If you ever hear the level of success of a team’s offense or defense described in terms of points scored or allowed per game, you should ignore it. Among stats published by the NCAA, field goal percentage is much more valuable. But among stats not endorsed by the NCAA, points per possession is better still. A couple of things I saw yesterday used points per game in a misleading way to make a point.
Example 1) Tuesday night at halftime of the Illinois/Wisconsin game, a stat was posted in defense of Doug Gottlieb’s claim that Wisconsin was the most overrated team in the Big Ten. It compared the points per game they have given up this season (60.5) to last season (57.2). (If memory serves, the numbers used were during Big Ten play only, where the gap was larger than the overall numbers I am using.)
To which the viewer was to draw the conclusion that the Badgers’ D is much worse than last season. But a little research indicates that Badger games are averaging five more possessions than last season. The pace of the games allows the opponent five more opportunities to score, through no fault of Bo Ryan’s defense. In raw terms, the Badgers were giving up 90.7 points per 100 possessions before last weekend’s action. Last season, they gave up 92.3 points per 100 possessions. The 90.7 will increase during Big Ten play, but overall there isn’t much difference between their defensive play in 2004 and 2005.
Example 2) On Monday night, Utah came within one made field goal of tying the NCAA single-game record for field goal percentage. They made 24 of 30 shots (80%) against Air Force in a 63-51 win. The wire story in your morning paper on Tuesday stated this:
The Utes shot a school-record 80 percent from the field (24-of-30) against the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense.
To which the reader was to conclude that not only was Utah red hot, but amazingly they accomplished this against the best defense in the nation. If you see an Air Force game on TV, this is the "go-to" stat. One of the announcers will inevitably boast about how it’s very difficult to score against the Falcons. And make no mistake, they are good, but not great. The pace of Air Force games is so slow that opposing offenses don’t get as many opportunities to score as they do against conventional teams.
The very short Air Force team ranked 87th nationally in defensive efficiency before the weekend, allowing 95.8 points per 100 possessions. Given their lack of size, that’s still an impressive ranking. I am a little surprised that they are ranked that high this season, because they have given up some huge FG% numbers to the high profile teams they have played – Georgia Tech (60%), Iowa (68%), and Utah (80%).
So folks, next time you see someone back up an opinion using a team’s points per game, keep in mind that it’s not very useful in assessing a team’s effectiveness.