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!