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    On overvaluing road play (again)

    by Ken Pomeroy on Monday, March 7, 2011


    There were a couple of interesting pieces last week related to the importance of road play in evaluating a team’s postseason prospects. But both left me unconvinced that anyone should be emphasizing road play in particular when evaluating a team’s ability.

    First, there was a piece by Graham Watson at The Dagger (Will poor road teams buck NCAA Tournament trend?) which cited the fact that teams entering the NCAA tournament with a poor road record do not win many games. Of course they don’t – all of the examples were seeded seventh or worse. A little additional analysis might have changed the tone of the piece altogether. Teams seeded like those listed in the piece would have been expected to win 6.5 games (using Pete Tiernan’s PASE concept). They won eight, which is hardly an indictment of the heart/guts/will of teams that had a poor road record.

    The other piece was penned by Mike DeCourcy over at The Sporting News (Teams that win in March often first learn to win on the road). DeCourcy says

    “Over the past five years, 19 of the 20 Final Four teams had a winning road record. The exception: 2010 Duke, which went 5-5. Among that group, 14 were at least four games over the break-even mark in road games, and eight won at least 80 percent.”

    One could have replaced “road” with “home” in the title of DeCourcy’s piece and replaced the above passage with this…

    “Over the past five years, 20 of 20 Final Four teams lost no more than two conference home games. Their aggregate home conference record was 156-15. Final Four participants lost an average of less than one conference home game per year.”

    There is no logical reason to value the road fact over the home fact. They are both facts that are equally true. People will say there are no tournament games at home, but there aren’t any true road games either. It so happens that most teams that dominate at home are very good on the road and vice versa, and thus there’s a lot of overlap in both groups. The exceptions are interesting, though, and Kentucky represents an exception this season, just as Duke did last season, and Missouri did in 2009. (Since I wrote this, Washington has laid a couple of eggs at home and is no longer an exception on the scale of the teams previously mentioned.)

    This is not to say that 2011 Kentucky is 2010 Duke. It’s clear the Wildcats aren’t that good, but they certainly could be on the level of that ‘09 Mizzou team. And you wouldn’t come to that conclusion by focusing only on Kentucky’s road games. It’s 2011, and we are able to separate home-court advantage from a team’s performance. There is no reason to focus specifically on a subset (home or road) of a team’s games when evaluating them.

    Looking at one particular piece of data at the exclusion of others based on historical precedent is dangerous, because every fact has context. Before last season, one might have though it crazy that a team could shoot less than 45% and win a national title. (No title winner had shot worse than 45% since 1966 before last season.) Or before 2008, some thought it was not possible for a team to make 61% of its free throws and get within a bucket of a national title. But those things happened.

    You know why you rarely see teams that shoot 44% from the field win national titles? Because teams that shoot that bad typically have difficulty scoring. When looking beyond the shooting percentage, one could see that Duke was possibly a significant exception to that at this time last season.

    You know why you don’t see poor free throw shooting teams win national titles? Because teams that struggle with that typically struggle with a lot of other basketball skills (most notably, making shots while guarded), and thus aren’t very good in general. When one looked at Memphis in early March of 2008, one could see that they were good enough in other areas to possibly be an exception.

    And likewise, when teams do poorly on the road, they tend to also show vulnerabilities at home. But Kentucky is an exception. They almost surely won’t win a national title, and you’d be nuts to take an even money wager that they’ll get to the Final Four. But it’s not because their road performance reveals something negative about their heart/will/guts. It’s simply that they aren’t as good at playing basketball as Ohio State or Kansas or Duke or even Purdue, and they’ll have to play one of those teams to get to Houston.

    However, Kentucky’s road play, when viewed in isolation, understates its entire body of work by quite a bit. In evaluating their future, there’s no need to ignore half of their performance.