Top College B-ball Bloggers Weigh In

As I mentioned before, I regularly check out Yoni Cohen’s b-ball blog and from his links, I discovered a couple equally good, but very different bloggers in John Gasaway, who writes Big Ten Wonk and Ken Pomeroy, the stats man behind Blah, Blah, Blah. Gasaway is a one-stop shop for every link you need on the Big 10, plus he often makes these links unneeded breaking down the league with style and substance. Pomeroy uses his own numbers to illuminate truths that often are missed by the mainstream media. I contacted these two hoping to have a roundtable discussion on the tourney. My hope was the dual desire of getting more info from them and at the same time raising their profile. John and Ken took me up on the offer. Not being able to find a time which would work for all of us, I interviewed John and Ken, individually. First up, was the Big Ten Wonk. ”


Scott: What inspired you to start Big Ten Wonk?

John Gasaway: Two things, I guess. First, I was tremendously impressed by Gregg Easterbrook’s superb (if much traveled) “Tuesday Morning Quarterback” weekly feature on the NFL. I loved it, I realized, because it’s about the games. Beat writers are defined by having the access needed to get quotes and so those quotes tend to drive so much of what we read in the way of coverage. But as a fan I don’t really care about who said what (unless it’s really good). I’d rather talk about the game. And here was a guy–a fan–asking questions like: “Why do teams punt from the opponent’s 45 when they’re down 10 with six minutes to go?”

Second, during the college hoops season I invariably found myself spending time chasing down interesting articles online in various papers covering various teams. And the thought I had was that it’d be handy if there were a website that did for these articles kind of what “The Note” does for politics: to function as a one-stop shop that may not be comprehensive but at least says, “Here are the most interesting articles about Big Ten hoops in today’s papers.”

Scott: I’m interested on your background. Where do you hail from and what is your other gig besides writing ascerbic comments about Big 10 teams?

JG: I grew up in Springfield, Illinois, and graduated from the University of Illinois. I have a Ph.D. in communications from the U of I–if any of your readers have a burning desire to learn more about the use of the party press in the presidential election of 1840, I am definitely their guy. Today I live in Minneapolis with my wife Nicole and our sons Robert and William (ages 3 and seven months).

Scott: Another blogger with little tykes. Oh, the late night writing. Ok, let me ask next, since you are the Big 10 guru, how would you rate the conference this year versus other conferences? How would you rate it versus past Big 10 seasons?

JG: I don’t know about “guru” but I would rate the Big Ten this year as, at a minimum, inferior to the ACC and Big East, in large part because of the soft middle and really soft bottom of the conference. Penn State and Purdue are two of the poorest performers, empirically speaking, in recent conference history. Put it this way: Michigan, not exactly the second coming of UCLA ’73 this year, was clearly a cut above those two teams–that’s how weak the Nittany Lions and the Boilermakers were.

And the Big Ten isn’t as strong as it used to be. As recently as 2001 we sent seven teams to the tournament.

That being said, I don’t get too caught up in the whole “The Big Ten is down” thing. The Big East has been down and now it’s up. The Big 12 was down, then up (2003), and now it’s kind of neither. Even the ACC was comically over-hyped in December (seven teams in the top 25). These things are cyclical. With Tom Izzo and Bo Ryan in place and with newer guys like Bruce Weber and Thad Matta (and, who knows, maybe Matt Painter will turn out well), I think the future is bright. They just need the recruits.

Scott: Is there one particular newspaper writer or blogger that you rate as a must read, besides Yoni Cohen or Ken Pomeroy?

JG: Besides Yoni Cohen and Ken Pomeroy? I could go on for hours about both of those guys. Well, Kyle Whelliston (mid-majority report) does things with his blog that are simply on a different level as far as creativity goes–but more importantly he really really knows his hoops. And, even though I’m partial to the Big Ten, I have to tell you that Ryan Kobliska’s Hawkeye Hoops blog is an essential read. Fans of Cincinnati take note: I guarantee if you read Ryan’s blog this week you will learn things about your own team that you didn’t know before.

At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve always enjoyed what for lack of a better term I’d call the Chicago school of sportswriting as a blood sport. I think Rick Morrissey of the Chicago Tribune is probably the best current practitioner. Mike Nadel with the Copley News Service is also a good read. Sometimes I read some columnists out of Detroit and I think they’re trying for that Chicago tone but they can’t quite get it and they come across as merely sniping.

As far as beat writers, Jeff Shelman covers Minnesota for the Minneapolis Star Tribune but he also does a weekly college hoops “notebook” that’s outstanding. (Plus he writes for espn.com.) Mark Tupper is indispensable for Illinois coverage. And I really enjoy Terry Hutchens’ “Ask the Expert” feature on Indiana hoops in the Indianapolis Star.

Scott: How do you see the conference doing in this year’s tourney?

JG: Illinois has a sweet, sweet bracket, one that could turn out to be as smooth as Michigan State’s in 2001. That being said, in the second round I fear Nevada more than I do Texas.

If Michigan State makes it by Old Dominion, it should be very interesting to watch them against Syracuse (again, assuming the Orangemen get there). On paper State should be able to absolutely destroy the ‘Cuse on the glass. And Izzo will run the ball up the court at every opportunity and get easy baskets before the defense gets set.

Wisconsin’s had two incredibly tough draws the last two years and been bounced out of the tournament by Pitt and Kentucky. This year I can see them beating Kansas but I can’t see them beating Connecticut.

I said in the blog today that Minnesota, if they get past Iowa State, can give Carolina a game. But the Heels might be too tough. With Iowa so much depends on how the game is called. Steve Alford places such an emphasis on Brunner driving and drawing fouls.

Scott: If you could change 3 things that the tournament committee decided upon, what would they be?

JG: I would change Louisville to a 3 and drop Oklahoma to a 4. (Next)I’m changing the rules,(as)this one isn’t something the committee could take care of. I would make every game available on an ESPN Plus-style basis. I would (also) change the names of the regionals back to directional terms.

Scott: Who are your regional final teams and who do you have in the final 4? Who is your championship and overall winner?

JG: Elite Eight: Illinois, Oklahoma State, Louisville, Gonzaga, Carolina, Connecticut, Duke, and Oklahoma.

Final Four: Illinois, Louisville, Connecticut, Oklahoma.

National Finals: Illinois vs. Connecticut.

National Champion: Illinois. (Guess where I went to school.)

Scott: Who is your one sleeper team in each region? (I define sleeper 6 seed or lower)

UM-Milwaukee, Texas Tech, Wisconsin, Utah.

Scott: Below is the interview I did with Ken Pomeroy.

Scott: What inspired you to start Blah, Blah, Blah?

Ken Pomeroy: Mainly it was from taking a job in basketball-starved Montana, and not having too many people there who were interested in college hoops. So I needed an outlet to express my thoughts. But there was also an aspect where I was disappointed in how little innovation there was on the statistical side of college hoops.

Scott: What is your background and how did you wind up out West?

KP: I grew up in the DC area and went to college at Virginia Tech and then Wyoming on my way to becoming a meteorologist. Meteorology has taken me to the wide open spaces of the mountain time zone for the last five years. I currently live in Wyoming.

Scott: Over the past week there was a controversy over the RPI’s that ESPN Bracketology was using versus what you were using the week prior to the tourney. What was that all about?

KP: The NCAA was calculating the RPI differently from ESPN and myself. This was discovered when the NCAA gave folks a glimpse of some teamís RPI in a column posted on si.com last week, and another piece of information relating to conference RPI was revealed the same day. The two items together made it clear that our formulas were in error. ESPN (and CBS for that matter) continued to use the erroneous formula through Selection Sunday.

Scott: How does your ratings differ from CollegeRPI.com or Joe Lunardi’s? Did you grow up following the Sagarin Ratings?

Scott: Yes, Sagarin was a big inspiration in my ratings work. The power ratings differ from the RPI mainly in the respect that they factor in margin of victory and put more emphasis on recent play. On a more fundamental level, the power ratings are designed to predict the future whereas the purpose of the RPI is to assess the past.

Scott: That’s what I like your ratings system the best, as it’s such a great predicting tool. Why do you think that statistical research of basketball is so far behind baseball? Outside of the people already listed, plus Dean Oliver and John Hollinger is there someone else our readers should check out on basketball data?

KP: Basketball is behind baseball because baseball makes so much more sense. Offense in baseball is the sum of the individual performances, and defense can be easily quantified. In basketball, a lot more is dependent on the interaction of players. Guys like Allen Iverson and Chris Webber are great as the go-to guys on their respective teams, but put them together and unexpected things happen. There is only one ball to go around and the stats of both of those guys are based on each of them being in control of it. Itís hard to predict what will happen when they are forced to share.

As far as other names in the basketball analysis realm, Oliver and Hollinger are the kings and everyone else is just following. Things will change soon I am sure. I would encourage everyone to check out the work Ryan did at Hawkeye Hoops (hawkeyehoops.blogspot.com) this year. He focuses on Iowa, but that was fortunate for all of us, because the Hawkeyes lost their leading scorer Pierre Pierce about a month ago. While the big media were hailing that as a disaster for Iowa, Ryan showed that they probably wouldnít suffer much because Pierce wasnít very efficient in getting his points. Lo and behold, Iowa ended up with an at-large bid after all.
(Note from Scott: I’ve been reticent to pimp Ryan’s site this year, as an Iowa grad, I wasn’t sure if I was so impressed with it because of my bias. Well, after John and Ken have stated on an individual basis how great his site is let me just add, check it out,
as Ryan uses numbers like the very best sabermetricians do.)

Scott: If you could change 3 things that the tournament committee decided upon, what would they be?

KP: I donít have too many beefs with the brackets. I tried to pick them apart today, but the best discrepancy I could find was I thought ODU as a 12 should have been swapped with Vermont as a 13. When thatís the biggest problem, then I guess they did a good job. I would have traded Buffalo for UAB, but their resumes were both pretty suspect. Maryland and Notre Dame could have made things easier on the committee by winning their first round conference games.

Scott: How do the strength of each brackets break down statistically?

KP: Overall, thereís not much difference between the regions. I would say the order is Chicago, Syracuse, Austin, Albuquerque. But I donít think anyone seeded 1 though 4 is looking at another region and saying ďit would be so much easier to get to the Final Four if we were there.Ē

Scott: Who are your regional final teams and who do you have in the final 4? Who is your championship and overall winner? Where does your statistical data findings differ from what your gut feeling is during this tourney?

KP: In an effort to win my first office pool ever, Iím going with UNC over Oklahoma State, with Wake and Michigan State as my other Final Four teams. The other regional final teams I have are Illinois, Washington, Oklahoma, and Connecticut. Statistically, Kansas, Kentucky, and Duke look pretty good on paper, but for some reason I canít see any of them getting to St. Louis. Oklahoma also is a team that I would love except that I have a terrible fear of Kelvin Sampsonís ability to lead a team deep into the tourney. It dates back to his days at Washington State over ten years ago, so itís totally irrational I am sure. I will also say I am not nearly as confident in UNC as I was a month ago.

Scott: Who is your one sleeper team in each region? (I define sleeper 6 seed or lower)

KP: Since I think all of the 6 seeds are dangerous and thatís a boring answer, Iíll do it this wayÖ.best chance of a top 4 seed going down in the first round Ė Penn over BC, and Utah State over Arizona.

Scott: Have you had any emails from the traditional media writers and have you gotten any feedback from players or coaches? Any particularly interesting correspondence to something you have written by readers?

KP: I have received something from seemingly every type of person associated with the game except one, and thatís a player. But I get most of the notable e-mails as the result of some sort of blunder on the RPI page. Interest in the efficiency data is lagging, but I did hear Dickie V say ďefficiencyĒ during an Illinois game once, so maybe weíre taking baby steps in that area.

Scott: Thanks to John and Ken for doing this interview with me. Now go to their sites and add them to your favorite places. We’re now officially ready, time to start the tourney.

5 thoughts on “Top College B-ball Bloggers Weigh In

  1. 1.  As a season ticket holder for the Washington Huskies I can tell you that despite their size they are able to play against teams with big guys.

    UW beat Utah early in the year without Brandon Roy who is arguably the best pro-prospect on the team.

    The Huskies were 5-1 against Arizona State and Arizona. Diagu,the Pac-10 player of the year, and Channing Fry are two of the top big guys in the nation and neither led to their team prevailing in the long-haul.

    The reason the UW is able to offset the new style of dominant big-man is that their guards are lightning quick and allow the Huskies to crash the boards unlike any other team I’ve seen in a long while. It’s very difficult to explain just how valuable it is to be able to send 4 or 5 guys in for an offensive rebound because you know they are quick enough to get back and D up after crashing the boards.

    Give the Huskies a chance, if Larry Bird thinks they can do it you should too.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/15/sports/ncaabasketball/15huskies.html

  2. 3.  Sorry, I am not the same BlahBlahBlah.

    Could it be that the “comical overhyping” of the ACC had to do with the fact that the ACC absolutely kicked the crap out of the Big Ten in that Challenge, even more so than they usually do? Bottom line, Illinois is really good, but there’s a reason why they weren’t often challened within conference play.

  3. 4.  My favorite baseball and college hoops blogs come together at last — this feels like worlds are colliding.

    Vitale does occasionally mention possession/efficiency stats, which Dean Oliver cites going as far back as Dean Smith and Al McGuire 25-30 years ago. Odd how stats can come and go… It’s kind of like finding out Earl Weaver calculated OPS (which, come to think of it, maybe he secretly did).

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