Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Postseason Redux

Two weeks ago, I looked at NU's postseason possibilities. At 12-12 overall and 5-6 in conference, there was some enthusiasm from fans and the punditariat for Northwestern's chances to make the NIT and even the NCAA. Unfortunately, the 'Cats have dropped four straight since then, which has pretty much killed all talk of NU in the postseason as far as I can tell.

Fret not, fellow Wildcat fans, for there remains a glimmer of hope. Four wins in four days in Indianapolis, however unlikely, would guarantee NU's first-ever trip to the dance. There are also scenarios in which the 'Cats could make the CBI or possibly the NIT. I made this chart to show every possible post-B1G Tourney record and the concomitant post-season possibilities.

There are 20 possible final records for the 'Cats. I treated the last three regular season games as one lump, since I don't think it makes much difference to the postseason chances how those games play out individually. Obviously, these 20 outcomes are not equally likely. My guess is that 1-2 in the regular season and 0-1/1-1 in the B1G Tourney are the most likely finishes.

Nevertheless, I was somewhat surprised to see that there are more scenarios in which NU would likely make some postseason tournament than not. My suspicion two weeks ago was that NU had a better shot at the NCAA tourney than the NIT; I think this chart bears that out.

In summary, here's how I see NU's overall postseason possibilities.

I still think the 'Cats will be done when they leave Indy, but they still have something to play for this season. No need to pack it in and wait for next year just yet.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Which Side Are You On, Boys?

I followed the NLRB testimony of Kain Colter yesterday with great interest. My primary source was Twitter, where some (@Rohan_NU, @AlexPutt02, @TeddyGreenstein) provided pretty solid reporting while others (who I will not publicize) did not. I am 100% in support of the Northwestern players seeking union representation. If you think that college athletics are not an exploitative endeavor, particularly in the revenue sports of football and men’s basketball, please stop right now and read Taylor Branch’s essay “The Shame of College Sports”.

I’m assuming you’ve now read the piece and are up to speed on how hideous the NCAA is. There are multiple attacks on its cartel status, and I am hopeful that Northwestern football and CAPA can be one strong force in the fight for players’ rights.

If you’re looking for an excellent, fact-oriented review of yesterday’s proceedings, read Lester Munson’s recap. My goal here is to address some of the common criticisms I've on Twitter (and elsewhere) from other athletes, fans, and purported journalists.

Frequent Criticisms and Responses

I categorize some of the criticisms as irrelevant arguments that miss the point entirely and have nothing to do with whether or not football players at Northwestern are effectively employees. These can be dismissed immediately. They merit no response.
  • Football players are treated like kings.
  • What about the non-revenue sport athletes? Do they get a union?
  • These players know what the deal is and what they’re getting into.
  • Wow, Kain must have a personal vendetta against the university.

There is another class of criticisms that is closely related to the first, but it is so pernicious that it does require a response. Again, this group does nothing to address the status of the players as employees.
  • Northwestern treats its players better than other schools.
    • This is an invalid argument, because it does nothing to diminish the status of football players as employees. Simply because an employer treats its employees better than other employers does not invalidate its employees’ right to representation and a voice.
  • I’d love to have more of a say at my job, but bosses are bosses. They get the final say.
    • This doesn’t have to be true. Workers can combat this through solidarity, which is exactly what the Northwestern football players are doing. It speaks volumes about the strength of position of the ruling class in America that workers are content to deny other workers greater rights simply because they themselves do not have those rights. When workers are willing to self-oppress, the bosses really have won.
  • Gee, I’d love for my employer to pay my medical expenses.
    • If you’re injured on the job, your employer is legally obligated to pay for your medical expenses (with a few exceptions). This is worker’s compensation, and the NCAA coined the term “student-athlete” in order for its members to avoid paying out workers comp benefits. Although Northwestern often pays medical expenses for injured players, it does so not out of any binding obligation. As such, players have no guaranteed rights.

The next group of criticisms is what I would call “distractionary”. Not only do they not address the central issue of employment, they dilute the entire discourse either by focusing on minutia or by making light of the process.
  • How could he compare football to the military?
  • Oh my god! He called the NCAA a dictatorship. What a dumb choice of words.
    • Yay, semantics! Oh wait, this doesn’t disprove that players are employees either.
  • Other snarky comments: “how does he know that’s his jersey that the school is selling?”
    • Even if this is “just a joke”, it’s a pointless comment. It muddies the discussion and minimizes the importance of the players’ action.

The next major criticism is probably the most frequent one I’ve heard. It takes several forms, but they’re all essentially the same.
  • These players are ungrateful and greedy. They get a free education. Isn’t that enough? Other students would love to get that free ride. How would they like to take out loans like other students?
    • The delicious irony of this argument is that it acknowledges the compensation in exchange for work nature of playing football at Northwestern. It is not an argument against the employee status of the players at all. Furthermore, Northwestern’s own published financial aid materials suggest that most students receive substantial need-based scholarships from the university and that for the students who do take out student loans the average debt load after four years is $17,405. That’s not nothing, but it’s only roughly one-fourth the cost of enrollment for one year at Northwestern. Why is that relevant? Because the football players put in an enormous amount of work (50-60 hours/week often) in order not to pay tuition, and other students who do no work (especially no work that generates millions in revenues for the university) actually are not severely financially burdened. My point is that the “sweet deal” the football players get is hardly sweeter than that of the average student when you consider the amount of work done and the level of compensation received.

Then there are the arguments that seem to be at the heart of the university’s case. While these are generally germane, they are still rather flimsy.
  • The players learn from football, therefore it is strictly an educational activity.
    • I learn at my job, too. It’s still work. I’m still an employee.
  • Even if the players are employees, they are simply temporary employees.
    • This suggests that the university thinks the players have a legit case. By classifying players as temporary employees, the university takes away their right to bargain collectively. It’s a clever argument, but it’s nonsense and should be terrifying to most working people. It’s nonsense, because Northwestern now gives four-year scholarships to athletes essentially guaranteeing the employment relationship for a long-term period. It’s also nonsense, because the average NFL career is 3.2 years and yet NFL players have a long-established right to collective bargaining. It should be terrifying to working people, because classifying employees as temps relieves employers of any obligation to pay benefits. This is becoming more common across America, and I would be very dismayed if my employer could sign me to a four-year contract and call me a temp.
  • A union is not the right way to address the players’ grievances.
    • Jim Phillips had this to sayNorthwestern believes that our student-athletes are not employees and collective bargaining is therefore not the appropriate method to address these concerns. However, we agree that the health and academic issues being raised by our student-athletes and others are important ones that deserve further consideration.
    • This adheres to the party line that players are not employees, but pays lip service to the validity of their concerns. These concerns are nothing new and yet Phillips’ only suggested action is “further consideration.” That’s a bullshit statement. Translated it means “yeah, we’re not going to change anything.” Changes of the magnitude that the players are seeking do not come without a fight. Neither Northwestern nor any other NCAA member will voluntarily give up its considerable advantages over the players it exploits. There is no more effective way to force real change than through concerted collective action by players. That’s what a players' union would enable.

Pete Seeger, "Which Side Are You On?"

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Postseason Prediction Post

I can’t speak for other NU fans, but I figured that the 2014 season would put NU on the NCAA bubble had Bill Carmody been still been the coach. When Jim Phillips canned Carmody and hired Chris Collins, my expectations dropped. Coaching changes generally involve some adjustments that can be difficult, and bringing in a rookie head coach to in an absolutely brutal B1G seemed foolish. When Jaren Sina requested and was granted his release, my expectations dropped a bit more. NU was now without its highest-rated signing in over a decade and without a clear back-up at point guard. When Collins spoke about his vision for NU’s style of play, my expectations dropped yet again. He spoke of an up-tempo style, and it should have been clear to any NU fan that this approach was not a sound one with the roster Collins inherited. The more I heard from Collins, the greater my skepticism grew. By the time the season started, I expected a losing record. This was not because I thought the roster was totally devoid of talent, but because Collins did not appear up to the task of winning in the B1G with the talent he was handed.

The season opening blow out win over the anemic Eastern Illinois Panthers meant nothing, but double-digit losses to every decent non-con opponent coupled with home losses to mediocre Illinois State and DePaul squads not to mention squeakers over IUPUI and Brown solidified my doubts. The conference season began with three thrashings, and I began to think this could be the worst B1G team in nearly a decade.

A defensive adjustment helped NU win five of its next seven, including three consecutive road wins. At that point, the NIT seemed like a real, though perhaps distant, possibility. One genius who actually makes a living writing about college basketball even speculated that the NCAA tourney was in play!

A quick review of NU’s non-conference record, RPI, and efficiency splits would indicate to any non-moron that NU had basically two paths to the NCAA tourney, even after the win at the barn: 1) go at least 7-1 to finish conference play with wins at both MSU and OSU and no home losses, or 2) win the B1G tourney. The first path would make NU a bubble team, I believe, but that scenario is likely out of play now with the home loss to Nebraska. The second path seems like NU’s only way to the Dance this year. More on that in a bit.

Post-Season Chances, Reality-Based Edition

There are  now four post-season tournaments featuring NCAA D1 teams: NCAA, NIT, CBI, and CIT.

The CIT website expressly states that “from the outset the idea was to invite teams that were not members of the power six or BCS conferences.” So you can cross that off the list of possibilities.

The CBI website defines the event thusly: “The 16-team field consists of teams not selected for the NCAA Tournament. Teams are invited based upon performance during their conference and non-conference schedules, as well as how well the team is playing at the end of the regular season.” Schools have had to pay to hose CBI games in the past, and only one B1G has participated in the event’s six years. That was last year’s 15-17 Purdue squad.

Most NU fans are familiar by now with the NIT. What you might not know is that teams are not required to have .500-or-above records to participate in the NIT. That rule changed in 2006, though no sub-.500 teams has been invited since then. With the auto-bids for conference regular-season champs that lose in their conference tourneys, NIT bids can actually be tough to earn, and a B1G team with a winning record cannot simply expect to make the NIT when it misses out on the NCAA.

Since this is the reality-based edition, I’m not even going to discuss the NCAA tournament here.

Ken Pomeroy projects NU to be 14-17 (7-11), which means he expects the ‘Cats to lose five of their final seven games. If that happens, then the CBI becomes the only possible post-B1G tourney destination for NU. Based on what (little) I know about the CBI, if NU wants to pay to host a game, then it probably will be able to. Considering how neglectful the university has been to the basketball program over time, and considering the absolutely pathetic attendance for the 2012 NIT game against Akron, I’m skeptical that Jim Phillips will lay out the requisite cash. On the other hand, fans do seem to be jazzed about Chris Collins—if he can get students and fans to come to an unwatchable NU-Nebraska game, he might be able to get them out for a CBI game.

Post-Season Chances, Fantasy Edition

Let’s talk NIT. One bizarre irony of this season is that many of the same folks who were dissatisfied with the best five-year stretch in NU history, which featured an unprecedented four consecutive NIT bids, are now ecstatic over the mere mention of the NIT. But the NIT is a huge stretch at this point. At a minimum, I believe that NU would need to finish the B1G tourney at .500. The most likely route to .500 for NU is: beat Minnesota, Indiana, and Penn State at home, beat Purdue on the road, and lose in the first round of the B1G tourney. With an RPI that sits at 97 today, I doubt that a .500 record would be enough. More likely, the ‘Cats need to go at least 5-2 down the stretch AND pick up a win in the B1G tournament.

If the B1G plays out according to the KenPom predictions, this is what the B1G tournament bracket will be:



Penn St.

Ohio St.

Michigan St.






With a 5-2 finish, though, NU could finish as high as fourth in the B1G. In that case, NU would have a first round bye and would find itself three wins from its first-ever NCAA bid. Since this is the fantasy edition, we can entertain such thoughts. I’m even willing to state that if NU gets to the point that it has ensured itself an NIT bid, then it may well be playing well enough to win the damn B1G tourney. In my dreams, an NCAA bid is actually more likely than an NIT bid!

Back to Reality

More likely than not, NU will end this disappointing season with a losing record and no post-season appearance. Why do I call this season a disappointment? The defense has gotten so much better. That's encouraging, right? Yes, but the offense is egregiously bad. I know the story is that Collins needs to get "his guys", but what does it say that the two best returning offensive players (Drew Crawford and Dave Sobolewski) have both had the worst years of their careers under Collins? That's not encouraging to me. Folks who think the NCAA tourney is a lock within the next two years might be disappointed.

Linkfest the 2nd – Another Post About Other Stuff

“From this skewed perspective, the 85 people who now own as much wealth as 3.5 billion people aren’t the big winners. They are instead a persecuted diaspora being exterminated by Hitler.
If that sounds absurd, that’s because it is. However, what was missed in much of the media outrage over Perkins’ letter is the fact that his sentiment isn’t new. In fact, it is altogether mundane. Indeed, as predicted by Godwin’s Law, the phenomenon known as Reductio ad Hitlerum has become the aristocracy’s standard rejoinder to both critiques of economic inequality and policy proposals that might reduce such inequality.”

“My point is not that anti-racism and anti-sexism are not good things. It is rather that they currently have nothing to do with left-wing politics, and that, insofar as they function as a substitute for it, can be a bad thing. American universities are exemplary here: they are less racist and sexist than they were 40 years ago and at the same time more elitist. The one serves as an alibi for the other: when you ask them for more equality, what they give you is more diversity. The neoliberal heart leaps up at the sound of glass ceilings shattering and at the sight of doctors, lawyers and professors of colour taking their place in the upper middle class. Whence the many corporations which pursue diversity almost as enthusiastically as they pursue profits, and proclaim over and over again not only that the two are compatible but that they have a causal connection – that diversity is good for business. But a diversified elite is not made any the less elite by its diversity and, as a response to the demand for equality, far from being left-wing politics, it is right-wing politics.”

“Piketty proposes instead that the rise in inequality reflects markets working precisely as they should: ‘This has nothing to do with a market imperfection: the more perfect the capital market, the higher’ the rate of return on capital is in comparison to the rate of growth of the economy. The higher this ratio is, the greater inequality is.”

Obamaphelia, ‘the Obama disease:’ a delusional belief that Barack Obama is a progressive, peace- and justice-oriented, liberal and even left politician and policymaker. The belief is maintained despite abundant evidence to the contrary dating to and preceding the national unveiling of the “the Obama phenomenon” in the summer of 2004.”

Proto-punk, Post-Velvets Sublimity: The Modern Lovers' "Roadrunner"

Monday, February 10, 2014

Catching Up

It’s been almost three weeks since my last post. I’ve started and then not finished a couple of long posts, the ‘Cats have played four games including two huge road wins, pundits have (nearly) declared Chris Collins’s mission accomplished, and some fans have even dared to consider NU’s NCAA tourney resume. Talking NCAAs and Northwestern in February? It’s like 2012 up in here!

I won’t bother with in-depth game recaps, but I think it’s worthwhile to post the efficiency numbers from the last four games:

Iowa 76 (1.171 PPP), NU 50 (0.771), 65 possessions, -0.40 efficiency differential
NU 65 (0.953), Wisconsin 56 (0.821), 68 possessions, +.132 efficiency differential
NU 55 (1.013 !!!!), Minnesota 54 (0.995), 54 possessions, +0.018 efficiency differential
Nebraska 53 (0.88), NU 49 (0.814), 60 possessions, -0.066 efficiency differential

For two games, NU’s offense showed some signs of life--heck, it was the offense that won the game in Minneapolis.  Those two games were bookended by two typically inept offensive performances. The defensive efficiency ranged from stellar (at Wisconsin) to atrocious (home vs. Iowa), but was more consistently good than the offense.

About the offense: It’s bad—0.86 points per possession. The “lack of shooters” explanation is not nearly enough to explain offense this abysmal, but I don’t have a more complete explanation myself. The only B1G offense that has been nearly as bad in conference play in the KenPom era was the 2004 Penn State squad that managed only 0.897 PPP. In fact, this offense is the worst in the country in conference play. There are 351 D1 teams in KenPom's rankings. 8 of them have OEff ratings below 90 in conference play.

For more on those games and NU’s efficiencies, I highly recommend Carmody Court. Now to one of the posts I had previously abandoned.

Get Lucky

About a week ago, I tweeted about NU’s KenPom luck ranking.

I found the stat interesting and thought others might, too. Some of my followers bristled.

Nick Medline’s tweet embodies what I suppose is the attitude of most fans, even those for whom the concept of “luck” isn’t anathema: I don’t care as long as my team is winning. Kevin Wallace’s subsequent tweet promulgates one of sports’ long-standing clichés: winning close games is a skill. Others offered another cliché: teams make their own luck.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that sportswriters and fans bristled at my invocation of luck. There may be many reasons for this, but I’d like to address two. First, I think they misunderstand what luck means. Second, even if you explain it to them it’s too disruptive to narratives that are comforting.

What is Luck?

The luck about which I tweeted is a very specific and relatively simple measurement. Ken Pomeroy defines it thusly:

“A measure of the deviation between a team’s actual winning percentage and what one would expect from its game-by-game efficiencies. It’s a Dean Oliver invention. Essentially, a team involved in a lot of close games should not win (or lose) all of them. Those that do will be viewed as lucky (or unlucky).”

To put it another way, teams should be about .500 in close games. A common definition of close games for basketball is two possession games, or games decided by 6 or fewer points. After its one-point win in Minneapolis, NU was 5-2 overall in such games (3-0 in B1G). That’s quite good. It’s also quite lucky. Jeff at Basketball Predictions noted:

“Just like we all predicted three weeks ago, Northwestern is in fourth place in the Big Ten. Just in the past two weeks, they've won at Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota. That said, Northwestern isn't the fourth best team in the Big Ten, or even close. The reality is that they've been pretty damn lucky to win these games. All five of their Big Ten wins have come down to the final minute, while all five losses have been blowouts. They are still last place in the Big Ten in PPP differential in conference play, at -0.13 PPP.”

He goes on to say some really nice things about the future of NU hoops and Chris Collins. You should read the whole post.

The point of this is not to say that the ‘Cats don’t deserve to win or that they haven’t played well or anything else like that. It’s just to note that the basketball gods have been kind to NU in these close games. Take the Minnesota game, for example. Tre Demps shot a horrible air ball on a non-play in NU’s final possession. (Why on earth did Drew Crawford not touch the ball at all on that possession?) The Gophers then got a very close shot and a good look at a follow-up, both of which missed. If either of those shots drops, NU loses the game. The ‘Cats played well enough to win either way, but one outcome is a win and one is a loss, and it’s basically a 50/50 situation.

How would the story change had NU lost? What you heard leading up to the Nebraska game was “won five of their last seven”, “.500 in league play”, and “won three straight road games for the first time in over 50 years”. All three statements are true and sound pretty good. If the ‘Cats get one unlucky bounce against Minnesota, then the story changes. “Won four of their last seven” doesn’t sound as good. “4-6 in league play” is the same story as last season. “Still haven’t won three straight road games in the B1G since 1960.” NU isn’t a different team in either scenario; its record would be, but its strengths and weaknesses would be identical. And yet the narrative would be dramatically different.

The thing about this kind of luck is that it usually runs out. Teams trend towards the mean over time. That means .500 in close games. Some teams have extremely lucky stretches that cover entire seasons. Take Nicholls State this year, currently #1 in KenPom’s luck ratings: The Colonels are currently 7-1 in two-possession games, including two OT wins. That’s abnormal, and so was NU’s record in close games entering the Nebraska game. With its four-point loss to the Huskers, NU has dropped to 5-3 overall/3-1 in B1G in two-possession games and fallen to 68th nationally in luck (still #1 in B1G, though). For what it’s worth, KenPom projects five of NU’s final seven games to be decided by six or fewer points. That’s five more chances for luck to creep in.

More Luck

Another major form of luck is defensive 3P%. I’ve discussed this before, and Ken Pomeroy has expounded at length on the topic. NU has been exceedingly lucky this season. I know many people want to credit the ‘Cats revamped defense with opponents’ struggles behind the arc, but I’m not buying it. I’ll need to see multiple seasons of this to be convinced otherwise. Again, I refer you to KenPom’s multi-post study of the topic; read it before you attack me for saying NU is lucky in this respect.

How lucky has NU been? I set boundaries at +/-5% of an opponent’s season 3P% for unlucky/lucky. This is not entirely arbitrary, but it does merit more examination as a threshold. This graph shows that the ‘Cats have been extremely lucky.

On the flip side, I believe that teams’ poor 2P-shooting against NU has much more to do with the ‘Cats excellent switching defense. Teams are not getting a lot of comfortable shots inside the arc, and that is accurately reflected in NU’s defensive 2P% (44.7% overall, 45% in B1G).

Even More Random Luck

Another form of luck all too familiar to long-time NU fans is the injury. This is the first season since 2009 that the ‘Cats have not lost a major player for an extended period to injury. I hesitate to say that being injury-free is lucky. It’s more that experiencing injuries to your top players is extremely unlucky.

Then there is officiating. Saturday’s game against Nebraska featured a segment with a bad goaltending call going against NU and a non-call in favor of Nebraska. In a four-point game, that’s a huge deal, and there is literally nothing NU can about it. I also think of things like odd bounces, especially the funny rebounds that just fall into an offensive player’s hands despite good rebounding position by the defense. The fact is every game is full of instances of luck. If a team plays significantly better than its opponent, then luck has a much smaller influence on the outcome of the game. As the point margin shrinks, the impact of luck becomes much larger.

This season the ‘Cats have been lucky more often than not. Unless they experience a real breakthrough on the offensive end, their slim NIT hopes hinge heavily on that luck persisting. That’s not a great position in which to be.

Here's an Awesome Song

It's your lucky day. Enjoy Richard Thompson's blisteringly sinister of the Donovan classic, "Season of the Witch".