- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Still agonizing over your bracket? Field Notes is one college hoops writer’s attempt to guide you through the process over the next couple of days. Note: Said writer may or may not have a horrendous recent tourney history, which is why he’ll rely so much on advice from others in this series. Consider it a thinking fan’s guide to the bracket.
Next up: How tempo-free stats can help.
The 2010 Elite Eight were an eclectic bunch. There were No. 1 seeds and surprises, bluebloods and upstarts, high-tempo thrillers and low-tempo grinders, and a fifth-seeded Cinderella that featured a bowl-cut-sporting NBA lottery pick and a coach that appeared to be younger than most of his players. Not to mention a dog that used Twitter.
For all their differences, though, there was one overriding on-court theme in the 2010 Elite Eight: offensive rebounding.
Of the eight teams that made it to the end of the 2010 NCAA tournament's second weekend, five (West Virginia, Kansas State, Kentucky, Duke and Michigan State) ranked among the top 10 teams in the nation in offensive rebounding rate as tracked by Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency data. A sixth team, Baylor, ranked No. 22 in the nation in the stat. Only Butler and Tennessee counted as legitimate rebound-rate outliers. In Butler's case, that was largely by choice, as the Bulldogs eschewed the offensive glass in favor of establishing the defensive shell that carried them all the way to the title game.
In other words, if you picked your bracket based on offensive rebounding rate alone last season, congratulations: you probably won your pool. At the very least, you did very well.
The question is: Should you do the same this year? If you missed out on last year's board-cleaning bumper-crop of rebounding machines, should you now get on the bandwagon once and for all? Can OR% carry you to bracket glory?
The answer: Maybe, maybe not. But OR% -- not to mention Dean Oliver's other Four Factors -- are a pretty good place to start.
In other words, if you're one of those college hoops fans that ignores tempo-free statistics ... well, don't. Tempo-free stats, and the very smart people who analyze them (Pomeroy, John Gasaway of Prospectus and ESPN Insider, and many others), are your friends.
(Frequent readers of the blog don't need a primer on tempo-free stats and the Four Factors, but in case you're one of those college hoops tourney tourists -- hi there! -- I'd advise you visit here and here for definitions and explanations. Don't worry too much about the math. Trust me, I'm terrible at math, and while I'm certainly no one's idea of a tempo-free guru, the nice thing about tempo-free stats is that they're actually really easy and intuitive. We're not doing rocket science here. Heck, we're not even calculating VORP.)
If there's one general takeaway from this bit of bracket advice, it's that. Use tempo-free stats to your advantage. They're not a magic wand, and the NCAA tournament is too crazy to abide by any numerical logic, but odds are you'll be looking up all sorts of statistics tonight and tomorrow in the hopes of gaining an advantage over your competition. If you're looking at statistics anyway, you might as well look at the most informative, reality-based numbers out there.
That's tempo-free. Tempo-free stats are, to paraphrase the immortal Dennis Green, what they sound like they are. (OK, that's not as catchy, but the spirit of Green's rant lives.) They tell you what teams do on each and every possession. That's what success college basketball is: maximizing every opportunity to put points on the board. In other words: efficiency.
You might know all this already, and you might not. You might have heard that it's helpful to "take a look" at Ken Pomeroy's rankings; maybe you already glance at KenPom while you're filling out your brackets. Good work. But Pomeroy's tempo-free data is much deeper and more nuanced than that, and you should be using that nuance to your advantage.
We hear this all the time about college basketball: It's all about matchups. Which is true. Most of the time, though, that sentence is used to describe the physical attributes of the two teams at hand. Which team is quicker? Which team is bigger and stronger? Who has the best guards? Who can stop Player X in the block? All of that stuff is important, but it's hard to quantify that unless you've watched every team in the bracket play more than once this season, and I'm betting you don't have that kind of time. Instead, take 20 minutes or so and pit each matchup in your bracket on tempo-free terms.
For example: Maybe you really like No. 11 Missouri to beat No. 6 Cincinnati in Washington D.C. Thursday. You've seen Missouri play on national TV, you know they like to press and force turnovers, and you don't think the Bearcats can handle that style. You may be right. But you should also know that Missouri is one of the worst teams on the defensive glass in the country -- the Tigers allow opponents to grab 36.1 percent of their misses, which ranks them No. 317 out of 344 teams -- while Cincinnati happens to be one of the best teams in the nation (rank: No. 10) at chasing down its own misses.
That doesn't mean Cincinnati is definitely going to win. That doesn't mean the Tigers can't force Mick Cronin's team into an unusually high number of turnovers. But it does give you some idea of what to expect. I bet that idea is more than most fans have when they see No. 6 vs. No. 11 on their bracket sheets. This applies everywhere, to every game, to every matchup. Crazy stuff happens, but that craziness is usually governed by performance.
The nice part about all this? ESPN's Bracket Predictor has each of the four factors built in, which makes examining each of these matchups much easier; you don't have to spend five hours tonight (even though you totally should, because it's not like you had anything better to do tonight; it's tourney week) going through each and every team's profile page.
But however you acquire this knowledge, the important part is that you're acquiring it all. The NCAA tournament is incredibly difficult to predict -- just ask this guy -- and no metric or statistic or stat serves as an easy this-can't-possibly-fail toy. But in the pitch-black room that is the NCAA tournament, the least you can do is bring a flashlight.
A few other caveats worth chewing on:
If you want to understand how to apply the stats you see with the games you're watching, go mind-meld with the folks at Basketball Prospectus. The dynamic between what you see and what the stats say is never as wide as you think, and Prospectus is the best place to get a dose of context with your numbers.
Do pay attention to offensive rebounding rate. As you read above, it was, shall we say, a pretty big deal last year. It had many leather-bound books, and its apartment smelled of rich mahogany. The same was true in 2009, when the Elite Eight featured four teams (Michigan State, Connecticut, Pittsburgh, North Carolina) ranked no lower than No. 21 and seven teams (that group plus Oklahoma and Villanova) that ranked no lower than No. 51 nationally in offensive rebounding rate. This makes sense: Excellent rebounding is built on more reliable traits -- style, size, strength, athleticism, intuition, determination -- and is thus usually more consistent than, say, shooting. More often than not, we see this with elite teams. The best explanation is that offensive rebounding is a great way to get easy buckets even when shots aren't falling, and thus a great way to prevent an unexpected upset in the tournament when shooters go cold.
Look for hot-shooting low seeds as your upset picks. This likewise dovetails with what we see on the court. Shooting can be unreliable in small sample sizes, but if one of your upset picks is a sneaky-good shooting team, they have a solid chance to take out a sleepy high seed in the first round. (Given the parity in this year's bracket, I'm not sure how many "upsets" will actually be upsets, but you get the idea.)
Observe style of play. Does a team play a lot of man? A lot of zone? Do they like to run or grind it out? You might think these are things you can only observe with your eyeballs, but Pomeroy actually maintains this data as well. Compare a team's pace and style with its other stats, and see if that team frequently exerts its own brand of basketball on unwitting foes. See: Butler 2010.
Don't forget luck. A team's ability isn't always measured in wins or losses. Did that team underperform its record? Or did a team lose a bunch of close games and thus receive a lower seed than it should have based on its other indicators? Be sure to dig a little deeper: Is a team's bad luck really a product of style, or a penchant for falling apart late in games? See: Illinois 2011.
And, as always, get the most up-to-date information available. The ESPN Bracket Predictor, like KenPom, provides tempo-free data over the entire course of the season, which is good, because that's the biggest sample size possible. Duh. That said, some teams' figures could be deceptive at this stage of the season. See Texas, which is ranked No. 1 overall in adjusted defensive efficiency. The Longhorns played so well on the defensive end for two months that even a recent slide wasn't enough to drop them behind Florida State, Duke, or San Diego State. But it's worth knowing that since Feb. 19's loss at Nebraska, Texas has allowed opponents to score 1.05 points per possession, well above the Longhorns' season average. How you balance late-season play vs. the total body of work is up to you. But you should balance it all the same.
Again, tempo-free isn't the be-all, end-all, and it certainly doesn't come with any guarantees attached. Given the nature of the tournament, and that dude in the cubicle who won last year's pool based on his "who has the coolest shorts" criteria, throwing darts at your bracket doesn't seem like the worst idea. But if you're the type that likes to make decisions based on as much knowledge as possible, tempo-free statistics are your buddies. Show them a little love, and they'll have your back all month long.
(Hey, now that I think about it, who does have the coolest shorts in college basketball? Texas is up there. Kansas? Ohio State? Florida? You know, maybe this could work. I'll have to get back to you on that one.)