Basketball Prospectus: Unfiltered Everything Else is Fluff.

March 31, 2010

Of course Brad Stevens is a “quant guy.” He’s 33.

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 12:23 pm

I’ve always been interested in the idea that coaches can be “hot,” as in: Butler is “led by a white-hot coach, Brad Stevens, who is 33 and looks 20 years younger.” I hope Stevens has a wise man Friday whispering in his ear this week, “All glory is fleeting. Uh, unless you’re Tom Izzo.” Just look at the example of Stevens’ predecessor at Butler.

Not that I’m forecasting doom for Stevens, mind you. Hot coaches can go on to do big things. Heck, Bill Self alone has pulled off a veritable hot trifecta: Tulsa in 2000, Illinois in 2003, and Kansas in 2008 (when Oklahoma State tried to lure him away from Lawrence). I’m just suggesting that “hot” is something more than a coach happening to be really outstanding at his job. It is additionally something that happens to a coach, as he becomes the unwitting receptacle of our accumulated (and, of course, doomed) hopes for The Perfect Coach.

And when that hot coach is precociously young like Stevens and holds the promise of literally decades of Perfect Coaching to come, well, as the newly retired Dick Enberg might say, Oh my. That’s pretty much what I’ve been thinking this week, Oh my, as I’ve read about Stevens’ self-declared predliection for what “Pardon the Interruption” called statistical analysis. (Much of this week’s Stevens talk, including the PTI clip, was helpfully brought together by Kevin Arnovitz at yesterday: “Butler’s Brad Stevens: Quant Guy.”) I draw a somewhat different lesson from his predilection, though, than the “So that‘s how he beat Syracuse and Kansas State! He’s got stats!” reaction.

Every coach watches hours of game tape, the advantage comes when one coach watches it more perceptively than another. By the same token, using reality-based stats is the new normal for D-I staffs. The fact that it’s a new normal is the fault of the stats, not the coaches. There were no reality-based stats for this sport up until the past few years.

Butler stands out not because they use this tempo-free stuff but because their head coach has stated publicly and repeatedly that he uses this stuff. Moreover, Stevens all but shrugs as he says it: Why would you not use accurate information on your opponent? You will see that shrug more and more often as basketball people in Stevens’ age cohort ascend to head coaching positions. Accurate information is simply what they’re used to now.

Not that there’s a perfect correlation between birth date and a willingness to use reality-based information, of course. Far from it. Bo Ryan is 62 and he’s all over this stuff. (Not to mention Dean Smith is 79 and he invented this stuff. Stevens is speaking for us all when he says “We’re followers.”) But, Ryan notwithstanding, your head coaches who have boldly come clean and admitted yes, this stuff does actually help, do trend toward a more youthful demographic, to wit: Buzz Williams (37), Eric Reveno (44), and Dino Gaudio (52). Of course those are just some examples of head coaches who know their way around a rebound percentage. I’ve noted before that the vast majority of coaches who contact me out of the blue are assistants, for whom the whole tempo-free shtick is old hat.

It is old hat. Smith was analyzing possessions 50 years ago, and even Smith’s followers have been around for a while now. Yesterday said I’ve been doing this for “years,” which I suppose is correct in a scary-sounding way. Just keep in mind I still have all my own teeth and, more saliently, I still get yelled at for peddling dangerous new heterodoxies. Speaking of which….

BONUS together-we-got-Capone note! I think rebound margin really did die this year, though I don’t flatter myself for an instant that it was my kill. I’m like Eliot Ness. I just happened to be there when the wheel came around. In the past few days I’ve seen rebound percentages used in the New York Times’ recap of TennesseeMichigan State, I’ve heard them from Bill Self’s lips in the CBS studio, and I’ve watched with delight as an accurate and timely graphic based on them was deployed and narrated by no less of an experienced eminence than Len Elmore.

You’ll of course still be able to see rebound margin behind a pane of glass in various museums of antiquities (conferences’ official stat pages, etc.), but at this point the unicorn stat is safely in captivity and poses no threat to the general cognitive populace. Here endeth the lesson.  

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