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    A post about winning

    by Ken Pomeroy on Thursday, January 24, 2013

    For the most part, I’ve gotten out of the game of sparring with those critical of analytics. I’ve tried to channel my inner Whelliston with a personal mission statement along the lines of “If you don’t like what I do, just go away.” There are enough coaches and media folks using this stuff that the work has been validated, and I get much more enjoyment out of doing research and interacting with people that are interested in it than getting involved in tedious discussions. If the use of analytics somehow makes you enjoy the game less or you feel like it’s voodoo of some sort, no biggie. There’s room for all of us at the college hoops table. You do your thing, I’ll do mine.

    (That said, if any coach or media-type unfamiliar with analytics is willing to meet me even a quarter of the way, I’ll gladly spend time trying to help you better understand what we do and how it will help you. I totally get that this stuff doesn’t come naturally to most people.)

    (Oh, also, I know you’re saying “What about Goodman?” The thing is, while nobody would say he’s warmed up to analytics, he’s not truly an analytics-hater. Sparring with him doesn’t feel like work.)

    However, I’d like to violate my new mission statement for a second. The following was tweeted by Seth Davis a couple weeks ago, but it’s clearly directed at the conclusions similar to those expressed in my post from Tuesday.

    @tsnmike Seems to me like they often refuse to acknowledge winning period. I guess I’m just a simpleton.

    — Seth Davis (@SethDavisHoops) January 7, 2013

    “They” in this case references analytic-types, and it’s not the first time Seth has gone down this road, so I feel like it’s worth addressing.

    I don’t understand how one could criticize an approach that looks more generally at how a team played in an effort to better evaluate the quality of said team. An approach that long-term data supports. But what really puzzles me is that Seth criticizes this approach in analytic-types and commends it in coaches. These were his thoughts on Butler’s head coach during the Bulldogs game with Gonzaga game last Saturday:

    I love the praise for a coach being civil on the sidelines. Too often, people confuse lack of emotion with lack of passion (especially in players) and maintaining one’s composure is an underrated skill in a leader. However, it’s important to understand why Stevens is generally calm at the end of close games. We get some insight into this from Pat Forde’s latest installment of Forde Minutes. Here, Stevens comments on his non-reaction to Roosevelt Jones’ heroics:

    “What goes through my mind is, the hay is in the barn,” Stevens said. “If a guy makes a shot like that or doesn’t, it doesn’t define who we are. It doesn’t affect how I evaluate our team. It doesn’t break our season.”

    When analytic-types express something like this, Seth Davis criticizes the idea. But when Brad Stevens’ promotes the idea, he eats it up. Well, Seth doesn’t say that explicitly, but I’m not expecting a column from him critical about the above quote anytime soon. (My conclusion: The idea of chance events influencing the outcome of close games would be more readily accepted from stat-heads if one of us either (a) used a folksy expression like the hay being in the barn, or (b) applied for a coaching job, got it, and eventually became the 15th person in the history of the world to coach in consecutive title games. Any volunteers?)

    Now, I don’t know Brad well, or even at all, but I bet he prefers winning to losing. I also bet that, with 3.5 seconds to go, he would have preferred to be up by six with the ball instead of down one and playing defense. Because contrary to popular belief, Brad Stevens does not have a supply of late-game magic beans. Or, if he does, Dr. John Giannini has beans that are more magical. (Maybe he’s a doctor of magic!)

    More specifically, you’d rather not be in that position because you are not likely to get a steal on the inbounds followed by a made basket. Your player also may get called for a push-off when that player pushes an opponent in the process of getting a steal. But Stevens understands that whether the whistle was blown - or whether Jones’ shot fell - that moment represents a small fraction of what Butler accomplished in that game. Taking Gonzaga to the wire without one of your starters was an impressive feat in itself, and even if Jones had missed, Butler would have performed well. 

    There is no shame in acknowledging such a thing. I would think most coaches, at least most of the good ones, understand this. In evaluating their team, they’re more concerned about the process than the result because in the long run a great process will lead to great results. But in a single game, some losses can indicate progress. Some wins can cause concern while others can be quite impressive. And there are cases where a great process will not be rewarded with victory. A team the plays great in losing is, in my mind, a team that played great.

    But just because one openly admits to caring about the process, doesn’t mean one doesn’t care about the result. It is possible to care about both while acknowledging the basic truth that the former often tells you more about a team’s ability than the latter. Believe it or not, my analytical cohorts and I are huge fans of the game. I did not turn the TV off before Gonzaga’s fatal throw-in even though that play would have little influence on my opinion of either team. (Truth be told I was in a bar, so this wasn’t possible, but you get my point.) I find last-second plays enjoyable. The best part of the game, as a matter of fact.

    Additionally, I love the tournaments (both NCAA and conference) and the regular-season conference races. I’ll never take a position that we should decide these things by something other than the result of the game. What makes the sport interesting is that sometimes Norfolk State beats Missouri even though we can be pretty certain that Missouri was a better team than Norfolk State. Or that sometimes a team is able to cobble together the best record in its conference even though another conference team was better. Without those things happening, I would have no use for college basketball.

    However, if you are interested in evaluating a team’s ability and their prospects for future success, you’re better served by looking at more than just how many wins they have or who they beat. You need to know how well they played in those games. If a team needs a buzzer-beater to get by Hawaii, and struggles at home with Gardner-Webb and Auburn, those are warning signs about the prospects for a team’s future success, despite the fact they may have won 12 games in a row to that point.

    It would be in any analyst’s best interest to understand this and not parrot the cliché that said team (not naming names!) just “knows how to win”. The teams that truly know how to win are the ones that have a cushion at the end of the game. They aren’t at the mercy of wacky officiating, whimsical replay reviews, or half-court heaves.

    I guess the thing that gets me is that were I kidnapped and forced to be a studio host on a national network, I would suck at it. But I would also recognize the need to turn to someone like Seth Davis for advice on how to be successful. I don’t agree with Seth on a lot of things about the game, but I understand that he’s very good at what he does, and he knows things about broadcasting that I don’t. No shame in admitting he has expertise that could benefit me.

    Now, I’m absolutely not saying that analytic-types know everything and that Seth Davis should bow at us in respect. Critical thought about our work is useful. There are a lot of things I don’t know and that’s why I often look at data and believe or not, consult with basketball people, to learn things. In this case, it’s obvious that in most cases margin of victory is a useful tool to determine team strength. It’s also reasonable to think there are some rare exceptions to this. To that extent, people like Seth Davis, who spend more time than anyone around the game, could provide value to the basketball community by attempting to identify those interesting cases.

    So it’s disappointing that the response to useful research is to bury one’s head in the sand and ignore the influence of chance events on the outcome of close games. Seth can continue to do that, but if he was fair, he’d make the same criticism of Brad Stevens’ philosophy as he makes of mine.