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

Origins, bubbles, and Bracketology

On this day 25 years ago, the word “bracketologist” was used in print for quite possibly the first time. Mike Jensen dropped the neologism into a Philadelphia Inquirer article that ran on February 25, 1996.

The NCAA had just suspended Villanova star Kerry Kittles for three games for unauthorized use of a university credit card number. “You wouldn’t know anything is different if you came to watch practice for the first time,” Wildcats coach Steve Lappas was quoted as saying in that day’s Inquirer. The only difference, the coach said, was that now Kittles was “wearing a white shirt instead of a blue.”

Lappas was striking a nonchalant note, but the concern around the program was that, without Kittles on the floor, Villanova could lose what had been shaping up to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Jensen speculated that the spot on the top line might now be given to Connecticut instead.

But how could anyone in 1996 game out what losing Kittles for three games might do to the Wildcats’ seeding? And what did the tournament chances look like for Philadelphia’s other programs in late February?

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Offense, shot volume, and the best teams in the country

In terms of shot volume, Texas Tech is truly a rags-to-riches story. (texastech.com)

Everyone says ritually that “Chris Beard’s doing a heck of a job,” and that he’s in line, should he wish, for a gig with any of the bluest of the blue-chips when those opportunities avail themselves. Everyone’s exactly right, just not necessarily, in 2021, for the reasons everyone’s saying.

A traditional video search of half-court sets for the heck of a job that Beard’s doing, for example, will by itself prove insufficient. This particular Texas Tech team can’t throw the ball in the ocean from a rowboat and in fact can be found down in the 200s nationally for effective field goal percentage.

Likewise, the vaunted no-middle defense in Lubbock has this season become the no-misses D. The Big 12’s shooting 41 percent from beyond the arc against these guys. Yes, that’s mostly outside of the Red Raiders’ control, and, no, that level of accuracy’s not likely to continue. It’s just tough to name streets after a defense that’s clocking in right at its league’s average in conference play while down the road in Waco another D entirely is, when it gets to play, appointment viewing for the hoops gods.

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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

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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

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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