Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Basketball Wonk

I'm probably somewhat out of my element on this, but we'll go with it.

Mayor King and I have discussed ad infinitum the relative merits and drawbacks of the college football and college basketball systems of determining a champion. I'm not going to rehash it all here, but if you're interested, look here, here, here, and other links therein.

Anyway, one of the issues that we've discussed is the idea that often the NCAA basketball tournament results with a champion that shouldn't be considered the "best" team in the nation, though that's the title that basically is conferred upon the winner of the tournament. I think it's a fair criticism, actually, but I also think that the "best" team is probably always a product of personal opinion. In fact, I think the only pure way to determine an indisputable champion is a long season, like European soccer leagues where every team plays every other team at home and away, and the champion has the best record. If not every team plays every other team, we can't really know who's the best. If teams play under different circumstances, we might not know. I think that objective systems, where teams know the rules beforehand and every team is playing under the same set of rules and advantages, is far superior to a primarily subjective system, where human opinions count more and particular teams benefit from more media coverage etc. But I digress.

Anyway, the NCAA tournament is an example of an objective system of determining a champion, but it is true that frequently the team I think is the best doesn't advance to the final four, let alone win the entire thing. It's the "flaw" of the one-game playoff. Sometimes a team that isn't better is better on that one night. Of course, it's the flaw that also makes the tournament exciting and fun to watch (especially if you don't have a pertonal rooting interest). And my predictions and opinion, like countless others, was that the "best" or "better" teams were teams that are now studying for midterms instead of playing for the title.

So what contributed to many of these teams' demises? During football season I'm interested in the process and the numbers, partially for predictive powers, but mostly for the purpose of spotting trends and figuring out why things happen. And then I'd write about it - and sometimes what I think is a trend turned out to be nothing, and sometimes it had some numbers or facts behind it.

So here's the hypothesis today: Two good teams (Duke and Villanova) played significantly worse than they had for the rest of the year last weekend, in the process of getting eliminated. Both are teams that rely on their guard play and perimeter shooting. Both teams lost to teams that relied primarily on frontcourt play. On the day these two teams lost, both suffered from terrible perimeter shooting. And one other common thing: both lost games played in domes.

Now, I have nothing too much about playing games in domes. More fans get to see the action, which I appreciate. Plus, I recognize that revenues drive sport, and raging against the machine is futile. And actually, whether playing in a dome is good or bad is irrelevant for these purposes, since my hypothesis works two ways. Playing in a dome hurts guard-focused, perimeter shooting teams. Playing in a dome helps frontcourt-heavy, interior shooting teams. Why? Well, it's just kind of guess, but I think the background of the court matters for long-distance shooting. Having a good background helps with depth perception, which matters much more for three point shooter firing from 22 feet away than for a center shooting from 4 feet. When I've seen games at the Georgia Dome, I've felt that things seem just different from other basketball games. Things seem more distant, or just stranger. And if you've been playing in 10-15,000 seat arenas all year, things might seem very strange when you bump things up to 50,000+. I understand the Hickory High scene where Norman Dale has the tape measure out and that the goals are still 10 feet high. But I also think the background matters.

So what does recent history tell us about games played in domes - do frontcourt teams fare better, advancing ahead of higher seeded teams? Do perimeter shooting teams fare worse, falling to lower seeded teams? Let's go to the tape!

Georgia Dome Regional: In my estimation, two teams relied on the perimeter game (Duke and West Virginia) and two teams were stronger in the frontcourt (Texas and LSU). The two frontcourt teams defeated the two perimeter teams. Then in the final, arguably the stronger frontcourt team (LSU) advanced.
Metrodome Regional: Here, the two best frontcourt teams arguably played each other in the Sweet 16 (Florida and Georgetown), while two teams with more reliance on perimeter shooting (BC and Villanova) played in a terrible game filled with horrible shooting. Arguably BC was more of a frontcourt team than 'Nova, and the fact the game was close (and BC was leading most of the game) despite Villanova's supposed superiority might hint at the theory being correct. In the Elite 8 matchup, Villanova shot terribly and Florida dominated the frontcourt, leading to a big win for the Gators.

RCA Dome (First and Second Rounds): These are a little harder to review because the seeds are a little more disparate. Kentucky and Illinois advanced, but both were prohibitive favorites to begin with. Illinois was a guard dominated team, but they also were the #1 overall seed going into the tournament. Kentucky was a perfect example of a strong frontcourt team, with Chuck Hayes, Kelenna Azubuike and Randolph Morris as the strengths of the team
Carrier Dome Regional: The Carrier Dome isn't exactly the perfect example, since it's not that big compared to the Georgia Dome or the Metrodome and since the site hosts plenty of basketball games. North Carolina advanced out of the regional, over Wisconsin, Villanova and NC State. UNC probably can't be described as a "frontcourt team" because they basically had stars at every position. At the same time though, Sean May's dominance cannot be disregarded. Wisconsin in 2005 had a dominant frontcourt and weak guard play, but they advanced anyway. Villanova was guard heavy but lost (in a really close game to UNC though - but Villanova has had plenty of experience playing in the Carrier Dome). NC State had weak frontcourt play and their best player was a guard, and they lost. So basically, the theory holds somewhat true here.
Edwards James Dome (Final Four): UNC over Illinois in the final, and UNC definitely had the frontcourt advantage. UNC shot over 50%, Illinois shot only 30% from 3-pt range. Illinois topped Louisville in the semi, but that matchup was between two guard heavy teams (Louisville was led by guards Taquan Dean and Francisco Garcia). UNC beat Michigan State in the semi, and Michigan State clearly didn't have the frontcourt to match up against May. So the theory would seem to hold here.

Georgia Dome Regional: Duke advanced over Xavier, Illinois and Texas. Duke had Shelden Williams, Luol Deng and Shavlik Randolph playing in the frontcourt (though they had solid guard play too). Xavier seemed to be a guard heavy team (Sato and Chalmers). Illinois also should be considered more reliant on guards. Texas also relied on their backcourt that year (Ivey and Mouton). So arguably, the team with the best forwards advanced.
Edwards James Dome Regional: Georgia Tech advanced over Kansas, Nevada and UAB. Tech won the final despite only shooting 18% from 3-pt range. Jarret Jack played amazingly, and amazingly Luke Schenscher outplayed Wayne Simien up front. Nevada had some frontcourt talent, but not enough to keep up. UAB was a run and gun team that shot less than 25% from deep. Not as clear to keep with the theory, but arguably frontcourt power was important.
Alamodome (Final Four): Connecticut topped Georgia Tech, Duke and Oklahoma State. Connecticut was led by Emeka Okafor, the best frontcourt player in the country, as well as other NBA ready forwards like Charlie Villanueva. The one point win over Duke was partially due to Duke's reliance on the 3 point shot, which they shot only 27% in this game (while Connecticut shot far fewer threes). The best frontcourt won. So the theory somewhat holds.

RCA Dome (First and Second Rounds): Kentucky and Marquette advanced, and both were the highest seeded teams. Again, this doesn't say much because of the disparity of seeds.
Metrodome Regional: Marquette, led by Dwyane Wade, topped Kentucky, Pittsburgh and Wisconsin. Wade went off in this regional, messin' around with a triple double against Kentucky, but Robert Jackson also played great up front, while Kentucky's guards Bogans and Fitch came up short. The theory works somewhat, but not the strongest evidence.
Alamodome Regional: Texas topped Michigan State, UConn and Maryland. Home court advantage, basically, for the Horns. Texas was seriously guard heavy this year though. Weak evidence for the theory.
Superdome (Final Four): Syracuse topped Kansas, Texas and Marquette. Syracuse had some solid forwards in Hakim Warrick and Carmelo Anthony, but the real evidence is in the shooting. Syracuse plays all its games in a dome, remember. And in the national title game they shot 61% from three range, while Kansas only shot 20%, taking about the same amount. Nick Collison played out of his mind to keep Kansas in the game, but the outside shooting was the difference.

Edwards James Dome (Opening Rounds): The top seeds (Kentucky and Kansas) advanced, not much here.
Carrier Dome Regional: Maryland topped UConn, Kentucky and SIU. Maryland Center Lonny Baxter was tremendous, winning MOP of the regional.
Georgia Dome (Final Four): Maryland again had great frontcourt play from Baxter and Chris Wilcox, though most remember Juan Dixon's heartwrenching story. Indiana couldn't matchup down low.

Superdome (Opening Rounds): Temple and Penn State pulled off upsets to advance. Can't find much info about these games.
Alamodome Regional: Arizona used Loren Woods and Luke Walton down low, but Jefferson and Arenas both played great too. Arizona had the best frontcourt in this regional, though Archibald for Illinois had a great regional too.
Georgia Dome Regional: Michigan State won the region using Zach Randolph and the best rebounding team in the country.
Metrodome (Final Four): Duke topped Arizona in the final, using three lottery picks in the frontcourt (Battier, Boozer, Dunleavy), but really just the best talent overall (Duhon and Jason Williams in the backcourt too). All four Final Four teams had great frontcourts.

And that's about as far as I'll go back because this has taken forever.

What does it mean? Well, I'm not ready to say it's a definite trend, but I'll say that next year when filling out the bracket, I'll make sure to look at the locations of the matchups before picking a team relying on the three to go through. And as for this weekend (playing in a dome in Indianapolis), I'd guess LSU and Florida have an advantage (plus, both played in domes last week). Of course, UCLA and George Mason both play pretty solid down low too, so who knows? But keep an eye out for this.