphis offense           0.14
Memphis defense           0.14
North Carolina defense    0.14
UCLA offense              0.14
Kansas offense            0.13
North Carolina offense    0.12

The teams that made it to San Antonio last spring were a lot less Winehouse and a lot more...I don't know, Miley Cyrus? The Winehouse team is undoubtedly interesting to watch, but the team that makes it to April is almost certain to be a good deal more sedate.

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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