Tuesday Truths: Art-of-the-question edition


Cam Newton walked out of a certain press conference on Sunday night, and I immediately thought of interview guru John Sawatsky. Then again I’m weird. After all, maybe Newton left because he overheard Denver cornerback Chris Harris giving a somewhat boastful interview of his own on the other side of a nearby logo-bedecked curtain.

In any event, the spectacle of a Super Bowl quarterback walking out on the Fourth Estate resulted in a Zapruder-like focus on the questions leading up to Newton’s hasty exit. For the record, those questions were as follows:

Q. Can you put into words the disappointment you feel right now?

A. We lost.

Q. Did Denver change anything defensively to take away your running lanes?

A. No.

Q. I know you’re disappointed not just for yourself, but your teammates. It’s got to be real tough.

A. [shakes head] I’m done, man.

Press conferences are tough, and huge press conferences are especially difficult. Goodness knows I’ve mangled questions in them myself. It’s also true that if an interview subject is fully committed to being a recalcitrant and enigmatic frog in the rain, no question however artfully phrased is going to change that.

Nevertheless these three questions, purely as disembodied objects of study, contain within them no shortage of cautionary lessons. (For starters one of them isn’t even a question.) Rather than merely sift rubble, however, allow me instead to pass along this interview that my colleague Jeff Goodman did a couple weeks ago with Bob Huggins. Jeff got an abundance of good stuff from West Virginia’s head coach, and from my chair he was able to do so because he Sawatsky’d the heck out of their session.

Welcome to Tuesday Truths, where I look at how well 55 mid-majors are doing against their league opponents on a per-possession basis.

Major-conference Truths are at ESPN Insider.

A-10: My streak of consecutive posts without a pun on Charles Cooke’s name continues!
Through games of February 8, conference games only
Pace: possessions per 40 minutes
PPP: points per possession
EM: efficiency margin (PPP – Opp. PPP)

                          W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Dayton                9-1   66.7    1.13    0.90    +0.23
2.  VCU                   9-1   70.8    1.15    0.96    +0.19
3.  Saint Joseph's        8-2   70.6    1.08    0.95    +0.13
4.  Rhode Island          5-5   64.0    1.07    0.98    +0.09
5.  St. Bonaventure       7-3   70.3    1.15    1.07    +0.08
6.  George Washington     7-3   66.7    1.10    1.03    +0.07
7.  Richmond              4-6   67.8    1.11    1.10    +0.01
8.  Davidson              5-5   71.9    1.11    1.11     0.00
9.  Duquesne              5-5   74.8    1.03    1.04    -0.01
10. UMass                 2-8   70.5    0.95    1.08    -0.13
11. Saint Louis           3-7   70.9    0.95    1.09    -0.14
12. George Mason          2-8   69.9    0.99    1.15    -0.16
13. Fordham               3-7   67.4    0.94    1.10    -0.16
14. La Salle              1-9   64.6    0.92    1.14    -0.22

AVG.                            69.1    1.05
KenPom rank: 8
% of games played: 56

Dayton’s seed keeps getting better in the mock brackets, and that is as it should be: Archie Miller’s team is now showing up on the No. 4 line. Charles Cooke is on a tear, blocking shots (at 6-foot-5), recording steals and hitting 52 percent of his 3s in A-10 play. In the Flyers’ 98-64 laugher at George Mason, Cooke scored 24 points, dished five assists, and blocked two shots in just 25 minutes. So this is probably an appropriate moment to confess that I still can’t quite fathom how this team lost to La Salle. Did anyone actually see that game, or was that whole thing just a hoax box score to see if anyone was paying attention?

The only thing that rivals the loss to the Explorers in the surprise department — and it’s a significant change since last season — is Miller’s apparent Steve Alford-like comfort with opponents attempting threes. As it happens those tries from beyond the arc haven’t fallen for opposing A-10 offenses, but the NCAA tournament excels at locating opponents for you who can indeed knock down those shots. I’d feel even more confident jumping on what will clearly be a crowded UD-as-not-very-dark-darkhorse bandwagon if Miller’s guys would channel their inner 2015 and start chasing opponents off the line.

BONUS note for the A-10 schedule-maker. Next year let’s see Dayton and VCU play each other before March 5. Twice, even. Thanks.

Why purveyors of mock brackets hate the CAA

                          W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  James Madison         8-4   68.1    1.08    0.98    +0.10
2.  William & Mary        9-3   67.6    1.15    1.06    +0.09
3.  UNC Wilmington       10-2   69.4    1.11    1.02    +0.09
4.  Hofstra               8-4   69.0    1.10    1.01    +0.09
5.  Coll. of Charleston   7-5   61.5    0.98    0.93    +0.05
6.  Towson                8-4   66.7    1.04    1.04     0.00
7.  Elon                  5-7   72.0    1.03    1.06    -0.03
8.  Northeastern          4-8   66.9    1.04    1.08    -0.04
9.  Drexel               1-11   66.7    0.90    1.07    -0.17
10. Delaware             0-12   68.8    0.99    1.19    -0.20

AVG.                            67.7    1.04
KenPom rank: 9
% of games played: 67

You don’t often see a team lose a game — even one that goes to overtime — where four of its players scored 19 points or more. Nevertheless Hofstra pulled off that trick on Sunday in the Pride’s 98-95 OT loss at James Madison. (Big tip of the all-seeing Tuesday Truths cap to the Dukes’ Ron Curry, who hit a Hield-like 7-of-12 threes on his way to 31 points.) Joe Mihalich’s guys have now lost two straight, as yet again we see the Colonial’s remorseless zeal to reel in any team that’s so bold as to start distinguishing itself.

The CAA’s a one-bid league with an incorrigibly undifferentiated top tier, and as such the winner of the conference tournament will be auto-slotted around the No. 14 line in the field of 68. That being said, a team like, say, UNC Wilmington would be an unusually feisty No. 14 seed. In fact the Seahawks bear more than a passing KenPom resemblance to Georgia State last year. Yes, that Georgia State. If Kevin Keatts has the good sense and historical awareness to injure a limb and acquire a rolling chair, I for one will pencil in UNCW for the round of 32.

BONUS equal time for historically benighted programs. Despite the fact that they’ve never been to an NCAA tournament, William & Mary might be the hottest team in the Colonial at the moment. True, two games against Delaware in two weeks will help any team’s bottom line, but in the next 10 days the Tribe can prove the momentum’s real with home games against Hofstra and UNC Wilmington sandwiched around a visit to Towson.

Valley: Will foul-prone Wichita State learn its lesson after losing in part because of fouling?

                          W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Wichita State        11-1   66.5    1.14    0.87    +0.27
2.  Evansville            8-4   68.4    1.03    0.93    +0.10
3.  Northern Iowa         6-6   61.5    1.06    0.98    +0.08
4.  Indiana State         7-5   70.2    1.00    0.96    +0.04
5.  Illinois State        8-4   65.7    1.02    0.99    +0.03
6.  Southern Illinois     7-5   68.1    1.02    1.03    -0.01
7.  Loyola                4-8   63.6    0.98    1.03    -0.05
8.  Missouri State        6-6   68.0    0.95    1.01    -0.06
9.  Drake                1-11   65.8    0.96    1.13    -0.17
10. Bradley              2-10   65.7    0.81    1.06    -0.25

AVG.                            66.3    1.00
KenPom rank: 12
% of games played: 67

This table shall not be run: Wichita State lost 58-53 at Illinois State on Saturday. The Redbirds attempted 11 more free throws than the Shockers did, and this came a mere 24 hours after Matt Giles fretted in the Washington Post about Gregg Marshall’s newfound (and surprising) let-my-deep-rotation-eat-cake-and-commit-fouls approach.

Naturally, I don’t want to over-fit one game’s worth of data. It wasn’t a particularly scenic 40 minutes, as even the winning team scored just 58 points in 63 possessions. The Shockers lost not only because they fouled but also because the Redbirds baited them into firing up threes, and Marshall’s guys went just 6-of-27 from out there. Still, it certainly didn’t help WSU’s chances to send ISU to the line no less than 26 times in a slow-paced game, nor was there any desperation end-of-game fouling to inflate this total.

For a team to outscore its league by this large a margin yet attempt fewer free throws than its opponents over the course of an entire conference season is striking. Wichita State’s fouling won’t matter one bit, of course, in terms of the Valley race or even with respect to the Shockers’ seed in the field of 68. Still, I can’t help but wonder whether this current 50-3 run against Valley opponents has insulated the WSU brain trust just a little too much when it comes to all the hacking. As recently as two seasons ago, as the Valley went nuts around the Shockers with frequent fouling in the highly whistle-conscious season of 2014, Marshall stayed the course and built an excellent D in part on a quote-unquote disciplined Big Ten-style low-foul approach. So, no, I didn’t see this hack-happy 2016 coming.

Mountain West: A blown call that can be somewhat misunderstood

                          W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  San Diego State      11-0   64.7    1.03    0.91    +0.12
2.  New Mexico            7-3   72.6    1.08    0.97    +0.11
3.  Boise State           7-4   70.1    1.07    1.01    +0.06
4.  UNLV                  4-7   73.0    1.03    0.98    +0.05
5.  Fresno State          6-4   69.0    1.01    1.00    +0.01
6.  Colorado State        5-5   68.4    1.10    1.10     0.00
7.  Wyoming               5-7   65.7    1.01    1.03    -0.02
8.  Nevada                5-5   72.7    0.98    1.00    -0.02
9.  San Jose State        3-8   67.6    1.00    1.06    -0.06
10. Utah State            3-8   67.8    1.05    1.13    -0.08
11. Air Force             3-8   67.5    0.91    1.08    -0.17

AVG.                            69.0    1.03
KenPom rank: 10
% of games played: 60

San Diego State still has a shot at running the table, thanks in part to a call that was blown by officials in the waning seconds of regulation in what eventually became a 78-71 overtime win for the Aztecs over New Mexico.

The Mountain West office subsequently disowned the call, and needless to say the Lobos’ chances at winning declined with the loss in possession. Seeing your chances of winning decline in the waning seconds of a game that you eventually lose is no fun, and I don’t blame Craig Neal in the slightest for protesting to his heart’s content.

But the rest of us with no particular dog in this hunt should remember that not all counterfactuals are created equal, and, more particularly, 12.9 seconds is an eternity. If UNM had inbounded successfully with a three-point lead, the Lobo with the ball would have been fouled immediately and SDSU would have continued to extend the game. And, of course, even assuming the bad call was preordained Neal’s team was still up by three. He had options. (He could have fouled.) Indeed even assuming a bad call plus an SDSU made three, New Mexico still had a chance. The Lobos got the ball back with eight seconds left and the score tied. The blown call was a staggering blow that nevertheless was not the last word. Conversely the foul called in literally the final second of last week’s Utah-Oregon State game (which I think was a correct call) was truly the dispositive factor in that game’s outcome simply by virtue of its timing. Protest accordingly.

The WCC could easily end up with anywhere from one all the way to two bids

                          W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Gonzaga              11-2   67.6    1.21    0.99    +0.22
2.  Saint Mary's         10-2   62.4    1.18    0.97    +0.21
3.  BYU                   8-4   73.1    1.11    1.01    +0.10
4.  Pepperdine            7-6   67.6    1.08    1.08     0.00
5.  Portland              5-8   72.0    1.11    1.14    -0.03
6.  San Francisco         6-6   72.4    1.10    1.14    -0.04
7.  Pacific               5-7   66.4    1.00    1.07    -0.07
8.  Santa Clara           4-8   67.0    1.04    1.13    -0.09
9.  San Diego             3-9   65.5    0.93    1.07    -0.14
10. Loyola Marymount     3-10   67.6    0.99    1.15    -0.16

AVG.                            68.3    1.08
KenPom rank: 11
% of games played: 69

At the moment Saint Mary’s is showing up in the mocks as a No. 10 seed, and Gonzaga appears on the No. 11 line. At the risk of oversimplifying, the Gaels and Bulldogs collectively have just two chances left to impress the committee. The first opportunity comes this Saturday, when Mark Few’s guys make the trip to Dallas to play SMU. (And now a note to the committee: Be impressed if Gonzaga wins. They’ll be playing at Portland on Thursday night, and the game against the Mustangs will take place two time zones and 2,000 miles away a mere 48 hours later.) And the other opportunity occurs a week from Saturday, when SMC visits the Zags in Spokane. A victory for the Gaels would count as a “good” win.

If the hoops gods have their way I suspect Gonzaga will make its 18th consecutive tournament, if for no other reason than to give Domantas Sabonis a stage to show what he can do. The next time you hear an announcer celebrating (correctly!) Diamond Stone for being a big man who hits his free throws, keep in mind Sabonis draws the same number of fouls and shoots an even higher percentage at the line. In the Zags’ 69-66 win at Pepperdine last weekend, the sophomore was 12-of-12 on his free throws. Sabonis is likely to be a first-round pick this summer, so this could be his last shot at March immortality.