Prospecting the Sweet Sixteen

A statistical revolution has swept sports analysis over the past 30 years, first changing the way we thought about baseball but gradually spilling to the NFL and the NBA. College basketball hasn't found its Bill James yet, but John Gasaway and his colleagues at Basketball Prospectus are pretty good candidates. You think Wisconsin was a mediocre offensive team this year because the Badgers didn't score in droves?  Nope, Gasaway would tell you. They were actually incredibly efficient but opted to play at a slow pace. These and other insights entertained and educated me throughout the season. So with the Sweet Sixteen upon us, it seemed like a good time to bring some data-fueled wisdom to the Toy Department via an e-mail chat with Gasaway.  
TD: What are some of the biggest misconceptions about basketball that you feel you've been able to address with your methods?

JG: Well, "my" methods are of course ones I've learned from innovators like former North Carolina coach Dean Smith and basketball analyst Dean Oliver.  But I hope those methods, whoever's applying them at a given point in time, have helped correct at least two misconceptions. Speaking first to the team level, there should be no such term as "scoring defense." A college team that allows 60 points a game might be a really good defense, a really bad one, or anything in between. If North Carolina does it while averaging 75 possessions a game, they're a really good defense. If Iowa does it while averaging 57 possessions per game, they're not so good on D.

And then second, on the level of the individual player, there should be no such expression as "needing" to get "20 a game" out of a certain player. It may well be true that a given player is your best bet for scoring, but the idea that a certain number of points automatically means you're playing well couldn't be more misleading. If you need 20 shots to get your 20 points, you're hurting your team more than you're helping. Scoring a lot of points can be a good thing. Scoring a lot of points efficiently is always a good thing. 
TD: Why do you think it took so much longer for folks to apply statistical analysis to college hoops than to say, baseball or even the NBA?


JG: The idea's actually been around a long time. Smith, for one, was counting possessions as an assistant at North Carolina 50 years go. What took longer was its widespread use. I have no idea why it wasn't picked up sooner. I can only say that for myself, speaking almost literally, I first came across this stuff on a Tuesday morning and then started using it that afternoon. It made that much sense to me. 

TD: After the first two rounds of the tournament, do you feel your methods were particularly insightful about certain teams?


JG: Well, there's still basketball to be played, of course. But this year I'd venture to say that those methods did a pretty good job spotting at least a few overrated teams. I was on the record as saying Boston College, Illinois and Florida State were all over-seeded. So that worked out. Then again I said BYU and West Virginia were under-seeded. You can't win them all. 
TD: Did others shock you by going down as easily as they did?

JG: No one went down! Really, the only team that did was Wake Forest and, in another stroke of good fortune, I'd already been captured in print as saying I didn't expect much from the Deacons. 
TD: Do you have a sense, based on data, how much North Carolina would be crippled without Ty Lawson?

JG: I think I have a sense but it's not based on data, per se, because Lawson didn't miss enough time to look at this in that way. Then again this might be one of those instances where the only data you need is what you see. Without Lawson, UNC barely beat Virginia Tech and then lost to Florida State, both in the ACC tournament. That might be enough information right there.

What's interesting about Lawson is that last year he did miss enough time -- seven games -- to get a sense of what he means (or meant) to his team. During that time the offense became significantly less efficient -- but the defense improved by almost the exact same amount. Then again, that team had Marcus Ginyard in the lineup.
TD: Why do you think UNC has been a slight disappointment relative to preseason expectations?

JG: The preseason expectations were inflated by the way UNC started the year, up to and including beating Michigan State by 35 points in Detroit. Also keep in mind that when the Heels beat Notre Dame by 15 in Maui, we thought at the time that was kind of a big deal. Turned out it wasn't, of course. That being said, to brand this team a "disappointment" would be unjust. By many of the measures I use, this team is almost exactly as good as they were last year. Believe me, most coaches would take being "almost exactly as good as" a team that was a one-seed and went to the Final Four. 
TD: What did Maryland's poor efficiency margin tell you about them as a team? Does it mean they actually overachieved or got lucky to compile the record they did?

JG: Keep in mind the efficiency margin stat tracked Maryland only during conference play, when they were 7-9. Then and only then did the Terps proceed to go out and get an NCAA bid by beating Wake Forest in the conference tournament. That win against the Deacons might be another case where, at the time, we thought it was a big deal. Maybe Cleveland State proved otherwise. Say this for Gary Williams' team, though. They were better than Cal.
TD: There's a lot of debate here about Gary Williams. Do you have a take on how important coaching is compared to raw talent in the college game? Do you believe an excellent game and practice coach can consistently transcend mediocre recruiting?

JG: I guess it depends on what you mean by "transcend." It is true that if you want to play with the big boys you have to recruit with them as well. It's not just national champions that are customarily stocked with future NBA talent. Even to get to the Final Four usually requires that same level of talent. George Mason was the exception and not the rule. But at the same time, the vast majority of D-I programs are out there working hard and trying to improve, happy in the knowledge that a national championship is not their objective.

Every year there are excellent examples of talented teams that aren't  very good, just as there are plenty of good teams that aren't very talented. I actually wrote about Gary Williams this year.  
TD: You've said Memphis is your favorite, which is certainly believable to Maryland fans at this point. But what do you like so much about their team?

JG: They have size, they have quickness, and they defend. They're not going to be confused with North Carolina or Pitt on offense, but they simply make life miserable for opposing offenses. Every year, John Calipari takes highly sought recruits and somehow persuades them to play outstanding defense, which is something a lot of observers always say can't be done. Louisville is like that, too, I just think the Tigers are a hair better.
TD: Do you have any sense that the lack of upsets means something sweeping about the state of college basketball? Or do you suspect that chance simply lined up that way?

JG: Both! (I'm a natural politician.) Western Kentucky could have very easily knocked off Gonzaga. Utah State came within a couple free throws of beating Marquette, who in turn just missed beating Missouri. So, yes, to a certain extent the fact that teams like the Bulldogs and the Tigers are still alive is indeed chance.


But if there is indeed something sweeping going on, it's that scouting is way better. Not because we're so much smarter than people 10 years ago, but simply because anyone can watch any game and get tape of any game. There are no secrets.

That's why I loved how Baylor coach Scott Drew went to a zone defense in the Big 12 tournament. He created his own secret and it was good enough to beat Kansas and almost get the Bears to the NCAA tournament. I'm amazed coaches don't switch gears like that more often. What in the world did Baylor have to lose? Nothing. Drew apparently came to the same conclusion.
TD: Which of the remaining teams do you find most interesting to watch and why?

Oklahoma. I'm expecting Blake Griffin to put on a goodbye-to-college show, kind of like Derrick Rose last year. I have DeJuan Blair as my Player of the Year, but Blair has Sam Young and Levance Fields to partner with. Griffin, on the other hand, is it for the Sooners, though of course Willie Warren is a great talent, too. I would hope for Griffin to really seize the moment now that every game could be his last in college.

Connecticut also has my attention with the way they blew out Texas A&M. They really didn't look too good after Jerome Dyson went down late in the season with an injury. But then the NCAA tournament started. In their first two games, they've looked better than any other team in the field.
TD: Who's your final four and champion?

I'm on the record as thinking Memphis will win it all, though that didn't look real smart for a while there against Cal State-Northridge. I also have Louisville, Pitt, and North Carolina as making it to the Final Four.
TD: What's the next frontier in statistical analysis as applied to college hoops?

The next frontier will be simply the swelling usage of existing tools, for instance the use of tempo-free statistics by the NCAA selection committee. Not that this new stuff (which, again, isn't at all new) should be the only thing the committee looks at, of course. Merely that the information that hundreds of D-I coaches are already using merits a seat at the table alongside RPI and a team's won-lost record over their last ten games.