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February 21, 2011, 10:26 AM ET
Getting Washington off our backs

by John Gasaway

Each year it seems like there’s one conference race that stands out for its ability to serve as an analytical litmus test. Last year it was the Mountain West that did the honors. While New Mexico won the regular season championship, per-possession stats indicated BYU was best. Also San Diego State and UNLV appeared by those same stats to be about as good as the Lobos. And it turned out none of this mattered very much. All of the above were gone before the tournament’s second weekend rolled around.

This year that litmus test is brought to you by still another league that conveniently enough plays a round-robin schedule.

How do you seed a group like this? 
Through games of February 20, conference games only
Pace: Possessions per 40 minutes
PPP: points per possession  Opp. PPP: opponent PPP
EM: efficiency margin (PPP - Opp. PPP)

                     W-L     Pace    PPP    Opp. PPP   EM
1.  Washington      10-5     72.2    1.13     0.99   +0.14
2.  Arizona         12-2     68.9    1.10     1.02   +0.08
3.  UCLA            10-4     66.5    1.03     0.99   +0.04
4.  USC              7-7     63.7    1.01     0.99   +0.02
5.  Washington St.   7-8     68.9    1.00     1.00    0.00
6.  Oregon           7-7     66.6    0.99     1.00   -0.01
7.  Cal              7-8     67.3    1.10     1.12   -0.02
8.  Stanford         6-9     65.5    0.98     1.01   -0.03
9.  Oregon St.      4-10     69.6    0.93     1.04   -0.11
10. Arizona St.     2-12     64.6    0.97     1.11   -0.14 
 

On Saturday Arizona beat Washington 87-86 in Tucson, thanks to a decisive and rather emphatic last-second block by Derrick Williams. It was a great game between the Pac-10’s two top teams, one that showcased what each team does very well. For the Wildcats Williams, Lamont Jones, and crew combined for 11-of-18 shooting on their threes. That’s nothing new. This year in Pac-10 play ’Zona is hitting 44 percent of their threes while limiting conference opponents to just 26 percent shooting from beyond the arc. Meanwhile Washington was making their twos: Matthew Bryan-Amaning scored 24 points on 12-of-19 shooting for the Huskies. Both teams scored quite efficiently in this 75-possession game. 

The question looming on the horizon is how to seed these teams for the NCAA tournament. There’s still basketball to be played between now and then, of course — Arizona has to make a road trip to play USC and UCLA — but it seems likely that per-possession performance will be somewhat at odds with the Pac-10’s final standings, a la the 2010 Mountain West. What then?

College basketball doesn’t have a czar, thank goodness. (But if I can’t garner more votes for the non-existent post than a former announcer on this list I’ll have to make sweeping changes to my staff, starting with my pollster and PR chief.) Then again it pays to prepare for any eventuality. Should Jay Bilas or Bob Knight or someone else stage a putsch tomorrow, I will advise our new czar or czarina as follows with regard to seeding this season’s wacky Pac-10 entrants.

Define your terms.
Is seeding in the NCAA tournament a reward for this season’s accomplishments or is it an attempt to create a new season? A little of both, I suppose. Speaking purely as a fan I find pleasure in both paradigms on Selection Sunday. Certainly it’s nice to see a team gather around a big-screen TV and learn it’s a 1-seed. The man-hugs that ensue aren’t saying, “Thank goodness we’re being seeded correctly based on a projection of our future performance!” Instead they’re saying, “We earned this.” Then again one of the coolest things about the selection committee is its ability to instantly debunk the dumbest polling results that have bugged us all season. Usually there’ll be a top-15 or even top-10 team that’s at last given a lower and much more proper number next to its name. In such cases the committee appears to be taking more of a new-season approach. 

Define your teams.
Again, this state of affairs could change over the coming days as Arizona plays two road games (Washington finishes with three home games), but right now the Wildcats and the Huskies are extreme cases that look even more extreme due to their proximity to one another. Usually a team that outscores its opponents by 0.14 points per trip, as Washington has done, would be expected to have the 12-2 record that Arizona has. Conversely a team that on average is 0.08 points better than their foes on each possession, like the Cats, will customarily go 10-4. Both teams are almost equally unusual, just in opposite directions. 

Know that the seed you give a team impacts the opposing team(s) in the bracket.
That sounds blindingly obvious, but in the case of a team like Washington it’s arguably the material point. Probability favors Lorenzo Romar’s team on a neutral floor to a much higher degree than is normal for the third-place team from perhaps the nation’s fifth-best conference. If anything I’m a little less concerned about fairness for a team like this than I am about fairness for the teams around them. Granted, insisting that we seed Washington as we would any other third-place team from the fifth-best conference is a perfectly defensible position. (Man, I already sound like Bilas is czar.) There’s a cost to be paid for that position, however, and it’s borne by the team that has to play the Huskies when they could be playing any of three weaker opponents on UW’s seed line.   

Twitter: @JohnGasaway. Contact: here. Book: now available on Amazon.

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