Behind the Numbers: Structures and Strategies

Posted by KCarpenter on March 23rd, 2011

Kellen Carpenter is an RTC contributor.
Nate Silver isn’t always right, but I’m beginning to wonder why I would ever bet against him. Last week, Silver published a consideration of seeding where he argued that because of the structure of the bracket, the eighth and ninth seeds are at a considerable disadvantage compared to much lower-seeded teams. This makes intuitive sense because the way the bracket is constructed the eight and nine have to play a top-seeded team before everyone but the sixteen seed. Still, it sounds funny and it is odd that a twelve seed has a better statistical chance of making the Sweet Sixteen than any other seed between seven and sixteen. I was intellectually able to read and understand this logic, yet I ignored the fact that because of this quirk in seeding, George Mason was worse off in terms of having a shot at making the Sweet Sixteen than Virginia Commonwealth or Richmond

The Spiders Perhaps Weren't As Much of a Surprise After All

One eight seed made the Sweet Sixteen. The rest of the Sweet Sixteen party crashers? Two eleven seeds, a ten, and a twelve, including Virginia Commonwealth and Richmond. If you tally up the rest of the seeds, this looks pretty much like Silver’s predicted distribution. The structural inequalities of the bracket should have told us to expect more second round (excuse me, “third round” upsets) from the seeds in the 10-12 range. Of course, are these even really upsets? The Pittsburgh loss to Butler was a genuine shock but the rest of the “upsets” really seem to fall upon the coin flip in the flat part of the s-curve.  Silver notes that the composite computer “power ratings” show essentially the same difference between first and second seeds as between the fifth and thirteenth seeds. What this means is what we knew all along: the best teams are in a whole separate class from the bulk of the teams in the tournament, while the majority of teams are at close to the same level. This is a long way to get to this essential point: We shouldn’t be surprised to see VCU, Richmond, Marquette or Florida State in the Sweet Sixteen.

We also shouldn’t act like the bracket design is done affecting who makes the Final Four and who wins the championship.  Ken Pomeroy was quick to run the log5 probabilities of the remaining sixteen and had some interesting findings. While you would think that winning two games would have increased every team’s chances of winning it all, you’d only be mostly right. San Diego State and Kentucky actually saw their chances at a championship drop as the biggest obstacles in their path to the championship refused to be upset. Conversely, Kansas’s location in the decimated Southwest Region has made them a near-prohibitive favorite to make the Final Four. Likewise, Pittsburgh’s ignoble fall in an already weak Southeast Region has given the Wisconsin Badgers a real shot at a championship. The Badgers’ calculated chances of winning it all went from a mere 2.5% to 9.5%. Of course, technically, that’s a tiny increase in proportion to the change in VCU’s chances. The Rams went from having a 0.0005% chance at a championship to a 0.2% chance at winning the big one. While those are still long odds, their chances of winning increased 400-fold. So that’s worth something.

So is coaching. It’s a running joke that there are certain coaches in college basketball who choke in the tournament. If this was just speculation, I’d be unwilling to name names. The truth is that sometimes reputations are well earned. Neil Paine at Basketball Reference broke down the records of coaches against their seed expectations (a clever, though not new idea), and the results were exactly what you might think. Rick Barnes, Jamie Dixon, Bob Huggins, Fran Dunphy and Mike Brey all were near the top of the list of underachievers. Not so coincidentally, all of these coaches did not make the Sweet Sixteen. By contrast, the list of overachievers includes Mike Krzyzeski, Roy Williams, Jim Calhoun, Steve Fisher, Brad Stevens and Billy Donovan. All of these fine coaches are still hard at work. In all fairness, Rick Pitino and Tom Izzo also were on the overachievers’ list, but sometimes even the best coaches can’t get what they want. The only coach on the underachievers list who is still coaching for the tournament? Leonard Hamilton. While Florida State’s defensive dominance has been one of the truly magnificent and ugly spectacles of the tournament, Seminoles’ fans have reason to fear a nasty letdown.

Leonard Hamilton Bucked His Own Trend This Year

That said, nasty defense can go a long way. Florida State was absolutely dominant in their masterful shutdown of Notre Dame and while I still remain unconvinced that defense wins championships, it definitely makes the road to the Final Four a lot more interesting. Tough, sticky defense is a real Achilles’ heel for even some of the best teams in the nation. Using Synergy, Luke Winn notes that Duke, particularly Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith, aren’t particularly efficient in guarded catch and shoot situations despite an assassin-like efficiency on unguarded catch and shoot scenarios. This dovetails nicely with a recent finding presented at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference by Sandy Weil, who used optical tracking data drawn from NBA games to reach interesting conclusions. Weil found that tight defense (within three feet) drops opponent shooting percentage by twelve percentage points. Similarly, Weil found that there was an unexpected bonus to shooting percentage when a player shot quickly off a pass as opposed to off the dribble even after controlling for other factors. The result of this is that we now know that there is a concrete benefit to the assist. Conversely, Weil’s findings highlight the importance of tight disruptive defenses that prevent catch and shoot situations and guard every shot. While this might seem obvious, it quantifies a distinct advantage of man-to-man defense over the zone. The zone, while effective at stopping many different offensive attacks, effectively surrenders a degree of disruption on the perimeter and allows open shots at a number of weak points.This is a point of weakness for teams that are ineffective at preventing assists, but a potential real strength to teams that can disrupt passing lanes. Wisconsin leads the remaining tournament teams in lowest opponent assist to field goal ratio, allowing opponents to assist on only 46.4% of field goals. The worst? Easily, Marquette. The Golden Eagles frequent use of zone defense allows opponents to assist on 60.5% of field goals, which could potentially amount to a tough out against the sweet passing of North Carolina’s Kendall Marshall.

To that end, if there is anyone who is on the advanced statistics, scouting, and theory bandwagon, it’s Marquette head coach Buzz Williams. A talented and obsessive strategist, Williams claims to have stayed up all Sunday night to study North Carolina. Williams’ is one of the guys who uses the Synergy video scouting and statistical breakdown program to figure out opponents games and come up with custom-tailored game plans. If there’s a guy to turn scouting and theory to his advantage, it’s definitely the animated coach from Marquette.

KCarpenter (269 Posts)

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