Gonzaga Is Well-Poised For Elite 8 After Playing The Best Televised Women's Basketball Game of 2010-11

It was so loud in the McCarthey Athletic Center in Spokane on Monday night that when asked about the crowd Gonzaga Bulldogs coach Kelly Graves might have done his best Dave Chappelle-as-Lil' Jon impression* to help dramatize how loud it was.

"What?" Graves joked after Gonzaga's 89-75 win over the UCLA Bruins, holding his hand up to his ear and feigning a loss of hearing, throwing off the reporter who began to repeat the question before catching on.

"Obviously when you are in the heat of a battle you don't pay as much attention to that," Graves continued seriously. "I know it was loud but I was still trying to get my point across to the team."

Yet as an innocent bystander to what became among the best battles of the entire season, it was impossible to ignore that something special was unfolding. The lingering question for me was just how special this game was.

As the momentum swung Gonzaga's way down the stretch, someone leaned over to ask if this was the loudest women's basketball game I'd ever been to. Too caught up in the moment to even pull off my own Lil' Jon impersonation, I initially answered yes but on second thought the Oregon Ducks' opener in Matthew Knight Arena against cross-state rival Oregon State was far louder at times purely in terms of decibel levels. But this also had something special.

If nothing else, the gusts of wind that passed by courtside and threatened to blow papers off the media table when the near-capacity crowd of 5,804 Gonzaga fans erupted in support of their team made the magnitude of the moment palpable. When it became evident that Gonzaga would advance to their second consecutive Sweet Sixteen with a somewhat predictable "upset", the crowd's increasingly fervent engagement added an additional layer of intensity to the standard anxiety of March Madness elimination that just exploded when the final buzzer sounded.

"With them behind us it pushes the adrenaline," said Gonzaga junior forward Kayla Standish. "Once the adrenaline gets going and the crowd gets louder, you are calling out screens and they can't hear you. It was amazing with the crowd being loud like that and behind us."

Of course, I naively showed up to Monday's game thinking that I didn't care about the outcome as much as simply witnessing basketball that could match the anticipation of March Madness. But I didn't even realize the extent of my rooting interest until I was trying to restrain myself from pounding my fists against the table after a bad play.

Perhaps similar to how Bulldogs players said that the crowd-enhanced adrenaline carried them down the stretch, it was hard not to get caught up in the moment as an observer. Only the most callous observers could remain neutral in that environment - you were either with the Zags and their throng of supporters or against them. And for the second consecutive year, they delivered in getting to the Sweet Sixteen.

"Last year was special," said Graves in reference to last year's thrilling second round upset over Texas A&M in Seattle. "It came down to the final possession which made it a little more dramatic and intense. This wasn't quite that way. But I think our mindset's a little bit different. I think going in we felt we can win these two games here whereas last year we surprised ourselves doing it."

Yet despite a far less dramatic finish than last year's contest,Monday night's game had all the contextual ingredients of a classic even as it was unfolding - the atmosphere fueled by the crowd's engagement, Courtney Vandersloot's looming milestone, the March Madness stakes, and the possibility of witnessing a program take move forward from hoping for an upset to expecting it.

That context only scratches the surface of why Gonzaga's tournament victory at home was an easy candidate for one of the best televised games of the 2010-11 women's basketball season, even if there's no way television could have done that atmosphere justice.

"To score 89 points coming off a 92-point effort I think shows when this team can get that tempo going we are hard to defend," said Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves. "But it was fun. It was a great college basketball game. It was a wonderful atmosphere for the NCAA tournament."

That scoring effort wasn't just due to playing an overmatched opponent either: Gonzaga's 89 total points and 54 second half points were season-highs against UCLA's highly touted defense.

However, any astute basketball fan knows that point totals alone don't exactly equate to quality. As a convenient excuse for a Pac-10 shoutout, if points scored were all that mattered, the Oregon Ducks (76.3 points per game, second-best in the Pac-10) would probably have been a tournament team and legitimate national championship contender in Paul Westhead's first two seasons. Alas, while basketball games are won on the scoreboard, success depends on more than points.

So another way to look at team performance is through the use of weighted measures of activity and achievement.

Two performance metrics that I track game-by-game and also for each tournament team are Model Estimated Value and Team Factors. One way to think about these two metrics is in terms of John Wooden's famous maxim "Never mistake activity for achievement."

MEV measures quality in terms of the collective value of a unit's activity (click here for full description), while TF measures quality in terms of what a team achieved in terms of Four Factors performance (click here for full description): free throw rate, offensive rebounding, scoring efficiency, and turnover percentage. While TF provides a snapshot of significant strengths and weaknesses that directly correlate to success, MEV includes everything from points to personal fouls to look at a team's overall weighted value as a unit.

To put these numbers in perspective prior to looking at Gonzaga's performances over the last two games, the Baylor Lady Bears had the highest MEV per game entering this year's tournament at 91.20 and Stanford had the best TF at 6.09. An average team will post a MEV of around 60 per game (depending on pace**) and a TF of about 4.50 among "major" conferences. It's also worth noting that strength of schedule matters with these metrics and UConn put up very similar numbers (91.02 MEV, 5.99 TF) against the third best strength of schedule in the country while holding those opponents to among the lowest numbers of anyone (25.78 MEV, 3.15 TF).

I already looked at Gonzaga's synergy rating yesterday and UConn had a synergy rating of 1.23 entering the tournament while Green Bay came in at 1.27.

So how well has Gonzaga performed over the last two games?

Game MEV TF Synergy
First round vs. Iowa 104.9 5.42 1.08
Second round vs. UCLA 100.7 6.39 1.39

 

What stands out first is that Gonzaga played absolutely outstanding basketball in both games. However, while their difference in MEV is not that significant, both their TF and Synergy went from very good to outstanding in the second round meaning Gonzaga was not just doing a lot of good things but doing particularly significant things well.

So to extend the focus on activity and achievement, the reason that framing works is because a high MEV can be a matter of inflation from a high tempo activity whereas TF is a more stable indicator of tempo-free achievement among significant factors that win games. But it also helps to know how Gonzaga's opponents performed to put their own performance in perspective.

Game MEV TF Synergy
Iowa vs. Gonzaga 70.83 5.02 1.18
UCLA vs. Gonzaga 69.1 4.85 1.08

 

So obviously what stands out is that regardless of the final scores of these games, Gonzaga thoroughly outplayed their opponents.

One way to look at that is to say that their opponents were simply overmatched or simply didn't provide the Bulldogs with much resistance.

"You can't be a #3 seed and get bounced like that," a Southern Californian friend said after the game. "I don't care if they were playing with pistols on their waist - you can't be known for your defense and let one player [beat***] you."

But another way to look at it is that their opponents turned in above average performances and Gonzaga was simply outstanding.

To further reinforce the point, UCLA's numbers were almost identical to their season averages and Iowa's synergy and MEV were significantly above theirs. Obviously, one could suggest that maybe neither team was playing any defense, but that's where defensive statistics get difficult: there was no way to argue in watching these games that defense was absent. In both cases, both teams simply stepped up and played outstanding basketball that was difficult to defend (e.g. good luck defending Kayla Standish when she's shooting 7-for-7 from anywhere she wants in the second half).

However, what makes Gonzaga's performances stand out as even more remarkable is that teams normally only put up these type of performances against opponents that were overmatched to the point of playing poorly. Consider the following sampling of nationally televised games**** in which teams performed around the same range as Gonzaga and UCLA did.

Team MEV TF Synergy Points Opp MEV TF Synergy Points
Stanford***** 114.1 6.51 1.11 89 Xavier 19.23 3.35 0.54 52
UConn 110.5 6.05 1.17 86 Oklahoma 10.78 2.18 0.79 45
UConn 102.3 7.33 1.36 87 Duke 26.38 3.19 0.73 51
Louisville 102.9 6.83 1.01 85 Xavier 66.43 5.34 1.33 75
Oklahoma 89.66 5.48 1.27 88 Miami 76.32 5.18 0.99 83
UConn (1/8/11)
77.64 5.01 1.17 79 Notre Dame 71.51 4.67 1.00 76
Baylor (2/14/11)
54.16 4.77 0.93 67 Texas A&M 31.79 3.65 0.69 58

A sampling of high-profile televised games the 2010-11 women's basketball season.

A few observations:

  • Scoring the same number of points does not equate to the same quality of performance: Stanford and Oklahoma won with the same number of points, but to blow out a team like Xavier required a much stronger performance from Stanford.
  • Remember all the howling about that UConn-Duke game? They actually don't look that bad compared to some other teams in retrospect. But this is where the looking at Four Factors strengths and weaknesses helps: Duke attempted their style of play, didn't matchup well with UConn and then didn't adjust. Xavier didn't play their style of game and got flattened. Neither played a good game, but the explanations  of why they played poorly is different though they put up similar numbers.
  • A competitive or entertaining game doesn't necessarily equate to a high-quality game. Baylor - TAMU was definitely among the most entertaining games this year and neither team played particularly outstanding basketball. Good defense? Possibly. But to use Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie's boxing metaphor, it was also reflective of TAMU throwing a punch and Baylor getting stunned a bit then throwing a stonger counter-punch that won the game.

But last night's Louisville upset performance stands out in the list, not only because their performance looks as good or better than Gonzaga's against UCLA, but also because on that list it stands out as the only one in which a team got over 100 MEV against an opponent that turned in an above average performance.

So how might we determine which performance is better?

We could immediately say that Gonzaga's synergy rating shows that they moved the ball more overall and that's certainly true. But how about looking at the top halves out of this small sample of games.

Team MEV TF Synergy Points Opp MEV TF Synergy Points
Stanford (2nd half)**** 71.12 7.86 1.37 52 Xavier 11.78 3.94 0.39 28
Gonzaga (2nd half) 67.89 7.00 1.21 55 Iowa 37.53 4.81 1.19 42
Gonzaga (2nd half) 66.92 9.38 1.39 54 UCLA 30.22 5.20 1.22 37
UConn (1st half) 66.72 6.21 1.22 46 Oklahoma -7.63 0.83 0.89 18
Louisville (2nd half) 62.87 8.09 0.98 48 Xavier 25.04 4.96 1.51 35
UConn (2nd half) 56.27 8.15 1.41 46 Duke 27.31 4.92 0.94 36

Top halves in a sampling of high-profile games.

First, the interesting thing about dividing games into halves is that no team maintains this caliber of play for 40 minutes - either garbage time or fatigue sets in at some point, although what's remarkable is that in all but one of these cases (including UConn vs. Duke) a team put together a stronger second half than first half.

In narrowing this small sample down to what might be considered the best games, we first have to consider that the Stanford game and UConn-Duke game were so out of hand that the second halves were formalities.

But what separates the second half of Sunday's Gonzaga game from the remaining games is not only their well-rounded performance but also that UCLA played a very good game. Gonzaga was simply better and posted an unheard of 9.38 TF in addition to getting dominant individual performances while sharing the ball, which made for a very strong team effort.

Ultimately, usually teams that put up numbers like Gonzaga did do so in blowout situations - it usually means the opponent simply didn't put up a fight. That was not the case for Gonzaga - UCLA gave them plenty of competition. That Gonzaga put up these numbers against a very physical defensive team makes it even more impressive. Add in the aforementioned contextual elements and Monday's Gonzaga game offered a combination that no other game this season has: balance, competitiveness, entertainment, history, quality, significance, and synergy.

There isn't much more you could want from a basketball game than what Gonzaga gave us on Monday. And that they essentially performed that well twice in a row is even more remarkable.

This coming Saturday's game against Louisville should be another good one. With Spokane Arena already on its way to a sell out, it wouldn't be surprising if the atmosphere was about as intense and right now it's hard to imagine Gonzaga losing in that situation given how well they're playing.

Hopefully ESPN took notice of these games so Seattle and Louisville fans will actually see the entirety of Saturday's game instead of having to follow a game tracker or waiting for them to decide when it's appropriate to cut back in.

Notes:

* Unfortunately, the video for that Dave Chappelle - Lil' Jon skit is rather crude and there was no need to imply that Graves did anything other than say, "What?" with his hand to his ear. Hence the audio clip. The video itself was far more humorous though.

** While MEV is not tempo free, it should be obvious from the scoring output and various scores that the more efficient they are overall the higher their MEV will be. It's not simply a matter of uptempo games being inherently better.

*** My friend used a stronger term that "beat", but as a site fit for the whole family, we strive for more wholesome language.

**** Obviously, this list does not include every single nationally televised game there was - these were some of the most high profile games just to put this in perspective. The numbers from others don't even approach these games and I was surprised when I looked back at the Baylor - TAMU game because it was pretty good. However, if there is a glaring omission there please let me know.

***** Stanford vs. Xavier was not televised, but Stanford was impressive. As you can tell from the numbers, lacking television coverage might have been a good thing for Xavier.

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