Basketball Prospectus: Unfiltered Everything Else is Fluff.

March 4, 2009

On the Bubble? Cheer for Wyoming Saturday

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 11:01 am

Fans of major-conference bubble teams, with forthrightly avowed “evil” intent, have already started compiling lists of mid-majors to root against during these critical days. To these fans, I say repeat after me:

Pray for Wyoming to win at home against New Mexico on Saturday afternoon.

That single game’s importance will approach that of a conference tournament championship game. We can say in advance that if the Lobos win they will almost certainly get an at-large bid. If they lose they almost certainly will not. In other words a single game in Laramie will determine whether one more or one fewer bid is available for bubbly major-conference types like Providence, Arizona, Florida, and Michigan.

You may ask: How in the world can we be so sure New Mexico will get an at-large if they win Saturday? After all, they’re nowhere to be seen at ESPN in Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketology update, not even under “first four out” or “next four out.” (For that matter, New Mexico’s not even on evil lists of mid-majors to root against.)

Yes, but last night the Lobos beat Utah in Albuquerque 77-71, a game that featured an angry mid-court confrontation between New Mexico coach Steve Alford and Utes coach Jim Boylen. (Man, I’m writing the words “angry mid-court confrontation.” I love March.) The win pulled Alford’s team into a three-way tie atop the Mountain West, with New Mexico, Utah, and BYU all having four losses. The Utes and the Cougars are locks for at-larges, but the Lobos need to win Saturday.

A New Mexico win at Wyoming would give them a share of the Mountain West regular season title. And try as I might I simply can’t envision the selection committee denying an at-large to a champion of a league that this year is likely slightly better than the SEC. (A champion, by the way, that would arrive vouchsafed by tempo-free lights as no fluke.) Yes, I know the Lobos’ RPI is sickly (70 before last night’s game). I know they lost at home to UCF and UTEP. But look at what’s happened on the court the past two months.

I am no enemy of the RPI. It does what it does amazingly well. But to deny an at-large to a regular-season champion from a conference this good would be the height of blinkered RPI madness. It would put yours truly and braying antinomian RPI-bashers on the same side of an important question.

If New Mexico wins Saturday and then their name does not pop up while I’m watching Selection Sunday, I will run out onto the streets and overturn the first car I see. Which would be ironic because it would be my car and my wife would yell at me. You get the idea.

First things first. Game time is Saturday, 3:30 Eastern. 

Chat Tomorrow, PLUS All About Hoosiers

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 1:10 am

Join me tomorrow at noon Eastern for the live chat thing. Click here tomorrow to go live or do it now and submit your question in advance. All topics welcomed! Keep me on my toes and make up a conference. (“Hey, John, the AEAC tournament starts tonight. Does SUNY-Peekskill have a shot?”) 

And because I believe no Unfiltered post should be limited to a shameless plug for a chat, please accept this moment of tempo-free life:

One of the nice things about March is that the rest of the world bows its collective cultural head toward college hoops. (They should of course do that 24/7/365, but that’s a topic for a future post.) Take for example the segment currently posted on the New York Times video page in which NYT film critic A.O. Scott reviews the 1986 classic, Hoosiers. Scott prefaces his remarks by noting the month and confessing to being a basketball fan. He then wonders why this is such a great movie when in fact it’s so “formulaic.”

A.O., A.O. (Sidenote: names made out of initials don’t work real well when repeated in a shaking-of-the-head chuckling sort of way.) Is there only one way to be sated by a movie? Sure, I love being surprised (see Kevin Spacey in L.A. Confidential), but I don’t necessarily mind something formulaic, as long as I like the formula and the execution is inventive. Hoosiers took a formula and made it sing. There was not one second of that movie where it deviated from the formula. It followed my expectations like a turn-by-turn GPS. It was the way in which it met and exceeded those expectations that made it a classic.

Casting Dennis Hopper as the town drunk, for example, was either brilliant or lucky. Remember this was long before he started doing ads for financial services. Back then Hopper had street cred as a member of the Easy Rider L.A. rat pack (and as a base to be touched in any James Dean biography). It would be hard to think of a social milieu more diametrically opposed to 1950s Indiana basketball. For Hopper to lean into a huddle and diagram a play in the final seconds of the game was like having your cool older brother give his blessing to a beloved object that you’d fretted might not rise to his standard. (Speaking of which, the producers’ first choice for the Gene Hackman role was Jack Nicholson. Just imagine. Normal Dale meets J.J. Gittes.) 

The climactic scenes of the championship game were filmed at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, on the campus of Butler University. I moved to Indy two years ago and one of the first things I learned is that you can’t swing a cat in this town without knocking over three eminently successful professionals who will underscore what’s most truly most important to them with the excitement in their voice when they tell you giddily: “I was an extra in the last scene of Hoosiers!”

Ben Hecht said childhood’s our brief sanity; if there’s one distinguishing feature of this particular sanity it’s that there are some stories we want to hear again and again. (I have young children. I speak the truth.) Hoosiers is one of those. No apologies necessary, A.O.     

March 3, 2009

Final MVC Reality: Beware Creighton

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 9:31 pm

The Missouri Valley Conference wrapped up its regular season this past weekend, amid speculation that runs contrary to the conventional wisdom we’ve heard virtually the entire season. Despite what we’ve been told, the league might have an at-large team in its midst after all.

First the final reality for the Valley in 2009:

The Missouri Valley: A Tempo-Free-Friendly League 
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
1.  N. Iowa          61.2    1.09   0.97   +0.12
2.  Creighton        66.3    1.10   1.00   +0.10
3.  Illinois St.     62.6    1.05   0.96   +0.09
4.  Bradley          61.8    1.03   1.01   +0.02
5.  S. Illinois      62.9    1.00   1.03   -0.03
6.  Evansville       64.5    0.97   1.01   -0.04
7.  Drake            62.5    0.97   1.01   -0.04
8.  Wichita St.      62.3    0.99   1.04   -0.05
9.  Indiana St.      63.0    0.99   1.04   -0.05
10. Missouri St.     62.4    0.96   1.06   -0.10
 

(Zounds, two sets of twins in a ten-team conference.)

The Valley is one of those wonderful leagues, like the Pac-10 and the Mountain West, where everyone plays everyone home and away. No need for fretting about SOS. Just look at actual on-court reality.  

Northern Iowa and Creighton tied for the regular season championship at 14-4. As seen here the Panthers finished the year as the tempo-free winner, but the Panthers are well nigh cursed, in selection committee terms, by the lackluster ball they played before New Year’s. (Ironically, one of the “worst” losses on the UNI resume was to a Big 12 team. Iowa State, now sporting an RPI of 150, came into Cedar Falls and beat the Panthers in OT on their home floor.)

No, the Valley’s best hope for an at-large is Creighton. The Bluejays are riding a ten-game winning streak and their late-season surge on offense has been well-documented. If Dana Altman‘s team can win an Arch Madness quarterfinal Friday evening against either Wichita State or Missouri State, they should at least be in contention for a bid, with their chances increasing still further with another win after that. 

Should these pieces indeed fall into place, pity the six- or seven-seed who’s worked hard all year to get to the tournament, only to find they have to defend an “underdog” featuring Booker Woodfox and P’Allen Stinnett in the first-round. 

March 2, 2009

Five Thoughts: Portland-San Antonio

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 7:56 pm

I spent last night working on a feature on the San Antonio Spurs that essentially avoided talking about their blowout loss to the Portland Trail Blazers at the Rose Garden. For the companion piece, here are my five observations (in no particular order) from last night’s game.

1. Portland’s two-man game was sweet.
The Blazers did the best job I’ve seen them do of establishing Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge by using the two of them together early in the game. In addition to having Aldridge screen for Roy on the ball, they also had Roy curl off of an Aldridge pick while Steve Blake handled at the top of the key, forcing the Spurs to decide between leaving either Aldridge or Roy open. Roy scored Portland’s first six points before Aldridge caught fire. They would end up outscoring San Antonio as a team in the first half (37-36) and finished with 26 points apiece on 31 shot attempts and 10 tries from the free-throw line. Oh, and neither of them committed a turnover either. Yikes.

2. Tim Duncan was shaking off the rust.
In his first game back after missing three with tendonosis in his right knee, Duncan looked out of sorts in the early going. There was one point early in the third quarter where I mused that Joel Przybilla had gotten the better of the matchup with Duncan, including one memorable play where he blocked Duncan’s shot while standing still and started a fast break at the other end. After the game, Duncan told reporters it was just a bad game, while Gregg Popovich concluded a terse interview session by saying of Duncan’s performance, “Write it how you want.”

What the Spurs don’t want is for Duncan’s knee to create a “will he or won’t he play?” situation along the lines of what Houston faced with Tracy McGrady before he decided to undergo microfracture knee surgery. Popovich said before the game that he anticipates having Duncan in the lineup for good.

3. The Blazers kept Tony Parker quiet.
Entering the game, Parker had 63 points and 20 assists in two games against Portland, shooting 27-of-46 (.587) from the field. So needless to say, the Blazers limiting Parker to 15 points on 7-of-1 shooting and four assists in this matchup was crucial to their lopsided victory. Looking at the shot chart, Portland did a better job of keeping Parker out of the paint, but also got a break because Parker simply didn’t have it. Seven of his 17 shot attempts came at the rim, which is much better than last Wednesday, when those easy looks accounted for 15 of his 27 tries (and 12 of his 17 makes). Even when he got to the cup, Parker was unable to convert, shooting 2-for-7 on those shots. And he missed all four of his true jumpers. The Blazers will still need to do a better job of keeping Parker out of the paint in the future. Of course, as Nate McMillan pointed out before the game, that task is easier said than done.

4. Evaluating George Hill’s defense.
It’s easy to see why the Spurs’ first-round pick is considered a potential top-tier defender. He starts with decent size for the point-guard position at 6-2 and adds arms that seem to stretch from one end of the court to the other. When Hill was matched with Sergio Rodriguez, however, he was badly beaten twice in a row when he was caught leaning the wrong way. Hill marks the ball well defensively, but may need to improve his instincts.

5. The Spurs played their youngsters.
The upside to the Blazers’ easy win, besides an impressive round of “the wave” (which is apparently quoted in AP style, per Mike Monroe’s article), was a chance to watch Malik Hairston in extended action. The rookie out of the nearby University of Oregon played 25 minutes in the second half, and newly-promoted Pops Mensah-Bonsu played most of the fourth quarter. After an impressive run late in Friday’s loss to Cleveland, the former D-Leaguers were not as strong this time around. I’m not sure I saw much to suggest either player is ready to be a contributor on a regular basis. Hairston is a couple of inches away from creating matchup problems as an undersized four (the role he filled for the Ducks). As is, he has no calling card at small forward, offering no better than average skills in any key area. Mensah-Bonsu was certainly active in his seven minutes on the floor, but did not really stand out.

Weekend in Hoops: Champs Clinching Everywhere

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 10:37 am

Nobody went 0-for-17 from the field or anything but it was still a lively couple of days….

Congratulations to this season’s first major-conference champion: LSU
The Tigers actually clinched at least a share of the SEC title last Tuesday night, with their 81-75 win over Florida in Baton Rouge. How does this tie in with what is nominally a post about the “weekend” in “hoops,” you ask. Well, on the ensuing weekend Trent Johnson‘s team visited Rupp Arena in Lexington and beat Kentucky 73-70, giving LSU the SEC title outright. The game-winner came with 9.8 seconds left when Tasmin Mitchell hit a three off a pick-and-pop with Marcus Thornton.

The Wildcats are getting a modicum of grief (even from potential U.S. Senate candidates!) for leaving Mitchell open on such a decisive–and basic–play. While of course you don’t want to leave anyone wide open in a tie game with ten seconds remaining, keep in mind that Thornton has made 64 threes this year and Mitchell, when the pick-and-pop was being executed, had at that moment made nine. Well, now he’s made ten.

And kudos as well to this season’s second major-conference champion: Washington
The Huskies clinched at least a share of the Pac-10 regular season title at about 5 Eastern on Saturday with their 83-78 win over Arizona in Seattle. For a Pac-10 champion, though, Lorenzo Romar‘s men aren’t inspiring a lot of fear from potential NCAA tournament opponents, are they? I think I see the problem.

Actually Connecticut‘s offense had much the same PR problem last year but with those Huskies it didn’t matter because everyone just assumed they were great on D. (Which UConn was not last year; they are this year, though. Off-topic. Never mind.) The problem is this: when you watch the Washington offense, you probably think to yourself, “Great Caesar’s ghost these guys miss a lot of shots. This can’t be a very good offense.” Au contraire! While it’s true U-Dub is not a good shooting team (ninth in the league in effective FG percentage in Pac-10 play), they are in fact a good offense (second in the league in points per trip in-conference). Offensive rebounding man-weapon Jon Brockman sees to that. It may not look pretty but offensive boards and free throws are the oxygen that this offense breathes. The 6-7 Brockman takes care of the former, and he and 5-8 freshman Isaiah Thomas both contribute to the latter endeavor.  

But wait! Order now and we’ll send you another conference champion: Michigan State
Speaking of conference champs who don’t need something as bourgeois as “good shooting” from “the field,” meet Tom Izzo‘s Spartans, assured a share of the Big Ten title after defeating Illinois 74-66 in Champaign yesterday. On offense, State is a virtual Washington clone (or maybe vice versa): shaky shooting offset by tremendous offensive rebounding and frequent trips to the line.

That being said, the big difference between last year and now in East Lansing is on defense. Izzo, whose very name is synonymous with defensive rebounding, is blessed with the best defensive rebounding team he’s had in years. This group has secured 75 percent of their Big Ten opponents’ misses. Izzo has no fewer than five players who each get to at least 18 percent of the other team’s misses during their minutes: Goran Suton, Raymar Morgan, Delvon Roe, Marquise Gray, and Draymond Green. If you’re a fan of strength on strength, pray for an Elite Eight game between Pitt‘s otherworldly offensive rebounding and this group. That would be one spectacular collision.

My streak of consecutive posts without a pun on Bill Self’s name continues!
Allow me to offer the following controversial and indeed purposely incendiary opening statement: If you lose your entire starting five one year and then win your conference the following year, you’re a pretty good coach.

Technically Kansas hasn’t clinched anything. In the reality where we all must live, however, the Jayhawks stand an excellent chance of finishing the Big 12 season at 15-1 and as outright champions after yesterday’s 90-65 disemboweling of Missouri in Lawrence. Cole Aldrich, he of the 19-14 double-double against the Tigers, really needs to sue Blake Griffin for loss of public attention or some such thing. Put it this way: Aldrich would be Player of the Year in at least one and possibly two major conferences this year. He combines shot-blocking and defensive rebounding better than anyone in the country except two notably underrated players: Jerome Jordan of Tulsa and John Bryant of Santa Clara. Aldrich also makes 62 percent of his twos while taking a share of the shots second only to that absorbed by Sherron Collins.

There is however one concern for Self going forward into the NCAA tournament. For the first time in three years he has a team on his hands that is really turnover-prone. On the other hand, let’s look at this glass as half-full. If KU can suddenly learn to take care of the ball, they can repeat. Seriously.

Villanova’s seed is dropping
Last seen in this space exploding for 100-plus points in back-to-back wins against quality Big East teams, Jay Wright‘s Wildcats have actually been outscored over their five post-explosion games, up to and including Saturday’s 56-54 loss at Georgetown. Which of course might make you say: Well, it’s the Big East, murderous schedule and all. Yes but keep in mind ‘Nova’s murderous five-game schedule here included a home game against Rutgers, a road game at DePaul, and zero encounters with any of the league’s top four teams (Connecticut, Pitt, Louisville, and Marquette). That’s not good.

The downturn has made itself felt on both sides of the ball but particularly worrisome has been something of a mini-collapse on defense, where Villanova has allowed its last five opponents to make a whopping 59 percent of their twos. (Again, keep in mind a full 40 percent of those opponents were Scarlet Knights and Blue Demons.) Tonight the Wildcats play at Notre Dame, where one Luke Harangody has been known to shoot the occasional two. Wright’s team may be well advised to hit 100 one more time.   

Throwing some love to an obscure player at an out-of-the way program
Why am I not hearing more about the year Ty Lawson is having on offense for North Carolina? I realize the NBA believes that Tar Heel point guards are capable of operating at one speed only (high), which tends to depress their draft stock. Since a given player’s buzz factor is in part draft-stock-driven, a net decrease in talk results.

But if you measure a player’s performance according to how well they fill the role that is given to them, you could ask if there’s any player in the country who’s had a better year on offense than Lawson. He has his usual insane assist rate (even higher than last year), along with minimal turnovers (lower than last year). That goes without saying. This year, though, he’s making 49 percent of his threes and 58 percent of his twos. Meaning he’s a threat to hurt an opposing defense at all times and in a number of different ways.

Lawson may not be what you’d call a Chris Kramer on D. But when a player performs at this kind of off-the-charts level on offense, the impolitic truth is you’re going to outscore the opponent anyway. 

Unfiltered-Back!
Don’t just mutter ineffectually; email me!

No coach wants to get really good at winning OT games
My piece on luck prompted the following:

Are there any good predictors for figuring out whether a team will overperform or underperform in overtime?

William S.

Overtime is to hoops roughly what the divisional series is to baseball: a contrived and highly abbreviated environment where the team that “should” win can in fact lose due to an exceedingly small number of more or less random occurrences.

A less wordy answer to the same question would be: foul trouble. Who’s still available after 40 minutes have been played?  

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