There's an old saying, "There are lies, damn lies and statistics." One can use statistics to prove or disprove many things, so it is important to understand which statistics are most likely to provide accurate results.
While statistics provide numerological verification for many things, some are simply better than others. For instance Ken Pomeroy, the instructor in atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah, has become a statistical guru. Among other things, he feels the RPI used by the NCAA to determine at-large teams for their tournament is less accurate than is ideal and offers alternatives.
Illinois basketball coach John Groce believes some statistics are a great help to his program. He uses Pomeroy, among others.
"I use Ken-Pom a lot. We also use Synergy, which is a video that works in concert with some statistical analysis. We look at numbers. Certainly, numbers don't tell the entire story because there are intangibles and a connectedness about the game of basketball that can't be measured in numbers.
"But there's also some numbers that can certainly be helpful on whether or not you're gonna win basketball games. For us, we kind of identify those numbers in our style of play that are most important, and we look at those on a consistent basis. Whether that's practice or games, we use them to analyze how well we're playing."
There are two numbers that are especially important to Groce.
"We talk about efficiency defensively and efficiency offensively a lot. We call that our defensive efficiency rating and our offensive efficiency rating. Those are the most important numbers.
"That's how many points you give up per possession that you defend, and how many points you score per possession on offense. It's that simple. We want to make sure we are efficient in both those areas."
Of course, other statistics have value as well, but those two are most useful.
"Then there are some other things we look at beneath those that kind of have an effect on that offensive and defensive efficiency. But those are the two biggest numbers for sure because they're indicators of our success.
"You have a chance to win if you're efficient in the game. Your chances of winning are at a high level if you're efficient in both areas in a given game. If you are not efficient in both areas in a given game, you're probably losing 90% of the time. We know that."
The former math major is compatible with statistical analysis, but he also recognizes too much of it may be counterproductive.
"This stuff gets deeper and deeper into analysis. You can analyze it until you're paralyzed. Whether it's specific to a guy, like he drives to his left 80% of the time, those are things we'll use in a scouting report. So we're using numbers a lot.
"Maybe a team scores most of their points from the three-point line and free throws and doesn't score much in what we call the 'B area,' the in-between area. Those are all things that we look at in scouting to give us a better idea of how to defend."
Groce and his staff are also big on matchups, even to the point of recruiting to counter opponent advantages. Statistics help determine the best matchups.
"One of the things I think we valued more during my time at Ohio was not the offensive pace, but what positions can the guy guard. Oftentimes, that's how the NBA guys define it. Especially on the defensive end, we look at how we match up and how we can defend a position or positions on the floor."
There has been much speculation whether the Illini can use an attacking style consistently in the Big 10. Groce definitely prefers to attack, but he also realizes the importance of making adjustments to fit the situation.
"When you're coaching, you're trying to impose your will on the game. You're trying to impose your system and your style of play on the game.
"If your team is able to impose their will on the game, and get the game at your style to fit your system better than mine in that particular game, then your chances of winning increase. All the time, you're trying to impose your will on the game. For us, that's being very aggressive, that's attacking.
"However, I think the best teams, especially late in the year, are able to adapt. I think a great example of that was in the NCAA tournament. We played Michigan, and they were one of the best offensive teams efficiency-wise in the entire country. They were one of the most difficult to guard in the entire country.
"And two days later, we've got to play South Florida, who for 10 or 11 straight games, no one had scored more than 55 points against them. That's a lot of Big East games and an NCAA tournament game against quality competition. Their tempo was very slow, and they guarded and were very physical, one of the better defensive teams in the country.
"So basically within a 72-hour period, you had to play against two contrasting styles. You don't want to be that team that can only win if the game is up and down, or if the game is only half court. I think you've got to be that team that can impose your will and adjust and adapt in any given situation. Have a system of play which gives you a chance to win in different environments."
Groce creates a system he feels can maximizes his team's chances of winning against a variety of styles. He uses statistics to help him determine what works best for different teams.
"The game is very dynamic in terms of who you play. Coaches have different thoughts on styles and systems that change throughout the tournament setting, and the Big 10. If you look at the style of play of each of the teams in the league, many of them are different. You've got to have a style of play that gives you a chance to succeed in the face of that."
That's where efficiency ratings come into play.
"I think you've got to have a certain level of efficiency at both ends to be among the best teams in your conference, or the best teams in the country. To me, that's important.
"You've got to have a blend of both. You have to be able to score the ball, and you've got to be able to defend the basketball. The best teams are not God-awful in the weaker of the two areas. They're at least respectable to pretty good on defense, and then they're elite on offense, or vice versa.
"I think it's hard to win at a high level if you're exceptional on offense but God-awful on defense. Or exceptional on defense but can't function at all on offense. I think that makes it extremely difficult to win on a consistent basis."
Statistics can help determine how best to proceed against a specific opponent. But Groce's biggest task is developing his present Illini team so it can perform well on both ends of the court. He talks about his current team in part 8 of this 9-part report.