Final Four: The Numbers Game

By - March 31, 2007


Basketball is played on cedar and not paper. And with so much emphasis during the second half of the season placed on numbers like the RPI or SOS, it's easy to forget that sometimes these figures can represent nothing more than math voodoo. After all, even numbers like offensive and defensive efficiencies -- among the most powerful and revealing statistics in the sport -- are drawn from gigantic sample sizes much greater than the span of a single game. (Which can make the numbers that much more irrelevant come March Madness.)

But sometimes the stats can bring to light ideas and insights which can't be drawn from the box score. Like with tonight's plus-minus experiment examining how the Hoyas and Buckeyes performed with and without their marquee big men. After checking my chicken scrawl against the official play-by-play, here's a look at the final tallies with respect to Hibbert and Oden:

When Oden and Hibbert were both in the game: Georgetown 33, OSU 24
When Hibbert was in the game and Oden was out: Georgetown 15, OSU 14
When Oden was in the game and Hibbert was out: OSU 15, Georgetown 2
When both Oden and Hibbert were on the bench: OSU 12, Georgetown 9

It doesn't take a genius to realize that the Hoyas needed Hibbert to stay on the floor to have the best chance for victory. Three of the above four scenarios saw Georgetown and Ohio State play one another to a deadlock. The score was essentially even when Hibbert was on the floor and Oden was on the bench and the same goes for when both big men were sidelined. Georgetown's nine-point advantage while both players were on the floor is actually a three-point edge when you deduct Georgetown's cosmetic scoring during "garbage time" -- after David Lighty's three-point play opened a 61-52 lead with 1:41 remaining.

So the difference in tonight's first national semifinal really came down to that critical third scenario: the two second-half stretches when Hibbert was benched and Georgetown was forced to defend Oden with Patrick Ewing, Jr., a junior reserve who was four inches shorter and appeared to be eight years younger. Ohio State floor general Mike Conley, Jr., capitalized on these two opportunities by getting the ball to Oden on the block and let the seven-footer go to work. And that Oden did, with a truly awesome array of lightning-quick post moves and simply unblockable hook shots.

"We wanted to take advantage of Big Roy going out," Oden acknowledged. "We wanted to go inside and get some shots over their defense because I'm bigger than their other guys -- except Big Roy."

Consider this sequential breakdown of the plus-minus numbers:

1. Hibbert IN, Oden IN: Georgetown 5, OSU 3 (20:00 to 17:19)
2. Hibbert IN, Oden OUT: OSU 9, Georgetown 2 (17:19 to 13:08)
3. Hibbert OUT, Oden OUT: OSU 2, Georgetown 0 (13:08 to 9:48)
4. Hibbert IN, Oden OUT: Georgetown 7, OSU 3 (9:48 to 6:48)
5. Hibbert OUT, Oden OUT: OSU 10, Georgetown 9 (6:48 to End 1st)
6. Hibbert IN, Oden IN: Georgetown 11, OSU 7 (Start 2nd to 15:56)
7. Hibbert OUT, Oden IN: OSU 6, Georgetown 2 (15:56 to 12:32) [Hibbert's third foul]
8. Hibbert IN, Oden IN: Georgetown 2, OSU 2 (12:32 to 11:50)
9. Hibbert IN, Oden OUT: Georgetown 6, OSU 2 (11:50 to 8:50)
10. Hibbert OUT, Oden IN: OSU 7, Georgetown 0 (8:50 to 6:37) [Hibbert's fourth foul]
11. Hibbert IN, Oden IN: Georgetown 10, OSU 10 (6:37 to 0:44)
12. Hibbert OUT, Oden IN: OSU 2, Georgetown 0 (0:44 to 0:35)
13. Hibbert IN, Oden IN: Georgetown 3, OSU 0 (0:35 to 0:21)
14. Hibbert OUT, Oden IN: OSU 2, Georgetown 0 (0:21 to 0:16)
15. Hibbert IN, Oden IN: Georgetown 3, OSU 2 (0:16 to 0:03)
16. Hibbert OUT, Oden IN: Georgetown 0, OSU 0 (0:03 to 0:00)

The decisive 15-2 advantage that Ohio State was able to open during the time when Oden was on the floor and Hibbert was on the bench occurred during just two brief periods (appearing in boldface above) that combined for just over five-and-a-half minutes of game time. Hibbert played more minutes (24) than Oden (20) and you could make a strong argument -- I've already heard it -- that the Georgetown big man outplayed his NBA-bound counterpart. But once Oden got an opportunity to carve up the opponent's reserve players, things wrapped up in a hurry. You could almost see dude licking his chops from the upper press box when Hibbert picked up his third and fourth fouls.

Do you need all of that stuff to know that Greg Oden is really, really, really good? Of course not. But this concept helps pinpoint exactly where and how the freshman's prodigious skill punished the Hoyas.

Posted by at 10:30 PM on March 31, 2007
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