My good friend and fellow college basketball junkie Joe Cook (@JLeeC33) from 131 Sports agreed to do a Q&A about Michigan’s challenging season to date. Joe’s specialty is in predicting the NCAA Tournament field, and he has done an outstanding job in doing that over the past few seasons, as seen below. Given this expertise, I asked Joe some questions about the Wolverines’ skimpy resume, what it will take for John Beilein’s squad to rally for a berth in the Big Dance, and the overall state of the Big Ten. [Note: This interview was conducted before it was announced that Caris LeVert would miss the remainder of the season.]
Joe, let’s start off with the basics. You don’t have the Wolverines even sniffing a Tournament berth right now (in your latest bracket, Michigan doesn’t even crack the next four out). Just how far out are they from the field of 68?
I think you captured my feelings perfectly when you said that I don’t have the Wolverines “even sniffing” a berth in the big dance right now. It’s hard to really quantify just how far out of the field the Wolverines are because of how flat and wide the topography of the tournament bubble is this year. I think the easiest way to answer this question is to say that they are one marquee win away from at least being on the radar; think home game against Wisconsin with ESPN College GameDay in town on the 24th of January.
For those of us who are hoping that your projections are way off and Michigan is much closer than that, can you give us an idea what your projection model is based off and just how your projections have stacked up to the likes of Joe Lunardi, Jerry Palm, and other so-called experts in the recent past – both in terms of correctly called teams and relation to actual seed line?
I’m an actuary by profession, so it’s really a part of my nature to try to find a way to numerically quantify any sort of sports analysis I perform; bracketology projections are no exception to this rule. Without revealing too much, I’ve developed a couple of minor algorithms using statistical regression that roughly project a team’s seed-line based on factors that the committee has used to seed teams in the past. In the seed projection process, I use this as a baseline measure, and adjust teams up or down based on my own personal “eye test”. As for how my projections stack up…
I’ll just say they stack up very well. You can see for yourself. The bracket matrix website aggregates the projections of all the bracketologists across the internet, and creates composite projections, while also ranking the bracketologists for accuracy. The blurb at the top of the aforementioned link explains the scoring and ranking process. Looking at the results, I have been the second most accurate bracketologist out of more than 100 over the past three years.
Obviously a lot has gone wrong with this Michigan team’s season so far, from a lack of quality to wins to some very bad losses, but if you had to pinpoint one thing holding the Wolverines’ resume back right now, what would it be?
It’s tough to really narrow it down to just one thing, but gun to my head, I would say it’s the lack of quality wins more than anything else. In general, I’ve noticed the committee is willing to overlook bad losses in the face of truly quality wins, because it demonstrates that a particular team has the potential to beat anybody. Michigan has played the likes of Villanova, Arizona, SMU, and Ohio State – four teams that are firmly in the tournament field. They’re 0-4 against these teams, with an average margin of defeat of more than 15 points per game.
What are the factors that you see contributing to these bad losses? Is there a player or two to blame? Is it bad coaching? Are injuries and/or inexperience taking a toll?
I would never say it’s bad coaching when Johnny B. is involved. In my one year as head coach of my former high school’s boys basketball junior varsity team (Yes, I played that card), I was (and still am) one of the firmest Beilein disciples you will find. I think you are on the right path in saying that injuries and inexperience are taking a toll on this team. It’s obvious to me that Walton’s toe injury is still plaguing him. His quick first step was one of his best weapons, and now that it has disappeared, he can’t generate as much space and respect from defenders as he needs to get off clean jumpers. Caris hasn’t taken on the lead “get me the ball and watch what I do with it” role quite like Nik did last season. The bigs are inexperienced and haven’t developed enough athletically to replace J-Mo and Horford.
As it stands today, what is Michigan’s best win and what is Michigan’s worst loss?
The best win has to be the early season W against the Orange, as that’s the only victory the Wolverines have over a team I currently have truly near the field. Frankly, that’s just grasping at straws, as Syracuse just lost a rather embarassing game at Clemson. I don’t think there is much of an argument from any fans of the team that the worst loss this season was the NJIT game.
Certainly the chances don’t look good for the Wolverines to storm their way into the NCAA Tournament, but is there at least a shot (outside of winning the conference tournament)? What is it going to take?
It’s going to take a miraculous finish that I currently don’t envision happening, but I think Michigan definitely still has a shot, albeit a long one, to make the tournament field. Even with the bad losses, I still think 19 wins is probably enough to allow Michigan to go dancing. That being said, I would worry if none or only one of those wins come against Wisconsin, Maryland, Ohio State, or Michigan State. As I mentioned above, quality wins tend to be a heavily-weighed factor in the committee’s mind when it comes to making a decision on a bubble team’s fate.
Last year, we saw just half of the Big Ten (six teams) go dancing, while the year before that saw a whopping eight (75 percent of teams) make it. In your latest projection, you have six Big Ten teams in the field (Wisconsin, Maryland, Michigan State, Ohio State, Indiana, Iowa). How many of those teams would you consider locks right now, how many Big Ten teams would you consider to likely make it, how many will be on the bubble, and how many will certainly be left out in the cold?
You can book it now: the Badgers, the Terps, the Spartans, and the Buckeyes will be in the tournament field in March. Some might question me putting the Spartans in this category, but I’ve seen enough from them to know that they’re going to have no problem getting to 20-plus wins. In fact, I see all these teams being on the 8-seed line or better when all is said and done. In all honesty, I don’t think I can put any teams in the “likely to make it” category, because I think the gap between these four and the rest of the league is distinct.
I’m going to skip to the locks to miss the tournament (i.e. the teams Michigan must win all remaining games against to have a chance to be dancing). Those teams include Nebraska, Northwestern, Rutgers, and Minnesota. That leaves the Big Ten teams that are squarely on the bubble, and it’s half of the conference! Indiana and Iowa currently sit relatively firmly in the field, but one bad loss could change that in the blink of an eye. The boys from Champaign are right in the thick of things, but if the tournament started today, I think they’d be watching from home – just barely. Then you have the other three bubble teams, who fall into the category by default only because I’m not ready to say they’re locks to be out. This is where Michigan sits, along with Purdue and Penn State.
Both you and I agree on many things, but one area of college basketball that we’d like to see altered slightly is the pace of play. I, for one, like a slower game compared to the NBA, but has college basketball gotten too slow for your tastes? How do you think the powers that be should go about changing it and do you think pace of play can predict success at all?
When I initially heard rumblings of men’s college basketball potentially moving from its current 35-second shot clock to a 30-second shot clock, similar to women’s college basketball, I was definitively opposed to the idea. However, the more editorials I read, the more statistics I analyzed, the more college basketball I watched, the more I started to believe that the 30-second shot clock is right for the game. The tempo of men’s college basketball has become sluggish, and possessions per game numbers have consistently decreased since the turn of the century.
I feel that the NCAA missed an opportunity in recent years by choosing to increase focus on guaranteeing space for the offensive player in possession, rather than focusing on speeding up the pace of play. This misguided decision has led to officials blowing the whistle more on ticky-tack fouls, and players going to the free throw line more frequently than they deserve.
Thanks so much to Joe for his time and expertise in answering these questions, and be sure to check out his blog at 131 Sports and follow him on Twitter (@JLeeC33). You can always tweet your questions to me (@SamSedlecky), email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a comment. If you enjoyed this piece, let us know!