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December 20, 2012

Forget Kabongo, let’s keep the focus on me

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 11:17 am

Last night we learned that the NCAA has once again done something narrowly consistent yet broadly and irredeemably idiotic, suspending Texas point guard Myck Kabongo for the season. It seems the sophomore was less than truthful when the NCAA asked him about his dealings with agent Rich Paul and a trip to Cleveland last spring, one where Kabongo worked out with a professional trainer.

The fact that talking to or even having an agent, traveling to Cleveland, and participating in a workout are all perfectly licit activities has once again eluded the NCAA. To busy people with mortgages and kids, this kind of thing is, of course, beneath trivial. And I know from personal experience that the NCAA is staffed by exceptionally bright and well-intentioned busy people who do indeed have mortgages and kids. Yet somehow the organization as a whole lacks this essential perspectival flywheel. How these two undeniable truths can both be equally true is a paradox worthy of Michael Lewis if not Chekhov, but there it is.

Mind you, just because Kabongo has furnished the latest occasion for the NCAA to display its unique brand of silliness doesn’t make him an ideal victim. He’s been more inconvenienced than victimized. Kabongo knew the silly rules going in, and, anyway, his “punishment” is that, should he choose to avail himself of the opportunity, he’ll continue to get a free ride at one of our nation’s most outstanding universities while he prepares for a fantastically lucrative career in professional basketball.

My stake in this centers not on Kabongo, who will be fine, but on the NCAA tournament. It’s surpassingly close to perfect the way it is, but whenever the NCAA does something Kabongo-level stupid I worry that the major-conference programs will at long last say, “We’re done here.” I could envision the FBS-level programs forming their own postseason basketball tournament, one where the participants set and enforce their own standards of academic eligibility, throw the RPI in the trash, and smile, as does reality, on the otherwise innocuous boundary between amateurism and professionalism.

It could happen, and with the suddenness of the Big East collapsing. A tournament where Cinderella is drawn from the likes of Georgia Tech and UCLA is not my idea of March Madness. My preference would be that the NCAA wake up and realize they can be made to look like Mike Aresco in a heartbeat.

BONUS sartorial note! I have a t-shirt I wear whenever the NCAA does something like this.

The front:

The trouble with amateurism isn’t that it’s being enforced by a peculiarly well-heeled organization. The trouble is that “enforcing” something as unthreatened and commonplace as amateurism is simply odd to begin with, like “enforcing” shyness, procrastination, or eye contact. Amateurism and professionalism coexist naturally and strike their own bargains every day of the week in non-NCAA settings.

And the back:

I’m proud to announce I’ve discovered an “ideal of the amateur coach.” Compared to the thin and meager history behind that wobbly and dubious model of the amateur athlete, I can footnote my exciting new ideal something fierce, citing precedents dating back to Socrates. Henceforth coaches will receive no outside compensation, no endorsement deals, no fees from speaking engagements, nothing. Schools can pay for a coach’s room and board and a few other incidental expenses, but that’s it.

I wear this shirt quite often.

Twitter: @JohnGasaway. Contact: here.

December 19, 2012

Is Pitt for real or just weird?

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 12:17 pm

In Joe Lunardi‘s latest mock bracket at ESPN, he projects that fans in Indianapolis will get to see top seed Indiana disembowel either Texas Southern or Western Illinois, before moving on to meet the winner of an 8-9 Pitt vs. Kansas State matchup. Were the Panthers to prevail in their round of 64 game against the Wildcats, it would set up a collision between what are now two of the best five or six teams in the country statistically.

It’s true. Whether your laptop-based rating system of choice comes from Jeff Sagarin or Ken Pomeroy, you’ll find Jamie Dixon‘s team ranked right up there with the Hoosiers, Syracuse, Michigan, and that snooty crowd. This is what happens when you outscore your opponents by 0.41 points per possession.

So much for laptops. Humans know that Pitt hasn’t beaten “anyone” (their “best” win would be their victory at home over Lehigh), and that they were taken to overtime at home by Oakland. That’s why the Panthers are still unranked.

I’m here to mediate this laptop-human tussle. It’s what I do.

Even though Pitt laid an egg against the Golden Grizzlies, there’s a significant likelihood that the Panthers are for real, where “real” simply means something closer to what the laptops are saying (No. 5 or 6) than what the humans are voting (No. 27). Note for example that the performance we’re seeing from this team is not merely a case of showing off against helpless opponents. These guys are just good. In the Panthers’ last two home blowouts, the starters have averaged just 22 minutes.

And, anyway, why single out Pitt for their weak schedule? To this point that schedule (No. 288 SOS in Division I) rates out as similar to Ohio State‘s weak schedule (No. 276), and stronger than Missouri‘s weak schedule (320). Good teams sometimes play weak schedules. Indeed, Pitt, Ohio State, and Missouri are all one-loss teams that came up short in their one shot against an elite opponent (Michigan, Duke, and Louisville, respectively).

At the moment Dixon has no fewer than six players who’ve posted offensive ratings of 125 or better. Let’s put that into context: Steven Adams is a seven-foot freshman who’s projected to play in the NBA someday. He already takes excellent care of the ball and makes 60 percent of his twos. And on this roster that’s been good enough to make him the No. 9 option on offense.

Naturally I’ll be much more confident in my grasp of Pitt’s true worth once Big East play begins. That’s why, for now, I have ranked the Panthers at a lowly No. 10, and not the lofty No. 5 or 6 suggested by the rating systems. But you should harbor no illusions about what’s taken place so far. Scoring 1.27 points per possession is amazing, and this team’s performance to date has been far more aberrant than their schedule. If we’re lucky, Indiana and Pitt really will play in the NCAA tournament, because the Hoosiers and Panthers may turn out to have the two best offenses in the country.

Twitter: @JohnGasaway. Contact: here.

December 17, 2012

How to keep your realignment indignation pure

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 1:43 pm

On Saturday, the Big East’s seven Catholic universities — DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall, and Villanovaannounced that they’re leaving the conference. Some group of teams somewhere will still call themselves the “Big East” in the years to come, but go ahead and scrawl “Died of a Theory” across the whole idea that major-conference basketball programs without FBS football can share a league affiliation with schools that have goalposts. The Big East tried to make that idea work, but couldn’t.

The remaining members of the conference — Cincinnati, Connecticut, and South Florida — will either flee to another major conference or, failing that, will poach new members from the ranks of the mid-majors. Ostensibly Temple (already a Big East member for football), Memphis, SMU, UCF, and Houston are due to arrive next season, with Tulane to follow in 2014-15, but how much of this will actually come to pass is and will remain an open question.

In response to all of the above, Bearcats head coach Mick Cronin has garnered many amens for being so prompt in screaming from beneath the waves:

It’s a shame that football, one sport, has dictated all this and the money that one sport apparently is swinging around and swaying universities to make the decisions. We’re sitting here in a state [West Virginia — UC won at Marshall on Saturday] where the state school is 800 miles from its closest road game. It’s ridiculous. Don’t tell me that people care about student-athletes.

Lost in the shuffle in all this is our volleyball team, our soccer team, Marshall’s tennis team. It’s all ridiculous. Let’s call it what it is. I’ve thought about this long and hard and I’ve waited to say this. If it’s all about this much money and money grabbing, the players need to get paid.

Amen! Wait, make that: Amen on one discrete and specific matter!

It is indeed ridiculous for, say, West Virginia‘s soccer program to be flung together with teams from Lubbock, Texas, and Manhattan, Kansas, simply because those groupings were at one time believed to make good revenue sense for football. Ridiculous and wholly needless. Geography should reign supreme in the matter of conference alignments for non-revenue sports.

The rest of Cronin’s statement, however, is very strange. Conference realignment has nothing to do with the NCAA’s indefensible blanket insistence that student-athletes maintain their amateur standing at all times and in all cases. In an alternate scenario where the NCAA had long since made its peace with an Olympic-style blend of amateurism and professionalism, major-conference presidents and ADs would still be hopping from conference to conference. The calculus that leads programs to switch conferences would be exactly the same, even with a reality-based NCAA. It’s as if Cronin’s house has just been leveled by a hurricane, and when he’s interviewed in the rubble he uses the occasion to complain about our trade imbalance with China.

Besides, even if the timing of Cronin’s statement had been more logical, there would still be strangeness worth unpacking here. Having quite correctly railed at College Sports Today for lumping together all athletes — the revenue and non-revenue alike — he then proceeds to lump together all athletes and say they should “get paid.”

Why on earth should we pay a soccer player at West Virginia? Instead, I propose to make that young man or woman an offer they can’t refuse. No more trips to Lubbock, and in return you get free tuition. The essentials of that offer will be sufficient to deliver just results for 99.9 percent of Division I student-athletes. And if a tiny sliver of those student-athletes is somehow able to generate enough interest so that an advertiser and/or an agent wants to enter into a contractual arrangement, that’s perfectly fine.

A rationale for prohibiting such arrangements has never been offered. I should know. I issued an open invitation for such a rationale, one phrased in terms of the tangible good it does for student-athletes. That was two years ago, to the day. I’m still waiting.

Realignment’s a shame because it killed a jewel of a basketball conference, and killed it as dead as the Whigs. Realignment would have killed that conference with or without a philosophically confused NCAA. Scream accordingly.

Twitter: @JohnGasaway. Contact: here.

December 11, 2012

Marcus Smart and the accuracy cliff

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 2:09 am

Yesterday Mike DeCourcy named Oklahoma State freshman Marcus Smart as one of the young college basketball season’s “upside surprises.” Here are Mike’s comments on Smart, in full:

After watching Smart dominate yet another major opponent (South Florida) in yet another Cowboys victory, it felt like time to thumb through the Sporting News college basketball preview issue to double-check whether he’d been included on one of our three All-America teams. Alas, we missed on that, but he was one of the five players on our all-freshman team.

That still puts us far ahead of the person who, with a number of games passed, ranked Smart as the No. 14 freshman in the nation.

No. 14! Among freshmen!

People, Marcus Smart has been the best college player in the nation to this point.

We knew he was going to be great. We did not expect that. Smart ranks only third on the OK State team in scoring (13.4), but leads in rebounding (7.4) and assists (5.0). He’s had a completely transformative effect on a team that last season finished 15-18. It’s far too early to say who’ll be your Sporting News player of the year — UNLV’s Anthony Bennett is pushing for that, as well as freshman of the year — but Smart is in the conversation.

I’m pretty sure Mike was referring to me, for I did indeed name Smart the No. 14 freshman in the nation last week. Actually, I thought I was pretty effusive in my remarks:

After coaching the FIBA U-18 team for the United States last summer, Billy Donovan told anyone who would listen that Marcus Smart was a special player, and Smart has certainly lived up to Donovan’s hype. The freshman’s already asserted himself as the third Cowboy — along with Le’Bryan Nash and Markel Brown — who’s on the floor more or less all game, every game. And continuing with our theme of big point guards, Smart is the biggest of the lot at 6-4 and 225 pounds. That size gives him the unique distinction of having not only a great assist rate but also a pretty decent (16.5) defensive rebound percentage. (Smart may also be the only point guard to rank among the nation’s top 400 players in block percentage.) His best contributions on offense by far have come from the aforementioned assists and at the free throw line, for he’s yet to show perimeter range and is shooting just 46 percent inside the arc.

If that sounds like I like Marcus Smart, I do. I’ve watched his games, I’ve marveled at his motor, I’ve shouted my praise from the rooftops in real time, and I was careful to get in on the ground floor of Oklahoma State fever.

But the funny thing about Smart is that his shots just have not gone in. That, in a narrow journalistic sense, is the really interesting story presented by Smart so far. I love him, you love him, Mike loves him, we all love him, and I’m convinced we’re right to feel as we do. But his shots just have not gone in.

Ordinarily when a player’s shots don’t go in, we can cite any one of a number of exculpatory circumstances on his behalf. He has to carry the offense, say, and so he’s attempting an insane number of shots. Or maybe he’s a point guard who has to not only run the offense but also do a lot of scoring.

Alas, those alibis don’t work so well with Smart.

Stats from KenPom, through Sunday, December 9.

Feast your eyes on 14 freshmen: Smart, plus the 13 players I ranked ahead of him, based on performance over a really short period of time. Compared to his peer freshmen, Smart is measurably horrible from the field, and his struggles can’t be written off on account of workload. Other freshmen, including freshmen at the same position, have done much better with the same or even larger workloads.

That graph can be made to look even worse for Smart by including the 11 freshmen I ranked under him. I rated Smart quite highly anyway because I like him in real time when I watch him (see above), his defense is incredible (steals plus defensive boards), he draws nearly six fouls per 40 minutes, and he shoots 79 percent at the line.

In other words, Mike and I like a lot of the same things about Smart. The fact that Mike drew a vastly different conclusion (“Marcus Smart has been the best college player in the nation to this point”) than I did (No. 14 freshman and all that) will be represented by dreary people as an eyes vs. numbers thing.

Oh, please. Mike watched Smart’s games, and so did I. Mike used three stats in his blurb on Smart, and so did I.

What I like most about the accurate performance measures that Mike did not use in this instance is that they free up a person in his position to make supra-performance arguments. Instead of rehashing flawed numbers that merely reflect a player getting a lot of minutes and shots, Mike could have said this:

So Marcus Smart is shooting 21 percent on his threes. So what? Thanks for the brilliant insight, John Gasaway. What you have to understand is that Travis Ford needed Smart to at least try those threes. This is not a perimeter-oriented team, and what you see as a flaw in Smart’s performance is actually statistical testimony in support of a ferocious competitor, one who was given an order and saluted smartly.

I could be won over by an argument like that, and I really do think No. 14 represents “the floor” with respect to where I’ll be ranking Smart as the season progresses. I look forward to proclaiming Marcus Smart as a true upside surprise. Accurately.

Twitter: @JohnGasaway. Contact: here.

December 4, 2012

Orlando’s Five Closers

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 2:24 am

Demonstrating that Sunday night’s win at the Staples Center was no fluke, the Orlando Magic followed it up Monday by going to Golden State and beating the Warriors in the second half of a back-to-back set. The two wins followed a similar script. After hanging around for three and a half quarters, Orlando blew the game open with efficient scoring down the stretch.

It turns out this has quietly been going on for a while. The Magic’s finishing lineup–starters Jameer Nelson, Arron Afflalo, Glen Davis and Nikola Vucevic and sixth man J.J. Redick–has been one of the league’s most efficient fivesomes this season. Entering Monday night’s game, this lineup had played 67 minutes together, per NBA.com/Stats, outscoring opponents by 41 points. Their 121.2 Offensive Rating ranks fourth among lineups with at least 50 minutes. Both figures went up Monday night, when Orlando finished the game on a 23-15 run after Nelson returned to the game, scoring at a rate of 153.3 points per 100 possessions.

This would all be less surprising if they did not play for a 7-10 team with the NBA’s 28th-best offense. NBA.com/Stats shows two other Magic lineups that have outscored opponents by even 10 points on the season, and both are nothing more than Small Sample Size Theatre. For comparison’s sake, Orlando’s starting lineup–with rookie Maurice Harkless in place of Redick–is -12 in 62 minutes.  The team’s other two most common lineups have been outscored by at least 20 points.

The perimeter trio of Afflalo, Nelson and Redick makes this lineup click. All three players are dangerous outside shooters and can handle the basketball, keeping defenses off balance. Davis and Vucevic have enough range that opposing defenses must respect them, and the Magic doesn’t give up much size at the other end of the court, making the lineup viable for extended minutes. Still, I wouldn’t expect to see it starting games. Orlando also needs Redick as the anchor of a second unit otherwise lacking in shot creators, though a healthy Al Harrington might offer more scoring punch off the bench at some point. For now, the Magic’s finishing lineup remains the NBA equivalent of a closer, to be deployed sparingly but to great effect.

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

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