Archive for October, 2012

Advanced Stats and an ACC Preview

Posted in acc sports, college basketball, sports with tags , , , on October 30, 2012 by cueball

I have often admired the mystical way of Pythagoras, and the secret magic of numbers.

-Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici

I love football, especially college football.  There are very few things in American life like a fall Saturday afternoon.  However, my first love is about to tip off next week and that is college basketball.

That means my days over the next week or two will be filled with phrases like “Pythagorean calculation,” “points per possession,” “offensive efficiency,” and “tempo-free basketball.”

Yes, I am a user of advanced statistics in college basketball.

That brings up two points: 1) My predictions for the upcoming ACC season and 2) how to use these stats.

All of the people who doubt the use of advanced statistics to help evaluate basketball usually make the same argument:  that these stats only tell us the same things our eyes see and they cannot give the sports they discuss any context.

First off, stats are only a tool used in evaluation.  Meaning, stats should only be used to explain what your eyes see or show you things your eyes may miss.  Second, no stats can provide you with context, which is why they are bad measurements for defensive effectiveness of individual players.  They do a better job of measuring the defensive strength of teams, but fail individuals.

The way a lot of jocks attack advanced stats and their practitioners is to go all school yard and call them geeks, nerds, etc.  That is code for, “I know what I’m talking about because I played and all you do is sit in your parents basement in front of a computer.”  Yes, you actually do need to watch the games and you do need to see how a player actual plays to get an effective evaluation.

However, advanced stats can tell you if a player is as effective offensively as his raw number indicate.  In other words, is what you see actually happening and is it a good thing.  One thing advanced stats dislike are “volume scorers” because they put a premium on effectiveness, which is just another way of saying efficiency.  These are players who put up lots of shots to get their points, which is not always good for the team.

Is there over-reliance on stats to tell you everything by some statisticians?  Yes.  Of course there is.  The concept of player efficiency rating (PER) is one that some people rely too much on in basketball.  PER is an attempt to tell you how effective an offensive player is.  This is a stat that has to be used within the context of a team, in my opinion.

Basketball is a game where individual’s true effectiveness can only be measured with in the concept of the team.  This is where basketball offensive statistics differ from baseball (where most advanced stats come from).  Only by calculating a players PER within the concept of a unit or in concert with other players can you really get a gauge on how effective he is.

Anyway, my ACC predictions.  The top three teams will finish in some order of NC State, Duke, and UNC.  However, each of these teams have enough questions and flaws that could see them finish 4th or lower.  NC State is a team that went into the ACC Tournament last year on the bubble.  While they return most of last year’s team (where there should be improvement) they have yet to perform with the pressure of expectations.  By the end of the season, I think they will handle the pressure just fine and finish at or very near the top spot.

Duke needs to find some type of consistent point guard play.  The system Duke runs is a predicated on having a point guard who knows how to get his teammates involved offensively and who puts defensive pressure on the opponents point guard.  They got neither last year.  If that improves this year, they should have enough wing talent to finish ranked in the top ten.

You may have heard that UNC lost a lot of players to the NBA draft.  There have been a few stories written about that.  The ultimate success of this season is probably going to come down to perimeter shooting and if their freshman point guard is ready to lead.  If they get consistent 3-point shooting and good contributions from someone other than James Michael McAdoo in the post, they should have a good season.

Other than Florida State probably making the NCAA tournament and Wake Forest bottom feeding, the rest of the ACC is a jumble.  Any order of finish involving the other seven teams would not shock me.

Anyway, I will check in throughout the season with my thoughts and rudimentary analysis, mostly just to keep myself entertained.

They Don’t Care The Way We Do

Posted in sports with tags on October 29, 2012 by cueball

The price one pays for pursuing any profession, or calling, is an immediate knowledge of its ugly side.

-James Baldwin

Your favorite athlete does not care the way you do.

Fans and athletes look at the sports to which they are tied together differently.  For fans (short for fanatics), it is a passion that takes them from their everyday life; for athletes, it is a job.  It is a job that they love and probably would not trade for anything, but still a job.  One in which they know all the good and the bad that goes with that job.

That changes to relationship to what they are doing.  They are now inside the buildings inside the ropes that keep the rest of us away.  It shows the athletes the pettiness and harsh realities of sports as business and it gives the fans the illusion of a game played by overgrown children.

The reason college sports are so important to so many fans, is it is the last time fans and athletes are that close to each other.  They live and eat at the same places as “regular” students.  They walk around campus and go to class with everyone else.

The moment they sign a professional contract, things change especially if you are a high draft pick.  The size of those contracts and the expectations of being a high pick in some ways separate you even from other athletes much less the normal public.  The athletes are inside their own world and the fans only catch glimpses just before, during, and just after games.  Often what we see we don’t like.

Fans have become conditioned to think of their athletes as super heroes who stand above the petty issues that plague the rest of us.  They do not.  The grounded and mature ones understand that.  Many fans do not.

However, most athletes do care about what they are doing.  Their job is to practice, travel, stay in shape, eat right, etc.  Most athletes manage to separate their job from their joy, which is playing.    That is why during the game I actually think they care more than fans for two reasons: 1) they are the ones in the field of play and 2) all the people yelling stupid stuff at them while they are doing their job.  Fans have come to think of themselves as part of the show in many ways.

They pay money for tickets thinking going to the game makes them a part of this special club of professional sports.  They think going into the arena to watch the game puts them behind the curtain.  To be a part of that special club that plays sports for a living lets them out of their own lives for a few brief moments, making them care more than is rational or sometimes healthy.

That is the real difference between athletes and fans.  No matter how crappy practices may become, no matter how much other stuff they have to hustle to do on the side to keep making money, most athletes know how lucky they are to have their primary occupation on their IRS form read “Professional Athlete.”

That is what fans want: Athletes who know how lucky they are, athletes who don’t insult them, and most importantly athletes that seemingly care as much as they, the fans, do during the games.  If athletes give them that, fans will forgive almost anything.  Ask John Terry.

The NCAA, Part 2

Posted in college basketball, college football, sports with tags , , , , on October 25, 2012 by cueball

“Should NCAA players be paid?”  That is a not one question, in my mind.  It should be, “Why aren’t players paid out of high school?” and “Why is the NCAA the only option for basketball and football players?”  If you think players should be played out of high school, why is the NCAA is the only option?

For all the failings of the NCAA, one thing that has continued to bother me is how no one asks the leagues who were developed with the express purpose of being professional sports (NFL and NBA) to pay players out of high school to become professionals.  Why is it that the NCAA, a supposedly amateur organization has to be forced to pay players just to play?  I actually agree with the idea behind the O’Bannon case, which is the NCAA, the networks, the apparel companies, and the video game companies should not be able to use the likeness of athletes for free.

Back to the subject, why is the NCAA expected to carry the entire burden?  The NFL and NBA have essential through an accident of history been granted free minor league/development systems.  So, what is their response to players wanting to go directly from high school to being a professional?  Each worked with their player associations and created rules to make it virtually impossible for a player to go from high school to their leagues.  The NFL has even gotten the court system to back its particular rule.

At least the NFL doesn’t get pissy whenever the NCAA makes a peep about the unfairness of the rules like David Stern has.  I am not saying the professional leagues are right or wrong and I’m not saying the NCAA is right or wrong.  These are all greedy entities who are acting in what they believe to be their best self-interests.  The problem with that is, it makes a mockery of the concept of the student-athlete and puts those student athletes in horrid decision making positions.

In my mind, the perfect solution is this:  The NCAA establishes a two-year (I would prefer three) or none rule for every sport.  If you sign a grant-in-aid you are committing to college for at the very least 2 years.  I would also change to 1-year renewable grants-in-aid to full four-year scholarships, with the normal academic requirements for academic scholarships.

This could only be accompanied by the professional leagues getting rid of the rules that keep players jumping straight from high school to the pros.  NBA and NFL, if you don’t like the players the NCAA is giving you or you think an 18 year old knucklehead should not be a drain on a team’s salary, invest in real player development.  Fund and manage an effective minor league system that will give players a chance to learn how to be a professional athlete.

That is the real reason everyone wants to tinker on the edges of the NCAA.  If (and when) the NCAA ceases to exist as it is, the two biggest professional leagues in this country do not want to have to pay for minor league systems.  Though the NBA has started to understand that making the NBDL functional and worthwhile is good for the NBA’s long term survival.

Time and circumstance has created the mess that is big time college sports.  The reason it is easy for a basketball player to have someone give him $500 or $1000 for food, rent, etc. is not just because they need that money.  It is also because the person giving him that money is investing in someone whom they believe will be able to pay them back in some way by 10 fold.  Should we change the rules that don’t allow coaches to give a player $100 to get food over a long weekend?  Yes, we should change all the silly bureaucratic rules like that.

However, changing those does not fix the larger underlying problem of the NCAA being forced to act as a “free” minor league system.  Until that is addressed by everyone involved, you cannot fix anything.

The NCAA, Part 1

Posted in college basketball, college football, sports with tags , , , , on October 24, 2012 by cueball

I love college football and college basketball.  In fact, I love all of college sports and everything about them.  The ability to use any of your skills to get a college education is a wonderful thing (the same as if you would use artistic or musical skills).

However, I have issues with the National Collegiate Athletic Association.  Unlike others I don’t believe the NCAA to be some evil cabal of college presidents.  Incompetence isn’t malice and having a talent for bureaucratic ass covering isn’t evil intent.

That does not diminish the problems I see with the NCAA.  Others see these problems and they want to change the NCAA at the margins.  There is always talk of reworking the rule book, and making it simpler and more streamlined.  That is mostly the window dressing.  The rules everyone has problems with are the symptoms of a larger cultural problem for the NCAA.  That problem is that it is an organization not built to be the organization it has become.

The NCAA works wonderfully at the lower levels and with the smaller sports.  Division II And III football function well as do the non-revenue/Olympic sports at the Division I level.  There, changing some of the sillier rules would make a difference.

The system is broken at the top two sports, Division I football and basketball, because that is where all the money is, and that is where the problem of the NCAA’s original structure comes into play.

The way those two segments of the NCAA has grown has made the NCAA into a multimedia content provider.  Remember, the NCAA is an organization run by bureaucrats and academics.  Think about the young associate professors teaching intro to chemistry classes to freshman across the country.  In twenty years, that guy is going to be running the university, and if you are talking about a major university in Division I it also means he will be deciding on television contracts and million dollar coaching contracts.  I remember some of my young associate professors and teaching assistants and some of them could barely run a classroom much less a department or a university.

The NCAA as it is constituted is not prepared to run two semi-professional sports leagues, which is what DI football and basketball are.  The NCAA’s adherence to its amateur DNA is completely at odds with the reality of modern athletics.  I think the NCAA’s amateur ideal is noble though very misguided.  However, in saying that, everyone knows what those rules are and until they change if you want to play you have to obey them.

One of two things is going to happen (maybe both will happen).  One, the NFL and NBA will finally pony up the money and create minor league systems to develop players after high school.  I think the NBA is already headed in that direction with a renewed focus on the NBDL.

The second thing that could happen is the complete implosion of the NCAA’s amateurism.  The O’Bannon case is winding its way through the court system and should be resolved in the next couple of years and has the potential to completely change the game the NCAA plays by essentially forcing the NCAA to pay players for the use of their likeness in all forms of media.

Either way, there will be changes to the way the NCAA (or whatever comes after it) does business.

Dammit, we are all too human

Posted in society, sports, sports and society with tags , , , on October 23, 2012 by cueball

The story of Lance Armstrong is fascinating to me.  Not because I wonder why he used performance enhancers.  That is easily understandable.  He wanted to be the best at all costs, and as he proved the risk/reward for it was skewed so high that even though he has no more income from endorsements, he has already banked a great deal of money and invested much of it intelligently.  So yeah, he has no more Tour de France victories and no more endorsement deals, but he isn’t going to debtor’s prison any time soon.

What really interests me most is all the stuff around Armstrong.  First, how did he manage to get away with this open secret for so long?  Why did everyone involved in the hierarchy of cycling not do anything to stop it?  Everyone knew (and knows) how prevalent doping was (and still is) in cycling, so why protect him so long?  Why protect him in the first place?

The same questions go for all the journalists who covered the sport.  It isn’t just about the American journalists who dropped into cycling just for the Tour just to watch Armstrong were the only willing accomplices for this cover up.  The European journalists who covered the sport were cowed by the Armstrong mafia to the point that they wouldn’t write about any doping in the sport.  Again, why were Armstrong and his people given so much power?

I come back yet again to the why are people so angry with an athlete getting caught cheating?  Look at the NFL.  Every few weeks a player gets suspended for some drug related offense.  It happens, it is announced, the guy serves his suspension, and the NFL world continues on without any blips.

His standing in the world outside of the cycling world is based all on cancer.  He fought and beat cancer and that has made him a hero, a role model.  Charles Barkley was pilloried when he said in a commercial, “I am not a role model.”  The problem with the hand ringing from many people about this statement isn’t that it’s about athletes, but it is about humans.

Our athletes are our superheroes, but they are more Batman then Superman.  They are utterly human and therefore utterly flawed.  It makes them more interesting and it makes our reactions to them equally interesting.

I have often said, after seeing an athlete do something utterly freakish on the field of play that our athletes are barely human.  They are in some sense the next evolution of humanity.  Yet, they will also do something all too human and all to flawed to remind me why we watch.  They are us despite their physical gifts.

That is why I have always agreed with Barkley’s commercial statement.  They will make mistakes; they will screw up something important just like everyone else.  Yes, to whom much is given much is expected, but what is expected?

Maybe that is where the problem is, we don’t want them to be human.  We don’t want them to make the same mistakes we make.  It reminds us too much of our own frailties.  Maybe Armstrong’s mistake was not making himself into a superhero through better chemistry.  Maybe it was getting caught and reminding people how human we all truly are.

Free Associating on a Monday Morning

Posted in sports with tags , , , on October 22, 2012 by cueball

Why has the nature of my fandom changed?

UNC lost to Duke in a football game Saturday night and I feel fine.

I am not the same kind of fan I was 10 years ago.  Not that I do not still love the sports and teams I follow, but I do not have the same emotional reactions to the games.

Like many fans, when my beloved alma mater lost it used to affect me emotionally for at least a couple of days.  Saturday the game ended with Duke scoring a last second touchdown and I was not fine with it, but I moved on pretty quickly.

Before you say, “It’s UNC football.  Of course you don’t really care,” I will say I had the same reaction to some of last year’s basketball games.

Is it that I’ve gotten older and more mature?  Have the years of accumulated scandals finally worn me down?

Speaking of which, here is an interesting article about Lance Armstrong.

I may have said this before, but I am not as aggrieved about Lance Armstrong as others.  I agree that the UCI has the right to hand out what ever punishment it deems fit because he broke their rules egregiously and was caught.  He is just another athlete to be caught using illegal performance enhancement measures.

Where Armstrong is different however, is that he started to believe his own bullshit.  If all he conman/heist movies from the last 15 years have taught us anything it is this:  everyone has to know their role.  Armstrong forgot his.

Instead of being the great athlete who not only survived cancer, but used his survival as a spring board to become the best in his sport, he started thinking of himself as some kind if messianic figure.

He started to believe that the UCI and the Tour de France looking the other way was some kind of divine approval of his actions that would allow him to do whatever he wanted.  That delusional arrogance led him to keep screwing over people who thought they were his friends.  In the end Frankie Andreu, Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis, and finally George Hincapie all turned on Lance. He was betrayed by those who felt betrayed.  You always take care of your people.

As Mike Ehrmantraut tried to explain to Walt and Lydia in this season’s Breaking Bad, you always take care of your people because when things go sideways, they are the ones how will bury you.  Of course, Walt killed Mike and all of Mike’s guys.  So there is that.

Lance built his reputation on being a holier than thou cancer survivor and athlete.  When he was found to have betrayed that reputation by using performance enhancers he was faced with two choices:  1) Admit it and fall on the mercy of public opinion, 2) Obstinately fight it and accuse anyone questioning his purity as a heretic.  He chose to fight the heretics.  Now, he has no reputation, fewer friends, and a dwindling number of believers.

Your experiences are not everyone elses

Posted in college basketball, society, sports, sports and society with tags , , on October 19, 2012 by cueball

Why do we assume our experiences are the same for everyone else?

A writer at the Washington Post asked John Wall about Jon Bon Jovi who was sitting courtside at a Wizards preseason game in Toronto.  Wall had no idea who Bon Jovi was and older (and white) sports writers were stunned at this.  Why?

NC State is going to have a really good basketball team this season and was picked by the media and coaches to win the ACC.  At the league’s basketball media day in Charlotte this week, UNC basketball player John Michael McAdoo was asked about the rivalry with State.  To paraphrase, he said Duke is our rival.  Not State.  That led to older sports writers, to wonder how could that be.  Again, why?

John Wall was born in 1990 and Slippery When Wet came out in 1986.  John Wall’s life has been centered on becoming an NBA basketball player from the time he was 12 years old probably.  Why would he have ever heard any of Jon Bon Jovi’s biggest songs, and why would anyone think he would have heard any of those songs?

James Michael McAdoo was born in 1993.  NC State Men’s Basketball has not won an ACC Championship since 1987; they had not been to the NCAA tournament during McAdoo’s existence on this Earth until 2002; they last won a national championship 20 years before McAdoo was born.  During the same period Duke won 10 conference championships, went to 5 Final Fours, and won 2 national championships.  If you are a UNC player, student, or recent graduate, who would you think was UNC’s biggest rival?

Human beings are self-centered jerks.  Never more so than when we (in the US especially) make cultural references.  It seems impossible that someone didn’t know about this great album/movie/television show/book that we loved when we were younger.  It was everywhere, how could you not know about that.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to understand that there are hidden worlds and pockets of life that have not been invaded by the ubiquity of the internet age media.  It is hard for egotistical humans to understand that within a short drive of their front door, there are people who live a life totally different from them.

This isn’t even about race, class, or gender.  Take two people from the same part of a town who graduated in the same class in high school and went to the same college.  Those two people could have two completely different college experiences.  Not only will they take different classes, they could eat different food, watch different movies, and listen to different music, and if you asked them at the end of four years, they may be shocked to see how the other person has changed.  Yet and still they would each still think that they had the definitive college experience.

Just because Jon Bon Jovi was pervasive in your lifetime doesn’t mean it was for everyone else.   Just because you can remember when NC State basketball was great doesn’t mean it is for someone much younger then you.

Look, I am old enough to remember it and the UNC/State rivalry is just as important to me as the UNC/Duke rivalry.  That is why I think what McAdoo said has a real element of trash talk.  It just makes it so much better that it is true.