SvoNotes: Let's Break Down The Numbers

So how will Ohio State do in the NCAA Tournament? It's hard to tell, of course, but some numbers might be able to shed some light on the Buckeyes as we head into the tournament, and on the program at large.

As a nerd, I love numbers, and so of course I enjoy the new FiveThirtyEight site launched this week by noted stats guru Nate Silver.

And while looking at the early predictions the site has made for Ohio State's NCAA Tournament run, I must admit, I was taken aback.

The FiveThirtyEight interactive bracket has OSU with a 75.3-percent chance of beating Dayton in the opening game, then predicts the ensuing Ohio State-Syracuse game a near toss-up, with Syracuse having a 51.0 percent chance of winning.

That's a 40-percent chance to make it to the Sweet 16, which doesn't sound bad at all. In a poll we did on this very site when the bracket was announced, less than 25 percent of responders had OSU making it to Memphis for the regional semifinals (though only around 13 percent predicted a loss to Dayton, less than the computer's 24.7 percent).

So the computer – which takes into account "a composite of power rankings, pre-season rankings, the team's placement on the NCAA's 68-team S-curve, player injuries and geography" – varies in a lot of ways from the average fan, and, to be honest, me. The model has OSU at a three-in-four chance to beat Dayton and then 50-50 vs. Syracuse. Our readers have the Buckeyes more favored vs. the Flyers but less so against the Orange. And quite frankly, I think beating Dayton is a 50-50 shot, while I'm obviously less enthused about the chances of beating Syracuse.

Why is that? It's amazing how perspective can make different people – or machines – see different things. The computer model obviously hasn't seen the teams play, but it is able to use various numbers or rankings to come up with a percentage that is rooted in pretty strong probability theory. There is no emotion, no eye-test involved, which can lead to a clearer picture in some ways (and a more fuzzy one in others).

For our fans, it's easy to see why the numbers came out the way they did. It's natural to think a team like Ohio State – with a strong fan base, huge arena, top-rated recruits and recent success – will beat a team like Dayton, which has an excellent hoops tradition of its own but not quite the high profile of OSU. And it's easy to look at Syracuse's 3-seed and 2-3 zone – and match that up with the Buckeyes' inconsistent play and shooting woes – and figure it'll be hard to get past that game.

As for me, well, I've been saying all year that I think this Buckeye team is talented enough to make a run in the NCAA Tournament. This is a very, very good defensive team that has yet to really be blown out this year – the Buckeyes will be in every game until the end. And when you're in every game until the end, you have a chance to win every game. Do it four times in a row – not easy but not impossible by any stretch – and you're in the Final Four.

But at the end of the day, teams without a strong inside presence that can't consistently make threes or free throws rarely last very long in the NCAA tournament. Ohio State placed ninth in the Big Ten in three-point shooting (32.6 percent) and 11th in free-throw shooting (68.9 percent). Center Amir Williams makes 60.5 percent of his shots but attempts just 4.9 per game and is a turnover machine. There's just not enough offensively for this team to hold on to for a long run, in my opinion.

More anecdotally – wait, wasn't this a numbers column? – the Buckeyes haven't consistently made winning plays throughout the season. They have at times – I think of Aaron Craft's diving rebound in the win vs. Michigan State at home, the stirring comeback vs. Nebraska – but for every one of those, there's a bad crunch-time shot or an ill-timed turnover in the final minute or two of a loss to counter it.

Simply put, for a team that plays a lot of close games, winning plays have been very hit or miss. Add it all together and I just can't be that confident of OSU's chances to go from Buffalo to Memphis. If Dayton gets hot and makes shots, the Buckeyes will have a hard time winning. And banking on OSU to rain in threes over Syracuse's zone is not the kind of thing I'm gonna put money on.

None of the perspectives are wrong, but they are different. We'll see who is right soon enough.

Numbers To Ponder
OK, I'm stealing these next notes from our two columnists in the back of this week's issue of Buckeye Sports Bulletin (remember, it's free to all yearly Scout subscribers!)

I don't want to take away their thunder – especially if the issue is en route – but a few of the stats they found were at the very least interesting to me so I wanted to give my spin on them.

Our longtime publisher, Frank Moskowitz, thought of something I likely never would have in regards to the Buckeyes' free-throw shooting this year, especially after OSU shot 63.1 percent at the Big Ten tournament and missed some big freebies down the stretch, prompting me to joke on Twitter and in a game thread that OSU viewed free throws like Woody Hayes might – that anything easy isn't worth a damn.

But Frank pondered out loud whether this was a one-year thing or a trend under Matta, and his research found the latter. According to Frank:

--Since Matta's hiring, the Buckeyes finished in the top four of the league in free-throwing shooting just once. In 2005-06, the Buckeyes shot at a 71.8 clip to finish third, well behind Michigan State's league-leading 76.9.

--The Buckeyes finished 10th in free-throw shooting in the then-11 team conference in Matta's first season of 2004-05. Since then, they have been fifth once – interestingly, last year at 70.8 percent with many of the same players – sixth twice, seventh three times and eighth once before what will most likely be an 11th-place ranking this season.

--In the 10 years Matta has been in the league, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Indiana have each led the conference in free-throw shooting twice, while Iowa, Michigan and Nebraska have also finished on top in that category. Michigan is leading the conference from the line this season.

Now, I have no doubts that Matta makes the Buckeyes practice free-throw shooting. Any coach in their right mind spends plenty of time on making sure his team can bring in those free points, which are often the difference between winning and losing in close games. In fact, Matta has expressed exasperation this year for the team's struggles despite the fact he's made them focus on shooting in practice.

So what gives? Who knows. I've gone back and looked and a few players each year – many of whom didn't shoot that many times from the charity stripe – seemed to drag down the average, but by and large, the Buckeyes' best players have been average or above-average free-throw shooters. Even Jared Sullinger, a big man who was sent to the line a ton, made well over 70 percent of his free throws.

Guys like David Lighty and Lenzelle Smith Jr. have struggled at times in recent years, but not to the point I'd consider it a trend. It's just one of those things, I guess, that happens.

Great Scott?
OK, that headline was a stretch, but one of our key numbers guys, Rich Exner, ran this comparison of Shannon Scott and Craft in the last BSB that made me reconsider some things.

Figuring out the average numbers for both OSU guards per 40 minutes this season came up with this interesting comparison.

Points per 40 minutes: Scott 11.3; Craft 11.2. Assists: Craft 5.5; Scott 5.0. Steals: Scott 3.0; Craft 2.9. Rebounds: Scott 5.0, Craft 4.2. Turnovers: Craft 2.9; Scott 2.8.

You can see they both bring pretty similar averages to the table, and in fact, you could argue that Scott's numbers are better than Craft's in a couple of cases. The numbers are somewhat skewed in that the two often play together, with Craft's presence on the court changing what Scott can do and vice versa, but on their face, they're at least worth considering.

Perhaps they just feel odd to me because Craft is seen as one of the most indispensible Buckeye players in quite some time, while Scott is a solid player and energy guy off the bench but not viewed with the same regard as Craft. Both are heady players, as well, though neither will be confused for Deshaun Thomas when it comes to filling up the bucket.

But I gained a new appreciation for Scott based on this comparison, and I'm pretty intrigued to see how the McDonald's All-American will do if he's given the chance to run the point a season from now. A guy who can chip in 11 points, five assists and five rebounds in each game will certainly give you a chance to win.

Matta's The Best
OK, there are certainly things to quibble about when it comes to Matta. Whether he's a great in-game strategist seems to be a constant debate among OSU fans, and the team's recruiting decisions at times have puzzled.

But on the whole, I'm a big believer that the Buckeyes can't do much better than Thad. He's a great personality, he's a force in the community, he's created a great atmosphere in the locker room and the classroom at OSU, and he's done it all while not seeming to mind that basketball sits a peg or two below football in the Buckeye community.

And, of course, he's a winner, which you have to be at Ohio State. The story of Ohio State hoops over the years is up and down – many great, great players have come through the program, and the Buckeyes have generally been relevant for decades, but the program has never quite been on the level of Kansas or Kentucky.

But Matta has certainly moved it up a few notches, making it one of the top 10 hoops programs in the nation on a yearly basis. You can't ask for much more than that, in my opinion, and the numbers show Matta has taken the program to new heights since his arrival.

In 10 years, Matta has posted a winning percentage of .770, going 272-82 since Matta's hiring. Per Exner, the only better 10-year stretch was from 1999-2008, as Matta and Jim O'Brien's teams combined to go 228-66 (.776) – though many of those games have been vacated because of NCAA violations.

But no matter how you slice it, Matta has won games at a higher percentage than anyone in Buckeye history. Ohio State is lucky to have him."

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