A Tutorial to Preseason Basketball
by Michael Ermitage
You’ve done it. I know you have. There you are hunkered in front of your computer, one window open to the live stats, one window tuned to Yahoo radio. You may even have one open to a message board. On the computer table is a pen and paper, notes scribbled haphazardly across the page. Words like “REBOUNDING” underlined. You look like a CIA code breaker desperately scanning for clues. These are the actions of an out-of-town hoops fan trying to follow un-televised exhibition and early pre-conference action.
In the early steps of the season-long walk, it is tough for fans to get a grip on the quality of the teams. With transfers, graduation, injuries, coaching changes and newcomers, you cannot pin the hopes of your team on the accomplishments of the past season. You can look to preseason magazines, but mostly you’ll find just a handful of teams with full accurate analysis. The rest of the teams were treated like the race for district secretary on the prime time news. You can try websites. There are plenty of them. But nine times out of 10, you’ll get an abbreviated version of the magazine you bought that afternoon. You can try the University’s local or alumni news channels. But they’re view is so jaded, it like reading an infomercial. Nope, the only reliable route to take is to tackle the analysis yourself.
Since, however, that the vast majority of college hoops fans have not had the entertaining job of sitting in a press box, among the free food, the stat girls, the frantic Sports Information Director and the fat guy at the end of row (he is always at the end of the rowâ€¦), they are not exactly trained in objectively examining the game. Yes, I have officially mounted my high horse. So, here are a few notes I jot down when viewing these early games.
The first statistical category to monitor is rebounding. No good team gets consistently out-rebounded. Even the Bulls during their “we have Jordan” unbeatable years had to add Dennis “look at me! look at me!” Rodman to do the dirty work. There are two kinds of rebounding, as we all well know. Good teams defensive rebound, great teams offensive rebound. Think Michigan State 1999-2000.
Next, take a look at field goal defense. This stat can be somewhat deceiving because the NCAA leaders in this category are sometimes schools that absolutely refuse to play offensive basketball. I’m talking about the really poor Northwestern or South Alabama teams that eat the shot clock, send no one to the offensive glass, and force their opponent to play half-court offense. Hey, sometimes it works; Wisconsin rode this strategy to a Final Four appearance. Princeton has been nearly canonized for its success with this strategy. But, in most cases, really good college basketball teams can run the floor and hold opponents to sub-par shooting percentages. The magic number is 40. If your team is holding opponents to 40 percent or less, book your tickets to the first round regional. If your team is beating Belmont by 40 but the Bruins are shooting 50 percent, you are in trouble.
Now, take a look at field goal offensive percentage. This stat is a reflection of everything else your team is doing well. Think of it as a luxury model car. It has virtually all the same parts as your younger brother’s early-model Chevelle, but just utilizes them more efficiently. And it probably has a little more horsepower. If your team is playing good defense, offensive rebounding, screening and getting the ball inside, it is likely to have a good shooting percentage. This stat is only moderately attached to having good shooters; it is more linked to other facets of the game. Without blowing this section out into a whole separate column, this is what separates the good coaches from the bad. Think Brian Ellerbe and Tom Izzo – did Michigan State really have that much more talent??
Next on the stat line are turnovers and assists. Early in the season, this number is going to be high, and sometimes ugly. Generally, this is a reflection of a team’s point guard play. And anyone who has listened to Dick Vitale/Billy Packer or any other college hoops talking head knows that advancing far into March is dependant on the point guard. In the early season, anything higher than a 2:1 ratio is considered excellent. Teams that average less than 14 turnovers per game are in good shape. Forcing turnovers is another stat to keep an eye on, but, keep in mind that these teams are often either thrown together for an exhibition, just a terrible team, or suffering through the same early-season turnover problems that most teams endure.
Finally, the last section is the fun part. These are the stats that are debated around the water cooler at work, have 50-entry long threads on message boards and contain the hopes and dreams of every 2-0 college basketball team. The Newcomers. I call them the newcomers because nowadays it is just not freshmen. Now, teams increasingly have transfers, JC players, redshirt eligible players, and players coming off injury or academic problems. The key to objectively evaluating newcomers is to drop the preseason hype and rankings. For every top freshman that dominates, there is one that flops. Blame the rankings, not the players. The second most important thing to do is to not idolize a player after one great game or demonize him after a bad one. I can remember one nameless player at my old alma mater that came in with high rankings/expectations etc. who scored 29 points in his first game. I’m not sure he scored 29 points total in his next 10. I can bet everyone reading this has a similar story. The rule of thumb is that new players, of any type but particularly freshman or junior college transfers, will be inconsistent. One game they’ll play like Kobe, the next like Ming. But no good teams depend on them. If you’re hoping the new recruit is the difference, I have news for you, you’ll probably only have a slightly better version of last year’s crappy team.
There are other things to look at, of course, as you’re sifting through the stats of your team’s game versus the Addidas All-American Select All-Stars. Free throw percentage, the minutes each player gets and shot attempts are all interesting and valuable.
Nothing excites like anticipation. And exhibition basketball is anticipation materialized into 40 minutes of basketball. Flip on the desk light, turn on the monitor. Assume the hunkered-down position. It is never too early to evaluate.