Sunday, March 25, 2012

Final Four: Kentucky, Louisville, Ohio State, Kansas

The Final Four is set. Kansas, Kentucky, Ohio State and Louisville won their Regionals and advance to next weekend's Final Four in New Orleans. Unlike 2010 and 2011, when mid-major "Cinderellas" Butler and Virginia Commonwealth shocked the world and advanced to the Final Four, the 2012 Final Four field is comprised entirely of the usual suspects.

Louisville competes in the Big East Conference, but geographically, the East Coast is entirely shut out. Three of the four teams come from schools within 100 miles of Cincinnati, Ohio. The fourth, Kansas, comes from the heart of the heartland. It's an entirely Midwestern and Mid South Final Four.

Syracuse was the top-seeded team in the Tournament, but Syracuse alumni who work in the national sports media (in other words, most of the national sports media) will have to content themselves by pulling for Louisville to defend the Big East's honor. Casual fans who've enjoyed rooting for Cinderella "Davids" (i.e., Butler) to knock off college basketball "blue blood" "Goliaths" (i.e., Duke and Connecticut) in the last two NCAA Championship games will be faced with the likelihood of watching "blue blood" Kentucky play "blue blood" Kansas for the right to hand yet another NCAA Championship banner in the rafters.

On a more personal level, Drive and Dish editors will be stuck at a wedding in south Georgia while Saturday's games are being played. But if we get the chance, we may try to hit Interstate 10 on Sunday morning and see if we can get to New Orleans by evening. If so, we'll be hanging around the Final Four for Monday's Championship game.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Drive and Dish 2012 NCAA Tournament Bracket

Drive and Dish was launched one week before the start of the 2007 NCAA Tournament. In 2008, we began publishing our handwritten NCAA Tournament brackets. The night before our first brackets appeared, Mark Buckets and yours truly spent the wee hours deliberating over our picks in a then-24 hour Kinko's in the western suburbs of Chicago. Mr. Buckets abruptly retired from sports blogging during Duke's upset loss to West Virginia in the second round of that year's Tournament. He came out of retirement to pen a post or two later in the week, but left blogging for good after the 2008 Final Four.

Drive and Dish Senior Editor Trashtalk Superstar took sole responsibility for handwriting and publishing the annual Drive and Dish NCAA Tournament bracket in 2009. Like a monk who spent years copying the Bible by hand during the Dark Ages, Mr. Trashtalk devoted himself to handwriting and publishing the Drive and Dish brackets for the remaining years.

The 2010 Drive and Dish NCAA bracket was particularly noteworthy. Drive and Dish eschewed the conventional wisdom (we were among the few who didn't pick Kansas that year) and correctly predicted that Duke would earn head coach Mike Krzyzewski his fourth NCAA Championship. To be sure, we never envisioned that the Blue Devils would meet unheralded Butler in the Championship game, but we deserved some credit for what was (at the time) a bold pick. Believe it or not, virtually nobody picked Duke to win it all that year.

Our 2010 Duke pick was reminiscent of when we picked Florida to win its second consecutive NCAA Championship in 2007, even though the defending champs' lackluster regular season performance had caused most of the "experts" to be Gator skeptics (we didn't publish our brackets that year, so readers will have to work their way through bullet points to find the Florida Championship prediction).

Drive and Dish picked Duke to win it all again in 2011, even though the Blue Devils lost a few key starters from the 2010 Championship team to graduation. We ended up being wrong: Duke fell short and Connecticut came out of nowhere to win head coach Jim Calhoun his third NCAA Championship.

This year, we ended up with North Carolina beating Duke in an NCAA Championship game for the ages. To be clear, we don't actually think the game will be that good. North Carolina should waltz to the Championship . But if our prediction comes to pass, the game will be deemed a "game for the ages" simply due to the novelty of having the two biggest conference rivals in college basketball face each other for the third time this season while playing for the championship.

Of course, our 2012 bracket should come with the following disclaimer: yours truly hasn't had a TV for two years. So like last year's brackets, the Drive and Dish 2012 brackets have been completed despite the fact that Drive and Dish writers' exposure to college basketball in the 2011-2012 season has been limited to internet viewing of select games and to catching a few minutes of games here and there while out and about (come to think of it, maybe that's why we didn't see Connecticut coming last year).

Our 2012 bracket:

Normally, we list several things to watch for below our brackets. But this year, since we haven't seen many games, there really isn't much that we can say with much authority. But we have seen St. Bonaventure play and we think they could surprise people. Of course, they play Florida State in the first round, and the Seminoles have beaten Duke and North Carolina. A few more things:

* Everybody seems to have Kentucky winning it all, but we're skeptical (as we always are of John Calipari's teams). Kentucky has the talent, but do they have the mental toughness and experience that teams with upperclassmen typically have? Toughness and experience are two essential ingredients that National Championship teams must have.

* We picked Virginia Commonwealth to beat Wichita State (primarily because we're so sick of witnessing Illinois fans salivate over VCU coach Shaka Smart that we figure his team will go on a tear that forces us to put up with two weeks more of Illini fans' slobbering), but Wichita State is good enough to make it to the Sweet Sixteen, and maybe beyond.

We've seen Wichita St. a couple times this year and have been pretty impressed. Gregg Marshall is an outstanding coach. He turned tiny Winthrop into a perennial NCAA Tournament participant before bolting for Wichita, and he's got the Shockers' on the national map. Marshall will be pursued by several BCS conference schools that have coaching openings.

* We picked New Mexico State to surprise Indiana. Indiana should win the game, but NMSU is the type of off-the-radar team that can give the big boys all kinds of trouble in the first round Tournament games.

* Nobody has impressed us in 2012 more than Notre Dame. Most of the games we managed to watch online were Fighting Irish games. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the young Irish, but when senior Tim Abromaitis was lost for the season after tearing his ACL, it looked like the season could turn out to be a disaster. But Mike Brey's team knocked off ranked Big East team after ranked Big East team and wound up back in the Big Dance ™.LinkBrey won national coach of the year in 2011. He probably deserves it even more this year.

That said, we have Xavier beating Notre Dame in the first round. We think Xavier's toughness could give the Irish trouble.

* Ohio University is a dark horse team that a lot of people like to make some noise. Head coach John Groce is a rising star in the game. If the Bobcats make a run in the Tournament, he'll have plenty of opportunities to go to bigger name schools (although he probably won't find a nicer campus than the one where he works now -- Ohio University's campus is gorgeous).

We don't think Ohio will beat Michigan though. The Wolverines aren't very big, but they're tough and they can score. We do, however, expect Ohio to give Michigan a run for their lives. But in the end, coach John Beilein's Wolverines should pull it out and advance to play another day.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Nerds vs. Jocks: Mapping Out NBA Shots Taken Since 2006

In the classic 1984 comedy Revenge of the Nerds, the affable, but tormented nerds of the Lambda Lambda Lambda fraternity marshal their superior brainpower to get last laugh on their dumb jock tormentors from the Alpha Beta house. In the years since Revenge of the Nerds became a hit, the "nerds outsmart the dumb jocks" storyline has seemingly been recycled ad infinitum.

Keith Olbermann essentially built his sportscasting career -- and helped build the ESPN SportsCenter empire -- by taking a page from the Revenge storyline: nerdy ethnic oddball uses his wit and verbal acuity to enact revenge for a lifetime of being tormented, "wedgied" and stuffed into lockers by cool jocks at school poke fun at the college and professional athletes he covers (Olbermann co-hosted SportsCenter with Dan Patrick on ESPN prior to his better-known career on MSNBC as America's favorite foaming-at-the-mouth liberal political talking head).

But ESPN didn't retire the "nerds outsmart the dumb jocks" schtick (or at least the "clever non-athlete outsmarts the big dumb ex-jock" schtick) when Mr. Olbermann was shown the door in 1997. ESPN radio -- and other sports talk stations from coast to coast -- regularly employ the oft-drawn-upon formula that pairs a quick-witted and sardonic "smart guy" with a big, "dumb" former professional athlete (or at least one who plays "dumb"). The joke is that the smart guy who never played sports actually knows a lot more about sports than the dumb buffoon who played the game!

These days, the "nerds know sports better than jocks" narrative has become the conventional wisdom, thanks in large part to the runaway success of Moneyball.

The 2011 film Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt, is based on Michael Lewis' 2003 bestselling book on baseball economics, Moneyball. Both book and film tell the story of Oakland Athletics' General Manager Billy Beane, a former major league player who turned to advanced statistical analysis -- known as sabermetrics -- to evaluate players when he found himself saddled with a limited budget upon taking over as the Athletics' GM.

Beane's early A's teams won on the cheap. So he was touted as a genius and his abandonment of traditional methods of player evaluation in favor of advanced numbers crunching became the order of the day in Major League Baseball. In practically no time, all the other teams revamped their player evaluation processes to incorporate Beane's statistical models.

That Mr. Beane was no nerd before he turned to statistics -- a former major league player and scout can hardly be called a nerd -- is irrelevant. So, apparently, is the fact that the A's haven't returned to the playoffs since 2006. We're living in the Moneyball era. Statistics rule and number crunching nerds are ascendant: the pencil-necked pencil pushers and their equations have once-and-for-all triumphed over the wisdom of the dumb jocks (or so the smart people say).

Now it seems like every nerd and numbers guy under the sun is citing statistics to show that they know more than the dumb jocks. And it's not just baseball: everybody from the former star University of Chicago and Harvard Law professor and current Obama administration Regulatory Czar who (allegedly) debunked the concept of the "hot hand" in basketball (multiple academic studies exist which purport to debunk the myth of the hot hand) to the FedEx deliveryman and basketball statistics enthusiast who predicted that Jeremy Lin would be a star NBA point guard back in 2010 is seemingly in the game.

So it makes sense that the lefty political nerds at Salon would get into the game too: "What Geography Can Teach Us About Basketball":

The annual Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, created in 2006, has become something like Bonnaroo for sports nerds. And if there was a breakout star at this year's gathering, held at MIT this past weekend, it may have been Kirk Goldsberry, an assistant professor of geography at Michigan State (and currently a visiting scholar at Harvard). At Sloan, Goldsberry—whose dissertation "investigated real-time traffic maps" and who has also used geography to examine "access to nutritious foods in urban areas"—considered the ways that sophisticated statistical mapping can illuminate the game of basketball, in a paper called "Court Vision: New Visual and Spatial Analytics for the NBA."

You only have to glance at the maps Goldsberry produced to know that stat-friendly teams will pounce on these things. As the New York Times basketball blog Off the Dribble noted over the weekend, "about a third of the league’s arenas have recently installed camera systems that capture and log the position of every player on the court 25 times a second." As a result, many teams now have incredible amounts of data they can visualize in some of the ways Goldsberry suggests.

For the map above, for instance, Goldsberry divided roughly half an NBA court (from the baseline to just past the 3-point line) into 1,284 "shooting cells." Then he plotted every shot taken in an NBA game from 2006 to 2011, and color-coded the results. The areas which yielded the most points per shot appear near the red end of the color spectrum; those that yielded the fewest are at the blue end.

If you've read anything about scoring efficiency in basketball, the resulting image will not surprise you (though its elegance is striking). But it conveys far more quickly and powerfully than a set of numbers can what kind of shot distribution an NBA team should be going for, generally speaking.

The takeaway: If you ever needed confirmation that the mid-range game is a relic of the past, you've got it now. Most shots taken in the NBA from 2006 to 2011 were either layups, dunks or three pointers. The baseline jump shot no longer exists.

Gone are the days when post players like Adrian Dantley, Kevin McHale and Mark Aguirre would beat you with post moves inside, and then beat you with post-up turn around jumpers when you tried to push them off the block. Gone too is Karl Malone's 15-20 foot jumper that forced opposing big men leave the lane and chase him out into no (big) man's land.

Scottie Pippen's bank shots from between the elbow and the baseline? Yeah, they're gone too. But if you've been paying attention to the NBA over the last few years, you probably already knew as much.

Kevin Garnett is one player who still takes a lot of mid-range shots (Garnett idolized Dantley and McHale while growing up), but he's a definite outlier. Kobe Bryant takes a lot of mid-range fade aways, but since he shoots whenever he has the ball (regardless of where he is on the court), it doesn't count for much against the larger statistical pattern.

The NBA has gone the same way that college basketball has gone over the last 15 years: nobody wants to take a shot that's not a layup, a three pointer or a dunk.

Rick Pitino changed college basketball when he was coaching at Kentucky in the early and mid 1990s. Pitino decided that shots outside of the lane, but inside of the three point line were a waste of time. He figured that if you're going to take an outside shot (any shot taken from beyond 5-10 feet from the basket), you might as well take one that's worth three points if it goes in, rather than two.

So that's what Pitino's Kentucky teams did. And after they made back-to-back Final Fours in 1996 and 1997 (which included a National Championship in '96), other teams around college basketball started adopting a similar style.

The mid-range game disappeared from college basketball in the late 90s. It took a little while longer for it to disappear from the NBA, but the disappearing act is all but complete now.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Northwestern Gets Closer to First NCAA Tournament, Michigan State Loses Key Player to Injury

Northwestern kept its NCAA Tournament hope alive beating Iowa 70-66 in the last game of the regular season today. Northwestern has never been an NCAA Tournament participant. Last week, Drive and Dish examined the recent history of Northwestern basketball and the significance of the Wildcats' pursuit of their first NCAA Tournament bid.

Northwestern now has an 18-12 overall record, and an 8-10 record in Big Ten conference play. As we explained in last week's aforementioned Drive and Dish post, we weren't optimistic about the Cats' chances for getting their first NCAA Tournament invitation after they fell just short of upsetting No. 10 Ohio State on Wednesday. But with the end-of-season collapses of other Big Ten teams that were on the NCAA Tournament "bubble" (we're looking at you, Illinois, Minnesota and Iowa), NU's chances quickly got a lot better.

Northwestern finished the regular season in seventh place in the Big Ten. Since the Big Ten has been widely regarded as the most competitive conference in college basketball this season, it's likely that seven Big Ten teams will get into the NCAA Tournament. If Northwestern beats Minnesota in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament later this week, they will almost certainly be rewarded with their first Tournament invitation.

Drive and Dish believes that Northwestern could be dangerous in the NCAA Tournament. Northwestern has run the famed Princeton offense since Bill Carmody implemented it when left Princeton to become the Wildcats' head coach in 2000. The Princeton offense is notoriously difficult for opposing teams to prepare for, and teams that run it have had a great deal of success playing the role of "Cinderella" in the NCAA Tournament.

This year, Drive and Dish wouldn't be surprised to see Northwestern wearing glass slippers in the "Big Dance."

The news isn't as good for Michigan State though. Star freshman small forward Branden Dawson tore his ACL in today's 72-70 loss to Ohio State. Dawson will undergo reconstructive knee surgery and 6-9 months of rehabilitation.

Obviously, he won't be able to play in the NCAA Tournament.

Until today, Drive and Dish had expected Michigan State to be a serious contender for the 2012 National Championship. We thought they had an excellent chance to make it to the Final Four, and at least a decent shot at giving head coach Tom Izzo his second Championship. But Dawson's season-ending injury makes that considerably less likely.