Web Exclusives: The Varsity Typewriter
a PAW web exclusive column by Patrick Sullivan '02 (email: pas@princeton.edu)

February 13, 2002:
By the numbers

Maybe we shouldn't live or die by predictions based on stats

By Patrick Sullivan '02

Its time to play the numbers game. But judging from these numbers, even Professor John Nash, armed with his "beautiful mind," would be befuddled.

The men's basketball team sits atop the Ivy League with an unblemished 4-0 record versus league opponents, a 10-game home winning streak, and a slight edge on the Pennsylvania Quakers, who by some fluke possess a mediocre league record of 2-2.

As a sports enthusiast, I love analyzing statistics, especially in a league like ours, where anything can happen — and often does. Numbers don't necessarily predict outcomes, but looking at team averages often helps to size up potential game outcomes. With this in mind, I spent an afternoon comparing Princeton's statistics to those of other Ivy League schools, most notably those pesky Quakers. Not surprisingly, the stat sheet for the Tigers contradicts sharply with the early season success the team has thus far enjoyed.

Here's just a few statistics for starters. Of the eight Ivy teams, only two — hapless Cornell and Columbia — score less points than the Tigers, who tally just 59.8 points per game. Brown, by contrast, averages 81.8 points, and Penn 72.1. In individual performance areas, Princeton's presence is nonexistent. Our "leading" scorer, senior Mike Bechtold, averages 8.8 points per contest, a paltry accomplishment when compared to the 17.7 points Penn forward Ugonna Onyekwe puts up every night. For that matter, four Penn players average more points than Bechtold. In fact, he ranks 23(!) among league scorers, which is hardly a coup of any substantial importance.

No Princeton players crack the top 15 leaders in rebounding; Bechtold's team-leading 4.2 rebounds per game is only good enough for seventeenth in the league. Even in assists, sophomore Konrad Wysocki and senior Ahmed El-nokali, the two Tigers who love to serve it up, rank 12th and 13th, respectively. In fact, only in three individual categories do the Tigers break the top 10: junior Ray Robins ranks 10th in field goal percentage at .487 and fifth in three-point percentage at .444. Freshman guard Will Venable commands the sixth best free throw percentage at .806.

So what's the point of rehashing these mediocre statistics, you ask? Upon a cursory examination of the raw numbers, it seems close to mathematically impossible for the Tigers to be as successful as they have been. No matter how good a team's defense may be, if the players can't score, they can't win, right?

Apparently not.

Chew on these numbers: Princeton leads all Division I teams in the least amount of points allowed per game at 56.1. In their first four league games, the tenacious Tiger defense permitted only 16.8 points in the first half, and just 43.2 total. Not surprising, when you consider that Princeton owns the longest current Division I record for holding opponents under 100 points (currently 908 consecutive games, dating back to 1968).

Even though nobody on Princeton's team averages more than 4.2 rebounds and the team ranks seventh in the league in rebounds per contest (25.5), the Tigers have still managed to out-rebound their opponents this season, 456-442. I'm a history major, but even to me, these numbers seem like a mathematical conundrum. Why has Princeton enjoyed success thus far in the season, given these wholly unimpressive figures?

The answer is simple: Tiger basketball is team basketball. On any given night, a different player steps up and delivers the big game, whether offensively or defensively. During the 60-38 routing of Cornell last weekend, Robins poured in a career-high 28 points, slightly better than his season average of 7.2. Against Columbia, sophomore Kyle Wente added a season-high 17 points. Even sophomore guard Ed Persia, struggling through a season-long shoot slump, dumped 10 points on Holy Cross in the last ten minutes of that game, propelling the Tigers to a narrow victory.

The problem with this style of basketball is that it can backfire. If nobody has a solid shooting performance or steps up in a critical situation, closely contested games can turn into routs. Thus far, Coach John Thompson '88's team, whether through skill or luck, has managed to produce effectively using this chancy system. However, a team where everybody is the "go-to guy" can also be a team where nobody is the go-to guy, and that worries me.

The next stretch of games marks the most crucial portion of the season for the men's basketball team. Brown and Yale, 4-2 and 5-1 respectively, present formidable road opponents for the Tigers, and even though Penn's record of 2-2 deserves little applause, anything can happen in the next five days, especially considering the Quaker's high-producing, run-and-gun offense. Depending on the outcome of the games, Princeton could end up with a three-game lead over all the Ivy teams, or could find themselves in fourth place.

In a desperate attempt to predict possible outcomes for these match-ups, I again turned to the numbers, hoping to console myself. My heart sunk when I realized that all three teams — Brown, Yale and Penn — outscore, out-rebound and out-assist Princeton by significant margins. Let's hope that these Tigers can continue to defy mathematical laws in their quest for another NCAA tournament appearance.

If Princeton continues to win in this fashion, maybe Professor Nash will need to rework his "game theory" after all.

You can reach Patrick at pas@princeton.edu.