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Monday, October 24, 2011
Kevin Stallings and the perils of sample size

By Eamonn Brennan

Back on March 17, No. 12-seed Richmond ejected No. 5-seed Vanderbilt from the NCAA tournament's round of 64. Shortly thereafter, ESPN Stats & Information sent along the following tidbit (and yes, this is why it's good to have Gmail, because I had to dig deep in the archive to find it):
With their loss to Richmond today, Vanderbilt becomes the first team to lose as a 5 seed or better in the round of 64 in three consecutive appearances.
Kevin Stallings
Kevin Stallings has turned Vanderbilt into a top-25 program, but upsets in recent NCAA tournament appearances have left a sour taste.
That stat more than any other defines Vanderbilt's program today, and for coach Kevin Stallings, that's a little bit unfair. The Commodores have done nothing but improve in the past decade; Stallings has turned a longtime doormat into a team with NBA-level talent and national title aspirations. Whatever qualms you may have about this year's Vanderbilt team -- maybe the No. 7 preseason ranking is just a tad too high for a team that is essentially the same as it was last season -- when viewed with the proper perspective, Vanderbilt under Stallings is purely a story of success.

But there is that stat, and stats like that can be embarrassing. Three consecutive first-round upsets to double-digit seeds? At some point, fans -- even fans at Vanderbilt, a school with very little tradition of basketball success -- are unsettled by the trend. They want more. And Stallings, as he candidly revealed to CBS's Gary Parrish this weekend, feels the accumulation of that pressure:
"The only thing the typical fan base cares about is how you finish, and I share the frustration with the fans," Stallings said. "There's nobody who wants to win or have better finishes than the players and the coaching staff, but [the recent losses are] not going to ruin my life because there are too many good things happening here, too many bright spots, too many success stories, and I believe these guys are having great experiences. But I will say this: It'll be greater if they have success in the NCAA tournament, and for that I feel a responsibility, and I feel a little bit of pressure."

These are the perils of the NCAA tournament. In the past three seasons the Commodores have visited the tourney -- 2008, 2010 and 2011 -- Stallings's teams were 26-8, 24-9 and 23-11, respectively. Those are very good seasons. Comparatively, they're also much better representations of Vanderbilt's success than three tournament losses could ever be. It's simple sample size. Things happen in the NCAA tournament. Sometimes the matchup is brutal -- that very talented Richmond team did go to the Sweet 16, after all. Sometimes the better team loses. There are no seven-game series, no off-nights allowed.

When fans ask questions in chats, they often ask a variation of the following: "Hey, Eamonn, what do you think about Team X this season? Can they make it to the Sweet 16/Elite Eight/Final Four?" And the answer is almost always some variation of "well, maybe." It's like criticizing Alex Rodriguez for a few bad postseason at-bats when he spent the previous five months hitting .314/.422/.645. It feels like the wrong barometer.

Unfortunately for Stallings, this is how things work. A basketball coach is judged by his successes or failures in the NCAA tournament. That's it. But coming to some large negative conclusion about Stallings' program -- or insinuating that there should be some vague "pressure" -- based on three NCAA tournament games, well, that's an awfully narrow way to define a season's success. There are shades of gray there. Why should we ignore them?