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

The trouble with Arizona

Cats

Photo: Casey Sapio, USAT Sports

If you could travel back in time to one month ago, and tell someone there that Arizona is 5-3 and unranked, they wouldn’t believe you. And by that I more specifically mean I wouldn’t believe you.

I ranked the Wildcats No. 1 in the preseason, and I had good company.

Arizona’s preseason rankings

    AP     Coaches    KenPom    SI.com/Hanner
     3        5          3           1

Keep in mind nothing’s “happened” to Arizona that we didn’t know about previously. Yes, Sean Miller has had to play without Rawle Alkins to this point, but we knew that when these preseason rankings were derived. Yes, the program, like much of the sport, is under active federal investigation, but we knew that too when these numbers were formulated. Continue reading

Peer performance pressure, and the limits of coaching theory

Feagin

Last season, this offense made its shots and took outstanding care of the ball. What could possibly have gone wrong?

Years ago, when rebound percentages were still seen as newfangled, the first question I was ever asked by a Division I coach was what the best target numbers are for both offensive and defensive rebound rates. I don’t remember my response, though I would guess I delivered, as requested (I was thrilled simply to have had my opinion solicited), two numbers spelling out what the team “should” be doing.

I now think that was a mistake. True, thanks to Dean Oliver, we know that the four factors in basketball are shooting, turnovers, rebounds, and free throws, and we rank offenses and defenses on each of those metrics.

But of late, however unconsciously, I find I no longer regard all of the factors as a must-watch sequence in and of itself. Instead, I’ve elevated shooting to a co-starring role above the title in this movie we call hoops.

Furthermore, I’ve collapsed turnovers and offensive rebounds into one quantity and elevated that into the other co-starring role, one I call shot volume. (In this two-factor amalgam, offensive rebounding is clearly the junior — or at least downstream — partner.) And, for better or worse, I now regard free throws as an occasionally dispositive but basically exogenous event, kind of like a power outage or visiting relatives.  Continue reading

Instead of prosecuting bartenders in speakeasies, let’s repeal prohibition

NY

The federal government alleges that Chuck Person, Emanuel Richardson, Lamont Evans, and Tony Bland abused their positions as assistant coaches at Auburn, Arizona, Oklahoma State, and USC, respectively. The Justice Department and FBI charge that these coaches were bribed by sports agents and financial advisors to steer talented players their way. These same federal authorities are also charging that James Gatto paid out six-figure sums to players on behalf of Adidas to secure their commitments to programs (e.g., Louisville, reportedly) affiliated with the shoe brand.

I’m not building any parade floats in honor of any of the above alleged activities, particularly as those activities relate to an alleged willingness to prey on young men so guileless or trusting or both that they would sign up a financial advisor without even Googling the guy. But I also don’t particularly need to see my state actor visit its displeasure upon these actions through the draconian and imprecise medium of its punitive machinery. Above all, I would much prefer to free up my state actor and its limited resources for any number of other far more pressing prosecutorial needs.

Because, speaking as longtime observer of the business of mass-spectator sports on college campuses, we’ve got this one. Trust me. We can fix it ourselves without wiretaps or indictments, though, paradoxically, your wiretaps and indictments may be just the jolt that was needed to do so. Continue reading

Bigs, Bagley, and evaulative habit

Bagley

This week I re-ranked the top 25 players in college basketball on the occasion of Marvin Bagley III reclassifying and joining this year’s freshman class. I put Bagley at No. 1 because he’s been termed the best player to come out of high school since Anthony Davis. If Duke’s star does indeed have a Davis-level impact for the Blue Devils this season, I’ll come off looking like a genius in a vast hegemonic horde of parroting savants.

Whether that particular scenario pans out or not, I do wonder whether this Bagley moment itself may not function as a handy summation, one that can be called The (Evaluative) Trouble with Freshmen. On the one hand, the get-off-my-yard gene in all of us says that, at the very top of the rankings, freshmen are pretty much always overrated.

Markelle Fultz turned out to be as good as advertised, his team missed the tournament entirely, and his coach was fired. Ben Simmons turned out to be as good as advertised, his team missed the tournament entirely, and his coach was (eventually) fired.

Even Jahlil Okafor, who, whatever else you may think of him, was a first-team All-American as a freshman and was the leading scorer on a team that won a national title, is now being pointed at as some kind of museum exhibit for obsolete basketball artifacts and cautionary draft tales. Freshmen are always overrated. Continue reading

Even good math’s downstream from the big decisions

Bubas

(Photo: Tony Triolo, Getty)

When the first preliminary reports reached Winston Churchill regarding the as yet unconfirmed death of his longtime political rival, Stanley Baldwin, he is reputed to have said: “Embalm, cremate, bury at sea! Take no chances!”

Which brings me to the Ratings Percentage Index.

Putting the haplessly erratic RPI out to pasture is long overdue, of course, but, since it hasn’t happened yet, the NCAA voicing a likelihood of doing so by 2018-19 is quite plainly an occasion for genuine, if watchful and conditional, celebration.

In 2012, fresh from the outstanding mock selection exercise that the NCAA runs annually, I speculated that the reason the knowledgeable, diligent, and inquisitive men and women in Indianapolis hadn’t already cast off the RPI’s deleterious cognitive shackles could only have been simple organizational inertia. Decry that inertia if you wish, but don’t wax superior about it. This, surely, is an affliction visited upon us all, varying only in its extent. (I will grant you this was one pretty extreme case.) Continue reading

Four lessons from a hideous title game

UNC

After a thorough statistical review I have determined that the 2017 NCAA tournament stood out most dramatically in terms of turned ankles. Speaking in an actuarial sense, we should be turned-ankle-free now through at least the 2023 brackets. We’re due.

Other conclusions to be drawn….

Hideous title games have to happen
An unsightly mess on the biggest evening of the college basketball year is unfortunate, but it will, unavoidably, occur. The 2011 game between Connecticut and Butler was even worse than what we saw last night. And, while this definitely falls under the heading of “How did you like the play otherwise, Mrs. Lincoln?” praise, North Carolina’s full six-game title run was if nothing else the fastest-paced such campaign by far that we’ve seen since this same program cruised to a much easier title in 2009. The Tar Heels averaged 74 possessions per 40 minutes in the tournament. (Villanova last year: 64.) UNC’s tournament run was a sprint that ended with fouls and missed shots exploding in every direction. Continue reading

The Gonzaga miracle before our eyes

Zags

Mark Few (partially obscured), Matt Santangelo, and Dan Monson in the huddle, 1999.

Gonzaga as a program and Mark Few as a coach were written off for years as never being able to win the big one. Then when the Bulldogs and their coach finally did reach the Final Four, they were greeted with the same ho-hum reaction that North Carolina’s getting as a No. 1 seed while everyone (quite rightly) rubs their eyes in amazement at the presence of South Carolina.

That is entirely fitting, and possibly the highest compliment to be paid to a program that was once a mid-major. No one thinks of the Zags as a mid-major program any more. When Few lands a McDonald’s All-American like Zach Collins or schedules a neutral-floor game against Arizona at the Staples Center, no one bats an eye. Well, those are not the hallmarks of a mid-major. Continue reading