You seem universally skeptical of intra-season “team improvement” stories. For example, with Duke you give a great alternate explanation of their possible future success. What do you make of Vanderbilt’s improvement this season? From a 1-3 start with losses to Wake and Furman to a 7-2 mark in their last 9 SEC games, beating Florida to lengthen their home winning streak to 12. The “party line” of the Commodores is that after their loss at UGA, the team realized that it needed to pick up the defensive intensity, and Derrick Byars realized he needed to basically take over games on the offensive end at times. Do the numbers back up the party line, or is Vanderbilt just another good luck / bad luck story?
Jake describes my views accurately, although I think the quotes should apply to the word stories. I don’t doubt that teams improve during the season. Every coaching staff in America is obsessed with making their team better, and nearly all of them are successful over the course of a season. But yeah, I’m pretty skeptical of the “stories” where the light bulb goes on, and a team suddenly realizes it needs to play better defense or a player decides to take over games. This game is a little more complicated than that.
I do believe that teams like Texas and Louisville should improve more relative to the rest of the D1 nation, just because they rely on freshmen so much, and freshmen should have a steeper learning curve than upper classmen. Outside of that kind of situation and obvious personnel changes, I need to see a better reason than a team meeting or some other form of soul-searching to explain a team’s newfound winning ways.
However, the stories will continue to get written. With a few exceptions, that’s what sportswriters do. They are trained to write stories rather than do analysis. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have had Oregon, Oklahoma State, and Wichita State thought of as potential Final Four teams at various times this season. It doesn’t make for good copy to say that a team’s great record, even one that includes a few quality wins, is not a good indicator of its performance in some cases. Nor does it sell in Poughkeepsie to say that teams that experience four-game losing streaks, like Michigan State, Georgia Tech, and Duke, may be the victims of a tough schedule and bad karma, and could actually still be capable of great things.
Speaking of Michigan State, check out the graphs our pal David Hess produced. Real analysis included!