Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Bracket Projection: 1/16

What I missed. Due to the adult-like nature of my schedule these days, I've gotten into the habit of preparing all the data to make a bracket on Monday and then actually making it on Tuesday. So I think these posts are basically all going to have to include a list of notable events that happened between the data and the bracket. First the bracket, then the games I missed:

1 Duke Virginia Villanova Purdue
2 West Virginia Kansas North Carolina Oklahoma
3 Xavier Michigan St. Texas Tech Wichita St.
4 Kentucky Seton Hall Auburn Clemson
5 Arizona Tennessee Arizona St. Cincinnati
6 Arkansas TCU Creighton Miami FL
7 Nevada Ohio St. Texas A&M Gonzaga
8 Florida Michigan Florida St. Butler
9 Rhode Island Missouri Texas Notre Dame
10 UCLA Marquette Saint Mary's Louisville
11 Boise St. Syracuse Maryland Georgia
11 Houston Baylor
12 Missouri St. New Mexico St. Buffalo Western Kentucky
13 South Dakota St. Vermont East Tennessee St. Towson
14 Stephen F. Austin Murray St. UC Davis Louisiana Lafayette
15 Northern Kentucky Iona Bucknell Florida Gulf Coast
16 Radford Montana Princeton Texas Southern
16 Hampton Robert Morris

Yesterday Kansas beat West Virginia, Florida State lost to Boston College, and of course Michigan beat Maryland. But if you're Michigan, you wouldn't be too upset with the draw shown here. Missouri is weak and Virginia, while always formidable, has a recent history of struggling in the tournament, and could be a team Michigan exploits. I'd certainly take this draw, but they're probably more like a 7 now after the week they just had.

It's probably time to talk about Purdue. Yeah, would you look at that: Purdue suddenly accomplishes what Michigan State couldn't the last few weeks and climbs to the 1 line. In reality, the top three overall seeds are rock solid right now and Purdue, Oklahoma, and North Carolina are all extremely close, but my choice went to the Boilermakers after looking at their impressive resume. They currently have wins over Louisville, Arizona, Michigan, Butler, Marquette, Maryland and Minnesota, and their only 2 losses are both to tournament teams. With a corps of seniors, a consistent style of play, and a very winnable conference, the Boilermakers could hang on to their current position. I'll be at Mackey for their rematch with Michigan next week, so I'll be hoping Michigan makes their path to a 1 a bit more difficult.

Speaking of Michigan. Yeah, what a week. Since we spoke last, Michigan took the aforementioned Boilermakers to the brink, ran Sparty off their home floor, and won a wacky first half slog turned second half barnburner against Maryland. Apparently that's only enough to raise them one seed, but they're moving up right now and I expect that to continue with an easier slate this week against Nebraska and Rutgers. I tweeted the win probability graph yesterday but I'll throw it in here again since it looks so nice:

The Wolverines have won 9 of their last 10. Let's keep the wins coming. 

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Bracket Projection: 1/9

A new #1 overall emerges. Yep, the Cavaliers have shot up the rankings after their quick 3-0 start in the ACC that included a big win over former 1 seed North Carolina. You won't see anything too crazy in this bracket, but take a minute to admire that 1-8-9 pairing in the West regional:

1 Virginia Duke Villanova Xavier
2 Michigan St. Oklahoma Kansas North Carolina
3 West Virginia Purdue Arizona St. Texas Tech
4 Arizona Seton Hall Clemson Wichita St.
5 Kentucky TCU Arkansas Texas A&M
6 Cincinnati Miami FL Auburn Tennessee
7 Nevada Florida St. Creighton Gonzaga
8 Missouri Butler Notre Dame Rhode Island
9 Ohio St. Michigan Florida Texas
10 Louisville SMU Saint Mary's Alabama
11 Syracuse UCLA Maryland Boise St.
11 St. Bonaventure Minnesota
12 Missouri St. New Mexico St. Western Kentucky Buffalo
13 South Dakota St. Lipscomb Vermont Louisiana Lafayette
14 Murray St. UC Santa Barbara Towson East Tennessee St.
15 Iona Northern Kentucky Radford Stephen F. Austin
16 Texas Southern Montana Penn Bucknell
16 Hampton Robert Morris

Beilein vs. LaVall with the winner facing Duke? Sign me up. Remember last year when I correctly had the Michigan-Oklahoma State matchup way back in like February and made a big deal about how cool that would be? Yeah let's hope the wish list continues.

Michigan State gets stomped and somehow moves up a seed. Yeah, RPI is stupid. Oh well. They shouldn't have even been that low last week, so this is better I guess.

How many tournament teams will the Big Ten get? Somehow there are six Big Ten teams in this week's bracket thanks to the emergence of the Buckeyes. However, my gut tells me Maryland without Justin Jackson and Minnesota without Reggie Lynch will not end up in the tournament. As it stands, they're both hanging on by a thread. I'm thinking four Big Ten teams is more likely, barring any unforeseen craziness. Michigan is still a 9 seed but they're just barely in the territory I would consider "safely in" rather than a bubble team. But the margin for error is slim with so much dead weight in the conference. Let's check the graph:

11-7 should do the trick, it's just a matter of whether they can get a big win or two to move up the seed lines. Tonight's game against Purdue scares me as a 41% chance of victory. There would be no shame in losing to a top 5 Purdue team, but it would make the graph look a bit dicier. Assuming the trip to East Lansing this weekend isn't going to go particularly well, it seems going 0-2 this week would only put more pressure on the sea of 70ish% games remaining against the middle tiers of the Big Ten. The path to March Madness is laid out for them; they just have to take advantage.

And one final note on the Big XII. It's awesome, friends. The ACC will have the most tournament teams like they always do, but if you don't think the Big XII is the best conference, you're doing yourself a disservice. As you may know, I've hitched myself to the Oklahoma bandwagon, as they personify the traits laid out in my guide to finding a second favorite team impeccably. Kansas is Kansas and will probably win the conference like they always do, but somehow the current projected conference winner is Texas Tech of all teams. And of course West Virginia is quite formidable as well, and nine of the ten teams are in the Kenpom top 60. Do yourself a favor and watch some conference games (when they're not frustratingly buried on ESPNU); you won't regret it.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Bracket Projection: 1/3

This is a terrible bracket. I mean, some parts of it are fine, I guess. So why do I even bother posting it? Let's take a gander at what makes it so terrible, and then spend the rest of this post discussing the shortcomings of the selection committee.

1 Duke Xavier Villanova North Carolina
2 Texas A&M Arizona St. Kansas Oklahoma
3 Purdue West Virginia Arizona Michigan St.
4 TCU Virginia Arkansas Seton Hall
5 Tennessee Kentucky Wichita St. Miami FL
6 Gonzaga Florida St. Texas Tech Clemson
7 Butler Alabama Cincinnati Creighton
8 Auburn Rhode Island Syracuse Nevada
9 Texas Louisville Missouri Michigan
10 Baylor SMU Notre Dame Saint Mary's
11 St. Bonaventure UCLA Minnesota USC
11 Maryland Florida
12 Lipscomb Missouri St. New Mexico St. Middle Tennessee
13 Vermont South Dakota Louisiana Lafayette Murray St.
14 College of Charleston Ball St. East Tennessee St. UC Santa Barbara
15 Bucknell Stephen F. Austin Princeton Montana
16 UNC Asheville Texas Southern Iona Northern Kentucky
16 Hampton St. Francis PA

First of all, I made this while watching the games yesterday, and by the time I had finished it, Texas Tech had beaten Kansas, Auburn had beaten Tennessee, Mississippi State had beaten Arkansas, Florida had beaten Texas A&M, and Vanderbilt had beaten Alabama. All of these games could have a significant impact on seeding, and they aren't accounted for. But that's not really my biggest complaint. As you gaze upon this garbage bracket for a few seconds you'll see what I'm talking about. What's that? The 3 seed in the Midwest region? The Spartans of Michigan State? That's right, the number 1 team in the AP Poll, the Sagarin ratings, and the number 2 team in Kenpom is like, 12th in my system, which has nothing to do with my own personal biases and everything to do with our good friend, the Rating Percentage Index. Let's dive a little deeper:

An RPI refresher: The formula for RPI is 

0.25*(winning %) + 0.5*(opponents' winning %) + 0.25*(opponents' opponents' winning %)

If that seems a bit silly, you are correct. 75% of your RPI is strength of schedule, and 25% of it is completely out of your control, because you can't control who your opponents schedule in their nonconference season. Strength of schedule is very important of course, but there's a certain category of teams that will absolutely kill your RPI no matter how badly you beat them, and the Big Ten loves to schedule them for some reason.

On December 17th, Michigan State had the #3 RPI in the country. Since then, they've won 4 games by an average score of 107-59. This has caused their RPI to fall to 28th. Seriously. After beating #312 Houston Baptist, they fell to 5th. #142 Long Beach State knocked them to 9th. #340 Cleveland State dropped them to 13th, and the final win over #172 Savannah State caused them to fall all the way to 27th. That is insane, and completely contradicts the product we've seen on the court. If any of this reminds you of this hilariously incorrect Graham Couch article, it's because last season Michigan State's RPI was actually the only thing keeping them in the field for a while, and the schedule he proposes in the article would have completely bombed them out of the tournament. 

So what does it mean? For Michigan State? Probably nothing. They're still a 1 seed on Bracket Matrix, but more recent projections have included more 2s and 3s, including obviously the one you see here. But every year this kills the Big Ten in seeding, with the notable exception of last year's Minnesota. The Gophers expertly scheduled teams projected to have winning records in below-average-but-not-atrocious conferences, such as Louisiana Lafayette, UT Arlington, Georgia Southern, and Arkansas State. This paid off for them in seeding, where they got a totally undeserved 5 seed that they used to embarrass themselves against Middle Tennessee. The previous year, Michigan State got screwed over by Oregon, who used the same scheduling tactics as Minnesota to sneak their way into a 1 seed. The Spartans were stuck with a totally undeserved 2 seed that they used to...also embarrass themselves against Middle Tennessee.

John Beilein has been asked about this, as he is one of the biggest offenders of terrible scheduling strategy. He claims (in more diplomatic terms) that he'd rather play a game that's an automatic win and use that time work on his own scheme, rather than running the risk of being upset by a mid-level team. That's totally fair, but stressful when you have anything resembling a bubble team, and annoying when it prevents your great team from getting the seed it deserves. The only solution would be for the selection committee to rely less heavily on such an archaic and clearly flawed ratings system, but a bracketologist can only dream. 

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Bracket Projection: 12/26

Brackets are back! I don't even want to spend three paragraphs explaining anything before we jump right in. Here is the first bracket projection of the 2017-18 season:

1 Duke Villanova Michigan St. North Carolina
2 Purdue Texas A&M Arizona St. Xavier
3 TCU Oklahoma Kansas Tennessee
4 Arizona Virginia Seton Hall West Virginia
5 Arkansas Wichita St. Kentucky Miami FL
6 Gonzaga Florida St. Clemson Texas Tech
7 Missouri Louisville Auburn Michigan
8 Creighton Cincinnati Syracuse Alabama
9 Temple Rhode Island St. John's Texas
10 Notre Dame Baylor Nevada Florida
11 St. Bonaventure Butler Minnesota Maryland
11 SMU Virginia Tech
12 UT Arlington Missouri St. New Mexico St. Middle Tennessee
13 Lipscomb Towson Stephen F. Austin Vermont
14 Murray St. Ball St. South Dakota UC Santa Barbara
15 Bucknell Northern Kentucky Iona East Tennessee St.
16 UNC Asheville St. Francis PA Idaho Texas Southern
16 Hampton Princeton

A few annual reminders...

The regional groupings mean nothing. But they're fun! And of course Michigan would get matched up against Florida, their eternal opponent in all postseason events.

It's not a full-on future projection, but it's also not the best current projection. The fatal flaw of these projections is that two of the rankings used in the formula contradict each other: RPI can only measure what you've done so far, making it an "if the season ended today" prediction. But Kenpom is a predictive ranking, making it a "what it will look like at the end of the season" prediction. Put those together in the middle of the season, and you get a bracket that answers neither question fully. But as the season goes on, those concepts will slowly converge and the bracket will start to make more sense.

And now for a few of my own personal thoughts I had while putting this together that may be of interest:

The Big Ten is hanging on by a thread. If you've watched more than five seconds of Big Ten basketball this season, you've probably heard an announcer declare this a "down year" for the conference, and they would not be wrong. On one hand, this probably won't be a year where the conference champion is a 4 seed as has been the case in recent years, but I definitely expect fewer Big Ten teams selected than what we've gotten used to. Michigan is currently the third highest seeded team in the conference as a 7, and Minnesota and Maryland just barely squeaked into the play-in games. The cutoff in the conference will not be as generous as it has been in past years due to more than a few bad nonconference losses.

3 out of 4 1 seeds are probably locks. Duke has a tough conference schedule ahead of them, but their lofty RPI rating from an impressive nonconference schedule will hold them up as long as they don't completely collapse. And Villanova and Michigan State are sitting right where they want to as they head into conference play, where both of them are heavy favorites to roll through their respective conferences. I fully expect those three teams to be on the 1 line all season long. The final spot will be an open question all season, as the current contenders--North Carolina, Xavier, and Arizona State--were all very close in my system. 

Seeds 4-10 are just a mess. There are a lot of huge gaps between my projections and those currently on Bracket Matrix, which is to be expected this early in the season. A team like Notre Dame, for example, is listed anywhere from a 5 seed to out of the tournament. So keep an eye on all the movement through the middle of the bracket as the season progresses, and I'll be watching for important games that can have a big effect on seeding.

Michigan is at the high end right now. The Matrix has the Wolverines as a 9, with an average seeding of 8.58. My system sees them as a 7-8 borderline right now who got the lucky bounce as teams were being slotted into place on the final S-curve. Let's check in on their win probability graph for the Big Ten season:
I'm not sure how many Big Ten wins it would take to feel really comfortable about making the field. Usually it's 10, but is it 11 this year? We'll have to find out. Michigan has a 59% chance of going 10-8 or better, and a 37.4% chance of going 11-7 or better. They open conference play with a coin-flip game on the road against Iowa before traveling back to Crisler to face Illinois. A 2-0 start (46.7% chance of happening) would be a huge step in the right direction before their first matchup with the Boilermakers, and would allow fans confidence in the team's tournament prospects to grow.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Spidey's Blog: The Buddy Hield Theorem

I apologize for a second straight blasphemous post singing the praises of teams not named Michigan, but I'm learning to be a more pleasant sports fan these days, and I'm hoping to provide insight that will help others have a more enjoyable neutral sports-watching experience. That being said, I went on and on about Camp Randall last week so let me just say I went back to the Big House for the Ohio State game, and The Big House still blows away any other stadium experience. Seriously. But you knew that already. Other organizational notes: if you're here for fun basketball graphs, may I direct you back to my Twitter, and if you're antsy for the first bracket projection, that'll happen some time around New Years, once teams like Temple, Nevada, and Rhode Island aren't top 10 teams in the RPI. As for today's post, we're going to take a look at what makes for a perfect second favorite college basketball team.

On January 4th, 2016, I watched the single greatest college basketball game I had ever seen, and I emerged with a new temporary second favorite team. Buddy Hield's Oklahoma Sooners went into Phog Allen Fieldhouse to face #1 ranked Kansas. The teams traded haymakers for 3 straight hours, the game went to triple overtime, finished around midnight eastern, and Kansas emerged with an absolutely insane 109-106 victory. I followed the Sooners pretty closely the rest of that season, and while they never quite captured the magic of that night in Lawrence, they remained an insanely fun team to watch.

After a close friend of the blog wrote this flaming hot Deadspin post proclaiming Duke of all teams to be "fun," my initial visceral reaction caused me to dive deeper into my own basketball watching preferences, which eventually led me to come up with the ingredients that make a basketball team I would otherwise have no connection to fun for me to follow. I compared 2016 Oklahoma with a few other teams I enjoyed watching (2014 Creighton is the other big one, and to be honest I began to also grew fond of 2015 Wisconsin once Michigan was done playing them). When I thought back to why no team stole my heart in 2017, I realized that team was in fact just Michigan. This became clearer when I narrowed down my scattered thoughts to four simple ingredients:

1. A Game-Changing Talent. Following a basketball team is a big commitment, so if you're going to commit to a secondary team, it helps if they have one guy that is all over the court making plays. This might be the biggest difference between what you want out of your favorite team and your second favorite team. Obviously you usually want your team to share the ball and have multiple stars, but that's too much effort for a team you're only going to watch when it's convenient. Give me one Buddy Hield or Derrick Walton running wild all over the court stuffing the stat sheet and I will be delightfully entertained.

2. Incendiary 3-Point Shooting. This one is a personal preference, having grown up in the slog of the Amaker years before being enlightened by the glory of the Beilein offense, but I think most people would agree that teams that can light it up from beyond the arc are a lot of fun to watch. Especially when this isn't a team you've tied all of your emotions too, you want to be able to flip their game on and watch them just make it rain. This is what made 2014 Creighton so fun: they had Doug McDermott to attract all the attention of opposing defenses, and when they collapsed on him, there was Ethan Wragge hitting an insane 110 three pointers at a 47% rate. Find yourself a team that can do that and you'll be in good shape.

3. Insane Games Against Traditional Powerhouses. This one is kind of obvious unless you're a Duke fan. The reason you pick a second team is in the hope of getting to see them beat other teams you don't like. Or even if they don't win, like Hield in '16, if they give you an awesome game to watch and a reason to have a rooting interest, that works too. I didn't really fall for 2015 Wisconsin until the tournament, when they took down North Carolina, Arizona, and the greatest Kentucky team any of us have ever seen in three straight games. If your favorite team is having a down year, pick a secondary team who has the opportunity to beat all those teams you don't like, which brings me to my final point:

4. No National Championships in My Lifetime. You might not be the exact same age as me, so you can make this rule whatever you want. Since Michigan doesn't have a championship in my lifetime, I feel slightly jealous towards the fan bases that do have one in that time frame. So for me, this no-cheer list consists of UCLA, Kentucky, Arizona, UConn, Michigan State, Duke, Maryland, Syracuse, North Carolina, Florida, Kansas, Louisville, and Villanova. That seems to nicely cover all the easily hate-able teams in college basketball, plus a few extras.

So Who Is it This Year? That's the question, isn't it? As the rest of this post indicates, sometimes it takes a while for the second favorite team to emerge, and that's okay. You just have to keep watching until someone steals your heart. So far none of the early contenders have really jumped out at me, but I'll put up a tentative top 5:

Oklahoma again? Trae Young does just about everything for what appears to be another fun Sooner team. I haven't watched any of their games yet, so I can't really form an opinion yet, but the numbers are encouraging. This would deviate quite a bit from Rule 2 though, as Oklahoma is much more proficient at 2-pointers than 3's this season.

Notre Dame? Seriously? Probably not, because it's Notre Dame. But Mike Brey has developed a style quite similar to Beilein's over the years, and this year Bonzie Colson is a game-changing talent that can take over a game at any point. The problem here is if you watched the Irish play Michigan State, majorly blowing their first chance to take down a traditional powerhouse. But if they can pull off a big upset against Duke or UNC, my opinion of them could change quickly.

Virginia Tech? The Hokies seem to have some players that can light it up and currently have the best effective FG% in the country, but no clear go-to guy that would take them to the next level of awesome. They also don't appear to be quite good enough overall to put the fear of God into the rest of the ACC just yet.

Arizona State? Um maybe? Haven't watched them at all either, but Tra Holder has an extremely impressive Kenpom line: 134.8 offensive rating on 25.7% of possessions while playing 88.6% of available minutes. The Sun Devils score from all over the court and travel to Phog Allen this week. They only have an 8% chance of pulling off the upset, but if they do, this competition is locked down.

TCU? This is basically an even more balanced version of Virginia Tech. The Horned Frogs have 6 different players with an offensive rating over 115, and have the second best offense in the Big XII (after Kansas) led by great 3-point shooting. They probably won't emerge into a true second favorite team, but they'll upset someone at some point and it'll be a lot of fun.

So that's Spidey's anatomy of a fun team. I watch a lot of college basketball, so I'm really hoping someone emerges from the pack of "kinda fun" into a true team to keep an eye on and cheer for in big games. I'd love to hear from readers about what criteria makes a team fun for you. I think this guide will work for a large percentage of college basketball fans, and if you disagree with the rules, there's always Duke.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Spidey's Blog: Never Change, Badgers

Quick note: I was going to write some things about basketball, but it's hard to really develop informed opinions after games against North Florida, Central Michigan, and Southern Miss. I'll do a post after Maui and most of my thoughts will probably be the same barring some sort of Hawaiian insanity. Here's an off topic post about football:

If you ask a college sports fan what makes college sports so great, many of them will try to talk about to the grand traditions and the passionate fans. These people are by no means incorrect, but what really sets college sports apart are actually the bizarre traditions and the silly fans. Every major fan base has them (I'm assuming), and they probably seem normal if you grew up doing them. For example, if you start playing the Blues Brothers theme song, I will instantly start doing an elaborate choreographed dance of origins completely unknown to me. Heck, the fact that you're reading a blog started by a guy who wore a Spider-Man suit to basketball games for four years says something about the scope of silliness were talking about here. But when you experience another fan base's own weird "things," the weirdness is put in a whole new light. And it is a joy to experience.

I had the fortune of getting the chance to travel up to Madison this weekend to see Michigan and Wisconsin play at Camp Randall. The game was a frigid slugfest featuring fullback dives lots and lots of punts, as every matchup between the Wolverines and Badgers is, but what really made the trip exciting was standing in the Wisconsin student section. Lost behind the magic of "Jump Around" is a series of truly bizarre traditions that I think we need to discuss.

The first clue that I was standing in a pit of friendly lunatics came after Wisconsin's first first down, after which everyone around me simply said, "First and ten Wisconsin!" in perfect unison and then continued watching the game. This continued the entire game, and was so eerie that I found it less uncomfortable to sarcastically join in the cheer than to stand by while this synchronized declaration took place. And this was just the beginning.

Many of Wisconsin's cheers seem to stem from the desire to trash talk despite having never really experienced much trash talk themselves. I imagine this must be what life is like in the Big Ten West without any major rivals (sorry Minnesota). So what happens as a result are cheers and songs that are full of unnecessary swear words. For example, a Michigan penalty resulted in a rousing chant of "you fucked up" rather than the classic "you can't do that." A song about the moon (wait, let's pause for a second and appreciate that both Michigan and Wisconsin have a song about the moon) involves hilarious hand motions and a repeated line about the bright shining light of the moon, but of course the third time through, "the moon" is replaced with "the motherfucking moon." Because, you see, it's rebellious! This leads me to what was quite possibly the most senseless cheer I've ever heard at a sporting event, where two halves of the student section would take turns chanting "fuck you" and "eat shit" AT EACH OTHER! Why would they do this multiple times a game? I could not for the life of me get an answer. I asked a few people and the only answers I got were "the university always threatens to take away our season tickets if we keep doing it" (so like, maybe stop doing it) and "you can totally hear it on TV!" (so like, maybe stop doing it!). Regardless of reason, the students continued happily cussing each other out while a football game transpired.

These next few could probably be cleared up if I just did some research, but I prefer to continue marveling at their strangeness. When Wisconsin scores a touchdown, instead of playing their classic fight song, "On Wisconsin," they play what sounds to me like the song about the Great Chicago Fire, which if you think about it is a ridiculously insensitive song in its own right. Maybe it was a common tune 100+ years ago and was used in many settings, but either way it very much threw me off. But not as much as I was thrown off by THE HORSE. What is THE HORSE, you ask? I have no idea. At one point during the game, the band started playing a song that prompted the student section to break out into a choreographed dance, and the guy in front of me turned around and explained "It's THE HORSE!" as if that was all the explanation I would need to understand what's going on. In the middle of this song, everyone started spelling out T-H-E-H-O-R-S-E, and then continued dancing. Why not B-A-D-G-E-R-S, or W-I-S-C-O-N-S-I-N, you might ask? I asked it too, but once again got no logical answer. It's just THE HORSE, and it's yet another one of Camp Randall's "things," I guess.

And yes, Jump Around was incredible and very much lived up to its reputation as one of the best traditions in college football. But even that one has a history that involves the administration banning the song for fear it would literally topple the stadium, before un-banning it after realizing how ridiculous the idea of a concrete structure falling over because of humans jumping up and down was. It was once banned, but we made it come back: rebellious! But they jumped around with extreme enthusiasm and it was incredibly fun, despite coming at a sad part of the game for me as a Michigan fan.

So congratulations Wisconsin for being a special and ridiculous slice of what makes college sports so fun. Keep on doing your weird things. As for me, I'll be more comfortable back home at the Big House next weekend dancing to the Blues Brothers, screaming Mr. Brightside, and rebelliously yelling the feared phrase "you suck" after the Buckeyes are forced to punt. I look forward to my next road trip and learning the next batch of crazy brewing somewhere else in the wide world of college sports.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Spidey's Blog: 2017-18 Basketball Eve

Hello there! It's me, your friendly neighborhood Internet bracketologist. College basketball season is finally upon us! And while I've retired from my old post in the Maize Rage, I'll continue to blog and forecast brackets with enthusiasm unknown to mankind. Last year's rookie campaign was a big success, culminating in a bracket that beat Joe Lunardi by a single point (still waiting for that call, ESPN). This year I'll continue with my usual bracket projections and win probability graphs, but this year I'm planning to add some perspectives on the team and the season as it all unfolds. We'll see how this goes; I'm usually much more of a numbers person, which is why I started this whole project in the first place. But hopefully you, dear reader, will enjoy my scattered thoughts about Michigan basketball, or the Big Ten, or all of NCAA basketball. We're not really sure where this adventure is going to take us, but I'm looking forward to it.

If You Have Two X-Factors, You Don't Have Any

I've had various conversations with people about the upcoming Michigan basketball season, and I love talking about all the unproven talent and potential that will be on the court this year. But many of these conversations involve me or the person I'm talking to declaring someone on the team "the X-factor." If Charles Matthews is as good as the hype, this offense will be the best in the Big Ten. If Jaaron Simmons can run the pick and roll with Moritz Wagner, they'll pick up right where they left off last year. If Wagner can play defense and rebound, that'll be the difference between a good season and a great one. All of these things are true, but at what point does someone go from being an X-factor to simply an unknown? To me it seems like a way of avoiding the slightly unsettling truth that we really know very little about this basketball team.

This unknown brings me back to my beloved win probability graphs. This feels like a good time to drop them in [note: preseason win totals do not include later round Maui matchups against undetermined opponents]:

These graphs are just an aggregate of individual probabilities, and that made me start thinking about how it's not so different to apply this thinking to individual players. Each player has a certain probability of having a good season, and the aggregate of all the players shows the potential outcomes for how good a team is, right? Then I thought about how player performance isn't binary: a player's season isn't measured simply as "good" or "bad," but in the space between. A better analogy here is that each individual player essentially has his own bell-shaped curve of potential outcomes for his own season, each with his own mean and variance. Moritz Wagner, an NBA talent with several areas for improvement, has a moderate spread with a high center, ranging from "Skilled Big Ten Stretch 5" to "Fire-breathing Lottery Pick Striking Fear Into the Hearts of Traditional Big Men Everywhere." The seniors, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson, are known commodities with minimal spread and high-ish centers. And then there's everyone else, whom we know almost nothing about. The transfers could be anything from instant replacements for last year's seniors to guys struggling to find their place in John Beilein's complex system. And finally, the freshmen (and sophomores with expanded roles) could end up just about anywhere on this theoretical basketball spectrum and it wouldn't be much of a surprise.

Put all these imaginary probability curves together and you get...an even wider and shallower imaginary probability curve. It's not out of the question to see this team having a losing conference record and missing the tournament. It's also not out of the question to see them being one of the top 2-3 teams in the Big Ten and priming themselves for another deep tournament run. Everything in between in the huge, scary Unknown, but that of course is the reason we watch the games. The Unknown can cut down your two best players with injuries and sabotage your season. But the Unknown can also turn a 14-point deficit with 7 minutes left into this:

And that's why we keep on watching from wherever we are this season. Go Blue!