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

Even good math’s downstream from the big decisions


(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


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


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

Beyond the RPI

Jim Van Valkenburg’s creation of the Ratings Percentage Index in the fall of 1980 marked an analytic and administrative triumph. Van Valkenburg was working in an information economy of near-total deprivation, with little or no supporting data at hand beyond wins, losses, and points. Nevertheless he was given time (six months), staff, and an office roof over his head in Kansas City by Walter Byers and told to come up with a rating system that would make the NCAA tournament’s selection and seeding processes something more than a rote parroting of the AP poll.

And, after a fashion, Van Valkenburg’s RPI did exactly what it was intended to do. Part of the impetus behind creating a rating system in the first place was the possibility that the NCAA might choose to give automatic bids to only a portion of Division I.

It never came to that. Instead, the NCAA expanded the field to 52 teams in 1983, and to 64 in 1985. By then the selection committee had already made some relatively daring at-large choices that appeared to be fueled, at least in part, by the RPI. At the same time a rating system that had been created to shed badly needed light on the game’s balance of power was beginning to change how the game was scheduled. Continue reading

Forecasting the next scoring revolution


Dan D’Antoni may be on to something. (AP/Garry Jones)

Scoring is up this season, thanks in part to what can only be termed a sophomore-breakout season from the 30-second shot clock. Surely that clock will remain a fixture for the foreseeable future, and it’s therefore reasonable to assume that the scoring boost it has provided may well plateau. By next season, after all, players with a working memory of the previous clock will already be a decided minority.

So what happens to scoring now? Glad you asked….

Teams in Division I are making about 49 percent of their twos and 35 percent of their threes, meaning 100 attempts of each type of shot will net you, on average, 98 and 105 points, respectively. This seven-point margin perhaps holds the allure of a green light from the hoops gods.

All the usual caveats apply, naturally, and in particular Josh Pastner and Kim Anderson are hereby given permission to tackle any of their players that are about to attempt a trey. Not to mention the math here can be boosted in favor of our old friend the two-pointer through the simple expedient of shooting fewer jumpers inside the arc and getting more chances at the tin.

North Carolina has never shot threes, never will, and will always be hegemonic at basketball anyway. And, whether you’re speaking of D-I, a conference, a team, or a player, more three-point attempts can mean less accuracy. There are complexities intrinsic to this question, to be sure, and what follows is pitched at the level of the whole beach and not the grains of sand. Continue reading

Tuesday Truths for an accelerated world


His team is playing much faster this season, a bit like Division I since 2015.

Next week on a day that I trust requires no further specification here, Tuesday Truths will return for an eighth season.

This rite of the bleak midwinter has now appeared at three different sites and been situated amidst wildly varying levels of graphic support. Yet here it is, still standing. It is the Tubby Smith and/or Lon Kruger of college basketball features.

For 2017, Tuesday Truths will track every possession in conference play for the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC, American, Atlantic 10, Missouri Valley, and WCC. This is more or less the top third of Division I, and the idea is to cast a net large enough to either: a) spot a nascent national champion early; or b) offer grounds for proper and informed surprise when a dark horse shocks the world come April.

College basketball is strange in leaving approximately 35 percent of a team’s schedule purely to its coach’s discretion. I certainly don’t ignore that 35 percent — I’ve written lots of words from November up to now — but I have found in addition that there’s much to be gained from looking at the 1200 or so possessions that a team records in conference play. Continue reading

Grayson Allen seems sincere, and maybe that’s the problem


Adrenaline is not Grayson Allen’s friend. It’s not Fran McCaffery’s friend either, of course, but at least the Iowa head coach didn’t give North Dakota’s Brian Jones a leg-sweep in the handshake line on Tuesday night.

Instead, McCaffery petulantly walked off the floor rather than shake hands. Dumb move from a guy old enough to know better, certainly (McCaffery apologized almost immediately), but one that can be classed as the standard-issue wreckage caused by male adrenaline.

What’s strange about Allen (who also apologized almost immediately) is that his adrenaline swells so unerringly and with such velocity in his right foot, of all places. I’ve played and watched basketball for a really long time, and I’ve seen every kind of scuffle and altercation imaginable. Scuffles and altercations are endemic to hoops, truly.

But I can honestly say I’ve never seen a player trip an opponent intentionally twice, much less three times. The particular form that Allen’s on-floor stupidity takes is sui generis. I have no idea where it comes from. This will be for a biographer to figure out, and if Allen indeed turns out to be a seven-time NBA all-star and/or wins a presidential election someday (don’t laugh), we may get answers. Continue reading