Category Archives: in many ways the work of a critic is easy

When Selection Sunday doesn’t happen

dog

Writing about basketball feels frivolous at the moment. Writing about basketball has always felt a bit frivolous upon reflection. It is frivolous.

The far more typical case has always been that people have to do true, exhausting, unceasing, and often hazardous work to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. Certainly my ancestors did. If I didn’t know that before, I understand it much better now.

With the fortuitous alignment of my dad’s retirement years, advancing technology, and my mother-in-law’s mastery of ancestry.com, there’s been an explosion in the field of Gasaway genealogy of late. I’ve learned enough as a student there to know that my tough and persistent yet sporadically educated forebears are looking down on me right now and saying, “He seems nice, but what is it he does again?” I know, ancestors, I know.

In the past, I’ve wondered aloud if we in this profession, perhaps unconsciously, finesse this sea change by seizing a vocabulary of terms from things that do matter — “existential crisis,” for example, is a hardy sports perennial — and smuggling those signifiers into our particular toy department. Maybe we do this because we do, in fact, recognize the frivolity. Continue reading

These are the teams that take the most shots

LSU

(Gus Stark)

Recently I dropped in on a Division II practice and spoke with an analytically woke head coach who had two urgent messages for me. First, shot volume is great. Second, what happened to Tuesday Truths?

Let’s focus on that first highly perceptive part. Shot volume is just one half (how often you shoot) of one half (offense) of basketball, but it is, by far, the 25 percent of the sport that garners the least attention. It is this imbalance in explanatory bandwidth and not any silver-bullet features of the metric itself that is unfortunate. (It is no silver bullet. Ask Notre Dame.)

If you want to know how it’s possible, nay conceivable, that Illinois (still!) might wear home uniforms in its first-round NCAA tournament game despite being the least accurate team from the field in Big Ten play, our good friend X’s and O’s can’t solve that riddle alone. An awareness of shot volume can help.

As always, one of the most intriguing takeaways from these numbers is how the hoops gods seriously do not give a flying fig how you get the job done. Shot volume’s a stylistic buffet, and everyone’s invited. Whether you love offensive rebounds or choose to fear them the way early civilizations dreaded mirrors and solar eclipses, the bottom line on volume can turn out exactly the same…. Continue reading

Replace the committee with basketball games

storm

This is a piece about postseason bids, and this is not a picture of athletic directors in a conference room. It is instead a picture of people happy about their team. (startribune.com)

Selection committees are college basketball’s original sin.

The first modern postseason tournament was arguably the eight-team National Intercollegiate Basketball Championship Tournament in Kansas City in 1937. It had a selection committee. The following year, the inaugural National Invitation Tournament was held with six teams at Madison Square Garden. It had a selection committee.

Finally, in 1939, due largely to pushing and cajoling by Ohio State head coach Harold Olsen, the NCAA held its first tournament, an eight-team affair that culminated in a championship game in Evanston, Illinois. It had a selection committee.

At least the creators of the NIT had the decency to foreground the subjective nature of the endeavor in their event’s very title. The NCAA tournament has been an invitational now for decades, albeit one with 32 spots reserved for automatic entrants certified by their conferences.

We should learn from and follow through on the example set by these automatic bids. We should make each tournament spot an outcome to be won through unmediated basketball performance instead of a favor to be granted through jury deliberation.

People in the 1930s needed committees to put on these tournaments. We no longer do.   Continue reading

History still says one of these 12 teams will win the national title

AUB

A national title this season for Auburn? Possibly. (AP/Julie Bennett)

If you’ve been following along here for a while, you know I’m a big fan of the week six AP poll. Over the last 20 years, week six has outperformed previous AP rankings in predicting which team will cut down the nets in April. In fact, every national champion since 2004 has been ranked in the top 12 of that season’s week six AP poll.

So, without further ado, welcome to week six:

1.  Louisville
2.  Kansas
3.  Ohio State
4.  Maryland
5.  Michigan
6.  Gonzaga
7.  Duke
8.  Kentucky
9.  Virginia
10. Oregon
11. Baylor
12. Auburn

Continue reading

Threes, luck, and volume in the NCAA tournament

Izzonew

March 1993: Jud Heathcote announces that Tom Izzo will be his successor as head coach at Michigan State. (Lansing State Journal)

Michigan State was the final team to reach the 2019 Final Four, thanks to a Kenny Goins three with 39 seconds remaining against Duke. By virtue not only of Goins’ heroics but also the fact that, on the same afternoon, Auburn beat Kentucky in overtime, we now know that using one-and-dones in college basketball doesn’t work.

With that question settled once and for all (I’m kidding; apparently that needs to be indicated), let us turn our attention to the gathering of old geezers in Minneapolis.

If we think of said geezers as four offenses and four defenses, one thing to be said about the collective is that, with the possible exception of the Texas Tech offense, all of these units are used to seeing three-point attempts — both for and against — flying every which way in the tournament. Indeed, Ken Pomeroy noted last week at The Athletic that the NCAA tournament has become strikingly perimeter-oriented these last few years. Continue reading

Does getting a No. 1 seed matter?

Duke

(goduke.com)

On Selection Sunday morning, I wondered aloud why people still get so wrapped up in the question of who gets a No. 1 seed when it’s been six years now since Ken Pomeroy showed that it really doesn’t matter in basketball terms.

The first batch of answers to my query muddled the distinction between cause and effect. Yes, No. 1 seeds have a great track record of getting to the Sweet 16 and the Final Four and winning national titles. Top seeds also tend to be the best teams.

A far better response I received was that arguing about who should get a No. 1 seed is fun and, besides, receiving a top seed is a really cool honor. No disagreements there.

Perhaps we could talk about No. 1 seeds in that vein henceforth, more like an MVP award than as something dispositive to title hopes going forward. It’s a venerable honorific with some nice history behind it, and it provides its own ready-made zero-sum boxing ring for debate. That’s fine. Continue reading

Your 2019 bracket requires knowledge of shot volume

rui

(gozags.com)

Shot volume is just one half (how often you shoot) of one half (offense) of basketball, so it’s not the alpha and omega of the sport by any means. Then again, it’s rather under-discussed.

You can’t show shot volume on YouTube or Synergy, coaches can’t diagram a play specifically to get an offensive board, volume doesn’t get “chess match” heuristic privileges, and avoiding turnovers is supposed to occur as a matter of course.

That’s all well and good, but, just like with shooting accuracy and defense, some teams are exceptionally good at shot volume. If we want to understand these teams, we should consider the frequency with which they attempt shots.

Shot volume index for tournament teams
Turnover percentage, offensive rebound percentage, and shot volume
Conference games only: ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC, American, WCC

                         TO%     OR%     SVI
1.  Gonzaga             12.9    30.2    101.8
2.  LSU                 16.9    38.4    101.0
3.  Cincinnati          16.1    36.1    100.8
4.  Purdue              15.8    34.6    100.5
5.  Tennessee           15.5    31.1     99.2
6.  Houston             16.9    34.7     99.2
7.  North Carolina      17.1    34.6     99.0
8.  Virginia            15.4    30.2     98.9
9.  Villanova           15.1    29.1     98.8
10. Saint Mary's        16.8    33.0     98.6

Continue reading

Tuesday Truths: Final reality

Welcome to this season’s last installment of Tuesday Truths, where I looked at how well 108 teams in nine conferences did against their league opponents on a per-possession basis.

Come back, Zion

z

This post has nothing to do with Duke or Zion Williamson, Tuesday Truths just really wants to see what the freshman can do at full speed in an NCAA tournament that should be heavily populated by swaggering 2015-style beastly opponents. Hurry back, sir. (USA Today)

Final results, conference games only
Pace: possessions per 40 minutes
PPP: points per possession   Opp. PPP: opponent PPP
EM: efficiency margin (PPP – Opp. PPP)

ACC                       W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Virginia             16-2   60.4    1.16    0.93    +0.23
2.  North Carolina       16-2   74.3    1.12    0.97    +0.15
3.  Duke                 14-4   71.9    1.09    0.97    +0.12
4.  Florida State        13-5   67.9    1.04    0.97    +0.07
5.  Louisville           10-8   68.2    1.04    0.97    +0.07
6.  Virginia Tech        12-6   63.3    1.09    1.03    +0.06
7.  Clemson               9-9   66.0    0.99    0.95    +0.04
8.  NC State              9-9   70.7    1.05    1.04    +0.01
9.  Syracuse             10-8   67.3    1.00    1.00     0.00
10. Miami                6-12   67.1    1.01    1.09    -0.08
11. Boston College       5-13   66.9    0.98    1.09    -0.11
12. Notre Dame           3-15   64.8    0.97    1.08    -0.11
13. Pitt                 3-15   66.7    0.95    1.08    -0.13
14. Georgia Tech         6-12   66.3    0.91    1.04    -0.13
15. Wake Forest          4-14   68.5    0.93    1.13    -0.20

AVG.                            67.4    1.02

Clemson is the anti-Indiana. Unlike the wacky and erratic Hoosiers, the Tigers were more or less utterly predictable based on the quality of the opponent.

Indeed, not to put too fine a point on it, Brad Brownell’s group effectively strip-mined the bottom of the ACC for that borderline-Virginia Tech-like scoring margin of theirs…. Continue reading

Tuesday Truths: AWOL from Bubble Watch edition

Welcome to this season’s penultimate installment of Tuesday Truths, where I look at how well 75 teams in six conferences are doing against their league opponents on a per-possession basis.

I don’t think Virginia gets enough credit for its defense

hoos

(virginiasports.com)

Through March 4, conference games only
Pace: possessions per 40 minutes
PPP: points per possession   Opp. PPP: opponent PPP
EM: efficiency margin (PPP – Opp. PPP)

ACC                       W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Virginia             15-2   60.4    1.16    0.92    +0.24
2.  North Carolina       14-2   74.2    1.13    0.98    +0.15
3.  Duke                 13-3   71.4    1.11    0.97    +0.14
4.  Louisville           10-7   68.6    1.04    0.96    +0.08
5.  Florida State        11-5   68.6    1.04    0.97    +0.07
6.  Virginia Tech        11-5   63.3    1.09    1.03    +0.06
7.  Clemson               7-9   66.1    0.98    0.95    +0.03
8.  Syracuse             10-7   67.3    1.02    1.01    +0.01
9.  NC State              8-8   71.1    1.05    1.07    -0.02
10. Miami                4-12   67.2    1.00    1.08    -0.08
11. Boston College       5-11   66.4    1.00    1.09    -0.09
12. Notre Dame           3-13   65.2    0.97    1.09    -0.12
13. Georgia Tech         5-12   66.3    0.91    1.04    -0.13
14. Pitt                 2-14   67.2    0.95    1.09    -0.14
15. Wake Forest          4-12   68.3    0.93    1.15    -0.22

AVG.                            67.4    1.03

Perhaps this falls under the heading of a blinding flash of the obvious the day after a team sinks 18 shots from beyond the arc (in a game with 59 possessions, if this had been a North Carolina tempo, madre de Dios), but it is of course long past time to retire the “I don’t think Virginia gets enough credit for its offense” announcer trope.

Actually, at the moment, said offense is (very slightly) better than the D relative to the respective ACC means. Continue reading

On rebounding

reb

(Mike Carter, USA Today Sports)

We live at a time of televised analytic plenty, yet, somehow, you still see rebound margin numbers flung up on the screen during this or that telecast in 2019. That makes me grit my teeth at the blatant luddite behaviors on display, of course, and, well, I’m right to do so. Rebound margin really is meaningless, an ersatz and mislabeled tribute paid to teams that alter shots yet refuse to go for steals and/or charges (with all of the above, preferably, transpiring at a fast pace).

In partial defense of my well-intentioned graphic-making brethren and sistren, however, I will additionally confess to the following. I’ve been mulling just how peculiar rebounds really are for a while now, and (this may say more about me than about rebounding) I’m still not sure I’ve found solid ground on this particular subject.

Here’s what I think I think….

I’m not a fan of whole-season rebound percentages in college basketball
Leave it to the sport’s endearing and enduring idiosyncrasies to overturn perfectly sound axioms regarding sample size. Continue reading