How Gregg Popovich should answer interview questions

popovichEditor’s note: To celebrate the 1000th win of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, I turn to the comedy of Jonathan Rowe. Jon is a former lawyer and author. He wrote this email to Craig Ross, author of a new book on Michigan football, about how Gregg Popovich should deal with sideline reporters. I find it endlessly amusing.

I’ve been thinking about your idea that a coach or athlete being asked what Bill Russell called “the wrong question” should NOT just ignore the journalist’s question and walk away, as Russell so famously did, so many times; instead he or she should simply “rephrase the question”, as we lawyers say, and answer the question s/he would prefer to answer, instead of the idiotic one being asked.

I think your idea is so brilliant, ALL teams should teach this skill to their celebrity coaches and players.

But more to the point, I feel you NEED to send this idea ASAP to Gregg Popovich — the Samuel Beckett of the NBA, and the current master of the absurdist “protest” non-answer-answer.

To be sure, Pop’s long-running schtick is VERY amusing, as in:

Doris: “Pop, what’s the problem the Spurs are having on offense?”
Pop: “Turnovers.”
Doris: “What’s the problem the Spurs are having on defense?”
Pop: “Turnovers.”

This is obviously BRILLIANT dinner theater; and also lovely minimalist dialogue. But I believe Pop, like Samuel Beckett in his later years, has wrung ALL that can be wrung from his personal MINIMALIST Theater of the Absurd. Like the late Beckett, Pop is on the verge of becoming a parody of himself.

But imagine THIS exchange, if Pop were enlightened, by Craig Ross channeling his inner Bill Russell:

Doris: “Pop, what’s the problem the Spurs are having on offense?”

Pop: “That’s NOT the right question, Doris, so I’m not going to answer it. Instead I’m going to answer the far better question Bill Russell would have asked me.”

“‘Pop, do you think your team’s offensive struggles this quarter are a result of poor preparation by you and your wildly overpaid assistant coaches; or the fact that your players are all multi-millionaire corporations whose attention is frequently difficult even for you overpaid coaches to obtain; or was it just plain bad luck for you Spurs that Kobe decided to actually play DEFENSE for an entire quarter, for the first time since he was in JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL somewhere in northern Italy?’

“And my answer to THAT question, Doris, is: ALL OF THE ABOVE.”

Doris (looking totally SHOCKED, but realizing that Pop, regardless of his Russell-inspired intransigent LIP, is STILL contractually obliged by the NBA’s contract with ESPN to answer one MORE question, no matter how idiotic): “And what are the problems the Spurs are having on defense?”

Pop: “Again, Doris, NOT the right question. But once again I’m going to answer the far better question Bill Russell would have asked me, if you had a half a brain and actually took two minutes to THINK about your questions, instead of just spouting them off faster than a garden hose someone forgot to turn off:

“‘Pop, did the Lakers just score 32 points on your team in one quarter because Phil Jackson really IS the Zen-Master he pretends to be; or was it just because Kobe has even less conscience than Pistol Pete in his prime, so Kobe took 12 shots that were so selfish any coach with real STONES would have benched him for taking those shots; except that Phil, who is after all DATING the Owner’s Daughter and also knows that LA fans love Kobe even though all his teammates HATE him, stood like a statue while Kobe missed the first four by a combined 12 feet, but since Kobe hit the last eight in a row, will now no doubt credit “the Triangle” for creating those shots Kobe hit, which were in reality so bad even Pistol Pete in his prime would have passed on them all; and even though any trained statistician could tell you Kobe’s 8-for-12 this quarter was just a random statistical variance that happens in the Universe, from time to time, no matter how selfish a player’s shot selection may be, and no matter how pussy-whipped his alleged coach may be?’

“And my answer to THAT question, Doris, like my answer to ‘your’ first question, is: ALL OF THE ABOVE.”

A variation of THIS interview — even allowing for the fact that ‘Dr. Phil’ no longer coaches the Lake Show (since he’s currently presiding over the gruesome Viking funeral of the Knicks) — could happen, Dr. Ross; but only if you clue Pop in, ASAP.

The time is NOW, CR.
Pop’s no spring chicken; and neither are you.
Nor, for that matter, am I.

Best, Jean-Paul Sartre

The top 26 college football teams of 2015 by recruiting rankings

Nick_Saban_StatueHow talented is your college football team? If only recruiting hype mattered, which teams would contend for next season’s college football playoff?

Here, we use recruiting rankings to rank college football teams for 2015. Sure, recruiting rankings don’t always accurately access the talent of teenagers. Five star recruits fail while a three star recruit like Johnny Manziel wins the Heisman in his freshman year.

However, recruiting rankings look pretty good in the big picture. Matt Hinton showed that five star recruits have the highest chance to become an All-American, with diminishing chances for four and then three star recruits.

I developed a regression model that uses four years of team recruiting rankings from Rivals to predict on field performance. This on field performance is defined by the team rankings at The Power Rank. The regression model simply assigns a weight to each of the past four years.

Will these rankings accurately predict next season?

We’ll count down the top 26 teams of 2015 below. But don’t go telling people “ED FENG THINKS USC IS BY FAR THE BEST TEAM IN THE PAC-12.” Not true.

The regression model is a poor predictor of team performance by The Power Rank. It’s much better to just look at the year end rating from the previous season. (For you math types, the recruiting model explains 25% of the variance in team ratings, while the year end rating from the previous season explains 57%.)

This model will never describe teams like Wisconsin, a program that never has a top 25 recruiting class but contends for a conference title every year. It will also overrate programs (cough, cough, Notre Dame) that never live up to their talent level.

But hell, it’s fun to look at which teams have the most talent according to recruiting rankings. It will help pass the long 7 month off season.

Honorable mention

Wisconsin ranks 44th. Former coach Gary Andersen, who left for Oregon State this winter, lamented the tough academic standards that prevented him from recruiting some players to Wisconsin.

TCU and Baylor rank 37th and 40th respectively. Guess coaching matters, as these should be top 10 teams next preseason.

Missouri checks in at 32nd. Low recruiting rankings haven’t stopped Gary Pinkel’s team from winning the SEC East the past two seasons.

26. Michigan State

Mark D’Antonio has produced a mighty fine team the last two seasons despite mediocre recruiting. With the probably return of QB Connor Cook, the Spartans should still be a very good team in 2015.

25. Penn State

Coach James Franklin came to State College with a reputation for recruiting, and he seems to be delivering. But can he fix QB Christian Hackenberg, the supposed NFL prospect whose completion percentage slipped from 59% to 56% from his freshman to sophomore year?

24. Arizona State

Coach Todd Graham has elevated the level of recruiting in Tempe. Arizona State was outside the top 25 from 2009 through 2013 but has drawn the 20th best class the last two seasons.

23. Mississippi State

The Bulldogs had an amazing 10-3 year (well, they could have done better with a bowl win over Georgia Tech) and translated their success into the 16th best class this season. That’s their best rank since 2003.

22. Virginia Tech

Frank Beamer is still getting good recruits to come to Blacksburg? Virginia Tech was a perennial top 25 team in The Power Rank but have fallen off since the 2011 season.

21. Michigan

Michigan has had two successive small recruiting classes, which has reduced their team rank the past two seasons. When recalculating these rankings using average stars per recruit, Michigan ranks 17th.

20. Miami (FL)

The Hurricanes had a rough season. They ranked 17th in my ensemble rankings but finished with a losing 6-7 record. Al Golden recruited the 26th best class but 16th by average stars.

19. Oregon

Oregon always plays above their rank by recruiting numbers. However, 2015 will be a tough test for Mark Helfrich, as he loses QB Marcus Mariota and has many leaks to plug on the defense.

18. Mississippi

Two years ago, Hugh Freeze made a big splash on recruiting day by signing multiple five star recruits on his way to the 7th best class. However, he hasn’t been able to replicate that success the last two years. It remains to be seen whether their successful 2014 season was a fluke or not.

17. South Carolina

Steve Spurrier really had issues on defense this season, as South Carolina finished 37th in my team rankings in 2014. They didn’t finish outside the top 20 the previous four seasons.

16. Stanford

At least once during every Stanford game, I scream at coach David Shaw for some unthinkably bad decision. However, he wins games, and the 2014 Stanford team was much better than their 8-5 record suggests.

15. Oklahoma

In 2014, the Sooners won a huge bowl game over Alabama and entered the next season overrated. In 2015, they blew their bowl game against Clemson and will probably be underrated heading into next season. Bob Stoops continues to recruit at the same level, so expect them to challenge TCU and Baylor for the Big 12.

14. UCLA

The Bruins had a tremendous signing day, finishing with the 4th best class by average stars per recruit. Let’s see if this makes them into the top 10 team that people expect each preseason.

13. Texas

Charlie Strong recruited the 12th best class to Texas. This is a fine haul anywhere except Texas, a program that had one class outside the top 5 from 2006 through 2012 under Mack Brown.

12. Florida

It seemed like new coach Jim McElwain had a good National Signing Day when five star CeCe Jefferson committed. However, Jefferson still hasn’t sent his letter of intent, and Florida has the 23rd best class, their worst rank in any year since 2002.

11. Tennessee

Butch Jones recruited his second straight 5th ranked class. Perhaps Tennessee can finally overcome the curse of Phil Fulmer, the Hall of Fame, national championship winning coach they fired in 2008.

10. Georgia

Mark Richt always recruits well. That’s why he can find a freshman (Nick Chubb) to replace the best running back in the country (Todd Gurley) when he gets hurt.

9. Clemson

Dabo Swinney recruited the best class of his tenure as Clemson head coach (4th by team, 7th by average stars). With a healthy DeShaun Watson at QB for the next two seasons, the future looks bright for the Tigers.

8. Texas A&M

The numbers back up Kevin Sumlin’s reputation as a top recruiter. Texas A&M had its third straight top 10 class in 2015, a feat they didn’t achieve the previous 7 years. Now, they need to fix that defense that has stunk for two straight seasons.

7. Notre Dame

The Fighting Irish recruit well no matter the coach. However, their play hasn’t lived up to their top 10 recruiting rankings, even under Brian Kelly. Since he arrived in 2010, they have finished 32nd, 21st, 11th (reached title game against Alabama), 23rd and 39th in my team rankings.

6. Auburn

It should scare the rest of the college football world that Auburn landed Will Muschamp as defensive coordinator. He was an excellent DC at Texas, and his reputation helped Auburn land top recruit Byron Cowart.

5. LSU

Les Miles had only the 13th ranked class by average stars. This is only the second time since 2007 that his recruiting class by average stars finished outside the top 10.

4. Florida State

The Seminoles had the top ranked class in 2015 by average stars. Jimbo Fisher needs some of these guys to step in on a defense that struggled this season.

3. USC

Did these recruits see USC get gashed by Boston College this season? And they still decided to play for Steve Sarkisian and his 9-4 record this past season? USC had the top ranked recruiting class in 2015.

2. Ohio State

For a team that won the first college football playoff, a 9th ranked recruiting class (10th by average stars) seems like a poor haul. However, Ohio State didn’t have one five star recruit on their offensive line that powered their running game this season.

1. Alabama

Duh? What did you expect? Nick Saban must be torturing himself because USC had a better ranked class (the first time since 2010 that Saban didn’t have the top ranked class by Rivals). However, Alabama still ends up at the top of these rankings that look at a four year window.

Check out the live Super Bowl win probability

My friends over at NumberFire have developed this widget for the Super Bowl. Follow the win probability and other statistics during the game.

Radio appearance on Eye on Gaming

eye_on_gamingJohn Kelly had me on Eye on Gaming, a radio show on KLAV in Las Vegas. We talk about the art in algorithms, efficiency metrics in football, and predictions for the Super Bowl between New England and Seattle.

I particularly appreciate the kind words from the Friday night regulars, Matt Hatfield and Robert Gary Ravdel, on my appearance. Listen for that after the interview.

To listen to the show, click here. (If it’s after the Super Bowl, you might need to click on the show “Stanford PhD Ed Feng analyzes Super Bowl XLIX.”)

Trusted sources for NFL ensemble predictions

cnbc_ensembleWith Eric Chemi of CNBC, I calculated an ensemble prediction for the Super Bowl that combines my numbers with other trusted sources. This ensemble predicts a slim 0.46 point edge for Seattle, which gives New England a 49% chance to win.

Here are the sources I used in the ensemble.

  • The Power Rank – I used my rankings that combine calculations on margin of victory and yards per play.
  • Advanced Football Analytics – Brian Burke uses yards per play and offensive turnover rates in ranking teams.
  • Numberfire – Rankings based on an expected points analysis of every play.
  • Football Outsiders – Aaron Schatz uses the idea of success rate on every play in his DVOA rankings.
  • Inpredictable – Mike Beuoy takes market data and uses regression to rank teams.
  • Massey Peabody – Cade Massey and Rufus Peabody use football play by play data and weight recent games more.
  • Prediction Machine – Paul Bessire simulates the game 50,000 to come up with a prediction.
  • Sagarin Pure Points – Jeff Sagarin, who developed his ranking algorithm back in the 80’s, uses margin of victory in games. Not modern but still useful.
  • Line – the point spread from the markets.

I wrote about expected points and success rate used in DVOA in this article.