Is This Year's Statistical March Madness Darling Made Of Sabermetric Fool's Gold?
Florida's players might have done a little too well in Stats 101.
Every year in March Madness there's a team or two that becomes a popular dark-horse pick because they lost more games than they probably should have in the regular season. These teams have excellent defenses and offenses; they rebound and don't turn the ball over. On average, they've outscored their opponents by a significant margin in each game. But they've lost a few close ones here and there, and their record looks mediocre. Whether you pick them usually comes down to whether you believe the numbers have them pegged properly or, conversely, that there's an inherent weakness in their game that the numbers aren't seeing. This year's most-debated team of this sort is Florida. But there might be something unique about Florida compared with dark horses past. Most athletes don't pay much attention to advanced stats, and even coaches who study them closely tend to do so on an abstract level. There's evidence, though, that this year's Florida players are, in fact, "skewing" their own statistics on purpose — that they're actually self-conscious about their own statistical performance, play-to-play, in a way that might be screwing with brackets all over the country.
Let's back up a bit, to Ken Pomeroy. Pomeroy is a meteorologist from Utah who runs the most influential college basketball statistics website. As his site has become increasingly popular, one of the central observations underlying his rankings — that a team's unfiltered points and points-allowed numbers can be misleading because they don't account for the speed at which a team plays — has become fairly widely accepted. There aren't a lot of people anymore who get tricked into thinking that a given team is good at defense just because they play really slow and their opponents just don't take enough shots to run up high scores.
One prominent Pomeroy believer is Florida coach and two-time NCAA champ Billy Donovan. Donovan says he's always followed advanced statistics, but according to a recent piece in ESPN The Magazine, he's recently taken his use of stats up a level by making "defensive efficiency rating" an explicit goal for his players. (Defensive efficiency = how many points, on average, a team gives up to its opponents per possession.) Donovan has an assistant keep a running track of the team's "DER" during games and lets his players know how they're doing at halftime. ESPN's writer watches Donovan become angry at a player for a defensive lapse that cuts the team's lead from 17 to 15 in a game against South Carolina, which they'd eventually win by 41 points; the implication is that the coach stays vigilant about his team's numbers even with a comfortable lead — and that his players know it.
And now the NCAA Tournament has come around, and Billy Donovan's Gators are seed third in the South regional — and at the top of every stats guru's list of teams underrated by the selection committee. Florida's final AP ranking was 14; they lost seven games in a down year for their conference, and were 0–6 in games decided by single digits. But Ken Pomeroy, using efficiency stats, has them as the best team in the country, while Nate Silver thinks they're the third-most likely team to win the championship. BuzzFeed's own statistically driven piece noted that Silver gives the Gators a 37% chance of making the Final Four, but only 17% of the users who've filled out ESPN's bracket have picked them to get to that spot.
In fact, a little bit of a mini-ruckus has broken out in the online college basketball world over Florida; Sports Illustrated's Seth Davis and The Sporting News have slagged them, with Pomeroy and the aforementioned Big Lead contributor coming to the Donovannaires' defense. On one hand, you've got critics saying Florida's efficiency numbers belie their flakiness — that they're a talented team who can really pour it on when they're clicking but have a tendency to choke in close games and can't win on the road. On the other hand, you've got defenders saying, "Well, our numbers are pretty reliably on the money, and it's almost impossible to find statistical evidence that teams really 'choke' consistently as opposed to just having runs of bad luck, so [shrugs, counts money earned by betting on a statistically dominant but allegedly flaky Duke team to win the tournament in 2010]."
But isn't it possible, given the evidence of ESPN's article, that Florida's overall statistical dominance and propensity to win blowouts is not due to exceptional intrinsic talent — but rather evidence of knowing that their coach really cares about their margin of victory? Think of it this way: You're a Florida player who's got a 30-point lead in that aforementioned South Carolina game. You know you're going to win. You'd like to take it easy, play out the game with restraint, try not to get hurt or get in a fight. But look at the bench, and there's one guy over there in a suit and tie literally calculating your defensive efficiency by the second; your head coach keeps going over and talking to him; your head coach's eyes bug out of his skull when someone fails to contest a shot at the rim and the lead gets cut from 30 to 28. This individual, the head coach, Billy Donovan, basically has complete freedom to make your life miserable if he so chooses. Are you going to play harder in that situation than you might for another coach, one who believes there's not much to learn from the precise score of blowouts, who uses these occasions to give some low-stakes minutes to inexperienced underclassmen, or as an opportunity to let a player who's recovering from injury work himself back into game shape, or to give the walk-ons a chance to play in front of their parents?
I know what I would do in that situation: I'd do anything I could to try to please the guy who renews my scholarship and decides whether I have to run wind sprints at 6 in the morning. And maybe Florida's tendency to win big when they do win is evidence that their players make the same choice.
NBA writers like ESPN's Tom Haberstroh have started to notice that the Miami Heat play like a pretty decent team most of the time, and then an all-time dominant beast-mode behemoth when a game is within five points with under five minutes to play. It's statistical evidence that they can flip the proverbial switch, staying even for most of the game and conserving energy, then pulling away for the W. It seems possible, given what we know about Donovan, that Florida is a team that never turns that switch off — that they're a pretty good team that's had some bad luck in close games but isn't quite the diamond in the rough that their raw numbers might suggest. Does Florida have its thumb on the Nate Silver scale? It's hard to say from outside the program — but your bracket's life might very well depend on the answer.