On Wednesday evening, I received mail from "TMM Basketball Partners." Based on Kyle's retweets from the previous 48 hours, I knew exactly what was in the package. I clawed open the plastic envelope and immediately delved into Hard Promises. The first order of business I had upon seeing how the book was structured was to look at the chapters that involved the Sun Belt Conference and places familiar to me such as Texas and South Carolina. Practically, this meant most of the "South" section of the book was read first.
That section, on page 258, features the chapter "Third Party," a Season 1 vignette about the storied program of the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. As teams like Louisiana-Lafayette, New Orleans and South Alabama came and went (and come again for Team USA) as contenders in the Sun Belt, the 'Tops have remained the standard bearer for a conference whose priorities have shifted over a generation from basketball (4 NCAA bids in 1986) to football. Since joining the conference in 1982-83, every non-interim Western Kentucky coach has guided the team to the NCAA Tournament.
Suffice it to say, 2011-12 will not go down as one of WKU's proudest seasons. In the seven days before Thursday's game in Denton, the Hilltoppers lost an overtime home game to a team that had six players on the floor for the winning basket, fired their coach, and then lost another home game to a team rated near the bottom of the conference. When the book closes on this season, Western may end up with its fewest overall wins since 1964 and its worst conference record since 1989. But programs with the tradition and passion of Western Kentucky don't just stay down for extended periods of time. The Hilltoppers will be back eventually, and Sun Belt hoops will be better for it.
Last Saturday, in the game I went to at Charleston Southern, I met 800GP extraordinaire Ian McCormick. A couple minutes into the second half, I noticed him writing in a notebook. At the next TV timeout, I asked if he was tracking fouls, since CSU Fieldhouse didn't have a scoreboard listing all five players' points and fouls. He responded that he was charting possessions. The numbers in the notebook resembled something like a box score from a baseball game, with each team's point total from a single possession acting as a run total from an inning.
This, I thought, was absolutely genius. While it didn't account for individual performances, it could account for how efficient a team was at any given time, without having to deal with discrepancies sometimes found in the formula to estimate possession. When broken down by segments of time such as media timeouts (as Ian had done), this method could tell the story of how fast or slow a game was at any given point in the contest.
With Western Kentucky not having a vintage Hilltoppers season, and not all the students back from break, I decided to experiment with following the game this way. So I sat away from the student section, about 30 rows up from the court on the scorer's table side right at the midcourt line. However, my good friend David texted me around the first media timeout to let me know he was at the game too. At the under 12-minute timeout, I went to sit with him and his friend Lauren in the student section. I kept the possession chart going until halftime, when I traded in diligence with my Moleskine for UNT fandom.
Tracking the game McCormick-style provided me with some valuable statistical insights to back up what I was seeing on the court. For example, in the game's first eight possessions, which largely coincided with the game's first five minutes, the two teams combined for just 0.563 points per possession. After that point, UNT averaged 1.29 PPP and Western 1.22 PPP for the remainder of the half. I suspect that for games where I'm more of a neutral fan, such as the UT-Arlington games I plan to do, tracking the game this way will be both fun and valuable.
After moving to the student section, a personal first for me at a basketball game occurred: I won a shirt. My attitude toward the T-shirt giveaway is one of complete indifference, but if one landed on me or an empty seat next to me, I'd take it. One of the last t-shirts the cheerleaders threw into the stands deflected off hands two or three rows above me, and quite literally fell into my lap. I don't know how much use the black, XL Denton Regional Medical Center shirt will be getting, but I consider myself a proud owner.
The increased offensive efficiency of the latter stages of the first half carried over for UNT, but not Western Kentucky. Broadly speaking, UNT's profile this year is one of a team that can play good defense, but can go missing at times offensively. This game, at the times Western Kentucky was competitive, showed a reverse of those characteristics. When UNT's defense picked up in the second half, the Mean Green pulled away. A steady stream of #OMGDUNX from Tony Mitchell and Jordan Williams late turned the game into a party. Roger Franklin, an Oklahoma State transfer who has struggled with his shot, also deserves a mention after his best game as a Mean Green player.
North Texas is not the best team in the Sun Belt right now. Middle Tennessee is the only undefeated team in conference play, and Denver's quality wins still resonate despite recent losses. However, North Texas may have the most raw talent in the league, and that talent appears to be coming together. I'm not sure what all can be taken from a game against a bad team, but watching the Mean Green's youthful athleticism is going to be a lot of fun for the rest of the season.
at NORTH TEXAS 84, WESTERN KENTUCKY 67 01/12/2012
WESTERN KENTUCKY 5-13 (1-4) -- D. Gordon 8-14 0-1 20; K. McDonald 6-14 3-3 17; T. Price 2-9 0-0 5; J. Crook 4-12 0-0 8; V. Zollo 0-9 1-2 1; G. Fant 6-11 2-2 14; T. Akol 1-5 0-0 2; K. Kaspar 0-3 0-0 0; O. Akamune 0-0 0-0 0; N. Snipes 0-1 0-0 0; K. Anyigbo 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 27-78 6-8 67. NORTH TEXAS 10-8 (3-2) -- C. Jones 4-13 1-2 9; A. Williams 1-4 0-0 2; R. Franklin 6-11 8-11 20; T. Mitchell 8-9 3-3 21; B. Walton 3-5 0-1 8; J. Williams 6-9 2-2 16; N. Stojiljkovic 2-3 0-2 4; T. Norris 0-0 2-2 2; F. Robinson 1-1 0-0 2; A. Edwards 0-0 0-0 0; T. Hall 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 31-55 16-23 84.
Three-point goals: WKU 7-25 (T. Akol 0-1; K. McDonald 2-8; G. Fant 0-1; D. Gordon 4-5; K. Kaspar 0-2; T. Price 1-4; N. Snipes 0-1; V. Zollo 0-3), NTEX 6-12 (N. Stojiljkovic 0-1; C. Jones 0-3; T. Mitchell 2-3; B. Walton 2-3; J. Williams 2-2); Rebounds: WKU 35 (G. Fant 8), NTEX 38 (T. Mitchell 13); Assists: WKU 8 (J. Crook 6), NTEX 22 (C. Jones 7); Total Fouls -- WKU 20, NTEX 14; Fouled Out: WKU-None; NTEX-None.