Monday, January 22, 2007

There were streaky starts in two different basketball games tonight (actually, each was a combination of one team's "hotness" and the other's "coldness").

In the NBA, the Miami Heat -- playing without stars Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal -- outscored the New York Knicks 27-0 near the beginning of the game in taking a 29-3 lead. The Knicks closed the deficit to six points at one time, but Miami reasserted control to win 101-83.

Meanwhile, in women's college hoops, No. 1 Duke stunned a Knoxville crowd of 21,118, taking a 19-0 lead over No. 4 Tennessee. Parelleling the aforementioned Heat-Knicks game, the Lady Volunteers rallied to make the game competitive, losing by only 74-70.

Both of these games nicely illustrate the statistical principle of regression toward the mean. For series of observations, such as teams' play at various points in games, extreme initial performances (either extremely good or extremely bad) tend to come back toward the average. Thus, the teams with the torrid starts -- Miami shot at a .684 clip (13 of 19) and Duke made its first five shots, respectively -- would be expected to come down to earth a bit, whereas the teams in the deep freeze -- the Knicks missed 10 straight shots, Tennesse eight -- would be expected to start finding the basket.

Another element that I think is important to note is the relatively narrow range of talent in these games. Duke and Tennessee, of course, were both in the top four of the national women's collegiate rankings. Also, considering the full spectrum of men's pro (or semi-pro) basketball teams around the world (including the various sub-NBA leagues in the U.S. such as the NBDL and "new" ABA, and leagues in numerous other nations), the difference between NBA teams' talent levels are indeed narrow, even if the best and worst of the 30 teams were to play each other (insert your own joke here about the Knicks being an NBA team).

Comebacks (albeit unsuccessful) of the kind seen tonight would seem to be much more likely when teams of relatively comparable ability are playing. When teams are really not comparable, such as nationally ranked men's NCAA Division I Air Force and Division III Colorado College (not to be confused with D-I University of Colorado), you're likely to witness an unmitigated pulverizing. Even here though, with Air Force taking a 50-6 halftime lead, the second half was bound to be less one-sided, and indeed it was.

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