Inside the Stats: Part I

Stanford fans agree the men are underperforming and the product is frustrating to watch. But why? We take a cold, hard look at the numbers. (Note: This whole article leans heavily on, whose college basketball statistics are unrivaled. The $20 subscription fee is well worth it for serious, statistically-driven college basketball fans.)

So why are Stanford fans so disappointed with their squad as it hits the meat of its conference schedule? In no particular order…
  1. Bad luck – Until their 75-54 shellacking at Colorado, all seven of the Cardinal's losses had come by single digits. Meanwhile, only three of 12 Stanford's wins were by fewer than 10 points. What if Stanford evens out the resulting 3-7 mark in close games to an average 5-5? (That's conservative. "Average luck" could well be 6-4 instead, given that the team has won 60 percent of its games overall.)

    Well, at 5-5 in single digit games, your Cardinal are no longer 12-8 and 3-4 in the Pac-12, but 14-6 overall, north of .500 in the Pac-12 and, if the postseason started today, in the NCAAs instead of the NIT. Don't believe me? At No. 50 in KenPom and No. 75 in RPI, Stanford is not that far away from making an expanded 68-team field as is, so those two extra wins (and two fewer losses) to, say USC (a two-point loss) and Minnesota (three-point loss) would be enough. USC (RPI No. 130) is Stanford's only loss to a sub-100 RPI team, and Minnesota (RPI No. 11) would be Stanford's only win against a top-50 RPI team. Both of those results would have helped a lot.

    Still don't believe me? Stanford is No. 285 of 347 Division I teams in luck, per KenPom.

  2. Lost starter Anthony Brown played in 59 percent of 2012 Stanford's minutes. That might not sound like a ton, but on a team with no single star, 59 percent was fourth on the squad, behind only two guys who play a different position entirely (guards Chasson Randle and Aaron Bright) and now-alumnus Josh Owens. Notably, Brown's 59 percent of minutes came in significantly ahead of Josh Huestis (49 percent), Dwight Powell (41 percent) and John Gage (20 percent). The usage stats don't lie: the staff usually preferred Brown to these three other options last season, but with Brown out for the 2013 season, these other three players are seeing many more minutes. (Gage and Powell are Stanford's most efficient offensive players, and Huestis is Stanford's leading rebounder and blocker, so it's no knock against them, but an acknowledgement that the staff had to go to second options.) That Huestis and Powell often find themselves in foul trouble only compound the impact of Brown's injury.

  3. Perception bias – All else being equal, a team that wins its games 100-90 is going to be viewed more favorably than a team that wins 50-40. While Stanford is pretty average for the Pac-12 at either end of the court (more on that in our next piece), they are probably better at defense, and that works against them to the eyeball test. Similarly, that Stanford is bigger than they are athletic (their "effective height" – average height weighted by minutes played – is No. 21 of 347 in the nation) also looks less impressive, but both are effective ways to win games.

    Similarly, while no one would be happy per se if the Card were regularly getting shacked ala their Thursday outing in Boulder, most of the losses have been heartbreakers that have gripped fans for a whole 40 minutes -- only to leave them with that much worse of a hangover when the Cardinal and White come up just short. If Stanford were instead getting run off the court by the Dukes and Michigans of this world, fans would realize they're not watching a top-15 team, but might not be as viscerally upset as by a squad that blows a game by botching a last-second dunk. (Hypothetically speaking, of course.) Which ties directly into our next point…

  4. Sneaky good opponents – Per ratings, the Cardinal have played 13 top-100 opponents in 20 games. Yet only No. 9 Minnesota is in his top 25. That means the Cardinal aren't losing to the Dukes and Michigans, for which the viewing public would give them credit, but instead are playing a slew of sneaky good opponents more than talented enough to down the Cardinal, but without the reputation or rank to lighten the blow. However, with top-25 Oregon and Arizona in upcoming weeks, Stanford has the chance to end this trend.
  5. Unrealistic expectations – If you polled fans of all dozen Pac-12 schools before the season started, the average supporter probably would expect his team to go, say, 11-7 and finish fourth in the conference. Obviously that math doesn't add up.

    Heading into the season, no one, no matter their allegiances, thought Stanford should outright win a league that had Arizona and UCLA as obvious preseason frontrunners. The media had the Cardinal fourth, which would have put the Cardinal squarely on the NCAA bubble. Today, Stanford's currently 3-4 in the conference with two home games on deck. Incidentally, they're about two games off the bubble, as discussed, and about two games out of a top-half Pac-12 finish. Eleven regular season games remain. Plenty of time to meet expectations.

More analysis and verdict forthcoming. Sneak preview though: I'm a lot more bullish on this team and this coach than I have been liveblogging the games or before I started this piece. Numbers aren't the be-all, end-all, but they are a piece of the puzzle, and maybe this team is closer to a successful season than we think. Stay tuned for Part II, coming in time for the Oregon game.

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