William’s Washington State Preview

William previews the Cougars looking at Pomeroy’s assertion that UNC has only a 57% chance of winning the game and that by a scant two point margin.

Washington State travels to Charlotte as a number four seed to face UNC, the number one seed in a Sweet 16 match-up that pits virtually the fastest playing squad in college basketball against the Cougars, who are near the bottom in tempo among college teams.

Thus far in the tournament, both teams have won their games easily, leading some to pick WSU as an upset possiblity, while a few others (very few), such as Ken Pomeroy, see the game as a virtual pick ’em match-up.

Let’s look a few things about this game to get an idea of some of the factors.  First, of all, neither team has defeated many top twenty-five teams.  Carolina has four or five such wins, if you count the Tar Heels win at Davidson, while Washington State beat USC twice and won at Gonzaga, and now Notre Dames, three teams sort of on the fringe of the top twenty of the various polls and rating organizations.

In terms of elite wins, say among the top 15, Carolina won at Duke, while WSU doesn’t have any elite wins, having lost 3 times to Stanford, and twice to UCLA.  Of these games, only their loss to Stanford at home was close, coming in over-time. They also lost to Cal and barely beat rival UW at home.  They also have beaten Baylor, Oregon, Winthrop and ASU.

Surprisingly, Pomeroy believes that Washington State is better than Stanford.  I know that styles make match-ups and all that, but Stanford has beaten them 3 times, the last 2 convincingly, and finished two games ahead of them in conference and also went farther in the Pac Ten tournament, so once again, this year, Pomeroy’s ratings make very little sense.  One wonders exactly what Stanford would have to do to be ranked ahead of WSU by Pomeroy if beating them 3 times and finishing two games ahead of them in a conference where everyone plays each other twice, is not enough!

Sagarin’s ratings are much more likely to be in line with reality this year than Pomeroy’s.  Why this is so, I do not know, but something has gone badly askew this year with the Pomeroy ratings.  While no one knows his exact ranking formula, there appears to be some system bias in favor of teams that play in conferences in which the play is slower, in that he has the two fastest-paced teams in the tournament rated far more lowly than other ratings services, while UMass, another team that plays at lightning pace is also rated less highly.  On the other hand, plodding teams, such as WSU, Wisconsin and Illinois, all of whom play at a snail’s pace, are rated more highly by Pomeroy than by fans and the experts in the field.

While his data collection is still top-notch, Pomeroy probably needs to tinker a bit more with his ratings.  He truly may be the only single person in the entire United States who believes that Washington State is better than Stanford and essentially as good as UNC.

In terms of defense, Pomeroy has WSU slated as a far better defensive squad.  In terms of offense, he has UNC as the better squad.  However, there may be some other clues as to why UNC is more likely to win.

First of all, UNC has much better talent.  Almost everyone agrees that for WSU to have any chance, it probably needs to be a game in the 50’s or 60’s, to keep Carolina from having extra possession and a fast game in which it can exploit its depth.  This is a fancy way of saying that Washington State doesn’t have all that many good players so they have to try to take the air out of the ball to have any chance to win.

I have to admit that I am a bit more biased against this team than perhaps against other foes, because they pride themselves on their plodding way of playing.  They are pretty much the slowest-playing team in the entire NCAA Division I, brandishing a style of basketball that, if further adopted, could be a new non-narcotic form of sleep aid.  Their coach is already trying to turn this into some sort of grudge match against Roy Williams, who he claims, was disrespectful to his father back in the 1990’s, and apparently, said father also taught players to play as though they had on muddy workboots.

Well, as pathetic and boring as WSU’s style of play might be, it is still within the rules, so let’s look at some other factors.

Looking at something Pomeroy calls consistency rating, we see that UNC is the 59th most consistent team, which is pretty good–only Memphis and Western Kentucky are ranked ahead of them among teams still in the tourney.  WSU is 311th, which is very poor–only West Virginia is less consistent among tourney teams.

Now, I suppose consistency can cut both ways when looking at a one game match-up, as opposed to winning the entire tournament, where it is essential to be consistent.  We can expect North Carolina to be pretty good, just like they have been all season.  But WSU, will it be the team that beat Notre Dame badly, or the team that lost badly to a mediocre Arizona team twice.

Pomeroy also has a figure called luck rating in which he rates UNC as being one of the luckier teams left in the tournament, which is most likely due to a slew of close games they had while Ty Lawson was hurt.  He also has WSU as being relatively unlucky this year, which is truly puzzling.  A glance at their results indicates that they split two overtime games this year and that most of their losses have been by more than three points.  Their schedules appear to be relatively even, with UNC playing tougher defensive teams and WSU playing tougher offensive teams.

There have recently been some articles published that state that Vegas uses the Pomeroy ratings to set its lines.  Vegas is currently predicting a 142.5 over/under, which is 2.5 points higher than the Pomeroy prediction, so that could possibly be the case here.

However, if Vegas used the Pomeroy predictions to set its points plus or minus, then the public immediately moved the line far away from the Pomeroy setting.

Pomeroy predicts that UNC will only win 71-69, which seems frankly amazing.  His system predicts that WSU will be playing in a site three time zones away, on a highly partisan “neutral” court, against a team that everyone agrees has far more talent and that UNC, with all those advantages, is only a 2-point favorite.

This is ludicrous and indicates something deeply wrong with the manner in which he is currently rating teams.  WSU has an excellent shot at winning.  In a one game and out tournament, unlikely events occur somewhat frequently.  Davidson beat Georgetown, albeit while playing in Davidson’s home state.  Nevertheless, there is a huge difference between a team winning an upset and being deemed essentially an equally good team, which is what Pomeroy would have you believe is the case in the WSU-UNC match-up.

It is difficult to perceive how Pomeroy’s system could predict such a thing, about as difficult as figuring out why he ranks them above Stanford.  The current Vegas odds are Carolina by 8 points, which seems about right given that WSU will try to hold down the score as much as they possibly can.

Everyone seems to agree that Washington State is a very unselfish team that maximizes their chances to win, given the talent at their disposal.  But is that likely to be enough?  Pomeroy says almost, and he means this in general, seeing them beating Carolina 43 times out of 100.

While I am definitely not neutral in terms of my rooting interests, I am not sure any other neutral observer can agree with Ken Pomeroy.

Washington State has not beaten any of the supremely talented teams that they have faced this year, losing all 7 games against UCLA, Stanford and Arizona, a disappointing team with injuries, but top-notch talent.  They may finally achieve that break-through win Thursday night in Charlotte, but if they do, it will be a huge, overachieving upset, not a battle between two even teams.

I have to believe that WSU has not shown much ability to beat teams that exceed them in talent.  They have beaten decent squads like Arisona State, Baylor, Winthrop, Oregon and now Notre Dame.  They have not, however, beaten anyone that would surprise you while reading your morning newspaper.  With virtually all the intangibles leaning UNC’s way, it’s hard to see them doing that now.


12 Responses to William’s Washington State Preview

  1. Johnny says:

    The UW Husky’s Jon Brockman reminds me a lot of Psycho T. He’s a little smaller at 6’7″ and 250, but he is tireless around the basket and averages a double-double in points and rebounds (18 and 11). He had average points against WSU in UW’s two close losses to WSU this year, but he had solid rebounding games: 17 boards (6 offensive) in the first game and 11 boards (5 offensive) in the 2OT game in which he was injured. If the Heels focus on rebounding, a distinct weakness for WSU, and obviously a UNC strength, UNC should pull through.

    BTW, if Brockman doesn’t go pro this year it’s worth watching him next year at UW if you get a chance. He was UW’s only star and much like Hansbrough he willed them to victory but with a much weaker supporting cast. Biggest difference between the two is that Brockman, like the rest of the Huskies, is a lousy FT shooter.

  2. Tar Heel alum and fan says:

    Apparently Heels’ fans jeered the Cougars during practice. See story at:


    I hope I’m wrong but WSU could keep this game close – they have that chip on their collective shoulders. If they get hot and make threes and slow UNC down defensively it could be a closer game than many think. That is, if UNC plays to the level of their competition, which they have done at times this season. However, if the Heels adopt a defensive chip on their shoulders, to showcase their defense is as good as the Cougars, then they can run away with it. We’ll see tomorrow…

  3. Russell says:

    I watched the WSU-ND game on the web to get a feel for WSU’s game.
    What I saw was basically ND missing a ton of shots within 10-12 feet and not due to defensive pressure. ND stunk it up. ND has a post player not-unlike the likes of Tyler but not to say his equal – that got shots, and missed. A lot.

    Wassu’s vaunted pack defense is designed, according to what I have read, to pressure the ball AND deny dribble penetration. It is definitely not friendly to the 3-point shooter; it is – if the ND game is any indication – not so very great at preventing dribble penetration either!

    While WSU is noted for their novel defensive set/strategy, what I found most impressive was their offense. They definitely know each other, where they are on the court at any time, and how to PASS. THAT was the most impressive thing to me about this team. They will also break, with proficiency, when the opportunity arises. I.E., they ARE a team.

    Zoomba Heels!

  4. Russell says:

    One more observation: Kyle Weaver. Very Danny Green-like.
    If I were the Coug’s coach, I’d go for
    1. Rebounds
    2. Rebounds
    3. Rebounds
    4. Fouling-out Lawson.

    On another note, very sorry to read the link posted by alum. Carolina fans would do well to present a Carolina Class demeanor to visitors. That’s been a hallmark of ours for decades. What, pray tell, is deficient about graciousness? The kind of behavior exhibited (if it’s fact) denotes a sense of weakness. Genuine strength has no need for rudeness.

  5. Nothin Could be Finer says:

    Those fans sound clueless and classless. Why give Wash State more motivation? They already have the underdog thing going for them. Based on Russell’s analysis the opportunity will be there for Thompson and Stepheson to have good games, building on their outstanding play in the previous round.

  6. nick l says:

    one thing I’d be tempted to believe about the whole overrating of strong defensive teams phenomenon: it’s a cliche that defense is more about work and coaching than talent. so wouldn’t it be easier for a great offensive team to turn up the defense a little in the tournament than vice versa? i suspect so….

  7. nick l says:

    ps–Harangody’s a hell of a player; he got 22 boards in that ND game!

  8. I think the article was BS, much like that “ghetto” comment flap after the Maryland home loss. There was probably one or two people that said something and the media is blowing it way out of proportion (as if they don’t do that on a regular basis or anything) to psych up their home team.
    Personally, I’m, sick and tired of hearing about their defense. If their defense was so darned great, then they would have been able to beat UCLA, Stanford, or Arizona at least once this year. I’m not saying they’re not a good team, but a lot of the haters out there are putting a lot of faith into Washington State jist because they hate seeing North Carolina be successful.

  9. Tar Heel Fan says:

    The glorification of the slow style defensive minded teams seems to be the “in” thing now. ESPN.com presently has two features on Bo Ryan and Ben Howland talking about their “blue collar approach to defense,”

    My question is how many national titles have blue collar, slow tempo defensive teams won since the field went to 64 and the three point line came along?

  10. […] Forget tempo. Please. Yes, Washington State is slow and North Carolina is fast. Just remember, Carolina can win at a slower than accustomed pace. (They did it at Boston College, for one.) As for those desultory Cougars, they actually weren’t all that great on defense during the conference season this year, certainly not compared to last year. They do, however, appear to have turned things up a notch on D in the tournament. In two games,WSU has allowed Winthrop and Notre Dame a total of 81 points in 117 combined possessions. Do the math–that’s unreal. The Cougars have done it by making opponents miss their twos, by giving them only one shot and by never fouling. That makes Tony Bennett’s defense the stylistic ideal to play the Tar Heels, a team that scores its points in no small measure by dominating the offensive glass, getting to the free throw line and largely eschewing threes. So why do I feel being the stylistic ideal won’t be enough for Washington State? Probably because both teams have outstanding coaches but only one has outstanding athleticism. Andy Staples looks as what makes the Cougars successful. Luke Winn talks to an anonymous coach about how to beat North Carolina. Derrick Lowe remembers Roy. Tar Heel Fan thinks Danny and Wayne will be key. ACC Now has tons from Charlotte. Cougar fans are confident. A smart Tar Heel Fan commenter takes Ken Pomeroy to task: […]

  11. william says:

    I got an interesting comment on my own blog regarding this, which I thought I might share:

    moneyline said…
    You are off the mark on a few things here.

    First of all, Pomeroy’s ratings are off on Carolina because they don’t account for the games Lawson missed/played on one foot in. That’s how they have always worked. They aren’t broken.

    Secondly, UNC isn’t being penalized for playing fast. They are rated below slower teams such as Wisconsin because they don’t play defense nearly as well.

    Thirdly, his projection is based off this game being played at a neutral site. Now is Raleigh a true neutral site in this instance? Probably not, but his formula does not know this.

    The large gap between Pomeroy’s prediction and the odds makers line is due to a) the Lawson injury b) the venue and c) public perception.

    It has nothing to do with his numbers needing “tinkering”.

    William O. Douglas Loeffler said…
    Well, first of all the game is being played in Charlotte, which is probably a slightly better venue for UNC than Raleigh, as it has served as a home site for Carolina in the past.

    With respect to the impact of Lawson’s injury, we don’t know exactly what impact that has had on the prediction. Although some of those games were closer and they did lose to Duke, UNC did go 6-1. Pomeroy hasn’t addressed this, but he is still using the same base log numbers for his multiplicative predictions without any disclaimers for the faithful.

    Third, I understand all about tempo-free statistics. My question is whether bias has crepted into the system.

    I notice that you don’t attempt to defend WSU being ranked above Stanford, which is a true anomoly and embarrassment to his rankings, although I do respect him for sticking with them until the termination of the year. He has adjusted his formulas before and I expect he will again.

    March 27, 2008 7:00 AM

  12. william says:

    I have sort of a hidden blog, but I am getting a fair number of comments and hits on this, so I won’t post them all here but if anyone is interested:


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