Back in 2003, Ben Howland left his job as the head coach of Pittsburgh to become the head coach at UCLA. Following Howland’s exit, Pittsburgh hired Jamie Dixon as its new head coach, after Dixon had spent the previous nine years as an assistant to Howland, first at Northern Arizona and then at Pitt.
A full decade later, Howland is now out of a job, fired following the Bruin’s first round exit in the NCAA Tournament, while Dixon has received a ten-year extension that will keep him at Pitt for another ten years. Both Howland and Dixon are quality coaches, but both the firing of Howland and the extension of Dixon are questionable moves by their respective schools, and decisions those schools may live to regret.
It is UCLA, and there are always high expectations because of what John Wooden accomplished there many, many years ago, but firing Howland at this point in time is absurd. The Bruins have had a few rough seasons as of late, but they are coming off a season in which they won the Pac 12 regular season championship. If not for a late-season injury to second-leading scorer Jordan Adams, the Bruins may have also won the Pac 12 tournament championship, received a higher seed in the NCAA Tournament, and not lost in the first round of the tournament.
Howland can hardly be blamed for the injury, and if Adams had been in the lineup at the end of the season, the Bruins might still be playing, which would have impacted the school’s decision to fire him. Despite some disappointing seasons over the last few years, this season indicates that the Bruins are moving in the right direction and that Howland is gathering the talent necessary to win the Pac 12 on a regular basis and become relevant on the national stage yet again. Howland has led the Bruins to three Final Four appearances during his ten years at UCLA, and if he can get the program to that level, considering the state of things when he got there in 2003, he’s certainly capable of building on what was accomplished this season and bringing UCLA back to the Final Four in the near future.
Furthermore, UCLA is a bit delusional when it comes to the state of college basketball and how they fit into it. Schools like Butler and VCU have proven that you no longer have to be a traditional powerhouse to get to the Final Four or compete at a high level year after year. Also, young coaches like Brad Stevens and Shake Smart are no longer enticed by brand-name schools like UCLA, because they have already proven that they can win where they are, they are content to be coaching where they are, and don’t feel the need to make changes. Not only is UCLA unlikely to land an elite-level young coach to replace Howland, but also they would be wise to take after this new generation of coaches and not make unnecessary changes. The firing of Howland is not only unwarranted, but it may not lead to the upgrade at head coach that UCLA is expecting.
As for Dixon, his ten-year extension is far too long of a commitment to make. Instead of being rash with a firing, Pittsburgh is showing too much certainty in Dixon. That’s not to say that Dixon should be fired. In the last ten years, the Panthers have won more games than any other Big East team, and with Pittsburgh’s move to the ACC next season, the program does need stability at the head coaching position, which Dixon provides. However, ten years is a long extension to give, and despite Pittsburgh’s consistency under Dixon, they have been perpetual underachievers in the postseason. The Panthers have never made the Final Four, and have just three appearances in the Sweet 16 in ten years, which isn’t a lot considering they have been knocked out by a lower seeded team in the NCAA Tournament six times under Dixon. Remember, the Panthers are just a year removed from finishing 13th in the Big East and missing the NCAA Tournament, although they did win the CBI Championship, for what that’s worth. With yet another early exit in the NCAA Tournament following a year that the Panthers missed the tournament altogether, a ten-year extension may not be the appropriate reaction by Pittsburgh, as Dixon still needs to prove that he can win big in the postseason.
It’s been interesting to watch the career paths of Howland and Dixon unfold since the former left Pittsburgh for UCLA and the latter replace him. Howland has been up and down over the past ten years, but he has been to three Final Fours and appeared to have things moving in the right direction; meanwhile, Dixon has been consistent, but the past two seasons have been his worst seasons as a head coach, in addition to his profound struggles in the postseason.
With all of that, somehow it’s Howland who is looking for a new home and Dixon who is set where he is for another ten years. Howland should be on the hot seat, but surely he didn’t deserve to be fired, while Dixon shouldn’t be anywhere near the hot seat, but he also shouldn’t be receiving a ten-year commitment. Both UCLA and Pittsburgh were too drastic in how they addressed their head-coaching situations following the season; surely, both could have found some middle ground and made a better decision in addressing the status of their head coach.
“Analysis” is defined by Websters as “separation of a whole into its component parts”.
So when we listen to an analyst on television during a basketball game, we should hope to hear analysis that takes what we are seeing and breaks it down into the factors that are determining the observed outcomes.
On Saturday I was watching Connecticut play Pittsburgh. At one point in the contest, Connecticut was losing by more than ten points. At this juncture the TV analyst (I don’t know who this was) offered the following explanation of how Connecticut could get back into the game:
- Connecticut needs to “score the basketball” (i.e. as opposed to “scoring a football” or “scoring a tennis ball”?)
- Connecticut needs to “get stops” (i.e. stop Pittsburgh from scoring)
What exactly does this kind of analysis provide? We can clearly see that a basketball game can be broken down into two component parts. Teams win in basketball by scoring – or “scoring the basketball”, if you prefer – more than their opponents.
Looking back at the definition of “analysis”, this discussion of Connecticut’s path to victory qualifies. But one would think you could do better.
Let’s work a bit harder to break down winning in basketball into its “component parts”. We begin where the TV analyst seemed to stop:
- Wins are determined by points scored and points surrendered.
Now let’s take another step:
- Points scored are determined by shooting efficiency and shot attempts.
This is true by definition. If we know how many shots a team takes (field goal attempts and free throw attempts) and how efficiently these shots were turned into points, then by definition we know points scored.
So what determines shot attempts?
Shot attempts – as the following equation illustrates (this is from Stumbling on Wins) – are determined by how a team acquires the ball. So to increase shot attempts, you need to get rebounds, avoid turnovers, and encourage your opponent to commit turnovers.
FGA = c1 + c2* Opp.TO + c3* DRB + c4* Opp.FGM + c5*Opp.FTM + c6*TO + c7*ORB + c8*FTA + ei
These factors explain 98% of the variation in field goal attempts (the missing factor – as noted in Stumbling on Wins – is team rebounds that change possessions).
So what factors cause a team to lose like Connecticut did on Saturday? The above analysis indicates it could be inefficient shooting, a failure to get to the line (which would help a team score more efficiently), committing too many turnovers, not generating enough turnovers, and/or a failure to rebound (readers of Dean Oliver can recognize the classic “four factors”).
Using the box score, each of these factors can be linked back to individual players. And because these factors connect to outcomes, we can measure each player’s Wins Produced.
And one doesn’t have to stop with the components of Wins Produced. As was said in The Wages of Wins:
Knowing the value of each player is only the starting point of analysis. The next step is determining why the player is productive or unproductive. In our view, this is where coaching should begin. We think we can offer a reasonable measure of a player’s productivity. Although we have offered some insights into why players are productive, ultimately this question can only be answered by additional scrutiny into the age and injury status of the player, the construction of a team, and the roles the player plays on the floor.
In sum, there are many “components” that lead to outcomes in basketball. But most of these factors seem missing from the analysis that I typically see on TV. Here is what I tend to see (the Connecticut-Pittsburgh analyst is hardly an exception):
- First, wins are determined by points scored and points surrendered.
- Having observed that a team is losing (or winning), the analyst moves on to factors like “chemistry” or “energy”. Although these factors might be important, they can’t be measured very easily. So it is difficult to know if the analyst is focusing on the right components.
And by taking this approach, it appears the analyst is moving from the obvious to magic.
A better approach – at least “better” in the sense that the analyst is getting at more and more components that we know impact outcomes – is to focus on factors like shooting efficiency, rebounds, and turnovers. Then, having identified the factors that impact the outcomes we observe, turn to the factors that cause players to shoot efficiently, rebound, and commit turnovers. Is it just talent (often I think that is the most important story)? Is it injury and/or age (and I often think these factors are the second most important story)? Is it some coaching strategy, or perhaps the players’ attitudes?
In sum, let’s start with how productive the individual players have been (i.e. assign responsibility for outcomes to individuals). Then move on to why these players are productive.
Such an approach might actually tell the audience why we see the outcomes we observed.
Back to UConn and Pitt
When we apply this approach to Connecticut on Saturday, we see a bit more than a team losing because it was outscored. The box score tells us these teams were even on turnovers. With respect to shooting efficiency, there wasn’t much difference (whether we look at effective field goal percentage or true shooting percentage).
When we turn to rebounds, though, we see that Pittsburgh grabbed nine more boards. And when we turn to the players for Connecticut, we see a potential problem. The Huskies don’t have much size on their roster. Of the nine players who played on Saturday, only four – DeAndre Daniels, Tyler Olander, Enosch Wolf, and Phillip Nolan – are 6-8 or taller. And of these four, only Olander grabbed a rebound on Saturday.
So perhaps the problem was that Daniels, Wolf, and Nolan combined to play 37 minutes and failed to grab any rebounds. And that allowed Pittsburgh to take more shots, which led Pittsburgh to score more points.
Now why did this trio fail to rebound? Is it talent, injury, coaching strategy, attitude, etc…?
This is where we would hope to see some actual analysis. But you can’t get to these types of questions until you have done more than tell us that a team is losing because it is not “scoring the basketball” and not “getting stops.”
Get more great sports analysis over at Wages of Wins Journal.
A marginally factual and hastily thrown together preview of tonight's main event will be up later this afternoon, but for now, a few memories of spending multiple hours in and around Legion Field, where Ole Miss proved that 6-6 was a generous record for Pittsburgh.
1. Game day organization and attention to detail were largely ignored by those who operate the logistics arm of the Compass Bowl, but rather than complain about it, both Ole Miss and Pitt should use it as motivation to never wind up in Birmingham again
2. Traffic before the game was somewhat irritating, as Birmingham cops blocked off streets and used only a few main streets to funnel people to Legion Field, but given the area surrounding the stadium, this could have been a preemptive strike on property loss/damage reports they'd have to fill out as a result of people choosing less-traveled paths
3. Quite possibly my favorite part of the in-stadium experience was that the people selling food/drink/miscellaneous items pretty much wore whatever was in their closet that morning; no uniforms or identification of any kind were used by the Compass Bowl, but if a dude was behind a fold-out table and said beers were $5 a piece, I trusted him
4. Actually, my favorite part of the in-stadium experience was Birmingham's mayor, speaking before the game, when he welcomed the fans of each school and said, "And Pitt fans, (slight chuckle) welcome back!"
5. If you have a television that was manufactured after 1997, you have a higher quality visual display that the jumbotron/screen at Legion Field; my favorite part of the screen was a black rectangle that spent the first quarter blocking portions of the screen
6. As for the game, the Ole Miss defense wins the MVP, as they dominated up front and only allowed points when the Ole Miss offense (AHEM, BO WALLACE) turned it over; if they can get some depth at defensive tackle, the defensive line has a chance to be very good next year
7. And Bo Wallace, UGH, if he stops making the handful of authentically horrible decisions he makes in every game, he could be one of the better quarterbacks Ole Miss has ever had; Hugh Freeze's offense is good for any quarterback, but he has the arm strength and enough athleticism to pile up some strong numbers over the next two years
8. Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the impressive display of daytime fireworks offered by the Compass Bowl; Ole Miss game day operations circa 2007 could have used some pointers on how to have daytime fireworks without knocking out power to the stadium