Here's another story we won't have time for later. When I was 12, I went through a phase that most failed child prodigies go through, the fitful burst of youthful creativity and frustration that comes right before the realization that girls are interesting. For me, it manifested itself in a short-lived Dungeons and Dragons addiction.
My PC (player character) was Mitra, a powerful wizard who had attained Level 30 and thousands of HP (hit points). In games at slumber parties and friends' houses, Mitra had earned long lists of abilities and castable spells, with XP (experience points) in the hundreds. His STR (strength) and DEX (dexterity) numbers were off the charts, his CON (constitution) solid, his INT (intelligence) and CHR (charisma) second to few.
Around the streetcorner and two doors down lived Gary, a 20-something who still lived with his folks -- we neighborhood kids were were too young to know that was a bad thing. We reverentially referred to him as Gary Gygax Jr., after one of the game's creators, because he was a renowned DM (dungeon master). He had been to conventions and everything. He didn't have time to play with us, but it was rumored that when he was playing, he didn't even need the Dungeon Master's Guide, the bound book with the scary red dude on the cover. He was just that good.
Finally, one night, Gary was hired to babysit my younger sister and I. I had him right where I wanted him. After my parents left for the evening, I asked him if we could play a game.
He exhaled deeply. "Alright," he said. "Get your dice."
Gary studied Mitra, looking over the sheet of college-ruled paper that served as his resume. Then the game began, as the legendary DM set the scene in a deep forest. "You are walking along," Gary intoned. "The air is fragrant with the smell of pine cones and rain. Suddenly, out from behind a tree comes a powerful wizard. Commence fighting."
Gary Gygax, Jr. had pitted my avatar against itself. Within 15 short minutes, as the polyhedral dice spun sadly and the attack bonuses piled up, Evil Mitra had used his similar attributes to sap Mitra of all his hit points. My PC lay there dead on the forest floor, and no magic spell would erase the humiliation and bring him back. And then it was time for bed.
I don't bring this episode up to illustrate any profound point, or as a gateway into an extended musing on the Enemy Within. No, it's because I think about D&D much more than I should, because it's the only analogy I can come up with that fits the most recent hot trend in college basketball. I'm talking, of course, about quantitative-based analysis.
Tempo-free stats, in a way, aren't free at all. They can serve as a black and white prison for the mind. They take the game out of the game, suck all the sweat and blood and floorwax and crowd noise out of it, replacing it with a paper-based illusion only a Level 3 sorcerer with 800 HP and solid saving throws could love.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not the college basketball Joe Morgan, relying solely on vague generalities like "character" and "heart" when evaluating teams and players. Far from it. I operate and maintain one of the more comprehensive stat databases there is, which used to be housed on this site but is now at a new place called Basketball State
(tell your friends). I do this not to foment some sort of statistical revolution, but instead because there's a little D&D geek in me that never died, and he grew up to be a database adminstrator and SQL junkie.
I understand that the new generation of statistics has a solid purpose, providing a convenient shorthand in a world full of more games than no human could ever hope to watch. But relying on these statistics to illuminate the college basketball world, or believing that they unlock some deep truths about the game that patient, trained eyes of recruiters and hoops lifers haven't figured out yet, is patently ridiculous. If I want to know how good a player is I'll ask somebody who's seen more basketball than I have, who can offer true perspective. I'll get a fuzzy response, but it's more helpful than asking a computer who will reply simply, "6.4".
As statistics such as points per possession, effective field-goal percentage and true shooting become more recognized and accepted, people are using these tools for evil -- namely, to win arguments, to dazzle and stun people with a brain-dissolving array of acronyms, or win money. Most unfortunately of all, some people are using them in efforts to bridge 66 percent and 75 percent, the winning-percentage gap that separates the good gamblers from the great ones.
Anybody can quote numbers, it's easy and cheap. Anyone can spit out a carefully-selected sequence of digits that makes their favorite team or player look good, or proves a point, or makes them look smart. At a certain point, you don't even have to watch or go to games any more to be a college basketball genius. When an Excel spreadsheet becomes an acceptable alternative for two hours at the gym, that's the day I find another line of work.
For my part, I see these new statistics in little more than a supporting role analysis-wise. I appreciate the effort expended to generate numbers much, much more than I love the final figures themselves. If I see something in my travels, I'll check the charts and graphs to make sure my impression wasn't the result of irrational exuberance, or alcohol, or being good friends with the head coach. There is a clear and demarcated difference between this approach and glancing over an efficiency leaderboard, crowning the No. 1's and 2's as great players and teams -- without ever seeing them play.
So leave the hardcore quantitative-based analysis to the real Dungeon Masters, like Paladin Pomeroy
and Ex-Wonk the Rogue
, who always have at least one foot in the gym. They have degrees and stuff from Bill James University, or at least they write like they do.
But for now, I'll bow my head in a moment of remembrance and silence for poor Mitra, the wizard that just didn't have enough HP to survive the crucible. Had he lived, I'm sure he would have developed excellent TS% and Reb%.
© 2004-2014 The Mid-Majority. All content is the property of its authors.