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Posts Tagged ‘NCAA’

The Curious Case of LSU Basketball

In College Basketball, General LSU, History, Me on February 25, 2019 at 6:19 PM

Why I Generally Don’t Cover College Basketball

If you’ve been following my blog, you’re probably aware I don’t write much about college basketball.  It’s not because I’m not a fan – I actually pride myself on picking mostly correct tournament brackets over the years – but when I have free time during basketball season, a lot of times I’ll have 6 or 7 games recorded to watch and do that instead.  If I don’t watch as many teams who may be in the tournament as possible, I tend not to pick as well.

With college football, I usually watch whatever it is I’m going to watch on Saturday, leaving other days for writing, preparing, etc. I don’t concern myself as much with any kind of postseason picks. Given that only four teams are playing for anything important, the postseason in football is kind of a crap-shoot anyway. I usually finish my computer rankings before I go to bed Saturday night/Sunday morning; so other than writing and research, all of the effort I put into following football is confined to about 14 hours on one day of the week.   

Another part of a sport with so many games is whether I want to write about my team doing well or poorly, there’s always another game looming that can change that.  So if there is a game on Saturday and I don’t have time to write, edit, and post a blog about it until Tuesday, what I’ve written might be moot by then.

Brief Description of Recent LSU Basketball History

I’m writing this now because even if LSU doesn’t finish well, there are milestones and things to be proud of.  The last several years I’ve expected to be disappointed.  Since the Final Four season in 2005-06, I can’t think of one season in which we made it farther than I thought we should have.  When I’ve gotten my hopes up, I’ve just waited a few days (or maybe a couple of weeks) and with the help of the team I’ve gotten over it. 

Former LSU head coach John Brady was fired after the Tigers went 25-28 over the 53 games immediately following LSU’s last Final Four appearance. The Tigers have returned to the NCAA tournament only twice since.

With as bad as things have been for the program at times, it’s amazing that there have been three Final Fours in the last 40 years (and 4 in the last 65 years). For instance, the Tigers lost 10 games or more in all but three seasons in the 27 years between the first two Final-Four appearances. In all but one season since the last Final Four appearance (in which the Tigers entered the tournament with 8 losses), the Tigers have also suffered 10 losses or more. During that second span, LSU has only won a single NCAA tournament game.

The 26 seasons that included the second, third, and fourth Final Four teams weren’t exactly full of success either. There were only four other teams in that span who won one NCAA tournament game or more. Only two of those teams (not including any of the teams for which Shaquille O’Neal played) made the Sweet 16. Seven teams during that span, by contrast, finished with losing records.

LSU went only 2-3 in NCAA tournament games with Shaquille O’Neal on the roster.

What Makes This Team Special (So Far)

With the win over Tennessee, who for much of the year has been #1, I have to acknowledge things are a bit different from the situation to which I’d become accustomed.  It’s certainly possible that LSU or someone else could have been 16-10 and just shot really well and things fell into place for a win over a team like this.  Last year, for instance, the Tigers beat #11 Texas A&M on the road (despite ending up with a losing record in conference).

But this year, one of LSU’s expected starters (Wayde Sims) was killed in the lead up to the season.  On Saturday, arguably the top player on both sides of the ball (Tremont Waters) was sick and did not play.  The Tigers’ second-leading scorer, Naz Reid, who is normally also one of the main defenders in the post, went 0 for 9 from the field and sat for 17 minutes due to foul trouble.  In other years, this would have been an ugly blowout loss under these circumstances; and I wouldn’t have even faulted the team if it had been.

What makes the current situation stand out even more is LSU beat another then-5th-ranked team on the road 11 days before.  It had been almost 40 years since the Tigers beat a team ranked that highly on the road.  Even the 1980-1981 Final Four team, the last LSU team with this small a number of losses this far into the year, lost in Rupp Arena, one of only two regular-season losses for that team. With apologies to Billy Gillispie (who was fired after failing to win an NCAA tournament game in consecutive seasons), this was the first LSU team to win there over a ranked Kentucky team since.

The Kentucky game was another comeback win and another night where some of the top scorers (such as Waters and Skyler Mays) were held in check. 

A couple other notes from that game. Only three times in 52 years had the Tigers overcome a halftime deficit of 8 points or more, and the Kentucky win was the second time in less than a week.  It so happened that both were on the road against ranked teams (the other had been in Starkville).  Also, John Calipari only averages one home loss per season since he took over the Kentucky program in 2009.

The Tigers recorded two wins over top-5 teams, although Tremont Waters (who leads the Tigers in points, assists, steals, and free throws made per game) did not play in one of them and made only 3 of 13 field goal attempts in the other.

This team is actually unbeaten on the road in conference (the Tigers did lose to now-#6 Houston in pre-conference).  Another remarkable thing is how many close games there have been.  The last 7 consecutive games have been decided by 5 points or fewer, and LSU has won 5 of them.  The Tigers are also 4-1 in overtime in conference play.  Three of those overtime wins were on the road. 

I’m going to backtrack a little bit to when I really started to pay close attention. Although I was encouraged by the win at Ole Miss (I’d seen the Rebels beat Auburn and Mississippi St.), I was still skeptical. I wasn’t sure if that might be something like the A&M game I mentioned last year: just one game not particularly apropos of anything (and maybe like the Aggies, the Rebels just happened to peak right before the game, which was apparently the case). 

I first really got the feeling there might be something a little different about this team with the overtime win over Missouri.  Missouri isn’t a great team, don’t get me wrong; but when you end up winning after being down 14 with 2:08 to play, you’ve done something impressive. It wasn’t a Division II school in a November tournament or exhibition; it was a road game against a credible program in a major conference.

Conclusion and Why You May Not Want to Bet the Farm on LSU

Before I finish, I want to include a couple of caveats. I don’t mean to suggest that the moment you get your brackets you need to put the Tigers in the Final Four regardless of the region or seeding.

While I think LSU can beat anyone anywhere now, the team also has a tendency to play down to the opposition, which can certainly cause problems in the postseason.  The Tigers lost to Arkansas at home by 1 and beat the Razorbacks on the road in overtime.  I think Arkansas is better than its record, but there is no reason LSU should be making a team 5-9 in the SEC look better than Tennessee and Kentucky regardless.  After beating Kentucky, the Tigers only got out of Athens with a 4-point win.  Georgia is only 1-13 in conference. There likely won’t be a worse team that LSU will play in the postseason.

After Georgia (and before Tennessee), LSU lost to Florida at home.  The Tigers will have to play the Gators again and also have rematches against Texas A&M (whom the Tigers beat easily in College Station) and Alabama (whom the Tigers struggled to put away in Baton Rouge), so finishing at the top of the conference or even top two is far from guaranteed.  They’re projected to be a #3 seed in the NCAA tournament, which usually makes a team safe to enter the round of 32, but if they fall below that I’d be very concerned about a loss in the first game.

Also, some of LSU’s second halves and final stretches would be less remarkable if it didn’t tend to fall behind in the first place, often due to poor shot selection. Although the Tigers were able to claw back against Kentucky and Tennessee as well as against some lesser teams, there could be an opponent in the post-season against which they are not so lucky.

For the reasons I mentioned though, I think it’s worth noting the accomplishments so far. 

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In Defense of Preseason Rankings

In College Football, General LSU, Post-game, Rankings Commentary on September 4, 2016 at 12:25 PM

I never claimed projections, especially preseason ones, as my strong suit, but a lot of smart people who spent more than a couple of hours before they make their projections picked LSU and/or Oklahoma to make the national semifinal. Sometimes I project the final rankings better than the professionals, and sometimes I don’t. I think I’ve done a pretty decent job over the years for the focus that I give to it.

I’ve always had a greater motivation to give teams proper credit for what they’ve done, and I’ll strive to do that for the wins over LSU, Oklahoma, and Bowling Green. (Those are the three results where there is the most apparent discrepancy with my preseason rankings so far.)

I actually spent more time in the off-season looking at my formula (so that later this year I do give teams the rankings they deserve) than I spent looking at anything to do with preseason.

I expected LSU to have a close game against Wisconsin in the state of Wisconsin. I just didn’t expect them to get into winning-field-goal position and for the quarterback to inexplicably throw It to the wrong team. I also didn’t anticipate that Wisconsin would hit two long field goals, the second of which was to take the lead in the fourth quarter. If they miss the second one, there is little doubt that LSU wins.

The Wisconsin defense won't get many easier interceptions this season.

The Wisconsin defense won’t get many easier interceptions this season.

Although I did not rank Wisconsin at the end of last season, I ranked them at the beginning of this season because I believe they can play good teams, especially close to home, and have a chance to win if said good team chokes. I don’t think they’ll beat everyone, but I would be surprised if they didn’t beat another ranked team at some point. I moved Wisconsin up more spots than I moved LSU in the preseason. Also, I only ranked LSU 3 spots higher than the AP poll did. I didn’t do anything crazy there.

As for Houston, 18th is pretty high for a preseason ranking for a non-power-5 team. I was surprised that the Houston defense took control late rather than the Oklahoma offense. Usually you expect a good offense to wear down a suspect defense, but maybe the Cougars are going to be a more balanced team than in past seasons. Absolutely no one should be surprised Houston scored 33 points (although the special teams is responsible for one touchdown), but holding Oklahoma to 23 was a bit surprising.

Regarding Ohio St., which got the most immediate push-back, I did want to say a couple of things about not buying in to certain preseason considerations that are present in other polls and rankings. This is typical of my preseason outlook of only seeing a team as worthy of continuing in the top 10 if they have most of their key players back.

Although Florida St. had about twice as many returning starters last year as Ohio St. does this year, I still got criticism for dropping the Seminoles from #2 (where I had them at the end of 2014) to #12. They finished #14 in both polls (and even lower in my rankings, obviously), so I was actually conservative in demoting them. Like Ohio St., the Seminoles had won the national championship two years before. Unlike Ohio St., they had an undefeated regular season and made the national semifinal the prior year.

Even if they’d rallied to end the year in the top 10, my skepticism in preseason was still warranted by the level of play early on. I try to accurately reflect how tough a team it is now or at least in the near future more than I try to look into the crystal ball to predict what might happen in late November and afterward, but often they mean the same thing. If you have a lack of experience now, that will in most cases plague you throughout the year because for most teams the experienced players will get even better, so it’s hard to surpass them.

I also think the pushback is a function of Saban’s success at Alabama, though he’s generally had 11 or 12 returning starters, which is a a lot more than 6. Everyone thinks their team should be able to be really good yet again if they were good last year. Never mind how much the final top 10 changed from one year to the next. Urban Meyer is a great coach, don’t get me wrong, but even great coaches have years with a few losses. Half of his Florida teams had at least three losses and a third of them had at least four.

Urban Meyer's results at Florida.

Urban Meyer’s results at Florida.

Speaking of Florida, I dropped them to #13 in the 2013 preseason when they only had 10 returning starters after finishing the regular season with one loss the year before (they lost the bowl game, but not showing up for the bowl game the year before didn’t stop Alabama in 2009 or 2015 (it also didn’t stop the Tide from making the national semifinal in 2014). Anyway, I should have dropped that 2013 Florida team a lot more than that since they finished 4-8.

I’m not saying anything like what happened to Florida in 2013 will happen to Ohio St. this year. I’m only picking one Ohio St. team to have a few losses.

The only real argument I got in response was that Urban Meyer is a really good coach and recruiter. In 2010 (when they had 10 returning starters according to Phil Steele), even Alabama had 3 losses. That was Saban’s fourth year there, so there isn’t some other coach to blame for that. There is just only so much even the best coaches with even the best recruits can do with raw talent in the offseason.

Maybe Ohio St. better talent than some of these other examples, maybe they’ll be really good at avoiding injuries. Maybe they’ll have a couple injuries, lack depth, and start having trouble. All this is about is assessing likelihoods. With 128 teams playing 12 or so games apiece, a lot of unlikely things are going to happen.

The final score in the Bowling Green game doesn’t mean much to me. Urban Meyer always liked to run up the score. There is absolutely no reason in a game like that to score 42 points in the second half. I don’t think Louisville scoring 70 means they should be in the top 10 either, and I also didn’t think that when Boston College scored 76 in a game last year that they deserved a ranking.

I’m not making a prediction at this time, but I’ll be very interested in the outcome of Ohio St.@ Oklahoma in a couple of weeks.

I’m sure there will be examples where I made better picks than the experts and examples where I made worse picks. The decision not to rank UCLA, for instance, is looking pretty good at the moment. Also, I was 9-1 against the spread in SEC games. Of course I would have preferred to go 1-9 with LSU winning, but that’s life.

Addendum: Review of 2014 and 2015 Preseason Rankings

I didn’t do a blog after last season about it (I was busy writing the NFL blogs, and then I just got onto college basketball and didn’t think about it again).

I think I did a good job when I reviewed the results after 2014. I got 3 of the top 4 right in preseason that year. I also had two other top 10 teams who ended up in the top 10, Ohio St. and UCLA. I got the exact rank correct for UCLA.

No one (by no one I mean the other major preseason listings I compared) had Boise St., TCU, Marshall, or Ga. Tech. Some had Michigan St., but I had them pretty close to the top 10 myself.

I also had Ole Miss higher than anyone else did in 2014. Northern Illinois was a good pick no one else had.

The only one I ranked in preseason who didn’t make a bowl game was Michigan. Brady Hoke always surprised me by how much talent he was able to waste.

I know you think I always hate the Big Ten, but I’ve actually been too positive about some Big Ten teams over the years. I think I’ve picked Ohio St. #1 in preseason more than any other team, although it’s possible Alabama tied or passed them up recently.

I also had the wisdom not to pick North Carolina or Oregon St. in 2014. They were both worse than Michigan. Other good non-picks were Texas A&M (which resulted in some criticism here) and Washington.

In 2015, I just calculated this really quickly:

Semifinal teams
In my preseason top 4: 1
In AP preseason top 4: 1
In my preseason top 5: 2
In AP preseason top 5: 2
In my preseason top 10: 3
In AP preseason top 10: 3

*Ohio St. finished in the AP top 4 but did not make the semifinal. The AP and I both had them in the preseason top 4.

AP final top 10:
5 were in my preseason top 10
4 were in AP preseason top 10
6 were in my preseason top 11
4 were in AP preseason top 11
The AP and I both had 8 in preseason top 25 (we did not have Houston or Iowa)