Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Zebras and Cats: 2007-08 Edition

For a few weeks in February there was a strong chance that referees Jim Burr and Bob Donato, arms outstretched to signal foul and clock stoppage in the (literally) very last seconds of one possession games, would become the icons for Villanova's season. Count on a Sweet Sixteen run to soften the memory, but limping out of the MCI Center saddled with a 14-9 record, 2 of those losses coming complements of quick whistles, it seemed that garnering a fourth consecutive dance bid was slipping just beyond reach. A zebra conspiracy against all things Wildcat? Self-involved fans fixing on excuses for a young and over-hyped team's inability to perform to expectations? Fans who sensed "things were different..." with the referees were not hallucinating fanatics (those are the other teams' supporters...). But there is no statistical evidence (that I have found anyway) that suggests Zebras hate Wildcats. They just called more fouls on them last season. As the chart below suggests, the 'Cats reversed a 2 year trend that had opponents fouling at higher (per game) rates than Villanova. While the disparity was nothing on the scale of the 2004-05 season (also ironically a season that ended in a Sweet Sixteen game...), the balance tipped slightly against the 'Cats.

The very slight average per game advantage to opponents is taken on all games this past season. If the average was less than a single foul per game, the standard deviation suggested the number of fouls per game varied a bit more than expected. For opponents, the standard deviation was 3.39 on an average of 20.1 fouls, while fouls for the 'Cats, the standard deviation was 4.63 on 20.8 fouls, a bit higher than expected, and a little surprising when compared to opponents. Given changes in the starting lineup and rotation throughout the season, combined with the lack of collegiate experience the wide variation in fouls calling is understandable. Ken Pomeroy, per his Villanova Scouting Report calculated Villanova's "experience" at 1.0 years and ranked the Wildcats 324/341, a good indication of the team's relative youth (as a yardstick, consider that Pomeroy calculated the 2007 Connecticut Huskies at 0.5 years and ranked them 335/336).

Breaking the games out by location (home, away, neutral -- see graph below) reveals more detail, and some variations that I did not expect. "Home Cooking" was a myth last season. Villanova held a paltry 0.5 average foul advantage over opponents over the 15 game home slate. This is especially interesting because a team with a home court record like Villanova's last season, 12-3, ought to expect their opponent's foul total to be padded by a few extra change of possession fouls at the end of the game. The average margin of victory, 13.2, may have been large enough to discourage the practice. Despite the record and the modest advantage in average fouls the standard deviation revealed a similar gap in the range of the number of fouls called. Surprisingly, it came to nearly 2.5 fouls. The 'Cats actually did better on neutral courts, holding an advantage of nearly 1 foul (0.9) average over their opponents over the course of 9 games. The gap for the 11 away games explains the fouling disadvantage for Villanova. The Wildcats averaged nearly 3.5 more fouls per game than their opponents. Home Cooking in reverse (Road Curse?) seems appropriate. The Wildcats had a losing road record, 4-7, which may explain some of that difference, if one assumes that the team that is behind fouls 4 - 6 times in the closing minutes as a strategy to force possession changes and give themselves more scoring opportunities. The gap in standard deviations actually favored Villanova by a very modest 0.5 fouls.

Given the relative inexperience of the squad the struggles on the road could have been anticipated. The large inconsistency from game-to-game, even at home is puzzling though. Any comfort to be drawn from these numbers will have to come from the differential in the neutral court games. Villanova was able to hold their average below their opponents, despite the unfamiliar setting. That the neutral court games were played near the beginning of the season (Old Spice Classic) and at the very end of the season (GET and NCAA) should be a good sign for the squad next season.

Methods & terms...
I counted a game as "home" if it was played at the Pavilion or the Wachovia Center, as "away" if it was played on a home court of the opponent and as "neutral" if the game was played at a location not the home court of either team. This season neutral games were played at the Milk House for the Old Spice Classic (though one could argue that the proximity of UCF made the Milk House a virtual home court for the Golden Knights...), Madison Square Garden for the Big East Tournament (though I counted it as "away" for the St. John's game) and the arenas in Tampa and Detroit where the 'Cats played 3 NCAA games.

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