Just before Pac-10 conference play began, I wrote the following about Oregon State University:
The question marks about OSU really go back to what happened in the SeattleU game – if they were outshot by an undersized team that is transitioning into Division I, how will they fare against Pac-10 competition? They’ll need to hope that their defense and rebounding remains a strength against stronger competition.
Well, it looks like we have an answer.
In their 67-49 loss against the University of Washington last night in Seattle, the Beavers were held to only one offensive rebound in the first half and beaten 32-24 overall by a Husky team that has struggled with rebounding all season.
Defensively, they allowed UW to shoot 52.4% in the second half and sent them to the line 17 times. Worst of all, they had only two players in double figures -- Haiden Palmer and Talisa Rhea -- and they shot a combined 7-24. Off night maybe, but discouraging nonetheless: their top scorers were among the least efficient.
"We really came out especially in the second half and turned it up like 20 notches," said Washington coach Tia Jackson.
So were the statistics themselves just bogus? Not necessarily.
The point made in that pre-conference analysis was that we couldn't actually tell much about Oregon State, partially because their strength of schedule was ranked #303 in the country. The harbinger of things to come was that they actually didn't play that well despite their weak schedule, neither shooting very well nor having good overall team numbers. So although they put up decent numbers and got a few wins, they have fizzled in the Pac-10 because they just did not actually play that well.
Conversely, Washington is going the opposite direction. They played the second-weakest non-conference schedule and put up some of the worst non-conference numbers of any team, confirming pre-season expectations. Rebounding was their biggest weakness, being routinely outworked on the boards on many occasions. But with them something different happened -- they've just steadily gotten better, primarily by showing a renewed focus on crashing the boards.
So what's the difference? Both coach TIa Jackson and players have insisted that something happened during an extended road trip at the end of 2009 in which they bonded and came together as a team.In Washington's case, the issue was they just got better and overcame their non-conference performance by slowly improving upon their weaknesses. Most importantly, they are able to turn on the defensive intensity.
"Our defense turned up a lot," said Jackson of the second half. "That's when the crowd started getting into it, we were forcing turnovers and rebounds, we were forcing shots they didn't want to take and then we sealed the deal."
So if in one case a team's stats were illusory and the other a team simply changed, what's the value of statistics for basketball?
What they do is help us describe and make some comparisons at the very least in terms of tendencies if not a glimpse into strengths and weaknesses. Statistics are best combined with actually watching a team play, but even without it's possible to describe a team's performance.
As the NCAA tournament approaches, I will use a similar approach and will certainly take strength of schedule into account more fully. And no, it probably will not be perfect. But considering that we cannot watch every team for every game, the numbers do help give us a little insight that we might not otherwise have had.