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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Final Four Fate-ology & The Jimmer Standard

The eventual outcome of the Men’s Basketball NCAA Tournament is one of innumerable possibilities. Going into it, any of the 68 teams have a shot of winning the 6 or 7 games necessary to become the champion, though some of their chances are quite remote. In the actual outcome, which at this point is still pending, it could be one of four remaining teams that very few people had in their brackets. I had Kentucky in because I’m not fond of Ohio St., and I had a feeling about the Wildcats. Enough that if I had the same feeling about the twenty more times, I’d be tempted to bet five dollars on them.

What we’ve witnessed the last couple years is an evening out of the talent, to where more teams have a legitimate chance to make it all the way. We’ve even seen a team out-Butler Butler, and now they’re going to play them. That one’s got to go into quintuple overtime, just because of the colliding destinies of these two squads, and to fall in line with Butler’s tournament so far.

In a given basketball game, there could be a couple dozen plays that are what could be termed circumstantial, happenstance, or luck. This actually applies to basketball more than other sports, because basketball has smaller events throughout the game typically resulting in scores, so it leads itself to this granular type of scrutiny. These things that could be termed luck — things that didn’t involve skill to any real degree, i.e.-bad calls, bad no-calls, lucky bounces, lucky rebounds, lucky breaks, bank shots, coach’s hair catching on fire, etc. — will generally tend to even out, or at least the margin won’t be substantial enough to cause a perceptible impact on the outcome.

If one team is superior to the other, these occurrences don’t affect who the winner is, rather it would take a subpar performance for that team to get beat. In essence, they would have to beat themselves. The cliché holds water. However, when two teams are fairly evenly matched, even a swing of an extra play or two benefitting one team can cause them to win the game. This is more likely to be the case in the close games. While it’s hard to measure how many serendipitous breaks a team had in order to know how lucky they were for the game to be close, on average, the score of the game is close because the teams are evenly matched and not due to one team having an abundance of fortuitous developments. But it only takes one.

In looking at the 65 tournament games so far, 15 of them were either decided by 2 points or less or went into overtime. This could be considered a break-off point to where the losing team could justifiably say that one changed event in the game would have turned it their way. Out of over 100 possessions in a contest, that can be such a miniscule margin between victory and defeat, to almost suggest that fate can be a factor in who wins and who doesn’t.

Note that of those 15 close games, 7 of them were played by the four teams remaining in the tournament — Butler, Virginia Commonwealth (or VCU to all the longtime VCU fans from last week), Kentucky and Connecticut (or UConn to those who like to conserve on syllables). Think about that… almost half of all the close games involved the four teams who survived. And each of the four had at least one of those. Butler leads everyone with three such games. They have been very fortunate to dodge a bullet on three separate occasions, walking a very thin tightrope. Kentucky has dodged it twice, and Virginia C. and Connecticut each once. And there are degrees, because an overtime game would be the most precarious.

To get to the top this year has required a measure of good fortune. You basically have to be a survivor. One only wonders how long Butler can keep the magic act alive. Keep in mind that Butler lost games this year to Wright State, Youngstown State, Evansville, Valparaiso, and Milwaukee (twice). They’ve done things ugly this year. And now they’re dressed for the dance? Inconceivable!

I’ll propose a general premise that when a game goes to overtime, both teams had a 50% chance of winning that game in regulation, where any one scoring event would have tilted the scales. With a 1-point loss, it could be something like a 33% chance for the team that lost, and with a 2-point loss, something like a 25% chance. Since this is highly theoretical, we’re going to go with these figures for the sake of argument and not dwell on their methodology too much. What it implies is that if Butler played the schedule again, it would likely lose one of those three close games. Florida played Butler even-up for 40 minutes, so it could be said that Florida had a 50% claim on that game from a probability standpoint. Florida has just as much likelihood of advancing to the Final Four in that game’s situation as Butler does. Or in other words, Florida being in the Final Four is just as likely as Butler already being in the Final Four.

But then we need to revise this a little bit. In Florida’s previous game, they went to overtime against BYU. So BYU was just as likely to advance to play Butler as Florida was. So the combination of BYU and Florida is just as likely to be in Butler’s spot right now as Butler is. In 25% of the scenarios played out through this simplified simulation, BYU gets to the Final Four. This might not seem significant until you compare it with the rest of the field. Almost no other team can claim that degree of probability. Not Kansas. They were convincingly defeated by V. Commonwealth, and didn’t have much chance to win that if adjusted by one play, or even by two, three or four for that matter. Not Duke. They got dismantled by Arizona. (Thank you, Wildcats!)

So here’s the breakdown for how much each team probabilistically earned a berth in the Final Four...

Likelihood to be in Final Four based on tournament performance
Connecticut (.75)
Kentucky (.75 x .75)
Virginia Commonwealth (.50)
Florida St. (.50)
Florida (.50 x .50)
BYU (.50 x .50)
Butler (.75 x .67 x .50)
Ohio St. (.25)
Arizona (.75 x .25)
Princeton (.25 x .75)
Pittsburgh (.33 x .50)

It’s another way of saying how close each of these teams got to the Final Four, or how lucky or unlucky they were to get in or not. Now, the likes of Kansas and North Carolina got close in terms of games, but their losses were low-probability losses.

So then people wonder: what happened with Jimmer? Did something unforeseen happen? Should BYU have gone farther? Let's address all of these systematically. What we find is the phenomenon of Jimmermania this year has also curiously spawned Reverse Jimmermania, where analysts feel compelled to criticize him for things they don’t criticize other players for. Which then raises the question: how good do you have to be so that when you score 32 points, it was a bad game?

If you listen to the pundits-that-be, you’ll be led to believe that Jimmer’s final performance was a letdown, and that bowing out in the third round didn’t live up to expectations. (Footnote: Did anyone’s bracket live up to expectations?) We can clear up these misconceptions rather as easily as a Jimmer drive to the hoop.

We’re finding that Jimmer is such a good basketball player that when he scores 30+ points, people still want to poke holes in his performance. He’s such a good player that people expect him to pump out 43 points every game while simultaneously leading his team over a top-10 opponent or #2 seed. Looking at the how, though, reveals more to us than just the what.

Realize he was only 1 simple missed shot from having a great game against Florida, and that shot might have been Kyle Collinsworth’s second free throw attempt with 48 seconds to go in regulation. Understandable, of course, but still a very simple discrepancy. Four inches to one side might have done it. Sometimes that’s all the difference is between winning and losing. The dichotomies of life can surely be cruel, as well as misleading. We see the stark contrast of victory vs. defeat, and some carry that over to mean there are no good performances in defeat.

They said he didn’t finish the game well down the clutch. Let’s revisit a little history here. With 7:08 left in the game, Florida had a 61-55 lead and it was getting to be crunch time. Jimmer proceeded to score 11 points over the next 4:14, three times bringing BYU back to tie the score. He was carrying the whole game on his back. So is that clutch, or not? You don’t have to hit a dramatic shot in the final minute in order to be considered clutch.

If another player scores 25 points, they call it a tremendous performance. Jimmer is in the 30’s, and they have to critique his dismount. He apparently didn’t distribute his points evenly across the 40 minutes to make it symmetrically pleasing. Or he didn’t hit a key basket in the last two minutes of the game, with the implication that points at a later juncture are somehow worth more than points at an earlier juncture. Actually, points early in a game most often set the tone for the rest of the game and control how teams have to adjust their strategy. Points are important throughout the whole game.

Realize that Jimmer scored 22 points in the second half. How you derive a bad game out of that, when the first half was also a respectable 10 points, is as puzzling as how to defend a guy with 30-foot range.

Jimmer is such a good player that people are scrambling for wild caveats to usurp him with. Some are willing to admit that he’s the nation’s premier “scorer,” meaning they don’t want to consider that he’s the best overall player. Sure, he scores… but those are just points and stuff. I’ll bet he doesn’t do the team’s laundry too. See?

They critique his zone defense. Um… yeah, he doesn’t simultaneously cover three areas effectively. He plays soft on defense in part because for him to get in foul trouble and have to sit on the bench for even a few minutes would kill the Cougars’ chances, and since they need him to play a full 40 minutes in the games against high-ranked opponents, he can’t be so aggressive on defense that he wears himself out.

You’ve heard the 11-for-29 mantra, where they’re grading his performance vs. Florida on style. With only one more made shot against Florida (12-for-29), Jimmer would've been right up against Kemba Walker's season FG % of .433. I don't think the difference between good and bad can be a margin of one shot. He was one shot away from being Kemba-esque on an off-night from long range? We’ll take it.

Commentators were also heard to be saying that getting 32 points on 29 field goal attempts isn’t productive enough. It certainly wasn’t one of his very best games of the season, but there’s a heck of a lot to choose from in that area, enough to fall out of that arena and still be extremely good. Holy cow… We’re now finding that Jimmer is so good he even makes himself look bad by comparison.

OK, so let’s examine this supposed catastrophe of having “only” three more points than you did shots. Kemba Walker had 3 or fewer points-over-shots during the 2011 season a whopping 16 times — including… yes, including mind you, **ahem** his most recent game against Arizona last Saturday. 17 shots for 20 points. Oh no! Kemba was terrible! Take all his posters down! Kembamania is no more! Matt Howard from Butler for POY!

Kemba even had 8 games during the season where he had fewer points than field goal attempts. How many games did Jimmer have like that? Uh, one. That’s sounds almost Jimmer-like, doesn’t it?

This surely isn’t an attempt to knock Kemba, because after all, he is the second-best player in the country. But what a nice litmus test to measure the slams by.

Much ado is made about Fredette’s going 3-for-15 from 3-point range in that fateful Florida game, as if 3-pointers encompass his complete game… with the implication that all he can do is shoot the long bomb. Setting the 3’s aside for a moment, he had 23 other points on 8-for-14 shooting plus 7-for-7 from the line. And think of every two free throws as going 1-for-1 from the field. He was essentially 14½-for-32½. Would you rather he went a tidy 7-for-12 and called it a day?

The agonizing thing about the Florida game was that BYU came so close you could smell the victory. They were just that one play away from pulling it out. The word ‘if’ can obviously have big connotations, but when you’re talking a single point, that doesn’t usually happen. There have been only five overtime games in the tournament so far this year, and only two 1-point victories that weren’t overtimes. Teams don’t very often come that close.

But taking as a whole what Jimmer put into the Florida game, carrying the team on his back, our asking him to do “just a little bit more” is what I’d compare to asking the Taj Mahal to decorate. Jimmer did everything that could’ve been expected. His 3-point shot wasn’t falling, but he continued to produce on drives and getting to the free-throw line. He was being shadowed all over the court for 44 minutes while being the point guard. He was obviously a marked man, since nobody else on BYU was able to step up on that night. And in the midst of that, he still put down 32 points. What the heck was he thinking?!!

The other agonizing thing is that we’ve seen how Jimmer can light up the scoreboard into the 40s, and it would’ve been nice for the rest of the basketball world get a chance to see it first-hand, and the sweet sixteen was the first time that he had that sizable audience. For any of you who haven’t seen the game against New Mexico in the Mountain West conference tournament where he poured in a career-high 52, you have to see it to believe it, and to fully appreciate it. Find someone who recorded it, frame it, and save it to show to your grandkids someday. They may say to you what my then 5-year-old son said several years ago after I showed him a Michael Jordan highlight video: “Dad, is Michael Jordan real?”

For further perspective on the Jimmer critique, let’s take a look at the other three Player of the Year candidates: Jared Sullinger (Ohio St.) and Nolan Smith (Duke) also went out in the third full round, to lower seeds, while having more support from their teammates. Both were on #1 seeded teams. Sullinger was 31-for-67 over his final six games, including the tournament. Smith scored in single digits in three of his last six games, including the tournament. Jimmer, meanwhile, put up 30 or more points in 7 of his final 8 games. Did people jump on Sullinger and Smith for not saving the world? They were supposed to go to the Final Four, after all. And it should be noted that Kemba has shot under 50% in all four tournament games, plus in the Big East final.

Teams can focus much of their energies on Jimmer, because BYU, while a solid team all around, doesn’t have other notable weapons. That can’t be done with Sullinger or Smith or Walker’s teams. And Fredette still led his team to a 32-5 record. He willed the rest of his team to a lot of those victories. And then Davies went out and it looked like the season was lost. Realize that when Georgetown and St. John’s lost one of their starters, their teams fell apart. They plummeted in the rankings and didn’t even make it out of the first round.

Consider also that of the eight teams seeded higher than BYU, none of them made it to the Final Four. The top 8 ranked teams are all gone from the tournament. It must be Jimmer’s fault! In retrospect, you could say that Pittsburgh got Jimmered, Ohio St. got Jimmered, Duke got Jimmered, and Kansas got Jimmered. It’s the year of the Jimmer.

So just because it wasn't a Hollywood ending for Fredette to nail the winning shot doesn't make it a bad game. Funny that if BYU had scored one more point in regulation, nobody would have thought he had a "bad" game. Maybe because he's such a great player, everyone expects him to rain in the 3’s every game. But why should that standard apply only to him?

Let's look for a moment at what Fredette did do. He led a patchwork team to the sweet sixteen that had just lost its best rebounder, and then took the #2 seeded team into overtime while nobody else on his team was in double figures. So how did BYU manage to take Florida into overtime if it wasn’t for Fredette? Consider that nobody else on the Cougs had more than 3 field goals or 2 free throws. And yet they still play up with the #2 seed into overtime. Must’ve been because of Jimmer’s bad game they were able to do that. ESPN’s Rick Reilly took the untenable position that in the Florida game both a) BYU provided Jimmer a set of teammates that looked like pizza delivery guys, and b) it was one of Jimmer’s worst career performances. So then I suppose it was the Cougar cheerleaders who somehow propelled BYU to a 68-68 deadlock at the end of regulation, because they were the only other ones on the court wearing tennis shoes.

You gotta be that good for people to say you failed under such conditions, because they don’t say that about anybody else if they play the same way. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery, and criticism while performing at a very high level might be the greatest form of praise.

This is indeed Jimmer’s year. This is the year fathers name their daughters Fredette, and claim that it was after their uncle Fred — I’ve got a niece being born today that I’m wishing that for… and I have an uncle Fred. To me, it’s a sign. This is the year that the “Y” on the mountain will find a giant basketball swishing into it, no doubt shot from ten feet beyond the arc. This is the year that teams across the country have learned what it’s like to get Jimmered, and that there’s no shame in it at all… in fact, it’s a privilege.

Kind of fitting that #32 scored 32 points in his final game, leading his team to a school-record 32 wins. The last game his team won was in the round of 32 against Gonzaga (which probably translates to 32 in some Slavic language). And I wonder how many 32-footers he launched? Somebody’s got to have a stat for that somewhere.

He led the country in scoring at 28.9 points per game, which was more than 4 points ahead of the next closest player. He also led the NCAA tournament in points per game, at 32.7. And wrap your mind around this one: Fredette led the country in total field goals made, but on top of that he also leads the country in free throws made. (Kemba Walker is currently five behind him in that category having already played two more games) So he has the most field goals and will be first or second in free throws made. That is what you call a fairly decently well-rounded game. Or just a Jimmer day at the office.

This is the time BYU fans will look back on and bask in the afterglow of a truly storybook season that very nearly had the script for leading a limping team to the Final Four. You don’t realize how close it really was. And it would’ve been so good for the game. Almost too good, really.

Besides, how far do we want to send Jimmer past iconic status? He’s already firmly ensconced in the stratosphere, and people are still wondering why he hasn’t done more. He’s Jimmer, and that’s all you really need to know. You can’t describe him. All you can do is shake your head and say, “Wow!”

I wonder if Fredette had simply done everything he could do toward the end of that Florida game, and then with a nod and a wink gave us one final send-off for his career with his signature long-range bomber from about 30 feet. If so, it was a fitting tribute in its own right. He never does anything undramatically, and how apropos that one of his final baskets as a college player would be from way downtown with the game on the line, bringing forth a chorus of “oohs” and “aahs”. One last time to bring the crowd to its feet, one last time to light up the scoreboard, one last time to send the announcers into a general conniption fit, one last time to see one of his utterly stunning plays. Just for old time’s sake… before he drifted off into the sunset. The way legends do.

1 comment:

Jeff Crandall said...

It's easy to dismiss Jimmer because his dimensions are forgettable - but his stats and had charm will live on. I had a blast watching Jimmer and even more fun saying his name.

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