When statistical analysis is discussed in sports, baseball is almost always the subject. Just think of how small Alan Schwarz's book would be if he did a follow-up to The Numbers Game and it was about all the other sports. I don't envy the job Aaron Schatz and the guys at Pro Football Outsiders have trying to make gridiron stats understandable to the layman. On the other hand, basketball seems ripe for deeper statistical understanding, as most college and pro teams appear about 20 years behind baseball in this category.
The work of John Hollinger and Dean Oliver have helped push hoops into the 21st Century, but outside of the Seattle Supersonics, it's not apparent that stats have much to do with how teams fill rosters or who ends up on the floor. While there has been a mad dash by math geeks to crunch baseball numbers, hoping for some small internet acclaim among their peers, I would argue at this point that basketball would provide the best chance to come up with a new statistical approach that could truly affect the game.
One blogger who is doing some really interesting things with stats is Ryan Kobliska at Hawkeye Hoops. I initially discovered Ryan, while searching for some info on my alma mater, the University of Iowa. While reading his stuff, I was extremely impressed with the information he had come up with, but was a little shy to tout him to others as I was worried I might be a bit biased, being a fellow Hawk. Well, after the top stats hoop blogger, Ken Pomeroy had mentioned similar feelings about Ryan, I decided my initial instincts were right. So the following is an interview I did with Ryan last week.
(Oh and by the way, Bryan Smith at Baseball Analysts also is/was a student at U of Iowa, so maybe the vaunted Writer's Workshop in Iowa City should add a sabermetrical wing.)
Scott: What was the initial impetus in starting Hawkeye Hoops?
I've been a Minnesota Twins for as long as I can remember. Their resurgence a few years ago had me seeking new information on the team, and I eventually stumbled across Aaron Gleeman's baseball blog. His writing was refreshing and so much more informative than the standard newspaper coverage, and it led me to a lot of other great writers. I initially wanted to start my own baseball blog, but the abundance of outstanding blogs, especially those dedicated to the Twins, discouraged me. I turned my focus to my other favorite sport, college basketball. There were so few people writing about the sport that I figured I had a better chance of at least being read by a few people.
Scott: Could you briefly explain the stats you focus on in evaluating teams?
I start by determining how many points the team scores and allows per possession, or its offensive and defensive efficiency. Then I break those down into Dean Oliver's Four Factors to determine what strengths and weaknesses are determining their performance level. Dean's Four Factors are shooting effectiveness (eFG%), turnover percentage, offensive rebounding, and free throw frequency (FTA/FGA).
Scott: Who are the influences that have inspired you to explore basketball through statistics?
The baseball writers I followed aroused my curiosity and got me to think about sports in a new way, but it wasn't until I read Dean Oliver's Basketball On Paper that I became so interested in the statistical angle. I also read and learned quite a bit from John Hollinger's Pro Basketball Forecast books. Finally, I found Ken Pomeroy's college basketball blog more interesting than anyone else's writing, so I tried to follow his approach.
Scott: Growing up, did you follow sabermetrical approaches in baseball? If so, who did you read?
Like I said earlier, Aaron Gleeman was my first exposure to the newer baseball analysis, and that was only a few years ago. Soon I was immersed in the writings of guys like Bill James, the crew at Baseball Prospectus, Rob Neyer, and John Sickels, among many others. Though I was on the standard tight college student budget when Moneyball came out, I finished it in a couple sittings at the local Barnes & Noble. I loved the way each of these guys asked questions new questions (and sought answers) instead of accepting the old traditions and assumptions.
Scott: What is your National Pre-season Top 25?
I'm participating in a Top 30 poll whose voters are basketball bloggers. You can see my initial top 30 here.
Scott: Who is your sleeper to make the Sweet 16?
I really like Ohio State this year. They were already a tournament-quality team last year, and the two players they lost (Tony Stockman and Brandon Fuss-Cheatham) were the weakest links in their offense anyway. Further, they replaced them with two talented guards. The team's interior depth is a concern, but their deep collection of shooters and perimeter-oriented style could fuel a breakout offense.
Scott: What is your first college basketball memory?
My oldest memories are from the early 90s when Acie Earl played. In particular, I remember crying when Chris Street died, then watching the team's next game at Michigan State. Iowa fought back from a big second half deficit to force overtime and eventually won the game. I might not have understood the full magnitude of the situation back then, but it was a very emotional night for the team and the fan base. I have that game on tape and still watch it about once a year.
Scott: The first game after Street died was the most emotional game I've ever witnessed, as well. For those who don't know much about Street, he died in car accident right in the middle of the Big 10 season.(snow truck hit him) Street was a 100% effort guy, with the skills to play in the NBA. The Michigan State contest was a typical Tom Davis coached game, where the full-court press starts to rattle the opponent in the 2nd half and a large deficit is wiped out. Great memory. Okay, who is your favorite team of all-time?
I was raised as a Hawkeye, so they probably win by default. Outside of them, I like to keep up with Oregon. I first noticed the Ducks through my interest in their cross country and track program, and adopted them after my sister moved to the state. The trio of Fred Jones, Luke Jackson, and Luke Ridnour on their Elite Eight team was very entertaining. I was lucky enough to see a game at McArthur Court last December it's hard to imagine many other basketball facilities could match that atmosphere, and I wish more teams still played in old gyms like that.
Scott: Who is your favorite player of all-time?
I loved Acie Earl because he was the star of the teams I watched while growing up. He was the go-to-guy on offense, and on defense he could always bail out his teammates with his prolific shot blocking. It's hard to imagine him being displaced from my top spot anymore, because I try to be objective in most of my analysis, and that leads to some emotional detachment from the teams and players. Adam Morrison's moustache might win me over this year, though.
I also really liked Andre Woolridge. His passing was so creative, and he could put the team on his back and take over a game if he needed too. I'm sure I would've liked B.J. Armstrong and Ronnie Lester if I ever had the chance to see them play.
Scott: Woolridge is my favorite Hawk as well. How many complete NBA games do you watch per season?
Game Seven of the Finals was the only game I watched from start to finish last year. I grew up as a Bulls fan, so I used to watch Jordan and the gang every chance I got, but I really lost interest when the Bulls went through that stretch with Tim Floyd. Now there are so many college games on TV every night that there's no reason to resort to watching professional basketball.
Scott: Who is your favorite college basketball analyst?
I read Ken Pomeroy's blog every day because it possesses that intelligence and myth-busting style that initially drew me to so many sabermetrically-inclined baseball writers. I like his writing because it so frequently teaches you something new, or at least gives you a new perspective.
As for TV guys, I really enjoy games with Rick Majerus behind the microphone. The self-deprecating humor is fun, but he also adds intelligent insight from his years of successful coaching.
Scott: Who do you find hotter, Erin Andrews or Stacey Dale-Schulman?
I actually had to Google the latter, so I'll take Andrews.
Scott: I would like to Google either one of them. Thanks again Ryan. Make sure to check his stuff out at Hawkeyehoops.com