Thursday, June 26, 2008

One of the key issues in hot-hand research is whether, when a team (or individual) exhibits a stretch of strong performance, the result is due to random variation on the team's ordinary performance level or, instead, represents a substantive rise in the term's underlying playing ability. Stated differently, an inherently .500 team might play at a .700 clip due to random fluctuation, like a coin coming up heads several times in a row due to chance. Or, the team might really have improved its true ability level to one characteristic of a .700 team (see Albert and Bennett's 2001 book Curve Ball for further discussion).

Although I don't have any definitive analysis at the moment, Fresno State's rise from being the No. 89-ranked college baseball team entering the post-season (as per the RPI) to winning the NCAA national championship in last night's decisive victory over Georgia, just seems to be too momentous to attribute to random variation.

According to this Baseball America column in the immediate aftermatch of the College World Series, "Statistically, Fresno's the biggest upset winner in CWS history, perhaps all of college sports history."

To dramatize the point, a report on ESPN this morning noted that another underdog that had captured the nation's imagination, George Mason University's 2006 men's final four basketball team, had an RPI all the way up at 26 (also confirmed here).

After finishing the regular season with a 33-27 record (21-11 in the Western Athletic Conference), Fresno State proceeded to go 4-0 in the WAC tournament, 3-1 in an NCAA regional hosted by highly regarded Long Beach State, 2-1 at highly ranked Arizona State in the super-regionals, and 5-2 in the College World Series; one CWS loss occurred in pool play, and the other in the two-out-of-three title round (game-by-game log). All told, playing against many of the nation's top teams, Fresno State went 14-4 in the post-season.

In addition to some top-shelf pitching, Fresno State showed robust offensive production, scoring a CWS record-tying 62 runs.

In conclusion, based on a first glance, Fresno State appears to be a team that lifted its underlying level of ability, perhaps moreso than any other team in recent sports history!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The NBA finals are over, and the Boston Celtics have defeated the L.A. Lakers four games to two. If nothing else, this past postseason has shown us that both of these teams were capable of going on -- or giving up -- huge scoring runs. Below is a list of scoring runs achieved and allowed by the Celtics and Lakers (that I was aware of) during the various rounds of this year's playoffs...

Celtics vs. Lakers (NBA finals)

Game 6: Boston closes out second quarter on 26-6 run

Game 5: L.A. goes up 17 after first quarter, but only leads by three at halftime

Game 4: Boston overcomes 24-point deficit to win

Game 2: L.A. cuts late 24-point deficit to two

Celtics vs. Pistons (Eastern Conference finals)

Game 6: Boston uses 19-4 spurt to oust Detroit

Celtics vs. Cavaliers (Eastern Conference semi-finals)

Game 6: Cleveland's 24-2 run helps force Game 7

Game 3: Cleveland wins, helped by 27-4 run

Lakers vs. Spurs (Eastern Conference semi-finals)

Game 5: Comeback from 17 down powers L.A. to series win

Game 1: L.A. overcomes 20-point deficit to win

Thursday, June 12, 2008

In Game 2 of the NBA finals, the L.A. Lakers almost erased a 24-point deficit against the Celtics, but fell short and lost to Boston (see a few entries down on this blog).

Tonight, with the Lakers trying to even the series at two games all in Game 4, the Celtics did them one better. Boston successfully overcame a 24-point deficit and won the game, 97-91, to take a 3-1 series lead (article). The lion's share of the comeback stemmed from a 21-3 run by the Celtics to close out the third quarter (play-by-play sheet).

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

With the NBA finals, pro and college baseball, and yet another failed bid for a horse racing Triple Crown capturing my attention in recent days, I've been remiss in acknowledging Rafael Nadal's dominance of clay-court tennis, in general, and his blow-out win over Roger Federer in the French Open final, in particular.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Usually, a 24-point lead with 7:54 remaining in a basketball game would be a comfortable margin as the clock counted down to an easy win. In fact, if any team were to come back from that size deficit to put the outcome into doubt, it would probably be a college team, given the short three-point line.

But no, this all took place last night in the NBA finals, as the Boston Celtics saw their 95-71 advantage get cut by the L.A. Lakers all the way down to 104-102 with 38 seconds remaining (fourth-quarter play-by-play sheet). The Celts ultimately prevailed, 108-102, to go up 2-0 in the series (article). But the game left a lot of things to marvel at, from a hot-hand perspective:

*By scoring 31 points in roughly the last eight minutes of the game, the Lakers would have been on a pace to score over 180 points for the contest, if (hypothetically) they could maintain such a scoring clip.

*Boston had a 15-2 run to end the third quarter, and a 10-0 spurt to open the second.

*The Lakers were a perfect 10-for-10 from the free-throw line for the game, although what attracted most observers' attention was the disparity in number of attempts (Boston had 38, making 27).

*Even though three-pointers played a big part in the Lakers' comeback (they were 5-of-7 from long distance during a stretch in which they cut the deficit from 24 points to 6), the Celtics actually fared a lot better from behind the arc, 64.3% (9-of-14) to 47.6% (10-of-21) for the men in purple (box score).

Sunday, June 08, 2008

A couple of quick baseball notes:

The Yankees' Johnny Damon went 6-for-6 yesterday. According to the linked article, "His six hits matched a Yankees record, and tied the American League mark for a nine-inning game."

At the college level, LSU had its 23-game winning streak snapped, in a loss to UC Irvine. The loss occurred in the first game of a two-out-of-three Super Regional series (the round to determine who goes to the College World Series), so the Tigers can still get back into national championship contention.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Later today, the racehorse Big Brown will run in the Belmont Stakes, seeking to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978. Enthusiasm for horse racing has been dampened in the hearts and minds of many observers because of the life-ending injuries suffered by Eight Belles this year and Barbaro in 2006, and for other reasons.

Still, however reluctantly, the sports world will recognize the achievement of Big Brown, if he wins the Triple Crown. Therefore, in recognition of this potentially historic day, I'm going back into the "vaults" of the old version of my Hot Hand page to share this 2004 statistical analysis, from when Smarty Jones narrowly missed winning the Triple Crown. That 2004 write-up also attracted an unusual number of commentaries, which are shown here.


Once again, it's "wait till next year..." (article on the race).

Friday, June 06, 2008

In falling to the Boston Celtics 98-88 in last night's opening game of the NBA finals, the L.A. Lakers closed the game by going 1-for-13 from the field for roughly the last seven minutes. Some of the later shots, of course, were long-distance desperation attempts to get back into the game. But still, after making a hoop with 6:52 remaining in the fourth, to make only one more basket the rest of the way is pretty poor.