M. BASKETBALL | Analysis: Basketball numerology

Because of the sometimes dubious nature of college basketball statistics, the men’s basketball team’s 6-9 record may not be its most important statistic.

With the Bulldogs non-conference slate over and the team one game into its Ivy League schedule, it is appropriate to ask among Eli fans what should be expected from the team this Ivy League season. For the casual fan, one look at the Eli’s 6-9 record might be enough. But for others, the question remains of how the Bulldogs compare to their Ivy League competition and the rest of the nation’s 343 Division I teams.

To answer this question, the team’s winning percentage of .400 would on the surface indicate that the Elis are slightly below average, with average being winning half the games played. Such an analysis is hampered, though, by the fact that the strength and quality of the team’s opposition highly influences what that team’s record will be. After all, good teams can have bad records by playing many great teams.

The strength of Elis’ schedule must therefore be taken into account, and that can be done by analyzing their opponents’ winning percentages and the percentages of those teams that play their opponents. According to calculations by Joe Lunardi of ESPN, Yale has played the 291st toughest schedule in the nation, meaning that the men’s basketball team has struggled despite playing a fairly easy schedule. At the same time, Harvard stands at 9-6 but has played the 331st toughest schedule, even considering their game against (and win over) No. 24 Boston College. That suggests the Crimson might be weaker then they appear at first glance.

Combining a team’s record and strength of schedule into one measure, the NCAA developed the Rating Percentage Index (RPI) in 1981 to rank all basketball teams for the tournament. Using Lunardi’s current RPI calculations, the Bulldogs stand at 248th out of 343 teams — in other words, better than a third of college basketball teams.

Of course, the most familiar rankings are the Associated Press and the USA Today/ESPN Top 25 Polls, where writers and coaches cast votes to determine rankings, respectively.

Beyond looking at win-loss records and rankings, other statistics such as scoring margin, rebounding margin and field goal percentages are used to evaluate and compare different teams. In the college game, however, such statistics may need to be taken with a grain of salt.

But as guard Porter Braswell ’11 noted, statistics in college sports should always be kept in perspective.

“In the NBA when all you are doing is playing basketball, statistics are more important,” Braswell said. “In the college game, people are a lot more up and down each game [since] if you have a lot of midterms one week, you can’t get in the gym a lot and your shooting percentage will go down.”

At Yale, a Sports Publicity representative sits with a student employee during games, calling out each player’s shot, turnover, rebound, block and more. The student then punches the data into a computer, which feeds out a box score that can be accessed on the Internet. At the end of the game, they consult with the official referee bookkeeper — who keeps track principally of the score of the game and not of these other statistics — to ensure the accuracy of their data.

For the last three years, Katie Edwards ’09 has been charged with this task for men’s and women’s basketball games, helping to determine and shape the scouting reports and perceptions of both Bulldog basketball teams. She said that they strive to do a fairly accurate job, always getting player shot attempts correct and rebounds 90 percent accurate. As far as the other statistics go though, they can often be left to much discretion.

“As far as assists and turnovers, the scorekeeper can affect it a lot,” Edwards said. “There are times that our teams go on the road and assists are barely kept. [Overall], I don’t think people should put too much emphasis on turnovers and assists.”

While the sources for such statistics can be dubious, Eli coaches nevertheless prepare their players with advanced scouting reports laden with statistical analyses for each game.

Center Garret Fiddler ’11 said that in evaluating opponents, point and rebound differential are probably the best gauge for how well they are playing. The record of a team that dominates opponents in most games but gets beat by a small margin a few times might make that team appear worse than it really is, he said. On the other hand, a statistic like rebounding differential hints at the size and athleticism of their future opponent.

Each Bulldog player also receives a statistical scouting report of the players they will be guarding, including data on their three-point percentages, shooting percentages in the paint, number of three-point attempts and more. This last stat, in particular, differentiates between three-point threats and players who shoot a handful of threes all season and might just have gotten lucky on several of them.

“If you just look at percentage, it can be misleading,” Fiddler said. “[You] don’t know whether to guard him close or not since he may have just taken two on the year and has made one shot.”

Braswell noted though that some of the shooting percentage statistics can be skewed since some players regularly end up with the ball at the end of the shot clock and have to hoist bad shots up that they usually miss. Overall, he said that he does not really buy into the so-called statistics culture.

“[Statistics] certainly helps you prepare for a player, but it does not tell the whole story,” Braswell said. “There are no percentages to tell the story of someone’s heart and desire to win at the end of a game.”

But other players admitted that they do follow some statistics closely as a way to measure the team’s or their own individual progress. Guard Chris Andrews ’09 said he follows his assist-to-turnover ratio given his roles in protecting and distributing the ball as a point guard on the team. As a team, he explained the Elis have different goals.

“I think the amount of turnovers that we have and the amount of offensive rebounds are really critical to our success,” Andrews said.

Indeed, in the end, the statistical revolution in college basketball and all of sports is likely here to stay. For the foreseeable future, Eli fans will continue to evaluate their Bulldogs largely on the basis of Internet box scores.


  • Y'08

    As an editor for a major sports-media company, I know firsthand how out-of-control the craze over numbers in college basketball is getting. So it was refreshing to see that the News is trying to keep it in perspective for Yale fans who might be accustomed to reading more about UNC or UConn than our beloved Elis.

    It's become a fad among statisticians and writers who want to make a name for themselves to come up with new, complicated ways to plug numbers into formulas in order to rate both individuals and teams. That's fine if you want to compare, say, Jeff Teague and Ty Lawson -- they play in a tough conference against opponents suited to their strength -- but what about Ivy players? Scorekeeping (for quasi-subjective calls like assists) is sketchy at best, as the reporter implies, and there are no TV monitors for referees to fall back on.

    Even if the scorekeeping were 100 percent accurate and consistent, the pre-Ivy competition runs the gamut from huge-conference schools (the Pac-10 and the SEC come to mind this season) to tiny no-names like MIT and NJIT (which just won its first game in two years). How can anyone -- the casual fan or the seasoned expert -- judge individuals by their statistics based on games against Stanford and Hartford? Or even judge the team by its deceptively simple record?

    The truth is, there's really no objective reason for the News even to print Yale's nonconference record. Ivy play is the only thing that matters -- especially since we have no conference tournament. Harvard may have gotten some good press with its defeat of Boston College, but who cares? That won't get them into the NCAAs. Only winning the regular-season conference title will allow an Ivy team to engage in meaningful competition against the next level. (And that deck is stacked against us anyway: The Ivy team always seems to play a one- or two-seed. I say we should get together with a few other inconsequential conferences with no chance of ever advancing in the tournament, form our own tournament full of small-school Division I awesomeness, and leave the prime-time spots to deserving teams that always finish in the middle of conferences like the ACC and Big East. But that's a whole different issue.)

    As to how the players can prepare well without reliable statistics (and probably not much video, either), I cannot say, having never played organized ball. But from a fan's perspective, it's useless to lump Yale or its players in the same categories as bigger-name basketball schools (like the RPI and Lunardi's strength-of-schedule mumbo-jumbo). Let's just focus on our Ivy record, thereby holding our team to realistic standards.