With the Red Raiders men’s basketball squad staying on top in just about every ratings and rankings system out there in college basketball, we ask our friend Erik Haslam to help give us a breakdown of Texas Tech by crunching the numbers. He runs an excellent college basketball analytics site over on Haslametrics.com that all you Texas Tech basketball fans will want to follow, if you don’t already.
HERE. WE. GO…
Dan: Tell us Texas Tech fans a little about yourself, and about how you got into running a basketball analytics site?
Erik: I’m 43 years old, married with two kids, and currently living about 20 minutes south of the University of Wisconsin campus. I was a rower and a four-year letter-winner for UW back in the early-to-mid 90s. I had always dreamed of becoming a member of the Wisconsin basketball team, but unfortunately, I was 0-for-5 trying out for the Badgers as a walk-on. In 1996, I graduated from Wisconsin with a degree in Electrical Engineering. From there, I went on to become an engineer in the electric utility sector, a role I still maintain to this day.
I’ve always had a fascination with the NCAA Basketball Tournament since my early days of high school. I really think it’s the most exciting three-week period in sports, and with so many people filling out brackets, it’s a very inclusive event that millions of people enjoy. Back before the internet, the only way to obtain an adequate summary of the teams in the tournament each year was to snag a copy of the USA Today and peruse the enclosed team capsules the Monday after Selection Sunday. As the internet matured and we entered a new millennium, more and more data became accessible at our very fingertips.
I wanted to be able to independently evaluate all teams in college basketball and not rely on others to fill in the blanks for me. Using my engineering background, I began collecting game data and experimenting with statistical methods to break the data down in meaningful ways so that I could establish my own means of evaluating each squad. Much of the work I did early on involved adopting some of the more popular methods to rate teams (linear regression, the “four factors” of basketball, etc.), but I soon grew disillusioned with the results. I strove to create a ratings system that was my very own, focused on the facets of the game I believed to be important. After many hours of study and thought, I put my ideas down on paper, later authored the code, and Haslametrics was born. Since then, it’s been my metaphorical castle as I continue put the whole thing together brick-by-brick – first came the website with ratings and rankings, then the game projections, followed by Bracketology, automated team summaries, Twitter interaction, etc. It’s provided me opportunities to engage several individuals in the college basketball universe, and I recently began offering consulting services to D-1 coaching staffs. The whole ride has been a very rewarding process. Moreover, the work I perform satisfies two of my passions: (1.) being able to leverage my creativity on a “from-the-ground-up” project and (2.) being able to meet and positively interact with so many great folks via social media.
Dan: How is Haslametrics.com unique in your approach to basketball ratings compared to some of the other basketball ratings sites out there?
Erik: First of all, I utilize play-by-play data over box score data. Play-by-play data is so much more revealing because it tells you how a player scored, where a player scored, and when a player scored. The “how” can reveal information such as a team’s ability to acquire easier shot opportunities via things like steals and offensive rebounds. The “where” allows you to break down two-point shooting statistics into jumpers (mid-range field goals) and shots underneath the basket (near-proximity field goals). The “when” is especially useful when determining meaningful game minutes. As part of my approach, I discard all game data once a contest has been mathematically decided; I don’t want “scrub” players to pollute my data once a game has been deemed out of reach. Having game clock entries for each event on the court allows me to do that.
Furthermore, my rankings are more focused on overall performance than wins and losses. If the #1 team in the country defeats the #300 team in the country by three points, that certainly shouldn’t be regarded as a positive for the #1 team. My algorithms set the expectation for each contest and then gauge the game performances of each team against the expectations. The results yield a huge sampling of results that allow me to create thousands and thousands of comparisons using common opponents as constants. Those comparisons are the backbone to the rankings you see published on a daily basis at Haslametrics.com. Recent comparisons are weighted heavier than those from earlier in the season, as we want to know who the team is now, not who the team was weeks or even months ago. In addition, data is normalized to account for game tempo and quality of opposition. We want all teams on a level playing field when we perform our evaluation.
Dan: It is a great time to be a Red Raiders basketball fan, as we are over halfway through the season and hold a record of 15-3 with some huge quality wins. We have continuously stayed highly ranked in the Haslametrics ratings all season long (currently sitting at #8). Can you explain why we keep holding onto a high position in your All-Play Percentage rankings?
Erik: Depending on a team’s position in the rankings, who that team is playing, and the two teams’ styles of play, every game has an expected outcome. A team ranked 10th in the country will be expected to defeat a team ranked 250th far quicker and more efficiently than a team ranked 100th would be.
To that point, when the Red Raiders weren’t seeded as high as they are now, they exceeded the expectations and were able to climb the ladder. The wins over Baylor and Kansas were key examples of this. Once they hit the top-10, they were able to meet the more demanding expectations and retain their current position.
Dan: What are some trends that you see with happening with the Texas Tech men’s basketball team?
Erik: One of the things that keeps the Red Raiders so highly ranked at Haslametrics.com is their defense. Texas Tech has consistently been in the top-5 in defensive efficiency for some time now. The Red Raiders have a defense that harasses opposing shooters and, as a result, Texas Tech is a top-50 team defending from every location on the floor – three-pointers, mid-range twos, and near-proximity field goals (i.e. dunks, layups, and tips). Tech’s overall defensive FG% is in the neighborhood of 38%, which ranks in the top-25 in all of college basketball.
On offense, Texas Tech is still fairly solid, ranking in the top-40 nationally. The metrics reveal a focus on scoring from deep in the paint and a keen ability to grab offensive rebounds and score off of second chances.
Dan: Can you explain how your All-Play estimates versus all possible opponents work?
Erik: Behind the scenes, I track how teams score (half-court set, breakaways off steals, second chances off offensive rebounds, etc.) and how successful teams convert in these different scenarios. I also track how they perform defensively in the same situations. Of course, all this data is normalized to account for meaningful game minutes, strength of opponent, game tempo, home-court advantage, and recentness of comparison data. Using all of this data together with a projected game pace, one can scientifically estimate the final score for any of the 61,425 possible contests in Division I basketball. (There’s a user interface at Haslametrics.com that allows anyone to perform a simulation for any specific matchup.) These “all-play estimates” are directly linked to my rankings. If the #1 team in the country has an “all-play percentage” of 1.000, it means that team would be favored to defeat all 350 other D-1 teams according to the “all-play estimates.”
Dan: Your bracketology has the Red Raiders sitting at a #3 seed in the NCAA tournament if the season ended today. We will need to check back with you at the end of the season, but based on your past history with Haslametrics how has a team like Texas Tech fared in the Big Dance?
Erik: That’s a very difficult question to answer because every squad each season is so unique. Typically, I’ve found that the most balanced elite teams are the ones that succeed the most. For instance, last year’s champ, North Carolina, finished the year ranked tenth in offensive efficiency and sixth in defensive efficiency. The champion the year before that, Villanova, finished the season ranked third in offensive efficiency and seventh in defensive efficiency. In 2014-15, champion Duke respectively finished second and tenth in offensive and defensive efficiency. There’s definitely a trend of elite balance being demonstrated there.
Texas Tech’s defense is undoubtedly top-quality at this point in the season. The real question is if the Red Raiders can improve their offense enough to break into elite territory. Right now, they’re hovering around 40th in the country. If the Red Raiders fall behind in a particular contest, their present quality of offensive efficiency as well as their slower pace of play may not be conducive to a rally.
Dan: Which game should Texas Tech be most worried about on the upcoming regular season schedule?
Erik: I still have to fall back on the Kansas game on February 24th. The Jayhawks have not played their best basketball as of late, but they’re still our highest-ranked Big 12 team and have the best “record quality” of any team in the conference. Considering their performances have been somewhat lackluster, Kansas is still 6-2 vs. our top-50 and 9-3 vs. our top-100. That’s excellent for a team not playing great ball. At the end of the day, Kansas is still the reigning champion and has held their crown for 13 straight seasons. Texas Tech has already proven they can take out the Jayhawks, and if the Red Raiders want to end Kansas’ reign of terror atop the Big 12, this will be the place to finish it.
Dan: Throwing analytics out the window; what does your gut say about how the Red Raiders will do for the remainder of the season?
Erik: My gut tells me that Texas Tech’s fast start will naturally slow a bit. I tend to compare Texas Tech to a team like Virginia, who is annually an analytics darling early in the season but tends to slip a bit as the conference regular season progresses. I’m not sure what it is – perhaps that style of play wears out a team, perhaps opponents suddenly discover how to deal with that kind of stingy defense – but my eyes tell me that the defense-heavy teams tend to slide more and more as the end of the year approaches.
Then again, it also largely depends on schedule. And Texas Tech’s next few opponents, including Oklahoma State and Iowa State (twice), are very beatable. The Red Raiders need to retain their focus vs. the lesser opponents. The real test, however, will be in late February when Tech has to face Oklahoma, Kansas, and West Virginia all within a two-week window. If the Red Raiders win those games, they’re obviously going to be in fabulous shape.
Dan: Why is college basketball the greatest sport in all the land?
Erik: I absolutely love college basketball simply because every conference personality, every team personality, and every player personality is unique. No two teams or players are the same. And when you are dealing with 351 unique teams, each with a unique roster of contributors, anything can happen. That makes for an extremely exciting atmosphere. I may have contrived the systematic approach behind my algorithms. I may have written all the code that ties it all together. But in the end, I’m just a fan like everyone else. Each morning, my favorite thing to do is to head downstairs to see where my own algorithms have placed all the teams based on the previous day’s results. It’s fun to see how much impact each upset will have. It’s exciting to watch how the bracketology projections evolve over time. And it’s so enjoyable to discuss and debate everything college basketball with a host of loyal and respectful followers on social media platforms like Twitter. College basketball analytics is my passion, and I consider myself blessed to be able to live out my passion four months of every year.
Staking the Plains would like to give an enormous THANK YOU to Erik for taking the time out of his schedule to talk college hoops with us today! Keep up with Erik and his website Haslametrics.com by following him on Twitter @haslametrics.