I was sitting at the bar of a ragged little pub-type restaurant in Durham on Friday afternoon — the kind where nobody is overtly hostile, since this is the South, but where they give you 10-13 fries with your lukewarm burger to hint at a menacing presence in the kitchen — talking hoops with an Internet Sports Journalist who, like me, often finds himself in a digitally induced state of disrepair and in need of human company by Friday afternoon. We’ve been to the same place a few times now, and I think it’s mostly a depressing lack of ambition that leads us back. Anyway, after losing a tense negotiation with the bartender concerning lemon slices, I turned to my colleague and tried to justify a personal flip-flop: I liked the Indiana Hoosiers as a title team in the preseason, but now I think they belong somewhere outside the top 10. The excuse I came up with — and this has cop-out written all over it — is that even a certified genius couldn’t write about college basketball without pulling so many 180’s from November to April that, when viewed in fast motion, he appeared to be executing a prolonged pirouette.
And that’s in a normal season. This season, as you’ve been told by experts and laymen since the summer, is Wide Open. (If you’ve grown to hate that phrase, all I can say is that you’ll probably continue hating it for three more months, but that it will pay off conceptually during the tournament.) I bought into the anarchy early, because I have an affinity for chaos and unpredictability. Then, without warning, a sneaky childlike desire for order and classification crept into my psyche last week, and I wrote a foolish thing about the unexpected and possibly permanent superiority of Duke and Michigan. For a second, the compulsive side ascended in the battle of the dueling natures, and I imposed order on the wilderness. I felt relieved, but also a little cowardly.
But now, as I type Sunday night away, I’ve come face-to-face with the abyss, and I’m here to report that we’re back in the Year of the Gonzo. (It sounds better in Spanish: El Año del Gonzo.) The pirouette resumes, and while I promise to strive to endeavor to labor to slave to give you the most accurate dispatch possible, the truth is we’re on a rudderless ship, all the broadswords and cutlasses are sparking against one another, and I can’t pick out any allegiances or factions. It’s exciting — it’s the best thing going, really — but the most we can ever get, here on the front lines, is a hazy image.
Slow Starts, or How to Learn Nothing About the Big Ten
Ohio State 29, Michigan 8
Indiana 52, Minnesota 29
Those were actual scores from games that took place this weekend between Big Ten teams ranked in the top 15 nationally. I predicted the exact opposite on Friday, and had a lot of angry troll-like people on Facebook and Twitter tell me I didn’t understand the difficulty of playing on the road in the Big Ten. But here’s how those games went in the second half:
Michigan 31, Ohio State 22
Minnesota 52, Indiana 36
Michigan and Minnesota still lost, by three and seven, respectively, so I’ll take credit for being wrong. But it didn’t seem too hard for either the Gophers or Wolverines to play on the road in the Big Ten when they were dominating at the most intense point of the game. Instead, it seemed like both came out flat; maybe that’s the hard part of the road. Or maybe it’s just that the losing teams needed one disastrous half on the road to really remember how that feels. Or maybe they just had unlucky first halves. Or maybe the winning teams just had unlucky second halves.
The point is, there was absolutely no consistency to these matchups featuring the conference’s four best teams, and at the end I have no idea what to think about any of them. In both cases, it was like they switched uniforms at halftime, but otherwise followed the same script. And yes, I realize throwing up my hands and basically saying “Your guess is as good as mine” isn’t a great look. But what are you supposed to do with those results?
As far as real analysis goes, here are some definitive words about each team:
Minnesota: The Golden G’s forgot who they are in the first half, and who they are is a team with quick guards who pressure the ball, force a lot of turnovers, and let Rodney Williams and Trevor Mbakwe clean up inside with the seventh-highest block percentage in the country. On offense, they get more offensive rebounds than anyone in the country (the Gophers nab 48 percent of all missed shots, which is pretty effing crazy) because their guards are good at penetrating and drawing defenders, leaving the bigs open to clean the glass. Instead, they attempted too many 3s and played scared on defense, letting Indiana dictate the pace.
Indiana: When the Hoosiers offense clicks, it is truly a beautiful spectacle. And it clicked like a German-engineered clicking machine in that first half; in roughly 37 possessions, Indiana scored 52 points, for an offensive efficiency in the neighborhood of 140. If you don’t know what that signifies, trust me when I say it’s through the roof. On the down side, you can already tell that those transcendent moments are a little too beautiful for this world, because the whole operation can get stifled in a hurry. If you liked watching the tactical Germans beat the total footballin’ Brilliant Oranje in the 1974 World Cup final, you’ll love seeing Indiana lose Big Ten games this year. (That’s two Germany references in one paragraph about Indiana, which is something I’ll have to explore.) But if you love a sort of ethereal flowing style, you’ll have to catch it in fleeting glances, because the offense works only when everyone is in sync and performing. When the pressure gets hot, as it did in the second half against Minnesota, and as it did in the Butler loss, suddenly it can look like Victor Oladipo is the only scoring option. It’s quite a change.
Michigan: I bet Ken Pomeroy spends most of his life hearing people tell him why his advanced statistics are wrong or misleading — which is probably why his Twitter profile says “my system is flawed” — when the two actual issues are that (1) crazy things can happen in a one-game sample no matter what the stats say, and (2) you can only adjust the stats so much before conference play. Here’s what I mean: Coming into the Ohio State game, Michigan had the highest adjusted offensive efficiency — points per 100 possessions — of any team in the country. If you’re not familiar with adjusted stats, it’s a simple concept; rather than evaluating a team on raw numbers, Pomeroy’s system attempts to give you a better idea of their true strength by adjusting for the strength of the competition. For instance: If you play a team with terrible defense and score 200 points, that’s not going to hold the same weight as the six games you played against good teams and scored 55.
Unfortunately, Michigan’s best wins came against NC State (a team that plays no defense), and Kansas State and Pittsburgh (teams that seem to play pretty good defense, but also have issues with iffy competition). The rest were chumps. This raises a problem: When a team hasn’t faced a really good defense, how the hell do you know what to adjust to? All you can really do is take an educated guess about how they’ll react on the road against an elite team, but that’s sort of like trying to figure out how someone would behave in a war when they’ve never even fired a gun. In Michigan’s case, their raw offensive efficiency was also no. 1, so Pomeroy’s model made no adjustment in terms of position. In terms of actual points, the adjustment was less than one, which is basically no adjustment at all.
Then the Ohio State game happened, and suddenly the Wolverines got no-shows from Tim Hardaway Jr., Nik Stauskas, and Glenn Robinson III. Trey Burke was all on his own offensively, and Aaron Craft kept him from running rampant. The result? Pomeroy’s numbers predicted 70 points for the Wolverines, but they only managed 53. They also put up an offensive efficiency number, 89.8, that was 30 points lower than their average.
So what’s the story? Did they have a bad game, a statistical anomaly that will look like an outlier at season’s end? Or is 89.8 more in line with what we can expect against top-20 defenses? The answer is that none of us really knows. But it’s a good example of why we should use tempo-free stats in January as a way to evaluate a team’s profile, rather than to predict results.
Ohio State: The most annoying true phenomenon in college basketball is the way Aaron Craft’s defensive reputation precedes him, and how referees allow him to get away with more body bumps, grabs, and outright hacks than any other player in the game. This is sort of a hobbyhorse of mine, and I call it “the defensive star call.” The philosophy behind it, at least in my paranoid imagination, is that since it’s Aaron Craft, it’s not a foul.
Also, OSU should’ve been feeding Deshaun Thomas or exploiting their height advantage in the post all game.
Truth in Cliche
One last thing about Minnesota-Indiana. With 18 seconds, Jordan Hulls stepped up to the line with a chance to ice the game. The Hoosiers were up three. Hulls is a great free throw shooter, so it was surprising when he missed the first, and amazing when he missed the second. A simple rebound, and Minnesota would’ve had a chance to complete the absurd comeback and tie the game with a 3.
“He wanted it more” is one of those announcer cliches that can drive a sane person nuts, so it pains me to admit that in some cases, it’s true. The rebound of Hulls’s second shot was a case in point:
Broadly, there were four possible outcomes there:
1. Neither Zeller nor Mbakwe put in maximum effort — Mbakwe gets the board
2. Both Zeller and Mbakwe put in maximum effort — Mbakwe gets the board
3. Mbakwe puts in max effort, Zeller does not — Mbakwe gets the board
4. Zeller puts in max effort, Mbakwe does not — Zeller steals a board
It’s not like Mbakwe was being lazy or anything, but he lost focus at a critical moment and really put the screws to his team. And you have to admire Zeller, because (here comes another cliche) those really are the plays that win games. And by the way, based on the styles and histories of both players, it’s really tempting to see that play as a metaphor. Or at least a microcosm.
Yes, Duke Lost, Too
At least once per season, every team will have a road game in which bad luck, injuries, questionable officiating, and poor play make it impossible to pull out a win. For Duke, that was Saturday’s loss at NC State. Not only was Ryan Kelly injured — incidentally, Seth Davis said on Sunday that he might be out for the rest of the season, which I probably don’t have to tell you would be a season killer — and not only was State treating the game like their personal Super Bowl, but freshman Rasheed Sulaimon forgot how to make layups, Seth Curry got hurt when the Blue Devils needed him the most, and the referees were, at best, unhelpful. As someone pointed out on Twitter, this was like the “Eff You” game in Madden first identified by our editor-in-chief; it just wasn’t happening for Duke.
As for the Wolfpack, it was a great win for a program that had been staggered in the early going and needed some kind of high-profile jolt. But I can’t help believing that the team still lacks a cohesive identity, and they still can’t play defense. In fact, when you consider everything that went their way, the win should have been much easier. I left the game convinced that they’ll have trouble winning road games in the ACC, and I’m still comfortable standing by the historical stats that say they’ll be lucky to make the Sweet 16.
The Torture Game of the Week
A new concept, this one. Each week, I’ll pick a game that should be erased from the records — burned, bombed, or blasted into space — so it never falls into the wrong hands:
This is what happens when you focus 100 percent on defense, folks. I’m slowly turning less pacist with age, but Tony Bennett’s Virginia teams are still an utter disgrace to the sport. When they win, they win by scores like 60-58, and then they lose to teams, like Clemson, that have almost no talent. What’s the end game, Tony? What’s the best-case scenario?
The Xavier Thames British Boarding School All-Stars
I asked for your submissions last week of names that sound like rich British prep-schoolers, and reader Sean Dotson sent me a list about 50-strong. Sean was also on point when I needed help with the “Almost Famous” team, and for his spectacular efforts to date, I’m happy to announce that he’s been inducted into the Hardcourt Shuffle Hall of Fame. He’ll join Drew Bollinger, who wrote and produced the Hardcourt Shuffle theme song, and Mason Plumlee, an honorary charter member. Here now, with Sean’s help, are the second- and first-team Xavier Thames British Boarding School All-Stars:
Barclay Radebaugh, Charleston Southern
Xavier Thames, San Diego State
Bennett Rutherford, Appalachian State
Spencer Dinwiddie, Colorado
Collin Chiverton, Eastern Washington
Broderick Newbill, Fresno State
Wendell Faines, Idaho
Conroy Baltimore, Lehigh
Julian Norfleet, Mount Saint Mary’s
Barrington Stevens III, South Alabama
E. Victor Nickerson, UNC Charlotte (thanks to Craig Jordan for this one)
Cameron Baskerville, Georgia Southern
God save the queen! See you Friday.