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Archive for the ‘book review’ Category

march-went-mad-cover

A few weeks ago, I received an advanced copy of When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball (affiliate link) by SI’s Seth Davis.  I had read about the book a while back and, frankly, I was prepared to be underwhelmed.  I’ve read a fair amount about the topic of 1979 national championship game (magazine articles, biographies of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, etc.), so I didn’t think there was a lot of new material to be unearthed about the two star players or the game itself.  And the title of the book seemed to point more toward a book centered around the explosion of college basketball in the 1980s than toward a book that would be of specific interest to MSU fans.  Further, I wondered whether Davis–one of Sports Illustrated’s top college basketball writers and a CBS studio commentator to boot–would have had the time to write a truly top-notch sports book.

I was wrong.  The book is actually fairly light on the “transformational” aspects of the game (although Davis makes a solid case for the magnitude of the impact the game had on both NCAA basketball the NBA.)  Rather, 90% of the book is a thoroughly-researched and extremely engaging account of the build-up to the 1979 championship game, the game itself, and the aftermath of the game that has extended over the subsequent three decades.

Of particular interest to us Spartan types is the coverage of Magic Johnson’s recruitment.  According to Davis’ account, it was actually a former MSU assistant named Vern Payne (who had been retained after Gus Ganakas was replaced by Jud Heathcote but left after a year to become the head coach at Wayne State) who was the difference maker in convincing Magic to go play for Heathcote, with whom Magic didn’t connect very well initially.

On the Indiana State side, the tracing of the path Bill Hodges’ career took after coaching ISU to the National Championship game–and the way ISU has basically disowned its 1979 team–is both fascinating and heart breaking.

Those are just two of the book’s segments that stick in my mind.  But, again, the book is as thorough a treatment as you could expect of the events leading up to, during, and following the 1979 game.  There’s plenty there to keep both the casual basketball fan and the die-hard MSU fan turning the pages.

Michigan State doesn’t have the same breadth of basketball tradition that programs like North Carolina, Kentucky, and Kansas do.  But we do have a national championship that was won in perhaps the most celebrated college basketball game of all time–a game that, indirectly at least, led to our current run of success on the hardwood.  I’m pleased that there’s now a book out there that does justice to that game and everything it set in motion.

P.S. I was offered the chance to interview Davis about the book, but–given my limited journalistic abilities–I’m going to refer you instead to a very informative interview The Dagger conducted with him (in two parts):

Interview: Seth Davis on the Magic-Bird game and more

Seth Davis, Part Two: On blogs, recruiting, and Bill Raftery

(There’s even a bit on tempo-free stats in the second part.  Davis is supportive in a lukewarmish sort of way.)

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I spend part of the long holiday weekend reading Dean Oliver’s Basketball on Paper (aff link). This book was published in 2004, and I had seen a few references to it around the internet, but just now got around to reading it.

Oliver is a former basketball player, coach, and scout. He is now a NBA statistical consultant who has done work with the Supersonics and Nuggets. The book is ambitious in scope, covering a range of statistical topics related to basketball–from charting individual possessions to Pythagorean winning percentages to individual player ratings to whether “defense wins championships.”

I’m going to shirk a bit here and review the book bullet-point-style. Here are the pros:

  • The book is engaging and quite readable, if a little “bloggy” in places.
  • It provides a nice survey of various statistical aspects of basketball, serving as a sort of primer of available research on the topic.
  • Oliver is very up-front about the limitations of statistical analysis–recognizing the need for a balance between scouting and statistics.

Here are the cons, which are fairly nitpicky:

  • The math is a little heavy in places (even for a stathead such as myself)–although most of the heavy lifting is relegated to the appendices. It does take some work to figure out exactly how Oliver’s individual player ratings work. What he’s done is basically construct the best metrics of individual player performance that can be accomplished based on the statistics now widely available.
  • The focus is on the NBA (and WNBA). This make sense from a statistical standpoint since the NBA playing field is more even, but make the analysis slightly less relevant to us college basketball junkies.
  • The organization of the book is a tad scattershot. For example, discussion of the “four factors’ method of analyzing basketball statistics is spread out across the 350+ pages of the book.
  • The book may have tackled a few too many topics. The chapter on parity on the NBA, for instance, wasn’t very well developed and probably could have been saved for further study.

These minor critiques aside, the book was definitely enlightening and I’d recommend it to anyone who considers themselves a serious student of the game. At minimum, it provides a solid framework for thinking about what exactly basketball statistics measure–and what they don’t. The concluding chapter of the book provides a nice summary the various findings of the book. Oliver’s first summary statement is:

In trying to understand basketball, get to know the team first and the player second.

This fits with my own experience: Over the last basketball season, I’ve delved into basketball statistics much more heavily in the past due to the creation of this blog.  I’ve slowly realized that I enjoy analyzing team basketball statistics more than individual basketball statistics. And that makes sense, since basketball is ultimately a team sport.

Thinking about three major team sports in the U.S.:

  • Baseball is fundamentally a sport of individual performance. Team performance can basically be constructed from individual hitting and pitching stats (setting fielding aside).
  • Football is fundamentally a sport of coordinated team effort. Players have specialized roles and it’s very difficult to interpret individual player stats outside the context of their particular team.
  • Basketball strikes a balance: Players all have to do the same things on a court (in different proportions) and their stats have some meaning on their own. But the team aspect of the sport is equally, if not more, important as the different proportions of things players do result in the development of unique roles.

The evolution of statistical metrics in the three sports follows suit. Because they measure individual performance so well, baseball stats have become increasingly sophisticated over the last several decades, to the point that learning about all the stats that are out there is the rough equivalent of earning a graduate degree.  Baseball statistics were my first love, but at times the statistical rigor that can be applied to the game can become excessive from the standpoint of simply enjoying the game.

Football stats are just now becoming more sophisticated, but are necessarily extremely complex, making them hard to approach for amateurs.  Plus the sample sizes are so small–particularly at the college level where a good team may only play 7-8 games against comparable opposition.

Basketball stats, meanwhile, are at the same time (1) simple enough for us commoners to understand and analyze and (2) in a relative stage of infancy in terms of being utilized to explain the game. That was part of the appeal of starting this blog. I don’t expect to make major contributions to the field of basketball statistics, but I do like knowing what I have to say about MSU basketball is based on the most up-to-date statistical tools available (to the public, at least).

So here’s to tempo-free basketball statistics–providing us with enough data to intelligently discuss the game while still yielding to the ineffable nature of teamwork.

Thus concludes the first book review (and related thoughts) posted on the Spartans Weblog.  Next time I do one of these, I’ll try to make it’s more timely–posted within, say, the same presidential term as the release date of the book.

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