Monday, March 04, 2013

A Cameron Farewell

Tonight, Duke takes on Virginia Tech in the last home game of the season. It's senior night, and also a very special one for me. I am finishing my PhD this month and after four years of undergrad (2002-2006) and six years of grad school (2007-2013) I will unfortunately bid farewell to Duke in May. Therefore, tonight's game will be my 116th and final game in the student section at Cameron.

I thought I'd take the opportunity (and break from writing my dissertation) to reflect on the ten seasons I've been fortunate to witness. There has been a lot of greatness: six ACC championships, two Final Fours, and a National Championship. In fact, in those 115 games so far, Duke is 108-7. Here's the entire list of losses I've personally witnessed in Cameron:

Georgia Tech 2004; UNC 2006; UNC 2008; UNC 2009; Florida State 2012; Miami 2012; UNC 2012.

1. Curse you, Tyler Hansbrough. 2. The loss to FSU was also my first time witnessing a buzzer beater loss. I took it about as well as Austin Rivers did. 3. The UNC game last year is definitely the quietest I've ever heard Cameron during a game.

I realize there is quite a bit of luck involved in that record-- not only Duke's great fortune to have such a sterling record at home. My year between undergrad and graduate school also happened to be Duke's worst season since 1995 ("worst" still meaning third in the ACC and a #3 seed in the tournament). In 2005, I was studying at the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort during the spring semester. I intended to make it to as many weekend games as possible, beginning with the Virginia game in January. As I pulled into the Blue Zone parking lot that day, my 1993 Ford Taurus began smoking uncontrollably. It was pronounced dead soon after, hampering my ability to attend games such as the loss to Maryland a few weeks later. I did manage to make it up for one final game that semester, which you'll read about a little later.

I was not actually much of a college basketball fan in high school, preferring baseball and football, although I did watch the NCAA tournament. I did not even attend the first regular season game in Cameron, against Army in 2002. My friends convinced me to go to the Michigan game a week later, and I was hooked. It's interesting-- looking back, what I remember from my undergrad days are "moments," like the last seconds against UNC in 2005 or Sean Dockery's buzzer beater, or the time my friend emotionally ruined some poor Penn player for no reason (my friend was a vicious one-man version of "you let the whole team down" for the entire first half. The player, later included in a 2009 ESPN poll on the best Penn players of the decade, eventually came out of the game and didn't return.).

What I remember from grad school are "games," and I think this reflects my evolution as a basketball fan. I feel much more cerebral about basketball, (relatively) less likely to live and die by the wins and losses, and really appreciating the game. (If you do live and die by wins and losses, especially road losses, do yourself a favor and read this.) Of course, the passion is obviously still there, as anyone standing near me at the game on Saturday night can attest. So to commemorate my final hurrah, and to show the world what it's like to be a Cameron Crazy for a decade, here are the ten greatest games I've seen in Cameron!

I wanted to put a memorable non-conference, non-ACC/B1G challenge game in here, and this one takes it over the Belmont game from last year. Jimmy Baron, the son of the URI coach, hit eight of his first nine three-point attempts, and the crowd was completely bewildered. It looked as though the upset was on, three games into the season. With a minute left and URI up by two, Baron took a shot from just inside the arc that was partially blocked by Dave McClure. He passed ahead to Kyle Singler, who was fouled hard, and made both shots to tie the game. With time running out and URI down by 2, Coach K called on Singler, who fought through several screens to put pressure on Baron's final shot attempt, which clanged off the rim and out of bounds. Cameron exploded, and Duke went on to win. I managed to high-five Baron as he walked off the court past the grad student section, so I've got that going for me, which is nice.

Duke has not lost a non-conference game at home since February 22, 2000.

The first overtime game I saw in Cameron was late in my senior year. I remember my friends and I decided to make this the game we went "all out" for, and we were front-row, center court. JJ Redick was typically proficient, dropping in 36 points from all over the court. We thought we had yet another easy conference win until FSU guard Tom Calloway hit a running, off balanced 3 as time expired in regulation. I briefly thought that this had given me an actual heart attack, and a friend's mom actually texted my friend asking "Why isn't Matt jumping up and down like the rest of you?" A hearty slap on the back from another friend got me back into it. Shelden Williams gave FSU another chance by missing two free throws late in OT, but then made a stop at the other end to seal the victory. After the game, the narrative was the familiar "Duke gets all the calls" nonsense, with even the AP reporter weighing in in the recap. This particular AP writer must have never been to Cameron before, because the writeup notes "Mike Krzyzewski called a timeout in the first half simply to yell at his players, hoping to motivate them after a sluggish start" as if that isn't a thing that happens every game.

8. 1/24/2009 #2 Duke 85, Maryland 44 

Lots of players like to talk smack before coming to play in Cameron. After leading Maryland to an upset victory in Cameron in 2007, Greivis Vasquez thought he had the place figured out. In that game, he mocked the Cameron Crazies with a "cupped hand to the ear" motion that got him in trouble with the refs. Two years later, on the eve of the 2009 game, he told reporters he thought Cameron was a "second home" to him, and "I think I can find my self back there, I can't wait."

The next day, Duke handed Maryland their worst loss since 1963, going up 40-15 in the first half. Duke did not relent after the break, and came out on an 16-5 run. Then, this happened: Jon Scheyer (defensive rebound) shoots it ahead to Gerald Henderson, who immediately finds Kyle Singler beating the only guy back on defense for a dunk. Singler then steals the ball on the very next possesion, gets it ahead to Scheyer, who makes a crazy pass to Nolan Smith (probably while making a face like this). Smith simply dumps it back to Gerald Henderson, whose layup makes it 60-20 and blows the roof off the building. When Duke's got its transition game working, Cameron Indoor Stadium is indescribably loud. The Crazies followed that up with several rounds of chanting: "Nuestra casa!"

7. 2/13/2010 #7 Duke 77, Maryland 56 

Yes it is true that Maryland is not our rival. This game is here not for the opponent, but for the breakout performance that defined the future national champions. Seemingly out of nowhere, Brian Zoubek figured out that he is seven feet tall and maybe he should use that to get some rebounds. Seventeen points and sixteen rebounds later, and a college basketball legend was born. Many of my most memorable moments in Cameron are when a crowd favorite has the game of his life, and the crowd is at once confused, elated, and yelling their heads off. Duke's offense would be reinvented on the power of the offensive rebound and kick-out to three elite shooters.  Duke's fans would forever reflexively form a Z with their hands whenever they see the tallest (former) pastry shop owner in history. ZOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.

6. 3/6/2010 #4 Duke 82, UNC 50

Despite the reinvention of offense, the national title run still had some stumbling blocks. The last one was a disappointing loss at Maryland in early March, yet another road loss that caused many Duke skeptics to affirm their belief that Duke was soft. I had a different perspective, seen here in one of my very first tweets: "Luckily, Duke plays no more road games."

I've had the pleasure and fortune to see ten Duke-UNC games in Cameron, and this was by far the most cathartic. Duke made a statement with this blowout victory over UNC, erasing four years of pent up frustration over having never beaten Tyler Hansbrough in Cameron. Fueled by schadenfruede a-plenty, Duke did not lose again, cutting down the nets in Indianapolis. I think most of the credit goes to my prescient tweet-- you're welcome, Duke fans.

5. 2/9/2005 #8 Duke 71, #2 UNC 70 

By all accounts, this was one of the most competitive games I've ever attended in Cameron. UNC would go on to win the national championship. Six of the players who started in the game have had multi-year NBA careers, led by Ray Felton and JJ Redick. The game was close the entire time, and featured a last second comeback attempt similar to the one a few days ago against Miami. To be honest, I don't really remember this game for the game itself, or at least the first 39 minutes of actual game play.

I remember it for my own personal experience with this game. As mentioned, I was at the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort, and my car had been donated to the American Society for the Blind. I convinced a couple friends to drive up for the game, and the Marine Lab administration told us they would arrange with Duke Athletics to get us into the game. Importantly, this is despite the fact that we all had an invertebrate zoology exam the next morning at 9 AM. We arrived just as they were beginning to let students in, and the head line monitor had no idea we were coming. After trying unsuccessfully to convince him we weren't full of it, things looked bleak. With about 10 minutes remaining before tipoff, he got distracted by some film crew that was following him around, and we ran into Dean Sue Wasiolek, who was so excited that we made it all the way from Beaufort that she let us in! We were crushed into the back corner of Section 17 (behind UNC's bench), and could only see about 2/3 of the court.

So when JJ Redick recognized a certain play UNC was running, down one point in the closing seconds, we couldn't see what happened. We didn't see Redick contain and trap David Noel near the UNC bench. We didn't see Noel dribble the ball off his foot, out of bounds with less than a second left. We didn't see Redick quickly inbound the ball and win the game. We did see, hear, and feel the crowd explode, and the students rushed not onto the court (as erroneously stated in the recap), but out into the quad to light so very many things on fire.

We got back to Beaufort a little after 3 AM. I got an A on the exam.

As a sports fan, there are going to be times when you see an athlete at the beginning of their careers, and you have no idea what they are going to become. For example, I had no idea in 2004 that when I got Chris Paul to break focus and laugh by getting my fellow Cameron Crazies to chant "Two First Names" at him, I was messing with a future NBA All-Star. In the moment, you usually never know which of those moments are "I saw Player X When...."

I saw Kyrie Irving when he did magical things with a basketball. In the front of the graduate section, at the baseline near the visiting team's bench, Irving led Duke's offense straight at me in the first half. He made a top ten team look absolutely helpless against him. There were times when my eyes were like a NFL cameraman being faked by an effective play action. On a fast-break, Kyrie would disappear, only to reappear with the ball at the rim and a defender at his heels. The defense would try to adapt via a strategy akin to six-year-olds playing "swarm ball" soccer. Kyrie responded by bending space-time to find Nolan Smith in the corner, wide open. I was only able to see him play in four games at Cameron, and this was his masterpiece. (I make a brief cameo, along with a couple hundred of my closest friends, at 1:24 in that video)

Kyrie Irving, who dominated the NBA All-Star game this year at 21, would otherwise be a Junior at Duke.

Where to rank this game was a tough choice; if I was ranking my top ten "moments" in Cameron, then Sean Dockery's buzzer beater would be the clear #1. But in honesty, 39.97 minutes of the game were not really that good. Duke frittered away an 11 point lead with four minutes left, the supposed final dagger a tip-in basket with 1.7 seconds left. The game should have been well in hand from the #1 team in the country, at home, in a random December conference game. But that last 0.03 does carry it here to the top three. Here's what I remember:

Near the end of Duke's final timeout, both teams wandered out to take their positions for the last play. The referees were still trying to determine the exact amount of time left, and Josh McRoberts was standing on the baseline, hands on his hips. Virginia Tech was essentially already in its defensive formation, and standing right in front of where I was in the undergrad section was a completely unguarded Sean Dockery. The game recap notes that the play was supposed to go to Shelden Williams, but I watched a silent exchange between assistant coach Johnny Dawkins and McRoberts who nodded at Dockery. The pass took the Hokies by surprise, and Dockery completed the only buzzer beater win I've seen.

It was also the only time in 116 games that Duke "rushed the court" following a win. Not everybody did, and it was definitely more about joining the team in mobbing Dockery than anything about beating Virginia Tech. I was sure that this meant Duke was now destined win a national championship in my senior year. I was wrong.

2. 3/2/2013 #3 Duke 79, #5 Miami 76 3/2/2013

The buzz around the internets and talk radio shows was planted somewhere between sarcastic and serious, when they suggested that Ryan Kelly's return would be the key to Duke's season. I knew, as a stats-oriented guy, that Ryan Kelly leads Duke in Kenpom's Offense Player Rating this season, just as he did in 2012. I knew it would be a big morale boost for Ryan Kelly to return to the lineup following another disappointing road loss, to integrate into the lineup before the postseason. I did not know that Ryan Kelly would, for one night, become Larry Bird.

My phone did-- I snapped this photo when Kelly emerged from the locker room to screeching pre-game applause. Everything is a blur, except Ryan Kelly, who is so clear, it looks photoshopped. It turned out to be a metaphor for the game, another of those in which the crowd had absolutely no idea how to react. Here's an approximation of me, sometime during the second half. In addition to the stratospheric ("outrageous... ridiculous..." ~Miami coach Jim Larranaga) performance of Kelly, the level of play in the game was extremely high, especially in the first half. I'm not sure I can remember a game that was so fun to watch as a fan not just of Duke but of basketball. By the end of the game, when Ryan Kelly hit his eighth three pointer, he could only run back down the court shaking his head. I was doing the same-- simply unbelievable. As always, Duke Blue Planet put it together perfectly.

I hope it doesn't seem entirely saccharine that I list my penultimate game in Cameron as the second best I've seen. But I feel comfortable that years from now, I'll look back at the time I was lucky enough to have in a sports Mecca, and I'll close my eyes and smile. I'll be seeing waves of students with hands spread wide, undulating in unison. Showing their praise for the White Raven.


1. #5 Duke 79, #21 UNC 73 2/9/2011

There is a specific sequence of plays that absolutely ignites the crowd in Cameron. It's really difficult to describe, especially because the level of intensity is so much higher for Duke-UNC games to begin with. You've got probably more than 11,000 fans squeezed into an arena built for 9,314 (shh, don't tell the fire marshall), and half of them are students, crowded right next to the court. A hated rival jumps out to a gigantic lead, deflating the crowd just before halftime. But then there is a rally-- there usually is the Patented Duke Run™, bringing the team back into the game in the second half. The crowd is building, cheering louder after every basket, louder after every miscue by the opponent. And then there's that sequence:

10:51 UNC 54-Duke 47-- Seth Curry makes Three Point Jumper
10:18 UNC 54-Duke 50-- Justin Knox misses layup
10:10 UNC 54-Duke 50-- Seth Curry makes Jumper
9:55 UNC 54-Duke 52-- Justin Knox turnover
9:48 UNC 54-Duke 52-- Seth Curry makes Jumper

And just like that, the game is tied. Being in the student section, it no longer feels like the crowd is functioning as a set of people being entertained by a sporting event. It feels like you are part of a gigantic living organism that is absolutely losing its mind.

After Kendall Marshall hit a free throw on the next UNC possession, Nolan Smith found Ryan Kelly wide open in the corner for a three, which just may be the loudest I've ever heard it in Cameron. Duke never trailed again after that.

This game was so good that afterwards, after the bonfire we all went to a bar, paint still on our faces, and watched the entire game again.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Immaculate: Rafael Soriano

My google alert screamed this afternoon with a new hit for Immaculate Inning: this article by Gregg Found at ESPN, which mentions the 44th Immaculate Inning in Major League History. Congratulations to Rafael Soriano, the Tampa Bay Rays closer who effortlessly dispatched the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, California, USA, Earth by striking out the side on nine pitches last night. His victims were Erik Aybar, pinch hitter Mike Napoli, and Peter Bourjos.

Soriano was not the first one to throw an Immaculate Inning to end a game, which has happened eight times previously, though two ended complete games with Immaculate Innings (by Ron Guidry and Trevor Wilson). Closers, meanwhile, don't need to play the cat-and-mouse game of wasting pitches, and there is a high priority placed on not walking anyone. Therefore it makes a bit of sense that Soriano joins closers such as Jason Isringhausen by finishing off the game with nine straight strikes.

We honor the Immaculate Inning here because it serves as a type of dominance a pitcher can have over the batters in that inning, and along those lines, Soriano's feat stands out. The Rays' closer got seven swinging strikes (including one foul by Napoli) out of the nine strikes, and all three batters swung through the final pitch. Napoli's at bat was also interesting, as a pinch hitter he seemed predestined to swing-- missing wildly on breaking pitches for strikes one and three. For his part, he just missed a fastball right down the middle on Soriano's second pitch-- a few centimeters over and we're not talking about an Immaculate Inning.

Soriano picked up his league-leading 38th save for the effort, and the victory secured a tie in the AL East with the Yankees, meaning that this Immaculate Inning is one of the most "clutch" in the history of the feat, the first in nearly a year. Honestly, despite two perfect games, how could we call 2010 the Year of the Pitcher without at least one Immaculate Inning?

Finally, we'll have to agree with Found as he notes that an Immaculate Inning is "a feat with a cool-sounding moniker to match its impressiveness."

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Worst No-Hitter

Yesterday evening I was packing and decided to throw on a baseball game as background noise. Since the Yankees were playing on the West Coast, I went for the Arizona-Tampa Bay contest. I turned off the game in the third inning, after Edwin Jackson weaseled his way out of a bases-loaded jam. I thought nothing of the game until I saw on Baseball Tonight that he had thrown a no-hitter! My first thought was, is this the worst no-hitter of all time?

Jackson walked eight batters in the game, and threw a career-high 149 pitches, just 79 of them for strikes. At one point in the third inning, the Win Probability actually favored Tampa Bay, thanks to Jackson walking the bases loaded! With two outs in the ninth, Jackson walked pinch hitter Willy Aybar on four pitches, which was Aybar's seventh walk of the season. No doubt about it, Jackson pitched rather poorly and still picked up the no-no. Is it possible to have a worse no hitter than Jackson?

First of all, some ground rules: Major League Baseball defines a no-hitter as a "a game in which a pitcher, or pitchers, gives up no hits while pitching at least nine innings. A pitcher may give up a run or runs so long as he pitches nine innings or more and does not give up a hit."

This excludes some rather infamous no-hit performances, such as this one by Andy Hawkins, who allowed four (unearned) runs in a 4-0 loss while pitching for the hapless 1990 Yankees. In a baseball-reference play index search, I asked for games of 9 IP or more since 1920 with zero hits. I then sorted this list by ascending Game Score, a measure invented by Bill James to assign a single number to a starting pitchers' performance. The best nine-inning performance since 1920, according to Game Score, is Kerry Wood's 20K game in 1998, with a score of 105. The measure is very results-oriented, since it places high value on the number of innings pitched and the number of runs-- shutouts are practically guaranteed to be above 80.

Click the link for the results, which show Jackson's game last night to be the fourth-worst no-hitter on record, in Game Score. Three games tied with a game score one unit worse:

George Culver, July 29, 1968 Pitching for the Reds, his second of what would be five teams in the pre-free agency era, Culver was nothing short of mediocre in this game, for someone who pitched a no-hitter. He walked four in the game, but faced 34 batters, one of the extra men (Dick Allen) getting aboard thanks to a throwing error by third baseman Tony Perez, and reaching second on another error by shortstop Woody Woodward on the same play. Allen then reached third base on a groundout and scored on a sac-fly by Cookie Rojas.

Culver allowed another unearned baserunner in the third inning, with Phillies' starter Chris Short reaching on Catchers Interference by Pat Corrales. Culver then retired eleven straight before walking two men with two outs in the sixth, needing a strikeout to get out of that jam. Culver's final two baserunners got on via walk to open the eighth inning, but Culver induced some ground balls to get out of that one, and breezed through the ninth for the no-hitter.

Bill James calculated how likely it was for each pitcher to have thrown a no-hitter, and George Culver came out as one of the ten men least likely to have a no-no.

Ken Holtzman- August 19, 1969. Of the three no-hitters with a Game Score of 84, Holtzman's seems the most impressive. Facing Phil Neikro and staked to a 3-0 lead after the first inning, Holtzman walked just three in his no-hitter. The reason this game has such a low game score is that Holtzman struck out precisely zero hitters! Not exactly Nolan Ryan, Holtzman struck out just 5.0 per nine innings in his career, despite playing in an extremely pitcher-friendly era. Only one other no-hitter since 1920 has featured zero strikeouts, by Sad Sam Jones in 1923.

Sabermetrics has taught us in the Gospel of Three True Outcomes; that a pitcher can only (really) control three results of an at bat: a strikeout, a walk, and a home run. There are fine tunings in there, such as GB/FB rate, and his own fielding ability, but once the ball is put in play, a lot is left up to his defense. On that day in 1969, the Cubs' defense shined, and Holtzman never allowed more than one baserunner in an inning. Twelve groundouts, twelve flyouts, and three pop-outs formed an even split among the batted balls in this game. Interestingly, while giving up fly-balls tends to influence home-run rate and therefore is bad for the overall success of a pitcher, if one wants to pitch a no-hitter, a flyball is far more likely to turn into an out.

The shimmering defense was on display no finer than on the last out of the seventh inning, in which outfielder Billy Williams climbed the ivy at Wrigley to pluck a home run away from Henry Aaron. Holtzman wrote in Chicago Cubs: Memorable Stories of Cubs Baseball that the home fans were reminding him that he had a no-hitter every inning following the third (so much for jinxes!) Holtzman would go on to throw another no-hitter two years later for the Cubs, and was later elected to the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

Joe Cowley, September 19, 1986
From the box-score, this is my vote for the worst official no-hitter on record. Cowley registered seven walks (and eight strikeouts), and among the 145 no-hitters on record with Game Scores below 100, Cowley's is only one of two in which the no-no-man gave up an earned run. Much like Jackson, Cowley walked the bases loaded to start the sixth, and then gave up three straight fly balls, the second of which scored Reggie Jackson. Cowley also had two men on in the third, and like Jackson walked a man in the ninth, though this runner was erased on the game-ending double play.

In fact, Cowley threw the worst no-hiter of all time, and then never won another big league game. He lost his next six decisions and was out of baseball within a year of this game. Hopefully, Edwin Jackson can avoid this same fate.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Confessions of a Duke Alum

It is time for the truth: the reason why Duke is the #1 team in the nation is because we at the Immaculate Inning paid off Ken Pomeroy.

Since 2007, these e-pages have been graced with seemingly logical discussion of the Duke University men's basketball team. We dissect the game from various angles using the statistics-- and those stats, facts based on what happened in each game, come from one website: The obsession was so obvious that one time in 2007 the blog was briefly shut down by Google because they thought it was a spam link generator:

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Your blog has been reviewed, verified, and cleared for regular use so that
it will no longer appear as potential spam. If you sign out of Blogger and
sign back in again, you should be able to post as normal. Thanks for your
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The Blogger Team

Over the years, some have wondered how it is that mediocre Duke teams were still ranked near the top of Pomeroy's rankings. All this season, fans dismissed the rankings because "everyone knew" that Kansas, Kentucky, and Syracuse were the best teams in the land. Yet, for all but a few weeks of 2010, the Duke Blue Devils were ranked #1 on; no ranking so obviously flawed could be trusted! Well, now you know the reason; with our beloved Blue Devils trashed in the national media for being "alarmingly unathletic," and unable to compete because of our racist coach, we wanted to feel like we were the best at something.

Some of you may ask for proof, so here is the little "Christmas Present" I gave to Mr. Pomeroy. His demands were quite specific.

Most of you will not be surprised by this revelation; it is of course common knowledge that Duke receives special treatment from the NCAA, CBS, and the officials (Georgia Tech superfreshman Derick Favors said after the ACC Championship game: "It was very frustrating. We played good defense, and the referees bailed them out.") It's such common knowledge that even after six seasons of "adjustment" by the officials, keeping Duke out of the Final Four, the first explanation for Duke's trip to Indianapolis was that "Duke Gets All the Calls." Of course we do, and there's a very good reason for that too! First, the facts:

It's no secret that referees are corruptible. Tim Donaghy, who was caught wagering on the basketball games he officiated, has claimed that the problem is not an isolated one; he claims that 13 NBA officials are involved in wagering on the game. He further accuses the NBA of "turning a blind eye," because they are more interested in the money than in fairness. The distrust this has created in the casual sports fan has trickled down to mingle with the "Duke Gets All the Calls" meme; no longer is it ridiculous tinfoil hat talk. Real referees are really swayed by real cash.

It's also no secret that Duke alums make a lot of money; in 2009 USA Today ran a "payscale bracket" which picked teams based on median graduate salary. Duke won, and it wasn't close. The Duke Endowment, despite the economic downturn, is still worth nearly $3 billion. The Duke Annual Fund employs banks of undergraduates to call previous donors; this year I made a donation that the university recorded as going to "The Nicholas School of the Environment," and they even made it look good by sending me a thank you letter. All of it was done with a wink, and an understanding.

Truth #2: Every year, Duke alums make a donation to the "Referee Fund," which goes directly to the National Association of College Basketball Referees. Our sizable contribution is made with good faith understanding that it will be paid back with whistles.

We are human, though; we do feel a slight bit of guilt every time we write that check. For six years we had to sit on our hands because the officials said that it would be too obvious to hand Duke a title in 2006, so soon after the officials handed them the 2004 and 2001 Final Four runs. Many alums canceled their contributions after the Duke-UConn game in 2004, and the Duke-LSU game in 2006. It seemed that in those games, the referees were blatantly defying their loyal contributors!

Finally, we have some retribution. Handed the easiest bracket since UNC "won" the 1924 national championship by playing exactly zero postseason games, Duke sailed to the Final Four beating a couple of high school teams and your mother's quilting club. It almost wasn't enough, so the refs did have to step in and prevent Baylor from rebounding any of their (fairly frequent) missed shots. Now, we are two games away from a fourth national championship. But at what cost? We felt it was time to stand up for what was right and come clean.

To the referees in the Final Four: May you call every touch foul and carry on Duke; may every block-charge call go against us. May you clear your conscience and hand West Virginia twice as many free throws. It is your massive control over the game-- more than the coaches, more than the players themselves, you referees always decide the outcome of every game. So, in the name of justice, and as a Duke alum and current student who will be in attendance, please make West Virginia win on Saturday. Only then can we rest in peace.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

2010 NCAAT Fan Anxiety Matrix

Simulating the NCAA tournament has been pretty popular this year, although I imagine that many of the Duke haters out there are not very satisfied with the results. The results, as expected, agree with the discrete log5 projections published by Basketball Prospectus (Click the links for South, East, West, and Midwest region log5 predictions). The difference between those predictions and my simulations, is the type of data that can be pulled out of the simulations.

For instance, below is a list of the five teams that all 64 teams in the field are most likely to end their seasons against. For example, while Duke was found to win the whole tournament in 24% of simulations, who did they lose to in the other 76% of the one million simulations?

As you can see, California is the team most likely to send Duke home with a disappointing season (and give plenty of bloggers and media mouthpieces lots to puff their chests about). It's not surprising to see that Kansas is one of the top five teams to knock off Duke, since Duke averaged 3.5 wins per simulation, and got to the final game very often, as did Kansas.

We're calling this presentation the Fan Anxiety Matrix. Which team is the most likely to knock out your favorite team? The second tab of the spreadsheet above shows every team's chances of being knocked out by every other team. Click here to see the full spreadsheet.

With a focus on the ACC teams, here's some pie charts to gaze at. Maryland fans will be pleased to see that Duke has only a 2% chance of ending their season. Unfortunately, there is only a 2% chance of winning the national championship as well. The other four ACC teams have an uphill battle to make it until the second weekend (click a Fan Anxiety Index to enlarge):

Sunday, March 14, 2010

2010 NCAA Tournament Simulations

Be sure to also check out the "Fan Anxiety Matrix" Who will your team lose to this March?

The brackets are set, and so for college basketball stat nerds, that means simulations. A number have already popped up: 5000 simulations using Sagarin's predictor rating; an online tool for simulating one random bracket, using Pomeroy's statistics.

As I did last year, I take both approaches one step further: using Pomeroy's offensive and defensive efficiency ratings, and the log5 prediction method, I simulated the 2010 NCAA tournament one million times. My script tabulated the results below. (You can also access them in Google Spreadsheet form by clicking here).

Each column is a round of the tournament; each value is the percentage of the one million simulations that a team reached a given round. On the right-hand side is the average number of wins each team in the tournament had in the simulations.

Last year, hardly any first round games were likely to be upsets based on the simulation. This year is much different, thanks to several major discrepancies between Pomeroy's rankings and the seedings made by the committee. Brigham Young, in particular, is seventh overall at kenpom, while stuck in a 7-seed in this year's tournament. The best games to watch this Thursday and Friday will be the 6-11 games, as all four are slated to be near coin-flips.

The intuition here is to do a face-slap and say "Duh, the teams at the top of the Pomeroy rankings have the best chance in simulations using the Pomeroy rankings!" That dismissal would miss several key features of the simulation, and one interesting thing to do is to see how the simulations correspond to our gut instincts about the basketball matchups in each game. For example, Kentucky and Syracuse have rough roads to the national title because of very high (about 25%) chances of losing in the second round. Florida State is the culprit for Syracuse; if you combine that information with the possibility that Arinze Onuaku will not play this weekend, an FSU-Syracuse game on Sunday suddenly gets very interesting.

Kentucky could run into Texas in the second round, and the Longhorns are ranked much higher than in the RPI and by humans (both the selection committee and the polls). And while Texas has been a bit of an enigma to the national media this year, it is clear that the possess the talent to be efficient on both ends of the floor. Kentucky's road is further blocked by Wisconsin, a team actually ranked higher than the Wildcats. That Sweet Sixteen matchup would be really bruising on Kentucky's boards, as the nation's #2 offensive rebounder (Collins) takes on the Badgers' nation-best defensive rebounding squad.

The Pomeroy rankings are typically recognized as being successful post-season analysis of the teams, including the tournament games. All six NCAA champions since Pomeroy's website launched were ranked in the top two post-season, and in the top 15 for both offense and defense. However, the accuracy of the pre-tournament stats is a bit more rusty; last year the "best simulation" out of one million got 53 games right, and averaged 37 correct games. Is it a lack of complete data, a flaw in the system's ability to prognosticate, or just the general stochasticity of the NCAA tournament?

This will be a very interesting year for seeing the ability of the RPI rating system (used by the committee, and which does not include margin of victory) versus the Pomeroy rating system (which goes to the opposite extreme, including margin of victory with no cap). If the adjusted efficiencies are the more accurate predictor this tournament, then we are likely to have a mad, mad, mad, mad March.

I wanted to get the results out quickly, but I will have some further analysis in this post and others throughout the week. Thanks as always to Ken Pomeroy for his absolutely terrific website; without his stats, none of the fun simulators would exist!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

One Million ACC Tournament Simulations

One year ago, we had some fun with spreadsheets and used a number of different methods to predict the ACC Tournament. Unfortunately, the raw numbers had no way of knowing the status of Ty Lawson's ankle, so the team predicted to win about 30% of the time grabbed the title, while UNC rested for bigger fish. In the past year the number of Pomeroy Disciples has grown, and so traditional "log5" predictions of the conference tournaments can be found all across teh internets (although this one in particular, from Basketball Prospectus, is a must read).

I like to find my little niche here at the Immaculate Inning, and that means simulating the hell out of things. The method is the same as for last years' ACC tournament. This year, I used raw offensive and defensive efficiencies that were tabulated here. This means that a team did not have their stats adjusted for home games or for the strength of opponent: the only values in the stat is points scored (or allowed) per possession. Via the Pythagorean Expectation Formula (with KenPom's exponent for unadjusted efficiencies = 8.5), I calculated a team's "expected winning percentage."

To determine the chances that team A beats team B, a form of Bayes Formula is applied, which in the stat-head world has come to be known as "The log5 Method." The method could be applied to any scenario where the probability of a single outcome is desired, given the prior probability for each of two alternatives. Here, we have two teams, each with an expected winning percentage, and can calculate the probability of a .900 team beating an .800 team. If we assume that the result of each game is independent, then we can multiply probabilities together to get a team's overall probability of making a certain round.

Personally I find the method rather deterministic, in what essentially is a stochastic process. Instead, I run the tournament 1 million times and calculate the percentage of simulations n which each team makes it to each round. The results of my simulations for the 2010 ACC Tournament are below:

The spreadsheet has two tabs, one for a simulation done using stats from all games, while the other is for ACC games only. The way to read it is that each team (row) won a certain number of games (0,1,2,3, or 4) in a certain percentage of the 1 million ACC tournaments I simulated. For the top four seeds, the maximum number of wins is 3, while the other 12 teams could potentially win four games and the tournament.

Duke's chances of winning the tournament is severely if stats from the entire season are used, and they go from a near 2-to-1 favorite to not even winning a majority of simulations. Part of this has to do with the raw nature of the efficiencies; accounting for Duke's tough schedule (and it was one of the toughest in the country by most any measure: KenPom, Sagarin, RPI) would probably account for most of the discrepancy.

On the other end of the spectrum is Miami, which gained an incredibly high percentage (from 0.1% to 3.4%) because they had a highly positive efficiency margin for all games, while it was highly negative in ACC games only. The Canes played very very well against a bunch of schools I've barely heard of, followed by getting clobbered in ACC play. Their adjusted efficiency margin is still decent due to the ACC games they played, but it's hard to give the full season stats much regard in this instance.

The numbers for the ACC-only simulations differ from those seen at Basketball Prospectus; I imagine most of the differences here also have to do with using raw efficiencies rather than Pomeroy's adjusted numbers. The adjusted numbers, Pomeroy claims, are the best for predicting "the chance of beating an average D-1 team on a neutral floor." The raw numbers, then, are skewed based on home-court advantage, schedule (remember, the ACC is no longer "balanced"), and the overall strength of offenses and defenses a team faces. In particular the predictions differ in that Maryland's chances are reduced, at the expense of better chances for FSU and VPI. Both methods agree that fifth-seed Wake has one hellish path towards an ACC title; much worse than sixth-seeded Clemson's chances. Overall, it will be interesting to see whether raw or adjusted efficiencies do a better job predicting the ACC tournament.

Another advantage that these simulations have is the amount of fun I can have with the results. Below I present the "Fan Anxiety Matrix." Each cell in the Matrix represents the chances that a team (in the rows) loses in the ACC tournament to a specific team (in the columns):

So, Duke's "Fan Anxiety Matrix" says that, in the 37% of simulations when they didn't win the whole thing, the most common opponent taking down the Blue Devils was Maryland (Using the ACC stats here). Perhaps no surprise there, but then there were still 8.3% of the simulations in which the Blue Devils fell in the semi-finals to Virginia Tech. Duke's first round game is against either Boston College or Virgina, and the combined percentage of simulations in which the Blue Devils' ACC run ended against those two teams was six percent. It should be of some comfort that UNC's chances of taking down Duke (this would have to be in the finals) clocked in at a tiny 0.029%.

Looking at the matrix, Clemson's path is an interesting one. The Tigers are seeded sixth and must at least pass through NCSU and FSU to get to the semifinals; the Matrix has them losing to these teams 22.5% and 37.1%, respectively. Maryland (22.4%) and Duke (10.1%) also appear in the double-digit percentages as Clemson's final ACC foe, with the remaining 3.2% speaking for Clemson's ACC title chances.

Virginia Tech's bubble position would certainly be helped with a win in their quarterfinal matchup; things are looking up according to the simulations, which have them falling to Duke in the semifinals 50% of the time. Wake Forest has a rough road to the ACC title, as they must win Thursday versus Miami (losing %: 30.5), Friday versus Virginia Tech (39.5%), Saturday versus (with 94% probability) Duke, who accounted for a further 25% of Wake's losses in the simulations.

For posterity's sake, here are the official Immaculate Inning ACC Tournament Predictions:

Thursday winners: Virginia, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, Clemson
Friday winners: Duke, Virginia Tech, Maryland, Clemson
Saturday winners: Duke, Maryland
ACC Champion: Duke 75, Maryland 60