Thursday, April 22, 2010

...And at #25

(Note: AP is not a big NFL draft-nik, but tonight's event attracted attention, because of the range of opinions around Florida QB Tim Tebow.)

The Denver Broncos picked Tim Tebow in the first round -- at #25 -- well ahead of where almost every observer expected him to be.

On ESPN, Tom Jackson (a former Bronco himself) was literally speechless -- staring blankly into the camera in the moments after the pick was announced. Even ten minutes later (when he had presumably found his voice), Jackson was saying "it's a question whether he will ever play at all."

Mel Kiper Jr. blasted the pick on a talent basis, saying in effect, that even though he may be a great kid, the skill level is not high enough, and his (flawed) throwing motion will mean an unsuccessful NFL career.

Whether Tebow can be a Pro Bowl quarterback in the NFL is an open question. But it's pretty safe bet that Tebow will never be in an Associated Press story that contains the words: "Member of the Denver Broncos arrested early Sunday morning..."

Here's what Denver gets: a good all-around athlete (who, by the way, dominated the best football conference in the country in college), who is now playing with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove to every scout, GM, and fan who doubted him. There are worse combinations.

And there is this Inconvenient Truth: drafting a QB in the first round is clearly a crap-shoot. And if you don't believe that, here are the names of a few of the QBs selected in just the top three picks in the first round in the last dozen years:
Tim Couch
JaMarcus Russell
Ryan Leaf
Akili Smith
Joey Harrington

Ummm....oh, and the jury is still out on Vince Young, who was also a "top 3".

Could Tebow be a bust a #24?


But will he be a worse choice than Leaf (#3 overall) or Russell (#1 overall) or the others in the List of Shame?


The "best and the brightest" in the NFL came up with those choices. Generally, the experts (like Kiper) looooooooooved those picks when they were made. And all of them were busts that handicapped their respective franchises for years, if not close to a decade.

Which brings us to our point for all the so-called experts (which, ironically, involves another professional sports franchise):

If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.

Will You Still Need Me, Will You Still Feed Me...When I'm 68?

The NCAA expanded its Men's Basketball field to...68 teams today.

The surprising news comes after a winter when it seemed almost sure that the expansion would be all the way to 96, allowing the top eight seeds in each region a Bye in the first round, adding a full round for seeds 9-24, and meaning wall-to-wall college basketball for six straight nights.

As part of the new deal, CBS will share coverage with Turner, meaning that every single game will be available somewhere on the dial. Or, perhaps more appropriate, at some triple-digit number on your cable box.

As Deadspin's Dashiell Bennett points out, it seems that -- shockingly -- the NCAA listened to the criticism that was levelled in the month of March: the tournament worked as-is, the expansion would water down the regular season, and so forth. Three more at-large bids will (almost surely) be awarded, but the tournament will have the same look-and-feel, albeit with four "play-in" games on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.

But Bennett is wrong in one respect when he writes the following:
The field will expand to 68 teams, which means (presumably) that all four 16-seeds will now be determined by play-in game, making the possibility of a 16-over-1 upset even more improbable than it already is...

The expansion of the play-in games means that the worst eight automatic qualifiers will play the 16A/16B games for the right to play the #1-seeds. But assuming that the Tournament Committee seeds teams correctly(*), that means that the #16A teams will be advancing; in years past those teams were also known as "#15 seeds."

(*)-The seeding this year was especially problematic, as was widely observed, especially regard to eventual champion Duke's path to the Final Four, and games such as Temple (5)/Cornell (12).

For example, here are the "weakest" four teams in the 2009(**) bracket, together with actual (post-season) KenPom rating:

Chattanoga (16), 226
Alabama State (16B), 209
Radford (16), 188
Binghampton (15), 165 (***)

Average Rating: 197, or slightly below the median of 344 Division I teams

Here are the next four weakest:

Morehead State (16A - play-in winner) 150
Morgan State (15) 148
Robert Morris (15), 118
East Tenn St (16), 111

Average Rating: 132, or close to top one-third of all D-I teams

(**) - Using the 2009 to avoid the seeding problems in this year's tournament.
(***) - Of course, the Committee still mis-seeded Morehead State. (For the record, the other 2009 15-seed was Cal St Northridge (99 KenPom), who played tough against #2 Memphis, before falling 81-70.)

Thus, the #1-seeds will be playing a team that is -- on average -- sixty places higher on the rankings than they would in the traditional 64-team field.

Slicing the data another way (and perhaps accounting for mis-seeds), here are the averages for the five #16- and four #15-seeds:

#16-seeds: 177
#15-seeds: 132

Closer, but still a material improvement, assuming that the better teams wins the play-in game(s).

Some will counter that the short rest will make the #16's road even tougher. (The play-in game winners will have to play the #1 seeds two days after the opening round games, while the #1 seeds have a week to prepare.) But conference tournaments are rife with low-seeded teams who play on consecutive nights and beat higher-ranked opponents who have had a bye. For instance, in the Big East just this year, #8 Georgetown beat #1 Syracuse; #5 Marquette beat #4 Villanova, #7 ND beat #2 Pitt, and #11 Cincy beat #6 Louisville; in each of those games, the lower ranked team played back-to-back against a rested opponent.

The bottom line: the #1 seeds will be playing materially better teams.

And that makes the chances of a #16 beating a #1 much higher, no matter how you slice it.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Book Ends

The national championship won by Duke on Monday had a feel of wistfulness. Once upon a time, Duke was the up-and-coming college basketball program, looking to break through with its first national title. The break-through happened in 1991, when Duke upended a powerful UNLV team in the semis, and beat traditional power Kansas in the Finals.

This time it was a young Butler team that came out of nowhere to reach Monday night's game. In just seven years Bulldog coach Brad Stevens went from representing Eli Lilly to trading (coaching) punches with a Hall-of-Famer.

But in the end, Coach K won his (and the school's) fourth title, although the current Blue Devils -- with no clear-cut NBA prospects -- are a far cry from the first national title team, which featured three NBA first-round draft choices (Bobby Hurley (#7 overall); Christian Laettner (#3); and Grant Hill (also #3 overall.))

In another way, Monday's game harkened back to that 1991-1992 team. After winning in 1991, the Blue Devils returned all the key pieces, and seemed poised to advance to a third consecutive Final Four. But in the regional final, Duke played Kentucky in what many consider the finest college basketball game ever.

The overtime game ended with a baseball pass from Grant Hill to Christian Laettner, and Laettner's turn-around jumper from 15 feet. By double-teaming Laettner, rather than putting a man on the ball, Kentucky coach Rick Pitino became a cautionary tale for coaches: don't leave the in-bounds passer un-bothered.

Almost twenty years later, Coach K almost became his own cautionary tale. By having center Brian Zoubek intentionally miss the second foul shot with a two-point lead with 3.6 seconds remaining, Coach K risked the unthinkable: Butler's Gordon Hayward would have won the title if his half-court heave had been a quarter-of-an-inch lower on the backboard.

This morning, Coach K went on the radio and defended his decision, saying that Duke's foul situation meant that overtime was "not an alternative."

Apparently Duke's Lance Thomas and Zoubek were much more valuable in Coach K's mind than they appeared on the floor: while they both had 4 fouls, no other Blue Devil had more than 3. Butler, in contrast, had both of its centers with four fouls, with C Matt Howard being hampered by foul trouble all night.

A better test: see how many college coaches instruct their players to miss foul shots intentionally next year.

The guess here: about as many as will allow a passer to be un-guarded.