There’s a passage in Gary Smith’s brilliant 1982 profile of Dean Smith – originally published in Inside Sports magazine and recently republished online at deadspin.com – that describes Smith after a loss, ignoring company at his house and staring at a stat sheet for half an hour.
That story didn’t come up at Smith’s public memorial on Sunday. He is remembered – and rightfully so – as a teacher and a humanitarian and a mentor and, mixed in with all of that, as a brilliant basketball mind.
A math major who considered teaching in high school, he also had an appreciation for numbers and for advanced basketball statistics, in particular, that was ahead of his time. There’s no shortage of places nowadays that offer college basketball analytics.
If you wanted to know, for instance, the percentage of North Carolina’s possessions that result in turnovers, you can head on over to kenpom.com and find out with one click. To varying degrees, all coaches nowadays pay attention to metrics that weren’t easily available 10 or 15 years ago.
At kenpom.com alone, you can find a team’s effective field goal percentage – a metric that places more weight on 3-pointers, and thus more accurately measures a team’s shooting ability – and offensive and defensive rebounding percentage and even its steal percentage. Not to mention the efficiency ratings.
“You’ve got to be careful,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said recently, “because you can really bogged down with the math of this stuff. And I’ve educated myself, but I’m not thoroughly into it like maybe some other coaches.”
Smith was into it from the beginning. He is believed to be the first coach to place a heavy emphasis on points per possession – the ultimate measure of efficiency – and it was perhaps the one statistic he cared about more than any other.
It seems like a simple concept now, and the numbers are so readily available. Smith would likely be happy to know that the Tar Heels rank among the top 20 teams nationally in points per possession (1.13), according to data on statsheet.com.
While that data is widely available now, imagine tracking those numbers in the pre-Internet era. Smith tracked points per possession throughout his 36-year head coaching tenure at UNC and, according to a recent story The New York Times published about Smith’s fondness for advanced analytics, he began possession-based analysis as early as 1959.
“All signs point to him being the father of basketball analytics,” Daryl Morey, Houston Rockets general manager and a proponent of advanced analytics, told the Times.
Advanced statistics undoubtedly would have come along at some point even if Smith hadn’t been a believer in them. His use of them, though, is another innovation in a long line of them, and one that over time became more and more imitated.
The use of numbers and data is common now in basketball. There’s no shortage of statistics that explain, or attempt to explain, just about every aspect of the game. Smith recognized from the start that math and basketball fit well together.
He’d likely appreciate, then, the direction the game has gone in recent years, with more and more coaches and teams paying more and more attention to statistics that weren’t widely available years ago.
In or out?
It’s that time of year again, when NCAA tournament projections start to look more and more like what we might actually see on March 16, Selection Sunday. Joe Lunardi, ESPN bracketologist who is the granddaddy, or maybe the godfather, of all bracketologists, has six ACC teams in his latest projected tournament field. That makes sense.
Virginia, Notre Dame and Duke – the league’s top three teams in the standings – could all lose out and still be in. North Carolina and Louisville pretty much are locks.
After that it gets a bit murky. N.C. State is among the last four teams in Lunardi’s field, and Miami among the first eight out. It’s likely to be that way down through the ACC tournament, with both the Wolfpack and Hurricanes on the bubble.
Let’s look at the road ahead for N.C. State (16-11, 7-7) and Miami (17-10, 7-7). The Wolfpack has four games remaining, three on the road: at UNC on Tuesday, at Boston College on Saturday, at Clemson and at home against Syracuse. Win three of those, finish 10-8 in the ACC, and that should be enough for a bid.
Miami faces a similar situation. Win three of its final four games – against Florida State, UNC and at Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech – and it should stand a good shot. The Hurricanes should beat FSU and Virginia Tech. But can they upset UNC at home? Or beat Pitt on the road?
Either way, the ACC’s NCAA tournament outlook is indicative of the kind of season it has been in the conference: an OK one.
You’d think, though, that the greatest basketball league ever assembled – and certainly, on paper, it’s difficult to argue with commissioner John Swofford’s assertion there – wouldn’t have to scrap late in the season to get more than five teams into the NCAA tournament.
It’d be a tad ironic – if that’s the right word – if the depleted and reorganized Big East, the conference that suffered the most amid the ACC’s expansion during the past 10 years or so, winds up with as many NCAA tournament bids. And it’s possible: Lunardi projects both leagues with six.