Behind the Numbers: The Counterintuitive Result of the Syracuse Zone

Posted by KCarpenter on December 8th, 2010

Kellen Carpenter is an RTC contributor.

While theoretically, the intricacies of basketball should provide for a near-infinite array of offensive and defensive strategies, we instead see a surprisingly few varieties of essential approaches. On the defensive end, simple man-to-man defense is the primary defense of the vast majority of college basketball teams. Other types of defense are less common, but the clear runner-up in terms of defensive schemes is 2-3 zone defense, which is usually what TV and radio people mean when they say “zone defense.” More specifically, when radio and television people refer to “the zone” they probably mean the version of it that is run by Jim Boeheim in Syracuse, and with good reason.

Hands Up in the Syracuse Zone (P-S/D. Nett)

It takes only the mildest interest in college basketball to know that Syracuse under Jim Boeheim has been a perennial contender for the national championship. Year in and year out, the young men in orange appear ready to take all comers each and every March. And aside from the constants of Boeheim himself and a steady flow of NBA-caliber talent, the other constant is the zone. Boehim isn’t just an accomplished practitioner of the zone, but a certified guru. His mastery of this defensive system and ability to impart that system to others has made him a coach in demand. When Mike Kryzewski needed a coach to teach the US Olympic team about the zone, Boeheim was the natural choice. The curmudgeonly coach, Syracuse, and the zone have merged into a monolithic juggernaut that seem destined to befuddle under-prepared offenses come tournament time. As such, the question of how to execute zone defense effectively isn’t as interesting to most teams as how to overcome it.

Now, on the topic of attacking a zone, I don’t have the benefit of the advice of smart scouts, assistant coaches, and the strategic gurus who are working hard to win their respective teams’ games. Instead, I get the second-hand advice of guys who are on television and radio, ex-coaches and ex-players, and the most pernicious and dangerous of strategic advisers, basketball writers. These folks tend to repeat, in unison, some familiar refrains. It’s almost inevitable that when I hear or read someone talk about the zone, they mention the same weaknesses: vulnerabilities to perimeter scoring and offenses that run through the high post. It’s what they seem to say almost every single time, and that’s fine. These approaches make sense when you watch the ball move against the zone: the ball is passed into a player at the high post, sucking in defenders from the perimeter or near the goal, and opening up either a three-pointer from the corner or a quick pass to a baseline-cutter making a move to the basket. So, a solid piece of conventional wisdom, right?

Well, maybe not. The mind is a funny thing, prone to remember triumphs more clearly than failures and generally to overestimate probabilities and degrees of success. Fortunately, even if our subjective memory and evaluation of past events isn’t reliable, we always have the box scores to turn to, and to those we shall turn. If the advice of the pundits and analysts is accurate, teams that run the zone defense should expect to have their opponents make three-point shots against them at a pretty good clip.

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Behind the Numbers: Do Blowouts Predict Champions?

Posted by KCarpenter on November 24th, 2010

Kellen Carpenter is an RTC contributor.

It’s been a hard-fought game. Every shot contested, players from both teams diving all over the court for loose balls, the crowd whipped into a frenzy. Bitter rivals, ranked teams, and it all comes down to one buzzer-beating shot. This is a good game. This is why we watch college basketball. Who wins? Who cares? Rhetorical questions can cut two ways, and this one is particularly vicious in matching it’s semantic zig with meaningless zag. On one hand, we gladly affirm the joy-of-the-game sentiment: Close games are their own reward, and if both teams played hard, we can walk away with a zen-like comfort at having seen a beautiful competitive spectacle. That said, there is a colder reading, one that isn’t as much fun, but may be just as important: Close games between evenly-matched teams don’t mean much of anything, it doesn’t tell us anything about how good either team is. No matter what is marked down under the team records, win or lose, the game is basically a tie.

Teams That Win Close Are Nice, But Teams that Dominate Are Better

Maybe you are preparing a protest: pulling out a tough win shows force of will, late-game execution, grit and guts. These are the best wins, you argue, because it shows you that the team knows how to win when it really matters. A team that can win when the going gets tough can win no matter the situation. Well, okay, hypothetical protester, time to drop the biggest open secret that everyone not on television knows: margin matters and, in terms of predicting future success, a win by one means about the same as a loss by one.

This makes sense with a little bit of thought. Basketball games are a long series of events each contingent on probability, and probability is a fickle mistress. Consider our hypothetical one-point game: In the second quarter, the power forward for one of the teams manages to take a barely-contested ten foot jumper and he has a 50% chance of making the shot. Half the time it goes in and half the time it doesn’t, the rest of the game unfolds in the same way and because of that one event, the team either loses or wins. In every other way, the team is just as good or just as bad as we always knew it was. One shot doesn’t actually change that. Did Butler lose the National Championship because they missed the final shot? Maybe, but they also missed eleven other three-pointers over the course of the game. Hitting any one of those would have won the game.

Is this an oversimplification? Yes, but it all speaks to a simple idea: That the difference between a one point win and a one point loss is really almost white noise. The idea isn’t just a philosophical buzz-kill, but rather a philosophical buzz-kill with implications: Winning by a little doesn’t mean much, but totally dismantling an opponent means a lot. If a team wins by twenty points, it means that they are very likely better than that opponent. Instead of just one lucky shot, they had ten lucky shots, and if you have that many lucky shots, then chances you aren’t so much lucky as good. There is meaning in blowouts. This is why just about every serious advanced-statistical ranking system takes into account margin of victory. That said, we don’t need to tear wide open Ken Pomeroy’s magical tempo-free machine to fully understand this principle, and instead, for an illustration we can turn to a different sort of numbers game.

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Predicting Half of the Finals: Michigan St. vs. UConn

Posted by rtmsf on April 3rd, 2009

Ben from Dear Old UVa is once again back to statistically analyze the NCAA Tournament for us.

Last time, I told you about my dorky little model.

This time, we’ll take a look at the second half of the finals: UConn and Michigan St.

First, UConn:


To me, the amazing part about UConn’s season is how much they turned it around to make the final four.  Look at that graph.  I guess I could’ve put a trend line on it, but it clearly would’ve been downward-sloping.

Then, you get to the tourney and there’s a huge discontinuity.  It’s clear why most people undervalued them, but the model actually appears to overvalue their regular season, giving them only one loss (to Louisville).

Michigan State, on the other hand, looks a lot more like Villanova:


The model predicted a few more losses than the Spartans suffered and it clearly picked them to lose to Louisville.  It tells you that Tom Izzo does a great job of preparing his team for the tournament when they really outperform expectations this much.

Fittingly, then, the model picks Michigan State to lose to UConn by six points (OK, actually 6.1 points).

Now, I’m not a gambling man, but I wanted to see how this stacked up against Vegas and Kenpom.  The table below shows how it stacks up.


So, if you want my advice*, give the points on North Carolina and UConn. 

I feel like UConn’s going to win a close game, by more than five points.

Anyhow, enjoy the games everyone!

* Note: Like I said before, I’m not a gambling man.  So if you follow my advice and lose, well, that’s your fault, not mine.  Don’t sue me.

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Statistical Proof Iman Shumpert is a Gunner

Posted by rtmsf on February 27th, 2009

What really gets us all juiced and lathered up are statistics that appear self-evident only after someone shows you how to figure them.  You know, the kind of thing where we say, “wow, that makes a lot of sense,” and yet, we never thought of it ourselves.  Forest for the trees and all that.

So it was with particular interest that we were alerted to a post made earlier this week by our friends at the Virginia athletics blog, Dear Old UVa.  This post attempted to get to the bottom of the question about whether UVa coach Dave Leitao was properly utilizing his players on the offensive end of the court.  So how would you measure such a thing?  With the help of KenPom’s statistical treasure trove, they were able to cross-tab players’ offensive efficiencies with their percentage of team’s possessions used.  This produced a relatively simple graphical representation of every player in the ACC which quickly shows which players are being utilized properly or improperly (see below).


On the above graph, you can easily see that Jeff Teague and Ish Smith, for example, are being properly used by Wake Forest head coach Dino Gaudio.  Teague has a very high percentage of possessions used and his offensive efficiency is relatively high.  Smith has a low efficiency and therefore is being used more sparingly on the offensive end.  The graph can also tell you when a player might be over- or under-used.  As an example, Georgia Tech’s Iman Shumpert has an efficiency in the same ballpark as Ish Smith, yet he uses significantly more possessions for the Jackets – an example of a player who is overused given his skill set at this time.  The converse of course is true for players with high efficiencies but low possession utilization.

We love this stuff, so we’ll try to find some more of this kind of thing as we get closer and closer to the NCAA Tournament.  The data is as rich as it will get this season, so hopefully we’ll be able to do so.

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Will the Duke Swoon Begin Tonight at Clemson?

Posted by rtmsf on February 4th, 2009

Wait, did you guys hear that?  It happened over the weekend…  a strange ticking noise, more specifically, it happened as the calendar moved to February.  It has the faint sound like a bomb is about to go off, as if some well-known and respected ACC team is about to collapse.  Ok, maybe not collapse – that would characterize Clemson.  It’s become a pat line around these parts that Clemson inevitably collapses every season.  While the Tigers got over that particular demon last year and managed to actually find its way into the NCAA Tournament (losing in the first round to Villanova after leading by as much as 18), there’s still an elevated wariness about Oliver Purnell’s club as it enters the last month-plus of the season.


Ok, so how about swoon?  How about starting to jerk and fit and shudder and snort like some epileptic old fighter trying to make contact with his younger adversary (that would be known as… Rocky Balboa)?  Still good enough to not completely embarrass itself, but definitely not as dominant as the first two-thirds of the season.   Yeah, we’re talking about Duke.

It's Good Times Now at Duke - But What's Coming?
It’s Good Times Now at Duke – But What’s Coming?

How dare we?!?  The Devils are currently 19-2 (6-1 ACC) and #1 in the RPI.  They can spread, penetrate and shoot the rock.  They play defense like maniacal meerkats protecting their lair.  They even rebounded from a close road loss to Wake Forest last week with a demolition of Virginia (well, it was Virginia).   But hear us out.  There is a history that suggests that Coach K’s teams of recent vintage have more troubles at the end of the regular season than they do at the beginning and the middle.  Check the table below, which begins after Duke’s last truly great team, the 2001 national champions (keep in mind, these are regular season numbers):


Ok, so let’s reconcile the obvious criticism first and foremost…

  • Duke plays in the ACC, a tough conference, so it makes sense that their Nov-Jan record (full of cupcakes and fewer ACC games) will be much better than their Feb/Mar record.

Right and wrong.  Duke does load up on easy home wins in Nov/Dec, for sure, which builds the bulk of their guady annual Feb. 1 records.  But the ACC season is, on average, 42% completed by Feb. 1 during this eight-year period (6.75 games of a 16-game slate), and Duke still only has has a total of seven conference losses in Dec/Jan.  If you project that out to the remainder of its ACC schedule over the last eight seasons, we would expect to see 16 or 17 total losses for the Dukies in the ACC regular season.  Instead we’ve seen 23 ACC losses, a full 39% higher than the rate anticipated by the Dec/Jan ACC slate.

So what might cause Duke to “swoon” to the tune of a 39% higher rate of losses in the ACC regular season in Feb/March?  A few things…

  • They Play Carolina Twice. This is as good a reason as any, as ESPN and ABC want to push both editions of the premiere rivalry in the game to as late in the schedule as possible.  Only once in the past eight years has the first game been in January (1/31/02), and the other thirteen regular season matchups have accounted for six of Duke’s 23 ACC losses.  This year’s games, fyi, are on 2/11 and 3/8.
  • Duke Wears Down. We all know that Coach K gets his players to play REALLY HARD (if you don’t believe us, listen to any ESPN announcer for corroboration.  Or this.).  Seriously, they do get after it, especially on defense.  But when you’re playing with the same balls-t0-the-wall intensity in November as you are in late February, it makes sense that you might start to wear down physically and mentally.  Just a little.  Just enough to not have the same fire in the tank when you’re on the road in another ACC dogfight.
  • Coach K Doesn’t Develop His Bench. This is corollary to the above reason – part of the problem with players wearing down is because K plays them into the ground.   This year is better than others – there are only two players (Kyle Singler and Jon Scheyer) playing 30+ minutes per game, but it’s a commonly held truth that K’s rotation is usually only seven players deep.
  • Other Teams Catch Up. Duke is traditionally one of those teams that doesn’t start off slow – just look at the above table for proof of that.  The Devils are usually excellent from the first tip, walking away year after year with Maui, NIT, you-name-it preseason tournament titles.  For whatever reason, some other teams aren’t like this.  UCLA is notorious under Howland for having great regular seasons, but not really working on all cylinders until the end of the year.  Maybe the rest of the ACC is ‘catching up’ with Duke by February and March.
  • Duke is Simply Evil, and the Basketball Weauxfgods are Making Them Pay.   Sorry, we think that our nephew must have gotten a hold of the computer for a moment there.

Whatever the reasons for Duke’s regular season swoons in February and March of the last several years, it will be interesting to watch this year’s version to see if it happens again.  The schedule (@ Clemson; @BC; @ Va Tech; Wake Forest; UNC twice) certainly lends itself to another swoon, but we’ll have to wait and see how the Devils respond.  Starting tonight.

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