Friday, February 20, 2015

An NCAA Selection Process For The 21st Century

Three Top 50 wins. An RPI of 36. An SOS of 41. A 12-3 road/neutral record.

Get ready. The college basketball dialogue is about to morph into an endless string of incomplete metrics meant to summarize a team's worthiness to be one of 36 at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament.

The current selection infrastructure is ripe for mockery, though it's not the RPI's fault. That formula was designed in a different era, when computing power was some trivial fraction of what it is today. For some reason, despite endless evidence to support better metrics, the NCAA has maintained its reliance on that shortcut formula as its method of categorizing team performance for its hard-working selection committee.

Of course, all that an incomplete metric does is breed mistrust in statistics, providing people with an excuse to substitute even more flawed observational anecdotes to support whatever pre-existing biases with which they walked in the room.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Fun With My Ivy Games Database (Back to 1980)

Having recently completed my update to the Ivy Games Database, dating back to the 1979-1980 season (the start of College Basketball Reference's Simple Rating System "SRS"), I have decided to share some of the more interesting nuggets here.

From looking at the data, it is undeniable that the Ivy League is at its strongest point since the 1970s - and by a considerable margin, I might add.

Speaking of the 1970s, the Massey Ratings for college basketball extend all the way back to 1950, so my next project will be to add those 30 seasons to the database to provide for the first true comparison of league strength from the glory years to today. Even those incredible years where Penn finished in the top five of the ratings, the league as a whole still had no luck cracking the stranglehold of the top conferences that still dominate the top of the ladder today.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Luck-Adjusted College Basketball Scores: (Or How I Intend To Take Most of the Fun/Mystery/Excitement Out of Sports)

As many of you have noticed, I've been working on a new pet project recently.

It's no secret that I am an ardent opponent of attributing all of an outcome to skill when it is partially (or sometimes mostly) driven by luck. My vociferous opposition has nothing to do with a desire to argue for argument's sake, nor is it because I want to be the annoying pebble in the shoe.

The reason I care so deeply about separating luck from skill is that what I find interesting about sports is the predictive pursuit. Once you know what is luck and what is skill, you can account for both in your predictions in different ways, but failing to admit that much of what happens on the playing surface is driven by luck is essentially conceding any ability to predict outcomes with a reasonable level of accuracy.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

2014-15 Ivy Preseason Projection Uber Post

The Ivy League has quickly become a mid-major freight train.

Sure, finishing 2013-14 with the highest rank and average pythagorean winning percentage of the Pomeroy era was nice, as is Dan Hanner's 2014-15 projection of the Ivy as the 12th-best league in the country (which would set another record). But the most impressive part of the league is how its best teams closed out the campaign last season, establishing a momentum that carries far beyond Harvard, and its summer of Top 25 praise.

Five Ivy League teams made the postseason, and four of them won at least a game. Yale played all the way into April, notching four victories (including the first Ivy vs. Ivy postseason battle against Columbia) on its march to the CIT Championship Game.

All told, five Ivy teams finished among the top half of Division I, and none of those five squads returns less than 60 percent of its minutes from last season. In fact, Columbia brings back everyone, Brown loses "just" four-year starter and perennial All-Ivy guard Sean McGonagill and Yale's only significant loss is Brandon Sherrod, who has reminded us all of the true nature of the Ivy experience by taking a year off to pursue his passion of a cappella - something with which I can't argue, given that I've watched Pitch Perfect about a billion times.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Ivy League's RPI Problem

That simple formula, born in 1981, remains the most influential tool in college basketball today.

If you don't agree, just ask SMU or Utah. Each of those two teams came into Selection Sunday with a body of work that would have merited a seed in the 7-9 range, according to Vegas, which hopefully most will agree retains expert status in judging team quality.

Due to a pair of legitimately awful non-conference schedules, however, SMU became 2014's biggest snub, while Utah didn't really get serious consideration at all. Both the Mustangs and Utes would have been solid favorites over multiple at large teams (NC State, UMass and Colorado come to mind), but the poor scheduling dragged down their RPI, pushing SMU into the 50s and Utah all the way down to the 80s.

One might feel strongly that SMU and Utah deserved to be punished for their poor schedule strength. The problem is that the RPI isn't the best arbiter of such claims. SMU's non-conference strength of schedule ("NCSOS") checked in at 298th in Pomeroy and finished around 295th in the RPI's calculation. That area of Pomeroy's NCSOS ranking was littered with AAC teams, though. Cincinnati was just four spots ahead, and Louisville slotted in just a couple more away. In the eyes of the committee, the Bearcats and Cardinals looked nothing like SMU, as Cincinnati and Louisville had RPI NCSOS rankings of 95 and 149, respectively.

All three were deserving tournament teams, at least as far as the best available measures of team quality are concerned. Two of them played the RPI game, either knowingly or unknowingly, and sat solidly within the NCAA field, while the last was left to make a run in the NIT.

The dirty secret is that for most BCS teams, gaming or not gaming the RPI is merely the difference between being judged fairly or in a more positive light. For mid-major leagues like the Ivy, failing to consider the effects of the RPI invariably leads to a squad looking much worse than it otherwise would.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Ivy League Dynasties

The best Ivy team ever won't be this year's edition of the Crimson.

Let's just keep repeating that to counterbalance the myriad national writers who have suggested or even predicted that Harvard would go down as the best Ivy team in the league's 60-year history. The 1970s saw Penn have two different teams that finished third in the final Associated Press poll and a third which made the Final Four. When it comes to great teams and great dynasties, that Quakers run will be nearly impossible to beat, unless the Ivies get far more reasonable about their athletics admissions policies. Consider that Penn won eight out of 10 Ivy titles during that decade (making the Top 10 in an AP poll during five of those seasons), while losing one of the two times to a Princeton team that rose to No. 15 in the AP poll itself.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The 2013-14 Ivy Pre-Season Projection Uber Post

There has been an undeniably strange structure to the questions posed this offseason.

Will Harvard become the first team to win a share of four-straight Ivy titles since Penn and Princeton both accomplished the feat in the early-to-mid 1990s?

Will Harvard spend most of the year in the Top 25?

Will Harvard make a deep run in March?

Will Harvard be the best Ivy team ever?

In the world of rhetoric, these might be derisively exposed as instances of begging the question or in the world of law, potentially labeled as leading the witness. For these questions wantonly assume the conclusion to the examination undertaken in this piece - that Harvard is a lock to win the Ivy title and the only race is for spots two through eight.

No, the ultimate finding of the preseason projection model wasn't that your 2013-14 Ivy favorite is the Princeton Tigers (quite bold, Sporting News...). But the Crimson doesn't take home 100 percent of the solo titles either, nor does it even claim a share of the crown in every simulated season.

Like most stories in life, reality comes up a little short of the associated hyperbole.