Still agonizing over your bracket? Field Notes, Vol. 2 (word to 2011's Vol. 1) is one college hoops writer’s attempt to guide you through the process as the Thursday deadline looms. Note: Said writer may or may not have a horrendous recent tourney history, which is why he’ll rely so much on advice from others in this series. Consider it a thinking fan’s guide to the bracket.
(And speaking of the bracket, be sure to join our College Basketball Nation Tournament Challenge group, wherein you can test your bracketing skills against yours truly and the rest of the ESPN.com college hoops writing staff. Imagine the bragging rights. So many bragging rights, you guys.)
Now, in Part One of the advanced portion of Field Notes: The stats and metrics you should use to make informed decisions about your bracket. Part Two to come.
Regular readers, college hoops fanatics and stats geeks -- and any combination therein -- are already going to be familiar with this stuff. If you spend all season looking at efficiency margin and adjusted tempo,
The noobs among us will not. There tends to be a lot of noobs around these parts these days, so many it feels like a multiplayer game of Modern Warfare 3. But we don't pwn noobs here. We welcome them. We are all brothers and sisters in arms here, all colleagues in the search for the holy grail: The well-chosen bracket.
Now that we've agreed on terms and established that you should be selecting but one bracket, you can spend a little more time today figuring out exactly how you want to go about doing it. That's good news for you, the noob. Why? There is much to learn.
So sit back, relax, and strap it in: Here are the most important advanced statistical metrics you need to digest and apply before you submit your final bracket Thursday morning. Let's go:
Tempo-free statistics. You've got a lot of information flying at you right now. X State team beat Y A&M back in November, but lost in December, and Z Tech only shoots 67 percent from the free thrown line, and ... yeah. This can get frustrating, quickly, and the tournament's a crapshoot anyway, so whatever. You're just going to slap some picks in your tournament challenge and be done with it. Whatever.
This is probably not a horrible strategy, all things considered. But if you do want some valuable information, information that not only a) won't overwhelm you but b) has the benefit of being incisive and revealing, much more revealing than counting stats, you need to look at tempo-free statistics.
What are tempo-free statistics? Exactly what they sound like. Tempo-free stats strip the speed at which teams play -- their tempo or pace -- from the equation. Instead, they measure how teams perform on any given possession. Pace distorts statistics. It is not remotely accurate to look at North Carolina's offense (the ninth-fastest in Division I hoops) and Wisconsin's offense (the second-slowest in the country) and compare the two without accounting for the fact that each team plays at radically different speeds. One team gets a lot of possessions by choice. The other intentionally grinds the game to a halt. Of course North Carolina averages more points per game than the Badgers. What matters is how often each team converts on the possessions they do have, and how often they stop opponents on the possessions they don't.
This is the statistical backbone upon which nearly all advanced analysis systems are built. How many points do you score per trip? How many do you allow? It's simple, elegant, and it comes with the original blessing of none other than Dean Smith, who realized long ago -- long before the rest of us caught up -- just how important it was to make the most of every opportunity in a 40-minute game.
To that end, there is no guide as simultaneously indispensable and readily digestible than John Gasaway's Tuesday Truths. The ESPN.com and Basketball Prospectus writer tracks points scored and allowed per possession throughout each conference season. By the end of the season, Gasaway's data has the benefit a large, comparative sample size among teams who played roughly the same schedules throughout league play. Again, it's incredibly simple stuff. But it's also incredibly revealing, and if you're looking for a quick glance at just how good some of these teams really were this season, there's no better place to start than here.
Adjusted tempo-free statistics and rankings. So, you're all good on the concept: What teams do on each specific possession is the best way to figure out how good they are. Got it. Now you want to dig in.
This is the part where you head over to KenPom.com and get down to business. Ken Pomeroy's site is a must-follow for the reasons listed above: It tracks how teams perform on a per-possession basis, and it ranks them accordingly. It also adjusts rankings for opponent, taking into account the ability of each teams' opponents. It also -- and this is the most important part here -- tracks how each team performs in what O.G. (original guru) Dean Oliver dubbed the "four factors," or the most important and predictive areas of a team's basketball success: Shooting, offensive rebounding, turnover percentage, and how often they go to the line.
KenPom has all that stuff, and so much more (including figures for experience, height, defensive and offensive styles, three-point field goal rate, as well as individual player statistics and usage ratings. Viewing a team profile on KenPom -- something that costs you a well-worth-it $20-per-year subscription -- is equivalent to seeing a team's season right in front of you, quantified and organized. Laid bare.
Because basketball isn't just about raw offense and defense. You know that much. It's about matchups -- about the ways teams interact for 40 minutes -- and knowing how well a team rebounds the ball, or how often it allows opponents to go to the free throw line, matters just as much when you're trying to figure out your early-round upsets. You know the top seeds are good. But you want to know what makes them so good, and you want to know if any of their impending opponents just so happen to be perfectly suited to eliminating that advantage. When you combine all of this information together, this is how you do it.
Again, it's a subscription service, but it should be, and if you're willing to plunk a few bucks down for a year's worth of incredible basketball content, you'd be joining every forward-thinking college hoops coach (and writer, and analyst) in the country -- including Brad Stevens, who just scouted and worked his Horizon League team into two straight national finals, as well as Buzz Williams, Sean Miller and Coach K himself -- in doing so.
Next in Part Two: How you can use tempo-free and other rankings systems to find value in your bracket. And why you should.