Hot Reads: Nebraska Basketball and the Eye Test
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Hot Reads: Nebraska Basketball and the Eye Test

February 26, 2018

Nebraska basketball did its job on Sunday. Did it really well, jumping on Penn State from the opening tap, building a lead and keeping things mostly comfortable the rest of the way. The win secured the No. 4 seed in this week's Big Ten Tournament, and was yet another link in this sort of strange chain Nebraska has been building over the last month-and-a-half.

The Huskers have put in a hard day's work game after game without knowing if the big payday (an NCAA Tournament bid) was coming at the end. Judging from the Twitter barb throwing and the bracketology updates that have come since, Penn State was another one of those. The Huskers did everything they could, and it probably didn't improve their chances of making the tournament field. We just know it didn't worsen their chances.

"It looks like an NCAA Tournament [team] to me," Coach Tim Miles said following last night's win. "Our schedule hasn't broke the way, we had some bad luck with our conference schedule, but we're willing and able to play anybody.

"You just have to understand, like tonight it's a Quad 1 win for Penn State and a Quad 3 win for Nebraska. OK, sure. That's a sorting mechanism. I don't think Quad 1 is the holy grail of all things. We've done a good job of winning away from home. Really, the predictive metrics are the ones killing us. The result metrics aren't too bad. Strength of record, RPI, KPI, they're not too bad. They line up pretty well with the NCAA Tournament."

Looking at Nebraska's latest team sheet, the selection committee's actual breakdown for bracket selection, the Huskers do have a slightly better profile in the results-only measures. Nebraska's average ranking in RPI, KPI and SOR is 53rd. It's average ranking in BPI, Pomeroy and Sagarin is 61st. Are those eight spots the difference between a team that's in or out?

Nobody knows for now, but I agree with Miles' opening comment. Nebraska looks like a tournament team to me. Most of the people who have watched the Huskers closely in 2018 seem to agree, but most of those people are probably Nebraska fans, too. This is the problem with the eye test in college basketball. It's not that what your eyes tell you isn't valuable, it's that it isn't viable at this scale.

Let's say you're a selection committee member who likes to trust his eyes. You have quit all your other jobs to commit yourself to seeing as many games from as many teams as possible. Let's also say you have access to a server full of film of every college basketball game in the country. Each day you wake up, make coffee, and sit down to watch teams with a critical eye. How many games do you think you could watch in a day? Ten? Do that every day for a regular season that runs about 130 days, and you'll get to see close to 11 percent of all the games played. Even if you were to be excellent at concentrating your viewing to likely tournament teams, you're still only seeing a portion of those teams' résumés.

So we use stats to provide a snapshot. They may not be perfect either, but they are complete. And thus they are necessary in this sport in particular. Can a selection committee get its arms around picking the top four football teams in the country with reasonable confidence using only the eye test? Maybe. It definitely can't in college basketball. The sport's too big.

I understand why some people prefer the eye test. It feels good to feel like you have some agency in a debate. But this – a clear cognitive bias – is also why I tend to trust the eye test less than most. The eye test introduces irrationality into the mix. Computers, programmed by humans, aren't perfectly rational either, but what I like about them, or maybe just what I can understand, is that they offer a closed system with clear rules. Here are the inputs, here are the results. If anybody really wanted to do it, you could probably calculate the various biases inherent to the system. Can't do that with the eye test.

But the odd mix of eye test and data we use is how we end up with odd lines of thought like this: If Nebraska had just beaten Kansas, it would be in. I've heard that multiple times and cringe, even if it might be true. So if Svi Mykhailiuk's 3 goes halfway down and rims out instead of going all the way down, which it did, Nebraska belongs in the dance? That one shot – which, quick check of the KU stat sheet, had a 44.7-percent chance of going in based on Mykhailiuk's season to date – changes how good Nebraska is? Of course it doesn't, and now you're seeing some of the flaws in the "sorting mechanisms" too.

It's an endless debate with no clear conclusion, but Nebraska is going to be one of the teams providing another great test case this time around. Even without a string of wins in the Big Ten Tournament the Huskers pass the eye test. At least to this set of eyes.

But, of course, it depends on who is looking. Without eliminating the selection committe itself, there's no way around it and if we did there wouldn't be much to talk about right about now.

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