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

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

Your category 5 update for 2016-17


Not counting the 10 suits, a group like this only happens in Division I once every 1.8 years.

Now that Duke is rounding into form health-wise, this may be an appropriate moment to revisit the idea of the category 5 roster. With Mike Krzyzewski giving serious minutes to Jayson Tatum and the coach also saying that Harry Giles may play before Christmas, this epochal-roster-strength stuff is no longer a conceptual exercise where the Blue Devils are concerned. The speculative “when Duke gets healthy” dream pieces have been retired, and unalloyed present-tense adulation (heresy just two weeks ago) has begun in earnest.

A category 5 roster is one that returns at least 40 percent of its possession-minutes from the previous season, and adds a freshman class that rates out at 25 recruiting points or better based on Drew Cannon’s canonical front-loaded evaluative curve.

Duke has the nation’s only category 5 roster for 2016-17. Here’s how the Blue Devils and Kentucky fare on the metrics in question this season:

                %RPMs        points
Duke              56          36.6
Kentucky          26          35.4    

Continue reading

What injury-ravaged Duke might tell us about basketball


Marques Bolden, Sean Obi, Harry Giles, and Jayson Tatum sit and watch. (Charlotte Observer)

Duke entered 2016-17 ranked a resounding No. 1 in the nation, capturing 58 of a possible 65 first-place votes in the preseason AP poll. Alas, Mike Krzyzewski’s charges have turned out to be a rather insistently gimpy resounding No. 1.

Freshmen Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum, and Marques Bolden are all yet to appear on the floor this season. Grayson Allen’s been limping noticeably, and both Chase Jeter and Amile Jefferson have been reported as being banged up as well.

Do the math and you’re left with just three current Blue Devil starters who’ve been vouchsafed as possessing more or less normal stores of health and soundness: Matt Jones, Luke Kennard, and Frank Jackson. The descriptive modifier of choice with this team so far on the young season is “injury-ravaged.”

The modifier’s accurate, surely, yet I’ve been moved to wonder whether in this case accuracy can’t additionally be somewhat misleading. If so, it’s possible this particular brand of confusion might be able to tell us an instructive thing or two about the sport. Continue reading

Notes for a lively five-month Markelle Fultz discussion


This season Markelle Fultz will turn out to be brilliant, disappointing or something in between, and of course Washington either will or will not make the NCAA tournament. But I for one promise not to brand Fultz as a disappointment simply because the Huskies don’t receive a bid. In fact, I think it rather likely that Fultz will live up to the hype, and that Lorenzo Romar’s guys will not go dancing. There may be far less friction between these two scenarios than we’re inclined to assume.

In the one-and-done era, there is precious little precedent for a freshman single-handedly and dramatically altering the trajectory of his non-blue-chip program’s season. Yet for some reason, a decade in, we’re still talking like this should indeed happen simply as a matter of course.

We talked like that last year with Ben Simmons despite a preseason chorus of smug pre-Trump laptops saying that LSU, even with the best freshman in the country, was likely to be a bubble team. We may talk like that again with Fultz this season (though yesterday’s loss at home to Yale certainly won’t get any bandwagons rolling).

This gap between the observed performances of the past and our expectations for the near-future has come to constitute something of an esteem tariff that a coach like Romar chooses to pay when signing a one-and-done-track player like Fultz. What a terrible coach, we say. He can’t even do what’s hardly ever been done by anyone else before. It’s a vein of criticism that dates from the widespread disbelief that Kevin Durant could end his freshman season anywhere except the Final Four. It’s been a hearty perennial ever since. Continue reading