By the Numbers: Shaka Not-So-Smart?

Shaka Smart says "we're better than you." (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Virginia Commonwealth University head basketball coach Shaka Smart is a smart man. I'm sure of it. No way he becomes a head coach at a decent program like VCU otherwise. But his comments this morning make me think maybe he had a brain fart. And maybe Paul Hewitt was standing in the cloud, because he chimed in as well.

The statements at issue are as follows:

Smart said that, as far as basketball goes, "the best programs in the state are in the CAA, and it's not even close."

Paul Hewitt (who is currently the coach at George Mason, but, ironically, is the former coach at the ACC's Georgia Tech), chimed in by saying that Virginia and Virginia Tech have more talent, but that NCAA tournament bids and wins is what schools are judged by.

Well then, downward goes the gauntlet. Let's take a look

Let's start off with what Paul Hewitt said.

I'll make one thing clear: He's right that the Commonwealth teams in the CAA have better numbers as far as the NCAA tournament goes. In the last ten years, the CAA schools (ODU, GMU, VCU, JMU, W&M) have eleven NCAA tournament bids, and have made it to the final four twice. Compare that with Virginia and Virginia Tech, which have gone a combined twice. Yes, twice. Pitiful, I agree.

However, I have to strongly disagree with Hewitt in terms of him saying that the NCAA tournament bids are what schools are judged by. I mean, I guess some people do judge schools solely by that metric. But those people need to reconsider.

Of those 11 NCAA tournament bids in the last ten years, seven of them were automatic qualifier bids. Four were at-large. What do you think the chances are that Virginia or Virginia Tech would have been in the top two teams in the CAA if they played in that conference? Nearly impossible to say. What are the chances that ODU, VCU or GMU (the three schools to get AQs) would have even gotten an at-large bid out of the ACC? Nearly impossible to say.

Comparing NCAA tournament bids within a conference is fine. The teams play a very similar slate. But comparing them between conferences - especially conferences at two clearly different levels like the ACC and CAA) just doesn't make any sense.

That said, what about the numbers?

First of all, lets take a look at the strength of schedule. I'm using the Overall Pythagorean Strength of Schedule from kenpom.com.

Commonwealthsos_medium

Not surprisingly, Virginia and Virginia Tech have had the two hardest schedules of the Commonwealth schools every year until this year. That will change as we get further into conference play, and the two schools will be back at the top of the list.

So, the two ACC schools play a tougher schedule every year than the CAA schools. So they would be excused for losing a couple extra against the tougher competition, right?

So let's take a look at the winning percentage. Pulling again from kenpom.com, I'm using the Pythagorean Winning Percentage. Hat tip to my former writing colleague Ben Allaire (@rmj_equals_hero) for compiling this set of data for me.

Commonwealthpwp_medium

Well that's interesting. Either Virginia or Virginia Tech had the highest PWP in half of the years (Virginia in 2003, 2004, 2012, Virginia Tech in 2007 and 2008). Playing against a tougher schedule. Ok. Well, it's a little jumbled in there, so let's take a look at the averages:

Commonwealthpwpaveragesoverall_medium

Ouch. Well, that kind of makes it not even close. Poor Commonwealth CAA schools. But I will acknowledge two things: First, JMU and W&M are very bad schools and they really hurt the CAA averages. Second, Smart's comment was about the best schools, not the overall conference/commonwealth landscape. So let's just trim it down to the three schools that make the NCAA tournament from the CAA:

Commonwealthpwpaverages_medium

That looks a lot better for the CAA. They're even above the ACC schools in three of the ten years. But I don't think you can say that three out of ten makes you better, much less able to say "it's not even close."

So now let's take a look at one more statistic. I'm trying to be fair to the CAA and give them a legitimate shot. So let's look at kenpom.com's overall rating for each team for the past decade. This is kind of like the RPI, except (in my opinion, at least) better.

So here's the ratings of all the teams:

Commonwealthkp_medium

Looks like the ACC schools had the best rating in five of the ten years. So to be a little more comprehensive, let's look at averages (and I'll include the non-JMU/W&M average just to be fair):

Commonwealthkpaverages_medium

Well. So even when leaving out the bottom-dwellers, the ACC schools are consistently the better teams, with the exception of 2011. In most years, except for 2011 and 2009, the difference is significant.

Ideally, without at-large bids, the top 64 teams in the ratings (or RPIs, if you are forced to use that) would make it into the dance. This occurred sixteen times among these seven teams. Eight times it was an ACC school. Eight times it was a CAA school.

You'll note that that means that ACC schools in the top 64 made it into the NCAA tournament only two of eight times. on the flip side, CAA schools made it into the dance five times (of their 11 appearances) when they were NOT in the top 64 schools in the country. Remember what I was saying about automatic qualifiers and not being able to use tournament appearances as a metric when comparing schools in different conferences? Well, there you go.

Conclusion

This was clearly a "PR" move by Shaka Smart. He knows his statement isn't actually true. But it's good for him, his school and his conference to compare the CAA to the ACC. Just getting them in the news in the same sentence is good for them.

I do have to commend the Commonwealth's CAA schools (VCU, ODU and GMU in particular) for their performance in recent years. I've been cheering for them every time they made the tournament and hoping they would go far. I'm always a fan of other Commonwealth programs (aside from Virginia Tech, obviously).

But the facts simply do not support Shaka Smart's assertions. You could certainly try to make an argument that the best Commonwealth teams in the CAA are as good as the Cavaliers and Hokies (I'd still say you'd be wrong, but I'll admit you could make the argument). But to say the CAA schools are better and its not even close? Well, that's not even close to the truth.

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