Basketball Prospectus: Unfiltered Everything Else is Fluff.

February 8, 2010

Weekend in Hoops: Unruly fans, no point guard, elite team

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 10:50 am

Yes, sadly, West Virginia has its coin-hurling partisans and, yes, there is no “true” point guard in Morgantown. Even so, possession for possession the Mountaineers have played better than any other Big East team thus far. 

Tonight Bob Huggins‘ team will be tested when Villanova pays a visit to WVU Coliseum as part of ESPN’s Rivalry Week. Nor do things get any easier after that, as the Mountaineers will next travel to Pitt for a rare Friday night tilt against a Panther team that figures to be, oh I don’t know, just a little fired up. So really this is a dumb time to write about West Virginia. Conventional wisdom says you only shine a light on a Big East team when they’re about to play Rutgers. That way you know you won’t be undercut by tomorrow’s headlines. Maybe so, but let’s at least take note of what we’ve already seen from this team.

First and foremost we’ve seen a defense that, along with that of Syracuse, is the best in the Big East. The Orangemen get a ton of ink with their 2-3 zone, and deservedly so. Their D really has been magnificent this year and, of course, Jim Boeheim‘s team went to Morgantown on January 16 and emerged with a one-point win. I just wish to point out that the West Virginia defense merits equal time. In fact the two squads have been virtually indistinguishable this season, both holding Big East opponents to just 0.96 points per trip.

On offense the Mountaineers aren’t as good as Villanova, but they’re better than anyone else in the Big East and, more importantly, better than you’ve been given reason to believe. Let others worry about this team’s lack of a “true” point guard. Da’Sean Butler is a 6-7 “small forward” who dishes assists, hits threes, drives into the paint, and shoots 77 percent at the line. Devin Ebanks will likely go in the first round this summer. And Kevin Jones is more efficient than all of the above, hitting 44 percent of his rare threes and 59 percent of his frequent twos. 

Put it this way. If the no-true-point-guard West Virginia offense is somewhat worrisome to you while scoring 1.14 points per trip, then the Syracuse offense must be in mortal peril because it scores “just” 1.10 points for every possession in conference play. (Obviously both figures are excellent.) But I think it’s more likely that a team turning the ball over on just 17 percent of its possessions in Big East play, like the Mountaineers, has its point-guard activities in good hands, even if said activities are being shared. 

Nevertheless, at some point Huggins’ team will lose a game and, just as sure as a personal-injury attorney has the ad on the back cover of your yellow pages, you’ll hear that West Virginia’s “lack of a true point guard” came back to haunt them yet again. When you hear that, just substitute “failed to conform with our visual expectations and with long-held folklore” for “lack of a true point guard.” After all, for years another piece of sports folklore held with absolute certainty that a quarterback under 6-3 or even 6-4 couldn’t possibly succeed in the NFL. How’s that looking in 2010?

What the heck happened to Texas?
The other featured Rivalry Week game on ESPN tonight will be Kansas versus Texas. Since the moment they were voted the number one team in the nation on January 18, the Longhorns have gone 2-4, with road losses to Kansas State, Connecticut, and Oklahoma, as well as a loss at home in OT to Baylor. What’s the problem?

Offense. In each of their three losses in-conference UT scored less than a point per trip. Right now the ‘Horns are just average in terms of how well they shoot both twos and threes. I’ve praised Rick Barnes in the past for doing so well on something I call the “barrage factor,” basically how well a team combines a high number of offensive rebounds with a low number of turnovers. Texas is on-track to excel there again this season, but they just can’t get the ball in the basket. On paper one would not expect that to change against a defense like KU’s, which is why colleague Ken Pomeroy‘s computer expects the Longhorns to lose a close game tonight. We shall see. 

In today’s less Lone Star State venues….
Michigan State has come back to the Big Ten field
, losing road games at Wisconsin and then Illinois. The latter result was helped along by the fact that MSU’s Kalin Lucas missed the game with a sprained ankle and is now in the weird vaporous “day-to-day” realm. The Spartans are now just one game ahead of the Illini and, perhaps more saliently, the Badgers and Ohio State, with Purdue just one back in the loss column as well. Evan Turner is right, this race is now wide open. And tomorrow’s Tuesday Truths will show a new per-possession leader in the Big Ten….Rampant conference egalitarianism! (ctd.) The A-10 just got a lot more messy. Xavier and Temple entered the weekend as the league’s best teams, but the Musketeers were pasted by 25 at Dayton, while the Owls lost by 17 at Richmond. At 8-1 your league leader is now Charlotte, though not in per-possession terms. Stop by Tuesday Truths tomorrow….Rampant conference egalitarianism! (ctd., pt. II) Not only did BYU lose at UNLV 88 to 74, they lost while looking really beatable. The Cougars entered this game sporting some truly gaudy Kenpom numbers, but the most gaudy feature of this game was the 12-for-23 three-point shooting that the Rebels put up against the visitors. BYU, UNLV, and New Mexico now share the Mountain West lead with two losses apiece….Rare conference clarity! The last best chance for a team to seriously challenge Kentucky in the SEC was probably Vanderbilt, and the Commodores looked really unimpressive in losing at Georgia by 14….Cal won a road game (at UCLA), thereby wresting control of the Pac-10 race (ha). The Bears are 7-4. Half the league (literally) is 6-5. Meanwhile people are yelling at Oregon coach Ernie Kent for losing at Oregon State by 20….Maryland stomped on North Carolina 92-71 in College Park. I love the storied Carolina-Duke rivalry as much as anyone, but in 2010 it’s going to be the two upcoming games between the Terrapins and the Blue Devils that really matter….Whoops, this one does take place in the Lone Star State. I must tell you I was skeptical of early-season attentions paid to UTEP. I thought said attentions were purely a product of Derrick Carater‘s unlikely presence in far distant El Paso. Well, they probably were. (He has a frohawk, an interesting personal history, and he used to play for Rick Pitino. Survey says: Coverage! Even in El Paso.) But the coverage-independent truth is the Miners have indeed turned out to be the best team in the exciting first season of a sassy new post-Memphis CUSA. Coach Tony Barbee, I salute you!

Don’t just mutter ineffectually; email me!

I post an impassioned anti-RPI screed from a reader annually
Here is this year’s. It was written before Northwestern beat Indiana 78-61 yesterday in Evanston.

With nine regular season games remaining, NU still has some work to do to get off the bubble. Meaning the Wildcats’ RPI is currently 61.

Win eight of those nine and things should be great: 23-8 overall and 11-7 in-conference. Sure, that’s not likely, but if the Cats pull off the improbable it should really boost their RPI, right?

No. In such a scenario Northwestern’s RPI will actually fall to 67 under this inane “scheduling is destiny” system.

And if NU miraculously wins all nine remaining games (which, again, won’t actually happen) their RPI will stay about the same. These results are predestined by the fact that the Wildcats will play Iowa, Indiana, and Penn State twice, and Chicago State once. But I defy any of your readers to say that Northwestern is a better team now than they would be if they went 8-1 the rest of the way.

I hope the valuable missionary work that you, Ken Pomeroy, and others have done over the years has appropriately diminished the status of the RPI in the eyes of the selection committee. If Northwestern is excluded from the NCAA tournament based on their Sagarin or Pomeroy ratings, I can accept that. And if they’re excluded because of too few good wins or too many bad losses, I can accept that.

But if Northwestern is excluded on the basis of RPI, I will be angry and will redouble my efforts to see that a better system is used to select tournament teams.

Ben J.

Strictly speaking Ken and I have been proselytizers more than missionaries. I’m too lazy to go to a street corner with an accordion and a monkey and thump my copy of Basketball on Paper. (Though I don’t know, maybe Ken does that. If so can someone send me a pic from their cellphone?) I just say a little tempo-free prayer from where I sit. 

But your fear of the RPI highlights a teachable point. The Ratings Percentage Index started life as a handy new internally-consistent light that was shed on old shorthands but, invariably, it became its own shorthand. And when you have something that looks as apodictic and tidy as a “67,” it’s going to misused by busy people in a hurry. Like, say, a selection committee.

My sense, and this can change over the next four weeks, is that we’re still a year away from the selection committee being somewhat aware of the proselytizing that has taken place “over the years.” (Which by the way makes me sound old. And I’m not.)

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