Saturday, September 29, 2012

College Basketball Embracing Advanced Analysis

I've written many times before about how much more advanced statistics and advanced analysis has taken hold in college basketball than college football. But I was just recently visiting the ESPN college basketball blog and enjoyed just how nonchalant it all is. On consecutive days, different writers covered Ken Pomeroy's new "comeback score" system, and detailed some of the ways to game the obsolete RPI.

To put that in perspective - mainstream college football analysis isn't even ready to handle something like the RPI. I tweeted recently about how the Coaches Poll dropped a Top 10 team only one fewer spot for losing on the road to a Top 10 opponent than they dropped a different Top 10 team for losing at home to a Sun Belt team. Even the RPI wouldn't screw that up so badly.

So enjoy the fact that on this blog and many other places we can discuss the merits of teams and players without mind-numbing stupidity like "Team A has 1 loss, and therefore is clearly better than 2-loss Team B" or "Team A beat Team B in a bowl game last year, so therefore Team A's conference is superior".

Midnight Madness Around The Corner

Almost nobody is aware of this, but yesterday marked only two weeks until Midnight Madness. So yes, we are at the point where we can count down the days to the start of the college basketball season. And if you're not going to a Midnight Madness event, ESPN/ESPNU will have the same type of coverage they've had the past few years, which you can read about here.

Believe it or not, I do think you can glean something informative from Midnight Madness. Obviously a lot of it is always just fun introductions, slam dunk contests, etc. And that's all fun and games. But most teams play a scrimmage, and I do find those informative to watch. Remember, these kids spend most of their offseason practicing on their own. Did they spend that time fooling around, or did they spend it practicing the fundamentals? You can often tell in these first scrimmages. I always like it when I see sound defense and smart passing - it's usually a sign of a disciplined team that is going to take care of the ball when it counts.

Nobody is running a three-man weave or complicated offensive sets during a Midnight Madness scrimmage, but when you see teams where guys are constantly tossing the ball behind their back out of bounds and giggling on their way back down the floor, it's usually not a good sign.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Post-Jim Calhoun Era

By now you surely know that Jim Calhoun has retired as head basketball coach at UConn. Kevin Ollie, who played for UConn from 1991 through 1995 is taking over... for now.

The fact this news came within 24 hours of Notre Dame announcing their exit from the Big East and their move to the ACC is a coincidence, but the news relates. That the small Catholic basketball-focused schools in the Big East are in a precarious situation is not new, but the loss of Notre Dame is a huge blow to them. UConn is now facing this new era by transitioning from one of college basketball's all-time legends to complete uncertainty.

First, let me say that Jim Calhoun is probably, in a sense, an underrated coach. There's a myth that coaches like Calhoun, John Calipari and Rick Barnes just recruit superstars and roll the ball out of the floor saying "Go play basketball, boys". But recruits are not enough to win championships, and while Calhoun's offensive strategy was - well, it basically consisted of throwing the ball off the rim and getting scores off offensive rebounds - his teams always played good defense and were always tough-minded. Calhoun was an excellent motivator, and his kids played hard for him.

That said, I don't buy these white-washed "Calhoun is leaving on his own terms" stories. I respect Andy Katz's work, and don't mean to pick on him, but come on. Maybe if he'd left after that insane, magical 2011 National Title that would have been leaving on top, but he didn't. The team has had a serious of off-the-court issues. UConn is already under probation, scholarship restrictions and recruiting restrictions, and now are set to be banned from the 2013 NCAA Tournament. And Calhoun has had a series of health problems. He missed several games in 2012 and in 2010, as well as others in earlier seasons. And now with a broken hip it would have been almost impossible for him to be much more than a coach-in-name-only this season.

Whatever the opposite of "leaving on his own terms" is, that's pretty much what Calhoun is doing.

And the future is precarious for all of the Big East Catholic schools (Villanova, Providence, Georgetown, St. John's, Seton Hall, Marquette, DePaul and UConn). All of those schools are the types of smaller private schools that don't have huge armies of alumni and donors that can pack huge arenas. Providence is the only of those eight schools with an arena larger than 10,200 seats on campus (and theirs is only 12,400). Most of those schools, including UConn, have to head to off-campus professional sports arenas for their big games. Those arenas are harder for students to get to, and lack the ambiance of arenas built for college athletics. UConn fans need to travel about a half hour from campus to the XL Center.

With the Big East football powers fleeing for other conferences, money is a huge concern for the conference. It's not inconceivable that these Catholic schools end up in a few years in a conference with some Atlantic Ten teams, and perhaps schools like Butler or Memphis (Memphis is joining the Big East already, but they'd be the most logical non-Catholic Big East school to tag along if the conference breaks up).

The arguments for Kevin Ollie are, I have to say, underwhelming. Two years as an assistant under Calhoun do not a wonderful set of experience make - he's extraordinarily green for a major conference head coach. And the fact that he's been given a one year contract for $625,000 is proof enough that UConn doesn't have a lot of faith in him either. It looks as if the school will be looking for a new coach to come on for next season.

UConn has a lot working against them right now. The conference uncertainty, the relatively small school and difficult arena situation, and all of the off-court problems that tail them just do not make it a very desirable location for a coach or recruits. Even if they dump Kevin Ollie, they're still going to need to take a chance on somebody. They will not be able to draw a very successful mid-major head coach. So the future is extremely uncertain, and I'd be very nervous about the future if I was a UConn fan.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Welcome Back To A New Season

Hey folks. It's time to dust off the cobwebs, crank the gears, and get this blog moving toward a new season. It's been a blogging hiatus (though I have been doing some very intermittent tweeting). This Friday will mark only five weeks (yes, five weeks) until Midnight Madness. Next season really just is around the corner.

We're long past the time of year that teams can add players for the coming season, so the only news right now involves injuries, transfers out and off-the-court stuff. Here are a few recent stories that I think matter:

Rick Majerus taking the year off - Health problems have, yet again, set back the career of Rick Majerus. He will be sitting out the entire season. And this is a St. Louis team that was wildly underrated last season (despite the 9 seed and the trip to the Round of 32) and that I had projected as a 4 seed for this coming season. I have two thoughts about this.

First, it's a shame that Majerus can't take part in this season after all the work he put in to put this team together. He took over a program that completely failed to fit his style, and he had a couple of tough years putting together a squad in his image (Jordair Jett, for example, is one of the most prototypical Majerus players ever).

Second, I actually think the real concern to St. Louis basketball is more longterm. This coming year's team is very experienced and has grown up under Majerus. The assistant coaches will all keep the same system in place and everything should more or less be fine. But it's going to be pretty hard for St. Louis to continue to recruit at this level with these health concerns. How can a high school kid really believe that Majerus will be there for the next four years? It's not like Majerus was bringing in McDonald's All-Americans, but he wasn't bringing in garbage either. Recruiting will be hurt.

Dunn & Ledo both concerns for Providence: Oh, the best laid plans of mice and men... Ed Cooley got off to a remarkable start at Providence, landing two blue chip recruits: Kris Dunn and Ricardo Ledo. The team didn't actually improve on the court in Cooley's first year (the 15-16 overall record, 4-14 Big East record and 1st round Big East tournament loss were all exact replicas of the final Keno Davis season), but there were big hopes for the 2012-13 season, particularly with one final season of Vincent Council (a plausible contender for First Team All-Big East). But it's not to be.

Ledo is a "partial qualifier", which means he can attend classes and practices at Providence this coming season, but he cannot play in games. If he gets acceptable grades then he will be eligible to play in games as a redshirt freshman in 2013-14. Dunn had shoulder surgery in the offseason and has a very hazy timetable as far as I can tell. He will miss the start of the season, and could actually end up missing the entire year.

In situations like this, at programs that have little recent history of success (particularly with the Big East losing its luster with key program defections), you really start to worry about program momentum. If things really go badly this sesason then recruiting could dry up, and the clock on Ed Cooley's tenure at Providence could start to tick.

UCLA's 2012 recruiting class has all sorts of problems: I could have linked to any number of stories here. Ben Howland put together a big, big time 2012 recruiting class. It looked as though the dirty laundry had aired and UCLA was starting to turn a corner again with these four stud true freshmen. But now there are a variety of eligibility concerns, from academic to more serious. There are rumors of inappropriate recruiting and NCAA violations. At this point it's difficult to straighten out, and with UCLA being on a quarters system this is something that might not be resolved for several weeks (while most universities have opened the fall semester already, classes don't start at UCLA until September 27th).

I'm not going to try to figure out this UCLA situation now, and it's just something to monitor, but I think we'll all be shocked if all four of these recruits are suited up and playing in the first game of the season.

Dez Wells gone from Xavier, on his way to Maryland: This is huge news for both programs. Dez Wells was the best returner for Xavier and their star for the future. And recall that I was already projecting a down season for Xavier, dropping them out of the NCAA Tournament and onto the bubble. It will definitely surprise me now if they can go Dancing.

And as for Maryland, expectations for the 2013-14 season are going to start to rise to a fever pitch. I still think they'll only be a bubble team this coming season, but with a young core and some really nice recruits coming in, the Terrapins were already in line to be improved a year from now. Add in Dez Wells, a budding star, and it's not inconceivable that Maryland could be a preseason ACC contender. That's not something of too much concern nationally now, but keep an eye on Mark Turgeon's program for the future.