Enthusiastic chest bump to guest-poster rbk from the always-excellent BruceBall Blog for the following post. Look for more from rbk here at RTT for a few weeks as I think he has several other guest posts planned. Also, be sure to check out his blog for his game previews, game recaps, and other BruceBall goodness. Thanks, rbk!
A quick survey of the Vol presence on the web indicates that people are a little worried about this basketball team. Actually no, not a little worried — people are in a full-on tizzy, with serious criticism of Coach Pearl for the first time in three years. What is wrong with my beloved BruceBallers, they wonder aloud as the Vols have lost three of their last seven. Of particular interest to me is this notion that the 2008-2009 Vols have been a disappointment to date and that the staff and players are somehow failing to live up to what has been established. This idea is bunk, and if you can bear with me through a few stats maybe I can assuage your concerns over the direction of the team.
First of all, let’s state the obvious: last year’s team, at 31-5, was clearly Coach Pearl’s best so far. To expect thirty wins again this season would not be realistic with the loss of five contributors (three starters) from that team. Partly I think Tennessee fans aren’t doing a good job of leaving the football mentality behind and putting their brains in basketball mode; expectations are running rampant and too many people were anticipating a duplicate of last season. It just doesn’t work that way when you lose 40 percent of your roster including one of the nation’s best shooters of the last decade. Expectations have to be tempered, attitudes adjusted, stress levels taken down a peg. Besides, is this team really struggling as much as UT fans think it is?
No, not really. People are not generally good at comparing things unless they are side by side; separate them by 9 months and we pretty much have no clue. We glorify past accomplishments, uprooting the past from reality and creating a standard that is hard to live up to. That’s human nature and the nature of the American sports fan, and it’s exactly what we are doing as we watch the 2008-2009 Vols try to find their way through a tough schedule.
Let’s use clean, unbiased stats to compare teams. The stat of choice for me when it comes to overall team strength is Pythag (Pythagorean Expected Winning Percentage—see here and here for more on the stat). The number in itself is not that meaningful to me but when used to rank and compare teams, I find it a fair and useful tool. So what does Pythag say about the relative strength of teams in the Pearl era?
It says the ‘08-‘09 team (Pythag national rank: 22) is as good as Pearl’s first (22), better than his second (31), and not as far behind his third (14) as most believe. Surprise anyone? I know, you don’t think this team looks as good as those teams. Something just doesn’t feel right. We’re disjointed, inconsistent, and play poor defense. Right?
Partly right. We do look disjointed at times and we have been inconsistent. This isn’t Coach Pearl’s best defensive team either, but would it surprise you to find out that when it comes to unbiased stats, it is his second best, beaten only by last year’s team? Adjusted for schedule, this team is number 51 in points allowed per possession; not great, but better than ’06-’07 (54) and much better than ’05-’06 (79). Time has clearly warped our sense of those teams. As much as we’ve praised his prior teams for playing all-out on defense, Coach Pearl still has not had his team where he wants it on a consistent basis. Only last year did it measure up to the contenders.
Most would agree that our offense is better than our defense, but it still may surprise some to find out that it’s on par with our prior offenses and better than a year ago. It ranks 16th in adjusted points per possession, while the previous Vols ranked 19th, 14th, and 8th in their respective years. Yes — despite all the missed threes and all the missed putbacks and all the turnovers, this team is scoring about as well as any other BruceBall team has.
They can’t all be 30 win seasons, and more importantly, basketball seasons and teams can’t be judged in January. Statistically, this team compares remarkably well to past teams on both ends of the floor and with steady improvement should find itself contending for a spot in the Sweet 16 and beyond. Our disappointment level as fans is due far more to our own warped view of history than it is to the performance of our current team. Yes, the team has warts — if you ever read my blog you know I have had gripes and frustrations, as all fans have. The warts are just not as big as they seem to fans.
So here’s my plea: sit back, be patient, and watch a young team grow. It won’t always be pretty, they won’t all be wins, and in the mind’s eye it may never compare to the good ol’ days of Dane Bradshaw and Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith. But it is the faulty hindsight of our mind’s eye, not the team’s performance, that is causing that view.