Monday, October 20, 2008

Interview with John Gasaway, Part One

From 2004-2007, John Gasaway was the author of the world's best blog focused on the 2004-2007 seasons of Big Ten Hoops. Since that time, John has moved to Basketball Prospectus, which has assembled a "Dream Team" of sorts for the tempo-free basketball enthusiast. On October 28, John's book (co-authored with Ken Pomeroy) will be out in stores. We've already reserved our copy, and we really think you ought to as well. It's like $15 on Amazon, and that's a pretty good bargain in today's economy.

Readers of this blog (all six of you!) have presumably noticed that this blog is inspired quite a bit by Gasaway's old site. In that vein, we have adopted one of his maxims: send us stuff and we will blog about you. Well, John was nice enough to sit down and answer a few questions about his book, the Big Ten, and college basketball in general. We'll gladly take the attention from such a tempo free celebrity.

John, thanks for joining us. Can you tell us a bit about the book? What will it feature?

I think the most important thing to note about College Basketball Prospectus 2008-2009 is that, according to, each copy weighs 1.5 pounds. That's 24 ounces of hearty Pomeroy-Gasaway hoops nutrition straight to you. Better yet, buy two copies and get three full pounds of hoops IQ enhancement. Think of it as a game-changer for your college hoops cred.

Certainly the meat in this here sandwich is the previews. Ken and I lavished about a thousand words per team on the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10, and SEC. We also worked our way through the A-10, C-USA, Missouri Valley, and Mountain West on a team-by-team basis, albeit somewhat more expeditiously. That's 115 previews give or take, at which point today's modern fan will want to close thy Pomaway and open thy Whelliston.

The bread is supplied by essays at the top and stats on the bottom. The latter are a more conference-directed sift of the indispensable knowledge that everyone's come to lean on at Ken's place. And the former are, I think, really interesting. Ken takes a look at what the new three-point line will mean and also uses play-by-play data to explode some hoary old conventional wisdom. (Should you really call timeout to ice the shooter at the line?) NBA guru Kevn Pelton considers which current college players will become the best pros. Two-sport wonder John Perrotto provides a handy overview of this year's top freshmen. Will Carroll brings his expertise to bear on one of my favorite college hoops urban legends: does it really make economic sense for the family of a one-and-done to take out an ostentatiously large insurance policy in case of injury? And I chime in with some thoughts on the one-and-done era, the overlooked yet unmistakable decline in turnovers in major-conference hoops, and what I think should be the happy marriage between disbelief and stats in college basketball.

We know Baseball Prospectus has PECOTA, and Football Prospectus has KUBIAK, what about you guys? Whatever you do, please don't name it EUSTACHY.

Glad you asked. Working furtively in Cheney-level secrecy behind Ken's back, I came up with ONGENAET (Offensive Normalized Gross Effective Net Assist Efficiency Trend), in honor of a certain lanky Belgian at Syracuse. It is poised to take the college basketball world by storm. Heated arguments will erupt this season over whether Tyler Hansbrough or Blake Griffin has a higher ONGENAET. In fact Kristof Ongenaet himself will be hounded by a gotcha mainstream media obsessed with Ongenaet's ONGENAET.

A possibility I allude to in one of my essays is that we lovers of non-baseball sports should probably cease unselfconsciously importing every trick in the sabermetric book. Stats went the furthest the soonest in baseball, of course, but that sport's endearing eccentricities far outnumber its similarities to the other major team sports. For instance, in the book I suggest that basketball is an analytic apple to other sports' oranges because of something I term "play decisiveness." There, that's a tease. Buy my book.

(Ed. Note: The same day this interview was posted, Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus introduced SCHOENE, a projection system for NBA players.)

We've talked a bit about the one-year rule. How do you think it has affected the college game?

Speaking of "buy my book," here's an excerpt:
One-and-done is often framed implicitly as a college basketball problem in need of reform when in fact it's an NBA rule of finite duration. It's here. It's not going anywhere for another three or four years until a new Collective Bargaining Agreement is signed. And then one-and-done will quite possibly be gone.

Maybe the next system will go back to the old way of doing things, where high school seniors had the option of going straight into the NBA. Or maybe the new system will require two (two-and-through!) or even three (three-and-flee!) years to have passed since high school graduation before a player can be eligible for the NBA. Whatever the new number of required years is fated to be, however, it seems probable that it will no longer be one. Meaning one-and-done is likely an interregnum. If so it will be remembered as a specific sharply delimited epoch, like John Wooden at UCLA or Larry Brown at wherever he is now.

For college basketball, the impact of one-and-done has been something of a spectacular trickle. In two seasons there have been 20 players who played just one season of college ball and were then drafted.
So in answer to your question I'll stick with "spectacular trickle" for the time being. The other thing to keep in mind about one-and-done is that its birth happened to coincide with the arrival of two successive incredible freshman classes. The conventional wisdom says this year's class, or most any year's class, won't be up to that same standard. If so, we all might be a little less freshman-fixated this season.

For my part I'll be interested to see what happens with Brandon Jennings, now playing professional ball in Rome. Will he have a good season? If not, will he be a lottery pick anyway? Will his example be followed by other recruits who, unlike Jennings, are eligible to play D-I ball?

Other than confusing perimeter players, how will the new three point line affect the college game?

Ken hits that question head-on in the book, so I won't spoil the ending here. I will say this: Luke Winn had an interesting piece over the summer that ransacked Ken's tables on offensive distribution and came to the conclusion that mid-majors that made a lot of threes last year will be hurt the most by the new line. The question I have is whether or not we might also see the exact opposite in some cases: might not a team that excelled at making shots from 19.75 feet be precisely the team best equipped to make shots from 20.75 feet? Just wondering.

OK, one more point. It bears repeating that the widespread perception that threes had "become too easy" with the old line, that today's modern player has somehow progressed to the point where the old distance was a gimme, was just that: perception. In reality three-point FG percentages have remained remarkably stable in D-I for almost 20 years. What did change over that time, of course, was the emphasis on threes: every season set a new record for three-point attempts as a percentage of FGAs.

What's your take on Pomeroy's "Luck" statistic? Is it just a fudge factor for things that aren't measured, or is it truly just the proverbial "way the ball bounces"?

The aforementioned Pomeroy would of course be the first to note that it's really Bill James's stat, honed and repurposed for our own vastly superior sport. Anyway, the problem here is with the English language, not with the stat. "Luck" is just too pejorative. When I was a kid and I'd make a good play on my baseball team, my older brother was always quick to dismiss it as pure luck. Drove me crazy, which of course was precisely the point.

Take Penn State. (Please--har!) Last year the Nittany Lions had what very well might have been the single "luckiest" conference season of any major-conference team over the past three years. PSU was outscored by their conference opponents by 0.14 points per possession. Historically speaking, teams that do that over an 18-game schedule will typically finish 3-15 or perhaps 2-16. Penn State went 7-11. Luck, right?

It's just not the best word. The Nits weren't making half-court bank shots the whole year--nor, for that matter, were they involved in a lot of close games. It's just that when they played good teams they were very soundly beaten on more than one occasion; when they played bad teams, conversely, they usually won but by a much smaller margin. Luck would be one way of putting it. Another would be simply to say they had an extremely funky point distribution.

Clearly, there can be a difference in the way certain statistics are awarded by official scorers - assists are the clearest example. What other statistics have you observed that are greatly influenced by the biases of the official scorer? Any examples of extreme cases?

Actually I think basketball is pretty lucky on this front. Assists are the exception to the rule and even assists are what I call adverbial: they merely describe how a team scores rather than determining whether they do so. NBA general managers should of course be properly wary when looking at college assist rates but the rest of us can carry on without too much worry.

From my chair the bias of stats in hoops is less a product of homer official scorers and more the residue of narrowly consistent coaches. Very rarely does a coach want to revisit an assumption on player personnel and start feeding the ball to someone he thought was going to be a mere role-player. Points are going to happen and to an extent far removed from, say, baseball, the basketball coach gets to decide who gets them. That's one very large grain of salt that stats should be taken with.

That probably goes a long way in explaining our Min% graphs in looking at freshman performance.

Tune in tomorrow as John talks Big Ten...

1 comment:

Brett Schulte said...

As an Illini fan, I followed Big Ten Wonk over most of its existence and was sad to see it go. I've been a longtime buyer of Baseball Prospectus and Blue Ribbon College Yearbook, so College Basketball Prospectus is right up my alley. I've got it preordered and I'm eagerly awaiting delivery.

I do have a question about the interview. John mentions that he and Ken covered the top third or so of college hoops teams in the book and that we should go to Kyle Whelliston of Mid-Majority fame for the rest. I was wondering if Kyle is a part of some new annual I haven't heard about, or if John is saying fans should read his ESPN articles and Mid-Majority for info on the mid-majors.

Keep up the good work!