Thursday, August 28, 2014

How's College Football Playoff Selection Going To Work?

"Alright, here's how it's going to work..."
 Tonight is opening night for the college football season. Yeah, Georgia State played an FCS team yesterday, but whatever. Tonight's the night that real games start. And this is the first season with the college football "playoff", which will feature a Selection Committee, just like basketball.

A lot of college football writers out there are trying to guess at how the playoff committee will work, and how they will select teams. All in all there seems to be a lot of confusion. And certainly it will be impossible to predict how it will work before it happens. But as there's probably nobody who spends as much time as I do each year studying and understanding how college basketball's Selection Committee operates (here's what I wrote about the 2014 Selection Committee performance), I think I can shed light on a few things.

Let's start at the top, with the biggest issue:

Question: Will the committee take the four best teams?
Short Answer: No, but they'll swear that they did.

Longer Answer:
There are areas where experts in advanced analytics (e.g. sabermetrics) will disagree, but there are other areas that are not particularly controversial. Football teams punt too much, baseball teams bunt too much, and basketball teams really should foul intentionally when the game is tied, the shot clock is off, and the other team has a chance to hold for the final shot.

Another area where there is agreement is that a list of the best teams and the best resumes will not be the same. This is due to the fact that the results of close games are pretty much random chance. Over a large enough sample size, all football or basketball teams will win approximately 50% of their overtime games, so if a team has won four straight overtime games then they've been lucky more than they've been good, and their resume (or list of accomplishments) is above and beyond their actual team quality.

This position generally gets strawmanned by casual sports fans and major sportswriters as not believing that "clutch" play exists or denying that leadership matters or that great players can come up great in great moments. In reality, nobody denies that clutch play exists or that leadership matters or that big players often play at their best in the biggest moments. But the reality is that the total impact of all of those things is just too small to be seen in a sample size as tiny as a single football or basketball season. You can have the most clutch superstar on the planet and still lose four straight games on the final possession. Even in baseball, where the sample size (162 games) is much larger and a one run difference is so much more significant than a one point win in basketball or football, it's basically impossible to see an impact of clutch play on results of games. In 2012, the Baltimore Orioles set a major league record by going 29-9 in 1-run games, and with nearly the identical team the next season they went 20-31. The sample size of 162 games was just too small to draw any meaningful conclusions.

So, with that in mind, we can ask whether the playoff spots should go to the best teams or the teams that have accomplished the most. And I think the answer is that it should be the latter. In the end, even if a game that comes down to the final play is a random coin flip, we want that coin flip to matter. We want to care who wins. That's what makes sports exciting.

And that's what the basketball Selection Committee has always done. They reward the best resumes, rather than the best teams. And that's what we should expect the football version of the committee to do as well.

But here's the catch: The people on the committee do not understand anything I just said.

Confused? Read this twitter conversation I had with David Worlock back in March (start from the top of the page to get the whole discussion). Worlock is the NCAA's Director of Media Coordination. He handles the Mock Selection Committee with the media every year, and is basically as knowledgeable about what goes on in that room as anybody. Yet when I asked him about the topic of best teams or best resumes he responded to me as if I'd asked him which teams had been abducted by aliens:

Now what I said was not at all controversial to anybody who follows the Vegas lines or computer ratings. Utah would have been favored against UMass on a neutral court, as would Tennessee over Iowa State. Yet Worlock could not comprehend this concept. A concept that is absolutely standard in Las Vegas casinos was so foreign to him that it seemed literal insanity. UMass had a better resume than Utah, so therefore they were "better". That is how most of the media and most sports fans view the world as well.

So, when the college football Selection Committee members are interviewed on television, they will tell us (as the basketball committee head does) that they picked the best teams. They will swear up and down that they did. And some angry fans on the internet will point out that their team is rated higher in the Vegas computers than a different team that got into the playoffs. And everybody will scream right past each other because nobody will be speaking the same language.

The four best teams will not be the four best teams selected. Just accept it, and move on. It's for the best.

"No, seriously, UMass is better than Utah. I have no idea what you're talking about."

Question: What official criteria will be used to select the best teams?
Short Answer: Nobody has a goddamn clue

Longer Answer: Now that we've established that the Selection Committee is going to pick the best resumes rather than the best teams, the obvious follow up question is how do you pick the best resumes? And unfortunately, though rather unsurprisingly, nobody can give a straight answer. See this article by Kevin Trahan on some of the mixed messages from the committee itself.

In short, they want to take into account won-loss records, strength of schedule, conference records, conference title game results, head-to-head results, record vs common opponents.... unaware, of course, that all of these things would create different lists of the four top teams. And of course, choosing any of these metrics would divert from choosing the four best teams, which they also say they're going to do. And that doesn't even get into specifics like which strength of schedule metric you want to use, since there are many different choices. And there are plenty of other arbitrary metrics ("Top 25 wins", for example) that will be in play as well. And we haven't even started with conference politics (e.g. Will we allow two SEC teams in? Could we reject the entire SEC one season? Can we deny the Big Ten two straight seasons?). In short, nobody has a goddamn clue.

In the end, while the system is going to be a mish-mash, I expect that there will be pretty high agreement, and that agreement will be very close to the polls. When the human brain is bombarded with too much information, it simplifies that information and searches for the evidence it needs to come to the conclusions it wants.

In the end, if four teams are clear above the rest in the Top 25 polls, expect those four teams to be selected. If spots #4 and #5 are really close in the Top 25 polls, then we could certainly see the Selection Committee disagree with the pollsters. But while there might be some early season disagreements between the pollsters and the committee members, I'd be stunned if the Selection Committee goes far outside the box.

As we've seen over and over again in sports, and also outside the world of sports, big institutions are sensitive to the demands of their consumers. Sports fans come to expect things to be done a certain way, and there will be tremendous pressure on the playoff committee to bend to that will. To use the college basketball analogy, if Tennessee had been seeded higher than Iowa State (even though Tennessee was the higher rated team in basically all of the computer ratings) there would have been literal riots. Literally, cars would have been set on fire in Ames, Iowa. Nobody wants to go against the grain that much.

Question: Will we be able to predict the four teams selected prior to the official announcement? If so, how?
Short Answer: Basically. Look at the polls.

Longer Answer: Once we understand that the Selection Committee is going to be looking at the same mish-mash of information as the pollsters, we understand that the selection process will mirror very closely the polling process.

How does the polling process work? Well, it's an archaic set of arbitrary rules, where teams cannot drop if they win but will always drop if they lose, meaning that a team that loses in overtime on the road at the #1 team in the land is treated worse in the polls than a team that wins in overtime over a 1-10 Sun Belt team, even though the former performance was far superior to the latter. That's just how things go.

Over the larger sample size, a lot of these quirks get washed out, which is why the basketball Selection Committee generally ends up doing a pretty good job by March. In college football, with the shorter season, this will be more difficult.

Expect won-loss records and conference alignment to matter most. If any SEC team goes 13-0, they will be #1 and they will get in. If any teams goes 13-0 from any of the five major conferences they'll get in. Any 11-1 SEC team will get in over any 11-1 team from the Big Ten or ACC. We all know the rules. Strength of schedule should be a very minor factor, although you can be absolutely sure that we'll hear about it constantly in television broadcasts and from mainstream analysts.

One of the biggest problems with the conference obsession is that the mainstream media and casual fans both suck at judging conferences. The SEC's perception as the dominant conference is based on the league being the best from top to bottom over the decade of the 2000s. It wasn't the best every season, but more often than not it was. But the reality is that the era of SEC dominance is over. The Pac-12 has been the best conference in football the last two seasons, and that's a pretty universal and clear perception in every computer rating that I'm aware of. But it will take at least two or three more seasons of Pac-12 dominance before anybody will even be willing to seriously suggest on television that the SEC isn't the strongest league. It just takes a really, really long time for narratives like that to change.

So over the short run, the perception of the conferences will not change. Even if Ohio State ends up with a tougher SOS than South Carolina, there's no way 11-1 OSU will get into the playoffs over 11-1 South Carolina.

Is it possible that the polls will have 11-1 Oklahoma ranked 4th and 11-1 Stanford ranked 5th but the Selection Committee will determine that due to a tougher schedule they're going to take Stanford over Oklahoma? Sure. That's definitely possible. But don't expect any significant deviations from the polls. And so because of that, we'll all be able to predict with fairly high accuracy ahead of time which teams will be selected.

Question: What makes you think you can see the future? Maybe you're wrong about all of this!
Short Answer: True.

Longer Answer: Look, any time you try to predict the future, you can be wrong, so I'm not going to Gregg Doyel myself by declaring as unfit for adult society anybody who disagrees with me. Maybe the Selection Committee will flip the world on its head by, for example, actually selecting the four best teams even if one of them goes 9-3.

But realistically, that's just awfully difficult to see happening. History says that sports leagues give the fans what they want. From instant replay in baseball to goal line technology in soccer to Donald Sterling's suspension and ousting from the Clippers... leagues may drag their feet, and they may come kicking and screaming, but in the end the fans are going to get what they want.

And when a league is trying to institute a new system for determining its champion, the last thing it needs is for the majority of its fan base to not buy in. So they're not going to rock the boat too much.

So don't expect to be shocked by the Selection Committee. Expect to waste a lot of time in September arguing about what will happen if we have six teams that go undefeated. Expect to waste a lot of time in October arguing whether a 12-0 team from the Mountain West should get in over an 11-1 team from the Big Ten. Expect to waste a lot of time in November arguing whether an 11-1 team should automatically get in over an 11-1 team that they beat head-to-head. And expect to waste a lot of time in December arguing whether an 11-2 team that just lost its conference title game should get in over a 10-2 team that finished on a winning streak.

But in the end, we all know how this is going to play out.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Morning News: Aaron Brown, Vanderbilt Transfers, Briante Weber, And More

Aaron Brown is a nice pick-up for Boston College

This week marks the start of the college football season, which is always one of the signs that college basketball is right around the corner. In fact, there was an FCS football game on Saturday, though everybody else kicks off later this week. So with kids all back on campus now, we are finishing up with the last of the player transfers that will impact the coming season.

Let's get to some of those stories from the last week or so:

Aaron Brown Has Transferred From Southern Miss To Boston College Aaron Brown will be eligible to play next season, and he'd been considering quite a few different schools before choosing Boston College on Friday. Brown is a good pickup for BC as he was the most complete scorer for Southern Miss last season, leading the team in three-point shooting (38.7%) and finishing second in free throw attempts (145).

Once Oliver Hanlan decided that the Steve Donahue firing was sufficient to cause his return, we knew Boston College wouldn't be too bad next season. Hanlan could be first team All-ACC preseason. Throw in Aaron Brown and Boston College will now have two good scoring options. But with Ryan Anderson and Joe Rahon stil transferring out of a Boston College team that was perhaps the most disappointing in the nation this past season and the Eagles should still expect to spend Jim Christian's first season near the bottom of the ACC.

Southern Miss is heading into a rebuilding season under new head coach Doc Sadler. With the loss of Aaron Brown they have now lost all five starters from last season's NIT team. It's not unreasonable to think that if everything goes right next season that they could contend near the top of a Conference USA that does not have a dominant team, but most likely they're going to finish in the middle of the pack.

Dai-Jon Parker And Kedren Johnson Leaving Vanderbilt It's been a rough offseason for Vanderbilt, to say the least. Eric McClellan was kicked off the team, and Parker and Johnson might have gotten something of the same treatment. Kevin Stallings wasn't clear about the reasons for the transfer, but it was some sort of "non-academic university policy" that was violated. Parker, in particular, is a blow. He was second on the team in minutes this past season, averaging 8.3 points and 3.2 assists per game.

Next season will be a rebuilding season for the Commodores for sure. They have six incoming freshmen, though none is a blue chipper (point guard Riley LaChance is probably the highest rated by the scouting services). Those young players will be thrown into the fire a bit earlier than Stallings probably wanted.

Kedren Johnson has already announced his transfer to Memphis, where he will appeal for a waiver to play right away. As far as I know, Parker has not yet announced where he's going.

Briante Weber Will Be Suspended For VCU's Opener Briante Weber will miss VCU's season opener after stealing an iPhone. And while this wouldn't matter if VCU was opening up against a cupcake, they're actually opening up against Tennessee on a neutral court. You should still expect VCU to be favored, as Tennessee has undergone quite a bit of change after a coaching transition, but if they do get upset on opening day, you can be sure that they'll wish they'd had their best player on the court.

Colorado State Adds Antwan Scott Antwan Scott isn't well known to casual fans, but he averaged 15.7 points per game last season for Grambling State, which was third best in the entire SWAC. Even though it turns out that Chane Behanan will not end up playing for Colorado Sate, Larry Eustachy still has four quality transfers coming in to play this coming season (Dantiel Daniels, Stanton Kidd and John Gillon are the other three). Expect the Rams to sneak up on people this season. I already had them as an at-large team in my last bracket projection, and the addition of Scott should slide them up another line or two.

Oregon Adds Dillon Brooks, Who Reclassified It's been a rough offseason for Oregon, with a sexual assault leading the exit of Dominic Artis, Damyeon Dotson and Brandon Austin. In all, six of their top nine minute earners from last season will not play for the team next season. But the effort to refill up the roster is underway, as four-star recruit Dillon Brooks not only committed to Oregon but reclassified to 2014, meaning he'll be eligible to play this fall. With the Ducks likely to end up in the vicinity of the bubble, Brooks might be the key addition that puts them over the top and back into the NCAA Tournament.

By the way, it's worth noting that blue chip 2014 recruit JaQuan Lyle has still not been completely academically cleared for this coming season. Oregon seems confident that the issues will eventually be cleared up, but there will be some panic in Eugene if we get close to the season opener with Lyle still in limbo.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Morning News: Catching Up On O'Bannon, Doug Wojcik, Emmanuel Mudiay, Kenny Kaminski And More

If anyone wants to donate paper towels to UCLA, they're interested.
It's that time for another Morning News post. There are kids are on campus!... Some of them, at least. We're reaching the end of the summer, and getting closer to more regular blogging. As I've been doing all offseason, I'll be catching up on news from over the past few weeks.

Autonomy/O'Bannon Before getting to the actual college basketball news, I want to touch briefly on the autonomy vote and the O'Bannon ruling. I've talked on these issues before, so I only want to address the impact of those two things on college basketball itself. And I think the answer is: Not much. Even if the O'Bannon ruling withstands appeal, the media has vastly overreacted to what really shouldn't produce any significant change.

The primary change that is coming was inevitable once the autonomy vote came, which is some kind of stipend or "cost of attendance" payment to athletes - something along the line of $2000-$3000/semester. Big schools have wanted this for a long time and the autonomy vote will finally allow them to get it. On the record, they want the stipend to help kids struggling to make ends meet, but off the record they simply believe it will provide a recruiting advantage. The O'Bannon ruling simply says that the NCAA can't ban those small stipends if conferences and schools want them. The O'Bannon judge, despite ruling against the NCAA across the board, still does not allow athletes "salaries", a direct piece of merchandise or video games, or to be endorsed. All that it allows are these relatively small stipends.

Will the stipends help the big schools in recruiting? I guess. But I doubt it will mean much. The bigger/wealthier  schools already spend so much money on their athletes to attract recruits, from personal chefs to charter jets to beautiful training facilities, that I doubt an extra few thousand dollars will make a difference. Also, this situation already exists for many athletes. Most college sports fans don't realize this, but scholarship athletes who live off campus already receive stipend checks to pay for room and board. If these checks are more than sufficient to pay for room and board (as is generally the case) the players get to pocket the extra money.

I remain supremely skeptical that any significant changes to college sports will ever happen. The world Jay Bilas and his allies want, where college sports are blown up and replaced by minor league football and basketball and players can be paid millions of dollars, just seems so incredibly implausible on so many levels. And the NCAA holds a trump card in that it can run to Congress and ask for anti-trust protection. In the end, I think we're getting what the O'Bannon judge suggested: $2,000-$3000/semester stipends to help supplement what is already covered by scholarships. It will mean a little bit of pain for kids in non-revenue sports (a few schools will have to cut some non-revenue men's and/or women's teams to pay for these stipends), and it might impact recruiting a little, but fundamentally college sports will remain basically the same.

College of Charleston Fires Doug Wojick This was one of the more slow-moving firings in recent memory. He's been on the way out for weeks, after allegations of verbal abuse. Presumably the last few weeks have simply been about lawyers negotiating the terms of the firing, to prevent a lawsuit down the road, but the net effect on the basketball program itself is pretty rough. College of Charleston has basically missed out on summer recruiting, hurting them for this coming season as well as the next couple of seasons.

College of Charleston did fine in their first season in the Colonial, finishing 6-10 in conference play. But there was no real reason to expect them to be significantly better next season, so certainly don't expect to hear much of them anytime soon. The next we'll hear from this program will be when a new coach comes in.

Emmanuel Mudiay Going To China This move presumably happened because Mudiay failed to qualify academically at SMU. The history of American basketball players in China is not great, so it remains to be seen how much of that supposed $1.2 Million he ever actually receives and what this does to his NBA prospects, but certainly this is a huge blow for SMU basketball next season. The Mustangs were strong enough last season to make the NCAA Tournament and were only left out as punishment for their crap strength of schedule, but with Mudiay in the fold Larry Brown's team was going to be a consensus Top 25 team preseason.

That all said, you can still make a case for SMU being a Top 25 team. There is other talent, including Nic Moore and Markus Kennedy, and they still add Texas Tech transfer Jordan Tolbert. UConn is also likely to be a borderline Top 25 team, so expect either UConn or SMU to be the preseason favorite in the AAC.

Kenny Kaminski Dismissed From Michigan State Kaminski will transfer to another school, but has not made that decision yet. In the short term, this is yet another blow for a Michigan State team that is heading into next season really short on depth - particularly in terms of players that can score. Adreian Payne, Gary Harris and Keith Appling are gone, as well as Alex Gauna and Russell Byrd. Kaminski provided front court depth, and also was an outside sharpshooter.

With Matt Costello the only proven front court returner, Tom Izzo will be forced to play a lot of small lineups built around Travis Trice, Denzel Valentine and Lourawls Nairn. My most recent bracket projection had Michigan State as an 11 seed, and they might end up dropping out of my next bracket. They certainly have the look and feel of a bubble team.

Vanderbilt's Eric McClellan Heading To Gonzaga This is some old news that I didn't get around to before, but it's important enough that it really should be mentioned. Vanderbilt's last season went into the tank once they lost McClellan, an explosive and dynamic backcourt playmaker. They were likely going to be near the bottom of the SEC next season even with McClellan, and so without him they'll likely be pretty poor.

This has been a fantastic summer for Gonzaga. They had a bunch of quality big men, including the newly added Kyle Wiltjer, and their questions were in the backcourt. Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell are very good, but there was nobody else returning who was at all proven. With the additions of Byron Wesley and now Eric McClellan, along with star 2014 recruit Josh Perkins, the Zags suddenly have a wealth of explosive backcourt options. The Zags have to be in contention for the Top Ten in the preseason polls.

Ohio State Will Likely Be Without Trevor Thompson The Virginia Tech transfer had applied for a hardship waiver, but it has been declined, and he will likely have to sit out the season. The big man will still be a good pickup for the Buckeyes, but it'll have to wait for another year.

Marquette's Todd Mayo Leaves To Go Pro Marquette's roster went into flux after the coaching transition, and things still haven't quite settled down. Todd Mayo didn't start a game last season for Marquette, but he was fifth on the team in minutes, earning 24 minutes per game off the bench and finishing as the team's third leading scorer. He would have been the top scoring returner. The thing with a coaching transition like this is that Marquette is going to end up with a small and young roster next season - it's inevitable. But if Wojo can't put together a good 2015 recruiting class and his team shows improvement throughout the season, it'll be a successful first year.

Josh Fortune Transferring From Providence To Colorado Fortune, one of the most important players at Providence this past season, is not a superstar, but he'll provide backcourt scoring depth and will have a good chance to start when he's eligible in the 2015-16 season. This is one of those moves that we'll be able to evaluate better a year from now.

Devon Walker Out For The Season Florida should still be a very good team next season, and very much in contention for the SEC title. But as talented as they are, it's tough to win when you have a total turning over of talent. Florida lost four starters from last season's team, and Walker's torn ACL costs them a proven bench piece. Rutgers transfer Eli Carter will be expected to step in and eat many of those minutes, though Carter himself is coming off a serious injury (a broken leg that forced him to sit out all of last season), so he's far from a sure thing himself. In other words, expect Kentucky to be the consensus preseason SEC favorite.