When it comes to statistical geekery, there's no better sport than baseball. Not only are there dozens of stats that can be combined to measure players or teams, there's plenty of time during games to crunch the numbers. Michael Lewis' best-selling book Moneyball celebrated the use of scientific formulas for on-base and slugging percentages.
But only recently has the slide rule set grown interested in college basketball, thanks to coaches like Wisconsin's Bo Ryan. Ryan makes no secret of his love for measuring points per possession as a way of indicating success, because it's considered a 'tempo-free' stat.
Whereas total points, rebounds, assists and turnovers can fluctuate based on whether a team prefers a slower, half-court offense or a faster-paced, run-and-gun game, points per possession are a good measure for teams of any style.
Ryan wants the Badgers to average more than one point per trip down the floor while limiting the other team to less than a point. And because Ryan has a staff of guys in suits whose job it is to chart possessions throughout the game, he has these numbers at his disposal at any given moment.
They are not, however, readily available to the general public. Box scores and cumulative stats are the traditional numbers, but include no analysis. Thankfully, there's John Gasaway's delightfully dorky blog, Big Ten Wonk. Borrowing from other hoops geeks, Gasaway presents a way to calculate possessions simply by looking at a game's box score or a team's cumulative statistics over a season.
His formula looks like this: Possessions = FGA (field goals attempted) ' Off Reb (offensive rebounds) + TO (turnovers) + [0.475 x FTA (free throws attempted].
You then divide that number into total points to get points per possession, also known as offensive efficiency. Against Minnesota last Saturday, the Badgers scored 68 points in approximately 64 possessions for an offensive efficiency figure of 1.06. That's a pretty good number (the Badgers are averaging 1.15 so far this season), and it goes a long way toward explaining the Badgers' domination of the Gophers, who had a dismal offensive efficiency of 0.70.
Of course, offensive efficiency is meaningless if your team is a sieve on defense. So far this season, the Badgers are giving up only 0.85 points per possession, but that includes some blowouts against shaky opponents. They gave up 1.08 points per possession in their 89-75 win over Pittsburgh, but offset that number with a startling 1.29 on offense.
Since he focuses on the Big Ten, Gasaway prefers to use stats gleaned from conference games in assessing overall efficiency margins. In five Big Ten seasons under Ryan, the Badgers have averaged 1.07 in Big Ten play while giving up an average of 0.97, for an efficiency margin of 0.10. Those numbers, as much as conference championship trophies and post-season accolades, indicate how good Ryan's teams have been.
The silence of the fans
Season tickets for UW men's basketball in the lower bowl at the Kohl Center cost $504, plus a minimum $150 donation to the Badger Fund. That breaks down to more than $31 per person per game. So you'd think the fans occupying those seats would try to get the most for their money and root in a big way for the nation's third-ranked team.
But last Saturday afternoon, with their team down 8-4 and badly in need of a defensive stop against Minnesota, the denizens of section 120 sat quietly in their red sweaters. It was as though they were waiting for the curtain to rise on a concert at the Overture Center, instead of trying to contribute to a home-court advantage in a border-battle rivalry against the hated Golden Gophers.
The mausoleum-like demeanor is not the fault of the venue's architecture or the student section or the Badgers' style of play, as some have argued. It's a result of the donation-based approach to ticket distribution that has driven the diehard fans up to the third level or, worse, home to their couches. They've been replaced by corporate ticket holders for whom the game is a pleasant enough diversion, but certainly no reason to get all red in the face.
That's unfortunate, because a top-five team deserves top-five fans, not the collection of duds currently taking up space in the Kohl Center.