Category Archives: stay off my side

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

The political economy of college sports is infuriating, profitable, and remarkably resistant to asteroids

Paige

The viewership for this game was, comparatively speaking, terrible. Why didn’t that matter to advertisers? (USA Today)

This week USA Today followed in Kyle Whelliston’s venerable footsteps and termed college sports a “bubble” that’s sure to pop sooner or later. Something strange happened in between the piece’s inception and publication, however, because the final product turns out to consist of a labored and rather convoluted lede placed atop the latest iteration of what has long been an excellent and even invaluable set of data.

For starters the nominal news hook presented by the numbers — most athletic departments operate at what they are pleased to term deficits — would seem to be something of an awkward fit for our traditional stock of “bubble” iconography. Maybe it’s me, but I always assumed that tulip merchants in 1637, the South Sea Company in 1720, Webvan.com in 1999, and subprime lenders in 2006 instead showed astronomic operating surpluses. In fact I rather thought this was precisely the red flag in those cases.

Nor is it clear why a bubble would aptly describe a revenue model now entering its sixth decade of “Seriously! Any day now!” impending legal doom. Finally, fretting about those darned young people and their cord-cutting in a piece based in no small measure on a brand new TV deal whose lead signatory is a legacy broadcaster founded in 1927 qualifies as still another curious ratiocinative choice, surely.

Far from being an “unstable situation,” college sports in general, college basketball more especially, and the NCAA tournament in particular instead present a series of successively smaller and progressively more advantageously situated concentric circles characterized by an unusual degree of hardiness solely as media properties. There are variables in play, naturally, and it’s not too much to term the threat of legal exposure “existential” — with regard to the NCAA. I don’t know who or what will be governing the sport in 2032, and I do trust that by then the players will have long since been receiving their fair share of the resulting revenues.

But if we view the essentials of the tournament as nothing more or less than 68 college teams playing 67 games of win-or-go-home basketball over three weeks from mid-March to early April, I’m yet to see anything even remotely persuasive in the way of a Book of Revelation. The essentials are eyeballs and basketballs, and if a tournament that earned record-setting revenues for a decade before, during and after the largest economic calamity since the Great Depression constitutes a bubble, well, put me down as bullish on this particular bubble.  Continue reading

Advance scouting an extreme Final Four

Boeheim

Is this man a defensive mastermind? Lucky that so few teams use his defense? A little of both? (USAT)

In keeping with my decade-old tradition of very late Final Four previews, here are some thoughts I’ve been mulling this week.

Is the Syracuse zone’s effectiveness scheme-blind and a simple matter of novelty? 
The funny thing about the Syracuse reign of defensive terror in this bracket is that — unlike a similar episode in 2013 — this season the Orange defense wasn’t very good.

During the regular season the ACC made 52 percent of its 2s against this D. In the tournament, however, this number has dropped all the way down to a rather ridiculous 36 percent. Are tournament opponents (ACC member Virginia notwithstanding) failing against this defense because it’s so strange and alien to them? Hard to say, but the history here is pretty interesting.

As it happens this season’s 16-percentage-point improvement in interior defense is by far the most extreme manifestation of what was nevertheless a preexisting historical pattern. Starting with Carmelo Anthony’s national championship team of 2003 and running through Sunday evening, the Syracuse defense has been exactly four percentage points better at forcing missed twos in the tournament than it’s been in conference play. (To keep the “novelty” hypothesis clean and tidy I threw out this weekend’s tournament win against league foe UVA, as well as the tournament loss against league foe Marquette in 2011.) That’s a big difference, and the sample sizes here are comforting: Syracuse has played 32 tournament games over that span.

I’ve never really looked at tournament vs. regular-season two-point defense over a decade-plus before, so just to be sure Syracuse really is weird I ran the same numbers for four other national champions of the period: Duke, North Carolina, Kansas and UConn. It turns out Syracuse really is weird. The Blue Devils have also played better interior D in the tournament than they have against the ACC, but the difference is smaller (two percentage points) and, anyway, Duke’s played weaker teams in its NCAA brackets than what it’s seen in conference play. Syracuse, on the other hand, has faced an almost identical strength of schedule both in the tournament and in conference play. Continue reading

An accelerated and higher-scoring version of Madness

Caruso

Are you not entertained? (Ronald Martinez/Getty)

Maybe it’s just me, but it seemed like this March there was a marked drop in the number of more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger pre-mortems for college basketball. True, there was one such foray that I know of, and, to be sure, there could be more to come. The week before the Final Four’s a five-day blank canvass for eager coroners of the sport. Perhaps I’m a little too eager to be the coroner of coroners. We’ll see.

Still, it’s possible that the sudden downturn in doomsaying so far can be traced to a realization that is both quantitative and rooted in that proverbial gut we’re always consulting so assiduously. Even back in the bad old days of the Scoring Crisis and a 35-second clock, the NCAA tournament was still rather entertaining. Now the event is a faster-paced and higher-scoring version of its usual rollicking self. That plus a charitably selective memory (we’ll look past Wisconsin-Pitt and remember Wisconsin-Xavier) makes for a media property worth billions.

Continue reading

Louisville, path dependence, and punditry

BMH

Billy Minardi Hall.

Last Friday Louisville announced that its investigation of its strippers-and-escorts scandal had led it to self-impose a postseason ban on the men’s basketball team for this season. This means Damion Lee and Trey Lewis, who transferred into the program this season as seniors and thus had no connection to the events described in Katina Powell’s book, will not play in an NCAA tournament where otherwise the Cardinals were most assuredly going to land a really nice seed.

I’m obviously late to this particular topical party (Mondays and Tuesdays are hectic around here), and, anyway, my first order of business is a simple amen. It really is awful that the postseason dreams of Lee and Lewis have been sacrificed on the altar of post-facto justice, and I dare say they’ve carried themselves far better than I would have at age 23. Please file what follows not under “Yes, but,” much less “On the contrary!” This is more of a “Yes, and,” exercise.

Once strippers and escorts were paid to be at Billy Minardi Hall, everything else — even any correct decision taken subsequently — was going to be a footnote
Louisville’s decision to forego the 2016 NCAA tournament has its fair share of critics in February, but back in October there was no lack of published speculation that the Cardinals would in fact do precisely what they’ve just done. What has changed over the last four months is nothing more complex or material than the fact that Rick Pitino has turned out to have a much better team than we thought he would have. This fact makes the postseason ban all the more painful for Lee and Lewis, surely, but, speaking now as a punditry, is this really how we wish to codify our theory of moral sentiments? That postseason bans are fine (hello, Missouri) as long as you’re not going to make the tournament anyway?
Continue reading

Quality, justice, and 2015-16’s brave new world

Under the new guidelines, verticality matters.

Under the new guidelines, verticality is supposed to matter the way it was supposed to matter under the old guidelines. This is a good thing.

You may not be exceedingly familiar with James Thompson IV, Ethan O’Day, or even the Convocation Center in Ypsilanti, Michigan, but the 2015-16 college basketball season will begin tomorrow morning at 11 Eastern when those two guys contest the opening tip in said arena on behalf of Eastern Michigan and Vermont, respectively. Perhaps this strikes you as a rather inauspicious manner in which to embark upon an endeavor that will culminate with all eyes on Houston next April. For my part I’m too happy to care. The season’s finally here.

In the seven months since the final horn sounded in Duke’s win over Wisconsin, the NCAA has instituted a number of changes and issued several directives aimed at improving the game. Yes, the shot clock’s been shortened from 35 seconds to 30, but if you’re unfamiliar with everything else that’s new and different the NCAA just posted a briskly efficient 14-minute video that summarizes the main points. I highly recommend giving it a click.

This is the part where I scratch my head over the NCAA acting like the nimblest of daring Silicon Valley start-ups when it comes to bettering the game while at the same time the organization does a searingly convincing imitation of a cadre of Bulgarian apparatchiks circa 1953 and continues to define “top-50” wins with a metric that’s off by 50 spots or more seven percent of the time. Go figure, the “bettering the game” part of said schizophrenia is highly laudable. NCAA, I salute you! Continue reading

I rushed to finish this judgment of our rush to judge a rush to judgment

When historically bad sports-transcending actions transpire in your program, your peer institutions may take note. That's unobjectionable, unless of course the peer institutions call themselves the NCAA.

When historically diabolical sports-transcending actions transpire in your program, your peer institutions may object. That’s unobjectionable — unless of course the peer institutions call themselves the NCAA.

If tomorrow it emerges that a staff member at a blue-chip college basketball program has for decades used his position of power and prominence to secretly carry out terrible criminal actions of unimaginable scope and magnitude, I will have no problem whatsoever with the other revenue-sports-playing universities in the vicinity collectively considering — at the conference or national level — whether some form of censure and redress, subordinate to and cognizant of criminal proceedings, might be appropriate.

Apparently I’m in the minority. Today the conventional wisdom is that those universities rushed to judgment in 2012 when they reacted to Jerry Sandusky’s crimes by fining Penn State, imposing a postseason ban, taking away some football scholarships, and vacating 14 years’ worth of Joe Paterno’s wins. Reasonable people can differ over whether that was the best blend of sanctions, but what’s being asserted now is the far more sweeping claim that any action at all undertaken by the universities was categorically unwarranted. That strikes me as a novel contention, to say the least.  Continue reading