The Pi-Rate Ratings

March 12, 2021

The All-Encompassing Master Bracketnomics Paradigm–2021

Hello PiRate Ratings fans.  We here never take for granted just how intelligent the typical reader of this site is.  The contributors to this site are all geriatric lovers of mathematics, basically statistics.  Personally, I (The Captain of the Ship) learned to love math at an early age by calculating the Earned Run Averages of Sandy Koufax, Juan Marichal, Dean Chance, and Gary Peters at a time when they were trying to stay under 2.00.  When Bob Gibson had that miraculous 1968 season, I convinced my classmates to get into baseball just for the stats.  This love for statistics led to me becoming a sabermetric baseball analyst in my 50’s, where I worked for a Major League team for a few years.  Additionally, it led to my designing an advanced strategy baseball game called, “Sabertooth Baseball.”  If you are into tabletop baseball and want something more than a generic game that leaves out half of the strategies in real baseball, then check out our sister site, https://sabertoothbaseball.wordpress.com , where you can find a link to purchase the game online for the ridiculously low opening day sale of $7.  We send you a Zip file of player cards, charts, directions, ballparks, and even managerial strategies used by the team.  You print them out and use dice to play the game.  Other games might cost $75-100 to purchase a boxed game.  Printing the card yourself saves you more than $60, and you can keep the charts and rules open on a computer if you don’t want to print them.

Back to basketball and the real meat of today’s publication.  The PiRate Ratings have been isolating technical data and back-testing our theories as far back as there are statistics for college basketball.  Over the years, we have isolated certain data that serves as an NCAA Tournament team “fingerprint.”  We have noticed patterns where teams that made the Final 4 and won the championship shared similar stat profiles.  As basketball analytics came to be, we found new data that made the fingerprint much more accurate.  For several years, we enjoyed incredible success picking brackets, and many of our readers commented that they won their bracket contests.  Included in our selections were crazy things like picking George Mason to sneak into the Sweet 16, possibly make it to the Elite 8, and to actually be a dark horse to make the Final 4.  When they did exactly that, somebody at one of the top newspapers in the US the next year linked to us, and our site crashed for the only time in its existence.

In other years, we discovered negative data that told us that certain teams were early upset possibilities.  We mentioned more than once that Georgetown and Vanderbilt, two highly-seeded teams, were likely to lose in the opening games to lower-ranked teams, because of our now famous “R+T” rating.  The Hoyas and Commodores both had negative R+T ratings those years, and they both lost just like we predicted.  When the best R+T teams won the national championship three consecutive years, you noticed and began putting the pressure on us to replicate our success.

Alas, like a hot player at the horse track, our system began to falter.  It wasn’t the statistics that led to a swoon; it was the way the game was played.  Basketball analytics began to affect the game the same way that Money Ball affected baseball.  The Four Factors became the Weighted On Base Average of basketball.  And, then the NCAA changed the shot clock from 35 to 30 seconds.  That little five second change greatly altered the way basketball was played.  

Last year, we spent hour after hour re-tooling our system.  We didn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, but we altered how the data would be used.  New back-testing showed that our new data might be as accurate of a predictor as the original data.  We were three days away from releasing the tutorial, when THUD, the season came to an end four days before Selection Sunday.

It looks like the Indiana Extravaganza will take place in 2021.  So, we can finally reveal to you our updated Bracketnomics for 2021.  After you read this, you have earned a PhD in Bracket-picking (or maybe in wasting time.)  Please enjoy this.  It is still experimental, so please do not use this information for potential financial investment purposes.  A free bracket-picking contest is okay.

Criteria #1: Offensive Efficiency, Defensive Efficiency, and True Shooting Percentage

This should be obvious.  The object of the game is to score points and prevent the other team from scoring points.  The way to score points is to put the ball in the basket, and the way to prevent points from being scored is to force the other team to not put the ball in the basket.  Because there is a way to score one point, two points, and three points, an overall all-encompassing percentage that includes points scored all three ways has been created.  It is called “True Shooting Percentage.”  Its formula is: (100 * Pts) / (2 * (FGA + (.475 * FTA)))

If a team scores 85 points and takes 65 field goal attempts and 25 free throw attempts, then plugging in the formula:  (100 * 85) / (2 * (65 + (.475 * 25))) = 55.3%

When a team has a true shooting percentage offense that is 10% or better than their defensive true shooting percentage, you are looking at a gem.

More importantly, there are offensive and defensive efficiency ratings adjusted by factoring schedule strength.  Look at the top 20 in both categories, making note of any team that appears in both offensive and defensive efficiency.  When a team appears in both top 20’s, they have Final 4 potential.  If a team appears in the top 10 in both, they have to be considered a strong contender to cut the nets down when they play “One Final Moment.”

If a team is in the top 10 in one category but not in the top 50 in the other, this team is good enough to get past the Sweet 16, and usually one Final Four team will have this characteristic, but only twice in the 21st Century (both times Connecticut) has the overall National Champion been outside the top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.  For what it’s worth, the Huskies moved into the top 20 during the tournament.

If you have to give one of the two efficiency stats more weight than the other, it should be the offense and not the defense like one might think.  Basketball is an offensive game.  Baseball is a defensive game.  For our purposes, a team with an offensive efficiency in the top 10 and a defensive efficiency in the top 20 that has an above average schedule strength is pure gold.

Criteria #2: Experienced and Clutch Players

It is rare for a team loaded with freshmen and sophomores that have no key upperclassmen in their playing rotation to make it to the Final Four.  Also, there needs to be a go-to player that can put his team on his shoulders and score the ultra-high leverage points.  What we are looking for here is a roster where at least one of the top 8 players is an experienced upperclassman, preferably with past NCAA Tournament experience.  We are also looking for a player that wants the ball with his team down one point and 10 seconds left in the game, or it can be a trio of guys where any one of the three could hit the last-second shot, even if they don’t generate the big headlines.

Criteria #3: Frontcourt Hero

In recent years, hitting from downtown has been the popular way to win games in the regular season.  We used to tell you to throw out the perimeter team as one that could never advance deep into the tournament, but times have changed.  Three-point shooting is now the base on balls of basketball.  However, the inside force is still the slugging percentage of basketball.  For a team to win six times after the Ides of March, they must have at least one inside force that contributes a double figure scoring average and a good number of average rebounds.  We personally look for a forward or center that averages 12 or more points per game and 7 or more rebounds per game, or two inside men that combine for 20 points and 12 rebounds per game.  If the team has one player that averages 14 points and 5 rebounds per game, and another player that averages 8 points and 7 rebounds per game, this is satisfactory.  That qualifies for enough inside force to win a close game when the opponent has the outside shooting advantage.

Criteria #4: Balance

This is an alternative to the team where one player can carry them to win after win.  If a team does not have a stud NBA Lottery pick on its roster, if they have a balanced team where four or more players average double figure scoring, it can be hard to shut them all down in a game.  One of the four is likely to have a hot hand.  It may not be as immediate, but sometimes the balanced team has the advantage if the one-star team’s star has his one off night of the season in the Sweet 16.  

Criteria #5: A head coach with NCAA Tournament experience, preferably winning Tournament experience

If the coach of a tournament team has taken a past team to the Final Four, he’s in elite company.  Treat this coach like royalty.  If the coach has taken a past team to the Elite 8, he’s almost as royal.  If a coach has taken past teams to multiple Sweet 16’s, then these coaches deserve bonus points.

Criteria #6: Strength of Schedule

A team from one of the bottom 10 conferences might go 28-3 in the regular season, and possess all of the above criteria above (maybe not criteria #5).  But, this team has probably played 90% of its games against Quadrant 3 and Quadrant 4 opponents, maybe all of its games against the bottom half.

Meanwhile, another team from one of the top three leagues might have stats that make you wonder why this team was invited to the Dance.  Schedule strength is the difference.  Annually, a team with a record like 19-14 from the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, or SEC gets an invitation to the tournament and wins a tournament game, while a team that went 29-4 and lost in the championship game of their low-major conference tournament is put in the NIT field, and a 30-4 low-major conference champion loses without really competing in their game.  

To win the NCAA Championship, a team must have defeated quality opposition and not just teams ranked lower than 250.  No team in the modern era has won the national championship with a schedule strength outside of the top 40.  There have been multiple #1 seeds with schedule strengths below #40 that did not make it to the Final 4, and every one that made it to the Final 4 failed to win the National Championship.  Butler in 2010 came within a couple inches of winning the title with a schedule strength outside the top 40.

Teams with weaker strengths of schedule can make it to the Final 4, but not very frequently.  To win four games in the Dance, a team usually has to be battle-tested.  If a mid-major has a schedule strength between 50 and 100, they have to be really strong in other criteria to pick to go to the Final 4.  In 2018, when Gonzaga advanced to the National Championship Game, their strength of schedule was in this range.  Butler’s strength of schedule was also in this range when they twice advanced to the Championship Game.  Loyola of Chicago just barely qualified.

Criteria #7: A Regular Season or Conference Tournament Champion

Rarely does a team win the national championship after not winning either their regular season or conference tournament championship.  It happens, but the conference championship and conference tournament championship teams have already proven they can win games when the money is on the line.

Criteria #8: Three-point Shooting Percentage

In the past, teams that relied on the three-point shot could be counted out after the Sweet 16.  That is no longer the case.  But, shooting three pointers is not the key; making them is the key.  It doesn’t matter how many of them a team takes, the percentage is the key.  Look for teams that hit 3 out of every 8, or to round it to a whole number, better than 37%.  3 of 8 from behind the arc is better than 5 of 9 inside.

Criteria #9: Offensive Rebounding Percentage

One would think that a rebound is a rebound, but offensive rebounds lead to more points than defensive rebounds, obviously because an offensive rebound is made within shooting range of a team’s basket, while a defensive rebound is more than 50 feet away from a team’s basket.

The key number here is also 37%.  If a team gets offensive rebounds on 37% or more of its missed shots, they are going to be tough to beat in the Big Dance.  Many times, close games are decided by key offensive rebounds in the final two minutes, even the final possession of games.  If a team has made it to the Sweet 16, if they can crash the offensive boards, they are dangerous.

Criteria #10: Defensive 2-Point Field Goal Percentage

After telling you that three-point shooting has become the rage these days, we’ve now mentioned having an inside scoring force, the ability to hit the offensive glass, and now we tell you not to look at three-point shooting percentage defense.  The ability to stop the close shots is much more important in tournament games.  About 60% of all field goal attempts are two-point attempts, and remember that an easy shot inside of five feet from the basket is still more important than an open three-point shot.  If a team has weak inside defense, and the opponent hits 10 baskets inside five feet of the basket, they are likely to consistently have a higher true shooting percentage than the team that averages eight made three-pointers per game.  Over the long haul, the three-point shooting magicians may have higher true shooting percentages, but their chances of having six consecutive higher true shooting percentages are much lower than the team that can get inside of five feet consistently and hit 12 of 18 shots in this crip zone .  

Look for a team with a defensive two-point shooting percentage lower than 45%.  Opponents will not be able to consistently score points against these teams.

Criteria #11: Free Throw Rate

We used to pan great free throw shooting teams, because they never won national championships.  In fact, for years, the national champion was always a sub-70% free throw shooting team.  None of the great UCLA teams during their 10-title run in 12 years shot 70% at the foul line.  We showed for years how the power team that may have averaged 18 of 27 at the foul line only lost three points to the top free throw percentage team that went 21 of 27.  These sub-70% free throw shooting teams easily made up that three points and more by controlling the boards against the finesse teams.

Free Throw Rate doesn’t look at free throw percentage.  Drawing fouls on the defense is more important, and we’ve been late coming to this side of belief.  We believed for years that free throws made per 100 possessions was a more important way to measure free throw rate than the standard Free Throw Attempts divided by Field Goal Attempts.  But, the key part of this stat is getting to the foul line more than it is making the foul shots.  Obviously, it is not great to fail to score at the charity stripe, but the essence here is still the same; if a team has to make foul shots to win games, they aren’t going to do so six times in the NCAA Tournament.  But, if they get to the foul line with higher frequency, it means two things much more important than scoring free throws.  First, the opponents are likely to see key players sitting on the bench with foul trouble.  More importantly, a team that gets to the foul line frequently probably is too talented offensively for average and above average defenses to handle.  Why are most fouls committed?  They are committed when a defensive player cannot adequately guard the offensive player.

The key stat to look for is a team with a FT Rate in excess of 37%.  Defensively, look for a team that has a FT Rate lower than 31%.  Those two stats tell you which offenses are dangerous and which defenses are tournament tough.

Criteria #12: The Old PiRate Data Still Matters

The old mainstay PiRate Ratings data still matters.  Those stats include:A scoring margin of 10 or more points for Final Four potential, and a scoring margin of 8 or more points for Sweet 16 and Elite 8 teams.  More than 80% of Final 4 teams across time have scoring margins of 10 points or more.  Don’t expect a team with a scoring margin of a few points to win four games in the NCAA Tournament.

A: Field Goal % margin.  Look for teams that have a regular FG% that is 7.5% better than their Defensive FG%.  If that number is 10% or more, this is a tough team.  A team with a 48% FG% and 38% defensive FG% is a gem.

B: Winning % away from home.  If a team won 75% of their games not played at home, they are tournament ready.  If a 25-8 team went 17-0 at home and 8-8 away from home, this team is a pretender.  A team has to win six consecutive games away from home to cut the nets, so don’t look at a .500 team away from home to beat six quality opponents.

C: A lengthy winning streak during the season.  Do you really think a team that never won more than three consecutive games during the season will now win six in a row against better competition?  Most national champions had either a winning streak of 10 or more games or multiple winning streaks of six or more games.

Criteria #13: R+T ©

We saved this one for last.  It is our personal creation.  Way back in the early days of the career of one of our favorite college basketball analysts ever, Clark Kellogg, we heard him mention the term, “Spurtability.”  He explained that teams with spurtability tended to win more NCAA Tournament games than others.  A team that could go on a quick scoring run in a short time frequently won NCAA Tournament games.

Then, we remembered back to our youth, when the NCAA Tournament was the UCLA Invitational.  When UCLA beat Duke in the 1964 National Championship Game, they broke open a close game with a 16-0 run in just two and a half minutes!  This was before the three-point shot existed.  They scored 16 points in about 150 seconds by forcing Duke to turn the ball over against their scary 2-2-1 Zone Press, and they converted over and over with fast break baskets.  The game was over after this.  That wasn’t the only time that year that 30-0 UCLA did that.  Coach John Wooden, in a lecture given to amateur coaches in the 1980’s, said that the 1964 team had at least one run like this in all 30 games that year.

Take two teams evenly matched playing in the Elite 8.  Both are highly ranked and deserving of that ranking.  Both are among the top teams in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and both played tough schedules.  With six minutes to go in the game Team A leads Team B by four points, when Team B goes on a 12-2 run in the next two minutes, forcing Team A to call time out, as they now trail by six points with four minutes to go.  Team B holds on for the win.

Can we predict the probability that one team will enjoy a spurt like this, and the other team will not?  We think most teams can enjoy a spurt like this, but we believe we can estimate which teams have the best chance to go on a decisive game-winning spurt.  That’s what the R+T rating calculates.

How does a team go on a big scoring run in short time?  We will tell you up front that a 16-2 run rarely comes about from seven regular possessions by both teams, where the 16-point team scores four two-point baskets, two three-point baskets, and two free throws, while the other team scores just one basket and misses six other times down the floor.

The spurt almost always happens due to a combination of turnovers forced, especially steals, and controlling the boards at both ends.  Getting multiple second and third shots on offense and allowing one shot per possession on defense leads to these checkmate spurts.

Looking at a teams’ stats, winning the rebounding and turnover stats, or what some call the “Hustle Stats,” predicts a team’s chances of having a big spurt.  All that’s left is to come up with a formula for Spurtability, and that’s what our R+T rating is.  Here it is:

(R * 2) + (S * 0.5) + (6 – Opp. S) + T

To explain: R = rebounding margin; S = average steals per game (and Opp. S = how many steals per game given up); and T = Turnover Margin.  Remember that fewer turnovers per game than committed is positive turnover margin, and more turnovers per game than forced is negative turnover margin.

Example:  Let’s Say that State U averages 38.6 rebounds per game and gives up 34.3 rebounds per game.  Their rebound margin is 4.3.  State averages 7.8 steals per game, and opponents steal the ball from State 5.1 times per game.  State averages 12.4 turnovers a game and forces 13.9 turnovers per game for a turnover margin of 1.5.  Now we have all the variables we need to calculate State’s R+T number.

(4.3 * 2) + (7.8 * 0.5) + (6 – 5.1) + 1.5  = 14.9

What this shows us is that State U has an R+T of 14.9 or an average of about 15 points per game in spurtability.

Is this good?  It is rather good but not champion good.  In most years, a handful of teams in the NCAA Tournament will have R+T ratings above 20.  In several years, the team with the highest R+T rating among those teams from the Power Conferences has won the national championship.

One more thing about R+T ratings. Any time a team has a negative R+T rating, throw them out immediately, even if they are a big-name team from a power conference.  No spurtability teams that have to win games by consistently winning more possessions in a half-court game are rarely going to make the Sweet 16.  One of the reasons the PiRate Ratings gained popularity was with our ability to predict higher-seed first round losers just by their having negative R+T ratings.  Two schools, Georgetown and Vanderbilt, earned three NCAA Tournament bids in an overlapping era between 2008 and 2013, and each time the Hoyas and Commodores had negative R+T ratings.  We picked against them in the first round in all six cases and went 6-0!  Georgetown lost as a #3 seed to Ohio U in 2010.  In 2011, they lost as a #6 seed to #11 VCU, in a game where the Rams R+T was 20+ points better.  In 2013, they were a 3-seed once again and lost to Florida Gulf Coast.

Vanderbilt had negative R+T ratings in 2008, 2010, and 2011.  In 2008 as a 4-seed, they lost to Siena.  In 2010, as a 4-seed, they lost to Murray St.  In 2011 as a 5-seed, they lost to Richmond.

On the other hand, in 2017, North Carolina finished the regular season ranked #6 in the nation with seven losses.  Villanova, Gonzaga, Arizona, Kentucky, and Kansas were rated ahead of the Tar Heels in the polls, and most so-called experts were going with Kentucky, Kansas, and Villanova as the favorites to win the championship.  We begged to differ.  North Carolina had one of the highest R+T ratings since we began calculating the rating.  It was almost 30.  We picked the Tar Heels to win the title, and they did that by going on frequent scoring spurts in those six games.  The difference in the championship game was the R+T rating, as Carolina enjoyed huge advantages in rebounding and turnover rates.  Gonzaga clearly had the better shooting and free throw shooting that night.

1 Comment

  1. […] The tutorial is quite easy to read, and if you haven’t read it, you can check it out here:  https://piratings.wordpress.com/2021/03/12/the-all-encompassing-master-bracketnomics-paradigm-2021/ […]

    Pingback by 2021 Bracketnomics Report | The Pi-Rate Ratings — March 16, 2021 @ 8:36 am


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