Category Archives: College Sports

Michigan: Destined for an early exit?

Michigan is my favorite college basketball team, and for the first time in awhile, they are threatening to make a deep tournament run. However, they just lost three of four during a tough stretch against Indiana (L, away), Ohio State (W, home), Wisconsin (W, away), and Michigan State (W, away). I’m not writing them off — they only lost the away games — but some bad signs appeared in these games. Here’s the Game Stack for all four combined:

Mich 4 games 2-2013

Michigan looks good on turnovers, but that comes at a cost — they get crushed on free throws and two point percentage. Having watched the games, I can connect the dots for you: the Wolverines don’t drive to the hoop much against good teams. They have some great shooters who can get reasonably open (Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway, Jr.) who are happy to “settle” for jumpers.

This keeps the ball out of danger in the lane (low turnovers), but it means that Michigan never gets to the line and shoots a lower percentage on twos as well. Michigan also rebounds a lower percentage of their own misses than the opponent, which could be related — a lot of “second chances” are just put-backs after a shot close to the hoop.

So, is Michigan sunk? We’ll see. I have some faith that Mitch McGary can improve and find some high percentage twos down low, but right now, Michigan is probably not efficient enough offensively and not good enough on the boards to compete with the best teams in the country. I would worry less about four games if the problem was just poor shooting in a small sample, but the problem seems to be about playing style against good defenses. I don’t think that’s going to change.

If you’re interested, here are the Game Stacks for all four games. The trends I discussed are pretty consistent across the games:

Michigan at Indiana 2-2-2013 Ohio State at Michigan 2-5-2013

Michigan at Wisconsin 2-9-2013 Michigan at Michigan State 2-12-2013

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Basketball Stacks part 2: Rebounding

Yesterday, I posted a new idea for visualizing box scores: Game Stacks. While the first version did a good job of showing shooting percentages and turnover rates, it didn’t do a good job on rebounds. As my pops pointed out, Indiana had a big rebounding advantage over Michigan by the basic numbers (36-22), so it seemed wrong to rely only on the height of the stacks to determine who rebounded better. The reality: Michigan got more chances not because they rebounded better, but because they had more misses — and you have to miss to get a second chance. The height of the stacks just showed that Michigan got more offensive rebounds, even though their rebounding rate was terrible.

So, round two. Here’s the Michigan-Indiana Game Stack redesigned to capture rebounding:

Michigan at Indiana 2-2-2013

Without play by play data, I had to keep the rebounding simple — I figured out the offensive rebound rate for each team:

Off reb rate = your off rebs/(their def rebs + your off rebs).

Then, I multiplied this rate by the relevant number of shots to generate the “Missed (O Reb)” category for each type of shot (the dashed regions). Each dashed/empty combo now visualizes the offensive rebound rate for the relevant team.

Now the picture is clearer:

Visualization: Basketball Game Stacks

Note: On my dad’s advice, I posted another version of the Game Stacks that depicts rebounding rates, rather than just total offensive rebounds. The discussion in this post is a little naive on that point — the new version yields a better analysis of rebounding.

I have a general hang up when looking at the box score for basketball (or listening to announcers list off statistics). I see some rebounding numbers, but I can’t tell who rebounded better without offensive and defensive breakdowns, plus the number of shots missed by each team. And I see shooting percentages and shot attempts, but it’s hard to put it all together into how a team got its points.

I realized that what I really want to see is not complicated. Here’s the list:

  • What each team did with their scoring chances:
    • Two point attempts
    • Three point attempts
    • Free throw trips (2 attempts)
    • Turnovers
  • Efficiency on each type of shot
  • Rebounding advantage in terms of extra scoring chances
  • And, of course, total score

All these stats exist, but there should be an easy way to see all of it at once and get a sense for how the game was won. Here’s my first try, the Game Stack:

Michigan at Indiana 2-2-2013

The picture shows total “plays,” or chances to score, for each team, and total points, broken down by type. In a quick glance, you can see that Indiana was out-rebounded (Michigan got three more chances to score) and turned the ball over a ton. However, on just over 60 non-turnover plays, the Hoosiers Continue reading

Ranking College Football Teams

As the college football season gets under way, my buddy Jeff and I put together a brand new college football ranking for ESPN the Magazine (insider required, in print 9/17/2012). We started with ESPN’s pro franchise ultimate standings as a template, and tried to make things as quantitative as we could to make the ranking defensible. We’ve inspired some feedback already. The SEC does well of course but didn’t land the number one team — check it out if you get the chance!

Adrian the Canadian: What’s wrong with the BCS and its successor?

I’ve made my thoughts about the BCS abundantly clear, so on the eve of the college football kickoff, I’ll let Adrian the Canadian give you a more well-reasoned critique of both the old/current system and the new one:

In case you missed it while focusing on the Olympics, Euro 2012, or MLB’s new double wild card chase,  college football’s bigwigs announced that, finally, there will be a playoff in D-I, sorry, FBS college football (starting in 2014). For those interested in the details, here’s Andy Staples. In short, it’s a four team playoff with the four teams selected by the ubiquitous “selection committee.” Now, despite what I’m about to argue, I think this is an improvement over the previous system which was corrupt, illegitimate, and, ultimately, kind of dull.  Still this system fails to identify and address the real issue with college football’s championship. The problem is not that college football does a bad job of identifying and rewarding the “best” team — it arguably does that with more frequency and reliability than any other sport in America — it’s that college football does little crown a legitimate champion. Indeed, what we want from our sports in not a system that determines the best team but one that gives us a legitimate result at the end of the season. The new college football model fails to do that.

As I’m sure Tyler will tell you, the best way to figure out a league’s “best” team is to have a sufficiently connected round-robin style tournament with a large number of rounds. In plain English, have everybody play everybody else lots. Such a system minimizes luck, randomness, and fluctuations in performance, leaving us with a relatively clear idea of who the “best” team is. Most domestic European soccer leagues follow this model, as did baseball prior to the advent of playoffs. This model doesn’t work for American football for an obvious reason: the sport is too physically taxing to play enough games. And yet, college football is pretty adept at determining who the “best” team is in any given year. Compare to the NFL: surely Alabama has a better claim to being the “best” college football team than the New York Giants do to being the best “pro-football” team. Tyler can do the analysis, but I’m willing to bet that the BCS champion correlates much more highly than the Super Bowl champion to statistical measures of team quality. However, no one complains about the Super Bowl champion or demands that the NFL change its playoff system.

The reason for this is simple; we sports fans don’t want a playoff system that determines the “best” team. What we want is a system that crowns a legitimate champion. Let’s look Continue reading

Part 2: The Return of Adrian the Canadian

Yesterday, Adrian reasserted himself on the blog with a clear proposal to reduce diving in soccer.  Today, he shows off his versatility with a response to my recent thoughts on fairness in U.S. and European professional sports leagues (written in relation to my brother Conor’s defense of talent concentration in European soccer). For a taste of the historical, economic, legal, and political, set aside 10 minutes and read on:

How long has it been? Too long, I think.  But Tyler’s recent post has compelled me to withdraw from my self-imposed hibernation and away from the stultifying process of studying for the Ontario bar exam. In short, I disagree with the capitalist/socialist, American Sports/European Sports dichotomy or, rather, I think it abstracts away from the real issue – that cartels make a heck of a lot more money than entities that exist in competition with one another. In short, the NFL and MLB are not staunch defenders of equality values; Dan Snyder and Hank Steinbrenner are not driving the train to the Finland Station.

The standard argument goes something like this: isn’t it ironic that America, land of unbridled capitalism, home of animal spirits on free and open fields, has “socialist” sports leagues that redistribute resources from winners to losers while red, socialist, pinko Europe has a free and open market for sports talent? It’s a cute argument and one that elicits a nice “hmmm…” from readers and there are certainly large elements of truth to it. American sports are, at least nominally, more redistributive, and there is a larger perception that American sports are organized more “fairly” than European sports from a competitive standpoint. Still, it’s far from clear that European sports are more aristocratic than American sports if we look at the highest levels and, more importantly, I think this distracts us from a deeper, more thorough comparison of why European sports and American sports are organized so differently.

Barcelona’s greatness is undeniable, but it’s not a greatness that has translated into a dynasty at the highest levels of competition. While Barca has been the dominant team in La Liga, it’s only won three of the last ten Champions League titles despite making each of the last ten tournaments. This means that the Champions League may not even be as “aristocratic” as the NBA:  eight different teams have won the Champions League while only six have won the NBA championship in the same span. And, unlike La Liga Continue reading

How much money are college football players worth?

A few months ago, my friend Jeff and I worked out how much University of Florida athletes are worth to the school for ESPN the Magazine. The key to our approach — in contrast to other studies — is that we looked at profits generated by each player, rather than revenue. Revenue is not so relevant if it is outrun by costs. What matters is profit (before subtracting player compensation). Profit tells you how much schools could actually pay their players.

The numbers at Florida

The short answer: the best college football players at Florida are worth millions per year, the best basketball players are worth a few hundred thousand, and all other athletes cost the school quite a bit of money. If you have ESPN insider, you can view the full article online. How much of this profit do football and basketball players see? Very little. Player compensation in the form of scholarships is between $15,000 and $50,000 per year per player at most schools. By contrast, other athletes are getting a great deal. Not only do they get a free education, but Florida spends tens of thousands more on each player to ensure that they have awesome coaching, facilities, and equipment.

Football profits across the FBS

Today, Jeff and I have a related project at ESPN, which will also appear in ESPN the Mag soon. We argue that college football players should be paid. Why? Average profit generated by FBS football players — before scholarships — is about $164,000. The average scholarship payout is just $27,000 by our estimation. So, “non-profit” schools are making an average of $137,000 in profit per player. And if that’s not enough, look at the breakdown by conference (all numbers are from the U.S. Department of Education for the 2010-2011 season):

The SEC and Big Ten are making over $300,000 per player! It’s no wonder we see recruiting scandals every year. They won’t disappear until schools are allowed to pay players closer to what they are worth.

For the curious, here’s the top 10:

Paying players is the right move

We thought about the arguments against paying Continue reading