Final Four: Simple Arithmetic

By - March 31, 2007

During my school days in Philly, I worked part-time with the Philadelphia 76ers department of statistical information under family friend Harvey Pollack, the numbers guru and innovator who coined the term triple-double, hand-wrote the "100" on the sheet of paper from the famous photo of Wilt Chamberlain following his 100-point game and remains the only person who has worked for the NBA since its inception (a distinction the Philly native long shared with Red Auerbach until a few years ago).

One of my heavier periods working with Harv and the group came during the tail end of the 1999-00 season into the playoffs. That 49-33 team was the second-best group of the Larry Brown era -- the first of the two legitimate conference championship contenders during the Iverson years -- and afforded this student of the game an exciting laboratory to peruse basketball's numerical intricacies several years prior to my discovery of possession-based statistics. It was also when I discovered the importance of the plus-minus statistic -- a number commonplace in the hockey arena -- where a player gains a point for each point his team scores while on the court and one deducted for each point allowed.

According to Harv, Coach Brown was obsessed with the number -- and not just the individual plus-minus for a particular player (as you see with hockey) but for entire five-man lineups. Brown wanted to know whether Snow-Iverson-Lynch-Ratliff-Hill was really a more effective group as one would expect than, say, an Iverson-Hughes-Lynch-Hill-Geiger lineup with Allen playing the one. Compiling the number, which can only be done by poring through the play-by-play records that each NBA team tabulates, is next-level tedious. And that's how I spent most of my time in the office that spring. But Brown's emphasis on the stat -- the coach would ask for plus-minus reports during halftime of games on occasion -- has always stuck with me. Even when that cockroach left the Sixers high and dry at the first sight of the oncoming train rushing down the tunnel.

This is all a roundabout way of delving into the plus-minus discussion which the recent work of Ken Pomeroy and scribe Luke Winn have been addressing. With game time approaching (52 minutes from tip as I type this), I'll spare you the paraphrasing and let you delve deeper for yourself if numbers are your thing. But the short version is that I'm looking forward to examining how both Georgetown and Ohio State fare when their respective seven-footers -- Roy Hibbert and Greg Oden -- are either on or off the court. And I'll report my findings at a later point.

Starting lineups have just been handed out and the most important names on the sheet could be Richard Cartmell, Mike Kitts and Ted Valentine -- the zebras whose handling of tonight's action is a major plotline considering how Hibbert and Oden have been hampered by foul trouble in recent weeks. But as for the players, no real surprises: Jon Wallace, Jessie Sapp, Hibbert, DaJuan Summers and Jeff Green getting the call for the Hoyas while Mike Conley, Jr., Ron Lewis, Jamar Butler, Oden and Ivan Harris are good to go for the Buckeyes.

Posted by at 05:24 PM on March 31, 2007

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