A Few Things to Watch For in the Sweet Sixteen

  1.        Kentucky v Louisville

This is the big one this weekend. This game probably won’t end up being the highest scoring game, may not be the closest at the end of the game, and it is not the highest rated game by KenPom’s FanMatch statistic that rates games on their watchability, but this is the game you want to watch this weekend. Any time the previous two national champions match up against each other it’s a must watch game for any college basetball fan. Then you add that it’s a tournament win or go home game. Then you add that its Kentucky, a team that had the best recruiting class in decades. Then you add that its Louisville, and Russ Smith the best remaining college player in the tournament. Then you add that its Louisville versus Kentucky and it’s the one of the best rivalries in all of college basketball. And that’s how you get the biggest game of the College Basketball season so far.

The biggest matchup of the game is Louisville’s pressure defense against Andrew Harrison, Kentucky’s top rated point guard. All year, Harrison has been having turnover problems, with his 23.8 TOrate – which ranks the worst on the Kentucky team and is in the bottom 10% of remaining players in the NCAA tournament. Meanwhile, Louisville’s famed press defense has forced the 2nd most turnovers in the country at a 25.2% TOrate, barely behind Shaka Smart’s Havoc defense. How Harrison handles the press has a very good chance of being a deciding factor in this game.

Other fun things to watch in this matchup include Russ Smith doing Russ Smith things, Julius Randle proving why he should be a top 5 pick in the upcoming draft, and the matchup between experienced vets in Louisville, where all but one of their players who get any playing time played on the National Championship team last year against the killer recruits of Kentucky. This is the game of the Sweet 16 you can not miss.

  1.        Shabazz Napier

Shabazz has been balling all year, but not too many people got to watch the American Conference this year, and he has been relatively under the radar. However, he was the best player of the first weekend, putting up 24/6/7 against St. Joe’s and then throwing up 25/5/3 in an upset win versus Villanova while shooting 100% from 2 and 50% from 3. So, next up in Shabazz’s path is Iowa State, a team that is not only known for not playing much defense, but for playing extremely up-tempo, averaging 71.5 possessions a game. In comparison, Arizona, who is the median team (in terms of tempo) of remaining teams in the tournament, averages 64.6 possessions per game, a full 7 possessions less. This equals the potential for a ridiculous statline from Shabazz on Friday, and an extremely enjoyable game to watch.

  1.        Dayton’s Luck v Stanford’s Luck

So far in the tournament, Dayton has won their two games by a combined 3 points.  Stanford has won by a combined 8 points. What’s in store for these two lucky teams when they play against each other? I personally would love to see another Dayton 1 point win, putting them at 3 wins by a combined 4 points, which would probably be an NCAA record.

by Robert Garcia, Northwestern University

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The First Overall Pick: Quarterbacks

As May 8th creeps up on us, the Houston Texans’ time on the clock is slowly winding down. After winning their first two games of the 2013 season, the Texans went on to lose fourteen straight, securing the organization the first overall pick in this years draft.  Many holes are in need of plugging in Houston, on both offense and defense. And unlike in many other drafts in the past, there is no consensus number one pick. If Houston believes improving their 31st ranked scoring offense, which put up just 17.2 points per game last season and has now traded away their starting quarterback to the Raiders, is their main priority, they have a three-headed monster of quarterbacks to choose from. We will take a look at the pros and cons of candidates Teddy Bridgewater,  Blake Bortles and Johnny Manziel.

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Who’s Legit in the East? Part One: Top Four Seeds

With the NBA Playoffs right around the corner, the Western Conference is shaping up for a very exciting and competitive tournament, starting right from the first round. The East, however, has been the butt of all jokes since early in the season. Disappointing years for the Knicks and – to a lesser extent – Nets, combined with another Derrick Rose injury, has definitely lowered the level of competition in the conference. Teams like the Raptors and Wizards now find themselves in uncharted territory for their franchises the last few years – with mid to high playoff seeds. Which squads are real threats to win it all?

Indiana Pacers (51-18)

The Pacers started the season as the consensus best team in the NBA, jumping out to a 16-1 record, but have been much weaker of late.  They’re 35-17 since that start, which is still very good, but not quite as elite, and just 5-5 in their last five games. So, what’s their deal?

One of the biggest reasons for their falling off is the slumping performance of Paul George. Last season’s Most Improved Player, Paul George is one of the league’s best perimeter defenders, who’s also making great strides offensively, but early in the season was heralded as a two-way superstar, and maybe even the fourth or fifth best player in the league. Those talks have disappeared. Here’s how his season has progressed from an offensive standpoint, and how he’s affected the team’s success:

  • October:      28.0 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 5.0 APG, .486 FG%, .412 3P%, 2-0 W/L
  • November: 23.0 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 3.1 APG, .472 FG%, .403 3P%, 13-1 W/L
  • December:  24.1 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 3.7 APG, .468 FG%, .394 3P%, 10-4 W/L
  • January:      21.3 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 3.5 APG, .410 FG%, .315 3P%, 10-5 W/L
  • February:    21.0 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 3.4 APG, .401 FG%, .395 3P%, 10-3 W/L
  • March:          19.6 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 4.2 APG, .388 FG%, .290 3P%, 7-5 W/L

His field goal percentage has progressively dropped every single month, while  his points, three-point percentage, and team record have all followed general downward trends. Which Paul George the Pacers get in the playoffs could be the biggest factor in whether or not they can make it out of the East, or even to the conference finals at all.

TeamRankings.com’s power rankings likes the Pacers as the NBA’s fifth best team, good for best in the East. If they continue to play top-flight defense and can become more consistent offensively, they’ll be right in the thick of things.

Best-case scenario: NBA champions

Worst-case scenario: Second-round exit

Miami Heat (47-20)

Will the Heat “turn it on?” It’s become well-documented that the Heat don’t really push for the number 1 seed during the regular season, preferring to save their strength for the playoffs, where they blow through round after round like a freight train. That may be a good strategy – according to TeamRankings, their home power ranking (#5) is the same as their away power ranking, suggesting that perhaps home-court advantage won’t be too necessary for Miami in the playoffs.

Will they make it through those playoffs, though? They don’t rebound the ball, and rely on small lineups with three-point shooting to stretch out their opponents and give LeBron James and Dwyane Wade lanes to the basket. It’s worked in the past, but the role players that helped the Heat execute this strategy the past couple years haven’t been the same role players. Let’s examine:

Ray Allen

  • 2012/13: 10.9 PPG, .419 3P%, 112 Offensive Rating, 3.4 Offensive Win Shares
  • 2013/14: 9.7 PPG,    .372 3P%, 112 ORtg, 2.3 OWS

Shane Battier

  • 2012/13: 6.6 PPG, .430 3P%, 122 ORtg, 2.8 OWS
  • 2013/14: 4.3 PPG, .335 3P%, 112 ORtg, 1.1 OWS

Mario Chalmers

  • 2012/13: 8.6 PPG, .409 3P%, 110 ORtg, 2.6 OWS
  • 2013/14: 9.3 PPG, .389 3P%, 107 ORtg, 1.8 OWS

Even with Norris Cole improving, these three key cogs for Miami need to step their games up for the Heat to three-peat. The absence of Mike Miller has been felt as well. LeBron can only do so much, and with Dwyane Wade a question mark with injury history, good defensive teams like Indiana and San Antonio will be able to slow Miami’s scoring runs without role players knocking down threes. TeamRankings likes Miami as the sixth best team in the league overall, second in the East.

Best-case scenario: NBA champions

Worst-case scenario: Loss in conference finals

Toronto Raptors (38-30)

Now, things start to get a little more blurry. Toronto is the third seed in the East, but is 12.5 games back of Indiana and 9.5 back of Miami. They’re twelfth in TeamRankings’ overall rankings, with five Western Conference teams separating them from Miami. Are they legit, or is this drop off too severe? Let’s look at some deeper stats to decide.

Can they get easy baskets? In the playoffs, defense turns up, and it becomes more difficult to score in isolating situations. Can the Raptors score when it’s necessary?  They’re not great at it – they’re 27th in fast break points per game with 10, 23rd in points in the paint per game with 38.9, and 18th in effective field goal percentage at 49.5%. For a three seed, their offense is rather weak, even with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan both having career years.

Their defense? That’s where the Raptors make their stand. They’re good at preventing their opponents from getting the easy baskets they themselves starve for – sixth in opponents’ points per game, twelfth in opponents’ fast break points per game, and eighth in opponents’ effective field goal percentage. Toronto is clearly a solid defensive team, with an All-Star (and a snub) to try to carry some of the scoring load. If they can continue to play their slow-paced game and get into their halfcourt defensive sets, and Lowry and DeRozan don’t flame out, this team could very well make a bit of noise.

Best-case scenario: Conference Finals berth

Worst case scenario: first round elimination

Chicago Bulls (38-31)

Want to know what good coaching can get you? One glance at the Bulls’ roster, and you’d probably guess they’re missing the playoffs. And you’d be wrong. At thirteenth on TeamRankings power rankings, just behind Toronto, Chicago is right in the thick of things in the East. As a matter of fact, they may be even more in the thick of things than the Raptors.

Chicago’s run to relevancy this year without their superstar, Derrick Rose, has multiple key parts: great team defense (courtesy of both Tom Thibodeau and personnel), Joakim Noah’s career year, and the resurgence of DJ Augustin.

Just how good is the Bulls’ defense? Their rank of second in opponents’ points per game is partially due to their slow pace (they’re 30th in points per game themselves), but the rest of the stats show how elite their defense is. Second in opponents’ points per game, fourth in opponents’ assists per game, third in opponents’ rebounds per game, and eighth in opponents assist/turnover ratio. Those stats only scratch the surface of Thibodeau’s machine: take a look at their advanced numbers (courtesy of TeamRankings):

Screen Shot 2014-03-22 at 5.30.20 PM

All around the board, this is one of the league’s best two defenses, second in many categories only to Indiana. Like Indiana, though, and Toronto too, their success hinges on their offensive success. For Chicago, those numbers tell a bleak story:

Screen Shot 2014-03-22 at 5.35.23 PM

The Bulls are in dire need of Derrick Rose (or Melo?), as their offense is, for lack of a better word, anemic. But it’s been better lately, thanks partly to the blossoming of Joakim Noah. The Bulls run their offense through Noah at the high post, where he takes his defender out of the paint to open up cutting lanes right to the rim for guards and forwards – cuts to which Noah is very able to pass, as he’s one of the most uniquely skilled big men in the league. He can handle the ball as well, so if you want to give him too much space daring him to shoot, or get up in his face to block his passing vision, he can get momentum and blow by you to the rim with his dribble. Noah is one of the league’s best centers, boasting impressive offensive and defensive ratings of 112 and 96, respectively, and providing 9.2 win shares to the Bulls this season – good for thirteenth in the league overall, and second among centers (behind DeAndre Jordan of the Clippers).

Another jolt to the Bulls’ offense has come from an unlikely source in DJ Augustin. After being an afterthought in Indiana and being cut by Toronto, Augustin has been a big part of Chicago’s late run to playoff relevancy this season. Take a look at what he’s done for Coach Thibs compared to his previous two stints (courtesy of ESPN)*:

Screen Shot 2014-03-22 at 5.46.16 PM

For the Bulls, the key will be scoring enough points to beat their opposition. Their defense can seek to carry them past the playoffs’ weaker teams if it performs to the standards of this season, but it won’t be able to get them past anyone if their offense continues to perform like one of the NBA’s worst. The Bulls have potential to do big things this postseason, but have plenty of potential to disappoint as well.

Best-case scenario: Conference Finals berth

Worst-case scenario: first-round boot

Next up, we’ll take a look at the teams ranking 5-9 in the East, and why the teams previously mentioned might want to take them more seriously than they think.

by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University

*In order, these stats are: games played, games started, minutes per game, field goals made/attempted per game, field goal percentage, three pointers made/attempted per game, three point percentage, free throws made/attempted per game, free throw percentage, offensive/defensive/total rebounds per game, assists/blocks/steals per game, fouls/turnovers per game, and points per game.

Forgotten, but not Gone: The San Antonio Spurs

What do the following teams have in common?

  • Oklahoma City Thunder
  • Los Angeles Clippers
  • Houston Rockets
  • Miami Heat
  • Indiana Pacers

I’ll hasten with the answer: each team does not own the best record in the NBA. That title belongs to San Antonio, a team that, for whatever reason, year after year, continues to fly under the radar. An appearance on the biggest of stages, the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat in 7 games, apparently was not enough to garner respect for the bunch. TeamRankings.com, one of the leaders in sports analytics, uses an NBA power ranking system based off of tons of different information tidbits from every single game: home/away status, margin of victory, and many other factors. These data values are then algorithmically compared against thousands of past games, and higher weight is put on factors that tend to have greater effects on, and association with, winning. Let’s take a glance at their top six as of today: Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 3.54.58 PM

San Antonio doesn’t just have the league’s best record. These analytics like them as the league’s best team. Let’s look deeper in to some of the key points from the table:

  • Their rating is pretty convincing: the gap between SA and the Clippers, ranked third, is the same size as the gap containing all of teams 3-6. Additionally, the distance between SA and second-ranked Oklahoma City is tied for the largest gap between two consecutive teams in this top six.
  • Aside from dominating bad teams, they’ve taken care of business against the good teams ranked from 6-16, boasting the best record against those teams of the top six.
  • They’ve been very consistent in their excellence, as the lowest they’ve dropped in the rankings all season is fourth, by far the best of any team in the league.
  • The only scratch on this record seems to be their record against the top five, an ugly 3-8. They’re 0-3 against OKC, 2-1 against LAC, 0-3 against Houston, and 1-1 against Miami. This could definitely be a concern, as all of those teams are possible, even likely, playoff opponents. However, as will be outlined in a bit, the Spurs play a very different game in the playoffs.

What’s most amazing about the Spurs is that they don’t even go their hardest during the regular season. Head Coach Gregg Popovich, who is probably the league’s best, is notorious for saving his team’s health for the playoffs, once actually sent his four best players home just before a matchup with the Heat due to a back-to-back. How’s this for an amazing stat: they only have one player averaging over 30 minutes per game this season – Tony Parker. Parker’s 30.7 MPG average is good for 82nd in the league. 81 players play more minutes per game than Parker, and he’s only played in 52 of the Spurs’ 63 games. Talk about keeping your legs fresh. Of course, with only one player playing over 30 minutes, you need an exceptional gameplan (enter Gregg Popovich) and a well-balanced effort. The Spurs’ leader in win shares, an estimate of wins contributed by a single player based on a myriad of data, is Tim Duncan, with 5.5. Compare that to the Thunder, where Kevin Durant boasts a 15.5 and Serge Ibaka a 7.5. The Spurs have seven players owning more than 4 win shares; the Thunder only two. This balanced attack makes them tough to defend, as they don’t really need any specific players to have a great game to win, whereas if you can find a way to slow Kevin Durant enough, the Thunder are a far less effective team.

One of the Spurs’ most important players, in fact, might be Kawhi Leonard, often lost beneath the team’s legendary “Big Three.” However, his on-ball defense, rebounding, toughness, transition play, and outside shooting make him a weapon for Popovich in many facets of the game. Take a look at how his injury, and return, has effected the Spurs, via NBA.com:

Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 6.50.56 PM

And here’s one of my all-time favorite videos – LeBron reacting to Leonard checking in during last year’s Finals:

It’s players like Leonard, who might be fourth or fifth on the opponents’ scouting reports, who really make the Spurs so successful.

Heres a glance at the overall excellence of Popovich’s bunch this season:

  • 3rd in average score margin (+6.7)
  • 7th in average points in the paint (45.8)
  • 2nd in assists per game (24.9)
  • 4th in assist/turnover ratio (1.688)
  • 2nd in effective field goal percentage (53.8)
  • 4th in free throw percentage (78.8)
  • 1st in three point percentage (39.6)
  • 1st in fouls per game (18.1)

The efficiency of this team is like that a well-oiled machine, putting up around 105 points on you every night whether you like it or not, doing it from multiple sources, and doing it with ease. They take care of the basketball while still being able to move it around to find the best possible shot on each possession. They take analytics-friendly shots, too, as they love to jack up threes and get into the paint. They’ve been doing it for years. Credit the players and the coaches, and take advantage of the Spurs while you can – you never know when Pop, Duncan, Manu, and Parker might call it a career.

Other squads may get the TV spots, but depth, balance, efficiency, and coaching: all the ingredients for yet another deep San Antonio playoff run.

by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University

A Quick Reminder of How Good Andrew Wiggins is

There is a lot of fret about the Kansas Jayhawks and their tournament hopes after the injury of Joel Embiid, especially after the recent hype around Embiid potentially being the #1 overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft. This is no slight to Embiid, who is a great player, but the injury is being overhyped, because the Jayhawks’ best player is, far and away, Andrew Wiggins. How much better?

KenPom is one of my favorite sites, and overall it is the best advanced statistics site for college basketball on the internet. However, one important piece of information that slips past Ken Pomeroy’s stats system is Individual Defense. Offensively, Wiggins and Embiid are very similar players. Wiggins has a 113.9 ORating on a higher usage, but Embiid has a 112.2 ORating for himself, which is extremely impressive for a big man, especially a big man as raw as he is. Embiid’s insane block rate leads college basketball fans to believe that Embiid patrolling the center is the motor that makes Kansas’ defense go, but when you look a bit more into the stats, a different story is told.

Using data from GroupStats, (groupstats.wordpress.com), we can see the points per possession differences when each player is on and off the floor. When Joel Embiid is on the floor, Kansas outscores their opponents by .16 points per possession, a very strong number, and when he is off the floor Kansas outscores their opponents by .11 points per possession, or a .05 point benefit when he is on the floor. To put that number in comparison, Perry Ellis has a similar difference number at .04 PPP.

Now, lets get to Wiggins.

When Wiggins is on the floor, Kansas scores 1.18 Points per possession and gives up 1.00 Points per possession good for a PPP difference of .18. Now is where it gets good. When Wiggins is not on the floor, Kansas scores 1.08 points per possession and gives up 1.10 points per possession, good for a difference of -.02. Kansas is a whole 0.2 points per possession better when Wiggins is on the floor than when he is not! That is four times better than Embiid, and far and away the best of any Kansas starter. Lets put that .2 points per possession into context.  This year, Kansas is averaging 68.3 possessions per game. So, for each game, Wiggins is giving a 13.66 point boost to the Jayhawks, compared to a 3.415 point boost from Embiid. 13.66 points is an absolutely insane number for one single player to be adding to a squad.

So, as we are going into the Oklahoma State – Kansas game that many, if not most, experts are Kansas to lose in mainly because of the lack of Embiid, lets remember that the key player for the Jayhawks isn’t the big Cameroonian. Its Wiggins. And he will be playing today. That might just be all Kansas needs.

by Robert Garcia, Northwestern University

*Editor’s Note: this article was written BEFORE Wiggins dropped 30 points and 8 rebounds in their victory over Oklahoma State.

Bubble Breakdown: Safe Side of the Bubble

Nebraska (19-11)

Conference: Big Ten

KenPom Rank – 47

RPI Rank – 42

Best Player – Terran Petteway

How they got here: No team has had a bigger jump since the time of my first writing to today than Nebrasketball. While their tournament chances and RPI took a big jump after they knocked off Wisconsin at home on Sunday to get the #4 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, their win was not much of a surprise. They had a 40% chance to win on Sunday and they have been absolutely dynamite at home the whole season. Nebraska has only had one loss at home, to Michigan by one point, and their inspired play at their brand-new stadium has brought them to the doorstep of their first tournament appearance since 1998.

How do they play? Nebraska runs the majority of their offense through Terran Petteway. Petteway leads the Big Ten in percentage of team shots taken (32%) and also in usage rate. Petteway is a balanced scorer who is pretty efficient from both 2 and 3. However, where he is best is at drawing fouls (6 fouls drawn per 40 minutes, 3rd in the Big Ten) and knocking down free throws, where he hits 82%. As a team, Nebraska’s specialty is defense where they rank 27th in the country in defensive efficiency, specializing in a strong defensive rebounding percentage. Nebrasketball plays slower than average, as to be expected for a Big Ten team, and relies on Petteway and Shavon Shields to carry the bulk of the minutes for the squad.

Are they any good? Eh. They are pretty good, but unspectacular. There are two tournament clichés that go against each other when it comes to Nebrasketball. First of all, Nebraska is coming into the Big Ten Tournament on a run, going 8-1 in their last 9 games and beating Wisconsin, and winning at Indiana and at Michigan State. However, their team is run through one player and when a team has a week to completely focus on scouting, that one player is usually taken away in the tournament, making them predictable and vulnerable. Despite that, the bigger Red Herring for Nebraska is this: on Teamrankings.com, Nebraska’s home power ranking is #12. Their away power ranking is #62 and their neutral site power ranking is #135. Here’s a news flash: there are no home games in the NCAA tournament. Can Nebrasketball survive away from their heartland? We will see.

Where do they go next? Nebraska has gained the enviable position of a first round bye in the Big Ten tournament setting up a potential matchup with Ohio State in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament, a game in which they will be underdogs. Barring a blow out in the Ohio State game, they will be in the tournament come Selection Sunday, and picking up some wins in the Big Ten tournament could move them up potentially as far as an 8 seed.

Dayton (22-9)

Conference: Atlantic 10

KenPom Rank – 51

RPI Rank – 38

Best Player – Devin Oliver

How they got here: Dayton has put together a number of quality wins this year over teams such as Gonzaga, George Washington, and at St. Louis. Dayton has also won difficult road games at Mississippi and Georgia Tech. They, like Nebraska, have gone on a hot streak recently, where they are 9-1 in their last ten games, with a huge win at St. Louis included. Dayton’s recent run has put them in a comfortable, but not guaranteed, spot heading into the next week.

How do they play? Dayton has a very balanced team that relies on a strong team 3P%, 37.5%, which ranks 55th in the country, and a strong offensive rebound percentage, ranking 40th in the nation. This is all embodied by Devin Oliver, who shoots 54% from 2 and 40% from 3, all while pulling down over 7 rebounds a game. In their recent run, they have scored more than 1 point per possession in 8 of their 10 games, which is the strength of their team, ranking 31st nationally in offensive efficiency. Dayton’s defense is lacking and they are a team that fouls an awful lot, ranking 252nd in FTA/FGA nationally.

Are they any good? While they are a little overrated in the RPI rank, this is a team that is still pretty decent overall, while the still may be a little over seeded in the tournament. Dayton has accumulated quality wins this season that have shown they have the potential to make a run. While Dayton has been under the radar all year, they have put together the best offense in the A10 and can really attack from the 3 point line.

Where do they go next? Dayton has a relatively easy path in the A10 tournament, facing the winner of Fordham – George Mason, and then facing an overrated St. Joe’s team in the quarters. This combination helps Dayton fans feel pretty comfortable getting into the tournament as long as they win their first game. Dayton is being projected to get a 11 or 12 seed at this point which could bring the best outcome for basketball fans, Dayton playing in the First Four games at home in Dayton.

Tennessee (20-11)

Conference: SEC

KenPom Rank – 14

RPI Rank – 43

Best Player – Jordan McRae

How they got here: Tennessee has had an awful amount of bad luck to get them here on the bubble, even if they will probably be getting in at the end of the day. Tennessee has had close losses at Xavier, at Vanderbilt, at Missouri, and at Texas A&M. Also well as their close losses, Tennessee has beat down some damn good teams, including a 15 point win over Virginia, a 15 point win over Xavier in a neutral site rematch and a 27 point destruction of Missouri. Tennessee has had a pretty difficult schedule this year, ranking 51st in the KenPom strength of schedule ranking and has the 3rd hardest schedule in the SEC.

How do they play? Tennessee plays quite a slow style yet, they are remarkable efficient on both the offensive and defensive end, ranking 17th in offensive efficiency and 28th in defensive efficiency. They are absolute beasts on the offensive glass, ranking 4th in the nation in offensive rebounding. Tennessee is also graced with the best player in the SEC and a top ten player nationally in Jordan McRae. McRae draws a large amount of fouls and shoots a good percentage from 2 point range, 3 point range and the line, all while taking the 3rd highest percentage of shots in the SEC. His partner in crime Jarnell Stokes is a heck of a player as well, currently ranked as the 3rd best player in the SEC by KenPom and has been dynamite from two point range, shooting 53% while killing it on the offensive boards, where he has lead the SEC in offensive rebounding percentage, and is 16th nationally. On the defensive end, Tennessee still rebounds well, and also holds teams to a very low 2 point field goal percentage, at 44.3%, 42nd in the country.

Are they any good? If you are looking for the team that high seeds want to avoid early in the tournament, look no further than Tennessee. Tennessee is a hell of a team, ranking 14th in KenPom right next to Syracuse, Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Michigan. Now imagine being a five seed facing one of those teams in the first game of the NCAA tournament and that’s what a team facing Tennessee will get. Not only do the stats show that Tennessee is that good, Tennessee has shown it already this year when they beat potential #1 seed Virginia by 15 handing them their largest loss of the year. Depending on how the bracket ends up, Tennessee has a very good chance of getting to the Sweet Sixteen, if not the Final Four, even though they will likely be an 11 or 12 seed, with the outside chance of sneaking up to a 10 seed if they beat Florida in the SEC tournament.

Where do they go next? They will probably lock up their spot with a win against Arkansas in the SEC tournament, a team that they are much better than (they should be relatively large favorites in that game). However, Tennessee continues to get unlucky, as while by KenPom they are the second best team in the conference, they have gotten the 4th seed in the conference tournament and a semifinal match up against the dominant Gators. They have a decent chance at beating Florida on a neutral court, but it’s not a game that they are expected to win. However, if they get past the Gators, they have a great shot at winning the whole tournament. Into the NCAA tournament, Tennessee should be hoping to get potentially overrated high seeded teams such as San Diego State, Iowa State, and Saint Louis.

by Robert Garcia, Northwestern University

What is the Probability of Perfection?

After winning its conference tournament this past weekend, the Wichita State Shockers became the first Division I men’s basketball team to enter March Madness undefeated since the 1991 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels. Wichita State was also the first team to go 30-0 in the regular season.

A feat like this requires some degree of luck. There is never a game in which a team has 100% win certainty, no matter how the weak competition. That said it is certainly a lot easier for a team that plays a weaker strength of schedule to run the table.

The perfect Shockers actually had a very average strength of schedule. According to KenPom.com, Wichita State’s Pythagoras strength of schedule was .531, good for 131st out of 351 teams. This means, against an average Division One opponent, the Shockers’ competition would win 53.1% of games. This is slightly above average, but not strong nonetheless. On the other hand, Wichita State’s Pythagoras rating is .9403, good for fourth in the country, behind three major powerhouses: Arizona, Louisville and Florida.

So the question remains, how likely was their run?

First, for simplicity sake, let us consider the case where every one of Wichita State’s games was against its average opponent. Their expected win probability could be adjusted to approximately 93.3% using Bill James’s Log5 formula. Developed by the famed sabermetrician, the Log5 formula, weights the winning percentage of each team to develop a single-game win percentage. While the derivation of the formula is complex, the equation is simple:

             A - A * B
  WPct = -----------------
         A + B - 2 * A * B

Given this, the probability that the Shockers go undefeated is simply .93^34, which is 9.4 percent.

Let’s examine each game a little more in depth, however. The Shockers, who have been criticized for their strength of schedule, have indeed played some strong teams including probable tourney teams like Saint Louis and Tennessee an at-large 11-seed (according to Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology). Developed for baseball, Bill James’s formula fails if you assume 1.0 win probability, because clearly team A will always win.

However, if we assume KenPom’s rating is a decent estimation of true winning percentage, then the log5 formula can provide insight into how the shockers did. As I used KenPom’s Pythagoras rating for Wichita State, I also used it for each team they played and applied the log5 formula to each game. I did not count the first game of Wichita State’s season because it was against a non-D1 opponent.

Opponent KenPom rating Log5 Win %
Western Kentucky

0.4582

0.94904233

William & Mary

0.4955

0.941302501

Tennessee State

0.2312

0.981264367

Tulsa

0.7062

0.867595933

DePaul

0.4541

0.949835696

Brigham Young

0.8025

0.794925273

Saint Louis

0.8437

0.744757998

Oral Roberts

0.4734

0.946005567

Tennessee

0.8989

0.639179631

Alabama

0.6905

0.875926611

North Carolina Central

0.6793

0.881458018

Davidson

0.6056

0.911170633

Southern Illinois

0.5218

0.935209503

Northern Iowa

0.6733

0.884292074

Illinois State

0.5566

0.926183658

Missouri State

0.5342

0.932128408

Bradley

0.3949

0.960213505

Indiana State

0.6426

0.89754137

Illinois State

0.5566

0.926183658

Drake

0.4278

0.954683114

Loyola (IL)

0.3277

0.969981789

Evansville

0.3991

0.959537799

Indiana State

0.6426

0.89754137

Northern Iowa

0.6733

0.884292074

Southern Illinois

0.5218

0.935209503

Evansville

0.3991

0.959537799

Loyola (IL)

0.3277

0.969981789

Drake

0.4278

0.954683114

Bradley

0.3949

0.960213505

Missouri State

0.5342

0.932128408

Evansville

0.3991

0.959537799

Missouri State

0.5342

0.932128408

Indiana State

0.6426

0.89754137

To calculate the probability that Wichita State won all these games, I simply multiplied all these single game probabilities together.

Probability of going undefeated  = 4.37%

Clearly, the Shockers are very lucky. They didn’t suffer injuries to any major players. Also, they are in the Missouri Valley Conference, a conference that is suitably weak to cultivate an undefeated campaign. Nonetheless, Wichita State is a team to reckon with going forward. This season has not been a simple cakewalk for them. Games against Tennessee, Saint Louis and Brigham Young were games that although they were expected to win, posed a significant threat to their perfection.

Unless the selection committee shocks (pun intended) the nation, Wichita State will be a number one seed after reaching the Final Four last season. Will they reach the Final Four once again? That remains to be seen, but just like their perfect season, it will require a lot of skill and a little bit of luck.

by Jacob Lynch, Harvard College

Bubble Breakdown: The Best Bubble Bets to Get In

Southern Mississippi (26-5)

Conference: CUSA

KenPom rank- 60

RPI rank – 36

Best Player – Michael Craig

Due to an inflated RPI and a very winnable conference tournament where they will probably be favored to win, the Golden Eagles have a very good chance of making the tournament.

How they got here: Southern Miss got their 36th ranked RPI and high probability of getting in on the back of their 5 losses. They have played a particularly soft schedule, playing only 1 top-50 KenPom team, Louisville, where they were promptly smashed by 31 points. Their top win is probably beating North Dakota State on the road, which does not arouse much confidence in the team. However, they have taken care of business for the most part, particularly at home, where they went undefeated. They have put themselves in an enviable position before their conference tournament.

How do they play? Southern Miss plays a particularly balanced game, with the only player playing more than 70% of their team’s minutes being 3-point specialist Neil Watson. They play pretty slowly, ranking 277th in Adj Tempo, and are also pretty balanced in offense and defense, ranking 65th in offensive efficiency and 87th in defensive efficiency per KenPom. Their biggest specialty is offensive rebounding, where they are 11th in the country in offensive rebounding percentage at 38.6%. Six foot five inch Michael Craig leads the way in the rebounding department, leading the team in defensive rebounding percentage and total rebounding percentage. Craig is their best offensive weapon, mostly through his 56.8% 2-point FG%.

Are they any good?: For a team with as good chance of getting into the tournament as Southern Miss, they are not very good. As of this time, they are projected to get a seed anywhere from 9-12 and at 9 they would be severely over seeded. At the 60th best team in the KenPom rankings, they profile along with teams such as Green Bay, West Virginia and Georgia State. Placing this team at a 9 seed would be over-valuing them by about 20 to 30 spots.

Where do they go next?: To the CUSA conference tournament, where they will likely face UTEP in their first matchup. Unfortunately for Southern Miss, the CUSA conference tournament is being played at Don Haskins Center in El Paso, Texas, which happens to be UTEP’s home court. If they get past UTEP they will face their toughest matchup of the tournament in Louisiana Tech, the best team in the CUSA per KenPom. Regardless of Southern Miss’s results in the tournament, they are likely to be heading to the big dance come selection Sunday.

Oklahoma State (20-11)

Conference: Big 12

KenPom Rank – 19

RPI rank – 41

Best Player – Marcus Smart

How they got here: For the majority of the season, Oklahoma State has been one of the biggest disappointments of the year in college basketball. However, looking back, a lot of that can be chalked up to a deceptively tough schedule, bad luck, and losing their best player for 3 games. Oklahoma State was believed to be missing the tournament after their 7 game losing streak, still after being a top team in the preseason and for a good amount of the beginning of the season. Looking back on that 7 game losing streak which put them here on the bubble, not many teams would have even gone 3-4 in a schedule of Oklahoma home and away, Baylor home and away, Iowa State, Texas on the road and Texas tech on the road. Oh, and by the way, they didn’t have their best player for 3 of those games. Yet even though they did lose those 7 games in a row, they only lost by 10+ twice in those 7 games, and pushed the game to OT twice.

How do they play? This is another particularly balanced team that has the 25th best offense in the nation and the 34th best defense in the nation. They play fast, getting up and down the court, but also take great care of the ball, ranking 16th in the nation in turnover percentage. Oklahoma State really rides their starters for minutes with Smart, Markel Brown, Le’Bryan Nash, Phil Forte and Kamari Murphy spending 42.4% of the teams minutes on the court together. Smart leads the offense as a scorer and a passer and helps set up their 3 other scores: Forte (3 point guy), as well as Nash and Brown, who both shoot very well from 2 and the line.

Are they any good? Yes. Very good. I remember a couple weeks back thinking about how at the pace OK State was at, they were going to be one of the best 12 seeds in the history of the tournament. Fortunately for 5 seeds everywhere, they have played themselves into a higher seed, yet will still be extremely dangerous and could easily be favored in their first NCAA tournament matchup even as a 10 or 11 seed. Oklahoma State is very highly ranked in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and at their peak, they have proven to be able to beat Kansas, Memphis, Colorado and Kansas State. This is a team that higher seeds do not want to be placed near on Selection Sunday.

Where do they go next? OK State was dealt a difficult Big 12 tournament draw, whereafter playing Texas Tech in the play-in game, they would have to play #1 seeded Kansas in the quarter finals. Regardless of their results in the Big 12 tournament, this is a team that will be dancing and will be a popular upset pick in your pools this year.

by Robert Garcia, Northwestern University

Introduction to the Bubble Breakdown

Welcome to March.

We are closing in on the tournament, and the bubble is starting to shrink. We can close in and analyze who has the best chance of getting in and who is going to the NIT. At time of this writing (Sunday Night, March 9th), I have calculated that there are 42 locks, and 17 more 1 bid leagues, teams that will get 1 team in but no more, that have not crowned their champion. That leaves 59 spots in the tournament already decided, and 9 total spots on the bubble. First, before touching on each team and their chances of moving into the tournament, I want to discuss what is dangerous for all of the bubble teams – bid stealing. A pet peeve of mine is when TV analysts begin to talk about the bubble and they talk about how if one team wins one game they could go from the middle of the bubble to a lock. Even more of a pet peeve is when analysts forget to include the lost bubble spots to bid stealing. Here is an example of what I mean by bid stealing: Toledo is a great example of a team that could really screw over some bubble teams this postseason. Toledo is a bubble team as well as the favorite to win their conference tournament because of their very strong RPI. If Toledo wins their tournament, the MAC will be a 1-bid conference and the bubble will stay the same size. However, if Toledo loses in their tournament (which really wouldn’t be too big of a surprise as they are not even the #1 seed in their conference), the MAC could become a 2 bid conference and make the bubble shrink. Other more common scenarios are when a low level team in a top conference such as the SEC or Big 10 comes out of nowhere and wins their conference tournament, like Georgia did in 2008, winning the SEC tournament and getting a 14 seed in the tournament. So pay attention, bubble teams. Along with your team, you are rooting for the favorites the rest of the way out. At the end of the day, based on the conference tournament win probabilities, we can expect around 2 bids to be stolen, which brings our bubble to 7. Now lets start breaking down the bubble teams and where they stand.

Locks: Arizona, Florida, Wichita State, Villanova, Wisconsin, Kansas, Michigan, Syracuse, Virginia, Creighton, Duke, Louisville, North Carolina, Michigan State, Iowa State, San Diego St, Cincinnati, UCLA, Oklahoma, Connecticut, VCU, New Mexico, Harvard, Eastern Kentucky, St. Louis, Kentucky, Gonzaga, Texas, Memphis, Ohio State, Massachusetts, Oregon, Baylor, SMU, St. Joseph’s, BYU, Kansas State, George Washington, Colorado, Arizona State, Pittsburgh, Iowa

Beautiful, done with that. In my next post, we’ll start classifying some teams.

by Robert Garcia, Northwestern University

Does Clutch Exist?

Is Kobe Bryant clutch?

Are Kevin Durant or Dirk Nowitzki?  Was Michael Jordan ever clutch?

These questions may seem ridiculous, as each of these players has made many “big shots” in the dwindling moments of close games. But how many of those shots are attributable to “clutchness,” and do they matter as much as we think they do?

All of those people mentioned are/were professional basketball players. They spend many hours each day perfecting their shot form on different plays from different areas of the floor. A specific isolation or post-up play, when run in a game, in the beginning or end, has probably been run multiple times during practice or scrimmages, and the offensive players involved have mastered these situations to the best of their respective abilities. The chances of those shots then going in are then left to just that – chance. Taken from a distribution of an uber-complicated probability model just like every other shot in the game.

Consider this: players like Kobe and Durant may be able to make so many shots in “crunch time” simply because they’re better players, not because they’re clutcher players. A play is run, and the abilities of those players are put on display in an effort to score.

Take a look at the top eight point-scorers in crunch time last season, courtesy of 82games.com:

Screen Shot 2014-03-09 at 6.02.30 PM

The first thing you may notice is that perhaps Kobe and Durant weren’t as clutch as you thought, both shooting well below their season averages. But what I’d like to point your attention to is the minutes column. These numbers fall between 104 and 161 minutes over the course of the season, not much more than the course of a few games. This is a statistical concept called small sample size – there simply is not enough data to make an overarching prediction about any of these players.  If James Harden were to go out on a three-game stretch and shoot .402, not very much would be made of that. So why does this same amount of minutes – 143 out of 3936 minutes in a season – over the course of an entire season draw such attention from fans and media alike? A lot is made of players who perform “when it matters.” Here’s a concept: the first three quarters of the basketball game actually matter three times more than than the fourth – 36 minutes compared to 12. All points count for the same amount from quarter to quarter, and the first five minutes matter just as much as the last five.

According to Rob Mahoney of the New York Times, “No player can be [clutch]; the word itself describes but a tiny slice of past performance, and indicates the timing and importance of a particular play rather than a fundamental attribute of any one player… Jordan wasn’t a winner in crunch time. He was just a winner.”

Shall we take a look at who was best at making “clutch” shots? Here’s the same data, sorted by field goal percentage:

Screen Shot 2014-03-09 at 6.13.09 PM

As you can see, the top five most efficient scorers in these situations were all centers, players who normally shoot better percentages then the rest of their teams due to the nature of their close-to-the-basket shots. Were they more efficient in the clutch than their peers, or simply more efficient than their peers in general?

Statistics has a test specifically designed for situations like this. Known as the “two-sample t test,” this tests takes two sets of data and provides, with 95% confidence, whether or not they come from different probability distributions. In this case, we’d want to decide whether players are actually performing differently (better or worse) in the clutch, or if they’re just as good as they are for the rest of the game.

This test would be most effective with the most data possible, so let’s start with Kyrie Irving, who took the most crunch-time shots of anyone else in the NBA last season. A comparison of his .467 shooting on 38.8 attempts to his .452 shooting that season says that the two numbers are too similar to say they’ve come from separate distributions.

This is called rejecting the alternative hypothesis: just like how a criminal is innocent until proven guilty in the courtroom, this test assumes there is no clutch factor changing the data, unless sufficient data says otherwise.

For Kobe, his .426 in the clutch, compared to his .463 percentage that season, although seemingly very different, comes from a small enough sample size that the test detects no significant clutch factor. Even if it did, it would say Kobe – who is widely hailed as being clutch – is actually a less efficient player in those crunch-time moments. Conflicting evidence for widely held opinions make the clutch argument a difficult one.

Despite all of that, the fact remains that NBA players are people, and any psychologist will tell you that their performance would be affected by their surroundings and situation. NBA players themselves refer to the concept of clutch as fact all the time, and talk about their nerves in late-game situations. Does a player’s personal confidence, or belief in clutch, affect his performance in such situations? It’s certainly possible, and there are many parts of this discussion that statisticians might never be able to solve or agree upon.

Another possibility is that the minus for defensive focus on star players, combined with the plus from their clutch, causes the stats to be such a wash, in which case, the data could be deceiving. What’s deeper behind the numbers?

With such small sample sizes for clutch shots, alongside some conflicting evidence, it is very difficult to make a concrete decision either way on whether or not clutch exists. If it does, though, its effect is many times smaller than most people assume. Not only does it have little effect on the efficiency distributions, but in terms of number of shots over the course of the game, having a player who’s clutch would only help for a small amount of time, only doing so if the game were close.

So, what do you think? Does clutch exist? Does it matter?

by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University