"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Aged Whine

We welcome back another guest post by Dr. Blackheart.  In this version, he looks at the role experience plays in winning percentage, analyzes the experience of the Big East in comparison to previous years, and then peeks at MU (and the rest of the league) using experience.  It's yet another great writeup.

There has been a lot of fan and media attention around the down year for Big East basketball this season.  Pretty much every rating service, whether Pomeroy, Nolan, Real Time RPI, Colley or others, has the Big East Conference as only the third best conference overall.  “The Fall of the Mighty Big East” seems to be a popular theme for the critics and pundits with all the surprise outcomes and the up and down games.  Adding to the hype is all the drama around conference defections and realignment, and talk about the end of an era.

Likewise, MU fandom is equally perplexed about the team’s major scoring droughts at the start of games or halves.  Last season was about the incredible number of nail biter games decided in the last possession(s).  This season, the theme seems to be digging out of a hole to China.  Fan sentiment is equally as uneasy, despite a great Big East start for Marquette, and now major injuries are creeping in to an already limited depth team to add to the “Golden Eagle Angst Rating” (or GEAR).

As a result, I decided to put on the scuba GEAR and take a deep statistical dive to find out exactly what the heck is going on.  Chaos can be modeled after all.

“In almost everything, experience is more valuable than precept”.

Looking at various factors in Pomeroy going back in time, the one factor that stood out was “Experience”.  Pomeroy (who started measuring “Experience” in the 2006-07 season) defines this measure as:  “Uses eligibility class, weighted by minutes played.  A freshman has no years of experience, a sophomore has one year of experience, etc.”  Here is what I initially found in terms of on-court performance over the past six Big East seasons based upon segments of experience:

  • More experienced teams win more in Big East play by fifteen-plus percentage points, and by ten-plus percentage points for the total season.  This just confirms in numbers a pretty obvious fan conventional wisdom, especially in the tough grinder that is the Big East.
  • Sixty-nine percent of the inexperienced teams had .500 or less BE seasons, confirming that experience can trump young potential.
  • Only six of the average to more experienced teams had overall losing total season records.
  • While the correlation of experience to winning is positive, it isn’t universally conclusive.  The 2010-11 National and Big East Tournament Champion, UConn, was the 322th most experienced team, but they did finish just .500 in BE play.  Talent like Kemba Walker helps to settle the young troops as they become more big game experienced, but the lack of the experienced Walker this season has resulted in a UConn slide to date.  Last season’s UConn’s finish was the exception though (although not rare, as talent can triumph).
Historical Conference Perspective

After verifying the overall value of experience, the next step was to provide historical context to confirm or deny current fan and media sentiment around the Big East Conference.  The following table looks at the average Big East… 1) Pomeroy conference ranking, 2) KPom’s average BE team’s experience level, 3) the average BE team’s national experience ranking, and 4) the number of BE’s teams at or above the national average in terms of experience.

  • To debunk a myth, the Big East has historically been ranked as the third best overall conference, mainly because of the statistical limitations with its large number of teams.  This season is no different.
  • What’s very different, which is the crux of this piece, is that the Big East has always been known for its elite top teams.  However, if experience is indeed one of a handful of success factors, then the BE is indeed down this year.
  • There is only one team, Louisville, who has more experience than the average national team.  Last season there were 11 teams high on experience who knew and had played in the Big East wash cycle.  That explains a lot.
  • More so, the average BE team level of experience is the lowest ever measured, basically in virgin territory — or about 17% less experienced than the previous low and 41% less experienced than last season.  Wow!
Old Man Marquette?

The outlook for Marquette based on experience helps explain their success to date, in that they are tied with Syracuse as the second most experienced team in the Big East.  However, this is also Marquette’s second youngest Big East team in measured times -- with only the 2006-07 team being younger.  This relative inexperience can help explain the scoring droughts as the team struggles to gather its offensive sea legs during game spurts this season.
  • The inconsistent struggles of teams like UCONN, West Virginia and Seton Hall are easily seen in the lower experience levels.  
  • You can also see that teams like Notre Dame and South Florida are rising to the top of the middle parity group and have chances at more favorable than expected seasons.  
  • Villanova, Providence, Rutgers and St. Johns will continue to struggle despite their young talent, but will continue to show the signs of their upside.  
  • Pittsburgh, with the return of their point guard, has the opportunity to continue their recent run after a horrid BE start.  Louisville has been hampered by injuries but an observer can easily see why they are playing more consistently as players return.  Georgetown has a blend of young and old, but that can explain also their highs and lows.
The outlook is for more parity within the conference, making the Big East the NFL of college basketball.  While the more experienced teams like Marquette and Syracuse may have bumps in the road as they are still very young  (and may also be hampered by injuries and other factors like Melo with academics), they are the ones who will be the winners because of upperclass leadership and overall match-up depth.  Watch out for Pittsburgh and Louisville to make season end runs as they get healthy.  The Big East is down in experience, but the wild ride seen every year will continue—just in different ways.  And, like fine wine, if given the right conditions and time, the teams of the Big East will be full-bodied by season’s end just like UConn last season.

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