Basketball Prospectus: Unfiltered Everything Else is Fluff.

March 31, 2011

No time for premorse

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 10:16 am

“Premorse” is the ritual moment of collective self-expiation we are told we must engage in before the big annual sporting event. It’s a compulsory national moment of acknowledgment that there are Very Serious Problems in our sport. We reflect, we shake our heads sorrowfully, and we look very grave and responsible.

And then we get back to shouting at the TV.

I am all for acknowledging Very Serious Problems in the sport we’re all about to watch. But before we deploy a phrase like “Money and March Madness,” two reminders are in order. First, this very serious problem is arguably much more serious in a certain revenue-producing college sport that is not basketball. Here’s Andy Staples, at SI.com, contrasting the way postseason revenues are distributed in hoops vs. that other sport:

This weekend, the NCAA will stage the men’s basketball Final Four, the culmination of an event that will bring in an average of $771 million a year in television money over 14 years from CBS and Turner. A fraction of that money will go to run the NCAA. The rest will go to the schools. If Butler doesn’t sell enough tickets, the school won’t have to pay. The NCAA doesn’t require schools to buy a certain number of hotel rooms; on the contrary, the NCAA pays for the hotel rooms. And it shares the largesse from the tournament with the conferences and schools.

Second, this particular Very Serious Problem is not entirely of the NCAA’s making. Here’s John Infante, from a couple weeks ago:

It was not the NCAA who made the current deal offered to student-athletes the only one available. It was the NFL and NBA who took advantage of the fact that the NCAA operates the only 18-23 year old developmental league at zero cost to the professional league it feeds athletes into in the world. If Division I athletics were not played at the level they are, it would be both unconscionable and unprofitable to both bar high schoolers from entering the professional ranks and refuse to operate a minor league focused on development.

The NCAA does indeed find itself battling a rather nasty case of philosophical incoherence. You may prefer, as the NCAA does, that college athletes be amateurs in the strictest sense of the term, and certainly there’s nothing particularly objectionable or destructive about that preference in the abstract. But if you’re going to insist upon total adherence to that preference always and in every case without exception in 2011 and indeed enforce said adherence with an investigative arm and a faux penal code, you better have a robust and above all principled rationale that will support your insistence and your efforts. The NCAA has no such rationale, perhaps because amateurism, whatever else it may be, is not really a principle. The NCAA has arrived at this point honestly and incrementally over the course of more than 100 years, and I don’t blame them or find them particularly evil for having arrived at this philosophical incoherence. But this is where they are.

In a world where college basketball has a completely different revenue model than college football, it is this philosophical incoherence and not capital-M “Money” that spreads itself wide in “college sports,” most saliently across both football and basketball. Fair enough. My proposed solution there is on the table: players should be able to strike their own deals for representation from agents, endorsements, and the like, and the NCAA should know that the world will continue to spin, just as the Olympics have continued to be the Olympics even with professional athletes competing.

I am all for the NCAA having a media-savvy leader who will give non-defensive interviews and receive a salary commensurate with what someone who runs a modestly-sized not-for-profit staffed with a few hundred employees in low-cost Indianapolis should receive. I will sign that petition, truly. And if HBO’s “Real Sports” wants to criticize that not-for-profit, again, that’s their call. But to praise a subsidiary of Time Warner for alleged journalistic courage in taking on “big money” in college sports presents us with a rather a curious case of forest v. trees.

You might think the NCAA’s $770 million-per-year TV deal and its leader’s reported $1.7 million annual salary are big money. I do too. Then again Time Warner’s annual revenues dwarf the NCAA’s, and in 2010 Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes pulled down a reported $26.3 million. Time Warner’s a for-profit entity — I’m not suggesting we confiscate their hard-won cable subscription revenue. Merely that we pause for a moment and look very grave and serious before erecting any statues to journalistic independence and courage just yet.

It’s a tribute to the NCAA’s peculiar genius for mugging common sense with bylaws that grown people have to invest effort in saying things like: family members of players in the Final Four should be able to receive a little help if they need it to attend the games. This goes without saying. But it’s a long way from here to cries of exploitation and indentured servitude. Mike DeCourcy and Seth Davis have it precisely right. If at some point in the mid-2020s one or both of my two no-longer-little boys are fortunate enough to receive a full ride at a university because they can propel some kind of ball through some kind of goal, I will be the weird old guy you see turning cartwheels down the street and wearing the t-shirt that says “PLEASE EXPLOIT MY KIDS.”

The NCAA is many things, among them a bureaucracy, investigative agency, and most importantly a place where people who went to law school can earn a living without having to work for a law firm. Most of all, though, the NCAA is a wealth-transfer mechanism. The next time you see “the NCAA receives an average of $771 million annually from its TV deal,” add the words, “and redistributes about $730 million of that.” I don’t suppose that’s particularly noble or noteworthy — hundreds of not-for-profits do the same exact thing every day. But apparently it does need to be restated. Some of the largest consumer products companies in the U.S. send a few billion dollars the NCAA’s way each decade, and that money ends up funding bachelor’s degrees at campuses all over the country. If that is where you choose to invest your indignation, have at it. If that is your scandal, I wish you well. It is not mine.

Twitter: @JohnGasaway. Contact: here.

March 30, 2011

Hiring a coach requires nine nouns

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 11:09 am

If Ratatouille had looked past haute cuisine and instead concerned itself with the equally refined art of D-I basketball coaching, the money sound bite in the last reel would have gone like this:

Not everyone can become a great coach, but a great coach can come from anywhere.

That would be true — if athletic directors were armed with magical goggles that could reveal The Greatest Coach in the World Who is Not Currently a Major-Conference Head Coach. Maybe that person is currently a high school head coach somewhere. Maybe it’s a D-II assistant coach. Maybe such a person would be found marking time in a different line of work entirely.

But there are no such goggles, and D-I basketball coaching is hardly the only profession where advancement proceeds according to time-honored norms laid down by custom, habit, and the herd instinct. So, no, a great coach most emphatically cannot come from “anywhere.” All major-conference head coaches — the great and not-so alike — come from the same places: other major-conference programs, the CAA, C-USA, the A-10, the Missouri Valley, Ivy League, Horizon, MAAC, or the NBA.

There. In just nine nouns I captured the immediately preceding entry on the resumes of 73 percent of current major-conference head coaches, up to and including brand spanking newbies like Cuonzo Martin and Brian Gregory. Note to coaches at all levels everywhere: if you want to grow up to be a major-conference head coach you have basically two choices. Get yourself into one of these nine nouns, or be Steve Lavin. (And even Lavin had prior brushes with the major conferences, of course.)

When a coach is hired out of the Nine Nouns, the athletic director making that hire has plausible non-culpability if the coach doesn’t work out: “Hey, it’s not my fault I had to fire the guy after three seasons. He was selected in the time-honored way.” And if that new hire not only comes from the same old group of nouns but is additionally coming off a deep NCAA tournament run, it’s truly a no-brainer for the AD.

Luke Winn has already pointed out the reaching the Sweet 16 as a “hot” mid-major head coach is demonstrably no guarantor of future success at the major-conference level. Good luck saying that to the fans of the program that hires Shaka Smart. That’s why you’ll continue to hear Smart’s name or Brad Stevens‘ name for the foreseeable future. These guys offer major-conference athletic directors something far more precious than wins. No AD would ever be blamed if they hired Stevens or Smart into a major-conference gig and the coach subsequently wasn’t very good.

BONUS vocational guidance counseling! If you’ve never been a major-conference head coach before, your chances of becoming one are much better if you nab a head coaching gig in one of the above-named high-mid leagues than if you’re a major-conference assistant. (Big fish in a small pond, good. Small fish in a big pond, bad). As I write this there are 70 men employed as major-conference head coaches (there are three openings at the moment), and of that number just eight were assistants when they were hired into their current positions. Athletic directors are way more comfortable when they’ve seen you on TV pacing the sideline, barking at refs, and working the whiteboard during timeouts.

Probability says there’s no bloody way that True Coaching Ability, if there were such a thing available for measure, would really be so heavily concentrated in a population as tiny as “head coaches at high-mid-majors.” Put it this way: Jim Boeheim and Tom Izzo have worked out pretty well. They were hired with zero previous college head coaching experience.

Hey, go fight City Hall. You want the gig, jump through the established hoop.

Twitter: @JohnGasaway. Contact: here.

March 28, 2011

Basketball Prospectus: Now at the grown-ups’ table

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 2:30 pm

It’s been a mere 1200 days or so since Ken Pomeroy posted a piece on how best to measure a player’s effectiveness, thereby opening our doors for business here at Basketball Prospectus. Now, near the close of our fourth college season and smack in the middle of our fourth NBA season, I’m pleased to observe another milestone.

The NCAA has granted Prospectus media privileges at this week’s Final Four. Our man Kyle Whelliston will be on-site in Houston, observing keenly, writing perceptively, and just generally enjoying a brief respite where he’s not in a moving car. For some reason he’s fairly exuberant about Saturday’s early game.

Wherever basketball fans are also a bit curious about this here game, Prospectus has often been fortunate enough to find an attentive audience. And I know from personal experience that the NCAA numbers among its staff many curious basketball fans. So I was confident these two facts would net us Final Four access soon. I just didn’t know exactly how soon “soon” was going to be.

Now we know. Alert and au courant analytic hipsters of the NCAA, I salute you!

Twitter: @JohnGasaway. Contact: here.

Chalk Dies Harder

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 2:45 am

This time a year ago, I offered an autopsy of what John Gasaway termed “The Era of Chalk,” a three-year period with just one team seeded lower than No. 2 in the Final Four. That was sparked by a pair of five seeds advancing to Indianapolis for a Final Four that looks downright elitist by contrast to this year’s foursome: a No. 3, a No. 4, a No. 8 and a No. 11. As you may have already heard from Gasaway on Twitter, this is the least chalky Final Four in terms of seeds in history, and nothing comes particularly close.

FINAL FOURS GONE WILD
(Highest average seed, 1985-2011)

Year    Avg. Seed   #1s  Note

2011       6.5       0   Highest seed matchup ever (8/11)
2000       5.5       1   Two No. 8 seeds
2006       5.0       0   First time w/o a No. 1 seed
1986       3.75      2   LSU was first No. 11 seed
1992       3.25      1
2010       3.25      1   Just 2nd time w/two seeds 5 or lower

This year also proves an interesting addition to last year’s graph of Final Four seeds.

You can contact Kevin at kpelton@basketballprospectus.com. Follow him on Twitter at @kpelton.

March 23, 2011

An Unlikely Triple-Double

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 11:29 pm

The NBA regular season delivered one of its random gems Wednesday, when Houston Rockets center Chuck Hayes recorded a triple-double against the Golden State Warriors. Hayes, known more for his stout post defense than putting up statistics, got to double-figure points last of the three categories, scoring his 10th and 11th points midway through the fourth quarter. He added 14 rebounds and a career-high 11 assists, topping his previous best of eight.

Hayes is an unlikely triple-double candidate, but just how rare was his milestone? Dating back to 1986-87, Basketball-Reference.com lists 191 players who have posted point-rebound-assist triple-doubles. Of them, Hayes’ career assist average of 1.2 per game is second lowest.

Player                  Year  APG_car  APG_sea

Rodney White           02-03    1.1      1.7
Chuck Hayes            10-11    1.2      2.4
Robert Parish          86-87    1.4      2.2
Clarence Weatherspoon  93-94    1.5      2.3
Sam Perkins            92-93    1.5      2.0
Kenny Thomas           05-06    1.5      2.0

Hayes’ triple-double looks a little more predictable when we consider his assist average this season, which is best of this group. Hayes has been handing out extra assists lately, including seven in a win a week ago. On the other hand, most of the other guys were nightly double-double threats. Hayes had just 15 double-doubles in his career, so getting the points and rebounds categories filled in was no sure thing. (This is also true for Rodney White, a middling rebounder. He also had a 12th of his total assists for the season in his triple-double, almost certainly the most improbable in modern NBA history.)

Unlikely or not, Hayes’ triple-double meant a night to remember for a player whose contributions are rarely found in the box score.

You can contact Kevin at kpelton@basketballprospectus.com. Follow him on Twitter at @kpelton.

The RVA Revolution and the RPI Test

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kyle Whelliston @ 3:36 pm

Richmond, Virginia isn’t just a place to get a 21st Century dinner on the way back from Colonial Williamsburg anymore. Its erstwhile role as seat of the Confederacy has been superseded by its new status as the capital of NCAA Tournament’s Southwest region. Virginia Commonwealth and University of Richmond have put the River City on the national college basketball map. It might also end up as a crucial battleground in the fight for college basketball’s future.

Much has been written in this space, and by fellow Prospectors elsewhere, about the university game’s odd relationship with the past, most specifically with the Ratings Percentage Index equation that was introduced to the selection process in 1981. There was no “eye test” back then (“Bette Davis Eyes”, however? On 8-track? Yes.) The formula was designed to go where the TV cameras couldn’t, to measure all teams equally. It was as applicable to any of the NCAA’s games — volleyball, soccer, lacrosse, and so on — and ended up being as soullessly borderline-functional as any other multi-sport contraption. There were 22 at-larges in a 48-team men’s basketball bracket that year. This sport’s selection process has become the most intricate and scrutinized (and leads to the most profitable event the NCAA has), and obviously deserves more detailed metrics. That shouldn’t even be a debate with an opposite side.

It took nearly three decades for the NCAA to provide a measure of transparency about their selection process (beyond 1. Regular Season 2.3. Bracket!). I have attended a mock selection exercise in Indianapolis, and I have tasted the Kool-Aid. I have found it to be tart and refreshing. There is no possible logical way that the selection committee could conspire to keep any team out or let any other team in, and no tinfoil hat conductive enough to make me believe otherwise. There are too many people in that room, too much need for consensus and compromise, too much due process, and too many team sheets.

The following is a reasonable facsimile of the official team résumé that allowed VCU into the NCAA Tournament as one of the last four at-larges, despite a title game loss to Old Dominion in the Richmond-based CAA tourney. Greg Shaheen and the other wonderful folks at the NCAA were kind enough to allow me to replicate the template for my website.

Whatever theory you have about why VCU was included in the field, this is how they got in — the one-sheet that serves as the starting point of all discussion in that room on the 15th floor of the Indianapolis Westin. Though Shaheen and others insist that the RPI is just one tool in the process, note how much of this sheet has something to do with the forumla. In the top corner, the average RPI win and loss. The level of wins’ quality is displayed left to right, in order by opponent RPI. RPI, RPI, RPI. The sheet would fall apart without it.

By this measure, VCU did have two “signature” top 25 wins — against fellow Colonial Athletic Association teams. Teams from the CAA won 57 percent of its non-conference regular season games in 2010-11 (82-60), but went 6-16 on aggregate against teams from the largest six leagues. They did finish 9-7 against the Atlantic 10, though, and 3-2 against Conference USA, their peer leagues on the East Coast.

And by this formula, citymates Richmond scored a “top 50 win,” one of their three against three losses, by beating VCU on December 11 in the Black and Blue Classic. We’ll never know if the Spiders would have been admitted as an at-large, because they won their title game, at the Atlantic 10 tourney. They beat Purdue, just like VCU did in the Tournament — the No. 12 team in the RPI. Their next best win against a Big Six power-conference team was in the third column: Seton Hall (No. 102).

The CAA’s success is strikingly similar to the four-bid Valley of 2006: a losing record against the six best conferences (12-15) but solid performance against peer leagues (6-3 vs. the Horizon). When conference play came along, the best teams split series and shared RPI power. Then, as now, some in the industry could not accept non-televised games against top conference teams as important, and trotted out vague terms like “eye test.”

But sooner or later, leagues at this level will figure this out. Theoretically, CAA and Atlantic 10 and Horizon League and Missouri Valley and Conference USA teams could ignore the top leagues altogether, beat each other all winter before league season starts, share the RPI strength, and flood the 10-13 seed lines with mid-major at-larges in March. We’d have 11 over 6 and 12 over 5 every year, and lots of $1.2 million NCAA Tournament conference win shares for everybody. I hereby call for a meeting among the heads of the five families, to build a scheduling consortium to help make this happen.

And then we’d find out if there really is an NCAA conspiracy against mid-majors. If there is, they’d go ahead and use that opportunity to ditch the RPI.

The Exception That Proves the Rule

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 2:14 pm

I hadn’t thought about the Los Angeles Lakers’ three-point defense in a while before Kevin Ding of the Orange County Register checked in on my Unfiltered post the last time the Lakers hosted the Phoenix Suns. Notes Ding:

The Lakers led the NBA in 3-point defense last season. So it wasn’t that likely for them to do so well again this season considering the random element involved in that statistic.

[…]

The Lakers did do something to help their 3-point defense since then this season, though.

The changes made in their defensive scheme have meant Lakers defenders stick with 3-point shooters better and concede more mid-range shots. At least in some part because of that, the Lakers entered Phoenix’s second visit to play them at Staples Center on Tuesday night ranked third in the NBA in 3-point defense. The Lakers were allowing 33.6 percent success on 3-pointers, trailing only Chicago and Miami.

By virtue of playing the Suns, the Lakers dropped slightly to fourth in the league. But they are still the only team that has ranked in the NBA’s top five in defending the three-point line each of the last three years.

    2011   2010   2009
1    CHI    LAL    CLE
2    PHI    CHA    ORL
3    MIA    OKC    LAL
4    LAL    MIA    CHI
5    ATL    BOS    BOS

Looking at that list, I may be underrating the extent to which a defense’s overall ability to contest shots predicts its three-point percentage allowed. Other than this year’s Hawks, all the rest of the teams in the top five in three-point defense have also been top 10 defenses overall. So we may be able to improve our ability to predict opponent three-point percentage by considering other factors. Still, the sheer randomness involved makes it difficult to expect teams to consistently be elite at defending the three–except the Lakers.

As for the defensive changes, Ding’s excellent reporting helped lead to this Sebastian Pruiti post on just what exactly the Lakers are doing differently and why.

You can contact Kevin at kpelton@basketballprospectus.com. Follow him on Twitter at @kpelton.

L-L-L-L-L-Live chat at 1 ET

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 8:54 am

Did you know NAPA stands for National Automotive Parts Association, and that it dates to 1925? Half of what I know in life I was spurred to google through the magic of repeated exposure to hypnotically annoying commercials.

Let’s talk about that. Plus basketball. Drop your questions in advance or join in starting at 1 ET: click here.

March 21, 2011

Starting tomorrow: The essential Sweet 16 previews

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 12:53 pm

It took 52 games and five days but we at last have a Sweet 16, one that is exactly as chalk (or not) as last year’s. The average seed of surviving teams is 5.0, just like in 2010. What are the chances?

Seen in historical terms, that number represents a fair amount of mayhem in the brackets. For your future reference here are the extremes….

Wackiest no-chalk Sweet 16s
Highest average seed, 1985 – 2011

       Avg. seed
1986      5.6
1999      5.5
1990      5.5

Least wacky all-chalk Sweet 16s
Lowest average seed, 1985 – 2011

       Avg. seed
2009      3.1
1989      3.1
2007      3.2

Seeing as the NCAA invested this much effort in whittling the field down to 16 teams, we’ve decided to spread our four full-length Sweet 16 previews across two whole days, starting tomorrow. It’ll be a preview roadblock, courtesy of Ken Pomeroy (East and Southwest) and yours truly (Southeast and West).

As with the regional previews you enjoyed last week, the analysis will be lucid, lilting, and log5-fueled, guaranteed. See you tomorrow!

Log5: Sweet 16

Filed under: Uncategorized — Ken Pomeroy @ 1:35 am

Here’s your up-to-the-minute log5 table for the remaining 16 teams. Some pertinent notes…

– All participants have improved their chances of winning except for San Diego State and Kentucky, who get hurt by a combination of a lack of upsets in their region and a close call in one of their previous tournament games.

– Congratulations to VCU, whose Sweet 16 appearance was given a 1.2% chance of occurring and now reigns as the most improbable tournament event this season.

– Bo Ryan should send a bouquet to Brad Stevens, and likewise, Bill Self should send bouquets to many people. There are no guarantees that either wins his next game of course, but for each the path to Houston is a lot easier than could have been anticipated a week ago.

The numbers in the table represent the chance in percent of a team advancing to the round in question. San Diego State deserves a dash of home court for playing a couple hours away from campus this week, but that is not included here as it was not included in the pre-tourney calculations.

                        Elite8  Final4  Final   Champ    Prev
 1. 1E   Ohio St.        75.2    62.0    41.9    30.6    21.6
 2. 1SW  Kansas          81.1    66.3    42.8    19.8    12.4
 3. 1W   Duke            82.9    56.5    29.4    19.0    15.3
 4. 4SE  Wisconsin       79.0    47.4    25.0     9.5     2.5
 5. 2W   San Diego St.   59.0    24.5     9.4     4.7     5.0
 6. 3SE  BYU             56.4    27.7    12.7     4.0     2.7
 7. 4E   Kentucky        24.8    15.1     6.4     3.1     3.4
 8. 2E   North Carolina  63.4    16.5     6.0     2.5     1.6
 9. 2SE  Florida         43.6    18.8     7.6     2.0     1.4
10. 3W   Connecticut     41.0    13.8     4.3     1.8     1.0
11. 10SW Florida St.     64.2    17.6     5.9     1.2     0.09
12. 12SW Richmond        18.9     9.7     3.0     0.5     0.06
13. 11E  Marquette       36.6     6.3     1.6     0.5     0.1
14. 5W   Arizona         17.1     5.3     1.1     0.3     0.2
15. 8SE  Butler          21.0     6.0     1.5     0.2     0.04
16. 11SW VCU             35.8     6.5     1.4     0.2     0.0005
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