Sunday, September 20, 2015

There Is No Analytics Debate

The above quote from twitter has long been a favorite of mine. And it's true. The reason most older sportswriters hate sabermetrics/analytics is because they see young, smart guys coming in and overturning the establishment and they relate it to their own industry being overturned by younger, smarter sportswriters on the internet.

In that context, there's no need to debate analytics with sportswriters. When Bob Ryan declares that baseball fans don't care about statistics and that players should only be judged on the eye test, and then (in the same sentence) declares that Miguel Cabrera must be the MVP because of statistics (HR, RBI, BA), we can just laugh at it. We can understand the subtext behind Ryan's ignorant anger.

It's beyond the point that it's worth debating sports columnists.

But my interest was piqued this week when Jerry West said this:

Leave aside the odd argument that "analytical guys" want something other than "the best players" and "a great coach", what's interesting is that a guy who is arguably the most successful general manager in the history of the NBA still views "analytics" as something special and distinct from some "old school eye test", and sees those two things as mutually incompatible:

When I try to visualize this view of "analytics", I'm reminded of the 1994 film "Little Giants", where one of the characters is a nerdy kid named Nubie who builds a computer to come up with plays. He types the situation into the keyboard and the computer spits out a play. The famous play that the computer comes up with to win the big game is "The Annexation Of Puerto Rico". I couldn't find a clean clip online, but a clip below shows the movie spliced between real NFL clips. You can get the gist:

This appears to be how the "old school eye test" people see "analytics". A bunch of people who sit in a windowless room tapping away on a computer and coming up with math equations utterly divorced from what is seen on the field. Dan Shaughnessy, another sportswriting dinosaur, summed up that imagery here:

I hear the argument all the time that there are "analytics people" who believe that only the numbers should be trusted and that "the eye test" has no value. Really? Name one. Name somebody who works for a team, or who has written analytics studies, or who promotes analytics in the media who says this. Find anybody anywhere saying this.

In the real world, analytics is attempting to bring science to sport. And the way experimental science works is that you attempt to quantify what you see and build models, and you then test those models. This means that the statistics and "the eye test" are, in fact, inseparable. Until your models hold up to the eye test, those models are unproven.

What happens when the models/statistics produce a result different from "the eye test"? The anti-analytics strawman is that a bunch of nerds with pocket protectors demand that the numbers be taken as gospel and the scouting be thrown out. In the real world, what happens is that smart people try to figure out why the numbers are out of line with the scouting or old school wisdom, and then they try to determine whether the model is wrong, the data is incomplete, or whether the scouting can be proven to be in error.

The way I put this on twitter when I saw that Jerry West quote was this:
The fact is, in the real world, that there is nobody who is arguing that scouting and "the eye test" not be a part of analysis. There are some people, however, who will not pay any attention to statistics and models that contradict conventional wisdom.

In the real world, there is no analytics debate. There are simply some people who use all of the information available to them, and some people who don't.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Post-Draft BP68

Since my preseason bracket projection we've had a lot of changes. First, NBA Draft decisions, then a slew of transfers and recruits that still had to sign.

In all, seven teams moved into the Field of 68: California, Central Michigan, Connecticut, Pittsburgh, Providence, UNLV and Utah. The seven teams that dropped out were Arkansas, Boise State, Buffalo, Florida, Syracuse, TCU and Temple. If you're wondering why I'm not totally buying the hype on teams like Maryland or California or any other team, just click on the tags on the left side of the page, and read what I've written about each team.

There are a lot of changes, but if there's one overarching theme it's that the bubble looks really deep this coming season. I thought for sure that I would put teams like Florida State, Illinois, Tulsa and George Washington in as at-large teams, but just couldn't think of another team to drop out.

Why does the bubble seem stronger? Increased use of the graduate transfer rule to fill roster holes is a reason. But in general, college basketball just keeps getting better and deeper. There is just so much talent that ends up at second tier programs simply because there aren't enough scholarships available for all of them at top tier schools.

In other words, we should have another fantastic season ahead of us, and one that is likely to be less top heavy than this past season.

For now, here's how I see things ending up on Selection Sunday 2016:

1. KANSAS (BIG 12)

2. Virginia
2. Maryland

3. Oklahoma
3. Iowa State
3. SMU (AAC)

4. Duke
4. Purdue
4. Texas

5. Indiana
5. Xavier

6. Wisconsin
6. Oregon
6. Baylor
6. Texas A&M

7. Cincinnati
7. Utah
7. Miami-Florida
7. Dayton

8. Michigan
8. Louisville
8. California
8. Georgetown

9. NC State
9. Notre Dame
9. LSU

10. UConn
10. West Virginia
10. Ohio State
10. Vanderbilt

11. Pittsburgh
11. Providence
11. Illinois State
11. UNLV
11. BYU

12. Rhode Island
12. Butler





Teams seriously considered that just missed the cut:
Memphis, Temple, Tulsa, Florida State, Syracuse, George Washington, Richmond, Marquette, Illinois, Iowa, Oklahoma State, TCU, Old Dominion, Northern Iowa, Boise State, Oregon State, Stanford, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Pepperdine

Other teams with a decent shot to get onto the bubble:
Clemson, Georgia Tech, St. Bonaventure, VCU, Creighton, Seton Hall, Minnesota, Northwestern, Penn State, UTEP, Akron, Buffalo, Kent State, Evansville, Colorado State, New Mexico, Utah State, Arizona State, Colorado, Washington, Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Saint Mary's

Other teams I'm keeping my eye on:
Vermont, Houston, Boston College, Virginia Tech, La Salle, UMass, St. Joseph's, DePaul, St. John's, Nebraska, Kansas State, Texas Tech, Hawaii, Northeastern, William & Mary, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee, Oakland, Princeton, Monmouth, Siena, Western Michigan, Loyola-Chicago, Fresno State, Wyoming, Murray State, North Dakota State, USC, Washington State, Missouri, Portland, Santa Clara

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Morning News: Bo Ryan Retiring, Chris Obekpa Leaving, Kentucky Adds Jamal Murray, And More

New Bracket Projection Coming There's no link here, but it's just a reminder that my next bracket projection will be posted this week at some point. It will be my second of the season. My first one was posted here.

Bo Ryan Will Coach One More Season Bo Ryan, one of the true legends of college basketball history, will be retiring after coaching one more season. An early adopter of tempo-free statistics and efficiency stats, he's done incredible work year after year both at developing players and winning with the talent that he had. For the future, we have two questions. First, who the next coach will be. Ryan said in his statement that he hopes to be replaced by longtime assistant Greg Gard. If Wisconsin goes elsewhere, the name to look out for is Virginia's Tony Bennett, who has a ton of Wisconsin roots, coached under Bo Ryan, and would be a good stylistic fit. Wisconsin is a bigger program than Virginia in terms of revenue, fan base, etc, but it's not that much bigger, and there's always a risk of leaving a program where you are already hugely successful, so Bennett will have a tough decision to make if Wisconsin makes an offer.

As for Wisconsin's players, we may not see too many changes. There's always a risk of players transferring out, but so far there have been no rumors of that happening. And unless a player leaves via transfer or the NBA Draft, Wisconsin only has one scholarship available for their 2016 recruiting class, with nobody yet verbally committed, so it's not like they have recruits to lose. If the new coach can hang onto all of the players on the 2015-16 roster for the 2016-17 season, then that should be a really talented team, and they should be in a position to win right away.

Chris Obekpa Leaves St. John's Chris Mullin drew a lot of praise when he managed to retain Rysheed Jordan and Chris Obekpa when he took over St. John's, but both players are now gone.  This means that the entire six man regular rotation that the Johnnies played with this past season is all gone. Chris Mullin has brought in a slew of recruits and transfers, so the roster will still have decent depth next season, but it's going to be a rebuilding season. Projecting an NCAA Tournament bid for them in Year 1 of the Mullin Era seems unwise.

Kentucky Adds Jamal Murray Jamal Murray was the biggest name still available for the 2015-16 season, and Kentucky needed guard depth and had scholarships available, so this move makes sense all around. Murray can play either point guard or shooting guard, and is a good enough player that there's a realistic chance that he'll go 1-and-done. As always, Kentucky will be a difficult team to project, but they might again have more NBA talent than any other team in the nation, and so realistically they have to be the preseason SEC favorite.

Xavier Johnson Will Miss Next Season A torn ACL will cause Colorado's Xavier Johnson to likely miss the entire 2015-16 season, though they haven't yet officially ruled out him coming back late in the season. It's probably for the best if he takes the redshirt to save his final year of eligibility. Johnson started 15 games this past season, averaging 10.3 points and 5.6 rebounds per game. This is a significant blow to Colorado, particularly since this is a program with a realistic chance to end up on the tourney bubble next season.

Syracuse Adds Pachal Chukwu The 7'2" Chukwu will have to sit out the 2015-16 season, but he'll have three years of eligibility after that. As a freshman at Providence he averaged 2.6 points, 2.4 rebounds and 0.7 blocks in just 9.9 minutes per game. It's not clear yet if Syracuse's reduction in scholarships will start in 2016-17 or in 2017-18, but either way they are going to need players like Chukwu, who are sure things to start producing right away. The Orange simply won't have the scholarships available to stash a guy on the bench for a year or two until he's ready to play.

Eli Carter To Boston College Eli Carter has played for both Rutgers and Florida, and he will finish his career at Boston College. You can make a reasonable case that Carter will be Boston College's best player in 2015-16, which says more about how barren that roster is than anything else. So this makes Boston College significantly better, but still nowhere near a Tournament-quality team.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Previewing The 2015 NBA Draft

My NBA Draft Preview has become an annual tradition. Last year's is here. I figure that I watch gratuitously large amounts of college basketball, so I might have a few insights to add to coverage of the draft, which is tomorrow.

That said, I don't have any strong opinions on players who did not play in college (I'm including Emmanuel Mudiay on that list). But let's be honest, unless you're an international scout or Fran Fraschilla, you don't have strong opinions on the foreign players either.

That's why everybody's opinion on Kristaps Porzingis is that he's got the highest ceiling in the draft or that he's going to be another European bust. Since none of us have actually watched a full game that he has played in, we're incapable of opinions more nuanced than that.

Anyway, as always I've broken down guys into three categories: Guys invited to the Green Room, guys certain to be drafted but who weren't invited to the Green Room, and borderline second round/undrafted guys. Let's do this:

Green Room Guys:


Karl Anthony Towns - It's odd to say that a guy is "underrated" who might go #1 overall, but this is more about me saying that the Towns/Okafor debate shouldn't really be a debate. Jahlil Okafor was more valuable to Duke in 2014-15 than Towns was to Kentucky in 2014-15, but that was primarily due to Kentucky being so much deeper. And more importantly, Towns is a more skilled player with much more room to grow.

For example, an Okafor defender will point out that he shot 66% from the field compared to 58% for Towns. However, Okafor did most of his work by physically dominating smaller opponents, while Towns did much more of his scoring away from the basket. A full 70% of Okafor's shots were taken at the rim, with only 30% taken in the mid-range. In contrast, only 54% of the shots Towns took were at the rim. We saw this shooting talent at the free throw line, as well, where Towns hit 81%, compared to 51% for Okafor. Throw in the fact that Towns had a higher assist rate, lower turnover rate and a higher FTRate and you have the fact that Towns was a more efficient, more versatile offensive player than Okafor. And I don't think anybody questions that Towns, the defensive anchor in the paint of perhaps the best defense in NCAA basketball history, is the better defensive player.

In addition, history says that guys who physically dominate smaller players in college have more trouble adjusting to the pros, where defenders are so much bigger and stronger than the average college defender. I'm not saying that Okafor is another Jared Sullinger, since he's two inches taller and more skilled, but we haven't exactly had a lot of successful players come out of college in the past fifteen years who score primarily in the NBA by physically overpowering their post defender.

To me, if you want to argue who might end up being the best player in this draft if it's not Towns, I'd bet on D'Angelo Russell. Russell has got a ton of upside, though he's also a more risky pick than Towns. He's being currently projected to go somewhere between the third and fifth pick on Thursday night, which seems about right to me.

Myles Turner - If Turner turns into a superstar in the NBA, we all know what the narrative will be, which is that Turner was misused by Rick Barnes, just as Kevin Durant was. That said.... while narratives are always over-simplifications, they're not always fundamentally wrong. If we break down Turner's game, there's a whole lot more Karl Anthony Towns in him than you might think. For one thing, while Turner shot only 46% from the field, he was mostly firing off jump shots. 24% of his shots were threes, which he hit at only a 27% clip. In the NBA, he'll either start shooting those with more accuracy (the Khawi Leonard model) or his coach will stop giving him those shots. In fact, only 25% of the shots Turner took were at the rim, and he hit his mid-range jumpers at a similar rate (39%) to Towns (43%).

Like Towns, Turner is an excellent interior defender, and he's good at beating his defender to draw fouls. He's not the prolific offensive rebounder that you'd like in a big man, but that is at least partially offset by how far Turner often played from the hoop and how many other big men Texas had who could get after the offensive glass. Myles Turner is far from a sure thing, but he's got "multiple All-Star game" upside, which is fantastic value late in the lottery, when he's expected to go.


Willie Cauley-Stein - The big warning sign for Cauley-Stein is the fact that as an offensive player he basically did not develop at all in three seasons at Kentucky. Over three seasons, the only measurable area that he improved was at the free throw line, which is something... but not much. He was actually a smaller part of the offense (a lower shot%, lower usage rate, and lower eFG%) as a junior than as a freshman. Unless some NBA coach can figure out the key to Cauley-Stein's offensive woes, he's going to be a zero offensively in the NBA.

And I know what you're saying: Who cares about the offense, he's the best defensive player we've ever seen in college basketball! And my answer is: Ehhhh.... no. During that goofy Kentucky/Kansas blowout back in November, Jay Bilas announced on national television that Cauley-Stein was the best defensive player in the country, and the narrative stuck. He basically locked up National Defensive Player of the Year before Thanksgiving. But if you break down his game, that narrative begins to fall apart. What made Cauley-Stein unique was that he was a 7-footer who would go out on the perimeter and aggressively defend smaller players. That's great, but he could get away with that because he had Karl Anthony Towns or Dakari Johnson standing in the paint behind him ready to swat anything that came near them. That caused perimeter players to fear driving on Cauley-Stein not because of what Cauley-Stein could do, but because of what the guy behind him could do. And when Cauley-Stein didn't have help, he tended to get blown by. Cauley-Stein did on occasion make a spectacular rejection from behind after being beaten off the dribble, but that's not exactly the foundation of a great NBA defender.

Cauley-Stein is certainly a good defensive player, but the idea that he's going to go on the perimeter and defend NBA guards seems far-fetched, to say the least. And once he's no longer an elite defensive option, the fact that he's such a zero offensively makes him a really low-upside pick in the lottery.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson - Hollis-Jefferson is the type of player who might slide on draft night, but he is going to be in the Green Room, and he's being projected somewhere around the 15-20th pick in the draft by pretty much every mock draft site. My question about Hollis-Jefferson is what exactly do you think he's bringing to the table? He made the Pac-12 All-Defensive team this past season, and he's good defensively, but he's certainly not considered a really elite defender. He was generally guarding the second or third best player on the opponent on an Arizona team filled with strong defenders and within a program that always plays strong team defense.

Offensively, you're not getting much from Hollis-Jefferson. Every starter on Arizona other than Kaleb Tarczewski took more shots on the court than Hollis-Jefferson, and his jump shooting was as bad as a sophomore as it was when he was a freshman. He took 18.6% of his team's shots while on the court, and the majority of those were taken at the rim (the highest fraction of shots taken at the rim of any of Arizona's top nine minute earners). There's just nothing in his profile that suggests a possible NBA star.

Late 1st/Early 2nd Round Guys:


Terry Rozier - This is a high-risk/high-reward pick, but that's precisely what you should be going for late in the first round and beyond. Rozier's efficiency stats weren't particularly great in 2014-15, but that's because he had to shoulder so much of the load. Louisville had basically four guys who could score (they literally had a game where only four guys scored), and Rozier was the primary offensive playmaker. Opposing defenses were geared to stop him, and he was particularly heavily used late in shot clocks and in games to force offense.

To put numbers behind that: Not only did the fraction of his team's shots Rozier took while on the floor rise from 23.0% in 2013-14 to 29.3% in 2014-15, but the fraction of his own shots that he took in the final five minutes of games went up from 6.0% in 2013-14 to 12.5% in 2014-15. In 2013-14, Rozier took just 4.6% of his team's shots in the final five minutes of games (in contrast, Russ Smith took 28.0%). In 2014-15, Rozier took 26.1% of his team's shots in the final five minutes of games, the highest on the team. Yet despite all of this, his efficiency didn't really go down much. He dropped from 37% to 31% on threes, but stayed flat at 39% on mid-range jumpers. His turnover rate rose 45%, which is why his ORtg dropped, but again, is that a surprise considering his new role?

Rozier has the chance to be an explosive scorer off the bench for an NBA team for a bunch of years. That's great value at this stage in the draft.

Cliff Alexander - Alexander is the NBA Draft version of buying a stock when it's really low. Alexander was basically a consensus Top Five recruit in the 2014 recruiting class, but off court issues kept him from playing for a big chunk of the year. And even when he did play, Bill Self played hardball with him to try to help him develop. Despite the fact that Alexander was across the board a better player than Jamari Traylor, Self consistently gave Traylor more playing time. Of course, we've seen this before. "His coach benched him for big chunks of games! If he can't play for his college team how can he play in the pros!?" was also the argument used against Jabari Parker a year ago. Some coaches can get away with benching a young player to help him develop, and some can't. Coach K and Bill Self can.

The fact is that Alexander is physically a monster. His offensive game is a work in progress, but he's only 19 years old and played only 491 minutes in college ball (just 34% of the minutes that Kansas played as a team this season). But in terms of tools, Alexander showed himself to be a dominant rebounder, and a strong defensive player (though with occasional mental lapses). Being only 6'8" might hold him back from ever being an NBA star, but he's got the highest ceiling of any player with a realistic potential to drop into the second round.


Jordan Mickey - Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin are being perceived as basically identical prospects. They're both big guys, they were both sophomores, and they both played for LSU. Just about every mock draft has them sitting a few spots apart from each other, somewhere in the late first or early second round. Yet the thing is, this isn't how drafts work. Martin is the far more skilled and productive offensive player and he's two inches taller, making him much more likely to contribute to an NBA team right away. Mickey, on the other hand, is a long term prospect at best.

Mickey is a fairly good rebounder, but not a great one. He led the nation in blocks per game, but that was in large part due to playing so many minutes (he was only 38th in the nation in block%), and shot blocking isn't a skill that usually comes along into the NBA when you're only 6'8". But Mickey is a poor shooter and was not an offensive creator in college, so you're basically just drafting him because you think a 6'8" guy will be a huge shot blocker in the NBA. That's a dicey use of a draft pick.

Chris McCullough - McCullough is being drafted almost entirely on what he did in high school, which is a huge red flag. He tore his ACL midway through his freshman season, and hasn't had nearly enough time yet to get healthy. And even when he did play as a freshman, he didn't do much, scoring 9.3 points per game on 47% shooting. Most of his offense came at the rim, and 34% of his made baskets at the rim came on putbacks of offensive rebounds. So if you take McCullough, you're taking a big guy coming off a serious injury who is extremely raw offensively. He's almost a certainty to play in the D-League in his first professional season. I could see taking him as a late second round flyer, but not as a potential first round pick.

Everybody Else:

Michael Frazier II - Frazier is being projected as a late second round pick at best, and many mocks don't include him at all. Yet the reality is that Frazier has a chance to end up the best outside shooter in this entire class. He shot only 38% on threes as a junior, but that was after 47% and 45% his first two seasons, and his career 85% free throw shooting (including 87% this past season) suggests he's a strong all around shooter who simply went through some slumps as a junior. If we're all going to excuse RJ Hunter's 30% three-point shooting as a junior to call him the best shooter in the class (as many draft analysts are), then we can't condemn Frazier for only hitting 38% this past season.

Frazier isn't totally stuck as a jump shooter, and he did show the ability to pump fake and to get to the hoop and draw fouls at Florida. Whether he will be able to do that in the pros is another story, but even if he's just a guy that you stick in the corner and who will hit 40%+ on threes, that's something that can provide real value in the NBA for the next decade. Considering how many second round picks don't even ever play in an NBA game, that makes him a great value pick.

Briante Weber - There's risk here considering the fact that Weber tore his ACL, and there's always a chance that a guy is going to lose his athleticism after an injury as bad as his was. There's a chance that Weber will never again be the same player that he used to be. But the consensus on Weber is that he won't even get drafted, and in the late second round or as an undrafted free agent you're not getting anything close to a sure thing. You have to take a flyer with upside.

What does Weber bring? He led the nation in defensive steal percentage all four years he was in college. He's simply the most terrifying perimeter defender that college basketball has seen in a long time. Part of those stats are due to #HAVOC, but Weber's stats blow away every other player who has suited up for Shaka Smart. You can't dismiss his stats when he forced steals on a staggering 8.9% of defensive possessions as a senior (and 7.4% for his entire college career). In comparison, his top teammate in VCU's 2014-15 starting lineup was JeQuan Lewis with a 3.9% steal rate. In fact, the best steal percentage by any Shaka Smart starter ever at VCU (not including Weber) was Darius Theus's 5.4% in 2012-13. Weber did better than that in all four seasons that he played.

By the way, Weber was VCU's offensive creator this past season as well. He can pass well, dribble well and for his career hit 77% on free throws (which means more than a small sample size three-point percentage that vacillated from season to season between 23% and 41%). Weber has the potential to be an NBA starter someday, and a pretty good one at that.


Aaron Harrison - You can probably throw Andrew Harrison in here, too, though at least Andrew has shown the ability in spurts to beat his man off the dribble and to score at the rim and create for others. Aaron Harrison is a spot-up shooter who can't shoot. His 79% free throw shooting suggests that there's some potential there, but he shot just 47% on two pointers and just 33.5% on three-pointers despite a massive sample size of 361 attempted three-pointers. More importantly, Aaron Harrison has shown no improvement in any part of his game over his three two seasons at Kentucky.

If you're drafting Harrison, your basic argument is that guys historically have not developed a lot under John Calipari, who specializes in taking in superstar recruits and not spoiling them over six months. Perhaps some NBA coach will see something and be able to find some way to get back the Aaron Harrison who was a consensus Top Ten recruit out of high school. But Harrison doesn't show a lot of physical projection, and watching a lot of him over the past two seasons he seems like the type of guy who simply peaked physically early and doesn't have much room to grow as a player.

JP Tokoto - Tokoto is likely to be drafted (most mocks have him going in the first half of the second round), but I'm not exactly sure what the precedent is for a player like him becoming a success in the NBA. First of all, Tokoto is a horrible shooter. You'll see his 3P% listed as 38% this past season, but that's a small sample size fluctuation. He attempted only 32 three-pointers as a junior, and for his career was at 26.6%. He also shot just 43.5% on two-pointers as a junior, including a horrific 31% on mid-range jumpers. His career 54.4% free throw shooting is a testament to his poor shooting (teams would often play Hack-a-Tokoto late in games).

The argument for taking a flyer on Tokoto is that he could be a good defensive player. But even that is based on projection more than anything he has done in three years at North Carolina. He's physically gifted, and can put some fantastic dunks in during practice, but he was never a shut-down perimeter defender, and isn't big enough to guard front court players in the NBA. If you're taking a perimeter guy on defensive skills, why not take Briante Weber, who was both a better defensive and offensive player in college than Tokoto?

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Morning News: Iowa State Hires Steve Prohm, Murray State Gets Matt McMahon, NJIT On The Move, Rysheed Jordan Goes Pro, And More

Iowa State Hires Steve Prohm There were a lot of names thrown out for the Iowa State job, but in the end I think it will turn out that Steve Prohm is a sensible hire. Prohm has had four successful years at Murray State, finishing no worse than first in the Ohio Valley Conference West division, taking the team to three postseason tournaments, including the Round of 32 as a 6 seed in the 2012 NCAA Tournament. Prohm was able to steer the ship of a successful Murray State program, and he should be able to steer the ship of an Iowa State team with one of the ten or fifteen most talented rosters in the nation in 2015-16.

The question for Prohm, and the question that will determine whether he is a successful hire in the long run or not, will be what happens to the roster after 2016. Fred Hoiberg landed big recruits, particularly on the transfer market, on an annual basis. With a senior-heavy team, Prohm will need to land multiple big time players to keep the team as strong in 2016-17 as they will be in 2015-16. Is Prohm able to navigate the world of blue chip recruiting? We will find out.

Murray State Hires Matt McMahon Murray State moved quickly after losing Steve Prohm, bringing back former Prohm assistant Matt McMahon as the new head coach. Murray State has become a perpetually strong program that is a coaching hotbed. Four of their last five head coaches (Steve Prohm, Billy Kennedy, Mick Cronin and Mark Gottfried) have left to take high major head coaching jobs, with all four leading the team to the NCAA Tournament. I already had Belmont as my preseason favorite in the Ohio Valley for next season, but McMahon will be in a situation where he should be able to succeed in the near future.

NJIT Joins The Atlantic Sun I jokingly called NJIT "America's Team" all of last season, but they really were an easy team to root for. Jim Engles has done a tremendous job coaching with no conference and almost no resources. The year before he took over, the team went 0-29, and it was a full two months into Engles's tenure before the team broke a 51 game losing streak. But in his seventh season, in 2014-15, Engles defeated Michigan, Yale and Cleveland State while also nearly defeating Marquette. They won't be the favorites in their first season in the Atlantic Sun, but it's not crazy to think that they can compete for a title in their first season.

Rysheed Jordan Goes Pro Chris Mullin had done a good job of holding the St. John's roster together, but academics will force Rysheed Jordan to go play pro ball next season. This makes Chris Obekpa the only returner from the six man rotation of regulars that Steve Levin played this past season. Mullin has added a slew of newcomers, including proven transfers, so the Johnnies should still be reasonably competitive next season. But I don't see how they can be a projected NCAA Tournament team preseason.

Kansas Recruit LaGerald Vick Reclassifies To 2015 Vick is a 6'5" shooting guard who will become the one backcourt addition to Kansas for 2015-16. Bill Self certainly wasn't desperate for a backcourt player as all of last year's key pieces return, but Vick will provide depth behind Frank Mason, Devonte' Graham, Brannen Greene and Wayne Selden.

Max Biefeldt Heads To Indiana Biefeldt is a graduate transfer, and will be eligible immediately for his final season of eligibility at Indiana. The 6'8" forward averaged 5.1 points and 3.6 rebounds per game for Michigan this past season. As Tom Crean tries to make a run at a Big Ten title next season, his big need was size, particularly with the loss of Hanner Mosquera-Perea. Stud 2015 recruit Thomas Bryant is the big addition there, but either Biefeldt or Emmitt Holt looks like Indiana's second best front court option. Believe it or not, after being so ridiculously over-signed with recruits, Indiana is actually still one scholarship under the limit, so Tom Crean can still add one more player this summer. They're going to need "Hello, My Name Is..." stickers at summer practices.

NC State Adds Torin Dorn Dorn was the Conference USA Freshman of the Year, averaging 12.0 points and 3.7 rebounds per game for Charlotte. He will have to sit out the 2015-16 season, but helps to set up NC State with significant backcourt talent for years to come with West Virginia transfer Terry Henderson also coming on board this season.

Keyshawn Woods To Wake Forest Speaking of Charlotte transfers, Keyshawn Woods will be heading to Wake Forest. Woods averaged 8.4 points per game as a freshman, and like Torin Dorn will have three seasons of eligibility after sitting out 2015-16. The reality is that Wake Forest's first realistic shot at the NCAA Tournament under Danny Manning will likely come in 2016-17 anyway, and Woods will be a significant part of that push.

Dayton Picks Up Josh Cunningham The 6'7" forward averaged 7.9 points and 7.5 rebounds per game as a freshman at Bradley this past season. He'll have to sit out 2015-16, but then will have three years of eligibility remaining. Dayton was the smallest team in the NCAA Tournament this past season, and while Archie Miller picked up some size this past offseason, he certainly needs more. Cunningham should be a significant contributor when he becomes eligible.

Washington Lands Noah Dickerson We're just about done with the 2015 recruiting class, but Noah Dickerson was probably the biggest name left on the market (unless you count Thon Maker). He was originally committed to Florida but left after Billy Donovan left. With the loss of Nigel Williams-Goss and Jernard Jarreau, Lorenzo Romar has been desperately looking for new additions as his coaching seat gets ever warmer. It's hard to expect too much from a true freshman who isn't a one-and-done level talent, but Dickerson should be a significant contributor right away.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Small Sample Size Theater: NBA Finals Edition

The above video is one of my favorites on Youtube. It's by Ted Berg, a baseball writer. The premise of the video is simple: weird things happen in small sample sizes.

When the sports media debates analytics, they like to frame it as stats vs scouting (this is the way that Boston Globe morons like to frame it, for example). But this is nonsense. Statistics and scouting must go hand-in-hand. And what matters is significance.

What this means is that over very small sample sizes, statistics don't really tell us anything. If a guy goes 1-for-2 on three-pointers in a game, this tells us basically nothing about whether he is a good shooter or not. In that case, I'd like to see what a scout says about the way he shoots. But as the sample size increases, data becomes very valuable. If a guy attempts 200 three-pointers in a season and hits them at a 42% clip, this is fairly good evidence that he is a good shooter. It's possible he's just a 34% shooter who got lucky over a 200 shot sample, but it's unlikely. At that point, does the data correlate with the scouting? If not, that warrants further investigation.

A lot of work has been done on data significance in baseball. For example, this classic from almost eight years ago attempts to quantify how many at-bats are required for a hitter or pitcher's stats in baseball to become statistically meaningful.

The driving story of the NBA Finals so far, which the heavily favored Golden State Warriors are losing two games to one, is that the Warriors have shot poorly. After the first two games, where Steph Curry shot poorly, the popular narrative was that Curry's big fall late in the Western Conference Finals was severely hampering him:
I made a not particularly bold prediction:
Steph Curry then shot precisely 7/13 on threes in Game 3. Have no fear, though, because we have a new narrative! Now it's not that Curry is hurt, but that the Cavs defense is incredible, and that specifically Matthew Dellavedova is shutting everybody down:
Now you should immediately be skeptical of this new narrative for two reasons. First, it's piggybacking on data that had previously been used to justify a different narrative. Second, it plays really nicely into a very popular media meme, the gritty white guy who hustles and makes winning plays. In fact, the narrative even got boiled down into sub-game segments:
To be clear, I'm not trying to pick on Jason McIntyre here. Jason is a nice guy, and his takes aren't any different from pretty much anybody else in the mainstream media. I'm just using him as an example.

Anyway, certainly it's true that scouting suggests that the Cavs played good defense in Game 3. And Dellavedova looked like he did a great job defensively as well. But do the numbers back that up?

Well, as soon as you start looking at the numbers you realize how comically small the sample sizes are that we are looking at. Warriors players who Dellavedova was defending in Game 3 attempted 16 shots. They were 3/8 on threes and 1/8 on mid-range jumpers, with no attempts near the hoop. This is a little bit of evidence of good defense, but also clearly small sample size data that will regress. For example, every NBA team allowed opposing teams to hit mid-range jumpers at a rate of somewhere between 37% and 41% this past season. If we look at individual players, the lowest FG% allowed on mid-range jumpers for players defending at least 300 mid-range shots was 32%, done by both Anthony Davis and Draymond Green. Marc Gasol was third best at 33%. So is Dellavedova's 13% mid-range jumper defense in one game meaningful? No.

Well okay, what about the Cavs defense in general? We can separate out shots by how close the defender is to the shooter. All data for "Defensive Contest Distance", as it is called, are coming from ShotAnalytics. During the entire regular season, the Warriors had a 48 eFG% on shots taken with a defender within two feet of the shooter, 53 eFG% when it was three or four feet, and 58 eFG% when it was five or more feet. In other words, defending a guy matters. Not as much as you might think, but it matters.

In Game 3? When the defender was within two feet of the shooter, the Warriors were 1/2 on threes and 6/20 on twos, good for a 34 eFG%. What about when they were wide open, when the defender was five or more feet away? The Warriors were 5/21 (24%) on threes and 5/12 on twos, good for a 38 eFG%. We can visualize the data on wide open (5+ feet) shots for Game 3 vs the regular season below:

So what does the data say? The data is consistent with the Cavs defense playing well. On shots close to the basket and in the mid-range, while being defended closely, the Warriors shot worse than they normally did in those same situations during the regular season. It's not proof that the Cavs defense played great, but the fact that it's consistent with what we all thought we subjectively saw suggests that's probably what happened.

However, the data says that the biggest reason the Warriors struggled to score was not the Cavs defense but in fact their wide-open jump shooting. The Warriors actually shot 24% on threes when the defender was five or more feet away versus 54% when the defender was four or fewer feet away. They shot far better when being defended on threes than when they were wide open. Do the Warriors actually prefer to be defended closely when they shoot? Of course not. But weird things happen in sample sizes as small as 21 shots. The Warriors happened to brick a bunch of open jumpers in Game 3. Will they do it in Game 4? Maybe, maybe not.

When you see how quickly the narratives fall apart while looking at complete games by complete teams, you realize just how tenuous the narratives are when we look at single player+single game narratives. "Was a guy clutch last night?", for example. In that case we are generally looking at sample sizes of a single shot, which is ludicrous.

Generally speaking, when debating things like clutch play, the stats are just dropped altogether. It seems like the majority of ESPN's programming the past week has been centered around whether Lebron is more clutch than Michael Jordan was in the playoffs. Quick: Tell me what Michael Jordan's FG% was in the final minute of close playoff games in his career? Or what his FG% was in playoff games in general? I'm sure you don't know. I don't know either. Neither does anybody else debating how clutch he was.

So remember when you watch Game 4 that the winner of the game will very likely come down to which team happens, on that night, to have a better day hitting wide open jump shots. And due to randomness, we have no way to know in advance which team that will be.

I often hear the complaint that analytics makes sports boring. I counter that the previous paragraph is precisely why analytics make sports more exciting. If you really honestly believe that Matthew Dellavedova causes the Golden State 3P% to drop in half and that he and Lebron are willing the team to victories with their #clutchiness, then why bother watching Game 4? You already know that the Cavs will win. In contrast, I have no idea who will win Game 4. I accept and embrace the randomness of small sample size sporting events. You should, too.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Morning News: Fred Hoiberg To The Bulls, Pitt Adds Another Grad Transfer, Nick Marshall Reclassifies, UConn Lands Terry Larrier, And More

Fred Hoiberg Will Be The Next Chicago Bulls Coach Hoiberg had been the expected hire even before the Bulls officially fired Tom Thibodeau. There are quite a few names bouncing around for the Iowa State job, and I'll discuss the team again when they pick a coach, but there's no question that this Cyclones program sits at a precipice. Hoiberg had a unique ability to bring in talented transfers for one or two years at a time and to put together teams that could challenge the traditional Big 12 powers for conference titles on an annual basis.

But while the next coach will walk into a roster that has a good chance to be Top Ten in the preseason polls it will also be, as Hoiberg's teams have generally been, very senior heavy. There aren't a lot of young players in the program, and the next head coach will have to do a Hoiberg-level recruiting job to have Iowa State back contending for the Big 12 title again in 2016-17. And that's when we'll find out if the new hire is a success or not.

Pittsburgh Adds Another Grad Transfer Having already added Rafael Maia and Sterling Smith, Pitt has now added a third graduate transfer in Alonzo Nelson-Ododa, from Richmond. As a junior this past season, the 6'9" Nelson-Ododa averaged 6.6 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game. Don't expect Nelson-Ododa to start for Pitt next season, but he fills a need. Pitt had one scholarship available for this coming season, and Nelson-Ododa provides front court depth, particularly defensive front court depth, a significant problem this past season.

With Rafael Maia and 7-foot monster Rozelle Nix (a Juco transfer), Jamie Dixon has numerous new options. Pitt finished in 11th place or worse in the ACC this past season in defensive 2P%, defensive eFG%, block% and DR%. They should be significantly better next season.

Nick Marshall, Memphis Recruit, Will Reclassify To 2015 The 6'11" recruit Nick Marshall was considered a significant 2016 recruiting addition for Josh Pastner, and he will arrive on campus a year early. With the Lawson brothers, that makes this an impressive recruiting class, though recruiting hasn't ever really been the problem during the Pastner tenure at Memphis. Regardless, Memphis will be a better team next season than this past season, and with Marshall and the Lawson brothers joining Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols, the Tigers should have an athletic, long front court. But will it be enough to get them back to the NCAA Tournament? Maybe.

UConn Lands Terry Larrier Larrier only averaged 6.6 points and 3.0 rebounds per game as a freshman at VCU this past season, but he's considered a significant talent, and one of the highest rated recruits that Shaka Smart ever landed. He will have to sit out this coming season, but in the long run that's probably a good thing for UConn. The Huskies have already added Sterling Gibbs and Shonn Miller as one-year graduate transfers for this coming season. Larrier will fill in the void when those two players leave, and the year off will give him a year to improve his game before playing games that count in the AAC.

Shaqquan Aaron Chooses USC The Louisville transfer will have three years left to play at USC, though he'll have to sit out this coming season. Aaron averaged just 1.3 points per game as a freshman this past season, but he was a highly touted recruit out of high school and will have significantly less competition for playing time at USC. Expect him to be a significant contributor.

Georgia Tech Lands James White White averaged 11.9 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game for Arkansas-Little Rock this past season, and he will join Georgia Tech as a graduate transfer with immediate eligibility. Georgia Tech's impressive front line lost both Demarco Cox and Robert Sampson to graduation, but White will join Nick Jacobs as two significant newcomers alongside the well-established Charles Mitchell. Of course, the concern with Brian Gregory's Georgia Tech teams is never defense or rebounding, but efficient offensive scoring. And as White was not even a particularly efficient scorer in the Sun Belt (a 45.3 FG%), I don't think this transfer moves the needle too much on next season's expectations.

Johnathan Williams III To Gonzaga I talked a few weeks ago about the fact that Gonzaga has been putting the pieces in place to have a strong backcourt for the future and that it was time for them to figure out their front court post 2015-16. The Zags will have a ridiculous front line of Kyle Wiltjer, Przemek Karnowski and Domantas Sabonis in 2015-16, but will likely lose all three at the end of the season. And that is where Johnathan Williams will step in. Williams will have to sit out the 2015-16 season, but he will have two seasons of eligibility after that. The 6'9" Williams averaged 11.9 points and 7.1 rebounds per game for Missouri this past season.

Oklahoma State Adds Chris Olivier The graduate transfer averaged 13.0 points and 5.3 rebounds per game for Eastern Illinois this past season. Travis Ford, in his perpetual need of front court talent at Oklahoma State, thought he had Washington's Jernard Jarreau coming in, but Jarreau changed his mind and flipped to Tulane a few weeks ago. Olivier will be his replacement. If the Cowboys make the NCAA Tournament, it will likely be because Olivier became a quality Big 12 starter. If he is not a significant contributor, they are likely going to miss the NCAA Tournament again, and Travis Ford has a reasonable chance of being fired.

Dwight Coleby To Kansas Coleby averaged 5.4 points and 4.8 rebounds per game as a sophomore at Mississippi this past season. Those aren't huge numbers, but he was a fairly efficient player in limited minutes (16.5 minutes per game), so there's no reason to think that he can't be a big contributor for Kansas down the road. He will sit out the 2015-16 season and will have two years of eligibility remaining after that.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Ban Press Conferences, Not Court Stormings

When Steph Curry brought his daughter Riley to his press conference after Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, quite a few sportswriters were displeased. Brett Friedlander of the Wilmington Star News started the fun with a now-deleted tweet:

The most notable name to firmly back up Friendlander was Brian Windhorst, one of ESPN's most well-known NBA reporters. Windhorst hit all corners of the WWL to defend his point, including First Take with Skip Bayless and Zach Lowe's podcast. For some reason, Bayless and Windhorst seemed to think that everybody was mad at their viewpoint because they didn't want somebody to bash children:
No, nobody thinks you hate children. We just think press conferences are stupid. Ah, Windhorst retorts, but press conferences are crucial to learn important things about players:
And as he often does, Colin Cowherd took the stupid to its logical conclusion: If you support children at press conferences, you want to crash passenger jets:
So what is this crucial information that we learn at press conferences? What are these "very important quotes" that the players are giving to reporters? Let's look at Brian Windhorst's very next game story, which he wrote a day later, after Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. JR Smith, a streaky shooter his entire career, happened to get hot and have a big game (8-for-12 on threes and 28 total points). Windhorst's angle? Lebron James cured him. You see, JR Smith was a "high-risk move":
In reality, Smith was actually a salary throw-in. The Knicks gave up Iman Shumpert to the Cavaliers in order to dump JR Smith's salary, since they were in the process of tanking and didn't need Smith's attitude. But never mind, Smith's attitude was cured! How? Lebron James said, "I got this."
Is that really what Lebron said? Of course not. Lebron is just feeding the narrative that the sportswriters at the press conference have already decided on and is giving them the quote they want to hear. Even if Lebron did sit down with JR at some point about his attitude, plenty of people have had plenty of conversations with JR Smith about his attitude. And if Lebron managed to fix JR, how come it only came in the form of hot shooting one game? You see, in Game 2 he ended up scoring just 9 points in 32 minutes, including 1-for-3 shooting on threes. Anybody who has followed JR Smith's career knows that this is what he does. You can go back six years ago to find him scoring 24 points in a conference finals game and following it up one game later with a 1-for-10 three-point shooting performance.

Well, so Windhorst led with a dumb over-played sports media narrative. So what? Maybe he got insight from JR Smith himself!
BREAKING: JR Smith doesn't like it when he gets criticized, and he likes his mom. Earth shaking revelations. But I'm sure Windhorst closed his game piece with a really poignant or meaningful quote, and not just a coach babbling about how a player who had a good game contributed to the team:

Quick: Name the last time you got a meaningful piece of information from a postgame press conference. Name the last quote you can even remember from a press conference that wasn't Allen Iverson or Dennis Green melting down. You can't, because press conferences are stupid. The sportswriters have all decided on their postgame narrative before the press conference starts, and the players are all trained to give them the information-free fluff quotes that the media wants.

But press conferences aren't the only area where sportswriters whine. What they seem to despise isn't press conference hijinx itself, but really just fun of any kind. Football end zone celebrations? Putting yourself ahead of the team. Having fun on a baseball diamond? Sportswriters have plenty of angry adjectives for that nonsense. Daring to be seen in public while rehabbing a season-ending injury? It's time to grow up. You could be studying tape right now!

But if there's one form of fun that old, cantankerous sportswriters hate the most, it's students who rush the court after a big win in college basketball. Court storming is deadly dangerous, you see, and it has to stop. Every major journalism outlet hates court storming. The Big 12 just announced yesterday that they're taking a strong stand.

Of course, there hasn't actually been a serious injury during a court storming in college basketball in many years (if ever), so the example that will always get cited is Joe Kay, who was paralyzed during a high school basketball court storm more than a decade ago.

"Why risk it?" goes the argument. "If just one kid is seriously injured, isn't that one too many?" Sure. Joe Kay's story is horrible. But alcohol kills over 1000 college students per year. Hundreds of kids drown in pools every year. More than 700 bicyclists are killed in accidents each year. Hell, 4500 Americans are killed every year crossing the street. Shit happens.

The common retort is:
Yeah, transportation is necesssary, but backyard pools aren't. Neither are trampolines, which send around 100,000 Americans to the emergency room every year. Neither are peanuts, which kill around 100 allergic Americans every year.

The only way you aren't getting hurt is if you stay at home and do nothing but sleep on your couch. Actually, I take that back, you might get hit by a meteorite.

It's easy, morally, to take the "one serious injury is one serious injury too many" stance, but nobody actually believes that. If you're worried about crowds, why not ban musical concerts? Mosh pits kill far more people than court stormings. And what do sportswriters think college students are going to do if they leave the basketball game early? Drinking, sex, drugs, and crossing the street at night are all activities far more dangerous than rushing the court. Let's ban them all, too.

One serious injury is too many, right? How can you allow so many young students to die each year from crossing the street at night? WHAT KIND OF MONSTER ARE YOU?

Why allow court stormings? Because they're fun. Ask any sports-interested person what their five favorite moments in college were, and most of them will tell you that one was getting to storm a court. Ask most players their favorite college moments, and most of them will list the time their fellow students rushed the court and celebrated a big win with them. It's a lot of fun, and it's unique to college basketball.

Should we be cavalier with safety during court storms? Of course not. There are simple protocols that most schools have put in place to make court storming safe. Basically: Make it easy to get onto the court. When serious incidents happen in crowds at sporting events, it tends to be because the crowd was penned in (here and here, for example). The reason court stormings have become so safe over the last decade at major sporting events is specifically because of the lessons from past incidents.

But seriously, let kids have fun. A lot of Americans will die every year from doing unnecessary but fun activities. The answer to that isn't to ban fun, it's to simply make it safer to have that fun. Make trampolines safer, make pools safer, and make court stormings safer. But don't ban something just because it's fun. If we do that, all we'll be left with are press conferences.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Morning News: Caleb Swanigan To Purdue, New Rule Changes, Sterling Gibbs To UConn, Seton Hall Lands Derrick Gordon, And More

Purdue has some serious size and length.
Caleb Swanigan Chooses Purdue This saga was going on for a couple of weeks, made particularly confusing by some vague Dan Dakich tweets, but now the original rumors of Swanigan choosing Purdue have come to fruition. Originally a Michigan State commit, the McDonald's All-American gives Purdue a massive front line with AJ Hammons and Isaac Haas. Of course, the question becomes, how do you give all three of those guys sufficient playing time and how do you get them to play together? All three love to play in the paint. And that will be the challenge for Matt Painter.

As we saw with Texas this past season, you get diminishing returns from big men when you have too many of them, with star one-and-done recruit Myles Turner often being stuck on the bench in crunch time simply because there was no room for him in the lineup. As Texas lacked backcourt options this past season, Purdue will need to find improved backcourt play this coming season if they are really going to be in contention for a Big Ten title.

New Rule Changes The NCAA basketball rules committee has recommended a number of rule changes which are likely to be enforced next season, including a 30 second shot clock. If you missed it, I gave my thoughts on them, and their perception.

Sterling Gibbs Chooses UConn This move had appeared to be in the works for a couple of weeks. As I wrote last week, the transfer of Terrence Samuel seemed to be driven by Samuel expecting to lose a lot of playing time to the incoming Gibbs. How much does Gibbs improve this team? Well, Gibbs is a potential AAC Player of the Year, so it's a huge addition. The Top 25 hype that the Huskies are getting seems unjustified, but Gibbs should at least make them a Tournament team.

Seton Hall Lands Derrick Gordon Gordon averaged 9.8 points per game for UMass this past season, though it came with a 40.5 eFG%, meaning he was more of a volume scorer than anything. Seton Hall certainly lacks depth, but considering the number of shots that Isaiah Whitehead will be taking, I'm not sure this is an addition that is going to do a ton for Seton Hall. Still, Gordon is eligible immediately and will help a team that has a reasonable chance of ending up on the Tournament bubble. 

Indiana Boots Hanner Mosquera Perea And Devin Davis The two players were caught with marijuana in their room, though only Davis was actually charged with possession. Mosquera Perea is the more serious loss, having been the team's only rim protector this past season, though the incoming Thomas Bryant should be able to fill that role. Devin Davis did not play this past season after being hit by a car, and he was a relatively minor contributor off the bench as a freshman in 2013-14, so his loss is probably more seen as another scholarship opened. Crean had, unfortunately, already run off three players, so with these two losses he's now at two under his maximum scholarship allotment. Look for Crean to add at least one more player this summer.

Auburn Adds Tyler Harris Bruce Pearl continues to upgrade the talent level at Auburn, now adding Tyler Harris, who averaged 9.9 points and 4.0 rebounds per game for Providence this past season. He'll be eligible immediately for his final year of eligibility. Auburn returns very little from a team that was terrible this past season, but Pearl adds Harris to a very strong and deep recruiting class. There is going to be some hype for Auburn as a bubble team, but I think the smarter projection is to see how well all of these pieces fit together before believing that Auburn can make that large of a jump in a single season.

Stanford Robinson To Rhode Island Robinson wasn't a great player off the bench for Indiana this past season, and he has to sit out the 2015-16 season due to the transfer, but this is yet another coup in the transfer market for Dan Hurley. It remains to be seen just how long Hurley is going to stick around at Rhode Island before leaving for a major conference school, but they are a serious contender for the A-10 title and an at-large bid this coming season, and should stay a contender for both of those things for the foreseeable future.

Monday, May 18, 2015

New Rule Changes Won't Stop The Whining

Jay Bilas still hates college basketball as much as he did last week.
The NCAA basketball rules committee announced some new rule recommendations on Friday which, while not officially new rules, will likely all be passed for next season. The most noticeable being the 30 second shot clock.

This gets a lot of press because the sport of college basketball is masochistic. The loudest voices in the sport love nothing more than bashing it. Jay Bilas will tell you multiple times in every game he calls, as well as every analyst panel he is on, as well as every newspaper that calls him, how the sport is unwatchable and dying and sucks in every possible way. And he's ESPN's lead college basketball announcer. Every newspaper, from the NY Times to the Washington Post writes annual articles decrying the death of the sport, all reciting the same talking points.

As I've described before, this whining about college basketball has been going on for at least 30 years now. Guys "can't shoot anymore" and "the game is too physical" and "too ugly" and the "NBA Draft is bleeding the college game of talent". Yeah, you'll read all of those phrases again next season, just like you read them in 1992. Nothing changes. It's a #narrative, so it's here to stay.

In general, there is a strong belief that casual sports fans like higher scoring sporting events than lower scoring sporting events. That's why football (both pro and college) as well as the NBA have changed rules to make it much harder to play defense and much easier to score. Yet can fans actually tell the difference?

It's easy to watch Ole Miss and BYU play a 94-90 game and be entertained while decrying Wyoming and San Diego State playing a 45-43 game, but the rule changes don't turn 45-43 games into 94-90 games. It's easy to show highlight packages making it seem like every game in 1981 was 94-90 while every game nowadays is 45-43, yet the reality is that over the last 35 years scoring has dropped in Division I college basketball from around 70-71 points per game to 66-67.

Is a drop of four or five points per game over 35 years noticeable? No. When there are thousands of games played every year, with wide fluctuations from team to team and game to game, it's simply impossible for the human brain to notice the difference. Even if scoring increases from 66 to 69 points per game next season, it's going to be so washed out by the 45-43 and 94-90 games that you won't be able to tell the difference.

The NIT, CBI and CIT experimented with a 30 second shot clock this past season, and I probably watched all or pieces of around 25-30 of those games. The most noticeable thing to me? I forgot that there was a 30 second shot clock. I never noticed it unless announcers pointed it out. I doubt you will either.

As for the other changes, such as the refs focusing on stopping physical play, the reality is that the game is probably less physical than it has ever been. The media simultaneously argues that the quality of college basketball is down due to NBA defections, that "AAU culture" means nobody knows fundamentals anymore, that nobody can shoot the ball anymore, and that defenses play more physically than ever before, yet somehow don't realize that this contradicts the fact that offensive efficiency has been steadily increasing for decades.
The fact is, college basketball is fine. Attendances are near all-time highs, and tv ratings were fantastic this past season. Jay Bilas, of course, tried to make excuses for college basketball's great tv ratings:
Bilas was then conspicuously silent when Kentucky was eliminated and the title game still hit an 18 year ratings high.

Do the new rule changes make the game worse? Probably not. I don't think any of the changes will be noticeable. And the game certainly could use a reduction in the number of timeouts (fans won't notice the 30 second shot clock, but they'll certainly notice the next time one of their games has seven tv commercials in the final sixty seconds). But as a whole, the game is healthier than ever, and better than ever. But if you believe that these rule changes will cause the media's opinion that the game is unwatchable and dying to change one iota, you'll quickly see the error in your ways.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Morning News: Rasheed Sulaimon To Maryland, Michael White To Florida, Anton Grady To Wichita State, Caleb Swanigan Decommit, And More

Rasheed Sulaimon could lock up #1 in the preseason polls for Maryland
Rasheed Sulaimon To Maryland Sulaimon averaged 11.6 points per game as a freshman at Duke in 2012-13, though he plateaud after that and was actually down to 7.5 points per game as a junior before being booted off the team for (allegedly) an alleged sexual assault (Sulaimon denies that the sexual assault allegation is the reason why he was booted, but he hasn't given an alternative reason). That said, he's still a significant addition for Maryland and will be eligible right away. The media hype for Maryland was already nearing a fever pitch, and this addition might lock them up as the media preseason #1:
That said, as I've been warning for months now, Maryland's luck in close games this past season (12-1 in games decided by six points or fewer) is wildly unsustainable and means that they are certain to be overrated preseason. And there were even more signs of "luck" in Maryland's success last season than their record in close games, such as leading the Big Ten in FT% defense in conference play. So is this a Top Ten team preseason? I think so. Sulaimon helps provide the two-way wing player that they lost in Dez Wells, though it remains to be seen if he's actually an upgrade over Jared Nickens, who is a better scorer than Sulaimon. It's not impossible to think that Sulaimon will come off the bench next season. That said, having a player as good as Sulaimon potentially come off the bench is a sign of a team with a ton of depth. Maryland will, at the very least, be very much in the Big Ten title hunt.

Florida Hires Michael White Michael White was a logical choice, and one of the names initially suggested as Billy Donovan's replacement. He has a lot of SEC experience, having played at Ole Miss and then being an assistant there for seven seasons, and he's had a successful run as head coach of Louisiana Tech. The criticism of him for not making the NCAA Tournament are a bit silly since he's won at least a share of the Conference USA title in each of the past three seasons. I've talked about this many times before, but one-and-done tournaments are crapshoots. You don't judge a coach based on a few lucky tournament wins, you judge a coach on season long success, like regular season titles. And White had Louisiana Tech so good these past couple of seasons that they've actually been on the edge of the tourney bubble out of a bad league.

That said, White is still an unproven head coach at the major conference level. So it's not like Florida just landed Bill Self, or even Rick Barnes. There's risk, as there always is with a coach moving from a mid-major to a major. But the first task for White is to hang onto Florida's recruiting class and to try to find some summer additions to get his team back to the NCAA Tournament.

Antony Grady To Wichita State Wichita State has perhaps the best backcourt in the country in Ron Baker and Fred Van Vleet. And while they have a lot of good young front court prospects, they didn't have a single front court player with significant proven Division I success. That changes with the addition of Anton Grady, an all-around tremendous player for Cleveland State this past season. He will plug right into Wichita State's starting lineup and, barring any offseason injuries or transfers, will make Wichita State a certain Top 25 team preseason. They could even sneak into the Top Ten.

Caleb Swanigan Decommits From Michigan State Less than a month ago, the addition of Caleb Swanigan made Michigan State a potential preseason #1 team in the nation. He was the second McDonald's All-American in their 2015 recruiting class. But now he's gone, and while the rumors of him going to Purdue are so far unverified, the real story here is that Swanigan never signed his letter of intent, which would have locked him into Michigan State and kept him from playing for another team this coming season. Players "committing" but not formally signing their letter of intent is an increasingly popular strategy by top commits, and it's easy to understand why. It gives them the flexibility to change their mind, knowing that the door will always be open for them wherever they want to play.

Marcquise Reed To Clemson Reed scored 15.1 points per game for Robert Morris this past season, earning NEC Freshman of the Year. He has to sit out next season, but he will have three years left and will provide Clemson with something that they have lacked for almost the entirety of the Brad Brownell era: an efficient scorer. He can create his own shot and get to the hoop while also hitting 41% on threes, while the best shooter in the Clemson regular rotation this past season was at 34%.

Oregon Picks Up Dylan Ennis While they're not yet quite Iowa State, Oregon has been very aggressive in the transfer market under Dana Altman, and Villanova transfer Dylan Ennis is just the latest. Ennis, who averaged 9.9 points per game this past season, is a graduate transfer eligible to play immediately. Ennis will provide Oregon with something that they lacked this past season, a true point guard, and give the Ducks a proven backcourt scorer as well. Oregon was already a likely Tournament next season, but this addition puts them in a good position to be Top 25 preseason.

Terrence Samuel Leaves UConn Terrence Samuel was a regular contributor off the bench for UConn this past season, but his transfer might be good news for UConn fans if it's a sign that Sterling Gibbs is going to choose the Huskies as his transfer destination. If Gibbs does come, it would've meant a significant decrease in playtime for Samuel, who isn't anywhere near the player that Gibbs is. So stay tuned.

Horizon League Adds Northern Kentucky The Horizon League was looking for a tenth team, and they got it in Northern Kentucky, just that latest team to bolt from the Atlantic Sun. Northern Kentucky began the transition from Division II to Division I in 2012, and this coming season will be their last where they are ineligible for the NCAA Tournament. This move won't matter much for postseason implications for a while, as Northern Kentucky is a long way as a program away from contending for a Horizon League title, but it could presage additional Horizon League expansion down the road.