After the Bruins' strong performance against a mediocre Stanford team, preceded by a good performance against a flawed Oregon team, some of the Alford supporters who mysteriously disappeared after the game at Stanford have returned to talk about being "impressed with how Coach Alford is handling the team right now." What a difference a week makes, and how quickly the embarrassment at Pullman has been forgotten!
Tournament basketball isn't about managing a team for a game or two--it's about planning for a series of games away from home with little recovery time in between, and utilizing players accordingly. Conference tournaments are particularly difficult since games are played on consecutive days. For example, after beating the Cardinal in a conference semi-final last night, the Bruins have about 16 hours to rest and prepare for the Wildcats in the final.
For teams like UCLA and Arizona that use a relatively small number of players in their regular rotation (8 and 6, respectively), playing games on consecutive days is especially taxing. So it seems sensible for coaches to take the circumstances into account and allot playing time to maximize their chances for tournament success. Playing a starter for 35 minutes in the opening game may help the team advance to the next round, but it also may reduce the team's chances of winning the second round game. It's a difficult but essential calculation that a good coach has to make again and again throughout the course of tournament games.
So how are Alford and Sean Miller doing at managing the minutes of key players? Both coaches have enjoyed large margins of victory in their first two tournament games: the Bruins have an average winning margin of 22 points and the Wildcats are winning by an average margin of 26 points. Therefore, neither coach has an excuse for not resting their starters. But surprisingly, Alford hasn't been resting his starters effectively, as the following table shows:
|Player||Tournament MPG||Conference MPG|
(MPG = average Minutes Per Game)
As the table shows, Alford has used Travis Wear for significantly more minutes per game in the conference tournament than he did in Pac-12 regular season games. And the team's other starting big, David Wear, is averaging essentially the same minutes per game in the tournament as he did in Pac-12 games. Powell and Anderson have been given just a couple minutes fewer per game, with Adams the only player being given something that amounts to a breather.
Has mediocre coach Sean Miller done any better at resting his starters? Not surprisingly, yes. Three of the five Wildcat starters (Nick Johnson, TJ McConnell, and Kaleb Tarczewski) are averaging 3 or more minutes fewer per tournament game compared to their conference average. Like Jordan Adams, Tarczewski is averaging an extra 5 minutes of rest in tournament games; McConnell is averaging 4 extra minutes off the court; Nick Johnson is averaging 3 extra minutes on the bench. On that basis alone, Miller seems to be doing a better job of managing his team for a tournament title.
Alford's failure to give Kyle Anderson more rest in two blowout wins is particularly worrisome. Remember that one of the rationalizations for the heavy doses of #Daddyball is that Kyle needs to be kept fresh. The problem with that excuse is that Kyle's minutes continued to climb as the conference season progressed, so with that in mind, resting Kyle in blowouts is a sensible thing to do even if tournament games weren't being played on consecutive days.
Most of the people who participated in the game thread yesterday realized this and were calling for bench players with over 5 minutes left in the game. The fact that Alford had FOUR of his starters (including Kyle) in the game last night with under 4 minutes to play demonstrates how poorly Alford is managing his team. (For the record, Kyle left the game for good with 3:53 left, David Wear and Powell were subbed out with 3:11 left, and Travis Wear left the game with 2:30 left.)
In case there are any Alfies who want to argue that the game wasn't over with 4 minutes left, have a look at the chart below:
The pale blue line represents the probability of a UCLA win based on time remaining and point difference. According to analysis of tens of thousands of games, a simple heuristic invention by Bill James (of SABR fame) can be used to predict when a game is "statistically over" (i.e., the trailing team will not be able to come back to win the game). The time at which a game is statistically over is calculated like this:
In the Stanford game, using the Bill James calculation, the game was statistically over with 5:40 left to play. Therefore, it was reckless and foolish of Alford to play 4 starters in the dying minutes of a blowout. But this isn't an isolated example of Alford's inability to think ahead--he did essentially the same thing in the previous game against Oregon. In the win against Oregon, the game was statistically over with 3:46 remaining, yet Kyle, Travis and Norman were in the game until 1:07 was left, and Jordan was still in until there was just 2:41 remaining. What possible excuse can Alford concoct for playing his starters well after the game has been decided?
When players are fatigued, they won't deliver peak performances. That's something even Alford should be able to understand. If the Bruins lack the same defensive intensity tonight that we saw against the Cardinal yesterday, let's hope Alford and his supporters think about the consequences of his decision to play starters in the last minutes of games that were statistically over. It's never too late to learn from mistakes, but until Alford learns to acknowledge his mistakes, he's doomed to repeat them.