Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Expectations, And How To Get There

The season starts on Friday(!). This much we know because it says so on the schedule, but we don’t know how the actual win and loss things will go. We also know that the last time that Calvin made the NCAA Tournament was in 2007 (!!!!1!!?) which is far too long ago. Five full seasons have come and gone, and Calvin hasn’t played into March*. Sure, they probably should have received an at-large bid in 2009, and they could have received one in 2010, but they didn’t, which means two graduating classes have come and gone without witnessing Mad Marchness up close and in person. No wonder student participation had suffered in recent years.

*Except that one time in 2008 when the MIAA Championship game was played on March 1.

There have been excuses – some good, most bad – young rosters, injuries, Kevin Kooiker, that darn non-transparent selection process, and whatever else, but the fact remains that it’s high time – well past high time, in fact – to re-emerge as a national power and not simply a “pretty good team”. Calvin has won two of the last four MIAA regular season titles, a fact that shouldn’t be dismissed, but that’s only one out of four benchmarks (20 wins, MIAA Championship, MIAA Tournament Championship, NCAA Tournament berth).

There’s a great deal of overlap between those benchmarks, an MIAA Tournament win means an automatic NCAA Tournament bid and 20 wins (through the MIAA Tournament) likely means three out of four (if not all four), but the point stands. These are four achievements that represent what Calvin basketball should be (or, at least, what we think Calvin basketball should be), but the attainment level hasn’t been there in recent years. Now would be a good time to start attaining, and it would appear that Calvin has the roster to do it.

Unfortunately, it’s easier to predict 20 wins than actually win 20 games (in a 27 game schedule). I mean, we could play the schedule game:

Calvin Tip-off Tournament – 2 out of 2 (likely Grace Bible and North Park)
Anderson – Win
GRSHOF Tournament – 1 out of 2 (Cornerstone and Aquinas)
at Manchester – Win
MIAA-CCIW Classic – 1 out of 2
at Finlandia – Win
Elmhurst Bluejay Classic – 2 out of 2 (Wabash then either Elmhurst or Ripon)
MIAA Regular Season – 11-3
MIAA Tournament – 2 out of 2

Those are very aggressive predictions which would total 22 wins. You could maybe squeeze out win number 23 with a 12-2 conference record, but that’s best case scenario. Calvin could realistically drop both GRSHOF games over Thanksgiving, a second MIAA-CCIW game (MIAA teams never play well across the dreaded pond), and/or an MIAA Tournament final. That would make for 19 or 20 wins without really suffering a bad loss. And that’s assuming the Knights can top HCAC foes Anderson (iffy) and Manchester (more likely) without much of a problem and then waltz into Elmhurst after Christmas and sweep the Tournament.

We could (almost) just as easily see this:

Calvin Tip-off Tournament – 2 out of 2 (likely Grace Bible and North Park)
Anderson – Loss
GRSHOF Tournament – 0 out of 2 (Cornerstone and Aquinas)
at Manchester – Win
MIAA-CCIW Classic – 0 out of 2
at Finlandia – Win
Elmhurst Bluejay Classic – 1 out of 2 (Wabash then either Elmhurst or Ripon)
MIAA Regular Season – 10-4
MIAA Tournament – 1 out of 2

That’s 16 wins, which is better than last season, but not where anyone wants the program to be. Would it be a bad season? That’s up for debate, but I think everyone sees that the potential for greatness (or really goodness, maybe) exists with the current roster. I’ve been beating the “this can be a Sweet Sixteen” team drum since last season ended, and being such would involve 20-22 wins which, by definition, must include winning a goodly number of the tough games.

So how does the team make sure they reach closer to the 22 win ceiling than the 16 win floor? Score more points than the opponents. It’s cliché and simplistic, and there’s more too it than that, but that’s pretty much the whole story. I like to talk about offensive and defensive efficiencies (points scored and allowed per 100 possessions) and efficiency margins (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) because that sums up the entirety of the team. How good have they been (against their schedule) at scoring points and preventing points? That’s all there is to the game of basketball.

The MIAA has complete season statistics available on the league website going back through the 2002 season. I compiled all the numbers, calculated each team’s efficiency numbers, and compared their efficiency margin to their winning percentage. The correlation is quite strong:

This makes sense intuitively. If a team can consistently score more points than they allow, they can consistently win games. This chart would be even better if I excluded post-season tournament play because everyone (except the national champion) ends their year with a loss (artificially lowering winning percentage), but I think the trend is apparent nonetheless. The “real” fit here likely isn’t a straight line, but the linear model is easy and probably works just as well.

What we can determine from this chart is the general efficiency margin Calvin would need to have in order to expect 20 out of 27 games to end in a win (using the linear fit equation). The answer is 13.4. That is to say, Calvin needs to outscore their opponents by an average of 13.4 points per 100 possessions – or about 9.4 points in a typical 70 possession Calvin game – if they hope to achieve the requisite .741 winning percentage (20-7). One could construct a very similar chart based on scoring margin instead of efficiency margin, but normalizing to per possession rates (the efficiency method) takes tempo out of the equation (a ten point game might be quite close versus a Grinnell-style team, but not very close against a team running a four-corners offense).

One could create a list of possible win totals, and the efficiency margin that would be required to reach each expected total.


Of course, teams don’t often hit their exact expected win total given their season’s efficiency margin (due to random factors), but over the last 11 years, just over 50% have been within +/- one win from the predicted mark and 80% have been within two wins (and again, it likely would have been even more accurate had I removed MIAA and NCAA tournament games).

So here’s the situation: Calvin was +0.0 in efficiency margin last year, and wants to be roughly +13.4 this season. That’s a big jump, but it’s not impossibly large. I have 10 years of data and found five teams that made such a jump. Included in that group was the 2006 Hope squad who gained 17.5 points of efficiency margin after struggling through a mediocre 2005 campaign in which they had lost a few players for one reason or another. A comparison between Hope then and Calvin now appears to be quite apt.

Of course, efficiency margin isn’t anything in itself – a team could possibly win every game by one point and be 27-0 with an efficiency margin of about 1.4 – but it is an indicator of the overall strength of a team versus their schedule. It’s unlikely that a team could consistently win games versus bad teams by only one point and also consistently win games versus good teams by only one point. It doesn’t usually work that way.

To get to the 20-22 win mark, you really need to have your toughest games be no worse than a coin flip. Maybe that’s three games against Hope, the CCIW opponents, the NAIA opponents, and another tough MIAA road game or two. If you win half of those games with a combined 0.0 efficiency margin, then you’re still not too far off. But then you also need to beat the teams you need to beat the teams you need to beat.
Calvin couldn’t hope for 20 wins and then slip up against the likes of Grace Bible (who’s 1-3 to start the year), North Park, Manchester, Finlandia, Alma, Olivet, and Kalamazoo. They need to win those games without a let down, and the best way to do that is to win by sizeable margins. Teams can’t sneak up and beat you when you’re pounding them by 15-20 (or so) points (+26 in efficiency margin).

And then perhaps they play reasonably well against the reasonably talented teams on their schedule and play 75% ball (+13 in efficiency margin or 9 points per game) against Anderson, Wabash, Elmhurst, Albion, Adrian, and Trine. This would be the formula to get them to 20 wins.

That’s really how Calvin’s schedule should stack up. A third of the games should be gimmies (90-100% win), a third should be winnable (75% win), and a third should be toss-ups (50% win). The problem over the last few years has been that gimmies became winnable, winnable became toss-ups, and toss-ups became losable. If I had to list out the games (by strictly forcing them into these categories), (pretty much the above in list form), I’d say:

Gimmies: 8 or 9 wins with a 26.0+ combined efficiency margin.
Grace Bible
North Park* (or Cairn)
Kalamazoo* (x2)
Olivet* (x2)
Alma* (x2)

Winnable: 6 or 7 wins with a 13.0+ combined efficiency margin.
Ripon (or Elmhurst)
Albion* (x2)
Adrian* (x2)
Trine* (home)

Toss-up: 4 or 5 wins with a 0.0+ combined efficiency margin.
Trine* (road)
Hope* (x2)
MIAA Tournament* (x2)

They games don’t fit precisely into these neat categories – you could move them around quite a bit and maybe it’s not really 9/9/9 – but this is more or less what we want to see when all is said and done. The games with the asterisk are regional games, and are infinitely more important when it comes to NCAA Tournament selection and seeding.

That’s the road map. The expectation and hope is for 20ish wins, an MIAA or MIAA Tournament title, an NCAA Tournament berth, and a possible Sweet Sixteen run. That’s where I’m setting the bar, anyway. And now we know the results we need to see in order for the team to get there.

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