The Pi-Rate Ratings

March 16, 2019

Bracketnomics 2019

How We Select Our Bracket

Welcome to PiRate Ratings Bracketnomics 2019.

This tutorial will help you earn your Bachelor of Madness Degree. Just remember that  it is not be a BS degree; it is a BM degree, so you may want to think twice before telling others you received it from PiRate U.

Most universities have some type of history that potential enrollees can examine before deciding to matriculate. That’s to make the school look worthy of consideration (and receive financial patronage). Our PiRate School of Bracketnomics has been a bit up and down throughout our history. When we first debuted as an online course, our selections and predictions put us into Ivy League/Cal Tech/MIT league. We isolated some key points from back-tested data that worked. Some of the early pointers that helped us pick brackets were things that would appear obvious to most people–scoring margin, rebounding margin, field goal percentage margin, turnover margin, schedule strength, and the ability to win away from one’s home court.

Our big breakthrough that helped us devise our first advanced metric came about when CBS’s Clark Kellogg mentioned that teams with “spurtability” tended to do best in the NCAA Tournament. What is spurtability? It is exactly what it sounds like, the ability for a team to go on a scoring spurt.

In the 1964 Final Four, tiny UCLA with no starter over 6 foot 5, went on an 11-0 scoring spurt to put away Kansas State in the semifinals, and then the following evening, put a much taller and favored Duke team away with an incredible 16-0 spurt in 2 1/2 minutes just before halftime.

How did a much smaller UCLA team put a taller, favored Duke team away with that 16-0 run? It didn’t happen because the Bruins scored baskets on eight half-court possessions, while Duke missed shots on eight half-court possessions. No, it happened because UCLA pressed Duke out of the gym that night, forcing 29 turnovers, many by steals, and then scoring easy fast-break points.

Similarly, the 1968 UCLA team put away North Carolina in the Championship Game with a couple of smaller spurts. It wasn’t the press that did the trick this time. This North Carolina team could handle the ball and break the press, and this UCLA team did not rely as much on forcing turnovers to beat opponents. With the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the middle, Coach Wooden relied on muscle and speed to destroy the enemy. On this night, North Carolina tried to slow the game down by using the four-corners offense, but the plan was no more successful than 28 other opponents’ plans against the Bruins.

It was a different dominating statistic that gave the Bruins the edge that night. North Carolina rarely received a second chance to score when they missed a shot, and UCLA had numerous put back baskets on offensive rebounds. The Bruins dominated on the glass with an almost 2 to 1 rebounding advantage, and their transition game was still the best in the business with Lucius Allen running the point on the fast break.

Our captain perused all the boxscores of past NCAA Tournament games. He read microfilms of archived newspaper reports of games over the course of 30 years of NCAA Tournaments, and he combined the eyewitness reports with the statistics of the teams to locate the factors that predicted which teams were more likely to enjoy a big scoring spurt. He discovered that half-court offenses and half-court defenses that led to one team connecting on a very high percentage of shots while the other team missed a high percentage of shots seldom led to these spurts by themselves and very rarely allowed a team to win six, or even just four NCAA Tournament games.

It was rare for Team A to hit eight out of 10 shots, while Team B hit only one out of ten shot, leading to a 16-2 run. So, what caused the great spurtabilities of the teams? The Captain discovered that in a large majority of the cases where a team went on a big scoring run in the NCAA Tournament, it was due to these factors:
1. Dominating rebounding at both ends of the court
2. Forcing turnovers (especially steals)
3. Getting easy fast break baskets or forcing the opponent to foul to stop the fast break

From this point, the Captain devised what has come to be the most important factor in picking NCAA Tournament winners. He called it “The R+T Rating.” After trial and error using different data points, the Captain created a formula that doubled rebounding margin, added turnover margin, and then gave additional weight to steals and the prevention of steals. The result was an approximation for how many extra scoring chances (and predicted points) a team might be expected to receive versus the average college team. If Team A had an R+T rating of 20, and Team B had an R+T rating of 10, then Team A would be expected to have the ability to score an average of 10 extra points against Team B just from these extra scoring opportunities. Team B could still win if they were a lot more accurate on their shots, thus neutralizing Team A’s spurtability advantage.

Immediately, in the first year publishing this data online, the PiRates successfully picked Florida to win its first national championship, and the Gators came through with a surprise title. In all six of their tournament wins in 2006, they enjoyed spurts that broke close games open. In their big upset win over top-seeded Villanova, the Gators’ pressure man-to-man defense made it difficult for the Villanova perimeter to get an open look, and when the Wildcats drove by into the lane, Joakim Noah and Al Horford were there waiting to stop the offense. The two Gator big men totally controlled the boards that afternoon, and Florida advanced with a couple of spurts that put the game safely in the win column.

Early on in the history of our Bracketnomics, our success continued and brought us a tiny bit of national notoriety. A little success swelled the heads of all the PiRates. We became too big for our tiny ship. We began to try to perfect our system by adding additional information. We thought for a few years that teams that relied on the three-point shot were at a disadvantage against teams that pounded the ball inside, because so many of the tournament games were held in giant stadiums, even domes, and it affected depth perception and made it hard to aim on outside shots. There was a time when we discounted teams that won games by shooting a lot of foul shots, because the officials did not call as many fouls in the tournament.

The success of the PiRate Ratings Bracketnomics led to some mainstream media sources linking to us, and we saw our readership increase by large multiples, especially between the second week of March and the first week of April. And, then what happened? After correctly picking the national champion during Bracket Picking day for three consecutive years; and after picking tiny George Mason to contend for a Final Four spot when Jim Larranaga guided the Patriots to the Final Four; and after picking Duke, Connecticut, and Kentucky to win and hit on another three in a row, the bottom fell out.

Just like the Dosage Index for the Kentucky Derby, the criteria began to lose its effectiveness. Too many basketball equivalents of Strike The Gold and Real Quiet began winning when the profile predicted they had little or no chance. While R+T ratings still remained effective, other criteria not used by us began to be more predictive of reality.

The better three-point shooting teams started to win more and more. Watching the Golden State Warriors dominate the NBA and then seeing how almost every NBA team tried to copy them in some way, it became apparent that advanced metrics were changing the game, just like Sabermetrics changed the way general managers built their baseball teams. The name of the game became three-point shooting and very high percentage two-point shooting. Defenses that forced opponents to take lower percentage two-point shots became the new basis for determining effectiveness.

There was one other change that greatly affected the college game. When the shot clock moved from 35 to 30 seconds, it appeared on the surface that it would minimally affect the game by maybe two or three possessions per game. This was not the case. Defenses discovered that they could pressure the offense more and more in hopes that they would force a turnover or force the offense to escape the pressure to find a good shot. Many times, the pressure defense led to a hurried shot by the offense. Thus, teams that were patient all of a sudden saw their shooting percentages fall when good pressure defenses forced too many hurried shots. There was also the case where a defense that could keep the ball out of the close two-point range and force three-point shots to be taken a few feet farther back, could stop the patient offenses. What was the solution to these defenses? It was the return of Up-tempo basketball. Offenses began to try to hurry up their tempo to beat these gambling defenses or to get the preferred close in two-pointer or open looks an inch behind the line three-point line before defenses could organize. The newer up-tempo style of play brought back basketball from 40 years ago.

Once again, the teams that can get up and down the court in a hurry and do so without becoming sloppy in execution have begun to dominate the game. The patient offenses and non-pressuring defenses have found out that it is really hard to win consistently when the opponent is now finding a way to score 10 more points per game due to their new style of play.

On the other end of the spectrum, teams began to play more like the high schools in the Midwest. Players not equipped for the running and pressure defense games began to concentrate on playing incredible help defense, cramming the paint with defenders to stop dribble penetration. While some teams did this with man-to-man defense, otherwise known as the Pack-Line defense, some teams also accomplished this with zone defenses. Either way, the goal was to prevent easy inside shots while not gambling for steals or pressuring opponents into mistakes. Usually these teams paired this style of defense with a patient offense that valued each possession like gold and when they took a shot, two or more players retreated to stop any opponent transition. A lot of teams have done quite well during the regular season, but they have not been the best at winning four tournament games and getting to the Final Four. Loyola of Chicago beat the odds last year playing this way. Butler made it to the Championship Game twice with a semi-patient offense and non-gambling defense.

What did we do at the PiRate Ratings to combat our decline in effectiveness? The PiRates stripped our criteria down back to the basics. We felt like we were missing the obvious. In 2019, here are the Big Three stats that matter most when the NCAA Tournament begins play.

1. True Shooting Percentage Margin

2. R+T Rating

3. Schedule Strength

These three basic principles make up an overwhelming majority of how we will select our brackets when we release them Monday evening.

1. True Shooting Percentage Margin: this is the difference between a team’s offensive true shooting percentage and defensive true shooting percentage. For college basketball, true shooting percentage is:   (100*Pts)/[2*(fga+{.475*fta})].

2. R+T Rating: We hope most of you reading this today have some familiarity with our R+T Rating.

The formula for R+T is: (R * 2) + (S * .5) + (6 – Opp. S) + T
where, R = rebounding margin; S = Steals per game; and T= Turnover margin

3. Schedule Strength: It is obvious that a team could compile some very lofty True Shooting Percentages and R+T ratings playing the weakest 30 teams in the nation, while another team could compile some really awful stats playing the top 30 teams in the nation.

Don’t let these stats look intimidating. We would never force you, our patron, that we love so much to have to figure the offensive and defensive percentages for 68 teams. Do you know how long it takes to go to 68 different official athletic sites to get this information? We sure do! We will calculate this information for you and show you the stats for all 68 teams.

The first two data points must be weighted with the strength of schedule, and there is the rub. How much do we adjust the data from True Shooting Percentage Margin and R+T Rating to factor in schedule strength? We think we have the answer. Based on the fact that a certain schedule strength number has held consistent as the floor among past Final Four teams, we believe we know the cut-off points that will allow us to interpolate the winners of each round.

Obviously, it is not an exact science, but hey, nobody has ever picked a perfect bracket, and we hear that the chances of doing so are less than one person winning both the Power Ball and Mega Millions jackpots in the same week, while being struck two times by lightning on the way to collect from both the lottery offices.

The PiRates will reveal our entire bracket selections Monday evening.   And, after each round, we will then post an updated bracket selection for those people that play in contests where you can pick the winners round-by-round. Our goal is to try to pick the four Final Four participants and National Champion, so those of you in contests where you receive points for your accuracy, with more points awarded for each succeeding round, might have a somewhat unfair advantage over others in your pool.

We hope you return to this site after 7PM EDT on Monday night, March 18, to see what we believe will be an exciting and informative Bracketnomics 2019 exam. Yes, you too can earn your BM degree!

And, don’t forget to check our site out Sunday as our Bracket Gurus attempt to continue a history of incredible accuracy predicting the 68 teams to be selected for the NCAA Tournament.

We will publish one or two updates Sunday.  The first will be on this site before 10:00 AM EDT.  The final one will be published after all Sunday games but the Big Ten Tournament go final, or later if there is a chance this game will affect the bracket.

There will be an additional late Saturday night bracket update to include new automatic bid winners.

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