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 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!